Remembering Michael Black
By: Langdon Winner
On my way to a conference in San Francisco last month I learned that Michael Black, a dear friend of many years, had been killed by a hit and run driver while walking along a country road in northern California. I was devastated by the news. Michael and I had talked by phone about getting together sometime over the weekend to catch up on recent developments in our lives. But was not to be. As the Dalai Lama once observed, "No one knows what comes first -- tomorrow or eternity."
Michael Black was truly a free spirit -- scholar, raconteur, singer, environmental activist, spiritual healer, ebullient visionary -- a person overflowing with joyful wisdom. Long before the term became fashionable, he was a pioneer in studies of “sustainability.” His PhD dissertation explored the collapse of ancient empires caused by ecological mismanagement, a fate that he believed was likely in store for our own civilization unless drastic measures were taken. His continuing efforts to find ways to heal the planet and its people carried him into wide ranging inquiries in political theory, American politics, social movements, natural history, forestry, the life cycle of West Coast salmon, and eastern philosophy.
I first met Michael, characteristically, one afternoon in 1973. As I banged away on my typewriter in an old Berkeley house, there was an unexpected knock at the door. On the front porch stood a stranger smiling at me. "Hello! I'm Michael Black. I've heard about you and your work on the politics of technology. We've got to talk." We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee and sharing thoughts about ecology and politics, the beginning of more than four decades of conversations.
In variety of temporary and part time positions, Michael taught at several colleges and universities over the years. Much beloved by his students and colleagues, his way of pursuing questions combined the intensity of Socratic method with an Aristotelian preference for philosophizing while walking around the campus. Although he wrote continually and published steadily, academic administrators frowned at the relatively low rate of publication in the approved scholarly venues and, thus, he never received tenure. I recall using the phrase "refereed journals" in a conversation with him one day, at which point he laughingly made the “tweet-tweeet” sound of whistles blown by referees at a football game. That was his comment on the ways in an over-emphasis upon thinking by “peer review” had enforced a dull conformity in American higher education to the exclusion of other, more lively ways of knowing. Nonetheless, as the years rolled on, Michael persisted, piecing together one class here, another class there twenty miles down the freeway, a vocation that he liked to call “Roads Scholar.”
A colorful talker with an inborn love of word play, he used language in ways that delighted his friends and horrified university bureaucrats. Within the grimly “serious” discussions about “curriculum reform” and “strategic planning” and similar matters (that waste far too much of the time of the nation’s best minds), Michael would often launch in to free association riffs that revealed the underlying absurdity of the conversation while angering the stuffed shirts who’d convened the meeting. His everyday observations about the world were sprinkled with a range of signature phrases, delivered with a distinctive chuckle, ones that his friends will long cherish:
“Oh, oh. I think reality’s breaking out today!”
“Yes, it looks like we’re having too much fun!”
My favorite story about Michael’s antics comes from the birth of my twin boys. Following a 1:00 a.m delivery by Cesarian section, Gail was neatly stitched up by her doctors. Around noon that day it was finally possible for family and friends to visit her and newborn Brooks and Casey in the hospital room. The first person other than close family to arrive was Michael, who happened to be in town. When he appeared at the door Gail raised her hand firmly as if to block his entrance, “Michael, whatever you do, don’t get me laughing!” she exclaimed. He came in accompanied by a group friends and within 30 seconds was telling jokes and had the whole room literally in stitches. Of course, Gail eventually forgave him.
What Michael enjoyed most were days spent walking in nature. On several occasions he took me high up on the west-facing slope of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco Bay where we’d begin a long hike down to the sea. As we strolled along the trail Michael would point out how gracefully the micro-eco-systems changed from place to place: from oak grove, to redwood glen, to grassy field, to sage brush chaparral, and eventually to the shores of a Pacific Ocean beach. He enjoyed pointing out the details, sharing his sense of the world’s divine interconnections. As Walker Black, his teenage son, commented at Michael’s memorial service, it was on those mountain strolls that "he felt most happy, most at completely at home."