John Wires (1922-2013)
- Being Human
- Being Outside
- Boston Globe
- Earth and Sky
- Photography and Optics
- What's This?
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.
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.
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.
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.