“You write all the time. You need to write a book,” Kim Pilarski-Hall once said to her husband, Rikki Hall.
Hall, who died of cancer in the spring of 2014, left behind boxes and boxes of writing: fiction, poetry, songs, and nonfiction on everything from local politics to love to college football. He also wrote about nature in loving, humorous, incredibly detailed columns that he published in Hellbender Press, a weekly environmental magazine. But he never got around to putting together a book.
Six Legs and a Buzz: A Collection of Articles from the Hellbender Press (Tellico Books) is the culmination of Hall’s life work, the book his wife urged him to create. A book launch, free and open to the public, will take place on March 26 from 5 to 7 p.m. in Scruffy City Hall. All proceeds from the book sales and the event will benefit the Little River Watershed Association.
Family and friends will read short excerpts from the book, and then the music will start. Todd Steed, who has written a song about Hall; David Phillips; Tim and Susan Lee; and Smiley and the Lovedawg will perform. Finally, there will be a slide show celebrating Hall’s life.
I had the privilege of previewing Six Legs and a Buzz. I can’t remember learning so much from a book that made me laugh out loud or pause in contemplation every few paragraphs. Though I did not know Rikki Hall, the book gave me a strong sense of his personality, a voice as distinct and audible as the chirping of a cardinal.
His father, Dick Hall, who took the lead in putting the book together, says that his son’s childhood nickname was “the bird,” because of his fondness for nature and his skinny legs.
“Rikki was kind of a pied piper—kind and funny, smart and easy going,” Pilarski-Hall says. “His goal was educating people about the natural world, the interconnectedness of things, all the little things that go on.”
Hall wanted to pass on his love of nature to readers so that they would get outside and experience it with new eyes, Pilarski-Hall says. That way, they’d be more likely to protect it.
Hall’s powers of observation and his quirky perspective—from pieces speculating on how insect flight evolved to how and when a boulder made its way into the Big South Fork—are just part of what makes the book so fascinating. The power of his gaze is also evident in his photography. Never, for example, have I seen a more exquisite photo of a stink bug. Or a house fly. The book is full of detailed illustrations and stunning color photography—from dragonflies and frogs to mountain meadows, flame azaleas and alligators—a collection that Hall’s father selected from the 26,000 photos he found on his son’s hard drive.
For Dick Hall the essence of his son’s writing legacy was his ability “to help people overcome the ‘ugh’ factor about bugs and understand their value. He was also able to communicate to the layman the intricacies of science.”
In his book, Hall articulates questions we all may have thought at one time or another: “Why were mosquitoes put on Earth?” “What might it be like to occupy the mind of a bug?” and “Is it really fair to blame bugs for the panic they cause?” And then he formulates in-depth answers.
Here’s a small sample of the kinds of things you’ll learn: You may know that warblers, as Hall points out, “sing beautiful songs,” but did you know that they “scrape the wings off [of moths] by rubbing them on tree limbs before swallowing”? Did you know that wasps kill more people than snakes and spiders, but often these folks die of the consequences of panic or overexertion rather than the wasp’s venom?
It makes perfect sense that one of Hall’s final acts would be a gift to the Little River Watershed Association, a non-profit whose mission is to educate people about the river and to protect and nurture it. Many of the photos in the book were taken in Rockford, and that’s because Hall lived a crow’s hop away from the river on Martin Mill Pike. He took photos of it that the LRWA used and he wrote about threats to it for both Metro Pulse and Hellbender Press.
Kim Raia, former president of LRWA, says she thought Hall’s affection for the organization may also have its root in the hellbender itself, a salamander that can grow to a couple of feet long and live up to 30 years, an animal whose survival depends on clear, clean water—which is something that still exists on much of the Little River, known for its biodiversity and as a baseline stream against which scientists in the area measure river health.
Hall has already been responsible for raising money that LRWA has put to good use. In March 2014, a few weeks before his death, “Enjoy Every Sandwich: An Evening of Warren Zevon for Rikki Hall” was held at Scruffy City Hall. Raia estimates that $10,000 to $15,000 have been raised in honor of Hall since then.
Raia says these contributions helped fund the Little River Blueway Map, staffing needs, and educational programs such as the Stream School. At the book launch, LRWA will provide information about its activities and mission.
Tellico Books of Oak Ridge published Six Legs and a Buzz at cost. Beto Cumming, whose idea it was to have the book launch, donated his time to design the cover. At the event, the book will be half price ($10).
Six Legs and a Buzz is a prime example of the value that a physical copy of a book offers, something you might take on a hike or read in a hammock beside a stream. It’s also particularly valuable because not much Hellbender Press content is available online.
Pilarski-Hall sees the book as “a concrete legacy, something you could hold and see, something you can pass on and include in libraries.”
She remembers a story from Hall’s graduate school days passed on from her TVA colleague, James T. (Bo) Baxter, who was a teaching assistant in the class that Hall was taking from David Etnier, the esteemed University of Tennessee ichthyologist and aquatic entomologist.
Hall had collected larval caddisfly over the weekend and put them in a box for Baxter in the lab to identify. The other students had their boxes of dead insects. But when Baxter opened Hall’s box, he said, “There’s nothing in here, Rikki.”
Hall’s larvae had escaped because he had brought them in alive in order to release them later.
In the preface to Six Legs and a Buzz Pilarski-Hall writes, “He was the kind of person you wanted to live forever, or at least a long and happy life, writing until the end.”
The more I find out about Rikki Hall—his open-hearted and courageous response to brain cancer and impending mortality, his selfless and meaningful generosity, his talent for inspiring others—the more I wish I had known him when he was alive. Celebrating his life and his work is the next best thing. υ
Six Legs and a Buzz
Book Release Party to benefit the Little River Watershed Association
Tim and Susan Lee, Todd Steed, Jack Rentfro, David Phillips, Smiley and the Lovedawg
Scruffy City Hall (28 Market Square)
Saturday, March 26, 5-7 p.m.
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