Thursday, February 14, 2008

A life well lived...

...A man well loved

Someone I knew died. I didn't know him well, but I admired him. Dr. Sam Ristich, locally known as Sam the Mushroom Man, died peacefully in his chair in North Yarmouth Maine this week.

Sam was in love with mushrooms. Boy, he sure could get equally excited when leading a woodland walk spotting a slime mold on a rotting log or a grand majestic tier of polyporus squamosis on a tree. Once, back when I worked in an office, I watched a mushroom grow on the tree on front of my window. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. Finally it was so humungous, my friend called someone who knew Dr. Sam. He came right over. He got so excited about the mushroom I thought he'd jump out of his skin. So then we all got excited too. He was infectious in a good way.

A few years later I became his tenant. I'd see him outside in the winter, shoveling, putting out orange skins for the birds, sprinkling bird seed. The light in his study at night would spill out to the driveway, making yellow patches on the snow. He'd be bent over a microscope examining, learning. At 90 years old his enthusiasm for anything and everything never dimmed. He was entranced by snow, birds, nature, life...he loved it and exhibited it in his actions and through his heart. He was an inspiration.

New England, the US and even the world knew him as Dr. Sam Ristich, foremost authority in the mycological arena of science. The natural world, even. Serving in the US Air Corps in Bermuda Sam discovered a cahow in Bermuda in 1945. This is a bird that thought to have been extinct since 1650. That's Sam! Goes out for a walk and discovers something that turns the scientific world on its head. The Smithsonian holds in its collections the specimen discovered in 1945 by Samuel Ristich on Coopers Island, Bermuda. There's a documentary about it now, called "Rare Bird," just released.

I just knew him as Sam the mushroom man, and sometime landlord. When I moved from his apartment he gave me this mushroom stamp. The message on the back reads in part: "Dear Elizabeth, I hope you find prolonged happiness."

Dear Sam: I hope you do too.


sandra said...

Sam Ristich was an inspiration to all who knew him either personally or from his work. I am so lucky to have met him through RAMA and at NEMF forays over the years. So glad I was at NEMF this past Aug to be reinspired by Sam and his incredible zest for life and his willingness to share his passion with us all

Ruthie Ristich said...

Elizabeth you really captured an accurate portrait of Sam. His enthusiasm and overall joie de vivre will be missed by hundreds of people. The lovely green mushroom card he gave you was made with spores from an upside-down mushroom cap. Once the spores fell out into a lovely pattern (this was a gilled mushroom), Daddy would fix the powdery spores with a clear spray shellac. His own spore art prints! I made him hundreds of blank cards in different colors with his return address and a blank space for an address and stamp. And he filled them all up with hundreds of different colored spores! Lucky you to have one! Thanks for your posting.

Anonymous said...

We arrived at Elizabeth's office after delivering old bikes to a friend of Sams who helped children with challenges repair them. We had also been to the lawnmower repair guy (Sullivan's in North Yarmouth)...Sam insisted on helping me get my ailing machine over there. We travelled in Bruce's old beat up jeep truck, Sam ringing his hands and fretting as I ground the gears.."Is this thing safe?". We talked of fairy rings and the butterfly tree...Bruce had taken him to see a fairy ring the last week of Bruce's life ( a "hallellejah" moment), and the butterflies on the tree that weeped sap because of the yellow belly sap suckers held infinite fascination for Sam. His enthusiasm's crossed bounds....from accomodating a request to identify or view fungi, to celebrating the wonder of a circle of life (the fairy ring; the butterfly tree: tree starts to die, insects infest, bird makes hole to get insect, sap comes out, butterflies flock to sap, and on and on), to supporting another person's passionate pursuit to help disadvantaged children, to solving the problem of the faulty lawnmower. His curiosity was childlike, infectious. And his concern for others and the world was me "you need to do something about this truck..." to my son "what have you done for the world today?"

Thanks Elizabeth, for this memory.

PS The orange peels and other scatterings, particularly the compost behind the barn, would attract the deer, to which Sam would query..."I wonder what's attracting the deer?" "Could it be the compost?" "Holy Cow, maybe you're right!"

Michael said...

Sam truly was the poster child for the never stop learning campaign. I can remember going on a mushroom foray with Sam when I was 12 or 13.
We had found an Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric I believe?) Sam quickly warned me of it's powers. "That one will make you walk on the ceiling!" he said.
Not wishing to do any "moon-walking" at that time in my life I heeded his warning, and left the fungus alone.
He was such an inspration and mentor to my father, that my father refuses to remove Sam's number from his cell phone.
I hope he can see from where he is now how many lives he's touched.

Anonymous said...

There are hundreds, if not thousands of people like myself lucky to hav Sam call me his friend. He made friends easily and kept many for a lifetime I am told. I was looking for a job at Cornell and was given a contact name at Boyce Thompson Institute, Which had just moved there from Yonkers. When I got there I asked this man where Dr. Ristich might be found. This man was dressed in workboots, worn pants and flannel shirt, a janitor i thought. He joyfully took me to an office , half unpacked, in organized chaos and He informed me that he was Dr. Ristich and dto call him Sam.
For the next four years I worked with Sam but mostly we studied mushrooms together, collected , photographed and went over weekend collections. i was always amazed at his knowledge, patience with me and with his delight a childs sense of wonder, that apparently never left him. This was his greatest gift, that he shared freely, could not contain this fire, this joy. To be near that fire could easily start the same fire in those close to him. The name guru,, his little joke, was in some ways fitting, if a guru shows the way to the sacred, Sam saw that in everything around but especially in nature in the bird, the flower, tree, rotting stump. He saw that in people also and in me. Enthusiasm has been mentioned and it is a good word, comes from the Greek for filled with the spirit. That is where the joy came from, the fire.

Pathfinder said...

I did not know Sam Ristich. I have lived in North Yarmouth for 40 years. Funny how we cross paths with others.

I am a runner and I love running trails. One day a few weeks back, I was running Oakhill (which is a great place for hill workouts) I noticed a sign on a tree about 3/4 of the way up the hill. It read Town Forest trail.

Yesterday I ran that trail and when i came out I noticed Sam Ristich Nature trail across the street.

I ran that trail and at the trail head found a poster of Sam the mushroom Guru.

Intrigued, I looked the name up on the internet and found your blog. It seems the world is so small sometimes.

Many wrote here that Sam inspired all who knew him. Well now I can say he inspired many who did not know him or of his work.

I love nature and love running through the woods. How could a great man like Sam live in the same town and I never crossed paths with him?

I virtually live .4 miles from the Sulivans small engine repair and only 1 mile from the Sam Ristich Nature Trail. But I had to read a blog from a gal in Georgia
to learn about his amazing work.

I only wish I could have had the pleasure to meet Sam.

My blog site: HHTP://

Elizabeth Prata said...

Hi Pathfinder,

I visited your blog and I love the honor you paid Sam by your photos and writing.

The best legacy he gave me was unto the very last day of his life, into his 90s, he still had a sense of wonder and love for life and nature. Wow.