Twenty-five years have passed since the winter we hosted Reed College's poet in residence. We were living then on Southeast Schiller, in a tiny two-story house set back from the street behind three towering European birches. Dan had just graduated from Reed, and I was a sophomore studying American lit. Our friends lived in Reed houses with names like Bedshop or Toad Hall, or out at Mist Mountain Farm: Paul in the shake-roofed geodesic called "The Beehive," Richard and Vicki in the sod house they called "The Hole," and Steffi and Meg in what had been the goat shed. Our friend Aron built himself a wooden yurt in the Reed canyon and moved in.
Lew Welch '50 was chosen as the poet in residence that January, I later learned, because Gary Snyder '51 had been invited but couldn't come and he suggested his friend Phil Whalen '51, and Phil Whalen couldn't come and he suggested his friend Lew Welch '50. Lew didn't know this at the time, of course, which was just as well.
We'd been fans of Lew's poetry for years. While still in high school, I'd made a pilgrimage to the basement of City Lights Bookstore, where I listened raptly as Dan read aloud "The Song of the Turkey Buzzard" from Lew's longer poem, "The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings." I'd noticed turkey buzzards on a hike that same afternoon. Scrawny red-necked creatures gorging on road kill. But Lew described the vulture as a "bird of re-birth," one who could "keep the highways clean, and bother no Being." Through Lew's perspective, I changed my opinion of those elegant, lazy soarers, those ultimate recyclers.
When we heard that Lew had been chosen to be poet in residence, we asked the Paideia committee if we might invite him over for dinner some night. Hell yes. In fact, we could have him for the whole week! We would even be provided with a stipend for his food. Euphoric with our good fortune and sobered by this great honor and responsibility, we busily stocked our refrigerator with wholesome foods: seasonal vegetables and ripe fruit from Corno's Groceries, whole milk with real cream from People's Food Store, sausages from Otto's, Italian cheeses from Pieri's. We mopped the floor of our little house and transformed the downstairs couch into a guest bed. We baked Tibetan barley bread and a blackberry pie.