University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Scholar revisits years in the field

Bill Mitchell in New Guinea
Professor Emeritus Bill Mitchell’s scholarly interest in New Guinea spans nearly a half-century.


Scholar revisits years
in the field

Upstairs in an old farmhouse that looks out over a postcard Vermont valley is William Mitchell’s office, meticulously organized with the notes and articles, photographs and tape recordings collected over decades of fieldwork, including six trips to New Guinea, the first in 1967 with his teacher and lifelong friend, Margaret Mead. The Bamboo Fire: Field Work with the New Guinea Wape, an account that weaves stories of the indigenous people with personal reflections on what it means to be the anthropologist-observer, was recently republished in its second edition, this time with a new afterword by Mitchell, UVM professor emeritus. Just last year he returned to the village of Taute—where he and his young family had spent nearly two years in the early seventies—still with no roads, making the arduous trek on foot.

But that’s what Mitchell understood from the moment he discovered anthropology. Working on a master’s thesis in philosophy at Columbia University about normal and abnormal human behavior, he wandered into this different discipline. “Wow,” he recalls thinking. “This could entertain me forever.”

“His successful return to the field—and most certainly not an easy field,” says anthropology professor Robert Gordon, who was hired by Mitchell when he chaired the department, “at his age is, in a word, incredible and speaks to the spirit of the man. He is certainly one of the better fieldworkers of the many that have traversed Melanesia, and his theoretical insights are highly pertinent. The fact that Bamboo Fire has been reprinted after such a long interval (it was originally published in 1987) speaks volumes to the quality of his work.”

The book’s origins trace back to 1970 when Mitchell, hard-won grant in hand, packed up for New Guinea with his wife and two young children in hopes of teasing out answers among the Wape, one of the most complex and challenging tribes in the region. “I took my family into the forest where there are no facilities of any kind, not even a road,” Mitchell says. “There’s no running water, no electricity. You have to invent your life.”

Mitchell’s spirit for research, writing, and exploration remain strong.  In November, he was headed on a tour to Turkey to avoid the gray season in Vermont, but was counting on returning to snow and his passion for downhill skiing. He’s at work on a new writing project on the Lujere people that would be further along if the beautiful summer hadn’t called him out hiking quite so often in his woods near Stowe. And he doesn’t rule out a return to New Guinea.

“Bill’s joie de vivre is contagious,” says Gordon. “Of all the folks in Vermont who have influenced me and shaped an outlook I can only aspire to, Bill is the person.”

Maybe it’s the joy of their field. Paraphrasing Mitchell’s words in The Bamboo Fire’s epilogue, the domain of cultural anthropology is humanity itself. There will always be “those curious ‘others’—the anthropologist—wondering how the people over the next hill live, then going to stay with them to discover how and why they do what they do.” Mitchell saw that spark in Margaret Mead even when he visited her in the hospital shortly before she died. On his way to an annual conference of anthropologists, he stopped to see his old friend one last time. Mitchell recalls that as he headed out the door, Mead animated with parting words: “Have fun!”

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