Editors are the midwives that writers depend upon for guidance, caution, inspiration and occasional whippings – fortunately the latter never physically happened to me. But how lucky I have been to have editors who were as talented as Barbara Dean, former executive editor and co-founder of Island Press in 1984. Now retired, Barbara always thrilled me when I called her at her home on the Pacific shores, where she was interrupted our conservation by whispering, “May I call you back in a few minutes. There is a mountain lion just outside my home office window, looking up at the birds on my feeder, and well, this is far more exciting than any book!”
To my utter surprise, it was Barbara who invited me to write the intro to the first-ever publication of Henry David Thoreau’s lost classic, Faith in the Seed, which the fastidious scholar Brad Dean had pieced together from Thoreau’s hand written drafts that he had scrawled on envelopes of letters written to Thoreau by none other than abolitionist John Brown… They had been scattered between several archives and never before consolidated into a cohesive manuscript until Barbara Dean and Brad Dean (no relation) developed this essay resurrection effort.
I remember being struck speechless to write something to accompany Brad’s own preface, wondering what the heck a seedy guy like me could add. Finally I asked, would it be possible to talk to the author before I began my essay. “You mean Brad, I assume…the editor,” Barbara replied. “Well yes, of course, I’d like to talk to Brad, but could you arrange for me to talk with Henry too?”
Now if Barbara was the only “dream editor” I had a chance to work with, that would be enough for one lifetime, but I also got to work with Brian Doyle, among many others. Brian was the editor of Portland magazine, and under his direction it became “the best spiritual magazine in the country,” as well as my favorite literary magazine in the universe.
I also loved Brian’s crazily-cadenced prose poems and prayers, and the memoirish essays among his thirteen books. When Poet/Songwriter Kim Stafford hosted me at Lewis & Clark College one time, he encouraged me to drive across town and knock on Brian’s door at the University of Portland.
There he was with a quizzical smile on his face, his Irish complexion, jeans and basketball shoes just as I had imagined them to be. After we shot the breeze for a while, Brian somewhat gently commanded, “You need to send me an essay some time for the magazine.” I replied, “I don’t think I got anything spiritual right now. I mostly write about plants.” Well then, work me up a piece about conversing with the spirit of some plant. That’ll do…” (With that, Brian launched my fledgling career as a phytotheologist and contemplative botanist.)
When I learned that Brian prematurely passed from this world in 2017 to prepare for joining Aretha Franklin, Warren Zevon, Billy Joe Shaver and Van Morrison in some multi-ethic Asylum Choir, I began to parse out the remaining books of his that I hadn’t read, one a year, so his voice in my memory wouldn’t die. My favorites are Wet Engine and Chicago…. but all are heavenly in their humor and passion for life.