Old Friends, Early Occasions, and Blue Mountain Center

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Photo: Left, David Morris, co-founder of The Institute for Local Self Reliance; Stephen Kuusisto, poet. Blue Mountain Center in background.

I’m reminded many days (though never enough days, never enough) how lucky I am as along the road I’ve been graced with friendships that have turned me. I mean the agricultural metaphor and know precisely why I’m using it, for when I was 33 years old (28 years ago) I was essentially “Top Soil Man” (as opposed to “Java Man”) and that was when I first met David Morris and his wife Harriet Barlow at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks of New York. Harriet founded BMC, a progressive retreat for activist artists and scholars, and as a comparatively young laddie I found in her company (and a broad company it was and remains) a community of social planters. Me? I was just an MFA grad trying to keep writing—a noble enough pursuit in these United States, maybe, but in my case conducted largely without commitment to sewing (again with the agronomy) and worse, perhaps, (employing one of Kropotkin’s favorite metaphors, of “broadcast”—flinging your seeds as far as you can) I wasn’t much of a thrower.

(Kropotkin in his Anarchist Morality: “Be strong. Overflow with emotional and intellectual energy, and you will spread your intelligence, your love, your energy of action broadcast among others! This is what all moral teaching comes to.”)

I hadn’t had much moral teaching—not at the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop” nor at my undergraduate college. I knew the bad men in Dreiser and saw plenty of Babbits in America and fully recognized the nation’s soul was Ahab-ish and with Reagan’s encouragement there were  tons of Elmer Gantrys to go around. A foundation in literature can hardly proceed without ethical animadversions, all that praise or blame in classroom discussions, but what I didn’t know was how to inhabit a public square with curiosity and diligence since no professor I’d ever had had sufficiently claimed either the space or the stance. I’d say it was just my college but the workshop was equally insular. Faculty and students alike had library pallor. Certainly no one ever said be strong…spread your intelligence, broadcast among others…commitments of such magnanimity and magnitude are neighborly, impassioned, and unconcerned with payback.  

Well, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. “Je m’en vais chercher un grand peut-être.” (Rabelais) I was looking for a big “maybe” and maybe I’d be a writer. If I didn’t know what that meant (and I  didn’t) surely “doing” was Rabelaisian enough. I was lucky then, and it was two fold luck as one part of good fortune is it’s timing and the other is being ready. This also I didn’t fully understand. But I knew the Blue Mountain Center was beautiful. And I saw on day one on the wide stone porch of an Adirondack “great camp” (a vacation manor, built long ago for the wealthy, now a place of ideas) that poetry (by which affectedly I mean all the arts from philosophy to dousing) was being practiced as spread intelligence (again with the Kropotkin) and there was plenty of vigor to go around.

I won’t name names but there were writers at BMC working on eco-feminism; poets creating social spaces for the elderly to swap stories with the young; a journalist home stateside from a probative stint in Central America (the “Gipper’s” Central America with the assassination of Oscar Romero fresh in mind); a performance artist-filmmaker highlighting the work of Meret Oppenheim, the foundational Surrealist overlooked by the boys. The wealth of talent and action was rather astonishing—at least to me having lived a self-contained life to that point. Of self-containment one may say several things, not all of them bad. Later I’d write a book about it, a memoir, Planet of the Blind in which I noted the isolation of a disabled childhood, a story familiar to anyone who’s been an outsider, crippled or not, and in turn I argued for the attainment of a worldly life which means (you’ve guessed it) “action broadcast.”

I don’t think the term is much of an ars vivendi. Father Kropotkin was no Horace. But action is the fulfillment of imaginative possibilities and you know it when others are doing it.

It was early one morning over coffee I had my first conversation with David Morris. We talked of how it’s possible for local communities to take control of their electricity and then we were instantly talking of citizenship. I’d never had such a conversation and it was all the better for being unanticipated. There was a thing called the public good. It was energy democracy. Or better: democracy itself. Morris was funny. Progressive, with ardor, and sufficiently wry to gracefully sidestep the pedantic, David was at once generous, hopeful, and properly stubborn. Later I’d hear the term “scholarship in action” and like a Jeopardy contestant I wanted to push the buzzer and say: “Who is David Morris?”

Harriet is harder to describe, chiefly because she’s an activist impresario, though not a publicist or showman. She’s more a cultural maestro for which we have no term in English but in French might be a “salon d’accueil.” Gertrude Stein with more fancies is how I’ll put it. She’s more interested in the structural and humanitarian transformation of the public sphere than anyone I’ve ever met, though by now I’ve met many. Harriet also has zero vanity so she’ll be a wee teensy bit uncomfortable with all this. I can hear her laughing at me now.

It’s hard to say with any certainty how any of us might have turned out minus a spot of formative luck. In my experience Americans don’t like to talk about luck. Cowboys don’t need it. We’re all self-made snakeskin salesmen around these parts. One evening in the mid 1990’s when I was working for a non-profit organization that serves the blind, and owing to my having a bad headache, I lay in bed powerless to change the TV channel. Paul Newman was being interviewed by Larry King. That’s when I heard Newman say something wonderful. He said after WW II when he was a stage actor in New York, there were, as he saw it, dozens of actors and actresses who were more talented than he was. Then he described how one night, the lead actor in a play by Tennessee Williams came down ill and since he was the understudy, Paul Newman had to assume the role. I don’t remember the play. What I do recall is Newman’s declaration that his performance that evening got him some attention in the press and from that came a quick succession of opportunities and then Hollywood. And he said, essentially, I’ve never forgotten there were better people than me, who didn’t have my luck. He talked about his charitable foundation called “The Hole in the Wall Gang” and how he never forgot how capricious luck really is—how important it is to give back when you’ve been fortunate.

Like anyone else I can’t say how I might have turned out in an alternate past and I have no idea how my work would have gone without meeting David and Harriet and their salon of optimist-seed throwers and I’ll be damned if I’m going to try. The last thing I want to do (or maybe never) is be sentimental or mystical. One can go to the opera for that. But I know two things for sure: I turned to public life, and advocacy because of these friends. And in no small part, because of them I’ve kept at it.

As a final point—if you’re thinking of applying to the Blue Mountain center you should know that the food they serve is very good. It’s a great place for fresh vegetables. Which reminds me of this old joke:

A guy has celery sticking out of one ear, lettuce out of the other, and a zucchini up his nose.

He goes to the doctor and asks him what’s wrong.

The doctor tells him, “Well, for one thing, you’re not eating right.”