This article is featured in the Autumn 2015 issue of The Wayfarer (Vol 4 Issue 2) Visit our bookstore to purchase an e-edition or print edition. Go to the Store»
The Sage of Collinsville
An In-depth Profile by Staff Writer Eric D. Lehman
A writer’s home is a sacred place. Pilgrims travel through New England to worship at Mark Twain’s tower billiards room in Hartford, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s rocking chair parlor in Concord, or Emily Dickinson’s bedroom retreat in Amherst. To readers they are places of magic, consecrated by acts of literary creation. This is where stories come from, after all—the characters and events and ideas that spoke to us, inspired us, and transformed us.
Walking up the Collinsville Green to David Leff’s beautiful 1847 Greek Revival house, I can feel that magic tingle on my scalp. Leff’s book The Last Undiscovered Place is one of my favorites, and he is without question one of the most interesting authors working in New England today, combining history, nature, and culture in a way few can. Behind the house at the base of a hill is his garden, which he enjoys pottering around every summer. Inside, the rooms are small but serviceable, filled with the sound of his daughter’s twittering birds and the receding light of the 19th century.
The small drawing room to the right of the front door has been transformed into Leff’s office, with views of the Green, the sugar maple in the yard, and the white alp of the Collinsville Congregational Church. Centered by a three-board pine table, the room is wrapped in books, many annotated and underlined by Leff himself. On the shelves I spot William James, Herodotus, Gibbon, and several different editions of Thoreau’s complete works. I leaf through Kerouac’s letters, Robert Frost’s notebooks, and John Keats’ poems. Complementing these are artifacts: a snake skin, a hornet’s nest, a turtle shell, a caribou antler from Labrador. A hand axe, a machete, a birch bark trash can. On the wall by the front window is his wife Mary Fletcher’s beautiful self-portrait.
In flannel shirt and jeans, glasses squared on his nose, hair and beard shot through with silver, Leff sits with a hot mug of coffee steaming by his hand, writing longhand. In the corner an old Victor Talking Machine record player waits for his collection of old 78s: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman. But the machine stays mute when he writes. In that silence you can almost hear the creaking memories of the old house, or perhaps it’s only the hum of the large-screen computer in the corner.
He works best with this luminous space around him, surrounded by his references and inspirations. He can edit manuscripts or perform ancillary work at a library or coffee shop, but the “bloodletting” of the first draft, as he describes it, takes place here on this pleasantly worn table. That is followed by eight or nine drafts, reading the manuscript out loud to catch repetitive words and awkward syntax, the “things you don’t catch with your eyes.” His process is regimented, precise, with time parceled out into the days and weeks. When Mary leaves the house for her job at the Avon Library, he writes, with his best work in the morning. Sometimes he spreads a dozen open books on the desk and synthesizes their contents. He uses note cards to plan and the computer to revise. He works until the chronic pain from his degenerative cervical disc disease becomes too much.
There is magic happening here, but despite the shamanic artifacts and venerable tomes full of knowledge and craft, the room itself is not producing it. The magic comes from the modest, energetic man that inhabits it. The question becomes, then, where does such a man come from? What makes a writer?
Leff began life in Albany, New York, but by second grade his parents had moved to the Madison Avenue neighborhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut, next to a grazing field of horses at Dewhurst Dairy. During these years his mother finished her degree and his father worked in retail, and they eventually moved across the town line in the Brooklawn section of Fairfield. As a child he was picked on by larger children, and his “mercurial” father left the family when David was fourteen. He remained a “mediocre” student until his junior year of high school, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” “Nature,” and the “Divinity School Address.” Emerson hit him “in a powerful, deep way.” From that moment he can date his interest in nature, writing, and “the life of the mind.”
He turned his studies around and at age sixteen took a few college courses at the University of Bridgeport, where his mother now worked in the English Department. He then convinced the school to take him full time before he even earned his high school diploma. He matriculated as a Biology major, but after memorizing the parts of a frog he became disillusioned with this study and switched to English Literature with a near double in History. After all, he says, the great science writers like Darwin and Heisenberg were being read by English majors, not science majors. Then, with only three semesters of work left, he decided that he wanted more independence and transferred to the University of Massachusetts, the cheapest school he could find at the time. He needed residency so he lived with his friend in Boston for a while and continued his work in English literature, “to be able to look through the eyes of geniuses.” But he remained “omnivorous” in his reading for the rest of his life.
During these years he hitchhiked everywhere—to school, to Montreal, to Baltimore to visit a girlfriend, and across the entire country. In his small kitchen of the apartment he ate seasonal fresh vegetables, pasta, and crackers with peanut butter. He used food stamps and requisitioned food from government surplus packages. His English professor at the University of Bridgeport, Victor Swain, loaned him $3000 for school at UMass, which was a huge sum at that time. Swain only wanted to be repaid if he fell on hard times. Years later Leff did reimburse him, but could “never repay what he did for my life.”
He always worked hard to pay for his school and living expenses. He labored as an assistant to a handyman in Bridgeport, as clean-up crew at a tool and die factory, and as pot washer and onion chopper at the UMASS commissary. His hands were alternatively black with grease and rubbed raw and red. Perhaps it was this toil that led him to make a practical choice in graduate school. He wanted to get a PhD in history, but at that time doctorates in history were driving taxi cabs, so he went to law school and passed the bar exam. But he didn’t enjoy it, and never forgot his interest in writing. In fact, he started keeping a journal on May 29, 1978, recording observations, metaphysics, and interesting dialogue. Since that day he has steadily kept a long series of journals, and they crowd two of the shelves in the magic office.
During those years he also “found manhood in the outdoors.” Physically bullied throughout his childhood, he remained small and uncoordinated, always the last one to be picked for a team. But after an Appalachian Trail “Outward Bound” expedition at age sixteen, he realized that he could thrive there, and developed physical competency as an outdoorsman. Over the years he canoed Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway. He hunted, fly-fished, and climbed all sixty 4000-foot peaks in New England. On one adventure he took a smoky, buggy train from the north shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway to an old mining town, hired someone to take him to the embarkation point, and canoed down the George River toward Ungava Bay.
His degree in law, interest in the outdoors, and ability to write landed him a job with Connecticut’s General Assembly, where he was correctly assigned to the Environment Committee. He worked there for sixteen years before becoming the Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, a job he served at for eleven years. Previously he was a terrible public speaker—and subsequently he could do live impressions of Walt Whitman in front of large crowds. His responsibility over hundreds of workers and huge projects taught him a multitude of skills, and brought him into contact with thousands of people across the state. When we go out to dinner we always encounter a former colleague or friend. His wife concurs: “He knows everyone.”
As Deputy Commissioner he focused on open space acquisition, protection of rare habitats and species, and was the primary writer of the state’s first green plan. His greatest accomplishment in that job was negotiating and facilitating the largest land conservation deal in the history of Connecticut. Due to these environmental efforts, the walls of his office are covered with awards from institutions as varied as United Bowhunters and the American Society of Landscape Architects. There are other honors, too, not on the walls, but perhaps more exciting. If you’ve seen the statue of the cannoneers at New London’s Fort Trumbull, you have seen Leff, since the bearded soldier was cast from his Vaseline-covered body. And recently Millwright’s 1680 Tavern in Simsbury has named two drinks for him, the Leff Maple Sour and the Leff Maple Old-Fashioned, honoring his work championing maple syrup culture, a pursuit he has synthesized in his book Maple Sugaring: Keeping it Real in New England.
He was forced to retire after his degenerative cervical disc disease became too painful. But he found new ways to volunteer: serving as the historian for the town of Canton, acting as moderator for town meetings, and continuing to serve in an administrative capacity for his local fire department. “I think volunteerism is at the very axis of what it is to be an American from the Minutemen at Concord and Lexington to the guy who coaches Little League.” Writing, too, is a service, adding ideas and values to the culture, even though some might not see it that way. “You have to write for the love of it,” he says, because it is certainly not for the money.
His projects saving open space were multi-factorial jobs involving dozens of pieces moving all at once, lining everything up in a four-dimensional puzzle. That was good preparation for writing, especially books full of complex structures and ideas, like his novel in verse Finding the Last Hungry Heart. His greatest challenge, he says, was the hard slog to bring to fruition his adolescent desire to be a writer, that gradual lifetime process to become focused and well-organized. He claims that he became a “synthesizer” rather than an “original” writer, though I would contend that effective synthesis is the very thing that creates originality.
In 1984 he had moved to the old mill town of Collinsville at the bend of the Farmington River, and immediately knew he was home. Here he brought up his two children, Josh and Tiki, where they could play wiffle ball with the neighborhood kids. While he grappled with a difficult marriage he began his first book, and as a single father struggling after a divorce, worked on it at night, waking up at 2:30 a.m. to write the story of the town. Tiki remembers one scary incident when he lost the digital copy, and they had to buy a scanner and scan the entire three hundred pages back into the computer. But he persisted for six long years, trying to create something like Walden, “but inside out,” reflecting his passionate participation in community. Rather than move away from people to find the heart of being as Thoreau did, he found identity in the convergence of public life, nature, built environment, and more. The resulting book, The Last Undiscovered Place, is a multi-lensed panopticon, looking at Collinsville from every angle. It is an impossible book to classify, mixing reportage, memoir, history, and a dozen disciplines of writing and approach. It is also an instructional manual on how to live.
He had never written a book and had no commitment from publishers—it was merely a labor of love. But after sending it out and weathering the usual rejections, it was finally picked up by the University of Virginia Press in 2004. Heartened by this small success, he began to process a life full of stories, scouring the voluminous journals for material. However, just as often the composition comes from daily experience or imagination. It almost always focuses on how people experience the past in the here and now, to “erase the barriers” of time. “My life’s work,” he says, “is to help people see in four dimensions.” But he doesn’t see his writing as “didactic or formal,” rather he wants to “stimulate a spirit of inquiry” as Emerson did for him.
Along the way he has coined the term “deep travel,” the title of his book about canoeing the Concord and Merrimack rivers in Thoreau’s wake. It means cultivating what he calls “the willingness to wonder,” not just in some foreign country, but in the woodlot down the street. It is contemplative and spiritual, but is also anchored in the real, small details of everyday objects and places. “The more we know about where we live, the more interesting it becomes to us, and the more interesting it becomes, the more we want to know.” This investigation will eventually lead us to love these places, to care for them. “Make the most of where you are most of the time,” he says. “There’s so much joy in life.” When you meet Leff it is obvious he lives that maxim fully. Of course, writing books brings joy in the way that paddling long distances in a canoe or climbing mountains one after another brings joy. It’s exhausting and takes all your attention and most of the enjoyment comes at the end.
You can’t read his books without thinking they are animated by some sort of spirit, perhaps the Earth Mother or the hooded figure of Father Time. He says that he is “highly spiritual” but also a skeptic. In fact, this skepticism has led him to be more open to possibility. “If we always look for rational explanations we limit ourselves,” he says. “I’m open to forms of spirituality that I myself cannot perceive.” He often walks with the pastor of the Collinsville Congregational Church, Jim Wheeler, and it is hard not to see in their friendship the echo of Hartford’s Mark Twain and Joseph Twichell, the agnostic and the believer, exchanging ideas on a walk under the elms.
Brought up in a conservative Jewish family, at one time he could speak Hebrew and was bar mitzvahed. At one of his early jobs a coworker told him that he was being paid extra to watch him, because the owner thought that “Jews steal.” Drawing a distinction between religion and culture, he continues to celebrate the holidays, thinks they speak to the relationships to other people, to spiritual life, to the world. Although a holiday like Yom Kippur is bound up with specific religious rhetoric, it leads him to family, history, connections to the universe. He celebrates them in a way that’s meaningful to him and his son and daughter, and also celebrates Christmas with his wife Mary and her daughter.
There are few who have had perfect family lives, and the next generation often suffers the failures of the first. His own father was certainly not the best role model. Leff writes in the poem “Night Walk,” “I’m forever cowering beneath blankets during Dad’s drunken rants, dropping a ball to schoolyard taunts, cutting my son’s umbilical, squeezed by the desperate gravity of divorce.” But now, after decades of poor romantic choices and strained relationships he finally seems to have found balance with this melded family, as he says, “in the nick of time.” According to his daughter Tiki they all share, “bad jokes, laughter, and genuine love,” along with passion for the creative life—Mary’s daughter Ariel and David’s son Josh are both artists, and Tiki is a photographer and designer. “We’re not only a family of artists,” she says. “But a family of cheerleaders who are always rooting for one another.”
Tiki always loved the “smell of a darkroom” rather than a used book store, and has become an accomplished photographer. She has a master’s degree in Digital Media Management and her own clothing line, Anamorphic Apparel, crediting her father for much of her success. “I honestly don’t think I would have gotten to where I am if it weren’t for my dad,” she says. One of her passions is body art, and among her numerous tattoos are ones dedicated to the important people and events in her life. Her left wrist sports “I love you” in her father’s handwriting, which is “very specific” due to his nerve damage. “I’m one of the only people on earth who can decipher it,” she says proudly. “He’ll never admit it, but he likes it.”
Meanwhile, as Leff gets older his cervical spine continues to degrade. While we talk he winces in agony, an aftereffect from the operation that was necessary to prevent paralysis, caused by the bone rubbing on the spinal cord. This operation, his third, was a success, but the chronic pain of the pinch will remain with him until he dies. He can’t chop wood or handle a forty-hour work week, and writing itself is often painful. Even physically simple duties for the local volunteer fire department became too much because of the late night calls. When I ask him to join me fly-fishing the Farmington River, he declines sadly, saying that the back-and-forth motion of flicking the line is impossible.
Most people who meet Leff never even know he has a disability, since the condition is mostly invisible, and his active mind and good cheer are infectious. However, his right hand has slowly withered, increasing his writing challenges. “It would be easy to pop some narcotics and sit in front the TV,” he says, “but that’s not how I want to live.” Speaking lovingly about his wife’s struggles, he says that character is about triumphing over, despite, and because of your debilities. His own condition has taught him “empathy” and in his poetry collection Depth of Field he writes, “Who would I be without my hurt? It’s mine. Only mine.”
Due to Leff’s spinal problems, his days of canoeing the Allagash and hiking the mountains of New Hampshire are over. But as his wife Mary says, “Life with David is an adventure.” When they met online, like so many these days, they hesitated, but after meeting in person experienced an immediate connection. After Leff’s previous romantic misadventures, it was a welcome relief to experience this so late in life. When Mary moved into his Collinsville home, he built her an art studio on the second floor to complement his office on the first. Together they explore the places “off the beaten path,” searching for the connections between art, history, and nature. On a recent trip they visited Trinity College to see one of the original folios of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The Watkinson Library opened the case for them so Leff could photograph the pages. They share an intellectual curiosity and an appreciation of exquisite details.
As with any voracious reader, Leff’s creative influences span the world, but a few stand out—fellow seekers Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. He enjoys modern writers like Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Tony Hoagland, Robert Pinsky, John McPhee, and resident of nearby Cornwall Philip Roth. He also finds inspiration in the work of painters—American Impressionists like J. Alden Weir and Hudson River School painters like Frederick Church—artists who look for the authenticity of place. And he finds something else in the work of Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt, Georgia O’Keefe, and of course his wife Mary Fletcher. Life is too various and astonishing, we agree, not to search widely for ideas and happiness.
Though these days he has his own family of artists to give him help and inspiration, until recently the authors of the past were Leff’s only writing mentors. “I’ve always worked in isolation,” he says. He never took a creative writing course and only attended a handful of conferences. “I couldn’t tell you what a participle is,” he tells me. “Things just sound right.” That is something I recognize immediately—the song of a voracious reader who has absorbed language through thousands of books rather than a grammar class.
That changed when his work began to be noticed and praised by other authors, like Harvard’s expert on landscape and the environment John Stilgoe, Connecticut state historian Walt Woodward, and former state poet laureate Dick Allen. Allen welcomed Leff’s forays into verse, talking of his commitment to the environment and calling his collection Tinker’s Damn “a series of revealing river bends.” Current Connecticut Poet Laureate and Antrim House publisher Rennie McQuilkin wrote that “Leff loves the hunks and colors of this world as few of us are able to, and he describes them—both the natural and the human—in such graphic detail that they leap to life on his pages.” McQuilkin encouraged Leff to work more seriously on his poetry, which he had only dabbled in previously, and published his first two collections.
With the addition of a few friends, he has opened up his exchange of “intellectual capital” even further. Around a roaring fire, Mary, David, and my wife and I joke about a name for our literary group, maybe “The Deep Localists,” “The Rhizome Initiative,” or just “Deep Travelers.” We discuss the need for cooperation amongst artists and writers, and how difficult that is in Connecticut. “It is so important to encourage and help emerging writers with their work,” Leff says. “It’s rewarding to feel part of a continuum and I’m always surprised at how much I learn.”
These days he is working on a book about his youthful adventure canoeing the Allagash and getting back into his poetry, musing a long poem about “the qualities of light and dark.” He’s also collaborating on another manuscript with former state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni—adding yet another discipline to his box of tools that join a fragmented world together. He wants to keep moving forward, experimenting in method, form, and subject. After he finishes a project, “I want a new challenge,” he says.
There must be hundreds of men and women like David Leff scattered around this country. Or perhaps I just want there to be. Our society has very little respect for masters of a craft; we always look to tear them down, to make fun of their accomplishment, to denigrate lived experience. And when that craft is literature, the problem is intensified, because there is a perception that writing is not actual work. How can what Leff does be difficult, as he sits in a rocking chair like Emerson himself, processing knowledge into words, reading a manuscript out loud to hear the rhythms? Even for those of us who love to read, writing often seems like magic, not work.
But of course it is. Hard work. Even after you fight to master the art, you continue to fight, for every single page, every single reader. Nothing is given, everything is earned. Leff has learned that work over many years, learned how to take a life of struggle and joy, delve into its marrow, and crystallize it in words. “I’m a seeker,” he says. “I’m an explorer.” But deep travel is only the beginning. After that comes the act of creation, finding the words to express the inexpressible, to tell the stories that will change one human world.
Eric D. Lehman is a travel and history writer, with reviews, essays, and stories in dozens of magazines and journals. He is also an award-winning author of many books, including Afoot in Connecticut, The Foundation of Summer, A History of Connecticut Wine, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Food, Becoming Tom Thumb, andHomegrown Terror. In his spare time, he pursues Henry Miller scholarship and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, where he directs the school literary magazine, Groundswell, and the faculty essay series, The Commons. He lives in Hamden with his wife, poet Amy Nawrocki, and his two cats.
A Wayfarer: By our definition, a wayfarer is a wanderer whose ability to re-imagine the possible provides the compass bearings for those on their way. A wayfarer can be a writer, artist, musician, activist, volunteer—anyone who is charting the way for change. Each issue we feature a profile of a wayfarer and highlight what they are doing to be an agent of change in the world! | Do You Know a Wayfarer? Tell us about them.