Life Tribute – Rider Reynolds

Rider Reynolds

Rider Reynolds (March 25, 1988-Feb. 24, 2021) was born and raised in a spacious part of Bethany, Oklahoma (population 12,000 at the time).

Rider greatly valued careful analysis, and rest. Even when he couldn’t rest he was analyzing. As a child he walked in his sleep. I came upon him in the living room about 3 a.m. once, assembling the vacuum cleaner that he had disassembled. I led him back to bed. The next morning, he had no memory of the event — and re-assembled the vacuum cleaner. When I told his mother about this, she remarked that she’d happened upon him twice in the early hours, unconsciously but carefully disassembling and reassembling waffle blocks or other toys. Sleep was often more difficult for him than for most of us — sometimes, in his early teen years I could hear him pacing in his room with a distinctive hop every six or seven steps.

Rider was encouraged by his two grandfathers to “try to make the world fit who you are, don’t try to make yourself what it wants you to be, because it’s crazier than a peach orchard boar.”

One was a rancher, the other a machinist — both veterans of WWII. Like them, he was a reticent and generous person. Like them he did not seek what most of us call happiness — he preferred peace instead. Later, when we recalled Rider’s childhood, his mother and I realized that noise, in the house or in the neighborhood, bothered him as much as it did our fathers. Noise, more than for most people, prevented them and him from resting and from thinking. Sleep walking and pacing were “coping mechanisms.”

Like his mother, Rider was an extraordinarily careful thinker. For example, in the second grade his teacher once called us to a meeting to express surprise and dismay that he — one of her best students, she said — had scored so low on a national test she’d given the class.

“He only answered the first third of the questions,” the teacher said, “I’m certain he could have correctly answered nearly all the rest of the questions, but he seems to have stopped.”

I had no explanation but his mother said, “He stays with a question until he can give an answer — then and only then does he proceed to the next question. I was the same at his age.”

I was stunned. Being a city boy, I had been taught to move through the questions on a test at breakneck speed, spending as little time as possible on each question.

Rider always kept his word. There is still a broken place on the surface of a wall of his bedroom, from where he put his fist into that wall as a response to my anxious fatherly question, “Are you SURE you turned that math paper in?”

He said, “I don’t lie!” That was true, I never caught him in a lie. Rider was a person of principle, but not a puritan. He was practical about truth, not judgmental — if he didn’t think he could keep a promise he wouldn’t make one. So to most people, he seemed shy, or unusually modest or introverted. He may have even seemed lazy to some, but his accomplishments belied that possible impression — he was a great example of “economy of movement” and efficient production.

Rider esteemed public service as much as he did peace and science. He served for a year as a guide at Oklahoma City’s Myriad Botanical Gardens. Later, as research assistant for forestry professor Dr. Difei Zhang, he would present her with an origami flower or tree as a sign of respect. (He had taught himself origami when he was 12 years old.) She admired his custom of keeping the “old ways” (e.g., native American customs my father had taught him), such as not discussing someone who was chronically ill — because it couldn’t help them and might hurt them …so although Rider discussed much with Dr. Zhang, he never mentioned his mother because she had been hospitalized a few times in recent years.

He was a peaceful person but not a passive one. He took aikido lessons for a long time because, he said, it’s about protecting yourself without hurting whoever or whatever is trying to hurt you, in return. Hurting them in return, to Rider was a waste of time, energy and spirit.

Rider was the oldest of the Peace Corps group he accompanied to northwest Zambia. He lived in a small village (50 people) where the Lunda language was the primary means of communication, teaching young villagers how to build and maintain a fish hatchery (to restock the river), a tree nursery and a sustainable chicken coop — that is to say, how to maintain “the old ways” at home instead of becoming cheap labor in a big city. A young friend in Zambia gave him a bracelet made of native grasses. He wore it until the day he died, the way others might wear a Rolex wristwatch or something made of gold or ivory. Rider did know the value of money, however, and saved it like no one I ever knew. The savings were intended, he hinted, for financing a family when he was about 40, and for first visiting Nepal again. (On the way home from Zambia, he spent a month there, alone, resting, thinking, making sketches.)

When Rider began working for the U.S. Forest Service at Klamath National Forest, he lived in Happy Camp, California. Happy Camp has a population of 1,100, so it is much larger than his Zambian village or research lab at Oklahoma State University or his work area in the arboretum at the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City. But he lived in relative solitude at Happy Camp and slept well. He enjoyed outdoors in the sun, as a silvacultural specialist leading a crew. Apparently his work record and personal qualities were highly regarded, because in early 2021 he was offered a higher-paying position with more responsibilities at a nearby National Forest (Lassen) in northern California.

Rider rented an apartment in Susanville (population 20,000, and 230 miles east of Happy Camp) on Feb. 19, 2021 in order to begin his new job duties on Feb. 22 but he died, unexpectedly on Feb. 24. His supervisor noticed that that he had not registered for the teleworking conference — because of COVID-19 some of the National Forests in northern California were closed until May — and did not answer his phone, so she alerted a sheriff’s deputy who found him deceased at age 32 in the apartment where he’d lived for five days.

I have his ashes in an urn situated next to a folded American flag in acknowledgement of his public service with Oklahoma City, with a state land-grant university here, with the U.S. State Department overseas and the Agricultural Department in national forests. But that small memorial only indicates what he was — a good and faithful servant. If you’d worked with him, you’d know who he was — a peaceful spirit that will never die as long as we live, rest, think and achieve.