A few days ago, we attended “Old Friends: New Works” at the sold-out North Columbia Schoolhouse in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We expected a fun evening of poetry, storytelling and music from featured performers Gary Snyder, Doc Dachtler, Ludi Linrichs and Sean Kerrigan, a quartet of very independent thinkers and talented men who have known each other since Snyder moved to the area in 1970 and later told the world a bit of the story in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Turtle Island.
What made this night so remarkable, though, was the abundant sense of community among two hundred attendees who have sung, written, danced, worked, partied and roughed it together along the North San Juan Ridge — and how much they celebrate each other’s company and continue to help each other out. In this perilous day and age of first-stage global warming aftereffects, when everyone should be thinking seriously about sustainability and smaller communities, I was thoroughly touched by the love, creativity and sense of purpose that poured from the 19th century schoolhouse.
Our night began a little nervously. We couldn’t get in. I tried all week to get tickets, but to no avail. Since Gary Snyder doesn’t read on the Ridge very often anymore, and since the Old Friends hadn’t performed together in awhile, demand was high. Finally, the day before the event, I emailed Gary and asked if he could help out. He met us at the entrance, and all was good again. I learned a lesson long ago when I blew off a Florida reading by Allen Ginsberg in 1997 “because I’ll catch him next time,” only to find out he passed three months later; there may not be a next time. Even though I’ve spent some time with Gary, and he’s presented programs at Ananda College, where I teach writing and poetry, I hadn’t seen him read in a public forum for several years.
While he was the most prominent performer of the night, Gary certainly wasn’t the only performer. In an act of generosity that defines this man, he deferred to his compadres, giving them most of the show. What a show it was. Ludi Linrichs, a multi-instrumentalist and very creative songwriter who uses music for everything from entertainment to healing, joined fine jazz guitarist Sean Kerrigan, whom Gary met when Sean was a fellow student in his son’s kindergarten class (now you see how deeply these friendships run). The two played a number of pieces, with Ludi switching from bass trombone to piano. They also started the second set with some combined musical pieces.
The first poet up was Doc Dachtler, author of several collections including his newest, Skid Marks & Snow Geese, who wove plenty of old Ridge stories into his work. Dachtler’s poetry is raw and snappy as a northern wind, filled with spicy imagery and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. He spoke of a childhood walk in Elgin, ND in minus-28 degree weather, of building a ramp for Helen McIrvin, a 100-year-old neighbor who very much spoke her mind, and desires, of an old man who knew “100 pockets where to find gold” and who lived where Mother Trucker’s store now stands, about seven miles from the poetry reading, and of the pre-generator, pre-electricity days when kerosene and wood were the fuels of choice. When I was listening to Dachtler, I felt like he was presenting some backstory that the millions who cut their environmental teeth on Turtle Island would love to hear. I sure did.
Dachtler also read to accompaniment from Linrichs, who brought out a didgeridoo, along with his trombone and trumpet. This interplay of music and poetry has been happening since Sappho and the Ancient Greek dramatists figured it out — after all, music and poetry share the words “muse” and “lyric” at their core. Which is why when you put the two together, most feel it in the core of their being; the collaboration rings eternal in the depths of our DNA.
After intermission, during which people drank wine from nearby Double Oak Vineyards and ate homemade baked goods (community, community, community), Dachtler returned to the stage to introduce Snyder. I’ve studied Snyder since I was one of those teenagers who fell in love with Turtle Island, have spent time with him, read all 20+ books and studied a lot of the poets and writers that influenced him — including one he recommended to me just a few months ago, the late great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. However, when a close friend and neighbor like Dachtler makes introductions, you’re going to hear the stories that don’t make it into print, the really good stuff.
Dachtler told of how Snyder spent part of the money he received after winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. “A bunch of us were pouring the foundation at Oak Tree School. He cashed his check and fed and bought beer for about 80 of us.” That’s a good neighbor.
Gary only read for 25 minutes — a piece from Mountains and Rivers Without End, a couple of new poems, one a juxtaposition between gardening and Thomas Jefferson, the other a prose poem, “Stories in the Night,” continuing the spirit of the Maidu and Nisean tribes that use to tell stories in their thirty-foot long earthen lodges during the cold winters. He concluded with one of my favorites, the back-and-forth letters between he and a 13-year-old neighbor who’d moved to Canada and wanted to know more about writing poetry.
In and out. Short and sweet. He was a part of the crowd, and the crowd walked a part of his journey as well. I realized that Turtle Island, Axe Handles and other titles might have been written by Snyder, in his distinctive voice and crisp style, but many of the poems spoke of the lives of the crowd before him. Talk about a hometown reading! Gary helped matters by dropping a small-community reminiscence, about the August evening in 2000 when, in the pine grove behind the schoolhouse, he read Mountains and Rivers Without End in its entirety — a six-hour reading of a book that he compiled over the course of 40 years — while everyone picnicked and had a great time. Poetry fans, can you imagine how exquisite that was? When I emailed Gary later to thank him for getting us in, I also said, “I grew very envious when you recalled that night…”
There is something about how poetry and music brings community together, and also invokes a sense of community and sustainability within us. This group performance by Kerrigan, Linrichs, Dachtler and Snyder possessed a brotherly spirit that, I would hope, we instill in our communities — not to mention the sense of long-time camaraderie that is everyday life on the North San Juan Ridge. One person standing in the parking lot line before the event said, “I feel like I’m at Winterland again.”
Not quite, but here’s a takeaway: These are the people who bailed on cities and suburbia and figured out what everyone else was singing about in the ‘60s. Now those of us who are trying to create more sustainable lives, communities and relationships before this planet further implodes are looking to their example.