Monday, July 11, 2011


I’m reading a book called “Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography” which is a collection of essays deliberately planned to be the product of an intensive meeting about 1985 where the participants would investigate some of the challenges to ethnographic writing, like what is true and what is scientific and so on.  What I want to pick out of this morass just now is the idea of the “arrival trope.”  It’s a little patterned event when the explorer, anthro, or castaway at the beginning of both fiction and serious science (almost always a white man) arrives on an island beach (usually) and the native people come out in a mob to investigate.  Sometimes it’s a happy trope and they bring nice things.  Sometimes there’s a rain of arrows or just scowls.  It’s a very old trope.
I got to thinking about my own “arrival tropes.”  One of the more memorable was my arrival at seminary on the south side of Chicago.  It was August.  All my worldly goods were packed into my F150 Ford Van.  The big throughways were traveling too fast for me to understand so I got off and went on the back streets which unfortunately took me right through the middle of the most dangerous housing projects.  Rolling up my windows to keep intruders out, which meant blinking sweat out of my eyes, and creeping along at about five miles an hour -- slow enough for men to walk beside the van -- because everyone was out in the streets and little kids kept darting out from between parked cars.  It seemed to take days. Then I came to blocks and blocks of demolished housing, looking as though it had been bombed.  Finally I got to Hyde Park, found the campus, but could not park because there was no space.  In the end I did find a place about six blocks away and staggered into the fine architecture of Meadville/Lombard (now sold).  Kiyo Hashimoto, the school secretary, small and lively, knew at once who I was and all but threw her arms around me.  I was so grateful.
When I came to Valier there were two “arrival tropes” because I came the first time with basics when I bought the house, then went back to bring a U-Haul.  I had only seen the house for a half-hour when I bought it so my mental picture was a bit foggy.  On the first return, driving from Portland, Oregon, I arrived at night in a June rainstorm.  I had insisted that the house be locked and the key put in a certain place in the garage.  When I opened the garage door, flashlight in hand, torrents of water were falling through the roof.  Staggering into the kitchen, I was shocked by what seemed to be a swaying man with a shining face.  It was a congratulatory helium balloon left by the real estate agent.
The second arrival at this house was with an eighteen foot U-Haul which the dealer insisted was the smallest they had.  My household filled half of it.  I had stopped overnight in Missoula so this time it was afternoon and I knew exactly where I was going.  I backed that mighty truck into the driveway so slick I was sure hoping someone was noticing.  They were.  My neighbors from across the street, two big strong men, were sent over by their women to unload me.  I had paid two men in Portland $400 to load that truck, which took them all day.  In Valier the neighbors unloaded it in an hour for nothing but praise.  Very SINCERE praise.
I’m old.  There won’t be many more arrival tropes.  But I enjoy thinking about my earliest and dearest arrival experience.  My mother grew up in Roseburg, Oregon, and her sisters stayed there to ranch.  Now and then after World War II when my father, who was a wool-buyer, had business down that way we would go to visit, driving down the Willamette Valley, Roseburg is a lumber town on a river, not particularly distinguished except that in those days there were teepee burners of sheet metal sending up showers of sparks and resinous smoke.  It was generally dark by the time we got there.
The aunts’ ranches were on South Deer Creek, so we went past Roseburg, then onto an unpaved country road redolent of skunk and new-cut hay.  The big old oaks were draped with Spanish moss and the creek itself was lined with trees and great billows of blackberry bushes.  The land was sunburned hills where sheep wandered.  Up behind them were timbered hills, some high enough to be given names and considered “mountains.”  In the daytime the buzzards cruised on the thermals, graceful and beautiful as any seabird.
By the time we turned in to the lane that approached the little square house across a rattling board bridge over the creek, my brothers and I were wild with joy.  Here was my mother’s youngest sister, Aunt Allie, as warm and innocent a young woman as ever was made and she threw her arms around us.  She had a distinctive voice, thrilled and considering at once -- I hear it now, as well as the sound of the gate weighted with horseshoes so it would swing shut, a distinctive clink and thwack.  It seemed as though we always got there just in time for homemade ice cream, richer than from any storebought milk, and distinctively scented.  Was it vanilla and nutmeg?
It was certainly home.  More significantly home than the one we grew up in, because we only knew the happy side of our cousins and their big roaring dad in bib overalls, his hair on end.  Our own experience was overlaid with my mother’s memories.  The smell of the blue copper sulphate kept to put in the chicken’s water to sanitize it, or hot oil on the farm machinery in the sun, or the nearly bread-like fragrance of the loose hay in the barn -- they were my version of a madeleine dipped in tea.  And part of the reason I moved to Valier.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

This is a book I read in grad school, and kept. It's pretty central to the realization, which was new in the 80s, that ethnography is a LITERARY discipline, not a purely research discipline. In other words, the ethnographer is a person, a person writing, not a disembodied recording angel with no engagement with the people being observed. You must participate in a community, as you well know, in order to gain access to the thoughts and feelings and ideas of the people in that community.

"Writing Culture" is a book I still recommend to folks, along with a couple of others, all from that same period, all covering these ideas (which were new then) in different ways. One of these is James Clifford's "The Predicament of Culture."