Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Heeding Everett Ruess


Nearly 75 years after he vanished in 1934, the remains of Everett Ruess were found last year in the wild, beautiful desert country of southern Utah. Apparently, this extraordinary young man was murdered. Ruess, who was only 20 when he died, captured the imagination of subsequent generations of seekers, adventurers and lovers of nature, solitude, poetic verse and art. Termed "a vagabond for beauty" Ruess left a significant body of work in the form of letters, journals, poetry, essays and art. His life and work informs, inspires and intrigues those drawn to the spare rigors of wilderness and away from the messy complexities of civilization, whether for a day, a week, a year or a lifetime.

Ruess was mature, self-assured, cultured and uninhibited beyond his years, qualities that were both cause and effect of spending years of a 20-year-life wandering alone—sometimes in the company of one or two mules—in the Sierra Nevada and the deserts of the Southwest. His solo travels and what he sought and gained from them had the full trust, support, love and interest of his family, also both cause and effect of a life well-lived, however short. Author John Nichols said of Ruess, "Life on this earth is very precious and very beautiful. We must learn to heed the pure and delicate voices of those who cherish it."

Finding his remains and learning that he was murdered (probably by three thieves) solves the mystery of his disappearance, and it serves as a reminder that those who cherish life as solitary seekers of something other than material well-being or status are mirrors into which we would all do well to look.

One of Ruess' poems reads:

A life

Is a mirror

Reflecting the road over which it passes.


When it rains

The mirror itself is reflected in the road.

Ruess' road included blocks of time living a bohemian existence among the young (and old) artists, writers, photographers and seekers of San Francisco. He was intelligent, culturally curious and had a wide circle of friends and mentors, some of them older and famous, including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Maynard Dixon and Edward Weston. It is a testament to his character and promise that such established artists befriended this unknown teenager. He was neither socially inept nor an outcast and was in no way a vagabond of circumstance. He chose his solitary road carefully and consciously. In the last year of his life Ruess wrote, "It is not that I am unable to enjoy companionship or unable to adapt myself to other people. But I dislike to bring into play the aggressiveness of spirit which is necessary with an assertive companion, and I have found it easier and more adventurous to face situations alone ... In solitude I can bare my soul to the mountains unabashed. I can work or think, act or recline at my whim, and nothing stands between me and the Wild."

One of the ironies of his murder is that it took place in the vast, (mostly) uninhabited landscape in which he was happiest. He had written, "Around me stretches the illimitable desert, and far off and near by are the outposts of suffering, struggling, greedy, grumbling humanity ... I'm sorry for it and I help it when I can, but I'll not shoulder its woes. To live is to be happy ... Not to be happy is a living death."

Wallace Stegner compared Ruess to John Muir, who observed that "everything is connected." Even in the happy solitude of the illimitable desert, everyone is connected to the suffering, struggling, greedy, grumbling humanity, and no one, not even the ultimate vagabond for beauty, can escape those connections.

In addition to his skills as a writer and artist and his wild, free spirit, the reasons Everett Ruess fuels our contemplations and attracts the imagination is that he put everything he had into abiding by his own observation "To live is to be happy ... Not to be happy is a living death."

He once advised his brother Waldo, "Don't leave your problems to be solved by Time—the solution might be adverse."

Words to heed.

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