On August 11, 2011, my friend Matt Coleman’s body was found on a property near Cape Vizcaino in northern California. The damage to his flesh was so extensive that authorities speculated at first that he had been the victim of a bear attack.
He’d been dead all day, but wasn’t found and recovered until about 11:30 p.m., well after dark even there in the land of the long northern summer (which might explain the forensics error). Closer inspection under lights revealed injuries “consistent with gunshot wounds.”
Matt left New Paltz in the late Nineties after a period of volitional indigence, living in tents on the lawns of friends and spending a lot of time in the mountains. A kind of maverick, intellectual naturalist who loved a party, Matt got a degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and plied the trade just long enough to know that it wasn’t for him. He stuck around to work on the Magnificent Glass Pelican audio theater with us and to indulge his passion for going deep into nature. Much as he loved them, the Gunks probably didn’t go deep enough for Matt Coleman.
That, of course, was the call that drew my friend to California, that and the 13,743 books he had read, mostly non-fiction. We believe he did time at first as a fisheries inspector, eventually landing a steady job and building an identity as a property manager and coordinator of volunteers for the Mendocino Land Trust, in which capacity he was serving when he was gunned down by a deranged, heavily armed man named Aaron Bassler, who was cultivating poppies near where Matt had been working that day.
Two weeks later, Bassler murdered the popular Fort Bragg councilman and former mayor Jere Melo. The largest manhunt in California history ensued, a fact that, quite honestly, Coleman, a keeper of California outlaw myth, would have appreciated. On October 1, 2011, Aaron Bassler was found and killed.
I did not really know California’s Matt Coleman, the one described by Mendocino Land Trust board president Winston Bowen as “steady, hard working and unpretentious … the kind of person you want on your team.”
The Matt I knew and loved for a decade was capricious, contrarian, big-hearted but unpredictable, full of wild ideas, and nobody’s property. He was precisely the kind of guy I wanted on my team, and my team has not been quite complete since.
But I have no difficulty extrapolating that other Matt. A caged animal in polite society, Matt knew exactly what the West Coast meant to him: transformation, getting lost and found. Long before his death, his friends here in New Paltz mythologized this cat. You just couldn’t help it. He was too smart, tough, tender, adventurous, and free of affectation.
He changed, in his own view, from a burn-things-down rebel to a patch-things-up rebel. “He energized volunteers to do the kind of heavy labor it takes to remove invasive species and maintain roads so they do not foul our streams and rivers with sediment,” said Bowen.
But he was a rebel.
Because he was a man with a deep grasp of things and because it helps, a romantic notion that I permit is that just before he died he recognized exactly what was happening. Along with every other natural animal response, he embraced it all in a flood of sunlight and final wisdom and something like flashing bliss. Lord knows he’d earned it.
We celebrate him every August 11. If you care to hear this musical version of this story: https://thesweetclementines.bandcamp.com/track/a-waltz-for-matt-coleman.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.