Author: Cornish, Rick

Letter from Utah
 

Today's column from Rick Cornish (rcornish@sjcoe.net)
Thursday, May 29, 2008


Many of you know that Utah Phillips, one of our truly great American songwriters and storytellers, died last week. It was about twenty years ago that I put Utah and my favorite kind of music, bluegrass, together. I was at the Fathers Day Festival and heard Bill Harrell sing “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia”; after the song, he credited it to his friend, Utah Phillips. Still one of my favorite songs to sing.

A couple of days ago, my friend Mark Varner sent me a letter he’d found on the Internet. It was fairly recent and it was written by Utah Phillips. When I opened the e-mail I was in the middle of something and had planned to just skim it and save it for later. But once into Utah’s letter, I couldn’t stop. His honest, homey and completely unselfconscious words stayed with me the rest of the day; in fact, the letter sort of made my day. Hope it does yours.


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Dear Friends,

Utah here, with a rambling missive pandect and organon regarding my current reality. At no time should you suspect me of complaining (kvetching); I am simply grepsing (Yiddish word for describing the condition of that reality).

First, medical: My heart, which is enlarged and very weak, can't pump enough blood to keep my body plunging forward at its usual 100 percent. It allows me about 25 to 30 percent, which means I don't get around very much or very easily anymore. I'm sustained (i.e., kept alive) by a medication called Milrinone, which is contained in a pump that I carry around with me in a shoulder bag. The pump, which runs 24 hours a day, moves the medication through a long tube running into an implanted Groshong catheter that in turn runs directly into my heart. I'll be keeping this pump for the rest of my life. I also take an extraordinary number of oral medications, of which many are electrolytes.

My body is weak but my will is strong, and I keep my disposition as sunny and humorous as I'm able. It's hard enough being disabled without being cranky as well. Though I'm eating well, my weight has gone from 175 to 155 pounds. I look like a geriatric Fred Astaire.

We manage to get out a good bit, visiting the Ananda (a local spiritual village and retreat center) flower garden up on the San Juan Ridge and occasionally going to lunch at various places around town. The bag is always with me. Believe me, none of this would be possible without my wife Joanna. She has the deepest, most loving and caring heart one could ever imagine. She's taken charge of all my medications and makes sure that I'm well fed and don't fall into the slovenly ways of a derelict. She also has enormous physical beauty-I have never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. She is endowed with intelligence, deep insight, compassion, and a capacity for love that passes all understanding.

Heart disease aside, I find that I have a hernia that needs to be repaired. Someday I suppose I'll become like Ernie Bierwagen, the old man who owned the orchards outside town. He said to me once, "I know that God wants me to say something, because the only thing I have left that works is my mouth." But for now, I'm enjoying my life and can think of no good reason not to. Joanna and I both know that the chemical regimen I'm on can't go on indefinitely. We take things a day at a time, deriving joy and solace from a solid, loving relationship.

I want to share with you something about where we live. If you're reading this on the Internet, I've sent Duncan some photos to show you what it looks like. Our house is on a country lane right off Red Dog Road, about a mile from downtown Nevada City. Nevada City is an old gold-mining town in the Sierra foothills with a population of about 2,800. The old buildings are all still here, including the National Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the West that's still doing business. The town is a quirky, mystical sort of place, populated by poets, writers, artists, misfits, and just regular folks. When you drive down Berggren Lane where we live, you come to a brown house with green trim, lap-strake siding, a steel roof, and a high green fence around the front. The steel roof is there because we live in an ancient oak and cedar grove, which incl udes in the front yard a couple of towering poplar trees. Sometimes the wind coming down from the high Sierra breaks off tree limbs, and ! if it weren't for the steel roof, we could well be eating our salad by the roots.

When we first moved in here, the house was tiny. Using her remarkable ingenuity and the prodigious skills of our friend Steven Goodfield, a fine independent carpenter, Joanna has added a hallway and two rooms going up the hill, which gives us a bedroom and bathroom, and me a study. The French doors in our bedroom open out onto a dappled hillside with hawthorns, cedars, pines, wild cherries, and oaks. The lot itself is quite narrow, the result of a bad survey many years ago. The old part of the house was built in 1912. When we bought it, there was a greenhouse along the southern wall. It was rotting out, so we replaced it with a new, insulated and thermo paned greenhouse so that we could remove the interior wall and make it almost part of the living room. Our house is a beautiful, comfortable place to live, absolutely surrounded by greenery.

Looking out the greenhouse windows now, I can see the huge poplars in front, already in full leaf. The front yard is Joanna's flower garden, a great splash of color amid the green. As I look over my shoulder out the greenhouse door, which is also the front door to the house, I can see the hawthorn trees covered with cascades of white blossoms, as though their limbs were burdened with new snow. There's a brick patio just outside the greenhouse with a fireplace and a small pond crowned with a bronze frog who emits a stream of water into the pond, which, when the weather is warm, we can hear from the bedroom when we're going to sleep.

Opposite the greenhouse is the kitchen, with a wonderful early 1930s gas range, one of those with a two-lid firebox on one end. Outside the kitchen window is a railed porch built by our friend Kuddie, which overlooks another flower garden and an old apple tree, still bearing, that was probably planted when the house was built. The lot itself, narrow though it is, goes up the hill quite a way, where it levels off through the cedars and ends at a large open space that was a vegetable garden when I was still able to do that sort of thing.

The cedars are gigantic and quite an anomaly, a patch of forest that was never logged, probably because of the bad survey. It simply got missed. Walking in it now is like walking in the quiet of a much larger forest. Walking up the hill, you pass three small outbuildings. One, called Marmlebog Hall (Joanna's children call her Marmle), is where Kuddie ordered and maintained the CDs I used to travel with. It also contains a small labor library. The second building is a small barn on uneven stilts because of the hill. It's there for storage. Don't ask me what all is in it, but I do know it would drive an archaeologist mad. Among other things, it houses about 15 collapsing cardboard boxes that contain what academics have characterized as my personal archives, but are in fact a jumble of papers and objects, the detritus of over half a century. The University of California at Davis once said they wanted to accession my archives. I said, okay, if you hire somebody to come and plough through those boxes, because I'm not going to. They never called back.

The third building up there is an old shed, tiny, drafty, but a place where I spent many happy hours making things when I wasn't traveling: wooden swords, bird feeders, and such. For the past few years the workshop has been a henhouse with a chicken-wire enclosure. Nothing fancy: five hens and a large rooster named Ralph (
 
Posted:  5/29/2008



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