Friday, September 11, 2009


(Back at the library with a small toddler in camo and his very preggers mother. This is like driving an unfamiliar car -- or maybe I should say "bus," since I'm not used to company. This kid doesn't keyboard. He just likes the twirly chairs.)

Sorting through papers I've saved over many decades is an exercise in history, both in terms of what I thought was important-- and what that said about my identity -- and in terms of what I'm discarding and what that means about change. Being seventy means discarding a LOT. Previously, when in doubt, I saved. Now, with maybe ten good working years left, I'm in edit mode.

What's persisting? Some childhood things: the (nearly) complete works of Gene Stratton Porter, which is a matter of bookshelves, though in the past few years as there has begun to be more scholarship about her in terms of the environment, there are articles to save now. As in most of what I've saved, both tear-outs and print-outs are in the boxes. (I figure I have about ten storage boxes to go. I also keep thinking that if I'd spent 1/2 hour every night filing, I wouldn't have to do this now. But then I flip over and remind myself that I have eight file cabinets of things that ARE filed, even color-coded, so I must have done some things.

What strikes me hard is how much the thought-world is changing. Stratton-Porter was my grandmother's favorite author, then she was "out," then she was just a colorful and obsolete character and -- briefly -- a bird savior. Now she's seen as a rather nasty example of Jingoism and prejudice. In general, it seems as though so many things that were once believed valuable and aspirational have been discredited and demonized, first as old-fashioned and then as oppressive.

Environmentalism, which attracted me first through natural history and what I came to understand as the displacement of the sacred from church to wilderness, has now devolved in some quarters into a kind of philosophical and indiscriminate tyranny: city=bad,wilderness=good, human=bad, animal=good, human=good, machine=bad. In particular the young seem to have labeled everything, according to what their friends and the media says, and to deal in those categories without inquiring into what the definions or context are.

The older and presumably more sophisticated people have become fixated on laws and forcing good ends through regulation. The question of what a wolf "is" if it's managed with a radio-collar, removed with a rifleshot from a helicopter, numbered and listed in a computer, doesn't seem to come up. At the same time as we over-control some things, others are totally out of control: NO ONE knows what to do about the hundred-mile-across plastic garbage gyre in the Pacific. The causes can't be controlled, the mitigation can't be imagined.

Almost ALL my environmental stuff went out. Even the pretty pictures. Once they seemed unique, worthy of repeat contemplation. Now I feel surrounded and showered with them -- new and more amazing photos all the time, even in the newspaper.

Likewise the science stuff went out: it's all old-fashioned now. The cutting edge is no longer the genome but it's practical uses. The theoretical stuff, which is always what intriques me, has now backed off to some kind of sub-genome that controls the expression of each genome in subtle ways we hardly understand. Most of the media is hypnotized by genes as the magic answer to commercial problems. We aren't surprised. Physics is sort of in the same place. It's all sci-fi now -- not that I object to that.

Arts and humanities have also changed for me. For decades I cherished the idea that the Sixties with Bob Scriver was a watershed that would mean acceptance in the company of writers in Montana and among the artists. The community of writers in Montana proves to be an illusion based on marketing. These folks finally had little in common in terms style or message or common interests. In fact, many of them have no use for each other. The commodifiers, who see books as middle-class markers of prosperity and education just as they were taught by high school teachers and the Book-of-the-Month Club, are busy having festivals where they play pictionary and rewrite Shakespearean tragedies so they have happy endings. Loads of fun. Not much to do with "real" writing I've understood it.

The art community has also commodified, which is not very new, but Bob Scriver is no longer a viable commodity, partly because there's no profit left in him (they think), partly because the arc of his career has overemphasized the trivial work he did later in life, and partly because he became angry and frustrated, so some people stopped liking him. People who knew him well liked "Bronze Inside and Out," but those who were rather revealed, didn't like it at all and have been successful in pretending it doesn't exist. Nor me either. Anyway, the point is that lots of what I saved is redundant and unnecessary now, so out. The rest doesn't change much, though now and then I get an inquiry or even an insight I wish I'd had earlier.

Another factor in not saving things is similar to the fabulous image excess: many artists are so good now, some better than Bob Scriver, that if I saved every worthy bit of evidence, I'd be crowded out of the house. The CMRussell auction is no longer a local community of people who know each other but rather, like the book festivals, a marketing enterprise that reaches across the continent.

I've done a pretty good job of collecting, labeling and bundling things like old bills, diplomas, titles. But I've saved some of those bundles far too long, so they can go out en masse. In active use are the family photo albums and their re-organization into binders. They don't go out but they constantly need re-filing.

"Indians" have gone through about as many philosophical approaches as what you're supposed to call them. My strategy has been to stick to Blackfeet only, but I've had lapses when book reviews or more global essays really struck my fancy. I'm much less likely to save anthropological material, more likely to include the really early stuff like paleoarcheology or theories of the migration patterns around the world. The native language movement has just about completed a twenty year arc, from a time when there were still native speakers at hand to a time when one has to learn in a context where there is little opportunity to speak and nothing much to read in Blackfeet. But it had the major virtue of legitimizing Blackfeet language.

The arc I'm most glad to see completed and discarded is the post-colonial deconstruction movement that played into social militancy to create an arrogance and self-righteousness that has underlain a lot of destructive dynamics. There was a period of time when indigenous people hadn't found the handholds and terms of doing their own scholarship and writing, but they wouldn't let any outsiders do it either. The result has been a gap and a lot of bad feeling. It's ending now as well-equipped tribal people have gotten to work with far more open minds and less suspicion and paranoia about off-rez people.

My feminist stuff dwindles all the time. Starhawk, Barbara Ehrenreich, and others who probably aren't strictly feminists are still on the shelf but I don't read the mags, so no new tear-outs. Likewise, it seems to me that the psych stuff has all gotten pretty boring and off-the-point. Not very useful. But some of the really old stuff still has teeth. I see that I have three or four clips of Dear Abby's list of the traits of abusers.

The recipes are all useless now. Most of the examples of how I would like to look still work, since they were fairly classic to begin with: pants and jackets. My interior decoration tear-outs are in plastic sleeves and binders -- a LOT of binders. I sit down to see if I can condense them and cannot. White bathrooms, blue and white bedrooms, Ralph Lauren cabins, strict modern kitchens, and mostly cottage, cottage, cottage. Okay, even cottage cheese, but that's mostly what goes out.

I found a handful of letters from my deceased brother and at last can send them to his daughter. An envelope of photos of a beautiful woman I finally realize is Mabel Heitschmidt, who was a fine still-life artist (specialty: flowers) and my great-aunt. She married an architect and lived the good life in Pasadena.

And so it goes: clutter becoming insight, philosophy becoming quack opinions, a good thing becoming overwhelming, a less good thing turning out to be crucial. The discards, three garbage cans full so far, are so heavy that I had to go from leaf and trash bags to extra-thick construction debris bags, fit for pieces of lumber and slabs of plasterboard. I'm doing a form of remodeling, mental though it may be.


Rebecca Clayton said...

Thanks for showing us your sorting process--it's very interesting. I'm currently doing something similar, so I enjoyed reading your thought processes.

I laughed over your e-less posts. I remember using an old typewriter with a missing letter....

Lance Michael Foster said...

Weird, I am going through stuff too...

On artists and writers: "Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes."

"In 1159, John [of Salisbury] wrote in his Metalogicon:

'Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.'

('Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea')

On Indians and ancient times:

Have you checked out the book "1491" yet?
Read the parts on "1491" about halfway down:

Given the asinine condition of the literati sniffing each others' nether regions and the "bottom-line" orientation of publishing, it is best we fringe writers and artists just "do our thang" even if no one else ever gives a crap or reads it...there are always others who can write and do art better than just about anyone else, but you gotta do what you gotta do...