This post starts a new series where I revisit the fascinating stories of interesting people I’ve had the opportunity to meet while writing for a living.
Earlier this week I went on a solo road trip into the hills of the Southern Tier of New York State. I went to meet Michael and Carolyn Czarnecki at their 50 acre homestead on Wheeler Hill. They live simply in Amish country (though, not themselves Amish), off the grid without sewer or septic – which means that their house that burned to the ground in mid-July was uninsurable. Their’s is a many-layered story.
Just hours after the fire, Michael received a call from their Amish neighbor. The community would do a house raising when they were ready. They had raised the original house in 2005 and it’s the Amish thing to do to raise another for their neighbor-in-need.
The reason for my meeting the Czarneckis was to interview them for a short article that appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette yesterday, Sept. 1, to inform the community of how they can also help. While the Amish house raising is an immeasurable gift (from our perspective, not theirs, as the Amish do not “measure” these sorts of acts) – of time, know-how and labor – the lumber, windows, doors, roofing, cotton insulation and recycled flooring still need to be paid for outright.
You see the enormity of the situation. Now consider that their house was also home to FootHills Publishing, their small family-run poetry press that is Michael’s heart and soul-work of the last 26 years. Traveling with their laptops at the time of the fire saved much of the poetry press’s files, but all of FootHills Publishing’s equipment, paper stock, and publications dating to the mid-1980s were gone.
Publishing poetry for a living as not made Michael money-rich, but his connections to the community through poetry proves priceless. Two weeks after the fire, Writers and Books, a Rochester non-profit promoting literacy and writing, held a poetry reading fundraiser.
Similar events were also held in Ithaca at Buffalo Street Books and in Montour Falls by the Watkins Glen Writers Group. The 171 Cedar Arts Center in Corning is hosting a Sept. 8 fundraising event. Online fundraising is also happening at Indiegogo.com .
Living simply is a nearly four-decade pursuit for Michael. He left college in 1974 to hitchhike 30,000 miles around the northeast and Canada, staying for a time with a poor family in the Champlain Valley where he learned that it is, indeed, possible to live self-sufficiently.
The Czarneckis keep a garden, can and preserve, heat and cook with a wood stove, and use a well with a gray water collection system. Having few electrical needs beyond lighting and publishing equipment (including a wireless router for internet access that makes FootHills possible) their power is supplied by deep cycle batteries with an inverter and a generator. They are not new-adopters of an “off the grid” lifestyle having lived on their homestead for 18 years.
Then, there is the poetry that runs through the Czarnecki story like a golden thread.
“It was a needed event, beyond money,” says Czarnecki of the first poetry reading fundraiser. These events, while raising money, also accomplish something that the poet and oral memoirist has dedicated much of his life to – encouraging the sharing of poetry.
People reading it, writing it and sharing it – “poetry” in the hands of Michael Czarnecki is a soul-nutrient and a binding agent for living life fully. He wrote his first poem in high school and read aloud publicly for the first time in 1985. If ever a man could hold an accounting of his life-defining experiences, these two might top Michael’s list.
I spent more than two hours with Michael and Carolyn under the awning of the loaned camper they’ve been living in since the fire. FootHills Publishing, back up and running in a loaned Airstream trailer, will move into a small first floor wing on the new house as soon as their neighbors find a day to spare during the harvest to have a house raising.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading from Michael’s book of selected works, Never Stop Asking for Poems. While a lover of the written word, I never “took” to poetry before. Maybe the key is meeting the poet first, because now I’m hooked.
“Never Stop Asking for Poems” – Silent auction, entertainment and refreshments at 171 Cedar Arts Center in Corning, New York, Saturday, September 8, 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Make a gift online at www.indiegogo.com where their page is currently featured. As of this writing, they are about a third of the way to their goal.
Get fundraising and rebuilding updates here on Facebook.