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Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

Mr. Birzer’s recent archeological dig into Dr. Kirk’s speech-writing unearthed a memory from now a quarter-century ago plus one, 1986, spring to be exact. Rusty Nichols, then Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Hillsdale College called me to his office. The purpose was to discuss some help for Russell Kirk who was writing his autobiography and needed an academic affiliation if he was to receive foundation funding.

I suggested a small seminar class with ten senior students. Dr. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order would be central, but the students would also read along side various of the original sources to test Dr. Kirk’s thesis. His only responsibility would bet two short campus visits and then hosting the class for a weekend at Mecosta with the students presenting their seminar papers in that dusty, bookish-smelling library down that gravel road.

So, then, likely mid-summer 1986, my wife Ellen and I drove to Mecosta. The four of us were chatting just when we arrived making the usual social acquaintances having never met before. Mrs. Kirk learned that Ellen was from Arizona which led to the tidbit that Ellen’s Uncle Bob, Monsignor Robert Donohoe, and Barry Goldwater were good friends which led to Annette indicating that Russell had written speeches for Goldwater.

And so on, or as some are wont to say, “the cat was out of the bag.”

The ladies went elsewhere and I was left outside attempting to hold conversation with Dr. Kirk. I noticed sickly elm; we walked over to it and I noticed that Russell had cut into the elm, a saw like notch from which sap was dribbling. I said something about how we had done much the same back in Minnesota attempting to save majestic elms from Dutch Elm Disease–tree surgery.

I called it “bleeding the elm” which gave Russell a warm smile; I think he was quick to grasp the metaphor. Which led to a poem I later wrote and which appeared in “The University Bookman” summer of 1987.

The seminar was held second semester of 1987 and was good fun. Beth Deere Walker was a student in that class, graduated and went off to Ohio State School of Law. She lives now in West Virginia and was a recent candidate for the West Virginia Supreme Court, and has also donated some lovely benches lining one of our campus sidewalks. They receive good use on warm days when the students sit and bask like comfortable turtles. But I wonder how much better the use if the students gracing the benches knew why Beth donated those benches. Karen Taylor was also in that seminar and went off to Michigan Law after her rejection from Harvard Law and her tearful belief her life was over. She is now, I believe, lead attorney for Southwest Airlines. And Mark Mason, too, was in that seminar and was due to start Michigan Medical School that fall of 1987. He was killed in a car accident a few weeks after the seminar met in Mecosta, and a day before his graduation. The incident angers me to this day and I wish I could wash from my mind the newspaper picture of that rolled over car and the fireman’s coat draped over the driver’s side door. His family has marked his presence on this campus with a brick on our alumni walk; I see it every day on my walk to my building and mark his presence in my life, in my memory, and a prayer.

History is sometimes that which hurts, and bleeds. And there were others including Robert Jose who was gently chided by Dr. Kirk when he, Robert, noted in his seminar presentation that “we are but midgets standing on the shoulders of giants.” Robert Jose migrated from Hillsdale to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts and to this day likely remembers the difference between midgets and dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

We were at Mecosta for two days that seminar weekend. I was “billeted” in one of the outlying houses. I couldn’t sleep the first night and opted to go for a walk, north and then east toward town. It was misty out.   The streets were rolled up. On my way back, I looked down that gravely street that led to library and for the moment saw Dr. Kirk passing into the halo of a street light and then out of that halo. The image is distinct in my mind to this day, the broad-brimmed hat, the overcoat, the work to be done in that library, alone with one’s thoughts.

As for Barry Goldwater and our Uncle Bob, the Monsignor, both now gone to be with God, I have a letter from the Senator to the Monsignor which reads thus:

Dear Bob:

I feel the same way you do about Kennedy mentioning my name in his speech. As far as having used my name, just so he spells it right, it’s okay because in my book, he is not safe for America.

Best wishes,

And then it’s just signed “Barry.” It’s dated July 22, 1960, and it’s obvious he typed it on his own senate stationary.

When Mr. Birzer mentioned he grew up in a Goldwater family all of this intrigued me. My old father, a survivor from Omaha Beach, was a common sense conservative and favored Goldwater’s military stance. My grandfather on my mother’s side was just a die-hard old-timey Republican and as virulent an anti-communist as Goldwater. There came in time that fated presidential campaign, another one of those American snapshot moments. I was in high school, then, and at a school assembly debated another high schooler whose name was Lyndon B. Johnson, albeit his middle name was “Bruce.” I don’t remember the outcome but it would be serendipity to have lost.

All of that is an interesting stretch of time, and history, and if the metaphor holds, has something to do with bleeding the elm.

Here’s the poem, by the way, which I’ve unearthed:

Bleeding the Elm
Perhaps I am only dreaming this,
But last night I stood beneath your length
And felt a dry fear of burning.
Awake before dawn, my hands felt the blight,
Green going to yellow to brown.
I tell myself to think of it
As the dark wormy heart of human desire,
How there could not be good without evil,
An opposite to resist it.
Except this time it is one of the tall ones,
A good hundred feet to the crown where the sun
Has not burned off the morning blue.
For the hundredth or the thousandth time
I have come out before cacophonous morning noises impede
My prayer of patience,
To see if figures I have known
Still move through the shadows.
On this spot,
Mother and grandmother, father and grandfather
Played croquet;  I was a boy just standing.
Once a ladder leaned against your trunk;
I climbed and fell disturbing them.
I would have things today less mutable,
More plangent, stable, would have something
More copious fill my baggy heart: Platonism, Hebraism,
Or knowledge beyond interpretation,
Or enigmatic as the Tolland Man,His smile an emblem of understanding.
For some other reason I think of Melville’s brother,
Lost at sea;  I think of Whitman witnessing
An amputation; it is my covenant with indecision,
My fear of vandalizing earth,
My fear of finding that I cannot keep
My faith with native ground
And place, bad for the brain,
Sometimes a holy vision, clumsy
At first but then clarity men sometimes find
When they wish to be generous,
When they see shadowy images of God at the wood’s edge,
When the last labor of the heart
Is to let the fingers
Grope horizontally along the bark to reassure
The one with the saw is no barbarian
Has no insatiable lust;
This is not that long-awaited
Throat-constricting moment.
Out of the morning silence nothing
Then the first slow and heavy rasp,
Blue veins in my arms starting to work the meaning out.
Painful, of course, but either that or death of nerve.
I tell myself this is only one of life’s dividends,
Not as if the heat of one year lasts a hundred years
Though the cold of one winter rise.
In the opening of a door
There is a going in, a going out.
It has become the work of my life
To draw the saw blade across the grain, capillary, ganglia, vein,
Then back and forth and slowly deeper,
But not to touch the heart-wood,
The body’s pride, this way then that way
And back again to cut across the rings,
Spattering granular seeds from the past,
Lives of the presidents, men with caps of blue seasoned by the war,
Potawatami fur clad and bare foot,
And there my daughter’s birth star,
And she not more than buckle-high, scarab-eyed.
Tonight I will sit at my desk.
I will quit dissembling.
I will begin with a sentence I left off years ago.
I will write how my father saw an end to his suffering,
Found some order in his soul.
I will think of the long direction of our exile,
The true edge of morning sunlight.
I will write
And pray that
My own sap
Might flow on such a day,
That I might live on such a landscape
Of elm and house and lilac and friends
Duty-bound to help me
Shape my own transformation.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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