FINDING FRINGE | A traveler and a writer, Wallace Kaufman is a naturalist at heart
I answer my call of duty — to find the most interesting and outside-the-box people for this column. I received a blind-copied email from Wallace Kaufman, announcing his latest book, “Grow Old and Die Young – A Naturalist in Life’s Theater.”
I took the bait hook-line-and-sinker after doing a quick “search” on this Oregon Coast man and his new memoir. This is one prescient endorsement of this book, and the writer:
“’Grow Old and Die Young’ is a love story of the ever-changing light, moods, faces, textures, sounds and residents of Poole Slough and the Yaquina estuary. The Wetlands Conservancy could not ask for a better natural historian, poet, photographer, steward and neighbor of our beloved Lower Yaquina Preserve. Kaufman’s photos and words remind us of the life lessons the mysteries and surprises that daily tidal cycles teach us about life,” writes Esther Lev, former director of The Wetlands Conservancy.
Yeah, compelling, as were many of the other endorsements of this man’s more than half-dozen books. This one caught my eye: “He asks pertinent questions and offers useful answers grounded in his abundant reading, wide-ranging experience, and unflagging curiosity,” states William Price, former director of Archives and History in North Carolina.
Kaufman agreed to whet my own curiosity appetite by meeting out in his very forested place.
The 81-year-old native of Queens sent me detailed directions to get to his 7-year-old home on Poole Slough. Printed out, it was 1 1/2 pages single spaced.
It took me 50 minutes via old minivan to reach his 18 acres from my home in Waldport.
I was greeted by the spry, short-of-stature Wallace Kaufman.
After he directed me to a pullout, I was asked to enter the home. The large great room overlooks Poole Slough, a winding tidewater that connects just a few hundred yards west of his floating boat launch to Yaquina Bay. This wetlands ecosystem is verdant. I spied several kayaks on a floating dock.
Walking into his home office, I figured I might be in for a five-hour interview. Bookcases were lined with mostly hardbacks, there was a large computer screen, piles of magazines were stacked like cairns, and more books and paperwork adorned the place: a writer’s cubbyhole (or coven).
Kaufman has six published books under his belt, both solo authorship and a few co-written, and he lists three translations he’s published. Then there is Kaufman’s continual assistance/collaboration for almost a decade with an Iranian, Alireza Taghdarreh, whose Farsi translation (2015) of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” has been a labor of love.
Speaking of Walden Pond — “I came to Poole Slough with several illusions and a purpose,” Kaufman writes in the preface of “Grow Old and Die Young,” subtitled “You Come Too.” “I came for the same reason that, in 1845, a short, wiry and homely 28-year-old named Henry David Thoreau went to a cabin by Walden Pond in Massachusetts: ‘to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.’”
There are big differences here: Thoreau died at age 45, exactly 17 years after his Walden Pond experience. Kaufman moved to the Newport area when he was 72. Plus, Kaufman is a world traveler and polyglot.
Kaufman has traversed many national and geographical boundaries, and possibly many more philosophical and literary heights than Thoreau. He almost bought the proverbial farm 81 years ago, as he tells me, at Kingston Avenue Hospital where the medical staff saved him at age 10 months from the deadly whooping cough. He said he’s survived two falls that crushed vertebrae. He also ticked off making it through a Guatemala prison run by secret police. He’s had several blackout concussions.
“And three days near death delivered by an aged Central American sausage. Give me another 17 years, as Thoreau had, and likely I will be dead and, like Thoreau, I don’t want to discover in my last minutes I have not ever lived.”
A full life is an understatement
His roots are spread deeply on the Oregon Coast, but Kaufman definitely harkens back to his East Coast upbringing as both foundational and transformative.
“I remember our row house with its tiny backyard. They were built on coal ash. I recall neighbors who had fathers and sons overseas, and my own uncles and cousins going to war.” He was born in 1939, two years before the U.S. entered World War II.
As a kid, he heard about the last Civil War veteran dying. We discussed those war vets from World War II. This past May, on the 75th anniversary of V-J day, out of those 16 million vets, 300,000 were still alive, according to Pew Research. By 2045, my daughter will be 48 years old and she too will read about the last living World War II vet dying.
This recollection bespeaks Kaufman’s interest in collecting facts, ideas, histories, philosophical constructs and more. I got to the nuts and bolts of things — a literary life. Kaufman told me how during sixth grade he knew he wanted to be a writer. “I remember writing terrible poems.” That was in school in the tiny community of Sea Cliff, “a little town time had forgotten … with no train station.”
Again, the irony of co-evolutionary forces transported Kaufman to Oyster Bay on Poole Slough, 76 years after his formative years began in Sea Cliff, a village within the township of Oyster Bay in Nassau County, New York.
He told me that in the movie “The Great Gatsby,” there is a scene in Glen Cove, where the millionaire’s deck overlooks the water, and in the background is — you guessed it — Sea Cliff.
There was no F. Scott Fitzgerald lifestyle for Kaufman, as his relatively poor family scavenged for coal chunks on the gravel road near the home, screening the ash for pieces of heat-giving rocks.
His father, Arthur, was a tool and die man, classified 1A during World War II, but he never ended up being drafted. He was one of millions working on the war effort — in his father’s case, bomb fuses.
The forward reach of a person’s life is the display of tapestries dyed in family lines, roots and narratives. Kaufman’s grandparents on his father’s side immigrated to Washington, D.C., from Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. His grandfather was a Jewish tailor. Kaufman’s mother’s family hailed from Scotland and Ireland, and she was Anglican, the last of 10 kids. He grew up with twin brothers.
While Kaufman has traversed the globe, he anchors himself firmly to formative years in Sea Cliff and attributes an East Coast influence and hardships of that era for tenacity and determination to make something of himself. He’s a writer at the core, a naturalist at heart, and he works as a conflict mediator for a nonprofit in Newport, yet he’s holistic enough to embrace various points in his early life as life-changing directional events.
He rattled off many influences, from people he was personally grafted to, as well as the books and geographical locales he has come to consume and absorb. “Guy T. Pinkard changed my life. He was an NYU graduate, Ph.D. student, who opened up the lab in our high school, which had been closed for years.”
The kid who had never left New York ended up falling madly in love with an Alabama girl. His teacher took a few sophomores to Pinkard’s Alabama hometown, Mill Town. They had been exchanging botanical specimens with high school students there.
The young Kaufman ended up in South Dakota two consecutive summers on an archeological dig headed up by a professor at the University of South Dakota. It was part of a Boy Scouts trip, and he learned how to lay out squares and map a dig. It was a Mandan Village earthen lodge, where the Dakota Access Pipeline is now bifurcating sacred land.
He was still smitten by the high schooler from Mill Town, so Kaufman began looking for colleges down South, and since he came from a lower economic family, he needed plenty of scholarships. He picked Duke University, since it was halfway between New York and Alabama. “Duke then was a grade B school,” he told me. “I saw people going to Ivy League schools. They did not look like me. Their parents were professionals, doctors, rich.”
As a surprise to me, the young Wallace Kaufman majored in English, as opposed to studying in one of Duke’s hard science programs. He interjected, relaying another turning point in his life — reading Will Durant’s 1927 book, “Transition: A Mental Biography.”
“I was so impressed how he (Durant) transitioned into the world of philosophy.” This is a fictionalized autobiography of Durant’s life up to his 30s. The “transition” Kaufman resonates with is Durant’s — from a Catholic faith in God to a faith in humanity. Then his transition to love of a wife and of learning.
This disavowing of conservative Christian dogma and a closed mindset is sort of universal as Durant’s philosophy reflects a post-World-War-I-era set of beliefs many in his generation were beginning to embrace.
Durant ended up in seminary but opted to teach at a “free school” where students learned at their own pace in a non-coercive way. In a sense, most people at the free school were anarchists, transferring that non-hierarchal way of schooling into concepts on how government should be run.
At Duke, the New York kid cycled into the class of “a great southern professor, Bill Blackburn, who taught some well-known writers like William Styron and Anne Tyler” to name a few. Kaufman graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English lit.
Then, he landed a Marshall Scholarship and a free ride to Oxford University. He returned to Sea Cliff with a master’s degree. He taught in the old high school — biology, general science — and he coached soccer. He was writing poetry and fiction. “I guess I was the hippie black sheep.”
There’s a great fictional book Kaufman and David Deamer co-wrote, “The Hunt for Fox P5,” about an evil scientist from the University of Oregon trying to steal the genome of an adopted daughter of a good professor. “Through characters in American universities and Kazakhstani science and politics, the authors explore the ethical complexity of editing human genes,” states Deamer, developer of innovative and new nanopore sequencing tools. He was Kaufman’s roommate at Duke.
Pathways to the Mayans, to Kazakhstan
Concision is not Kaufman’s or my better suits when it comes to writing and living. His life is a panorama of experimentation and a lust for life. He ended up in Europe, Central Asia and Siberia. After graduating from Oxford, he taught at several universities, including the University of North Carolina.
He remodeled two homes in rural North Carolina, and then started Saralyn, a community of 35 homesteads on 360 acres where 33 of these “back to the land” settlers built their own homes. That’s another iteration of his life — learning the ins and outs of socially responsible investing, sustainable development and land use/permitting. He counts more than 2,000 acres in North Carolina where he helped overlay covenants that protect the natural environment and privacy of the residents.
He did that for 20 years, and in this new book, he discusses how he was “only vaguely aware of tapping a deep vein in American culture until July 4, 2016, when I read an essay written for the Independence Day 1936 issue of the ever-popular Saturday Evening Post.”
It was by Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books.
Lane: “This is an important fact: Americans were the only settlers who built their houses far apart, each on his own land. America is the only country I have seen where farmers do not live today in close, safe village-groups. It is the only country I know where each person does not feel an essential, permanent solidarity with a certain class, and with a certain group within that class. The first Americans came from such groups in Europe, but they came because they were individuals rebelling against groups. Each in his own way built his own house at a distance from others in the American wilderness. This is individualism.”
Parlaying his self-taught zoning and planning concepts into something entirely different, Kaufman ended up serving in Kazakhstan as resident adviser on housing and land reform.
He did end up on trips to Guatemala — Jacaltenango. His first one was with his then 10-year-old daughter. Those adventures are compelling, reverberating with my own travels in Guatemala and Central America. What he did spin from that trip was a relationship with Victor Dionicio Montejo, then an urban teacher and now an author and expert in Mayan culture. The book “El Kanil – Man of Lightning” was Montejo’s first publication: “the story most central to his people, some 30,000 remaining Jacaltecans,” Kaufman writes in the book he helped bring to life as a Spanish-English-Popbál Ti ́(Jakaltek Maya) story in 1982.
I finished the interview with a holistic question about his overall life philosophy.
Kaufman was succinct: “Anyone can gather evidence to ‘prove’ something right, but being confident of your ‘truth’ before trying earnestly to prove it wrong is the arrogance of a timid mind.”
Paul K. Haeder: You were a teacher for a while. What are the challenges you saw then and see now in higher education?
Wallace Kaufman: “I’ve always felt that a person’s intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic.” — Abigail Adams. Instead of developing that ability, schools and colleges have turned increasingly to teaching one point of view.
Haeder: Do you have a role model or two? Please list/name them, identify them and tell why you consider each one respectively as role models.
Kaufman: Honesty in thinking and scholarship: I met Oscar Muscarella, former senior curator of the Ancient Near East at the Metropolitan, museum, when I was a 16-year-old digger excavating the Mandan village at Swan Creek, S.D., and he was a Ph.D. student. He built his career not only on personal genius and discovery but on exposing frauds and crimes in the antiquity’s world, from rich donors taking unwarranted tax deductions to scholars writing history based on forgeries.
My business model: Mark Thompson, a grizzled old N.Y. city waiter who opened a little bookstore and served people 3-5, 7-9 all week. Any kid too poor to buy a book, got the book free. He hired me when I was 12 to hold boards and tools as he built the shop and later taught me the used and rare book business. He had been on the skids in many towns before defeating alcoholism. His reputation as a straight shooter got him invitations to price books in rich estates and at AAUW book fairs because he guaranteed to buy anything unsold for half his price. His constant advice was the heart of ethical capitalism: “Buster, let everyone make a buck.”
Haeder:You are living a writer’s life but with a few other interests and financial supports. What recommendation would you give to aspiring journalists and writers?
Anything you might learn in J-school or an MFA program you can learn on the job, from books, from self-directed study. What you can’t learn, except through experience, is the pain, joy, suffering and confusion that gives life to good writing. Go somewhere challenging. Put your skin in the game, your life on the line, your money where your mouth is.
Haeder: If you weren’t living here, on the Oregon Coast, where would you be living, and why?
Kaufman: Ideally, I’d live by a hot spring on Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. Since that’s not possible, I would choose a forested hot spring in the PNW, for the contrasts, the comforts, an easy way to grow old.
Haeder: We called your place your own Walden Pond. Can you elaborate on what that means, since Thoreau covers many aspects of humanity, nature, spirituality and life and ecological forces in the book “Walden”?
Kaufman: Thoreau said he went to Walden Pond to shed the diversions and distractions and surpluses of community life and think more deeply about life and to find “higher laws” — the goal of the English Romantics before him and of his friends in the Transcendental movement. He never found the higher laws, but he was sure he saw them expressed in the world of the pond. Same here for Poole Slough and its forests and marshes. My variant may be that I spend more time looking at this world through the lens of science rather than through personal revelation, which I distrust.