|Russell Libby at the Common Ground Country Fair in 2008. English photo.
By John Bunker
Russell was extremely intelligent and extraordinarily well read. We all know that. He was well aware of the challenges and failures of modern society. He understood them, and he wasn’t afraid to point them out.
How is it that a man who was so aware of all this could be so fun to be with? So much at peace throughout his life, right up to the end? Why wasn’t he somber or tortured and tormented? This is a question that I have asked myself on many occasions. And, it is here that we may find Russell’s greatest lesson to us all as we move forward without him.
The other night Cammy and I were at a contra dance. It was a fun evening. It was also the last evening before Russell died. The band played and sang as they played. One of the songs is one that maybe you know: The Happy Wanderer. “Val-deri, Val-dera.”
The last verse goes,
Oh, may I go a wandering until the day I die.
Oh, may I always laugh and sing
Beneath God’s clear blue sky.
As we danced I thought of Russell. He often laughed – especially at himself – and it seemed as though he always had a song in his heart. And did he love to go a wandering. If it was a dirt road, if it was an old farm, if it was an ancient apple tree, Russell wanted to be there.
He didn’t like interstates at all. How did he ever get anywhere on time? He was forever dropping in on a yard sale by a tumbledown barn, or popping into a restaurant that serves local food, or taking a half-hour tour of a greenhouse or a farmers’ market or a new CSA.
He didn’t really have time to do any of that. Rather, he made time to do it all. When he and I traveled together, I never needed to know the destination time, just the time to meet him and get going.
If we were heading south, we always took “201" between Gardiner and Topsham. We never took the new road.
You know how different roads are called “the so and so highway,” or “so and so boulevard,” named for some war or some famous person? Well, Route 201 between Gardiner and Topsham should be renamed the Russell W. Libby Highway. I think he actually loved that road.
The first time I went with him down that stretch, I hadn’t been on it since 295 opened about 20 years ago. He knew every farm along the way. He knew every orchard. He pointed out which ones we would come back to visit together or that I should visit alone when I could.
It is a beautiful stretch of road, and, if you ever have the time, I suggest you take it. When you do, think of Russell. Let someone else drive, and you look. It’s a very old road.
As some of you know, I track down, collect, identify and save old apple varieties. I have people all over the state who help me. I get calls regularly: sightings of ancient trees sort of like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Someone calls, and off I go with ladder and bags and markers in tow. Russell provided me with more “ivory bills” than anyone else. He combed the roadside from Mt. Vernon to Unity for years. I’m surprised he didn’t drive off the road. You could track his commute by the apples he discovered, sort of like one of those connect the dots pictures from coloring books. You connect the dots from one discovery to the next, and it takes you down the North Road to “17" to “135,” over to Belgrade, and eventually to Unity. A dot here, a dot there, each representing another find by a guy who was forever wandering.
A few days ago someone said to me that they hadn’t realized that Russell was so young. “I guess that it was because he’d done so much,” our friend went on to say. Yes, he did do so much and still found the time to connect with so many people, so many trees, so many farms everywhere he went.
Even when he was in treatment at the Alfond Cancer Center in Augusta, he was still scouring the roadside for old trees. He gave me cuttings last spring for one he called ‘NRF’. NRF, it turns out, is the flooring distributor next door to the cancer center. There’s an ancient, broken down, hollow apple tree right in the middle of the warehouse lawn, the last remnant of the farm that predates NRF by a century and a half or more, still there only because no one bothered to cut it down. It was Russell who took the time to collect the scionwood to save the tree.
Russell wasn’t going to graft these trees. That was my job. He wasn’t much on names either. That was also my job. His job was to travel and explore and as the song goes, “wander beneath God’s clear blue sky.”
And so we have ‘Russell’s Russet’ from the Bean Road in Mt. Vernon, one he called ‘Mt. Pisgah’ from Winthrop, the ‘Sharpe’ apple from Sorrento, and another he simply called ‘Route 135’. “You can just barely see the green apples above the fence,” he told me. I didn’t ask him how he obtained the scionwood for that one.
Yes, Russell saw the difficult truths facing us. He told it like it is. But how is it really? If you read the quotation on his recent portrait, you can see that we have a tough road ahead. But read his poems. And remember how he lived his life right up until the end. Russell was also the happy wanderer: someone who truly marveled at all that this world has to offer to each of us every day.
Russell’s greatest gift may be his ability to remind us of what we can do while we’re here on this short earthly visit. Can we acknowledge the hard stuff while rejoicing in the beauty of the earth and the potential of every human being? Russell did.