Marc Kummel: Our Own Little Country

The legendary science teacher of Dunn Middle School, Marc Kummel, otherwise known as Treebeard, resembles a wizard as he strokes his white beard and reflects upon his life. An unassuming genius, he seems always to have been propelled by a profound sense of wonder and curiosity, a fierce need for autonomy, and above all, his love for music.

“I come from a musical family. My mother is an incredible musician. She can play any instrument, any song, any key, just by ear. She played six different instruments in high school. If they had the band set up and they needed a bassoon, my mother would learn to play the bassoon. But mainly she plays piano. She actually played once with Lester Young when she was in high school. She had records of Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie… not many white people were listening to music like that back then — music was a lot more segregated. So I grew up listening to some of that. I took piano lessons, too. I played until seventh grade, and that’s when I started playing guitar.”

“I was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1947. For awhile, we lived above a delicatessen in Racine, Wisconsin, in a neighborhood that was half Danish, half Polish. One of my earliest memories is of seeing wild asparagus growing in a field on the way to school. I picked it, brought it home, and my mother cooked it. I can also remember my dad going out on an iceboat -a little boat with skis on it and a sail. He’d take it out on Lake Michigan and try to let the wind blow him around. I didn’t get to do that ’cause he used to crash. It never worked very well.”

“As kids, we never fully understand what our parents are going through. My dad had been in the infantry during World War II – he actually walked all the way to Germany from France. He married my mother right away after the war, and I was born nine months later. He was going to school and working nights in a steel mill, which I can’t even imagine. The first thing he tried to do when he got back from the war was to write a mystery, but it didn’t get published, and he had to work. He went back to school and kind of worked towards becoming a lawyer, but he also took engineering courses. He was always an interesting person, kind of an inventor, so he got into the legal end of inventions. He worked at a firm called Case, which builds giant farm equipment. He finally made it through school and became a patent lawyer at Case, and then was offered a job at Carnation Milk in California. So my parents packed up everything they owned, withdrew their life savings of about $500, and found an apartment in Santa Monica. It was a big move.”

“We lived three blocks away from the beach in Santa Monica. I became a surfer kid, and I attribute everything I am to that. It was absolutely the best way to live. We were on the beach every day. I didn’t have a lot of friends in school, but when you’re surfing, it doesn’t matter. The thing about surfing is that we were self-contained. And once we got old enough to drive, it was great. We came up to Ventura almost every weekend. We never went to Santa Barbara. It was like the waves stopped at Rincon. Once you got past Rincon, there was nothing, but the other side of Rincon, especially Ventura, at California Street, was great. We’d get up at four in the morning Saturday and Sundays so we could be up there for sunrise, get home in the dark and fall asleep. But we were on our own. We were kids. Our own country.”

“I had the run of the town when I was a kid. I could go anywhere, and I didn’t have to ask anyone to take me. I walked to school, about eight or nine blocks, and I always used to walk through the alleys , where you could find neat stuff. My best find was a crank-up Victorola record player. I took it home and my dad and I fixed it up, sanded it down, refinished it, got it working and gave it to my mom for Christmas. And I played my mom’s incredible jazz collection, those old 78s.”

“So I lived in Santa Monica through high school, and then I went to Harvey Mudd College, which is a really good school, and a hard one to get into. When I was there, they only had a hundred and fifty people in the entire school. They offered four majors – math, chemistry, physics, or engineering. It was fine, but it was also 1965, a tumultuous year. Suddenly hippies appeared on the scene, and suddenly we were at war in Vietnam and protesting, and suddenly you could be driving your car and hearing Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles’ newest songs on the radio. It was a great time to be alive. It was real exciting. But it was hard to stay focused in school. With everything going on, I became less and less interested in engineering, physics and chemistry.”

“I transferred out and ended up in Santa Barbara thinking that I could study marine biology and be right on the beach so I could still go surfing. But you had to take Biology 101 or something – a full-year class of just memorizing. It was the worst class I ever had in my life, and it drove me out of biology. At the same time, I was taking a class in the history of philosophy, and it was the most interesting class I had ever taken in my life! By the end of that year, I had given up on biology and figured I was in philosophy, and stuck with it. I was there for three years, and then I took a year off, and I went to live up in the Sierras.”

“I worked as a bartender in the Sierras at June Lake at a big ski resort where I got paid $30 a month, but I got room and board, a lift ticket, and a car I could drive. What else do you need? So in the fall I cut firewood, in the winter I tended bar, in the spring I went backpacking, and it was a great time. I went back to school as a grad student in philosophy and lived in Isla Vista for awhile in an old farmhouse. It was a beautiful house, but I was sleeping on the sofa, and I couldn’t go to bed until everyone else did, so I moved out.”

“I had an office on the top floor in Ellison Hall , so I lived in my office at UCSB for three months, and that was a pain, because the cleaning people came around after midnight to clean out the rooms, and you weren’t allowed to sleep in your offices, so you had to be awake looking like you were doing schoolwork, until the janitor people came by, and as soon as the janitors were done, you could turn out the lights and go to bed. There were twenty or thirty of us in that building who were doing that. And there were stairwells in that building, the emergency stairways — I’d be sitting there late at night playing guitar, and the echoes for playing guitar in that space were really incredible. I actually got to know people that way. I’d be on the top floor, taking a break from studying, so I’d go sit and play some blues in the stairwell, and suddenly someone three floors down would start jamming along, and we’d have these great music jams, and you didn’t even know sometimes who you were playing with.”

“But finally a place opened up in the mountains. It was on Kinevan Ranch, an old house with a horse corral, and somehow, we had seven different people living at this place. My room was the tack room…a tiny space with a dirt floor. I built a floor in it, and had a little porch out in front, and in that room, I had my bed, all my books, all my records and comics, a desk for writing, and a wood-burning stove that I ordered from a Sears catalog. That place was tight! But it got me up in the mountains. I loved being in the mountains, because I could go out the front door and be out in the woods.”

“So I lived in this little place on Kinevan Ranch with seven philosophers. It later became known as Zucchini Ranch and became kind of a hippie commune after we left. But for now I had my little tack room, and I worked really hard at philosophy, and that was when I met my wife Julie. Her VW bug got stalled, and I helped her. We’ve been together for thirty years. It’s amazing.”

“Living up in the mountains was a little like being a surfer. It was just you. No one’s telling you what to do. Live with the consequences. Go out in waves too big? Deal with it. But there’s nobody telling you not to. It was that way up in the mountains. It felt like our own little country. (See? There it is again.) And it still does.”

“Meanwhile, I was officially writing my thesis, and teaching at the same time. But they never teach you how to teach. You spend all your time taking classes, and then all of a sudden, they say, ‘You’re teaching three classes, starting next week. Get ready.’ You don’t get any help. So, I did that for a couple of years, and then I stopped. It was time to focus on my thesis. That’s when you’ve done all your schoolwork, and all you have to do is write a book, an original piece of work. And they test you on the book to see if you understand it and to make sure you really wrote it. And then you get a Ph.D. I was at that point. I had an idea, and I got it kind of half-finished, and I had this big milk crate full of papers – I still have it -but it just got harder and harder to sit and work on it.”

“So one night I was hanging out at Cold SpringsTavern, which is right near where I used to live. During the week, it was a nice, quiet mellow place. This particular Sunday night, I got to talking to a neat group of people, and it turned out they all worked at a place called the Outdoor School over at Cachuma church camp by Lake Cachuma. They needed a substitute, starting tomorrow, which was like, in five hours. So I said, ‘Sure,’ ’cause I wasn’t doing anything except writing my thesis and getting unemployment – I had been teaching long enough that when that job ended, they paid me for not doing it, which was really nice. So I took a job as a substitute taking sixth grade kids on nature walks in the woods.”

“Whenever someone on the staff of the Outdoor School was sick, or if they had a really huge group, I would go. That’s where I got the name Treebeard. And after three years of being a substitute, I started working there full-time. So you see, I never really decided to teach. It was all just by chance. And then, one of the groups that came to the Outdoor School was Dunn Middle School, which at the time was headed by Jim Brady, someone who had, a few years before, been a philosophy student at UCSB and been in a few of my classes. Another weird little twist! Jim offered me a job teaching at Dunn.”

“By now Julie and I had our two sons, so the timing was right. We were living in this little cabin with no electricity, and holes in the roof, but it was paradise. It was completely self -contained – had its own little artesian spring for its water source. We had a privy up the hill, a big garden, three goats, geese, and a Chumash painted cave just beyond the spring. It was a sacred place. But with kids in this house, it got a little hard. Julie and I started thinking about finding a new place to live.”

“Everything came together by chance, a lot of big changes. My parents and I had earlier had a falling out, but we had made peace when they became grandparents, and they loaned us money so we could buy property. At the same time, I was about to take a new job at Dunn Middle School, where I’d have a new name – I used to be Treebeard, and now I’d be Marc – and basically, a new identity in a whole new world. But I’m still here at Dunn, twenty years later.”

Marc is known at Dunn for his eclectic approach to science and life. He engages kids in fascinating science, computer exploration, weekly hikes into the remote reaches of Santa Barbara County, even an elective in model-making, where he and his students can be found contentedly piecing together plastic models of miniature airplanes, ships, and various other constructions. As they work, the sounds of classical music, blues, or surf guitar flow from the speakers and fill the sunlit rooms.

“More and more, I’m getting where I don’t like homework.. I don’t like getting it, and I’m not crazy about giving it. It has to have a real purpose. It gets in the way of too many things.”

For Marc, these things include creation of a computerized data base of Santa Barbara flora, watching old black and white movies on television, and hiking – his favorite walk is a five-mile trail that starts right outside his door.

“My current state of mind? Relaxed. I’m interested in the same things now that I was twenty forty years ago – maybe it’s a reawakening, or maybe I’ve never left them, but just out of the blue, I see that those are the things I’m still interested in. Very specifically, I’m trying to do a book on trees and shrubs, which is something Julie and I wanted to do before our kids were born. Couldn’t do that and raise kids at the same time. Now our kids have moved on, and I’m doing just that. There are a few things like that. It’s as if they were just interrupted, and now I’ve come back to them.”

“There’s music, of course. Music never went to second place. It’s always been number one in my life. Always. Music lets you instantly connect with someone. You may have nothing else in common, never seen them before, you don’t know who in the heck they are, but you can say ‘Charlie Parker’ and they light up. You have this incredible communication. Lately, I’m really enjoying listening to jazz and classical. If I had to choose one favorite composer, it would be Schubert. I listen to him over and over. Totally amazing. For a long time, I was listening to rock and roll. We even had a band when I was in college -we weren’t very good, but we had a lot of fun. And surf music is still some of my favorite music. It’s alive and well right now. There’s a great show on KCSB that starts on Friday at 3 p.m., which is when freedom comes. I always listen to it as I’m going home for the weekend.”

“One of the best parts of being a parent and having kids is being able to share music for a while. I used to take my kids to the Underground in Santa Barbara and the Living Room to hear their music. I remember we went to see Fishbone, one of the early ska bands – serious punk mosh scene. I had never seen anything like that. I looked up and there was my son Ewan jumping off the speaker. That was so much fun. Both of my sons are good musicians now. The high point of the year for me is the Live Oak Music Festival at the beginning of summer. Three days of music, staying up all night, playing music in the campground, you never sleep. It’s just phenomenal. I come out of that three days with no sleep, tired, feet so sore from dancing I can hardly walk, takes me about a week to recover, but it’s just so much fun – you spend three days playing music with strangers. Music is a common language.”

“I consider myself incredibly lucky because I’ve gotten away with a lot of things that others don’t get away with. My father had to work twenty years before he got two weeks’ vacation. I can’t imagine that. Two weeks over Christmas, and I just start to get relaxed, and that was his whole vacation. I get three months off to go live a whole ‘nother life. And that’s pretty lucky. Or it could be more than just luck. The option came along, and I took it. But no, I really think I’ve been lucky. Whenever I’ve needed something, something has come along. Maybe we’re all lucky, though. Maybe the whole secret to luck is just taking it when it comes along.”

“So I get to live in the mountains, drive to school, one stop sign each way, no stop lights. I think I do an honest job. I’m not ripping off anybody, and it’s such a blessing to be able to say that about yourself. A lot of people can’t say that.”

“It’s so cool when students come back to visit. So many kids drop by the middle school just to say hi. It’s an incredible network of good friends. Great people. It’s been almost twenty years here, and ten years before that at the Outdoor School, and a few years before that at UCSB. That’s a lot of time. A lot of time in the saddle. A lot of kids going by. It’s been wonderful.”

“Hangin’ out in Cold Spring Tavern is what got me teaching kids. So here’s my advice: hang out in bars, listen to rock and roll, and something will come along.”

1 Response to Marc Kummel: Our Own Little Country

  1. Yo Marc. I just came across this bio of you and recalled that when we rendezvoused at C street we really didn’t get a chance to catch up. Dan Osborn, seemingly over eager to head out to the Cottage Cafe, sort of rushed us off. Well, if you ever have a hankering to head out Ojai way, give us a call (646-7943) and we can kick back and recover some of those old memories. Your old (literally as the years add up) friend, Robin Daniels

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