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Russell Kirk, Sage of Piety Hill: Planting Seeds for Generations to Come

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Russell and Annette Kirk with the writer

Driving throughout the snowy panorama of Michigan the day after Christmas in 1973, I used to be considerably apprehensive. I had been invited to participate within the first seminar of the Intercollegiate Research Institute within the ancestral house of Dr. Russell Kirk at Piety Hill. We have been to spend the subsequent 5 days discussing his ebook, The Roots of American Order, which had simply rolled off the presses. I had simply been named the brand new editor of Imprimis at Hillsdale School and had scarcely unpacked earlier than heading up north via the woods to Mecosta, however I had managed to end studying the guide. And what a guide! It provides a panoramic view of the concepts on ordered liberty that emerge from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London to converge in Philadelphia within the founding of the American Republic. The prospect of spending a number of days within the firm of this towering mind whose knowledge encompassed such breadth and depth was intimidating.

I needn’t have fearful. The real heat of Dr. Kirk and his spouse Annette made staying on the Kirk residence at Piety Hill a mesmerizing expertise. It was like stepping again in time no less than a century, perhaps a number of, to discover oneself in a completely Gothic home, steeped in custom, rooted within the historical past of a number of generations, and full of lovely artifacts. It was a spot to talk about huge concepts in small circles, persevering with the dialog all through the day and into the night time, imbibing whereas consuming within the tales Dr. Kirk informed whereas seated subsequent to the fireside. After dinner, friends may play the violin or piano, or recite poetry for our leisure, simply as they did in Jane Austen’s period.

This home was for me a magical place, one way or the other untethered from modernity, overflowing with books and footage and tales of bygone eras. It was a home actually untethered from a tv set, as a result of Dr. Kirk had discovered the one his younger daughters had smuggled into the home towards his orders. He picked up the tv and actually threw it out the window. The twine caught on the best way down the aspect of the home, leaving the tv set dangling there for a number of days, a lot to the amusement of the neighbors (and his daughters).

In preparation for celebrating Dr. Kirk’s centenary, as I’ve thought concerning the man who turned my good friend and mentor through the years, it happens to me that his home was a metaphor for his life. Like his household’s gothic home at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk was decidedly un-modern. His orientation got here from wanting throughout the centuries to cull the knowledge of the ages to share it with different seekers of fact. That is the sense through which he was conservative: He set out to preserve the very best in thought from the Western custom to fill the hungry minds and hearts of the subsequent era to renew the tradition. His home held tangible manifestations of these concepts and it might grow to be a frequent vacation spot for pilgrimages of college students in search of the True, the Good, and the Lovely. It nonetheless attracts them now.

The Kirk home was full of household portraits, handed down via a number of generations, and cherished as a result of of loyalty to custom. The household portrait gallery was full of fascinating and, properly… uncommon individuals, from the grandfather who was a banker to the great-aunt who held séances. Dr. Kirk’s books are full of portraits of the household of nice thinkers who span the ages: Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas Extra, Edmund Burke, and of course Randolph of Roanoke and T.S. Eliot, about whom he wrote illuminating biographies. Dr. Kirk knew Eliot personally as a good friend, and the time they shared offered a wealth of insights that discovered their approach onto the pages of Eliot and His Age. The knowledge of the thinkers he selected to write about formed the mental panorama of the world we inhabit. When Dr. Kirk wrote about them in The Conservative Thoughts, he offered the family tree for America’s conservative mental motion. As their mental heirs, we stand in what Edmund Burke referred to as the everlasting bond of “the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.”  (Since that first seminar, I’m acutely conscious of shifting inexorably nearer to the entrance of that continuum.)

The Kirk home at Piety Hill and Dr. Kirk himself have been each venerable and full of quirky eccentricities. The home had steps rounded through the years by hundreds of footfalls, odd little passageways, and cubby-holes that make it distinctive and charming. It’s the antithesis of the fashionable development that has flattened and streamlined trendy houses, making them bland, beige, cloned rows in subdivisions. Dr. Kirk hated ugly structure and something that diminished individuality. He discovered it repugnant and damaging to the human spirit. In an identical method, Dr. Kirk was by no means bulldozed into turning into a beige bland, trendy man. He fiercely maintained his independence, remaining free to write and say what he thought, with out having to bulldoze his concepts to make them match the blueprint of modernity in what he referred to as “Behemoth University.” Though Dr. Kirk spoke at greater than 300 universities in his lifetime, he spent restricted time in his profession tethered to any single college, besides for visiting appointments. He all the time returned to Piety Hill unaffiliated and unbowed.

The Kirk home was overflowing with books, so many who Dr. Kirk wanted a separate constructing to home his library, the place he would sit up late evenings, typically working via the night time, as he continued the “great conversation” with the best minds of the western custom. He knew all of them within the fellowship of concepts, and the books in his library have been some of his greatest associates. Together with his prodigious, close to photographic reminiscence, and a brilliantly spectacular thoughts, Dr. Kirk carried inside him a library of the canon of the West.

The entrance door to the Kirk home was open to guests from everywhere in the world who needed to study. A gentle stream of college students, professors, and buddies within the realm of concepts flowed into Piety Hill for nourishment of thoughts and spirit. Dr. Kirk not solely acquired a whole lot of individuals in his house, he traveled to converse in lots of of locations all through the nation and overseas yr after yr—at universities and conferences, even on tv. It’s value recalling that Dr. Kirk was a nationwide determine who commanded respect from each the political left and the suitable, one who suggested presidents, and who formed the mental panorama of the nation. Each Time and Newsweek referred to as him one of America’s main thinkers. He would plant the mental seeds for renewing America in not solely the political and financial realms, however within the ethical and religious realms, as a result of he knew they’re all the time interconnected.

The seeds Dr. Kirk plant have been each metaphorical and literal. The world surrounding Mecosta had been aggressively denuded of timber by lumber corporations, so Dr. Kirk made it a private mission to plant timber.  We trudged by way of the snow with him on walks round Mecosta and he fortunately identified timber he had planted himself.  This confirmed us a aspect of Dr. Kirk that, regardless of every thing lamentable in an unraveling world, was inherently optimistic.  Solely a person who cares concerning the future crops timber he won’t sit beneath.  He gave the present of greenness to generations to come as a result of he liked the land and took private duty to depart his nook of the world higher than he discovered it.

 Dr. Kirk additionally left individuals higher than when he discovered them. On my first go to to Piety Hill, I stayed within the room ordinarily occupied by Clinton, whom the Kirk’s  affectionately dubbed their “runaway butler.” He was away on one of his unexplained sojourns, leaving the room free for me. Clinton was a considerably mentally restricted stray the household took in, rescuing him from a life of petty larceny. (His service to the household was a combined blessing, as he uncared for to put out the hearth within the hearth one Ash Wednesday, leading to a fireplace that destroyed a lot of the home. Undeterred, Dr. Kirk and Annette painstakingly rebuilt their beloved home, taking the chance to increase and replace it a bit.) The Kirks took in a gentle procession of unwed moms, political refugees from locations like Vietnam and Ethiopia, and different individuals in numerous sorts of want. This was all finished quietly, with no fanfare. It was Annette who offered the hands-on care, however the coronary heart of her husband beat in tandem with hers within the dedication to assist others by welcoming them into their house.

The willingness to prolong a hand to individuals in want was a pure manifestation of Dr. Kirk’s religion. So have been the gorgeous spiritual artifacts that crammed the home, some from neighboring church buildings torn down to be modernized, whereas others have been bought on travels all through the world. The home at Piety Hill rested on the inspiration of religion in God, and though Russell Kirk by no means wore his faith on his sleeve, it’s clear that his understanding of the world was rooted in reverence for our Creator and the knowledge that we’ll all be judged by Him. He believed that each one issues on this valley of tears shall be perfected in God’s good time, and that any lasting order on this world is anchored within the transcendent fact of the world to come.

Typically the barrier between the seen and invisible realms is skinny. It was very, very skinny on the Kirk home, which was, properly…. haunted. Numerous apparitions frequently manifested themselves, particularly to guests. There was a crying child, a person in a checked coat and lacy cravat, and Dr. Kirk’s grandfather Amos—all of whom appeared to so many individuals staying at Piety Hill through the years, that it’s unimaginable not to consider that they have been indirectly actual. I used to be one of these guests who had an unearthly encounter. So when Russell Kirk wrote ghost tales, it was not all the time pure fiction, strictly talking. Though some individuals chided him for this style of writing, he bought far many extra books of his ghost tales than all his different books collectively. His tales have been revealed subsequent to tales by Stephen King.

Whereas in Scotland, Dr. Kirk encountered ghostly apparitions. It was additionally right here that after his religious awakening from agnosticism, he had an epiphany, through which he was given a transparent religious sense of his mission, which was to write concerning the concepts that might encourage the renewal of Western civilization. That’s precisely what he did.

Within the years since, the life’s work of Russell Kirk has reached individuals throughout he globe, informing their minds, strengthening their spirits, and passing on the hearth of Pentecost. I’m so grateful to be one of these individuals in whom the hearth ignited.  And I’m grateful that earlier than he died, I used to be in a position to thank Dr. Kirk in individual for all that he had taught me and modeled through the years, particularly the seamless integration of what he wrote and the way he lived: knowledge rooted in religion, creativeness, and love. Now 100 years after his start, might Russell Kirk relaxation within the mansions of peace and listen to the phrases, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And should his legacy endure eternally.

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