Bestselling author and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s local legacy

  • Mary Catherine Bateson Courtesy photo—© 2005 MARILYN HUMPHRIES

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/13/2021 7:28:07 PM

Writer and anthropologist Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson’s life in the Monadnock Region mirrored her life’s work, her daughter Sevanne Kassarjian said. “What my mom cared about was engagement,” she said. “She was deeply engaged in the world and with anyone she was around.”

Bateson’s illustrious career as a bestselling writer, linguist, anthropologist, lecturer, and daughter of cultural anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson took her around the country and the world, but she engaged deeply as a Hancock resident and a member of the Monadnock community from her first visit to the area in 1963 to her death at 81, on Jan. 2.

Bateson loved the rocks, lakes, and forestland that define the New Hampshire landscape, Kassarjian said, and had spent summers on Squam Lake as a child. Bateson wasn’t necessarily an avid hiker but cared deeply about the environment, her daughter said, and put about 100 acres of their family property off Depot Road into a conservation easement soon after buying it with her husband, J. Barkev Kassarjian.

Bateson spent the past several years living in Summerhill in Peterborough, her daughter said, where she would initiate play readings and further her focus to keep older adults engaged, a regularly recurring topic in Bateson’s later work.

The isolation of the pandemic from inside an assisted living facility wore on Bateson, Kassarjian said. Kassarjian and her family had come up from New York City for her kids’ spring break right as the pandemic started, and they soon opted to bring Bateson back to her home in Hancock for the duration. “I have to say… the gift of the pandemic to our family was getting to be together this summer and fall,” Kassarjian said. The two shared a cup of coffee every morning and talked about the day, and Bateson seemed interested to follow along with Kassarjian’s work, much of which is based on Bateson’s own.

“She had a very personal way, but always had her eyes on the whole,” friend Christine Falcone said of Bateson. Falcone and her husband met Bateson in the Divine Mercy Parish in Peterborough, where Bateson helped out with small group discussions about parishioner’s relationships with their faith, and special lectures and events. Falcone became friends with Bateson through the activities they organized and a group dedicated to discussing books about faith that’s met for more than a decade, she said.

“She tried to always bridge and make peace with various ideas and peoples to bring them toward unity, understanding, compassion, and peace,” Falcone said, a mission that seemed hand in glove with the themes throughout Bateson’s life work. Once, Bateson delivered a lecture on the similarities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. She also helped to organize a discussion panel based on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, as well as a candlelight vigil the night before the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. “I think she valued this church community very much,” Falcone said.

When Bateson read scripture, she tried to speak as the writer might have wished it to be spoken, to moving effect, Falcone said. Bateson spoke about the significance of reading scripture during an interview for the “On Being” radio show, which replayed her 2015 interview on New Year’s Eve, Mariposa Museum board member David Blair said. “She talked about… how powerful it became for her to realize she was reciting words that had been said for thousands of years,” he said, adding that she probably could read many texts in their original Hebrew and Arabic. “Her way of speaking was measured and thoughtful, never in a hurry,” Blair said. “It always felt that I was watching her think,” as she spoke, which was “fascinating, to see a mind like that, thinking.”

Bateson first got involved with the Mariposa Museum in Peterborough in 2011, Blair said, when she helped them to plan an exhibit on the Silk Road. “We journeyed with Catherine to many wonderful places in the next years, most recently in “salons” where she led us in thinking together about open-ended topics,” he said, such as how to learn from children, nature, or death. “We would get people from quite far away coming, and it was just an evening conversation,” Kassarjian said of the salons. “It was always an incredibly diverse group… she loved that. She loved inviting people into conversations.”

It might seem unusual that a writer with a home just a town away would apply for and ultimately complete three writer’s residencies at MacDowell, but Bateson loved gathering in the evenings to talk with other artists, Kassarjian said, recalling paintings around the house from artists her mother met in residency. Bateson completed residencies at MacDowell in 1993, 1996, and 1997 and thereafter attended many Medal Days and smaller gatherings, MacDowell resident director David Macy said, after first meeting her at MacDowell board member Mary Garland’s Hancock home. 

“She and Mary Garland were best friends,” Kassarjian said. Both were organizers in their own way, although Bateson, as a writer, was “a little more hermitlike” and didn’t serve in as many official capacities, Kassarjian said.

One remarkable thing about Bateson was her approachability, despite being so accomplished, celebrated, and smart, Kassarjian said. “She had no airs about her. She loved to talk to people about things they cared about, and things she cared about.”


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