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John S. Wires (March 3, 1922 - July 1, 2013)

MeaningfulFunerals - 12:38 pm Fri Jul 5th, 2013

John Wires, 91, a beloved teacher, visionary, and an early pioneer of Vermont's back-to-the-land movement, died peacefully in his sleep on Monday, July 1st in his home in Montpelier at the age of 91.

In an interview prior to his death, Wires said that he'd like to be remembered "as a decent person who really cared about the world, and who wanted to see people having fun playing."

Playing, for Wires, meant experimenting with ways to live in harmony with nature. Beginning in the early 60s, when he moved to Plainfield, Vermont after years of teaching science and education in New York, Wires designed and built a small home and led a Thoreau-like life style at the base of Spruce Mountain. There, Wires mastered "treecropping," or the practice of raising trees that bear edible nuts and fruits. He passed his collected wisdom on to many students and admirers throughout the years.

Born March 3, 1922, Wires was one of five siblings who grew up in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, where his father was a well-known tile contractor. As a child, John developed an early fascination with birds. While canoeing on a Maine river one day, he came upon a loon in her nest. "It was a miraculous thing," he remembered. "It really moved me. I loved being surprised by the natural world."

Prior to the U.S. engagement in World War II, Wires volunteered with the American Field Service in North Africa and the Middle East as an ambulance mechanic and driver. He was drafted in 1942 and, as a conscientious objector, chose to serve as a medic rather than a rifleman. He served in the 100th Division's 397th Unit, which liberated the Maginot Line fortress of Bitche during the winter of 1943 - 1944. He spoke openly of suffering from lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder, which he believed had led him toward his Thoreau-like life in the Plainfield woods.

After the war, Wires completed a combined undergraduate degree in philosophy, history and literature at Pennsylvania's Haverford College, where he was deeply influenced by the writings of Goethe and by Quakerism.

There, he started up a weekly "famine meal" group, which sent money saved from college meals to a relief group in Europe. He went on to study science education, earning a master's degree at Columbia Teacher's College in New York; he also pursued an unfinished Ph.D. in community studies.

Subsequently, Wires lived in New York as a college and high school science teacher at various institutions. In the early 1960's, he discovered Goddard College, where he fell in with artists and philosophers who dreamed of building a more sustainable, community-based society. Returning to New York following a divorce, he taught at Fordham College, where he got to know the famous back-to-the-lander, Scott Nearing, author of The Good Life with his wife Helen.

The Nearings inspired Wires to return permanently to Vermont and to build his mountainside homestead. Subsisting on a small pension and living in a hand-hewn cabin without electricity or plumbing, Wires undertook a life of voluntary simplicity without modern comforts. He became so well versed in the literature of alternative living that he himself became something of an authority.

He learned everything he could about growing trees and harvesting food from them. He planted mulberries, acorn oaks, American chestnuts, honey locust and "everything under the sun that could be considered a food source," he recalled in an interview. "I had this notion of starting a whole new agriculture." In his old age, Wires became a fixture in downtown Montpelier, where he lived in a small apartment on North Street. He became a member of the Unitarian Church, made regular appearances at the summer farmer's market, sang in the Gospel Choir, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends of all ages.

Wires spoke often to students about the need to discover their own roads not taken. "John spent a lifetime at the fertile intersection of mind and nature," said Bryan Pfeiffer, a friend of nearly 30 years. "A reader, writer, philosopher, and field naturalist, John never gave up trying to understand his own place in the world and how to make the world a better place. Humility, thought, exploration - they're his legacy, his gifts to the rest of us."

For his part, Wires said that he'd like to be remembered "for inspiring students to let go of trying to be good according to conventional dictates, and instead finding their hearts." Another close friend, Jodi Vilardi, said "John showed us what it is like to be 90, embracing emotional growth, and creating new friendships too."

John Wires is survived by his children, Peter Wires and Nancy Wires Cunningham and her husband Jon, and Nancy's children, Larkin, Colby, and Caroline, all from Montpelier. His former wife, Ruth Hathaway, died in 2011. Also surviving are many other nephews and nieces, including Bill Wires, who lives in Berlin, Germany, and Caroline, who lives in Delray Beach, Florida.

A memorial service will be held at 1:00 on August 4th at the Unitarian Church, 130 Main Street, Montpelier.

Those wishing to send online condolences may do so at

Relevant Address(es):
Plainfield, VT 05650 (Set as Local)
Berlin, VT 05602 (Set as Local)
Montpelier, VT 05602 (Set as Local)

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