My Time with Russell Kirk: Memories of a Country Squire

A few years before distinguished man of letters Russell Kirk passed away in his country home in a small rural village in northern Michigan, I had the great privilege to serve as his assistant at his home as a Senior Wilbur Literary Fellow. Since I grew up in the northern swamp country a few miles down the road, I had heard much of this “wizard” like fellow with the pork pie hat and the legends of his 50-mile hikes cross country carrying a revolver and a hickory walking stick, to “keep the wild dogs at bay” as he told me once.

 Kirk at home

Russell Kirk at his Piety Hill home

Indeed, there were wild dogs roaming the countryside in Michigan at one time, and as Justice of the Peace, Russell not only felt his duty to discourage the dogs from tearing apart livestock and deer, but there was some possibility of personal safety as he trekked across the unpopulated tracts of Mecosta County.

I found this ability to blend in with the local people, the wildlife, and the connection to guns that Russell had was very appealing, as I too was raised in the countryside by a dissident professor in love with guns and his country.

Russell proudly displayed a “brace of Turkish Pistols” over his fireplace, along with other shields, swords and weapons of a bygone era.

Even his fireplace was a proud reproduction of a 17th century fireplace, designed brilliantly to circulate the air around his great hall, and he diligently kept it maintained. He was most excited by “fire season” in Michigan, which lasted months, in the cold north. The season brought snow and the great chore of stocking his library with a cord of wood for the late nights he spent reading and working on his books and articles.

Russell was a country squire and a Cincinnatus, active in and supportive of his local community in the hinterland, while burning midnight fires and hammering out lectures and books in his library.

Kirk ion the Library

Kirk in his library

His library, a former doll factory, a few blocks away from his country home, was my office as well, and once, as fall gripped us, we loaded the firewood into the adjoining garage. I was a collegiate wrestler and survival camper, and loved the work; Russell, approaching 80 and an avid cigar smoker, worked hard to keep up. He was a determined man of heart and spirit, with a disposition of cheer and a spirit unbreakable.

Today, with a Harvard ivory tower intelligentsia dominating the Obama White House, the contrast is stark and depressing. One need only to listen to Timothy Geithner, a tax dodger and a waffling sycophant, to know what I mean.

Still, too, Russell was a man of personal compassion. Once he rescued a hobo from jail and put him to work on his property,

I remember how he minded a large and somewhat feral cat named Growltiger who lived outside near his house, underneath the snow laden evergreens.

Growltiger was a favorite of his youngest of four daughters, who loved T.S. Eliot’s CATS. At one point during the winter, while hiking, Russell looked for signs of Growltiger, but found none. “I fear someone has murdered him” he said in a pithy tone.

Russell, a friend of T.S. Eliot, appreciated drama and mystery as well as admired the strength, cunning and ferocity of Growltiger, who may have made his Last Stand as in the poem of his name’s sake.

Russell and my father, who read Kirk avidly but hardly knew him, were both champions of individual liberty and the American spirit of independence and self-reliance. Both sought to help the unfortunate, and both were rewarded when they gave a second chance to the misfortunate to prove themselves and work hard.

It is a shame to have lost both, but at least Russell left a vast body of work that both informs our imagination with the things not bureaucratic but independent; He was informed by the joy of liberty, and the tried and true values of our American heritage. He was rooted in the American Spirit, not lost in the machinations of bureaucracies obsessed with Euro Modeling and selfish power struggles. 

We need imagination, I think, and courage, not the clumsy hammer of indifferent ideologues. Moreover, we need a powerful intellect with vision.

Russell, we miss you.