Matt Fisken: Back to the Garden

Jack Kerouac Shrine at Phish IT Festival. Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles.

Jack Kerouac Shrine at Phish IT Festival. Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Matt Fisken, a freelance energy adviser, permaculturist and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hartford.

Phish from Vermont is well-known for their noodly improvisation and on-stage antics, so when the band climbed atop a box truck in the middle of Madison Square Garden this past New Year’s Eve, their giddy fans completely tuned in to the moment. Twenty thousand in attendance and thousands more viewing a webcast were taken back in time as the quartet dusted off their old instruments, stepped up to mics on hockey sticks and treated revelers to a throwback set of tunes, many from guitarist Trey Anastasio’s Goddard College thesis, “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” [1]

Following a spirited “Reba,” the band started playing “Icculus” while Trey spoke to “the message” they’ve tried to convey “through the music.” With tongue-in-cheek, he scolded the crowd, “some of you aren’t getting the message … and it’s pissing us off,” and suggested they could read “The Book.” [2] Specifically, “The Helping Friendly Book” comes from Anastasio’s whimsical saga about the Lizards of Gamehendge, which using a little imagination, could easily represent any number of real books, some with strong roots here in the Green Mountains.

One is Helen and Scott Nearing’s “The Good Life,” a part memoir, part manual describing the couple’s experience fleeing the physical and political hostility of New York City during the Great Depression and going back to the land in southern Vermont. Their accessible writings about experiments in self-reliance no doubt laid a solid foundation for the local, organic and slow food movements which have blossomed over the past few decades. Any high-schooler would benefit from reading this unique piece of Vermont history, showing that life was not only possible before the days of electricity, computers and cellphones, but it could also be enjoyable.

Fifty years after “On The Road” was published, a passage from the book would inspire Phish’s 2003 IT Festival, which drew more than 60,000 people to Maine’s Loring Air Force Base.


“The Big Book,” written by Dr. William Silkworth and Bill Wilson is the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous and was also a product of the 1930s when Wilson, a Dorset native, was hospitalized in New York City for his life-threatening alcoholism. After experiencing an epiphany of bright light and a vision of standing on a mountaintop surrounded by a “wind of the spirit,” Bill’s obsession with alcohol lifted and he never drank again. His detoxifying “hot flash” was the catalyst for his desire to help others find a spiritual path toward recovery, away from alcohol abuse. Dr. Bob Smith (also a Vermonter) and Bill W. founded A.A. together in 1935, which has provided invaluable support for many in recovery.

A lesser-known book with a profound effect on Western culture was published in Vermont in 1932 by Dwight Goddard. An engineer who made a fortune designing military equipment during World War I, Goddard left a successful life of science to become a Congregational minister. While on mission in the Far East, he encountered Buddhism and eventually wrote a number of books on the subject, including a massive text of translations he titled “A Buddhist Bible.” This anthology of ancient Eastern philosophy was “locked up” from the West before being “released” by one persistent man — a series of events closely resembling the storyline in Anastasio’s college thesis. It would be interesting if there was a familial connection between Goddard College’s namesake, Thomas Goddard, a carriage maker in Boston during the 1870s, and Dwight who was born in Worcester in 1861.

Even though Goddard’s fascinating legacy is largely obscured today, (his Wikipedia page was deleted in 2007 [3]), as fate would have it, Jack Kerouac discovered Goddard’s book at his local library and became transfixed by the enigmatic concepts of Zen Buddhism. Many credit Kerouac for igniting the Beat revolution, leading to the counterculture movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Fifty years after “On The Road” was published, a passage from the book would inspire Phish’s 2003 IT Festival, which drew more than 60,000 people to Maine’s Loring Air Force Base, a decommissioned airstrip in the northeasternmost corner of the United States. A billboard placed at the center of the event borrowed a passage from Kerouac’s novel explaining what “IT” meant.

Quite simply, “the message” or “IT” might be that if one decides to look for peace in this crazy, restless world, it will always be there waiting. Finding enduring ways to embrace life with courage, creativity and humility is no easy task, but there is so much to learn when we pursue wisdom and health with an open mind and a willing heart.


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  • Vanessa Mills

    Nice piece. Thank you, for conveying “the message.” Corporate capitalism wants to sell to us the ideas that we are unsatisfied and unhappy, by visually baiting and stimulating us, then using consumer’s brand-buying dollars to fund the ways they show us we need to buy more of that they’re selling.

    Thanks, Matt, for framing ‘it’ in such a way that reminds us (positively) that there is hope and meaning and , yes, contentment, in changing the steps of the dance that has been the status quo.

    Creativity is the ultimate renewable resource. Do we choose to use it for the good?

  • zach george

    Interesting. I think we have a lot in common. Let’s talk. Best, Zach

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