Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BOTH SIDES NOW: "Freckles and the Condor"

It was early June when she first saw the condor, or rather its shadow. She’d been painting “plein aire” out on the open land, looking away from the mountains for once. The grass was barely long enough to be rumpled by the wind and then her eye went to the softly dark spot moving along the moire pattern of the grass. She thought it was a hawk, riding the thermals that were forming as the land warmed. Thunderheads were just beginning on the horizon -- she was only beginning to sketch them into her sky.

But then she saw that this bird was much bigger than a hawk or eagle and had an entirely different wing shape. It must have been seven feet from one wing tip to the other -- maybe more. It dropped down a bit more, perhaps to take a look at her own strange shape on the east slope prairie, then lifted and spiraled away and away until it disappeared like a mote in one’s eye being blinked away.

“Condor,” she thought, wondering why she thought so. But that can’t be. There haven’t been condors here since the buffalo disappeared. They were part of that paleolithic world that fit together tightly until the white people came in such numbers that they pried apart all the connections. “Condor.”

She thought of a book she had read in childhood, finding it in her grandmother’s bookshelf. It was “Freckles” by Gene Stratton-Porter, the strong-minded “bird woman” who had fought to save the midwestern Limberlost ancient trees and the birds that lived in them. “Freckles” had begun with a huge black feather floating down from so high in the sky that Freckles, who was a timber-cruiser, couldn’t see the bird it fell from. It was a condor feather and even in those days they were supposed to be extinct in the midwest.

Of course, now the world of Gene Stratton-Porter with her huge box of a camera and hats tied on with veils and small towns where daughters struggled to come to terms with their mothers -- that world was gone now. In fact, Stratton-Porter herself had fallen afoul of the New Invaders, the post-colonial Marxist accusers who hated authority figures, hated any sign of racism, hated any science that didn’t agree with their notion of a Edenic world that never existed -- though they insisted that it had.

No feather fell from Clare’s sky. The science part of her brain kicked in. It wasn’t impossible for a condor to have returned to the east side of the Rockies, though it was unlikely. Still, the population pressure on the Pacific coast was driving out some of the people who had always loved living there, so why not these immense glorious birds, so scarce that they were individually known to the researchers. Who should one call? Maybe best to call no one. If the word got out, photographers and opportunist hunters -- polarized into those who practically worship animals and those who saw them only as raw material for their own lives -- would be everywhere.

She would keep it a secret. This had been a spring when the major blizzards persisted very late, so that some ranchers had moved their cattle up into the foothills too early. Meant to graze among the high country trees, they were instead trapped in deep snow the wind couldn’t get at, and they died in piles. It was impossible for cowboys to get in on horseback and gather them out, as they would in the fall. It was a gift to the grizzlies, carrion piled everywhere. Maybe that drew the condor. All ecologies are woven of pushing and pulling like that: deadends here, a breeze of opportunity there.

Still, a condor sighting was way out on the edge. Even in Stratton-Porter’s novel, the condor was a rarity and Freckles hardly knew how to react. She had read the novel so many times that she knew some paragraphs by heart:

“Out of the clear sky above him, first level with his face, then skimming, dipping, tilting, whirling until it lit, quill down, in the path in front of him came a glossy, iridescent, big black feather. As it struck the ground, Freckles snatched it up and with an almost continuous movement faced the sky. There was not a tree of any size in a large open space. There was no wind to carry it. From the clear sky it had fallen, and Freckles, gazing eagerly into the arch of June blue with a few lazy clouds floating far up in the sea of ether, had neither mind nor knowledge to dream of a bird hanging as if frozen there. He turned the big quill questioningly, and again his awed eyes swept the sky.”

No long black wing feather fell for Clare. She smiled at the use of the word “ether.” No one uses that anymore. When she got home, after a bit of scouring through her bookshelves, she located the book. She’d never been able to give it up. It was at the heart of her relationship to the world, not an artifact but a story.

The crucial passage was a few pages into the third chapter with a “margin decoration” by E. Stetson Crawford: a long wing feather obviously drawn from life. She recognized the artist’s name -- she hadn’t as a child -- and knew he was from that Parisian turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts school that guided so many fine Western visions. In the States he’d attended MacMonnies’ school (which partly belonged to Whistler) and she could picture in her mind the several fine Native American monumental bronzes done by MacMonnies. She recognized now that the marginal “drawings” were etchings.

Both Stratton-Porter and Crawford were part of an Edwardian time that saturated everything with Victorian Christianity, believing that this was the true way to see the world. Industrialism was just dawning, sending the great railroads stretching across the continent in the same way that the steamships went out across the oceans. Writers and artists had convenient access to a new world and because they met the Plains Indians with the romantic optimism that assumed surely nature was God’s work, gently forced all the Indian religious assumptions into Christian categories. Star Boy became Jesus and the earth became “Our Mother.”

Clare had forgotten Freckles’ Irish Catholic fantasy that the long black feather came from the wing of a wicked angel, battering at the Gates of Heaven for mercy. Universalism was sweeping the land, the idea that God -- in the end -- would forgive everyone, even Lucifer. All was optimism and security, if only a few wicked people could be brought under control.

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