Remembering the English major

Jim Harrison is pictured here with Jonathon Johnson, his family and their rowboat and gerbils.

By Jonathon Johnson

Jim Harrison, best known for penning Legends of the Fall, died in his Arizona home March 26 at the age of 78. A prolific author who published 21 volumes of fiction and 14 books of poetry, among other creative works, Harrison would often visit the Upper Peninsula. A lover of the natural world, he felt at home in the U.P., where he could easily slake his thirst for good food and fine company. Below, two authors remember their time with this iconic author.

“My favorite moment in life is when I give my dog a fresh bone.”

Since Jim Harrison died, I have had to drive about the Upper Peninsula a great deal. West, to Houghton-Hancock; east, to the Straits. His presence is everywhere. Munising, Newberry (we liked to talk of the delights of stopping at Pickleman’s), the turn at Trout Lake; Grand Island, Lake Michigamme, Keweenaw Bay.  Driving the U.P. is a form of worship.  We’re so fortunate to have this land, these waters.  Jim believed that. He believed that dogs and bears were his brethren, that every bird had a soul, that the trees housed the gods. He was a man who looked in the Six Directions, whose mind was so full of words it was at times a torment.

For years he visited Marquette in the spring and fall, at first coming north from the farm he shared with his wife Linda in the Leelanau Peninsula; then, after they moved to Montana to be closer to their daughters’ families, east from Livingston.  My wife Reesha and I thought of his annual migrations as the first signs of the season’s change. He would stay in the Jim Harrison Suite at the Landmark Inn, which had been established years ago when I invited him to read at NMU. When I told him of plans to name a suite in his honor, he asked, “How you gonna decorate it, with cigarette butts and empty wine bottles?”

If we went out to dinner, usually for the whitefish at The Vierling, or at Don Curto’s Italian Place, where Jim, who never stopped thinking about food, always requested in advance that they roast whole chickens with lots of garlic, he would talk to everyone: waitresses, bartenders, chefs.  Frequently he’d turn to a perfect stranger sitting at a nearby table and engage in conversation as though they’d known each other for years. Of course, some of them knew who he was, but others realized that they were talking to someone unlike anyone they’d ever met before. He often described himself as a “round brown man.”  As he aged, his face became a marvel of craters, bulges, gullies, culverts, errant whiskers; and there were the eyes, squinting and, as he said, “goofy.” His curiosity was such that he wanted to taste everything, see everything, and talk to everyone on the planet. He didn’t believe in living small.

He rarely talked about one thing at a time; it was all of a piece:  lines from Lorca or Neruda, French wine, the shape of a creek. Animals were better suited to this earth than humans. The way our dog curled up beneath the dinner table, while we sat in chairs, was a natural wonder, evidence of our inability to adapt to the world we inhabit. Truth and imagination were one and the same. There was no line, no distinction between what actually happened and what he thought happened. Several times he told me, “It’s more fun to just make stuff up.”  He possessed an untamed, unvarnished candor that revealed a vast, inscrutable complexity. Some reviewers have criticized his syntax or punctuation (usually the lack of it). They’d never heard his voice. Rather than write, he spoke on paper. You don’t read Jim Harrison’s books, you listen to them.

With my wife Reesha, Jim liked to talk about cooking and Zen practice. He sometimes treated her like a daughter; other times like a kid sister. Perhaps because my middle name is Harrison, he occasionally called me son. When we were with him, we felt both under his protection and protective of him. The summer after Reesha died, he drove up from Leelanau, where he had been visiting; he had rented a car and planned on staying in Marquette one night, and then continuing on to Montana. He was suffering from back problems and a severe case of shingles, and he ended up staying three nights during a rare U.P. heat wave. His back was so sore that he could barely tolerate wearing a T-shirt. At night we sat drinking beer in our underwear in my courtyard under the eaves, caged by teeming rain. His friend Mario Batali, the renowned chef and restaurateur, has a house in Leelanau, and he had sent Jim off with a cooler packed with prosciutto, various cheeses, and god-knows-what’s-in-them sauces, and we ate and drank, bathed in sweat, while watching lightning jigsaw the sky. We speculated that with a good wind off Lake Superior, you could hurl a stick from my house into the Burkett’s yard, his imaginary clan (portrayed in his novels True North and Returning to Earth) who live two blocks over on Ridge Street.  Afternoons we’d go down the hill to McCarty’s Cove and sit in the lake up to our necks, the frigid water bringing some relief to his back. He was in no condition to drive to Montana, so after several phone calls with his secretary Joyce Bahle, we finally convinced him to fly home to Livingston.  Batali’s cooler stayed behind and I went around town giving friends wedges of cheese and slabs of prosciutto. I kept the sauces.

 If you don’t love it find another universe.”

The last time I saw Jim was two years ago this month, when I visited him and Linda at their casita in Patagonia, just north of the Arizona-Mexico border. Because Jim had always traveled alone to the U.P., this was the first time I’d met Linda, a handsome, robust woman. (She died last December, in Montana.) After a lunch—she made an incredible green chili—he took me on a drive through the San Rafael Valley. Before his unsuccessful back surgery and the case of shingles, which had persisted for years, we would have walked, but now we drove at a sauntering pace on a two-track that wound through the tall grass. We wondered about the dead, about the brain tumors, the cancers, the heart attacks that deliver us. We wondered about our dead dogs, Rose, who used to sleep at our house when Jim stayed at the Landmark, and our mutt Dammie. We wondered where the dead go. They do not remain, we decided, in New York City, where Jim noted that Peter Matthiessen was dying of cancer. The dead come to places like San Rafael Valley to marvel at cattle as they graze, never once raising their heads to take in the Huachuca Range to the east.  What’s a mountain when you can live on a blade of grass?   

We brought “three good eyes” to that valley. We were looking for words, for the next phrase of a poem, a story, a novel. We scanned the country for the one line that would sustain us till we reached the next line, and the next. But there were no words for this valley. The color of the grass wasn’t yellow, and it wasn’t straw; it was the color of grass in April during a long Arizona drought. The color of the sky wasn’t blue; it was sunlit air pressing down on the earth, keeping the mountains from unmooring and drifting south across the Mexican border. And we wondered if we might already be dead. If so, it wasn’t so bad. Which led to his saguaro story:  a guy decided to take target practice on a saguaro, shot the hell out of it until it fell over and killed him.

On the road back to Patagonia Jim pointed out where the mountain lions live, where rattlesnakes can be caught by the barrelful. He took a particular route so he could show me the sycamore that had been a favorite of his older brother John, its pale limbs parsing the sky. In town we stopped for a beer at a place called the Wagon Wheel. Rifles and antlers decorated the walls, but it wasn’t a studied ambience, just a barroom that had hardly changed since it opened in the thirties.  We sat outside in the late afternoon heat. The shadows crept toward our table until the shade brought relief.

At their casita, when I said goodbye, we talked about his returning to the U.P. But we both knew otherwise.

∞

“One tree leads

to another, walking on

the undescribed earth.

I have dreamed

myself back

to where

I already am.”

Many people have shared their thoughts about Jim Harrison since he died, discussing his work, his life, his contradictions, his genius. His death has left me feeling mute (he writes with no intention of irony). Thus driving about the Upper Peninsula these past few weeks has been palliative. My silence is filled with numerous images, too difficult to relate here.  Save one:  some nights when he’d visit Marquette we’d cook at our house, Jim and Reesha together before the stove, performing a sublime kitchen ballet, while I dutifully uncorked wine bottles.  Until Jim sang I can sense when the salmon is done! And then we’d sit down and eat.

— John Smolens

Editor’s Note: John Smolens is the author of 10 works of fiction, most recently Wolf’s Mouth.

I was afraid to meet Jim Harrison. I’d heard stories. Not only was he a legendary writer, eater, drinker, fisher, naturalist and traveler, he was also reputedly gruff, a grizzled genius who cultivated solitude and didn’t suffer fools. What sort of humiliating dismissal would I be setting myself up for?

But I was also afraid to attach a living human being to the words that had given me so much companionship and instruction. On paper at least, he had become my maestro. After I’d left the U.P. for graduate school, I used to stay up late in my city apartment, tucked in my sleeping bag, and read his poems and imagine the snow falling into the little rivers north of Marquette. What, I worried, if the man who taught me to more fully occupy my existence and to write from what I loved were petty or mean? I couldn’t imagine how I’d handle not warming to the human being who had written:

I’ve decided to make up my mind

about nothing, to assume the water mask,

to finish my life disguised as a creek,

and eddy, joining at night the full,

sweet flow, to absorb the sky,

to swallow the heat and cold, the moon

and the stars, to swallow myself

in ceaseless flow.

— from “Cabin Poem”

A potential meeting became even more perilous after we began corresponding.  I’d sent him the manuscript for my first book of poems and a letter apologizing for the intrusion and inviting him to burn the pages in his cabin woodstove if he didn’t like them.  In return, I received the first of what would be numerous letters—humorous, gracious, compassionate letters—and a blurb for my book’s cover.  Now if he turned out to be contemptuous in person, I’d be downright bereft.

One summer, Dianne Patrick in Snowbound Books tipped me off that Harrison had stopped into the shop that morning.  Like me he’d moved out west and migrated back to the U.P. often to write.  I knew he’d be staying at the Landmark—they had a suite named after him!  I cruised the parking lot in true literary stalker fashion, and sure enough, there was a big, silver Chevy Yukon with a brush guard and Montana plates.

“I know you can’t tell me,” I said to the desk clerk, “but if Mr. Harrison is here will you please give this to him?”

I handed over my note saying I’d love to buy him dinner, a long overdue thanks for the blurb.

A couple hours later, the phone rang.

“Jonathan?”

“Yes?”

“Jim Harrison,” he said, though I’d known who it was from the first gravelly syllable of my own name.

“How are you?”

“I was watching the TV news in my room.”

“Oh?”

“There was a kitten caught in a drain pipe.”

With no idea what reaction this information required, I remained silent.

“But it’s okay, they got it out.”

I heard him snort a breath like that of a large, wild mammal, a bear or a moose.  He invited me to meet him in the North Star Lounge, the bar on the top floor of the Landmark, at 4.

I knew him the moment I walked in: T-shirt and thread-worn vest, beefy neck, mussy hair and gray goatee, cracked-leather and sun-spotted skin on his face and hands, one glass eye and wild teeth when he smiled.

And he smiled often, to my great relief.

Several of his area friends arrived and the night turned into a Front Street feast—from gin and tonics up in the lounge, to whitefish and wild rice with French wines at the Veirling, to more wines and ice cream and cake back at the Landmark’s main floor bar, to a stop off for him to show me his eponymous suite (“That’s Tess,” he said, looking at the picture of a collie on the wall.  “A rattlesnake bit her in the eye”),  and finally back upstairs to the lounge for a nightcap.

The heady pleasure of the evening—food and drink in my favorite establishments with my greatest living poetic influence—was mitigated only by my awareness of the mounting tabs, each far in excess of the monthly payment on my pickup.

Jim Harrison passed away in his Arizona home March 26. Much of his fiction took place in the Upper Peninsula.

Jim Harrison passed away in his Arizona home March 26. Much of his fiction took place in the Upper Peninsula.

But Harrison would let me pay for none of it.

“I know what an assistant professor makes,” he growled and gave a chest laugh.  “Grim!”

A moon was rising over the Lake Superior horizon and the pulsing red and white lights of the Marquette Lower Harbor breakwall.

“Jonathan, come here.” Harrison took hold of my shirt and pulled me down beside his chair to see from his perspective.  “Look at that!  The French call that glacée.”

I’ve recently learned the word means ice.

How perfect! The summer moonrise, like ice on the water.

In the dozen or so years that followed that first meeting, my friendship with Harrison became a great source of instruction in many ways of seeing. And of living.  Not only had my fear of meeting him been unfounded, indeed, his company, just like his writing, taught me to more fully occupy my existence.

Now that he is gone, I have been remembering those lessons.

He reminded me that we must be playful. It saddens me to think my phone will never again display Jim Harrison for an incoming call, promising one of those goofy conversation openers of his. Once my wife Amy answered and he told her that he was going to open a gas station and wear a jumpsuit. He asked if she wanted to take over the writing.

Harrison also instructed me in generosity.  He often asked what I was working on.  A memoir, I answered once, about Amy and me building a cabin in the mountains and losing our first child there to a premature stillbirth.  He asked to see the manuscript, and a few weeks later, I received a letter from him with another incredibly kind blurb of the sort that sells books.  But even more helpful was what he wrote at the end of the letter.  He told me of a belief among certain far northern Native Americans that the souls of babies who die like ours become birds.  “I have always chosen to believe this,” he wrote.

Chosen to believe.

The instruction in those words has served me well as I’ve searched for my own spiritual truths and comforts in the natural world.  We can choose to believe.

Harrison also reminded me to savor physical delights. On our migrations between Marquette and the northwest, Amy and our daughter, Anya, and I would stop off and visit him and his wife Linda in Montana.  I always brought him smoked whitefish from Thill’s.  Once he took us to dinner out there and for dessert he and Anya, who was 6 or 7 at the time, shared the biggest slab of chocolate cake I’d ever seen.  He looked every bit as much the kid as she did, shoveling in bites and making big, happy eyes, the live one looking at her.

He taught me to deepen my appreciation for uncelebrated places and people as they are, not as idealized versions of themselves.  There are numerous, nameless thickets and stumps and overgrown logging roads out there right now that he used to check in every so often.

The great secret, I came to understand about him, how he was able to live 78 years with the spontaneity and indulgences of The Boy Who Went into the Woods (to borrow from the title of his children’s book) was his 55-year marriage to Linda. Linda was the stabilizer, the one to whom he went home from his wanderings literally around the world.

One time, after he’d called her from Marquette, he told me she’d been out walking near their home and had found the body of a young man on the bank of the Yellowstone River.  With wonder and admiration he said, “I told her I was sorry.  You know the difference between her and me?  She said somebody had to find him.”

When Linda died last October, I wondered how long he could possibly go on.  And he didn’t. On Saturday night, March 26, he toppled over, gone, at his writing desk, mid-sentence.    

Perhaps more than anything, Harrison’s friendship taught me grace.  One sunny afternoon we were walking beside the harbor. I was complaining about all the changes—the transformation of warehouses into condos, the tidy lawn where there had been old train tracks.

“It’s getting like Connecticut,” I groused.

He stopped walking and looked hard but not unkindly at me. In his weathered face, his good eye held mine and he said, “What are you going to do, stop loving a woman because she gets older?”

It remains the single wisest thing anyone’s ever said to me about loving a place through time and living gracefully through change. And those words help me tremendously today, to hold onto my love for this beautiful world, now that my maestro has left it.     

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