Sunday, June 17, 2007
"THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA"
More syncronicity. You can turn it off now, thank you. It’s beginning to be a little overwhelming. I was sitting here with earphones on watching “The Flame Trees of Thika,” the scene where a thunderstorm saves a man’s life, and I thought, “Wow! This is realistic! I can even smell it! And the thunder feels right overhead!” Well, that’s because it was, and I had to close down quickly so my computer wouldn’t get zapped.
Yesterday I was in Browning and, plucking up my courage, went into Thad and Wessie’s house for the first time since 1970 or so. (Thad and Wessie Scriver were Bob Scriver’s parents, and therefore my in-laws.) Wessie came as a bride in 1911 and I’ve written about what a miserable squalid little house it seemed to her after her graceful family home in Quebec -- now the house is back to being that. It was always scroogie and without any foundation, but with nice furniture and drapes and a good carpet the illusion was comfortable. Now it’s a sort of store with homemade racks in the front for selling medical supplies and Leland Ground lives in the back, cooking soup for his “crew” and sleeping in the room where Bob Scriver was born. Telling him that weirded him out. Leland was gone when I was there yesterday, but I showed his secretary the closet where Wessie would lock in the wayward Robert when he was really bad. And where the big coal stove was that fell apart and covered her with soot. The trees Bob planted in the backyard when he was a teenager have mostly died now, partly from old age and partly from lack of water. Piegan Institute’s Napipuhyahsin School is next door. Darren, Darrell Kipp’s son, says he itches to bulldoze the Scriver house.
My errand was really to distribute and maybe sell some books. Next I went to Blackfeet Community College to give them complementary copies for the library. The librarian was interested -- she turned out to be the daughter of Gordon Monroe, Bob’s fiberglass man and a former student of mine in my early teaching days. What’s Gordie doing? Writing and researching history! Aha! Just the kind of person I’m trying to round up and teach how to do print-on-demand. Gotta call him later. The idea of a one-day workshop at BBC came to life.
Since I was doing brave things, I went on up to East Glacier and stopped in at Susie and Terry McMaster’s Brown House. Terry taught with me at Browning High School, then went to the Free School, where -- though faculty rather than student -- he learned how to make pottery on a wheel. He and Susie bought an old two-story store and, leaving all the old stuff on the shelves, reorganized it into a shop in the front and living quarters in the rear. It’s been growing and perfecting now since 1971 and at last Susie has gotten her quite wonderful dream kitchen!
These two people are very meticulous and talk over details and plans endlessly before they ever do anything. Susie and I shared a love of high-end decorating magazines, but she perfected every little step a la Martha Stewart while my decorating and housekeeping theory can be summarized in one word: splat! Splash on paint, hang bright curtains, shelve the books and never touch anything again. (Well, I change the curtains, slipcovers and pillows with the seasons. The books seem to move themselves around.) Susie keeps everything dusted, polished, arranged, etc. In the long run, we have more in common than not, except that Terry and I share more ideas. Politically, we are worlds apart. We’re Indian-friendly but in slightly different ways, since I’ve been forever changed by the post-colonial Native American listservs. Still, we care deeply about the same people.
It was the McMasters’ snug house and their ability to survive on next to nothing but a dream, determination, and discipline that gave me the courage to move into a little old house in Valier and do something similar. The trick that finally nudged them over into prosperity was creating Bed & Breakfast units on their property -- an extension of the kitchen addition and two spaces in an upstairs on Terry’s studio which was originally the trailer they bought to live in when they came from California. If you decide you want to stay there, you’ll need a reservation (the time kind, not the space kind) because they have “regulars” who come every summer. No website but if you Google, you’ll find the phone number: “The Brown House.” Part of their discipline is not getting enmeshed in the Internet. The little resort town has many new buildings but what struck me was the vegetation: hedges, trees, and gardens are practically fulminating this spring. Looks like an amazing berry year.
“Flame Trees of Thika” takes place in the same timespan and very much the same sort of circumstances as Wessie Scriver coming to Browning, Montana. I sometimes speculate on a comparison of the Edwardian period in Kenya and India (I’m still reading “The Raj Quartet.”) and Montana. Huge amounts of land, a native peoples in distress and oppression, enormous corporate greed alongside small people with big ideas, and plenty of opportunities to see what you’re made of. Industrialization in infancy. Even through the Sixties when the McMasters and I came, the air of frontier lingered, especially among the old people who opened their Thunder Pipe Bundles this time of year. It’s younger people doing that now, including Leland. I intend to stay away even though I’m entitled to go. Let them do it. I will support them all I can, but I’m on a different trail. Wessie never cared for “all that hokey-pokey,” because her religion was her family. Plenty of Kenyans, both kinds of Indians, and many Montanans share her idea of the Sacred. It’s what brought her through the enormous cultural and physical challenge of moving here.
Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa” is about the same time and place and some of the same people as “Flame Trees.” Blixen’s book was an important part of my motivation for coming to Montana. Now if I could just write like her... I try to BE like her, though physically we’re nothing like the same. I’m much more like “Tillie” Huxley, the Hayley Mills mother character in “Flame Trees.” Wessie was very like “Elspeth” in the movie, though she never aspired to writing. (The man who plays the father is physically more right for Dennis Finch-Hatton than Robert Redford was, but Redford’s charisma was right. Also, his ability to raise money.)
People have enormous nostalgia for the Edwardian times on the huge grasslands of the world. Somehow even the people at the time, like Charlie Russell, knew they were partcipating in something that would have hellish consequences, like the disappearance of so many animals. (“Flame Trees,” made in 1981, has marvelous animal photos.) Climate change is just an extension of something that seemed to start so innocently, serving the religion of “family” by building a home. Writing about it can at least leave a record of the powerful emotional connection some of us have made.
Why write? To understand the past? To build a new future? To prevent more destruction? Or just to grieve?
The thunderstorm I mentioned at the beginning was a hailstorm farther east. Three-inch balls of ice some places, piled up three feet high against buildings, they said. Wiped out crops. Hammered new car lots. Broke windows. Raised welts on people outside in sunsuits. Another couple of months and we’ll be as hot and dusty as the first scene in “Flame Trees of Thika.” The first snow here comes about Labor Day. Don’t move here now. It’s not the same. You won’t have the same experience. Right place -- wrong time.