The course of rivers is often marked by rapids, which reflect excitement, dynamism and raw power. While rapids can be exhilarating, there is also a place for river pools and backwaters, which, unlike swamps, collect and tame the wild currents and then send the waters forward again. We experience both conditions as we navigate the course of our lives.
After spending a busy week in conveniently named Grand Rapids, Michigan, I thought of rivers. The mid-size city put me in a place where I felt the noisy traffic, brutal architecture and constant movement found in most American metropolises. It was like the rapids.
Afterward, I was invited to go to the small village of Mecosta, about an hour north of the city. I spent two days away from everything. It was like a river pool where I could recollect and ponder.
The Importance of Mecosta
For those unfamiliar with Mecosta, it is the hometown of the American conservative writer Russell Kirk (1918—1994). His house and a separate library now make up the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Over the decades, countless conservatives have visited the site and attended numerous talks and seminars.
Dr. Kirk’s conservatism stresses the importance of the “permanent things,” which he described as an order with norms of courage, duty, courtesy, justice and charity, which owe their existence and authority to a transcendent God. He highlighted the importance of institutions, customs and habits.
He was the first author to explore the roots of the American order and articulate what he called the conservative mind. Thus, I expected the center would reflect these “backwater” attitudes, ideas and values.
A Kirkian Trek
My trek to Mecosta had an unexpected Kirkian tone. I got off the main highway (the rapids) and took the backwater country roads through densely thicketed forests, verdant pastures and well-cultivated fields. Scattered about the countryside were frequented cemeteries, flagged and flowered, highlighting that essential alliance of the living with the dead expressed in tradition.
The roads were free from the exhaustive babble of billboards and replaced with smaller humble signs offering honest labor or products. Walmarts and fast food chains are absent in these forgotten hinterlands, although they are available in the larger towns some twenty miles away.
That is not to say that everything was idyllic. People there suffer from the same ills as Americans everywhere. However, things seemed slower and more organic. There is enough of a river pool that at least opens space for pondering.
My Bed and Breakfast was a large nineteenth-century farmhouse with a home-cooked breakfast, very different from the sterile chain hotels that characterize overnight travel these days. Everything about this trip was wonderfully calming.
Finding the Center
My preconceptions about study centers called for a large modern building. With its address on Main Street, I imagined the Kirk Center might dominate the small village.
However, it was hard to find my destination. Hidden behind a screen of tall trees, I finally located the center. The Kirk house was an “Italianate” brick structure with an entrance tower and central cupola atop the roof. It was part small villa, part Scottish castle and part hermitage as befits an imaginative conservative.
I knocked on the door and was greeted by Mrs. Annette Kirk, Russell’s spouse, who graciously invited me to join a tour of the building with others. Inside its tastefully decorated rooms, much Russell Kirk memorabilia was displayed in a lively ambiance without being a museum. These rooms have nobly served as a center where the Kirk family entertained many conservative personages. Thus, the house tells its own history of the movement to all those constantly coming and going to Mecosta.
And that it is the house’s attraction. It manages to overcome the paradox of static immobility versus life-giving dynamism. Swords, art, lion sculptures and stained glass mix with tables, chandeliers and furniture to provide a scene for a grand drama to debate all those permanent things that matter. The center’s fixed stability attracts vibrant activism and thus provides a firm foundation to plot the way forward.
A Nook and Cranny Library
The Kirk Library is on a separate property just down the road. I was also expecting a modern building with high-tech features and meeting rooms. I found instead an unassuming collection of rooms hidden from view.
It contains walls of books spread out in nooks and crannies over several rooms. The Kirk papers are carefully kept in another part next to a large conference room.
It is one of those libraries where one could spend hours looking at the books and nooks and imbibing the ambiance. Dr. Kirk’s ancient manual typewriter reigns in one cranny. Plenty of comfortable chairs form distinctive British-like settings to engage in conversation. Seemingly, anything conservative ever published in English has found its way there.
Several resident scholars live in cottages between the house and the library. They are free to work and ponder. Some are graduate students working on their dissertations, especially theses associated with Dr. Kirk’s work. I was pleased to have tea with them in the dining room with Mrs. Kirk.
The Need for Mecostas
The two short days were quickly over. I took back some reflections from my trek. The two modes of the river are not contradictory but complementary. Each needs the other if there is to be a balanced return to order.
Policymaking, legislation and political programs are important and necessary. They are the rapids of political life and have their roles. They excite by their high profile and prestige. These things are needed to get tangible things done quickly. However, they are also susceptible to the frenetic intemperance of superficial souls who often embrace harmful and trendy ideas.
Thus, there must be places like Mecosta, hidden away from the world, where people can repair to ponder and consider the permanent things that matter. There must be those river pools to calm and channel the rapids so that they might then serve the common good and a transcendent God. We need those retreats and hermitages that keep alive the conservative imagination so that it might dare to dream of all things sublime.