Tuesday, August 13, 2019


The first thing I read on my computer every morning is likely to be Delaney Place (delaneyplace.com) which is timely excerpts from books, maybe historical but also sometimes literary or philosophical or some other category always intriguing.  This morning it is a few paragraphs from "A Country of Vast Designs" by Robert W. Merry.  It's about the years in the 19th century when Mexico and the US, with Britain also involved, were fighting over who would pull Texas into their nation, with Texas also fighting hard to be its own nation.  It was what Trump keeps imagining is happening now, military and deadly, settled but not quite completely.

When I came to Browning in 1961, the Cold War  (1947 to 1991) was not yet ended.  Maybe Putin doesn't think it ever did.  The first night I collapsed into my "new" bed, exhausted from the train ride, I woke up at 10PM when the curfew howled from the watertower next door, and in my confusion tried to take refuge from an impending atomic bomb attack.  The tiny building was little more than a shack resting on railroad ties, so there was no refuge.  Only gradually did I realize that I didn't need to respond as I had been taught in Portland and Chicago.

I feel a little bit like that now facing what is intense in many people's imaginations.  I worry about what I will do when the food distribution collapses, how to manage if there is a major earthquake on the Pacific coast and waves of people begin to arrive homeless, how I will live if Social Security is ended.  This morning I awoke to the shouts of men with machinery but I still don't know who they are or what they're doing.  The town is built on an aging web of water and sewer piping, so it's likely to have something to do with that.  In earlier years I would go out to investigate and have a lot of questions for the men.  Now I just want to stay in the house, writing, hoping they aren't going to shut off the water.  They used to warn us, but not anymore.

The idea I originally had was that this high prairie place, not necessarily this town, would be "safe," at least from nuclear attack.  Between leaving in 1973 and returning in 1999, I lived in Portland again, then Chicago, Hartford, Rockford, then traveling a circuit in Montana among bigger towns, then Kirkland across the lake from Seattle, and Saskatoon in Canada.  People were most scared in Saskatoon, because many were Ukrainian, meant to populate the prairies after escaping Stalin's starvation plan.  They knew that there is a kind of sub-war, what we're now calling fascism, surveillance capitalism we thought was about curbing crime.

There has always been a "gray" layer of society that is neither virtuous nor evil, but opportunistic.  In some ways its existence is necessary to address the tension between law and justice.  The law is the written and enacted rules, but when applied it sometimes ends as injustice, which is why there are so many layers to the law.  Mostly, esp. in a small town, the police respond to complaints: barking, theft, drunkenness, and the like.  They are directed by a layer of "chiefs" who are like editors for writers -- they weren't on the spot of the event, but they can encourage or restrain street officers.  Above chiefs are the political leaders and presumably, through media, those leaders control chiefs.  Most of this corruption is secret, never seen by the public unless there is a crisis.

Standing against this shifting, culturally influenced life in actuality, is the court system which is meant to invoke the rule of law, clear back to the original constitution.  In addition, organizations with the purpose of monitoring and alerting people may or may not be aware or willing to go public in some way.  When I first joined the Unitarian Universalists, they were an educated and idealistic body who often stood for justice, even against law.  The huge shift in society, undoing many restrictions imposed by families, has also affected the UUA, so that it has become concerned about socioeconomics of minorities and the necessity of reassurance.

Ultimate justice does not exist.  It may be unjust for all life to be destroyed, but only from our point of view.  Genocide is unjust -- even immoral -- from our human point of view, but the rule of law supports it, criminalizing simple existence.  Or possibly imposing reasons for war when "emergency measures" suspend both justice and law.

Underlying all of this is biology and ecology, the essential nature of human beings as we have cumulatively evolved from reptiles to mammals to primates, keeping a set of instincts and reflexes that may have kept us alive as a species (not individuals) but are deeply destructive to what we call nations, including the reservation societies that have formed because of limits imposed by the larger nation.  By now they have regained strength and insight enough to define themselves as international nations. 

In 1961 the law on this Montana rez was controlled by the US, loosely overseeing what was once simply the interaction of grouped families you could call clans.  Prevented from moving apart, influenced by their place on the ecotone (some encouraged assimilation, some protected old ways), and constantly roiled by "brilliant" political interventions like sending people off to the city to become welders or office drones, but never following through with support that would create success, the end result was always unpredicted.  Blacks taught Reds how to be political.  Government schools at high school and college level mixed the supposed "tribes" of certain blood quantums into marriages across distances and different ecologies, creating "pan-indigenous" as an entity.  The secret goal was always "make them be like us."  Except controllable.

In Browning after WWII and during Korea there was so much street level chaos that the town organized its own justice system that competed with both the tribal system (which was unitary and competed with family systems) and the FBI federal list of crimes.  Neither addressed whites except in the town.  Bob Scriver was the city magistrate and one of the two Justices of the Peace.  That made me, because of being always near him, the "bailiff."  I watched this competition between justice and law, moderated by money (fines) and confinement that was sometimes more like a shelter, a place to sleep and a minimum to eat.  

It's all very vivid to me, still.  Most remarkable and unexpected is that the grandchildren of the drunks I knew this way have turned out to be achievers.  The great-grandchildren even more.  In the newspaper, the names of the leaders are the same.  So . . .  Kenner's question: what does it mean?  SURVIVAL.  Or not.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Hello -- This is a note about book publishing, not related to your current post, but definitely a result of reading many of your other posts about writing and publishing.

I wonder if you have seen this extensive compilation of comments by women writers about the experience of publishing their first book. They are deeply embedded in the process and believe it has made them better writers, but, from reading your posts, I recognize that it made their books more saleable, which is not the same thing. I'm sending you the URL just in case you want to take a look. Will read with great attention if you decide to comment on it.