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Saying goodbye to John Wires a week ago was unlike any other farewell we had shared for the better part of three decades. Even our outing that humid evening was unusual. John didn’t usually go for ice cream. But when I called he didn’t hesitate.

John after his creamee last week.

After creamees in Montpelier last Thursday, June 27, 2013.

So as we sat on a bench along the Winooski River, with raspberry goop dripping toward his forearm, John held court on nature and war, on books and travel, on postmodernism and Goethe. I gave him shit about the postmodernism. He winced and smiled. For some reason I snapped a lousy photo of him.

Our drive back to John’s apartment in Montpelier was also unusual. That’s because driving with John was unusual. John walked. He walked into rail yards to hop freights and discover America. He walked with peasants on the bloody dirt of Chiapas. He walked with goats in the American Southwest. John walked to chamber music in Montpelier and to supper at the food coop. He walked up Spruce Mountain in Plainfield, perhaps more than anyone ever. When we met in the woods sometime in the 1980s, somewhere in Groton State Forest, John led the way on a bushwhack to his land on Levi Pond. I don’t recall a compass other than John’s own good sense in those woods.

Back in front of John’s apartment that evening we sat in my truck and said our goodbyes for the summer. I was preparing to leave on a two-month road trip to write and chase birds and insects as far as the remote bogs and lakes of central Saskatchewan. John, jealous, recalled his travels even farther north in British Columbia. I was in a hurry to get home. So we got out of the truck, hugged and held tight, and then I was off to finish packing.

But John didn’t stroll, as he normally would, back into his apartment. He stood and watched me leave. I noticed him in the rear-view mirror – alone, not waving, just watching. And in that instant, as I kept driving, the warmth of our goodbye drained from me. And it nagged at me that night and into the next day.

John Wires, who died July 1, spent a lifetime at the fertile intersection of mind and nature. A reader, writer, philosopher, and field naturalist, John never gave up trying to understand himself, his place in the world, and how to make the world a better place. Many of us will now write and recite fitting tributes to John, to a varied and bumpy life well-lived. But I’ll instead write of John’s legacy and some of the wisdom he leaves me and those who never had the good fortune to know him.

The first is a lesson in slowing down. Lunch with John was a three-hour affair – an hour walking, an hour eating, and another hour walking. It wasn’t only that walking with a 91-year-old man is intrinsically an exercise in slowing down. Walking with John forced me out of my rush and into a slower pace – a challenge of body and mind. Enduring in my brain is the nagging list of what’s next – my unfinished book, the goddamn inbox, my blog, the nature yet undiscovered. On a walk with John, however, we would dwell with a lonely aster still flowering near cold pavement in November or discuss Hannah Arendt’s writings on the Nazis or waste time talking about sports. We often discussed women. Being with John was about being present with John – a practice we all might expand for ourselves now that John is gone.

John and Brett Engstrom at breakfast.

With Brett Engstrom at breakfast.

Another of John’s lessons is the beauty and force of thought. For John it came from his own family, from a family of friends, and from a family of great minds. Particularly late in his life, John thought a lot about his parents and siblings and how they shaped him as a person. He thought about his marriage to Ruth and about their children. The painful moments and mistakes he shared during our walks always lead to discussion and introspection. Into that crucible of thought always came books. John read everything, and if you mentioned one he hadn’t, John would often say, “No, I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.”

John always seemed to be searching for some way to weave together his parents and childhood, his post-traumatic stress from World War II, his mistakes, the philosophers he read, and a life close to nature into some sort of unified field theory for his place in the world. He never discovered that theory. But it kept his verdant mind busy and lively until the end.

On one walk some years ago, with John lecturing me about Rudolf Steiner (he really liked Steiner), I stopped us cold on the trail and said, “John, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.” He laughed and thanked me for not humoring him about Steiner.

Which brings me to three more lessons: humor, honesty, and humility. A few weeks ago, I drove John (walking would have taken the entire day) to an appointment with a new doctor. John asked me to join him during the exam to take notes. They discussed John’s medical history, which included nothing serious except for the shrapnel he took in the war, as John put it, “while fighting for you.” Then the doctor asked, “So, any other medical problems?”

“Yeah –– doctors,” John replied.

The three of us lost it. And what you must know is that in uttering this line John’s timing was perfect. After saying, “Yeah,” his pause was effortless and of exactly the right duration for maximum comedic impact. Johnny Carson couldn’t have nailed it any better.

Then I chimed in with a question: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”

John shot me a look and replied, “He’s the doctor. Let him ask the questions.”

Without missing a beat, the doctor said: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”

We laughed again. (I’m still laughing.) And I kept reminding John of that moment in the days after the visit. John sometimes took himself and life too seriously. And when I’d challenge his ideas or notions, never did he object or get defensive. He received it with the humility of Gandhi, fed it into the machinery of his active mind, all in pursuit of that unified theory of life.

I’ll mention one more thing about John’s mind before closing. After his bad car accident about 10 years ago, John lost not intellect but some of his sharpness. Recognizing friends on the street, for example, took him a bit longer. During discussions at our Thursday-morning guy breakfasts in Plainfield, he sometimes couldn’t recall books or people he had wanted to cite on the spot. John stopped driving his car three years ago at age 88, which was tough for him because John’s dad killed himself at the same age after losing his own driver’s license. But in these last several years – spent walking, reading, singing at Heaton House, calling on friends, speaking Spanish, discussing philosophy and religion and life with my partner Ruth Einstein over her soup and cookies, crying after hearing a Schubert piano trio – John’s mind grew sharp again. Really sharp. This was a gift to witness. Not only for John’s sake, but for me as well: I watched my father die of Alzheimer’s Disease nearly three years ago. Last night I had a wonderful dream about my dad. At age 91, before we parted for the last time, John’s mind was ever-curious, still expanding.


John Wires (1922-2013)

As it turns out, that farewell in front of John’s apartment wasn’t our last. On the next day, last Friday, before I left for the road, I found John lounging on the steps of the Unitarian Church in Montpelier, a kind woman by his side, waiting to attend a lecture on permaculture. He introduced me, the three of us chatted. “You know, I was planning to stop by your place again before leaving,” I said, “because that goodbye yesterday wasn’t good enough.”

“But that was a good visit at the creamee stand yesterday,” he said. At that moment John appeared content, reclining with an ease no 91-year-old had any business displaying on a set of concrete steps. For some reason I snapped another lousy photo, and John said: “I want to hear about your trip when you get home.”

Onward to Saskatchewan, to life on John’s long, green path.

  1. Bob Messing says:

    A sweet piece Brian. Thank you. I used to sell him cases of organic blackberries at the Co-op.

  2. Michael Levine says:

    Thanks Bryan. I’m just catching up with the news and definitely feel the world and our community has lost one of its wonderful lights. The lessons you capture and the others he left us all will help that light shine forever. Goodbye to a sweet soul.

  3. Gail Straw says:

    Bryan, It seems you have beautifully and richly captured the essence and spirit of an amazing man now gone from his walk on this earth…… I did not known John, but feel blessed to know him even a little from this powerful eulogy and your recounting of your rich relationship with him. Thank you, thank you……. Safe journeys and deep and nourishing memories to you……

  4. Roger Grow says:

    Thank you, Brian. Beautiful. I was blessed to be John’s neighbor for many years, and regret that I didn’t spend more time walking with him. Or playing the trombone.

  5. Beautiful tribute indeed. John called the last time I was out of town and I never got back to him. I feel really sad about that but also very happy to have known him. Seemed as if he was going to live forever. In some ways he will.

  6. Catherine Orr says:

    Bryan, Thanks so much for writing so beautifully about John. I knew him through the Unitarian Church, through music, and coming out of his Spanish conversation classes. He left us all the richer.

  7. Patti Casey says:

    Beautiful. I wish I had joined him at the permaculture talk. He called and invited me, but somehow something else was more important. I hope I can learn to be more like John.
    Your writing will stay with me, as will the memory of John and our visits in my front yard. Thank you.

  8. Heidi Ringer says:

    Thank you, Bryan. I didn’t know John well, but we did share quiet and thoughtful walking time in the park.

  9. Patty Morse says:

    Your description of John was spot on. I had the honor of meeting him when I had my sewing shop on Elm St. I don’t think he even had any work for me to do, he was just curious about me and what went on there. From the start we were so relaxed with each other, it seemed like we’d been old friends. He would stop in to chit chat about life every few days. He was such an interesting and handsome old duff, I suggested hooking him up with my mom who was around 78 at the time, he was around 88. He said no thank you, shes too old for me, I would rather go out with you. The last time I saw John (walking of course) I wasn’t able to stop my car to visit, which I’m sorry about but I will miss that brilliant, mischievous, handsome man.

  10. Paul Markowitz says:

    Very sweet Bryan.. I feel like I know John a whole lot better

  11. Lovely remembrance. One of John’s great qualities was making one feel as if you were the most special person in the world for those minutes or hours when you were with him. I am sure central Vermont is overflowing with people John beamed his light upon.

  12. ninajude says:

    Bryan!!!! Last I saw John he asked me to take him for a creamy! I am so grateful for your photo of him there. It was the week before you went 🙂 I bought. He said he would get me next time…. I will take him up on that! Just like you said, the good bye that night was sweet. He blew me a kiss from his doorstep as I drove down the driveway.

  13. Laurie Ross says:

    Lovely piece about a lovely man. Thanks for giving me the chance to know him.

  14. Marjorie Drysdale says:

    John came to my voice studio for a while. On one occasion, he was moved by a particular song he had sung. Tearing up, he explained that he had struggled with PTSD all his adult life. Singing seemed to release some of his sadness. When he left, he turned and said, “People need to sing, and read poetry, and dance.”

  15. Lyla Slayton says:

    Bryan- I didn’t know your friend John but I feel like I knew him after I read your message. He must have been a wonderful man. I lost a very dear friend two days ago, and your message about John has set me thinking about her in a different way. She would have treasured John as he would have treasured her. Thank you for the tribute to John and for helping me with my grief as well.

  16. karen kevra says:

    What a touching tribute. Thanks, Bryan. When I heard of John’s death the other day I felt as though I had the wind knocked out of me. He was such a wonderful, constant presence here.

  17. David Dobbs says:

    Thank you, Bryan. This is a lovely and fitting tribute. I knew John far less well, alas. But when I was running a writers’ lecture series at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, called “Why I Love,” (writers got to talk about something that enthused them; you, Bryan, absolutely murdered the crowd one night talking about dragonfly sex), John stood out for the liveliness of his interest, the clear breadth of his knowledge, and, always, the same penetrating inquisitiveness you write of here. There seemed nothing he wasn’t interested in; nothing he didn’t already know something of; nothing to which he could not add, if only through a question, a new dimension or connection outward. A lovely, lovely man.

  18. Jim Higgins says:

    You nailed it Bryan. Thank you. When John made his epic trip to British Columbia in that old pickup truck many decades ago, I made an arrangement to publish his musings in a regular “Travels with John” column in my old newspaper, The Country Journal, based n Plainfield. He often brought that up in the last ten years. Knowing that his musings were being published back home helped him focus, he said, in ways that he didn’t usually when traveling. By the way, his last year was spent in an apartment complex that backed up to a lush woodland on North Street in Montpelier (the same place I had lived for 6 six years) and I visited him twice there. He was very very happy there. Loved the location to death, as it were. Thanks again Brian for crafting a most beautiful story.

  19. Debbie Grelle says:

    Bryan, I did not have the pleasure of knowing John, but your words make me wish I had. Many will miss this wonderful man, and I am sorry for your and their loss. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you good travels.

  20. We first met John at his cabin in Plainfield in the 80’s. We were lighting kerosene lamps at our own place in Woodbury so we had much to share about living on the sides of mountains. It was always a joy to see him. Last winter we chatted at Positive Pie and gave him a lift home as it was late.He will be missed.

  21. Rick Haynes says:

    I only got to know John recently, in a Spanish conversation group. Our group met yesterday and the room felt very empty. Thank you Bryan for your beautiful remembrance.
    Y paz sea con tu, Juan.

  22. Alexis smith says:

    Greetings friends,how strange this sudden mortal are we.
    we deeply enjoy the reflections.Randy Sam ,John and I had and old bond, somehow linking Wilmer ,and Sam Snipes Sr ,plainfield and the 90 + Quaker thing.thier memories are grand ,now we may build on ours with much to remember,thank goodness for friends and all thier memories much love.alexis.

  23. Juliana Westcott says:

    Thanks Bryan. This is beautiful.

  24. Jim Lowe says:

    Bryan, a beautiful memory of one of my favorite people. He was my science teacher in seventh grade and our lives intersected ever since. We were lucky.

  25. Sue C. says:

    How apt your words, Bryan. Thank you for gifting us with this eulogy. It catches so many glimpses of the John we all knew and loved. I so appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

  26. Pat Carstensen says:

    That was perfect Bryan. Thank you!

  27. Judy Cyprian says:

    That was so John! Thanks for a beautifully written piece about such a dynamic, interesting and wonderful man.

  28. Lynne Woodard says:

    Such a smart, humorous, curious, vibrant being, still, at 91. Thanks for sharing your thought about him.

  29. Jane Bradley says:

    Lovely tribute for a lovely man.

  30. Claire Bear says:

    Thank you Bryan…reading this has softened the blow of finding that our beloved is now an angel…Peace and enjoy the great wild…hugs…claire bear

  31. Bryan — I did not know John but your remembrance of him is a wonderful look into the life of a fascinating guy. He was fortunate to have you as a friend. Safe travels – look forward to reports of your adventures.

  32. Mark C. says:

    What a beautifully written tribute, Bryan, for a beautful man who meant a lot to a wide circle of people. Thanks for sharing-

  33. Barbara Bendix says:

    That’s a lovely piece, Bryan. Thank you. And thank you, John ~~~ Barbara Bendix

  34. pat hazouri says:

    Thank you,Bry. I did not know John but this story spoke to me on many levels. It was beautiful written and deeply appreciated.

  35. Willem Leenstra says:

    Wonderful tribute, Bryan, and wonderfully written!

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