Thursday, December 21, 2017

In memoriam: Jack Collom (1931–2017)

the ogre said to his daughter:
sixteen miles from this place
is a tree
round the tree are tigers
and bears, and scorpions
and snakes
on the top of three
is a very great fat snake
on his head
is a little cage
in the cage is a bird
and my soul is in that bird
——Jack Collom, from Exchanges of Earth and Sky (2006)
Solstice. This taxing, time-dilated Common Era Year 2017 is finally ticking down to its end, and I doubt many of us will be looking back fondly on it.

This year I lost two people who were important to me. The first was Hannah, who I've already talked about. Three months later, she's still completely unaccounted for. I'm not ready to say anything else about her yet.

The second was Jack Collom—teacher, poet, naturalist—who passed on this last July the second. I've mentioned him before. Until this month I had no idea he died. It didn't come as a shock: he was already an old man wearing a nasal cannula and wheeling a tank of oxygen around with him when I met him in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2008. Occasionally while leafing through his work in the years since, I'd think to google him and make sure he was still among the living. This time the answer was finally 'no.'

Looking above now I'm thinking maybe it isn't appropriate to say I lost Jack. It implies we were close, that we we existed in close proximity to each other for longer than a few weeks, that we spoke to each other more than a handful of times. This wasn't the case. I hardly knew him. Better to have said we lost Jack, I and everyone else indebted to him for teaching us.

I read a poem of his a couple days before formally meeting him. I don't remember its title; I never found out which collection of his included it. It was given to me as a xeroxed copy that went missing at some point between 2011 and now. But it stands clear in my memory: a description of the humps and dimples in a creek produced by water flowing over the rocks—a naturalistic evocation of Heraclitus, of forms fixed in and created by flux, by matter moving through space and time. It would still be some time before I connected the name at the top of the artifacted printout to the wry-faced old chap I'd often see around Arapahoe Avenue, and who elicited such admiration from my new acquaintances.

During my time in Boulder I chatted with Jack a bit and eavesdropped on him chatting with other people. I had a fling with a Naropa graduate student named Mouse for whom Jack was something of a mentor, and who related the pith of some long conversations she'd had with him. I listened to a couple of talks he gave—I remember he reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels were relatively fresh in my memory back then—and I took part in the standing ovation that followed his reading of "Passage," his elegy to the extinct Ectopistes migratorius. I bought two of his books—one of them Exchanges of Earth and Sky, an aviary of labile ecopoetry, which he signed for me.

If I said goodbye to him when I left town I don't remember doing it.

Jack's effect on me was gradual. Tidal. He didn't reinvent my world during my brief time in his orbit. All he did was bring about a minor trajectory change. A deviation of two degrees doesn't mean much in the immediate aftermath, but with time the difference can grow wider than the bodies of stars, broader than the distances between planets.

Jack Collom is probably the efficient cause of my acute fascination with birds. While driving back to Jersey from Colorado I stopped to stretch my legs in Kansas and paid close attention to the birds yipping and cheeping in the trees, remembering Jack. I wondered what they were called and, not for the first time, thought it a little shameful that I didn't know. And not for the first time either I considered I ought to learn.

(Incidentally, while traveling through the Great Plains and beyond, I was listening to an audiobook of Moby-Dick. Years later I would learn that Jack called Melville's masterpiece "perhaps the greatest nature book.")

When I returned to the East Coast, I wasn't quite yet taking trips to the woods and other wildish places primarily to follow after feathered things. But I was on my way. It happened by degrees.

Something that might be of interest to someone reading this who remembers my old sprite comic, 8 Easy Bits (anyone?): this strip was written the summer after I met Jack, momentarily breaking the indefinite hiatus I'd declared a few months earlier. The scene at the end is from the woods near my folks' neighborhood in Jersey. (When I went out to take the picture, I didn't recognize the proxy Mana Tree as a tulip poplar.) The next major break in the hiatus began the follow summer with this mini-arc. Clearly I had things on my mind that weren't rattling around in there previously. I can't say Jack's influence was solely responsible—but the demarcation between what I was thinking/writing about prior to and after the Boulder trip is indisputable, and certainly striking.

These trees I see the birds perched in. What are their names? These flowers, what are they called? From these small inquiries and ready answers gradually emerged the real questions: how do these entities fit into the process and the life of this place? What do they sustain and what sustains them? What do they mean? How should I understand them? What is the quotient of man divided by nature, and vice versa?

I have a lot to learn still.

Thank you, Mr. Collom, for the gift of an egg inside my head.

One last thing. Since this is still after all the ill-starred year 2017, and since to love nature and impart this love to others as Jack did can scarcely be done today without sounding a deep note of caution, I think we'd best conclude with a warning from Exchanges of Earth and Sky:


  1. I've never read Mr. Collom's work. I'd never even heard of him before this post. Thanks for sharing, Pat, really lovely words and a good jolt through the black muck that we're currently wading in. There's still good stuff out there.

  2. Hello, a friend in England just sent this to me. I am Jack Collom's widow and I'm grateful for this. Thank you, Jennifer Heath