Sunday, May 07, 2006


Sometimes the peripherals to Western writing as as delightful as the books themselves. Two examples are at my elbow.

The first is the catalog of the High Plains Press, “Publishing Fine Books on Wyoming and the West.” The cover of the 6”X11” publication is horizon-orientation: a simple, almost Oriental, picture of four horses eating hay off snow. My first impression was that it was a watercolor, but it’s finely detailed enough to be a photo. One thing is certain: it’s the cover for “Beasts in the Snow: Poetry of the American West,” by Jane Elkington Wohl, an instructor at Sheridan College in Wyoming and in the Goddard College MFA in Writing program at Vermont. The blurb suggests that Wohl “sees through her skin”, like a worm: the weights and textures of things -- then reflects upon them in an unwormlike way.

Looking at this catalogue and thinking about the many ongoing conversations about why the genre Western tale is dying out every place but the movies (where it appears to be actor-driven -- more than a few big-name actors own ranches) and why even “literary” Western writing has slowed down, I see a new ground forming. First of all, it is about real -- sometimes historical -- people of the West and, second, about the sensory world of the West, mostly in poetry. I own some of these books (“Sheepwagon,” “Naming the Winds,” and “Landmarked: Stories of Peggy Simson Curry.”). They remind me of Canadian writing: extremely well-done and authoritative, but not slick. Each book belonging to itself. In Canada such books are considered national treasures and are subsidized by the government. In the USA most publishers snort and say they’ll never make the 10% profit level required by their investors. (They have no awareness of Canadian publishing at all, and few Easterners think there IS a Western publishing phenomenon.) American Western publishers “do it for love.”

So I am even more pleased that Dale Burk has published “Untold Tales of Bison Range Tales” by Ernie Kraft. For me, this is a trifecta win. First of all, Burk with his Stoneydale Press was one of the early writers to understand the importance of artists on the northern plains. (His two art books are reviewed earlier in this blog.) Highly educated and very hip, Burk has tenaciously marketed books for the “hook and bullet” crowd by not going the usual book chain route but by selling through such unexpected venues as sports stores. (Martin Murie does this, too, and reports success.) His fine photography is featured in a recent book and he has a number of fine history books. Check them out: Internet websites may be the salvation of Western publishers, if you know to look for them.

Second, the Moiese Bison Range is a legendary operation that Bob Scriver and I were lucky enough to be part of in the Sixties before concerns about insurance and disease crowded all outsiders out of the operation. It was a most amazing experience that stayed with us the rest of our lives. The men were so cooperative and open to sharing what they knew that Bob’s bronze “Real Meat” could be based on actual measurements of specific animals, and his understanding of bison behavior went deep. We often talked about those weeks, telling each other the tales all over again.

Ernie Kraft was the guy assigned to chaperoning Bob and then the two of us. When he found out that Bob had a good horse and knew what he was doing, Ernie opened up about his enormous love for the range and the buffs. He was writing even then, in the Sixties, and accumulating a hoard of photos and stories. He suggested that I write about the range, and I intended to, but life moved quickly. Now my story is a section of my biography of Bob, "Bronze, Inside and Out" to be published by the University of Calgary Press in the spring, but I’m jubilant that Ernie got his book done. We only participated in the roundup a few times, but Ernie worked there for more than thirty years. It was a remarkable crew, marked by courage and careful judgment.

In 1990 I attended a writer’s workshop taught by Peter Matthiessen and we immediately established a relationship based on our memories of the Bison Range, which Peter had visited earlier in the tenure of C.J. Henry, the visionary manager who thought artists and writers were important to the future of the herd. I don’t know whether Peter wrote about it. This was long before the ruckus along the edge of Yellowstone. It was also before “meat bison” became a crop, so that fifteen miles from here is a ranch where a mob of two-year-olds stand around among the irrigation equipment waiting to become steak and none of the big rogue bulls that we dealt with would be tolerated. It was before “bison-in-a-box” hunts were held on ranches where for a fee people could shoot confined animals.

The West is a haunted place where the new ghosts push the old ones a little farther back in memory all the time, even as the writers return them to life once again. Reading these books will let you walk among them far more vividly than building a McMansion in a hayfield.

No comments: