I wish you could have known Matt Coleman. Many did, but not enough. There was not enough time. “Matt’s heart was so big, it surrounded him,” one of his colleagues wrote in a memorial tribute.
I am grateful that I happen to think this about so many people that I have met, those sentences like “You ought to know so-and-so,” or “You should have met my friend, X,” but I am frustrated that I have not said it out loud often enough to the people about whom I thought this. Matt already knew most of my friends, anyway, and the one friend I introduced Matt to, well, Matt asked her out. Or she asked him.
A person’s end should not be what the world knows of them, though, and five years ago today, August 11, 2011, my friend Matt Coleman was murdered. No one’s death should fight for attention with the person’s life, so I will briefly give the end and then celebrate a gorgeous life.
If you type “Matt Coleman Mendocino,” or variations that include the names of the small towns in that beautiful county in California (Willits, Ukiah, Fort Bragg) in a search engine, you will see some of the eye-catching news headlines from that late summer’s lengthening shadows. This is because the murder was a national news story in August and September 2011, not because of my friend’s prominence, but because his dead-eyed killer shot and killed one other man, and the manhunt that followed in the redwood forest stretched on for 36 days and ended with the shooting death of the murderer.
Three gun deaths. Three families lost loved ones that terrible month: the family and friends of Matt Coleman, who was 45; the family and friends of Jere Melo, who was 70; and the family of the murderer, Aaron Bassler, who was 35. The killer suffered from untreated paranoid schizophrenia, frightened his family members for years, was anywhere but here on Planet Earth in his mind when he met his own end, but this gun-filled story was brought to its conclusion with a SWAT team and a one-sided violence that overwhelmed its start.
At least one book has been published about the sad tale, told from the point of view of local law enforcement. Out There in the Woods is an admirable, plain-spoken, book about a double murder, the manhunt, and the mental health crisis that is developing in communities in which support for public health services is dwindling or being cut. I almost wish I had not read the book, though, as there are details of my friend’s murder scene that I wish I had not learned.
In 2015, the writer T.C. Boyle (World’s End, The Road to Wellville) published a novel, The Harder They Come, which was partly inspired by the incidents that started with my friend’s murder. Boyle describes his book thus: “The book is a meditation on gun violence, set primarily in the vicinity of Fort Bragg, on the northern California coast, very close to the locale of my second novel, Budding Prospects. I take my epigraph from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted …’) and make use of it as a point of departure to examine and dramatize the events surrounding an incident that took place there in 2011.” I have picked this book up and put it back down in bookstores, and I have looked at it online and I have not purchased it. Perhaps this is understandable.
Out There in the Woods, the sheriff’s book, was published in 2012 and offers a beautiful image of Matt’s memorial service. Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County writes:
The funeral turned out to be unlike any other I had ever been to. […] Boats of flowers were floated down Big River and many positive things were said about the deceased. It struck me as very odd that nobody was angry. I felt a little awkward in that I believe I was the only person there in a suit and a tie—Coleman’s family, friends, and acquaintances were not a suit-wearing crowd. … I was so struck by the community’s love for Matt Coleman. He had no enemies. As I left, somebody asked me if I thought the killer was at the funeral. “I doubt it,” was my reply.—From Out There in the Woods, Stephen Sparks and Tom Allmann
No, we are not a suit-wearing crowd, but there is a photo or two of Matt in a tuxedo. I have one right here. In the photo below, he is the extremely tall figure at the right consuming an adult beverage and looking west towards the rest of the country that he had already explored so much of and would move across. It is the early 1990s.
I am certain that Sheriff Allmann learned that day something that I believe: That Matt Coleman’s last conscious thought and possibly his last spoken words were an offering of love and empathy to the man confronting him with a gun, Aaron Bassler.
I wrote the above sentence in 2011. My friend John Burdick, on whose front yard you are standing in the photo above, is a songwriter among many other job descriptions, and last year his band released its second album, Lake Victoria. It concludes with a song, “A Waltz for Matt Coleman,” which expresses, far better than I just did, our imagined last thoughts and the unknowable final utterance from our friend, Matt. It has taken me a year of listening to it to be able to listen to it, which I intend as a compliment. It concludes:
Said Matthew to Aaron, “I won’t see you in heaven.
We’ll meet up right here in this dirt.
I’ll go first now as you bleed me of my essence
and all it was thought to be worth.”
Said Matthew to Aaron, “Go chase your own ending
like you must once have chased some simple girl.
My people will pray I had no comprehension,
but I would not miss this, not for the world.”
There was not one single life experience that I shared with Matt Coleman, easy ones and difficult ones alike, that he did not embrace with a bear hug. So there was sadness at the memorial that the sheriff attended, I am sure. Despair or anger, no. Love, yes.
Matt was a generous spirit and the most generous gift he offered was that all who met him became more generous, too. I believe I have encountered that quality only once in my life so far, and I realize now how lucky I am for that one example. Matt, it was you.
Matt Coleman was a land steward, a passionate environmentalist who worked for the last six years of his life as coordinator of volunteers for the Mendocino Land Trust, which meant that he knew the forest, knew the ocean, and knew the land in between. In reading everything I could find about Matt, I have found many stories about his 24-hour-a-day dedication to the land and waters, stories about him stopping whatever he was doing, stopping his car and jumping out when he would spot an invasive plant species growing beside the road, so he could remove it.
I am not capturing him. (If he were here, he would probably say this is going quite fine and then he would offer many, many gentle edits after we settled into our booth at Bacchus, a local favorite pub. Even if he could stand the fact that this piece is about him, he would consider it too sentimental. “Stop interrupting,” he would say.)
When we were a part of each other’s day-to-day life, 25 years ago, we were both in our early 20s. Matt was always at his best as a student, and he was the least competitive knowledgeable person I have known. He did not wear his learning, which was deep, broad, thoughtful, and limitless, he did not wear his learning heavily. He kept a student’s enthusiasm, which gave his conversation a lilt, a happy glow of mutual discovery.
When he learned that he could marry his passion for the outdoors with his livelihood, that he could make it his life, it sounds like then he was finally and completely Matt Coleman. Matt loved to teach, he loved to coach, he loved to do; he loved being. That is why I celebrate his life on this sad anniversary.
There is a video of what I am attempting to explain. A filmmaker named Aron Campisano has been assembling footage of interviews on the topic of invasive species and he interviewed Matt for a few minutes. You can hear that lilt in his voice.
Matt wanted to know the mechanics at work that brought a species of plant or fish into the part of the world that he was a part of, he wanted to understand their natural history, and then he could teach others how to understand, too. In the video, his gentle spirit comes across as he explains with empathy why the invasive species were first planted along the coast there, even as he sternly explains the ultimate effect the invasive species have on the other plants and on the local birds. And typical of Matt, even in death he taught me a word I’ve never heard before (“monotypic“), but it rolls off his tongue like he’s saying a dear friend’s familiar name.
But before Mendocino, California, there was New Paltz, New York. In my 1990s in New Paltz, New York, Matt Coleman and several others (John, Sean, Mat, others like Gerry and Dan—who died in 2015) were the big brothers I never had, and they taught me a lot about being a writer, an actor, and about being a man.
(I rarely laughed so hard or so frequently as when I was in the company of John, Liz, Sean, Stephanie, Jack, Matt, Mat, Matt, Jim Mayer—gone a decade now too, and many other floating faces. We were and are the Magnificent Glass Pelican, and Matt’s contributions were mainly his omnipresent anarchic spirit of togetherness. If there is such a thing.)
One day, a few of us were walking as a group up Main Street in New Paltz, and Matt, a bear of a man, slowed his stride—he always walked very quickly and purposefully—and I slowed with him, probably to continue belaboring whatever point I was belaboring. He grabbed me and tossed me over his shoulder like a duffel bag, a bag of me, and took off running up the steep hill that is New Paltz’s Main Street. To our eternal comedy credit, we did not break off whatever conversation we were engaged in, even with my head over his shoulder. The others followed, laughing, and I was the one out of breath when he let me down at the top of the hill.
Matt had an extensive collection of books but not in his possession. Upon finishing a book, he gave it away or simply left it somewhere for the next reader to encounter. I saw him do this in our local laundromats. To put it more correctly, Matt had an extensive collection of books in his memory banks, and he could grab a quote from any of them in conversation at will. His reading was extensive, a matter of legend among his friends, and he never showed it off. He was a journalist and loved great writers like John McPhee, Edward Abbey. If he was a fan of someone, his enthusiasm was total, unembarrassed, and loud. I am certain that Elvis Costello heard Matt from his dressing room inside the Beacon Theater one night while we were on line outside waiting to be let in.
His remains one of the greatest screams I have ever heard.
While preparing this column, I turned to Gifford Pinchot’s Eleven Maxims to Guide Foresters. There is a reason for this.
Gifford Pinchot was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and a two-time governor of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and ’30s, and his mansion, Grey Towers in Milford, Pennsylvania, is now a historic site. Matt and I visited it once because I lived near it at the time and yet, at the time of his visit, I had not yet been to it. This struck Matt as strange and in need of fixing, so he dropped his bags in my apartment and we drove an hour into Pennsylvania. (I do not remember the conversation. In retrospect, he probably came over wanting to see the historic site, but my memory insists that he made me feel like it was my idea and that I suggested it to him. He often made things seem to go that way.)
I enjoyed the house and its history, and Matt patrolled the grounds; Grey Towers is like a zoo for plant species and Matt impressed the rangers with his practical knowledge. As a naturalist and conservationist, Pinchot gave over his property to every plant he had ever encountered. I recall Matt teaching me about the phenomenon of invasive species that day.
Pinchot’s Eleven Maxims are appropriate, in part because I am sure Matt knew all of these and because they describe my friend a little:
1. A public official is there to serve the public and not to run them.
2. Public support of acts affecting public rights is absolutely required.
3. It is more trouble to consult the public than to ignore them, but that is what you are hired for.
4. Find out in advance what the public will stand for. If it is right and they won’t stand for it, postpone action and educate them.
5. Use the press first, last, and all the time if you want to reach the public. Get rid of the attitude of personal arrogance or pride of attainment or superior knowledge.
6. Don’t try any sly or foxy politics, because a forester is not a politician.
7. Learn tact simply by being absolutely honest and sincere, and by learning to recognize the point of view of the other man and meet him with arguments he will understand.
8. Don’t be afraid to give credit to someone else when it belongs to you; not to do so is the sure mask of a weak man. But to do so is the hardest lesson to learn.
9. Encourage others to do things; you may accomplish many things through others that you can’t get done on your single initiative.
10. Don’t be a knocker; use persuasion rather than force, when possible. Plenty of knockers are to be found; your job is to promote unity.
11. Don’t make enemies unnecessarily and for trivial reasons. If you are any good, you will make plenty of them on matters of straight honesty and public policy, and you need all the support you can get.
Matt is inscribed in many of these maxims. “Don’t be afraid to give credit … use persuasion rather than force … .” Matt probably quoted these to me at the time, but I did not know. In an odd coincidence, the date of Matt’s death, August 11, is the date of Pinchot’s birth, August 11, 1865.
Later that day, we drove north in New York through the Catskill Mountains and beyond, up to the Cannonsville Reservoir, and a bald eagle swooped at my car. It remains my one bald eagle sighting to this day. “Dude! Did you see what that was?! How great was that!” His voice, his voice of unbounded joy, is pinned to that memory. And to many others.
He was “Clawman Treefeller” in our group of friends, because nicknames and because this was a perfect one for a city kid who loved nature; he was also, simply, “Coleman,” which became a verb (any missing cigarette lighter had been “Coleman’ed”). He was Matt. (I do not remember who came up with Clawman Treefeller. Did I have a nickname?)
His generous spirit, immense playfulness, and epic inquisitiveness brought him from Brooklyn to the woods of Northern California. His humble nature led him not to chase literary fame or glory—and he could have had those, I believe—but to a life restoring the lands near Mendocino, pathway by pathway. His physical body was cut down, but it is that beautiful brief life and that ever-giving, often hilarious spirit that some of us on two coasts celebrate today, August 11, simply because our paths crossed his. Because that spirit is not what was cut down.
That spirit has been the ultimate invasive species, though, in that dozens (hundreds?) of people think of Matt whenever they encounter someone who reminds them of even a sliver of his Coleman-ness.
* * * *
The Community Foundation of Mendocino County established an endowment fund in 2013, the Matthew Coleman Fund for Environmental Education and Conservation. An “endowment fund” is one in which the funds that are donated are not only applied to the cause but are also invested to earn interest and keep the fund alive. Here is a brief video:
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