I can’t remember with certainty when I first met Jerry Gatchell, but I remember my first meaningful encounter with him. I stopped on my way home from the Johnny Gunter Cabin, which is about a mile down Upper Smith River Road from the Gatchell place. Jerry was out front grilling sweet peppers on a hibachi. The conversation was a little strained. Jerry was polite, but my sense was that he really didn’t want to talk to me. I was a stranger, a skinny coyote who looked as though he would eat him out of house and home.
Months later we bumped into one another at a Dennis Kucinich rally on the UO campus. As a newborn writer, I was still so wet that I had no idea Jerry and Martha were pillars of the local literary community. I handed him my essay on the Johnny Gunter Potato, a variety that he and Martha had reintroduced into my family. It felt a little like I was trying to endear myself to a half-wild animal.
Over the years, my stops at the Gatchell house became nearly weekly. At some point I realized that it was I who was half-wild. I needed the burrs brushed from my matted fur, needed to be coaxed down from my precarious perches by Jerry's reasonable and redolent bass of a voice. I needed to be taught not to pee on the floor (and I apologize Jerry, but you can’t win them all). I really was a skinny coyote, omnivorous, hungry for many things.
I joined the spotted skunks (some folks call them civet cats) as a well-established and welcome part of the Gatchell community of beings. Along with deer, bear, bobcat, and barred owls, we pressed in from the edges of the forest. Seated at the evening fire out front, the skunks would sometimes sneak under our legs and snitch cat kibbles. One night, a civet made a discreet foray into the house, and was surprised by the cat coming around the corner. Let’s just say that all smell broke loose. When I arrived the following evening, the musky stench still hung heavy around the place. Jerry looked at me, cocked his head adorned with a green wool beret to one side, and pronounced “The boundary between inside and outside is getting a little fuzzy around here.”
That was Jerry, right there. That hysterical deadpan delivery was a one-line manifesto for life. He loved the Lakota precept “all my relations,” or “we are all related. This was when I realized I still had it wrong. Jerry wasn’t trying to tame me. He wanted all of us to rediscover that undomesticated quantum universe of our ancestors, open our doors to the boisterous half-wild world, the place where all boundaries are fuzzy and everything is messy, the place where, in the rambunctious mess of it all, a little cat food could disappear and the house end up smelly.
When a small group of impolite and uncivilized cells moved into Jerry’s brain, he had to move to town, where the boundaries between things became too rigid. Patiently, and with civility, he took his leave. In this wild quantum mess that Jerry embraced, the place where he and the rest of us still exist, Jerry asks of us one thing: that we live and die with civility and our arms wide open. Oh my goodness. This world could use some civility. I’m going to try, my friend. Shall we all try?