Recognizing Ed Chambers
by Dick Harmon
In the Pacific Northwest, where my family has lived for over twenty years now, there is, strange as it may sound to many of us , a daily action in our forests which may be useful to us as we recognize Ed and what he gave us.
It’s called nurse-log. It’s as old as the forests, and takes place by different names among all living species—even us mighty humans.
When a tree in the forest begins to decline, from age or disease, even while it leans it continues its purpose and life-work, of seeding the soil with its leaves and letting just the right amount of sunlight through the canopy to help its smaller neighbors flourish.
As it becomes weaker, it leans more, it loses branches, and finally snaps and falls to the soil of the forest floor. Here, resting on the ground, dead and useless to some human eyes, it merely continues its work of sharing with and protecting its neighbors, intentionally if you will, nursing new life. When the tree lies down on the job, it continues its life-work in another form.
For around the fallen tree gathers all manner of organisms, from creepers and crawlers, to birds and small animals, mosses and grass, pollinating and catalyzing leaf litter, bringing into being new soil, new seeds, new plants—including new trees, the literal children of the nursing log, growing right up out of its fallen trunk.
This is the tree’s life’s work, through the transition from its standing to its lying down. In what humans may call its death, it literally nurtures new life into flourishing. The tree participates in a process of mutual feeding, of sacrifice, of life, death and rebirth.
Consider Ed Chambers, his life’s work, and now the new life gathered, in dozens of communities and in hundreds of leaders around this country and overseas. Consider the nurse log.
I met Ed in the spring of ’61, but he and I worked closely together during two intense periods. First in ’64-’65, when he came in from OSC to replace Nick, he brought organization and order to T.W.O., then left when Saul asked him to get FIGHT started in Rochester. Barry Menuez did fine work as an organizer then moved on to an IAF linked career with the national Episcopal Church.
And second, from late ’68 to mid-’76: we both returned to Chicago— Ed from Rochester, me from Buffalo, to establish the Institute and to create what has become national training. These institute years were times of great intensity, passion and creativity for both of us. We were an interesting pair, (and then an interesting trio when Peter Martinez joined us), fiercely determined to develop enough organizers and leaders to build a significant national network. Barry Menuez did fine work as an organizer then moved on to an IAF linked career with the national Episcopal Church.
We had to learn, from our own organizing experience and our own imaginations, how to teach this stuff, in both workshops and new organizing efforts. Looking back, it was easy, because we were working with a lot of fine people, who were hungry to learn, hungry to experience, hungry to build organizations capable of re-balancing our careening polis. Through that early process emerged key organizers for the follow-on generation of teachers and organizers—Ernie Cortes, Arnie Graf, Mike Gecan, Christine Stephens, Larry Gordon, Frank Pierson, Mary Beth Larkin, Greg Pierce—and a lot more, many of whom are present today.
But the intensity of those years and that work also revealed that both Ed and I were deeply imperfect people, and our deepest imperfections were amplified by the curse that we shared, in alcohol.
In retrospect, I see in this brother a man deeply acquainted with suffering--
like all of us, a bundle of paradoxes, operating in the tension of freedom and control, great generosity and narrow self-interest, work and family, public and private, compassion and cruelty, cooperation and competition, transparency and secrecy. In Ed, all of those paradoxes were enlarged, approaching larger-than-life at times.
Our last face-to-face conversation was, I believe, in 2007— a great, wide-ranging three or four hours in that dog-eared office just off the Loop, the floor strewn with books and files. Two older veterans looking again at the state of the world, the state of organizing, books we liked, and didn’t.
It was familiar, like two old comfortable shoes.
But it was clear that he was in decline, that aging and disease were working in him. I told him I was getting ready to retire, and I suggested he might actually like retirement. His reply: “No, I can’t think of anything else to do.” He then advised me, “death isn’t so bad, Dick, just don’t get old.”
At that point, he asked me about my drinking, and I told him again I’d been lucky, and stayed sober since late ’81. He said he had stopped as well. I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t challenge him.
Then, for the first time in our nearly forty years, on and off, of working together, he asked me about my earliest years. “What you’ve done in organizing, it came out of troubles in your childhood?”
“Yes,” and I gave him a sketch of what happened to both sides of the family in the Great Depression—not too much, to bore him.
I asked, “and you?” He nodded, but gave me silence— no story in return.
I knew about armor and moats, to protect us from our own interior tsunamis, wounds, and scars. So I understood Ed’s silence, and I glimpsed once again the suffering of this vulnerable giant, who was at that moment deeply afraid of no longer being useful.
For his culture had not told him the story of the nurse-log, to help him know that we too, when we lean, fall, lie down, are still useful, in new ways, because we’re returning the gift we’ve been given, we remain part of the mutual feeding process, the life-giving process that carries our cosmos and gives this work of organizing its greatest meaning.
Ed emerged from the suffering people and soil of both Iowa and Ireland. His marked and marking pilgrimage carried the story, life and grief of both places.
I’ll end this recognition of his pilgrimage by re-organizing a few words from Auden’s poem at the death of William Butler Years, another beautiful, imperfect Irish hero:
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of Wall Street,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few of us may think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
Earth, receive your honored guest;
Edward Chambers is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its fearsomed fire.*
May 2, 2015
* Excerpted and edited from In Memory of W.B. Yeats, by W.H. Auden.