As I mentioned in my last Travel Log, exploration of new places is wonderful, but I was recently reminded that one of the best joys of traveling is going back to a place you know and love. In my case, this place is Mecosta, MI, home to the Russel Kirk Center and his ancestral home, Piety Hill.
Mecosta, to the casual observer, appears to be a tiny little town in the middle of rural Michigan with all the glamour of a spare tire. Appearances can be deceiving. This little spot on the map is home to the Russel Kirk Center, commemorating and preserving the ideas and library of the great American political philosopher, Russel Kirk (author of, among many other things, The Conservative Mind and The Old House of Fear.) The library itself is in a small house on a side street with a grassy lawn and gravel drive. Floor-to-ceiling shelves groan under the weight of thousands of books packed into a few low-ceilinged rooms with a couple fireplaces, some cozy plaid carpet and the occasional mouse, and no matter the season, it’s always just a little chilly. (One feels at times as if the ghost of Robert Burns is lingering in the corner, taking notes.)
Speaking of ghosts, there’s an attic room to the library house. It rained one day while I was there, a good heavy Michigan summer downpour, where the afternoon daylight goes dull silver and the air grows grey with humidity and rain. I went up into the attic room and stood there in the silence, listening for a few minutes. The dark space was lit only by the silver rain-light coming through two windows at the ends of the long, low room, and the faded globe, over-sensitive wood floor, and piles of dusty periodicals here and there lent a rather uncanny feeling of occupancy to the empty attic. I went downstairs after awhile, to curl up in a protective armchair and nap over a book.
The library house is less than a hundred yards from Piety Hill, the Kirk ancestral home and a magnificent piece of architecture. Having survived a fire and extensive renovations, it stands almost four stories high, glorious in brick and stone, yet modestly set at the end of a little pathway behind some thin trees. The house has a distinct personality of its own, home as it is to hundreds of artifacts, curios, and pieces of art and history that the Kirks have collected or been given throughout the years. Every room, corner, and cornice has a story behind it, and Mrs. Annette Kirk, the founder of the RKC and patroness of Piety Hill, remembers each and every one. After three years of acquaintance, Mrs. Kirk remains the most gracious host I’ve ever met, and her keen remembrance of the past infuses the entire house with active personality (which happily tends to rub off on guests). Turkish weaponry and Native American relics rub shoulders with reclaimed stained-glass windows and oil portraits on all three floors, and throughout all the lovely rooms. In the summer, it is a delight to sit outside at a table under a red canopy and read in the shade, and in the cold months, there is no greater pleasure than to pick up a tome or two and sit by the fireplace in the great living room as snow comes down outside.
Speaking of books, no description of Mecosta would be complete without a mention of the bookstore. One of the few remaining bookstores that sells only to walk-in customers, the Mecosta Book Gallery has kept my bedside reading list stocked for the last three years. I am always sure of finding what I’m looking for there, and have gained a reputation with the owner as a serial Wodehouse purchaser. (My ruthless and systematic hunt for C. S. Lewis has not gone unrewarded either.) The prices are very reasonable, and the selection is excellent. With a little effort, fine old editions and antique works are to be found, and if you are looking for something in particular, ask the owners. They kindly found me a beautifully illustrated copy of East of the Sun, West of the Moon that I had been looking for for over a year. It is a magical place, that bookstore, smelling of books and secrets and excitement. There are few joys more satisfying than going with four or five bibliophilic friends to the Mecosta Book Gallery and coming away an hour later with an armload apiece, returning to the library to sit and read together.
Piety Hill has a curious penchant for suspending the passage of time, or rather taking the visitor out of time altogether. Within the walls of the library and house, one doesn’t seem to age or feel the press and pressure of time, an immensely refreshing sensation I have rarely felt elsewhere. For this reason, I include Piety Hill among those dear places which remind me most strongly of what I imagine heaven to be like. I should say, rather, that I love the house and the library because I believe that little glimpses of that Far Country are allowed to penetrate through the pasteboard mask of the stillness by the books, or the large homey dining room, or the soft patter of ghostly feet on the tile, or the cheery fire on a frigid late November evening, or the hymns of loved ones of a summer night.
Go and visit Piety Hill, if you can. You’ll find a warm welcome, new friends, bright conversation, as many good books as you can read, possibly a song, and, if Mrs. Kirk lets you go up to the third floor in the humid stillness of the late afternoon, a benign phantom or two. And of course, on a twilit evening, it’s easy to sense the intellectual spirit of Russel Kirk himself overlooking the quiet street and the myriad folk that traverse the short road between the house and the library.
“… [T]he conservative finds himself…a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required-and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding.”