Rikki Hall spends his days in a cottage with bright green shutters on a steep, wooded hillside in South Knoxville, with his wife Kim Pilarski-Hall and a standard poodle named Jenny and a couple of cats, Momma, Ocie, Ornj, Bubb Rubb, and Li’l Sis.
Last week a cat brought in a dying bird, and Rikki cradled it gently, concerned and curious. His illness makes him forget some things, but at the dawn of one more spring he remains a student of how things work, and how they came to be. That prevailing curiosity is what got him a degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, why he came to Knoxville to study ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee and in the Smokies, and has a lot to do with why he’s been one of Metro Pulse’s most-discussed political columnists.
He hasn’t given that up yet, but today he’s not sure he’ll turn in another column. A year ago he was diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme. After surgery and treatment at Duke University last year, he seemed to be getting better. Since that original diagnosis, he has turned in eight columns for publication, about unnecessary bureaucratic challenges of solar power, about potential corruption in state government, about the black-throated green warbler, endangered by the loss of hemlocks in the Smokies. It says something about his character that not one of them mentions his own plight.
But this year he has taken a turn for the worse. Doctors are surprised he smiles every day. And it’s not even a sad smile. It’s a grin. He’s enjoying these moments with friends, and the sunshine and emergent green of a new spring.
There’s one question people ask about Rikki Hall, when he’s not in the room. He has a thick mop of dark-brown hair, with little hint of gray. He’s always been athletically thin. You might guess he was a grad student. But he seems to have some personal history. “Do you have any idea how old he is?”
When he wakes up in the morning, the mockingbirds in the back yard seem to call his name. “Rikki! Rikki!” His wife Kim asked him what they were telling him. “To get the f--k up!” he says.
His name at birth was Richard, but no one calls him that. He got the unusual spelling of his nickname a long time ago, from his grandmother. The title character of Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a fearless mongoose who protects a human family from cobras. “It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity,” Kipling wrote. “The motto of all the mongoose family is ‘Run and find out’; and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose.”
He was born in Redondo Beach, Calif., in 1965. Walking to school he could see the smog of Los Angeles, and wanted to find out about it. His family moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where his dad was an engineer involved in government work. His parents took Rikki and his brother to Audubon Society lectures at the Smithsonian. (“I think that planted a seed,” says his mother, Yolanda, who now lives in Asheville.) But he expected to be an engineer, and never took any biology either in high school or in his undergraduate years at MIT, where he earned his degree in humanities and engineering. “It was very challenging, but it was fun,” he says of MIT. “It’s fun to be challenged in a creative way.” A singer and guitarist, he fronted a couple of Boston-based bands.
He liked aerospace engineering, but when he got to thinking about jobs, he wondered if he’d taken a wrong turn. “I didn’t want to work for the government,” he says. “I wanted to do science. But I didn’t necessarily want to do war.”
He’d been fascinated with bugs since childhood, and moved to Knoxville, both to enter a master’s program in biology, studying spiders at UT, and to explore the Smokies, famous for their biodiversity. At UT he had a reputation as brilliant but undisciplined, with a restless mind, one that eventually carried him to another biological program, one concentrating on the glial cells in the brain, whose function is to support and protect the neurons. It was to be the subject of his master’s thesis.
“I’m not sure how far I’m gonna get with it,” he says. Whether it qualifies as irony or not, his particular cancer concerns a dysfunction of the glial cells.
Meanwhile, he was becoming known as one of Knoxville’s most eloquent environmentalists. While working in database management for Global Access Resources, he wrote for the advocacy paper Tennessee Green, then for the sometimes sharper-edged Hellbender Press, the now-defunct paper named for a startlingly large native salamander. He championed environmental causes without compromise. As editor of Hellbender, Rikki wrote a nature column called Six Legs and a Buzz.
He got involved in local politics during the KnoxRecall petition drive, a grass-roots movement demanding accountability concerning alleged political machinations in the wake of the cancer death of young Councilman Danny Mayfield in 2001. Soon after, Hall became thickly involved in the mayoral campaign of Madeline Rogero, offering technical support when she was running against Bill Haslam. He worked for Jim Andrews’ unsuccessful campaign for sheriff.
But he doesn’t respect most partisan lines, and sometimes argues that other levels of government should be as non-partisan as Knoxville city politics are. He eventually became a vocal fan of ostensibly Republican Mayor Haslam and his fence-mending skills. Rikki even proposed, perhaps tongue in cheek, that Haslam be excused from the term-limit rule on the basis of the fact he had declined a salary for the job. (He seemed, more recently, less impressed with Haslam’s gubernatorial policies.)
Rikki was still at Hellbender about eight years ago when he began writing an occasional naturalist column for Metro Pulse called That’s Wild. East Tennessee is known for its abundance of bird species, and for decades, Knoxville papers made room for a birdwatching column. Sometimes Rikki turned in a column entirely about birds and what they were up to this month. It may have been the last in that tradition.
“Life is sacred and profane,” he wrote in a column about the fates of baby barn swallows living at the defunct Bridgeview Grill.
He noticed subtleties in color and sound, and wanted us to notice them, too, often with a don’t-miss-it urgency. “If you can get close enough to robins to hear their quieter vocalizations, you can’t help but be impressed with all the sounds they make,” he wrote in the summer of ’09. “There is plenty of room for a vocabulary, surely not one broad enough to support philosophical ruminations, but perhaps just big enough for making fun of squirrels.”
He saw himself as a translator. “It comes with the turf,” of nature writing, he says today. “You’re always dealing with sort of a foreign language. That’s one of the challenges, to develop the ability to translate what you’re hearing into what they’re saying.
“Often in nature writing, the real fun is finding some link between this bird and that plant, and bringing out these connections. The more you learn about it, the more you learn we can’t do without this thing.”
Readers are sometimes delighted, sometimes disappointed with his opinions, which were never as predictable as dogma. “Good subject matter comes at you from unexpected directions,” he says. “That kind of goes with nature writing. It’s always fun to write something that people aren’t expecting. When opportunities arise, I try to seize them.”
His humor is sometimes urgent, and effective as a dagger.
“If you have never figured out which trees are hemlocks,” he wrote in 2007, “it is getting easier to recognize them. They are the dead ones.”
Rikki admired black widows, “among the most beautiful spiders, with patent-leather black bodies and vivid red markings. They are also quite timid.... If you touch their web, they hide. They can tell you are too big for a meal.”
He’s less forgiving of politicians, whom he finds much more troubling than poisonous spiders, especially concerning environmental issues. In his columns Rikki is not obviously partisan, politically, though he did once single out a party that, in his opinion, was too corrupted by power and greed to see the urgency of the environmental crisis. He was referring to the Democrats.
“It is easy to polarize scientific debate...into an all-or-nothing shouting match,” he wrote. “It’s easy to make jokes...but if we let the shouting and laughter distract us from the coughing and wheezing, we are buffoons.”
His Metro Pulse column became more and more political, eventually relaunched as Sideways Glance. But we always suspected that he saw politics as a biologist would, as another ecosystem. “The strange thing about intelligence is how easy it is to fake. What looks smart is sometimes just a lucky mistake.” He was describing ants.
But he worries about politicians. “Despite heavy regulation, our beer market is free and functional, but our political market feels more like a Soviet grocer during a wheat shortage. Shelves are bare in the marketplace of ideas.” He can sound cynical, but he keeps trying.
He has an especially discerning readership among university professors. “He’s sharp, witty, astute, fresh, irreverent, and right on target,” says Professor Daniel Feller, the nationally known history scholar. “Environmental writing can often be preachy and ponderous, but Rikki’s was the opposite of that. I first saw his work in Hellbender Press and found it riveting, and have eagerly devoured every word of his I’ve seen since.”
In late 2012, Rikki married his girlfriend of three years, Kim Pilarski. Three months later, on Valentine’s Day, he was gathering wildflowers for her when he thought he was having a stroke. Doctors discovered a brain lesion, and it was soon diagnosed as a lethal cancer.
“It doesn’t really bother me that much,” Rikki says, a year later. “It’s kind of interesting.” After a pause, he adds, remembering that not everyone instantly follows his reasoning: “For me that seems like the way to approach things, just to study and understand them. Especially something like this that’s not well understood, and needs to be.”
His mother and his wife attest that he does not complain. Discomfort is uninteresting, Rikki says, “unless there’s something peculiar about it, something to be learned.” During his illness, their cheerful house has entertained a parade of well-wishers, performing bluegrass tunes and Buddhist ceremonies for the smiling patient.
At 49, he says he has lived an extraordinarily privileged life, and sees no point in worrying about death. “I’ve thought about it all my life,” he says, “so it’s not a fresh plum to poke at.”
He remarked to a friend recently that he wanted to be remembered as “an original mind.” Today, when asked to assess his life, he grins. “That sounds like a column topic to ponder.
“I hope that I’ve helped broaden people’s interests a bit, made them look a little closer for things they might have overlooked.” m
Rikki’s friends, and there are many, are planning a special tribute to Rikki at Scruffy City Hall on Market Square, Thursday, March 20 at 7 p.m. A benefit for one of Rikki’s favorite charities, Little River Watershed (his medical bills are already covered), it will feature local bands performing the music of one of his favorite musicians, Warren Zevon, who wasn’t much older than Rikki when he died from peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer of the abdominal lining. Zevon famously remarked, after his fatal prognosis, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Corrected: Rikki's nature column was called Six Legs and a Buzz, not (ahem) Six Wings. And Warren Zevon did not die from brain cancer, but rather a cancer of the abdominal lining.