Michael Gabriel Booth spent his life exploring the depths of everything he encountered. Although I cannot completely vouch for his years at Principia, or his time at Yale working through his Ph.D research, or for all the time he spent by himself roaming the atmosphere at 30,000 feet, between his Alaska haven and the rest of the world, writing poetry and recipes in his collection of moleskin notebooks amid the hum of American Airlines cabins, I certainly can speak a bit about his spirit, and the incredible impact his example had set for me at an early age.
Some of the biggest decisions I made in life involved Michael. But it was never limited to our conversations or sharing emails, or any kind of activity with one another. I’ve realized those are just the relational niceties. And damn they were good. But Michael had the kind of effect on people that lasted even after a few minutes of interaction. Anyone who met Michael would agree, his presence in a room accompanied tangible swells of carpentry, clarity and compassion.
My first memory of Michael was somewhere in the deep woods during a Camp Leelanau trip. He was a trips counselor in 1998, and that particular summer we were canoeing Ontario’s White River in Canada. For Michael it was heaven. For the group of middle schoolers it was madness. There’s a reason Camp Leelanau doesn’t canoe that river with middle schoolers anymore. Heck, even Canada saw its dangers and has officially black-listed parts of the river.
But I don’t recall ever feeling a sense of danger on that trip – only, quite literally, a great sense of hunger. All day we had been canoeing, and our entire conversation surrounded the sun-dried tomatoes that were in the dinner bag for that night’s meal. Only a character like Michael would bring a delicacy like that on a camping trip. I never liked tomatoes at that age. In fact I don’t think sun-dried tomatoes would grab the attention of any middle schooler. But this was a Michael Booth trip, and none of the adolescent, tasteless camper complaints stopped his enthusiasm about serving the tomatoes that night.
Night is a good way of explaining the rest of that evening. After 12 hours of paddling, the sun had fallen and the dark forced us to find a campsite. We stopped the caravan of canoes at the next path that led to flat ground. After a few minutes on the very small shore we found a muddy path that led uphill to an uncomfortable and stony campsite. The canoes couldn’t stay at the muddy bank of water below without drifting away, so after dragging them and all the gear up the hill we finally settled down for an evening of worthless attempts at lighting a wet-conditions fire. Did I tell you it was raining? It was, and very hard. But at least we had camper-cooked pasta (soggy) to look forward to, and those blessed sun-dried tomatoes.
Something about that day with Michael changed the way I looked at those tomatoes, though. I remember how excited I was at that point to eat them, and I can’t say it was from the kind of hunger that being on the trail summons.
But Michael’s completely non-threatening, stunningly joyful and persistent expression for those tomatoes was the subject of the entire day. I remember feeling transformed through conversations with Michael while we paddled along some of the roughest parts of the White River. Tomatoes were no longer tasteless. They were no longer bland, sloppy, acidic or slimy. He got me excited for them, and somewhere in the course of paddling through buckling streams of white water rapids on that cold and wet day, my taste-buds developed an interest in trying something new.
I remember being the cook that night, and when I was asked to get the tomatoes from the drybag I jumped to it with a new curiosity. I still remember feeling the damp sides of the bag as my arms reached all the way to the bottom, scrambling for the bottle. The glass bottle. The broken glass bottle! It must have been crushed on the stones around the campsite.
Any 12 or 13-year-old would be distraught at this point, after a day of looking forward to a new taste and finding it splattered all over the bottom of a 4-day-old drybag, most likely packed with used socks and other camper stink. But Michael’s spirit was unchanged. His love abounded, and something special grew from that.
My next memory is vague, but it involves all the boys eating some kind of bland pasta concoction on one side of the fire, and Booth and I on the other side meticulously separating bits of red, oily, sun-dried tomatoes from shards of broken glass spread across the bottom of that drybag. And that’s the first time I ever appreciated tomatoes, literally licking the delicate mess of tangy sweetness from my fingers, our smiles bright in the dark and wet woods.
I would like to tell you it was the first time I understood something biblical unfold in my own life. It was the Christ-idea of separating chaff from wheat, picking away the most broken bits of life, and separating them from those tasty, wonderful, joyful experiences that last for those who have an equal eagerness to love life. He drew curiosity and eagerness in a way that an entire library of books and all of their knowledge could never do. This was Michael’s spirit.
And that spirit is still so very close to us all. Michael is a stream of wonderful consciousness, a perfect idea, creating and writing, still discovering. I’m looking forward to that next trip with him.