Dispatches Tagline
Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Mel’s Farm

Thursday, October 10th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Cabin and studio, winter 2002

Fourth in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Close friends have heard me talk about Mel Gray, my art teacher from the seventh to the twelfth grades, who became a mentor for much of my life, the first among a small group of elders I’ve cultivated, people who’ve accumulated priceless knowledge and wisdom and who teach by example. In our rural farming community, school functioned as a repressive form of social control, bullying us into narrow conformity; some of our teachers rebelled against that system, befriending me and my fellow struggling outsiders and welcoming us into their homes and lives, but among them, Mel was special. He lived and breathed art, but in addition, he shared the love of nature, the love of crafting and building and self-reliance, that I had inherited from my father and grandfather. His curiosity was limitless, and he was that rarest of persons in our narcissistic times, a good listener. He took us, his proteges, seriously, cared about our lives and became a true friend as we grew up and went out into the world. In school, after class, and at home with his large, friendly and talented family, he challenged us and expanded our horizons. Forever after, throughout our far-flung lives, we would return on pilgrimages to honor that.

Mel had a large property with a stone cabin in virgin hardwood forest in the hills south of our county, where hillside springs feed creeks that drain into small rivers that in turn become tributaries to the big Ohio. During and after my senior year of high school, I met and fell in love with Mel’s niece, and as I recall, it was she who first took me to what we all came to call “Mel’s Farm,” although Mel himself called it “Gray’s Wilderness.”

We were both in college in Chicago and had been secretly living together in violation of her father’s decree. Her father, Mel’s cousin, despised me, and our relationship was always tinged with danger and rebellion as we conspired to avoid his wrath. Back in the countryside for summer vacation, we arranged to borrow a car and head south into the woods.

It really was just about the closest to wilderness you could find in the Midwest. Heading south from the glacially leveled fields of our county, the two-lane blacktop begins winding along forested ridges and dipping into hollows where sycamores line the courses of the little rivers. An even smaller and more tortuous country road takes you farther back to a tiny crossroads settlement, from which you head south into the deep forest. Eventually the pavement ends and you’re faced with a rough dirt track up a long hill, impassable during and after storms.

At the top of the hill there’s a deeply rutted trail through a small farm, past a decrepit tobacco barn, through a small ridgetop cornfield, and into a dark wood. A few more gentle turns along the ridgetop, then you reach the cabin in its clearing.

At that time, the two-foot-thick stone walls enclosed one big room. With small windows, it was dark and musty inside, and sparsely furnished, not much used by the family. The only piece of furniture I really remember was an old church pew. Outside the forest pressed in from all sides and the small clearing was drenched with sun and the singing of birds and insects. We were far from people and towns, living a magical dream of young romance, and it was the first time I’d ever made love outdoors.

Another summer, we returned with Mark and John, my best high school friends, to spend a night. The friends camped outside in the clearing while Kathryn and I slept in the cabin. In high school, we had formed a band which was really a precocious performance art ensemble, bursting with creativity, inventing new art forms. Now, we mostly jammed on traditional tunes that my friends picked up from retro recording artists like Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone. Being able to share that wilderness was priceless for us: a timeless space where we were freed from the painful emotional baggage of growing up as outsiders in a traditional rural community, and insulated by the dense forest from the prying, judgmental eyes of families and authorities.

When we got ready to leave, Kathryn marshaled us into a whirlwind of activity to sweep out the cabin. I remember young bodies swinging through a cloud of dust, all sparkling in sunbeams from the windows and doors.

A year later, Kathryn had left me, and I returned during the winter holidays with Mark and his girlfriend, Linda, and my grad school friend, Tom. I rode in Tom’s sports car; the dirt road was frozen hard, and the high ruts dislodged his exhaust pipe on the way in. The air was crisp and silent, the hardwood forest was bare, and the first thing we did was hike down through the bare woods to the creek on the north side. These small creeks flowed over shelves of limestone that were full of fossils; now they were mostly frozen over.

Other local friends joined us. At night we got a fire going in the cabin and started jamming.

Eventually, Mel retired from teaching and moved the family to a little rustic “art colony” a few miles downstream from the farm. That’s where I made my pilgrimages during my years as a bohemian in San Francisco. Then, after all the kids had moved out on their own, he and wife Pinkie, a prodigious and beloved painter and mistress of traditional crafts, moved out to the wilderness. They turned the cabin’s attic into a spacious loft with rollaway beds and a wall of windows facing south over the forest, and they added a big kitchen and bath. Mel had been collecting architectural salvage at farm sales all over the area and storing it in sheds on the farm; the rebuilt cabin had bits and pieces of this, including a stairway bannister made of wooden forms for the giant gears of historic grist mills, and they built a beautiful detached studio incorporating more of their architectural treasure trove. The farm had become a family work of art, with numerous outbuildings sprawled along the ridge: a trove of craft materials, books, records and memorabilia, the museum of their lifetime, so that visits became revelatory as Mel and Pinkie took us on tours and showed off their endless curiosities, including occasionally ambitious gardens and orchards and projects in alternative, self-sufficient technology.

At the same time, I was falling in love with the desert mountains and canyons of the West, growing more and more uncomfortable in the city, and fantasizing about living off the land in the ways of the desert Indians. During one winter visit, Mel unearthed a recent magazine article about a primitive survival school in Utah that claimed to teach those ancient ways, and the following summer I headed off for a field course at Boulder Outdoor Survival School that changed my life and showed me how people really lived in the lands that I loved. Mel was still showing me the way, and his place in the wilderness was still the source.

But knowing what I wanted didn’t make it happen. I was alone in my dream. I moved to my own wilderness for a year, leaving a girlfriend back in the city. Friends sympathized but none could join me. Hard years followed, more years in the city and the urban economy that took me farther from my dreams. Mel’s health was deteriorating, and visits often consisted of watching cable TV with him in the cabin. Aging changed his world and his focus and made him into a different person, less the mentor, less the role model. But occasionally we connected just as strongly as ever. I was able to show him my latest artwork on a laptop screen, and his home in the forest retained its magic and mystery.

One winter, I walked alone through the bare trees down the south slope to the creek on that side, and followed it toward the river. Nearing the river valley where a floodplain opened out, I was surprised by a shout from above. A young deer hunter had been hiding in brush up the slope from me. I told him I was a friend of the family, and he said Mel had given him permission to hunt in return for a share of the kill.

Another time, when Mel was in his mid-80s, he needed to grade the ridgetop trail, and he let me drive his ancient John Deere tractor while he rode on the side.

Sometimes I spent the night with Mel and Pinkie in the cabin, and other times I left late, driving those back roads alone, awash with precious memories and the chill of mortality. Once I had to pee and pulled off beside the river on a dirt trail through the trees. Standing in the darkness I noticed a small green light moving slowly through the grass, some unknown luminous being. Ah, the mysteries still hidden in that tired land of childhood.

As I write this, Mel is in a nursing home and his family is struggling to dispose of the place in the woods, the family work of art, the “museum of a lifetime” and the place that stood for me and my friends as an example of freedom and hope, of a more creative way of life in the midst of the society that seemed to trap us as adolescents.

As I re-evaluated my life experience, I came to see that isolation was not the answer, that even a big family was not enough; you needed an entire, robust community. It was not for me to retreat to a cabin in the woods. But Mel had never been truly isolated; the lesson I needed to emulate was his lifelong example of listening, caring, and encouraging young people to expand their curiosity, liberate their creativity, and pursue their dreams.