You could never keep up with Matt Power. Just yesterday I told a colleague that a call to Matt to nail down his next assignment for OnEarth was long overdue. But as usual the conversation would have to wait until he got back from his latest adventure—wherever the hell that was.
I hadn’t heard from Matt since a quick e-mail wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, but I’d had a rough idea of his breathless schedule from the posts that would appear periodically on my Facebook feed. Where would he turn up next? Maybe he’d be riding around Kashmir for National Geographic, with half-a-dozen local kids packed onto his beloved motorbike. Or on assignment for Outside, investigating the murder of a Costa Rican environmental activist working to protect sea turtles. Or for GQ, writing a profile of a drone operator as he struggled with the moral and psychological stresses of what he’d done.
Matt’s last few posts on Facebook were typical. Dispatches from South Sudan. A mock-search for hippo repellent for an upcoming trip to Africa. And a loving Valentine’s Day post, with a picture of a vase of cherry blossoms, for his wife, Jessica Benko—a gifted and adventurous writer herself, whose work we have also had the privilege of publishing.
Matt’s first feature for OnEarth came out of the passions he brought to his year as a Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where he was looking at the future of our cities. We asked him to go and hang out in the devastated post-industrial neighborhoods of Detroit. Everyone else was writing disaster porn about the city’s meltdown and bankruptcy. Matt brought us stories of the people who were somehow clinging on to their lives and to their dignity amidst the ruins. His next piece was about the regeneration of the Chicago River. For that one he descended into the bowels of the city’s water system, the pumping stations and the sewage plants, every bit as excited to learn about aerated digester troughs or the electric barrier keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes as he was to poke around the forests of Papua New Guinea in search of an elusive tree kangaroo.
Whatever the story, he always seemed to be having fun. You always imagined, even in the shortest of e-mails from the field, the famous toothy Power grin. When he sent in his expense claim for the Chicago trip on the eve of the 2012 election, he told me hoped Mitt Romney wouldn’t take it as evidence that journalists were part of the nation’s 47 percent of spongers and whiners. “Hell no!” he wrote. “We freelance journalists are American heroes, paying the entirety of our own payroll taxes without complaint and writing off every last glue stick and square inch of home-office space. As an occasional adventure-travel writer, even my jet ski (were I to own one) would be a deduction.”
Well, I thought, we probably can’t buy him a jet ski, but I hoped for his next trip that we could send him somewhere a little more exotic than Detroit or Chicago, give him the kind of assignment he so often did for others.
Just as soon as he got back from his latest trip. I knew that he was in Africa again. The last post I’d seen on Facebook was dated March 1. A photograph of a serrated pocket knife and a toothbrush snapped in half. Matt’s caption: “Cutting down on pack weight for my big expedition.” It was to Uganda this time, to the headwaters of the Nile, an assignment for Men’s Journal. So as soon as he was back, I’d finally make that long-overdue call. But Matt never made it back. Today, those of us who were privileged to be his friends and colleagues heard that we’d lost him on that big expedition to Uganda. The initial guess, pending an autopsy, is that he died of heatstroke. He was 39.
Matt was a graceful, gifted writer, infinitely versatile and infinitely curious about the world. I always loved the conversations we had about his craft and the purpose of our business. I’m not sure he ever said it in so many words, but his philosophy about each story he wrote always seemed very clear. If it wasn’t about unraveling one of the infinite mysteries of the world, or searching out one of its hidden beauties, or adding a grain of compassion to our understanding of the lives of the people he met along the way, what was the point? As one of his innumerable friends posted as word of his death spread today on Facebook, “Why does it seem that god wants all the good ones?”
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