In 1961 when I graduated from Northwestern, I could have stayed and taught in the high schools nearby. I wanted adventure and so ended up in Browning, Montana. But I carried with me all my notes from acting class as well as other classes. There have always been boxes of papers under my bed. Fifty years later, they are my compost. But also, others are interested. So at the Montana Historical Society, though they don’t much like my attitude, they do have a box with my name on it. It’s at the end of a long row of boxes labeled “Robert MacFie Scriver” which contain his papers. I’ve spent a couple of days in the past going through Bob’s files, finding things I never knew existed, and the old family photo albums I made myself.
The bossy young librarians, who clearly considered me an intruder, constantly gave me directions and watched me closely. They were afraid my emotional attachment would convert to physical ownership by stealth. My identity seemed bogus to them because Bob Scriver belongs to the ages, historically significant and part of the long ago. I’m not in any of the photos (I took most of them) and Bob never mentioned me. We had agreed that he would not because some customers only bought hoping to have an intimate relationship with him and because it diluted the idea that he was a genius who somehow drew bronzes out of a thundercloud. Indians were okay because everyone knows they are sorcerer’s apprentices.
But life goes on and the book about Bob, “Bronze Inside and Out,” was published by the University of Calgary in a cat whisker before publishing crashed. No one made any money, but as an archive it exists -- not just a record of Bob’s work, but also of the times in Browning, Montana; the formation of the whole genre of Western Art including the beginnings of cowboy art auctions; and the Blackfeet reservation in its multiplicity on the land.
I did the same thing with my job at Multnomah County Animal Control in Portland, Oregon, collecting data (my boss had me keep graphs), doing research, taking notes, trying to figure out root causes and options for better ways to protect animals and people. The same thing again at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and the University of Chicago Divinity School where the former is little more than an archive now that the building is sold but the latter is as rock solid as any institution can ever get.
Now that I’ve been in Valier for a decade, attending most town councils, I have a file drawer of notes. When I told the former mayor I would probably convert them into a book, she blanched, thinking that it would be an exposé, more destructive muck-raking to blame whatever target seemed most likely to sell books. NOT. Anyway, if you have a printer and know about blogs, you can print out a book about Valier today, simply by downloading the relevant posts from www.prairiemary.blogspot.com and getting Kinko’s or Staples to bind them. Books aren’t what they used to be, and yet they are -- at the same time. Both/And.
I was in the Great Falls Barnes & Noble yesterday because it’s down the block from where I get my monthly groceries. A woman was stocking the long magazine shelves and we got to talking. She was a former English teacher and many of the zines she was putting up were Manga -- that is, graphic (drawn) stories, often with intensely romantic (and sexual), fantastic, sometimes subversive tales. I googled and discovered that the genre is seen as a Japanese response to the post-WWII occupation by the US, whose soldiers packed around misnamed “comic” books. They frame the destruction of the world and yet the determination of small heroes, even those sunk into “emo” culture. (Depression, unworthiness, inability to frame the future.) Very meaningful to elements of American culture where economic oppression has young people by the throat.
Though she was doubtful about Manga, this woman saw the wall of magazines as evidence of culture, a good thing. To refute that notion, I held up a series of them that were nothing but advertising: cooking, body-building, interior decoration, computer news. Ways to keep oneself busy while the world crashes soundlessly around your ears. Like restocking shelves in a chain bookstore on the edge of bankruptcy because it can’t seem to get ahead in the commodification of electronic print.
Driving to GF and back (it’s eighty miles away) is a happy task for me, because it means passing sensuously through the land: I have a small pickup and drive with the window open, elbow out. Manning suggests that the prairie is so overpoweringly vast that it is dangerous, because it seems inexhaustible but it is not. I pass missile silos, some empty, some armed. I am passed by million-dollar RV’s with little cars worth more than my house attached by tow-bars to their backsides. And am nearly knocked off the road by barreling 18-wheel trucks. The railroad spur used for shipping grain runs parallel. Huge irrigation wheels are at work. Winter wheat is ready for the custom cutters working their way north. Chemical fallow fields stretch over many acres: deliberately blasted so nothing will grow in order to get rid of weeds. (Also pheasants -- too bad.) The highway has four lanes and this time of year one is shunted from one side to the other because crews are doing the constant maintenance and rebuilding necessary to keep them passable.
And yet the land has archived seeds and climate forces that left the Mayan civilization smothered in jungle, that made the Middle East into barren arid land before we bombed it flat, eliminating traces of how all this got started. The quick way to understand is the National Geographic video version of “Guns, Germs and Steel.” (Google it.) “Park Avenue” is a complementary documentary version of how the culture world has constricted to highly moneyed people in high-rise buildings in Manhattan. We all understand that this eventually will be demolished by angry masses unless it falls of its own weight.
A manager of Northwestern University’s archiving program has contacted me to ask for permission to preserve my two blogs about Alvina Krause’s teaching of acting: www.krausenotes.blogspot.com and www.thesilvercomb.blogspot.com Of course, I was happy, thrilled, in fact. While universities go about commodifying the real purpose of study in order to erect [sic] edifices and fill in lakes, the scholars so often described with a sneer as “academics,” are quietly networking real lives. It’s hard to commodify humanities but, like Manga, ideas and arts can’t be controlled. By the time they’re commodified, the real action has slipped away to something out there on a farther edge. The accumulation of small lives (emo) woven together create a fabric of new beginnings.
I see this time as one when boundaries we took for granted (gender, nations, and today’s TED talk for subscribers deconstructed “money”) are disappearing but new ones are forming. Boundaries are exoskeletons -- they constrict growth. I’d even skip over bone and go straight to hydrostats, like octopus tentacles -- cultures as octopuses that can squeeze into a beer bottle or spread thin and flying as a parachute. An archive may be an aquarium, but ideas are the creatures. When they say, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” what they really mean is that ideas cannot be suppressed by force.