On the August prairie the narcotic incense of distant forest fires arouses my nose to tumescence, oozing, an uncomfortable eroticism. Every distant thing is behind a veil, coy and twilight in the daytime. Light is blushing, gold in midday but at the ends and beginnings of the day turning lipstick red. The borrow pits used to be full of asters at this time of year, but now they only grow purple-tipped alfalfa and a sketchy bit of sweet clover. However, if I want to pick a bouquet of wheat for my stoneware pitcher I bought at the Browning Mercantile fifty years ago, I’d better do it now because the combines are beginning their repetitious march over the swelling hills. The custom cutters are just arriving and the race is on to beat the hail before it beats the wheat.
Or if I want a handful of cattails for the tall stoneware jug I bought from Terry McMasters’ pottery store, The Brown House, in East Glacier only thirty years ago, this would be a good time because before we know it the heads will be begin to tear apart to down and leave on the wind. They’ll look more like blown-up thistles. The first snowfall is usually in two weeks.
Those who only know the West from research and movies cannot have this erotic connection with the actual place. They are describing lovemaking without ever having explored the body of the lover, which is land and light -- sound and smell. At the moment the Western History Association is having an argument about a call for papers.
Specifically, they are struggling with the title “Post-Ironic History of the North American West.” Does this have something to do with “modern” (never really satisfactorily defined for anyone) or “post-modern” (never mind -- plunge ahead) or Annales, as referred to in this quote: “By 1980 postmodern sensibilities undercut confidence in overarching metanarratives. As Jacques Revel notes, the success of the Annales School, especially its use of social structures as explanatory forces contained the seeds of its own downfall, for there is "no longer any implicit consensus on which to base the unity of the social, identified with the real." I never heard of Annales, but I guess they mean the People’s history and that these days there are just too many different kinds of peoples to keep track of.
After 9/11 it was said there could be no more irony, by which I guess they meant that it was just too serious to make jokes or mention cruel fate. But then a look at the list of dead showed Islamic countrymen of the terrorists who perished in the catastrophe because they were pushing sandwich carts down the halls. Irony was only beginning.
Autumn is the ironic season, a time of deconstruction, piling up the compost. For instance, the funeral of Joyce Clarke Turvey, fourth generation direct descendent of Malcolm Clarke whose life was so significant in Montana history. Joyce was a Keeper of the Flame for her father, John Clarke, the deaf/mute woodcarver so much celebrated and valued, but her death has gone without even mention in the obits of the nearest big city newspaper. When I tried to interest either the Great Falls Tribune or the IR in Helena in finding a reporter to do a story about the death, they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. WHO did I say? They are young, they just moved here, they’re thinking about Friday night. What is more ironic than a newspaper that rejects news?
Maybe it is a family that denies its own history. The present generation rejects the connection to the early half-breed Clarkes, nationally famous and influential but never wealthy and still half-breeds, on grounds that Joyce was adopted (though she looked much like John). They want to claim Joyce’s distinction as an Avon manager with a pink convertible and her accomplishments in visiting exotic places. The irony of selling Western art but raising one’s children in suburban California, where they know nothing about it, is a little painful.
History that is quant instead of quaint acts as though no people were involved. One prof asked for “an older, more direct approach. Maybe “Body and Soul: Western Missionaries Eaten by Cannibals. 1820-1860.” Okay. Is there an algorithm for that? I think most of the cannibals ate their friends and relatives, so what does that imply? A metaphor for historians?
More useful definitions are “irony as unintended consequences,” which as Elliot West suggests, just about sums up the history of the West. Or maybe the reference is to “the historian’s stance as outside and above the events s/he is writing about . . . implying a superiority and a distance from engagement.” [emphasis added.] A professor’s stance -- understandable enough if one doesn’t know anything else. So clean, so PC -- so nice in a dustless well-lit room cooled by AC.
This DOES sharply relate to an abyss between early and late historians, between those aficionados who loved the West they thought was real, the one where you shoot black powder guns in a reconstructed frontier town, ride in a real cattle drive, and other “juvenile” stuff, come to meetings in boots and Stetsons, and could throw yourself into DVD’s of “Hell on Wheels,” instead of sitting on your leather sofa with a martini, sneering at “Deadwood,” that campy example of displaced urban rot. “But that’s what the West was really like!” the ironists declare. “We know and you don’t.”
On the drive to buy bottled water (the latest well in Valier has loaded the water with iron) two fat whitetail deer cross the highway in front of me, slipping on the asphalt, tails waving. I counted three squashed skunk carcasses. There are never any dead gophers anymore -- all poisoned out. Never any hawks because there are no gophers. In Valier there have been no mosquitoes all summer, so there are no bats. The old farm ladies are dead set against any chickens in town, so the coyotes will have to eat cats -- plenty of those -- except the coyotes get shot. Sometimes the cats, too. The irony of unintended consequences.
Gray chemical fallow fields stretch out for miles, nothing to hold the tainted dust from blowing. The mayor worries about downwind radioactivity from Hanford. The new West glows in the dark, and that’s not counting the red lights and strobes on top of the hundreds of high wind turbines to warn the airplanes away. But no one under thirty remembers anything different.
When I came to Browning in 1961 (I should get someone to set this to music. . .) there were still survivors of the cavalry massacre mounted in retaliation for the murder of Malcolm Clarke. Through that decade Bob and I sat at the lunch counter with John Clarke, telling gesture stories and laughing. When I came back in the Eighties, it was AIM and some of the most abusive drunks had become shamans. Then in the Nineties the Indian kids began to succeed in college and a school was started to teach the little ones to speak their own language. Now they are the only ones left who can.