My friend Clyde in Calgary, a photography professor who prepared all the photos for “Bronze Inside and Out” for FREE!!! (what a guy!), asked me for some suggestions for a student who is reading about the high prairie this summer and relating it to art. Clyde and I met through the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and he and his wife have become pretty good friends of mine. The reading course is only a month and a half, so I didn’t suggest a very tall stack, but these are what I picked off the shelf.
Dan Flores, my first choice, is a handsome and charismatic prof in Missoula. The first book, “The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains,” is background. I don’t own the second one yet but have collected the essays published in “Big Sky Journal,” a high-end Bozeman magazine, that were the basis of it. “Visions of the Big Sky: Painting and Photographing the Northern Rocky Mountain West“ (The Charles M. Russell Series on Art and Photography of the American West).
Clyde had already suggested two key memoirs: “This House of Sky,” by Ivan Doig and “Wolf Willow” by Wallace Stegner, both of them ambivalent and true, based on a return to a childhood place full of painful dreams after a life of success somewhere else.
Linda Hasselstrom’s memoir, “Feels Like Far: A Rancher’s Life on the Great Plains,” and Mary Clearman Blew’s “All but the Waltz: A Memoir of Five Generations in the Life of a Montana Family” are pretty good accompaniments to Doig and Stegner. Judy Blunt’s “Breaking Clean” is a little more recent but also a good tough clean (indeed!) book.
“Northern Plainsmen: Adaptive Strategy and Agrarian Life” by John W. Bennett is an old ethnography about the community at the western end of the Cypress Hills. REAL cowboys! I hope it’s not obsolete.
“Circling Back” by Gary H. Holthaus is narrative poetry. Lots of geology and history. Fun to read. Lyricism unleashed.
“The Nature of North America: A Handbook to the Continent Rocks, Plants and Animals” by David Rockwell is an overview of the terrain with a ton of drawings, charts, and good explanations. If you need context to follow the tales and poetry, this is the book.
“A Prairie Grove” by Donald Culross Peattie is a golden oldie, 1938. Bedrock natural history. Good as Muir. How I love Peattie!
“Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Frontier” by Richard Manning. 1995. Well researched. Manning is still writing and blogging. He moves back and forth over the border. A high-energy crusader, Manning takes on the big political issues with guns a-blazin’.
I hadn’t been into these shelves for quite a while and had to move some furniture out of the way. Ended up sneezing over the dust. Few of the books in this section are anything like Peckinpah movies. They are the books I had expected to emulate, one way or another, but the arc has peaked and is falling now. Much of the writing now labeled “Montana” is by people who came in from outside -- yes, expecting a Peckinpah world (and where I am, Junior Bonner never left town really, except to follow the rodeo circuit) but never able to find it, or hoping for maybe some mind-bending spiritual experience while hiking in Glacier Park. (Do you realize that more people are killed every year in the Park by falling off high places than are killed by bears? Even the bears are leaving the mountains -- one was in Choteau the other day -- no doubt driven out by trail-hiking tourists, all wearing bells and armed with pepper spray.)
The Blackfeet write for themselves now: environmental surveys and school reform plans. They remember the “old days,” as the days when I first came: the Sixties. Not the “old days” my father-in-law, Thad Scriver, remembered from 1903. They have enough money to buy Adolph Hungry-Wolf’s absolutely precious four magnum-opus books about the Blackfeet, but they’re trying to put the kids through college -- that comes first. Hard to argue with that.
Maybe it’s just that I’m looking through the lens of the environmental movement, but it seems to me that much of the writing about the West now is nonfiction serious stuff about management of wilderness, writing good regulations, surveying and mapping for wind farms and pipelines, natural resource development, and so on. The West Lit crowd goes round and round Cormac McCarthy, who’s sort of hyper-Peckinpah.
I don’t really see a pattern to the ebb and flow. Maybe someone else does. Westerns seem to reflect the real world so maybe they’ve shattered into mystery, sci-fi, bodice-ripper, and scandal. The nearest Barnes & Noble has a tiny unfindable Western section. But I really think that the basic problem is that there are so few people who have any sense of rural life.
Kim Sterelny, a Philosopher of Biology (who knew there was such a thing?) in Australia and New Zealand, is a major new find for me. I’ve been downloading his papers one at a time from his website. The vocabulary and way of looking at things is a little unfamiliar, but his Aussie straightforwardness (lots of vivid verbs: things get soaked and pumped and scaffolded) is a lot easier than Deleuzeguattarian thought, which is arcane in the first place and translated from Italian in the second. Tonight the paper I was looking at was “Cognitive Load and Human Decision, or Three Ways of Rolling the Rock Up Hill.” The general idea was how you learn to do complicated stuff that you don’t know about. It explains what I mean about “sense of rural life.”
The people who watch Westerns or read about the West today have never been part of a scene where they could watch or participate in actions involving the close control of large animals, nor long journeys over subtly varied terrain, nor the handling of firearms (they like to talk about it), nor the interpretation of fast-changing weather, nor the building and maintaining of a small open fire. That’s just the environment. The conventions of helping with tasks, the patterned banter of people who know each other, the management of payment, customs in cafes or bars, all sorts of small but significant signals and expectations are just opaque for many audiences now. And they aren’t there in the people who make the movies and write the books either.
So strange to go to high theory and analysis to discover aspects of life we once all took for granted, but that seems to be the way I’m going for sure -- maybe others are, too, for all I know. It’s when a person with thick experience of a real place reads a book by someone who also carries that same heavy and complex cognitive load of detail and strategy that the scaffolding appears for real idea pumping and soaking. The most serious handicap of the unknowing is not even knowing that they don’t know. For them there is no door in the wall, so they don’t try to open it. Someone needs to supply a bag of doorknobs.