Many of you may be scratching your heads at the caption, not knowing Rikki Hall or the title of his column which is now also the title of a new collection of his writing and photographs, Six Legs and a Buzz. I didn’t know him, either, though I’ve learned enough now to wish I had. Fortunately, Tellico Books has worked with his father and wife to make sure that some of his finest writing and photographs (he left behind 26,000 on the hard drive of his computer) will be preserved in a beautiful volume.
Rikki wrote at various times for the Maryville Daily Times and Metro Pulse. The writing included in this volume are excerpted from his work for Hellbender Press in which he wrote a column of the same name as the book, as well as doing the huge number of other tasks it took to keep a small publication alive. The column, superficially about bugs – though with great depth on the topic – really mined the terrain of larger issues: environmentalism, existentialism and beauty. Other than noting the beauty he found in the natural world, those topics are rarely mentioned, but ever present.
The genesis of the project occurred two years ago when Rikki was very ill with the brain cancer which would ultimately take his life. Beto Cumming of Tellico Books met with Rikki’s wife, Kim Pilarski-Hall, and his mother, Yolanda Hall, who expressed to him a desire to produce the volume for family members and asked him to design a cover. It’s taken this long to sort through writings and photographs and to bring the project to fruition. Rikki’s father, Richard Hall designed the layout.
A decision was made to publish the book for public release with benefits donated to the Little River Watershed Association, a cause important to Rikki. A concert held in his honor just prior to his death, raised $5,000 for the project. It is hoped the book will not only raise money, but will help ensure his legacy and expose a new audience to his care for and wonder at the natural world.
In the book you’ll find essay titles like “On the Being of Bugs,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Death by Dew Drop,” “Castles Made of Silk,” and many more. Some are straightforward, others are cryptic or clever. The thread that runs through it all is an ability to take topics that to some of us might seem mind-numbingly boring or overwhelmingly complex and make them both understandable and interesting. Sometimes even fascinating. It’s in the writing and it’s in the unexpected, fresh perspective he brought to each topic.
In his article about caddisflies, for example, his lead sentence draws the reader immediately into a world many of us have never considered, seeing the world through the eyes of an insect: “To begin our journey into the insect world, I’d like you to imagine gliding above a small waterfall in a forest, circling over the cool leaves and slowly descending.” Once he has you inside the head of a caddisfly, he doesn’t let you out until you’ve taken the whole journey.
In “Tithe a Little Leaf,” he advocates accepting a portion of your garden will be lost in exchange for avoiding insecticides. He refers to insects as “creatures of God,” and says, “Ants can actually be persuaded to patrol your garden.” Sometimes the content becomes secondary to the beauty of the sentences as in “Everywhere in June,” where speaking of spiders he writes, “Winter beats them back into their tiny forms, egg sacs hung from tree limbs by a thread of silk or clinging to what remains of mother’s web, tiny spiderlings in leaf litter feeding on tiny insects and worms, their world warmed by the heat of decay.” Spiders? Yes. The human condition? Perhaps.
I reached out to several people who did know him well. Jesse Mayshark, Director of Communications for the City of Knoxville, told me, “Rikki made everyone around him more aware of the natural world. Not because he talked about it all the time, although he could — but because his own awareness made you pay attention. On hikes, he would stop at the smallest moss, smiling quizzically, wondering what made it do what it did. He loved a good bonfire. He thought the moths at the lamp outside his front door were fascinating. And he was right, they were. If all of us who miss Rikki still have some echo of that perspective, we carry it from him.”
Tim Lee, stalwart of the local music scene, said, “Rikki was a great guy. He and I first bonded over our appreciation of 1980s indie rock, especially Boston bands such as Big Dipper and Dumptruck. He lived up there for a while, and those were his faves, especially Dumptruck, who were friends of mine. He was a sweet, sweet dude with a deep appreciation for music. He was fearless in his criticism, which I loved, but also quick to admit when he changed his mind. That’s a real person in my estimation. Loved the guy . . . And oh yeah, he had a thing for bugs.”
I also spoke by phone to his long-time friend and editor with Hellbender Press, Thomas Fraser who said, “I learned an incredible amount from the man. He was both a scientist and an artist, a rare combination.” He spoke of Rikki’s ability to distill information to it’s most essential and understandable elements. “He was a great man and a very good friend to me and others. He was very kind and generous, but also a lot of fun to be around.”
“We always turned to him to identify trees, plants and moths.” He also said Rikki brought out the best in him, remembering a camping trip in the Fontana area in which Thomas expressed doubt he could identify even half the trees around him and Rikki coaxed him through naming many to show him he knew more than he realized. He said, “In an understated way he challenged me to be a more logical thinker.” He also says he still thinks about Rikki every day, pointing out they had many fun and happy times, recalling camp fires and renditions of songs like, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” among others.
So, what brings all this up, now? This Saturday from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM, you’ll have a chance to immerse yourself in the writing and art of Rikki Hall at Scruffy City Hall. The event itself is free, but donations and proceeds from the sales of the book will go to the Little River Watershed Association. Family and friends will read excerpts from the book and musicians such as Tim and Susan Lee, Todd Steed, David Phillips and Smiley and the Love Dawg will perform. You’ll also see a slide show of Rikki’s wildlife photos which were included in the book.
Books will be available for purchase at the event. Online you can order a copy from Amazon, though, better, you may purchase a copy at Union Avenue Books. If you’re interested in reading more, you’ll find a poignant remembrance written by Steve Wildsmith, here. Please come out and celebrate the life and work of one of the best among us.