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Dan O'Brien Remembers Jim Harrison

I spent all of Easter Day on an ATV to bring buffalo in from the east side of the Cheyenne River where they had spent the winter. It was a long day but not terribly strenuous. How tiring can it be to be miles from any other human being, in a piece of the Great Plains that could serve as a time machine, complete with antelope, deer, buffalo, migrating sand hill cranes, and waves of other birds heading north to begin the world over again?

Bison Herd

It was the kind of day that Jim Harrison would have greatly enjoyed and, with the finches, sparrows, robins, and juncos flitting in every drainage, I thought of him more than once. I knew Jim was in Patagonia, Arizona surrounded by the birds he loved so intently. He’d been on my mind because I knew that he was not well. A day like I was having might have done him good, it was peaceful and calm. Still, I was tired when I got back to the house and I went to bed about eight o’clock. Jill was at her desk catching up on emails, Facebook, and all that other stuff that accumulates on beautiful days when sane people are out of doors. I didn’t plan on talking to her until early on Monday morning but woke about 9:30 that night when I felt her sit down on the edge of the bed.

“Dan?” I struggled to consciousness. “I wouldn’t have woken you but I thought you’d want to know.”

I roused myself and sat up. “Know what?”

She flipped on the reading light beside the bed and touched my arm. “Jim Harrison died.”

We sat in the pale light for a moment. “I debated whether to wake you or not. You need your sleep.”

I waved her concern away. “I’ll be fine.” It was not a great surprise that Jim was dead. “When?”

“Yesterday.”

My next thought was that the birds that had flown over me all day had said goodbye to Jim a day or two before. “Are you all right?” Jill asked.

“Yea.”

“Are you going to able to get back to sleep?”

“Sure,” I said. But after she turned off the light and left the bedroom I found that I couldn’t close my eyes.

The last time I talked to Jim I was shocked at the frailness of his voice. The immediate problem then was that his wife, Linda, was very sick. He was deeply worried about her and sounded more depressed than I had ever heard him. We found out a week later, that Linda had died and Jill said what we were both thinking. “He won’t last long without her.”

I called a mutual friend and we agreed that we should get down to Arizona to see Jim. But winter got away from us and we never made it. On that warm Easter evening all I could do was lay in my bed and regret our procrastination. Another would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, sleepless night.

Every news outlet would do obituaries and they would dwell, not only on Jim’s huge contribution to American literature but also on his outrageous behavior. They would try to reconcile Jim’s writing with what many people saw as a rural crudeness. They might talk about his black humor but they would miss the hilarity of his worldviews. They would not mention his kindness and sensitivity to others. Those were the characteristics of Jim Harrison that I thought of on the night after his death.  

In the late nineteen nineties I knew almost no one in the literary world. I was living in the Black Hills of South Dakota, far off the beaten path, with neighbors who had no idea that I had even dreamed of writing a book. I would have sworn that no one would ever read the book I had just sent off to a publisher in New York. When I answered the phone and someone said it was Jim Harrison looking for Dan O’Brien, I just laughed. “Who is this?”

“Harrison, I read the galleys of your book. I wanted to meet you.”

He was passing through on his yearly migration from Michigan to Montana. He didn’t have to stop. He didn’t have to read the galleys. He didn’t have to call me or take me out to eat Chinese food. Of course he didn’t have to pour me a tumbler full of whiskey when I walked into his motel room or wink at the waitress when he told her “not to bother bringing any of those cardboard boxes because we’re going to eat everything you bring us.” The whiskey and the waitress stuff were the kind of reminiscences that would make the obituaries.

Few would know about the wise council he would give me and others over the years: how to deal with New York publishers, Hollywood agents, outsized appetites, and troubled wives. How to sit on the porch of an Upper Peninsula cabin and simply listen to the trout stream babble. He ate and drank too much. Sure, but that was just the love in him coming to the surface. To dwell on that part of Jim Harrison makes for great stories but obscures the man and clouds an understanding of his genius.

Red Poles and Finches

Jill came to bed sometime during the night and was still asleep when I walked out into our kitchen to make coffee. The south side of the room is mostly glass and looks out onto the Cheyenne River valley. The sun was pulsing red behind the bluffs on the other side of the river. It caught my eye as I measured the coffee and drew me toward the deck where redpolls and goldfinches fluttered around the bird feeder. There were more birds than perches for them to sit on. More birds on our deck than I had ever seen before.            

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38 comments

  • I saw Jim Harrison in Livingston, MT last summer having a drink with several people on the patio of a restaurant-bar. My friends and I had hiked into West Boulder Creek with rods and fished/hiked the day away. We needed food and drink, and found ourselves a couple tables away from Jim and his friends. I sent a silent prayer of thanks to him for the poems that I will always go to, for the big-hearted, large-living characters in his books, for his writing about characters and families, birds and dogs, and drink and food—and excesses I’ll never experience. Some of his passages have made me lose breath. All hail.

    Susan Carkin
  • Dan, such a touching beautiful story. It made me teary. I didn’t know Jim personally just by books, but I have friends like him and this was a very clear reminder to go visit. Thank you again for sharing yourself and your stories.

    Burk Daggett
  • My Goodness Dan, you certainly struck a nerve, I have never seen so many comments appear so quickly.

    Some refer to Jim Harrison in the past tense, the wonderful thing about those such as yourself, Jim Harrison, James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, and earlier masters such as Hemingway and Faulkner with the gift of “pen to page”, is that your words, thoughts and images will live on forever with no actual illustrations needed.

    As you said Dan, “Another would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, sleepless night.” We have all had those and hopefully learned from them, but the world just seems to keep spinning faster and faster, time for a deep breath and as you said……." get outdoors".

    How timely that just recently you shared photos and thoughts of your grandson out on the range, somewhere Jim Harrison is smiling.

    Thanks to the O’Brien Clan from all of us Flatlanders

    Mike Broder
  • Mitakuye oyasin. We ar all relatives – the buffalo, the fnches, the prairie dogs, everyone. And so good-bye to one of your favorite relatives, Jim Harrison. Your written remembrance honors him.
    Wrap yourself in warm memories of him when chill winds of sadness and loss blow through your soul.

    My deepest condolences to you.

    Francine
  • Dan,

    I read most of the big-time obituaries but your comments are by far the most moving. Thank you for your reminiscences sharing your memories of Jim. I read everything he wrote and have many of his first editions on my bookshelves. Like you, I’ll miss him deeply.

    Anda D.
  • Your family have my sincerest sympathies on your loss. It’s awful to lose a friend.

    Liz
  • What a wonderful remembrance of a good friend and of a life well-lived. Would that we all be remembered with true affection for our friends on this life journey-well said!

    Janis
  • Everyone should be remembered so well. Thank you.

    Chuck Beatty
  • Hi Dan,

    I am so sorry that you lost your dear friends Jim Harrison and his wife. Friends like that are what makes life worth living for sure. It sounds like Jim and his wife were very close, just like you and Jill. Jim and his wife have a better job now, working on different fields than what we have here on earth, and I wish them, and also you and Jill, success in all that you will be doing in the coming years.

    The little birds all came to celebrate two lives well lived, and to ease your sense of loss of your very dear friends. Jim and his wife took all that they have learned with them, and they will continue to serve just as well in new fields of a higher nature.

    May the blessings be.
    Love, Don

    Don Meyer
  • I agree with you :
    “To dwell on that part of Jim Harrison makes for great stories but obscures the man and clouds an understanding of his genius.”
    Thank you for your friendly obituaries.
    Birds act sometimes like strange mail-carriers…
    We will miss Brown Dog.
    D.

    Dom
  • Dan,

    Thank you for sharing all this. François Busnel and La Grande Librairie made me discover both, you and Jim Harrison.
    Last Friday he replayed his movie about his visit to Jim.
    I will tell my hummingbirds to come to you…

    Anny

    Anny
  • One of the nicest tributes to Jim. Thanks for helping me know the man better.

    Tom Sadler
  • Dan,

    Thanks for sharing your loss with all of us, your larger family of sorts.

    It is so human how we go along as though the ones we love will be with us as long as we want them here. When they’re gone we wonder where the time went and why we didn’t have more of it with them. When my husband Richard died 2011 (you may remember us—the photogs who came to stay three days—he was from Salt Lake City) his daughter voiced my thoughts: “I love him thousands of times more than I loved him when he was alive.”

    How difficult, as we go thru our 60’s and so many pillars of our lives leave us. Knocks us off the surfboards (according to a wise woman friend) we’re supposed to be balancing on. I lost so many important people last year my head was nearly spining. Then, just a few weeks ago my best friend from high school died unexpectedly. I woke early dark mornings with nosebleeds and at sunup had sensations of having been hit in the solar plexes. I prayed to God to help me live because it felt like I might die soon. May your loss be more about birds.

    In any case, they’re really not that far away and will continue to inform our thoughts. The experience pushes us to live more intensely, thinking of all we want to accomplish before our time ends. And I like to think of the reunions. That’s the best. Sincerely, Linda from Minneapolis

    Linda Huhn
  • Dan,
    Lovely and loving account of Jim Harrison’s death, for which thank you. As I type, here in New Hampshire, our feeder, too, has too few perches for the goldfinches, redpolls, nuthatches, and titmice (no? titmouses?), all warily looking out for the sharpshin that haunts the neighborhood, along with his fellow accipiter our goshawk. True North is the Jim Harrison volume to which I return, and will return again later this week. Tough stuff, tough people, like most Harrison novels, but worthy of some punchy Hemingway adjectives: good, raw, true, wild.
    Rob

    Rob Oden
  • Your notes show that Jim Harrison was a man full of life and was a great friend. His gift to you will live on until you join him. What better legacy is there to leave our family and friends ? I hope I can be that kind of friend to my friends. You do him great justice .

    Mark Miller

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