Everything you need to know about Barbara Kimball can be summed up in the story of her 87th birthday celebration last fall. As she does every year since her husband Everett died in 2005, Barbara went up to Baxter State Park with her middle son Cliffy to camp out in the open air. On this occasion, however, perhaps because of the unusually colorful foliage that September, all the lean-tos in the park had been taken up by other visitors, so Barbara and Cliff were forced to sleep in a tent.
Of course, she had an old tent in her basement that she could dust off for just such an occasion. Using it was a compromise, though, because when Barbara goes camping she “always wants to sleep in the open, under the stars.” And on this particular weekend, especially that first night, the sky was clear and brilliant, the stars on full display. “Billions of them!” she told me. When she and Cliff walked down to the beach, they were treated to “the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the next,” in a stunning stream of light that made this birthday the most memorable she has had in years.
“Eighty-seven years old and sleeping under the stars!” I thought to myself, as Barbara sat down with me to talk. “This truly is a remarkable woman.” I’ve been fortunate to meet many wonderful people in my brief tenure at Stony Brook these past eight or nine years, but Barbara is unique. Her husband, whom she thinks about every day and whom she misses terribly, has died. She has lost two sisters to heart attacks, has had breast cancer and recovered from it, now has bone cancer and is being treated with powerful pain-killing drugs. But still she is able to say, “I’ve had one hell of a life!”
“I do what I can do with what I have,” she told me quite matter-of-factly. “What will be will be. I can’t worry about death. Whenever it comes it comes… Why dwell on it. If I get to the point where I can’t do something, then I’ll stop.” But stop she never does. This woman is fearless. Two years ago, for example, she went on a week-long MA Audubon birding tour of Big Bend National Park in 115 degree heat! After the recent blizzard, she was one of the first to join our Spontaneous Snowshoe tour of Stony Brook’s grounds. In a few weeks she will hike some of the trails around the Quabbin Reservoir with Doug Williams, Stony Brook’s Director. She’s thrilled to get back there, even though she knows there will be times when everyone will have to wait for her and there will be places where she’ll have to go the long way around so that she won’t slip or fall.
I asked her whether she had ever climbed Mt. Katahdin on one of her trips to Baxter State Park, and she recalled doing so several times with her husband when she was younger. She and Everett generally took the Hunt trail up the mountain (same as Thoreau in 1846) with its spectacular views of forests, waterfalls, rock staircases and boulder scrambles. “I love the elements,” she said smiling, “always have.”
Then she recounted to me how as a child she had to go outside in the middle of the hurricane of ’38. “The wind was howling,” she told me, but “I felt perfectly comfortable, even though we could have been blown over backwards at any moment.” She paused, and then added, “That was the first time I ever saw a man cry. The roof blew off his whole chicken coop, destroyed it, and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. And there was nothing I could do to help.”
I asked her why she does these hikes, what it is about birding and being outside that draws her. “You just don’t realize that people in their ‘80s are still very much alive,” she chided me. “Birding, these trips, they bring you out into the woods… I feel at home out there.” I love the colors of the birds and the fact that you can draw them out from hiding if you’re patient or feed them, she told me. “But I’d be just as happy if it were deer or coyote or fox or moose that I could see,” she was quick to add. “They all give me a thrill.”
She insisted being outside in Nature is “not a spiritual thing.” It’s more about feeling connected. “Every time I drive into Baxter State Park and I see Traveler Mountain I remember the view from the top with all these little mirrors around it reflecting the light off the lakes, and I feel like I’m where I belong.”
I wondered how she had met her husband, whether he loved to climb birch trees when he was younger, just as she had, whether he, too, tried to “make them sway, get them to bend to the ground.” Her eyes glistened when I asked about him. “He was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she replied almost before I had finished my question. “Just before he died, he called me into the bedroom and said, ‘I can’t stand up.’ Those were the last words he ever spoke to me… I botched up his whole funeral,” she confided. I doubted that she had ever botched up anything in her life. I told her I thought that when he couldn’t stand up, she did for him, and that she continues to stand with him every day.
We talked for two hours, about how much has been lost from the time she grew up, how kids are unable to have conversations any more, how no one walks any place, how everyone is in too much of a hurry, how kids are too protected, not allowed to roam the woods or their back yards waiting to be called in. She told me that she learned to fly a plane when she was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, that she has worked at everything from an assistant treasurer at the local bank to a clerk at the Selectman’s Office, never having applied for a job, always having been asked by someone who knew and trusted her.
I wanted to know when she first started coming to Stony Brook. She thought it was about 20-25 years ago. The Sanctuary was sponsoring a trip to Cape Cod, “Kestrel Weekend,” she remembered, and when we got there “everywhere we went we saw Kestrels in the trees.” A woman named Sarah was the Education Coordinator or the lead naturalist back then, she recalled. “I couldn’t go anywhere without learning something from her,” she told me. She was hooked. Now, whether it’s Jack Lash or Doug Williams or her good friend Mona Tighe, she continues to gravitate to those who are willing to share what they know.
I felt the need to share what I knew as well. I told Barbara that she came to mind when recently I read Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead, which tells the story of the Reverend John Ames who, in his old age, is dying from a heart condition and wants to tell his seven year old son what he will never be able to know about him (or learn from him) before he dies. In effect, I told Barbara, what he tries to convey is the beauty of the world, the grace that allows one to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
It is that same gift, I am convinced, which makes Barbara so special. The feeling of being home that she talks about is the state of grace to which we all aspire. It’s not a religious thing. It’s a feeling of belonging, of being tied to something universal, something that never dies. More plainly, it’s the ability to live in the present moment where time past and time future somehow meet.
Barbara is an inspiration. She’s curious, generous, thoughtful and the first to help. She’s adventurous and child-like, full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever comes her way, able to derive satisfaction and delight from the simplest pleasures. She’s tough as nails, but gracious and unassuming, uncomplaining and apologetic to a fault. In her capacity as a volunteer at Stony Brook, she’s done everything from clean out weeds and spruce up gardens to lead school groups on tours of the wetlands. She’s stuffed envelopes, served as a guide on Big Night, staffed ticket and membership tables at the Fair. Her energy is contagious, her laugh deep and sincere. Her spirit and heart are indomitable, her eyes bright with the recognition that life is a gift for which there is no accounting.
A few relevant lines from Marilynne Robinson’s Gildead:
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.”
“The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.”
“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”