The grass is high and grooming obviously ignored around the pioneer's cabin that Dr. Charles Johnston restored in Seaview, Wash.
Friends call him, Charlie. He is 55.
Today he tells a story of a colleague from Micronesia who, when asked what he found different about Americans, answered that he didn't understand their obsession with mowing lawns.
"No defense," states Johnston, well aware of the sentiments of his neighbors, "I like tall grass."
In the handsome middle-class neighborhood of Seaview, Johnston is viewed as an absent-minded professor. Truth be told, his brain pumps like a well greased engine.
Johnston dips his toes in the ocean, not far from where he wrote his first word.For years Johnston shuffled homes between Seattle - where he founded his think tank, the Institute for Creative Development in 1984 - and the beach. More recently priorities have shifted to the Long Beach Peninsula, where you might find Johnston walking barefoot along the pearl-hued beach between Seaview and Beard's Hollow. His bare feet are Hobbit-like; his gait remains strong and sure.
The cabin he inhabits is raspberry in color. The front door is square and of strong Victorian design. Not a neat Hobbit's cave with a round entrance or a model for Good Housekeeping, for the chaos inside hardly adheres to ideals of modern materialism. The skies on this quiet Sunday in late June are the rich shades of blue mixed on a painter's palette. At sunset, fat white clouds roil above the surf line. It is still an hour before dusk.
If the ocean landscape is a smorgasbord of delights, just now, Johnston is oblivious. His attention is trapped in the nexus of a different landscape, this one called intellectual pursuit. And Johnston is talking, an event friends hate to miss. When not elucidating, Johnston is writing another book (he has published a slew of books and periodicals), this one called, "Our High grass adorns the unconventional Seaview, Wash. resident's yard.Human Future, and the Question on Which It All Depends." That is a mighty title to live up to, but Johnston's pathway into this region remains heady and lucid. Such terms might just sum up the man himself. His pursuit is simple enough to define, but strenuously engaging in the exercise: "How does human experience organize into themes and patterns to tell us who we are?"
Figuratively speaking, Charlie Johnston is both an archeologist of human behavior, and a scribe of human evolution.
He loves to ask questions, then arrange the answers into a tapestry of coherent thoughts, a kind of mental channeling. Johnston was trained as a sculptor. His mother, Josephine, was an artist, and his father, Leo, a jazz trumpet player. Later, Leo Johnston worked for the FBI, and then became a parole officer.
"A peculiar twist of fate," says Johnston. He relishes surprises, but is seldom startled by human foibles. He knows his history, understands the fine line between action and reaction. Johnston remembers that every Christmas dozens of ex-cons brought gifts by his house in Seattle, a tribute to his father. These men recognized Leo's kindness and intention. To the young Charles Johnston, a lesson was in the making.
As a student, Johnston discovered that "Sculpture wasn't a language that connected easily with people in our time." And now, his mind meandering into the realm of possibilities that precedes rich thought, Johnston declares that he is sorry he didn't live during the Italian Renaissance. Reassuring, this palaver, for traveling the long winding road, rarely will a pilgrim meet a person who embodies a thirst for learning as rich as Johnston's.
Although he missed the feel of hammer and chisel, Johnston came to realize that the creative process, itself, mattered most, not necessarily the medium on which it was drawn. What mattered was the quest, and he sought excellence.
Johnston is a "natural" scholar. Schooling came easily, too easily. He slid through his teens, mostly bored. Once at the University of Washington, he researched the professors and picked the ripest fruit. The subject matter didn't really matter. He needed a mentor. He needed to hear a master sculpt the thinking process. Later, Johnston shaped his own thoughts like he had once shaped the wax that he molded into bronze forms.
Perhaps he found his most influential mentor during his residency at the University of California at Davis. The man's name was Joseph Campbell, who would later become famous for his exploration of the myth and its universal importance. Johnston graduated with an MD and a minor in ethno-musicology. While teaching at Antioch, he became famous as a counselor, as well as an innovative and adaptable leader of the intellectual forum. Charles Johnston relaxes on the front porch of his home.When a colleague asked recently if it would have been enough to be a brilliant therapist, he answered simply, "No. My task was to create with the greatest courage, irrespective of the consequences."
His earliest memories surround the fishing rocks at Beard's Hollow, and the razor clams the family dug out of the soft beach sands during the lowest of tides.
He remembers writing his first word at the tiny yellow cabin in Seaview that the family rented. He also remembers cleaning clams in a cast iron sink in the back of the Shelburne Inn. There, he remembers his father saying, "There is often little choice in what we do. But always - always - do it on your own terms."
If experience embodies the circle of life, Charlie Johnston has come around.
As dusk settles around his cottage, he slips away under the stars for a walk along his beloved beach. Like many in their mid-fifties, Johnston faces challenges to body and spirit. He remains the optimist. Speaking quietly - almost to himself - he declares, "My life has evolved like a good conversation."
Writer, poet and potter David Campiche of Seaview, Wash., is co-proprietor of the Shelburne Inn with his wife Laurie Anderson.