Saturday, October 15, 2005

Eats Alone

The second story in this series takes its name from the head of a real Amskapi Pikuni band whose leader did like to eat alone. He was evidently a thoughtful man. Continuing my idea of coming in slantwise, I thought the story should be about someone who was NOT anxious to be a big-shot Bundle Keeper and who was aware of the responsibility of it.

The next element was the Minipoka, a name for a special -- even spoiled -- child. Once I tried to slow down a rather arrogant but gifted young woman by calling her a minipoka. The word came back around to me that among the Amskapi Pikuni, ALL children are special and ALL are minipoka! But I got the concept from Beverly Hungry Wolf, who described her sister getting her face painted every morning. I was looking for quietly special relationships between people: the father and daughter, the two buddies, and the main character and his second-hand wife.

The object from Bob Scriver's book, "The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains," started out to be the small green parrot on the Bundle that was transferred to us, but then, to drive home the concept that Bundles are dangerous, I put in the Bear Knife Bundle.

This "generation" was the first to have horses and to find their lives much expanded in terms of what they could do and how far they could go.


1767-1791 Historical Time-Line

1769: First recorded contact between Blackfeet and white men: de le Verendrye.
1772: Mathew Cocking of Hudson Bay Co. describes Blackfeet and their allies.
1774: Cumberland House trading post established on the lower Saskatchewan River.
1778: Continental Congress signs the first Indian treaty. It is with the Delaware Nation. The Articles of Confederation state as one purpose to regulate trade with the Indians.
1780: The population of the Blackfeet is estimated to be 15,000. They occupy a broad area that stretches over the top half of Montana and the bottom halves of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
1781: Devastating epidemic of smallpox. The Shoshoni's flee their country. Smallpox spreads to the Blackfeet after they raid a Shoshoni camp.
1782: Snakes and Shoshoni tribes leave Bow River area. Major smallpox epidemic among the Pikuni. Possibly 50% mortality.
1784: Congress grants the War Department rule over Indian Affairs. Hudson Bay and NorthWest Fur Co. are competing for Blackfeet.
1787: David Thompson winters with the Blackfeet on the Bow River. "Dog Days" old men (those who remember pre-horse) say they came from the Northwest. Blackfeet war party goes south to Santa Fe. Steals horses from Spanish miners.
1790: Duncan McGillviray is in the area. First Trade and Intercourse Act passed to license Indian traders.

Eats Alone

The old man had gotten in the habit of rising early, before the camp crier, in order to have time alone to watch the sun come up before having to listen to a lot of chatter. He liked to eat alone, taking a bit of meat from the pot by the fire as he went out and chewing it slowly as he walked to the closest hilltop. It was good to meet the Sun alone and understand what the day would be like. His wives thought that since he was chief he ought to rise late, so as to come out of his lodge with people around to admire him. But he had not wanted to be a chief -- though he tried to guide his people wisely -- and he preferred to simply get up alone. On this morning he had not been to bed at all.

All night he had sat on the hill on his buffalo robe, looking down at the small camp. He knew that some of the older religious men of the tribe meant to choose him to become a Medicine Pipe Keeper, but he did not feel ready to accept and therefore did not sleep in his lodge where they could come and obligate him with their ceremonies. It was not just the expense of providing feasts, which the Keeper of the Pipe had to bear; nor was it the many rules of behavior, though they were pesky enough. He just didn't feel worthy. He felt he was not virtuous enough for others to consider him a religious leader. Maybe he was not ready to admit he had grown that old. Most of the time he felt no different from the boy he had been long ago when he renamed himself Spring Bear. But the truth was that the world was changing and he wasn’t sure he understood.

In the night a breeze had brought him the familiar smell of the horses he could see grazing out on the prairie, away from the coulee along the creek where they camped. Now it was barely light enough to see that the smoke from the lodges had fallen with the cooler air and was lying among the lodges. The fires would need stirring up and feeding soon. This was what life was like, he thought: always a need for food.

Through the darkness, under the wheeling stars, he had sat smoking his own personal pipe with its red Sioux stone bowl, and thought over memories he had put away for a long time. They made him uneasy. His life had been a rich one. Even his childhood did not seem hard or deprived to him, though he was aware of how much easier everything was since the horses came.

Now, as the light came up over the eastern line of hills, gradually putting the buckskin color back into the land, he saw a small figure coming up the hill from his lodge. His heart lifted. He was always glad when his smallest daughter got up. He had named her "Splits his Head" because the men of the tribe like to name their daughters for their best battle exploits and his had been like that--he'd split a man's head with the first metal hatchet he'd ever owned. Normally he didn't brag, but this small fierce girl needed a strong name.

The sky was red as blood now because the sun was coming up in a veil of smoke from prairie fires. It was early spring and time to clear away the dry grass. Thunderstorms set some and the People set blazes in the places they knew, so that green grass would come quickly. The small figure trailed up the hill, rubbing her hands on her face, yawning and shaking back her rumpled hair. "Come, my daughter! Sit by me and sing the song for the sun as it comes up."

She was puffing and a bit sweaty when she flung herself on the ground between his knees. "Why are you always going off by yourself?" she demanded. "I need to have my hair combed and you are the only one who can do it right."

"First I comb your hair. Then I paint your face to bless your day." She gave a short nod, her stubborn chin firm under a red mouth. Spoiled she was, a minipoka and it was his fault. She had come very late in his life.

He took a long time putting away his pipe and getting out the comb he had brought home as a youth and kept ever since in his bag. It was better than the porcupine quill brushes the others used. No one else had a comb like this one, made of white stuff that was smooth like bone but more dense. He looked at his gnarled, dark hands on the comb and thought of other hands, a young woman's hands long ago.

"Ow! Be careful! You are pulling my hair out." He began to sing in order to keep his mind on what he was doing. "Stubborn one, even your hair is stubborn," he sang. His big hands went gently over the little girl's shining head. He parted it different ways and combed it over and over for the pleasure of the heavy black strands against the smooth white comb. "Enough, enough! You will wear my hair out!" Carefully and slowly he parted it in the middle and made two plaits to hang over her shoulders. He took bits of buckskin from fringe on his sleeves to tie them.

"Don't do that!" said the bossy one. "Soon you will have no fringe at all and someone will have to make you a new shirt. I won't do it. I don't have time." She scowled at him, but it was a mock scowl and they both knew it.

He changed his song. "Brave little girl, your face is fierce!" From his bag he drew a lump of fat and a bit of red pigment. Using his palm as a palette, he mixed just enough paint and drew the brightness down the part he had made in her hair. Then he thought of something and made a new mark.

"You're not painting me right! This is not what you always do." He had wondered if she would notice the difference and was glad that she did.

"No, this is a new way to paint your face. It is the way my grandmother used to paint." Not quite his grandmother.

"What grandmother? You said everyone in your family died." She wrinkled up her face at the tickling of the grease.

"Well, she was an old woman that I travelled with for years. You remind me of her. She was also bossy." But he had already thought of that old woman too much, so he began a prayer to make his daughter quiet. "Keepitaki....Old Woman! Napi....Old Man! Kimmis! Kenahtepewah!.... Have mercy upon us!" The daughter squirmed between his knees and he had to grab her so he could make the blessing gesture over her head and down her shoulders and arms. She had seen that someone was coming out of the lodge and she would wait no longer. Running straight and hard, she went down the hill.

He shook his head. "Perhaps this one should have been a boy." He turned the comb over in his hands.

When the old woman had gone off after that bad Sun Dance celebration, he had fitted rather easily into the ragged band of boys who came and went among their relatives, eating from lodge to lodge and sleeping wherever they were. But even then he knew that he had formed the habit of being alone. Before the others were ready to do their Coming of Age Vision Fast, he had already spent many long hours watching from high places. He didn't pray much in those days, but he watched his own mind, trying to make it as strong and controlled as his body. When he did his fast, it took a long time before he had a vision.

He was grateful when at last his eyes saw another world, but he didn't understand what he saw. It was a small green bird with a crooked nose. The old people couldn't interpret, partly because he couldn't explain it and partly because he didn't really want them commenting and speculating anyway. It was his own vision and he would understand in good time. At least he understood horses. His whole life circled around horses. He herded them more than the other boys did. Even at night he enjoyed being out with them. To him they were persons and he understood the way they thought, though few horses are ever loners.

The old brown horse was his best friend even after he had begun to acquire a small herd, sometimes buying them with skins he had trapped and hunted, sometimes earning them by helping a rich man, sometimes stealing them from another tribe, and occasionally receiving one as a gift. His calm independence and air of mystery made people admire him and want him for a friend. By now the People had many horses. But when the herds were spread out to graze, he was always conscious of where that old brown horse was.

When, one day, it wasn't there anymore, he had an idea where to look for it and found its carcass before any predators had reached it. Not even any birds had pecked its eyes and it looked peaceful in the sweetgrass and mint. It was like a very old sleeping horse. He took a bit of horsehair from the tail and braided it into a little coil which he put on his wrist. "This was my friend, this horse," he sang as we walked away.

Now the sun was coming farther up and his wives and children began to move around the lodges, fixing meals, shaking out the night robes, going to bring more wood. His wives were sturdy and competent. He had not wasted the horses they cost him. He had married sisters, so that they would have already decided who was the boss and how things ought to be done. Now their mother lived with the band and he sometimes wished there were no taboo on talking to her, because she was a thoughtful and calm person.

But there was one wife, the most recent, who was not her daughter and so she was not treated as well by the other women. She had been the wife of his best war partner, Wolf Going Away. She had had no brothers to take her in when her husband was killed and she was pock-faced so no one else wanted her. He took her. She cost him nothing and he would have been obligated to provide her with meat anyway. The youngest child, the minipoka, was her only child by him. His war partner had never had children with her, which had been hard on them. They had thought it was her fault, from when her face was pocked.

Some had wondered why his friend kept her. She had come from a band far to the north -- some thought she was part Cree and talked of the powerful Cree Medicine, love potions. His mother-in-law had not wanted him to take her in, for fear that he would stop caring about her daughters. But it hadn't been that way. She brought her own lodge and he spent much of his time in it now, but he was fair to his earlier wives.

Still, he had never talked to his early wives like he could talk to this woman. Somehow she thought like Wolf Going Away and she knew the stories Wolf had told. Maybe it was just her strangeness that had made him passionate, younger again for a while. Perhaps she reminded him of someone else long ago. She was soon pregnant. But there had not been more children since. By now she had become his Sits Beside wife, the one he wanted closest to him. The other women tossed their heads and stayed in their other lodges, helping her only grudgingly. But they had many sons and daughters, nearly grown, and now there were beginning to be grandchildren, even great-grandchildren.

As he thought about this, Pock Face stepped out of their doorway and shaded her eyes to see what he was doing up on that hill. From the distance he could not see the pocks on her face. He saw the straightness of her shoulders and back, the grace in her walk. She was not strange to him now.

Not too long after the brown horse died, he had gone apart to sit on a hill and think. He was just about grown and good at all the things he should be able to do. But others remarked that he thought too much, that it would make trouble for him. On this day a long line of geese went overhead, heading south. They yelped as they went in their vee, like an arrowhead that pointed south. By now he had been west over the mountains to steal horses, he had been north to visit the Siksika tribes who lived up there, and he had been far east of the Sweetgrass Hills when the buffalo went that way. But he had not been far to the south, though he had heard stories about smoking earth and strange people.

That night when he was herding horses with Wolf Goes Away, he proposed an expedition to the south -- not a war party, but a long trip. They had not understood how very long the trip would be. Before it ended, they had soaked in the hot water by the smoking earth. His friend had been nearly killed when his horse fell. He himself would be nearly killed by a bear. They would have had various accidents that caused them to camp for a while to heal up. But they grew tough and used to travelling until they had gone farther south than anyone they had ever known. There had been no trees, only sagebrush, and not enough water. Too many snakes and not enough game.

His daughter, the minipoka, was coming up the hill and she had something in her hands: his own personal bundle. Normally it hung at the back of the lodge, directly across the fire from the door, so that he sat next to it. Made of rawhide and decorated with his own design, it contained the things that meant the most to him. His wife sometimes set it on a tripod outside the lodge so that the sun shone on it and warmed it.

"Pockface sent this up to you. She says it would be good for you to sing over it and let the sun into it. You never open this bundle!" She dumped the bundle onto his robe beside him. "Kika! Wait now!" she shouted over her shoulder as she started back down. "I'm going to get new tobacco and sweetgrass to put inside." The grassy hill drew her into a run. Sure-footed, she did not trip on the clumps of arrowleaf balsamroot, their big yellow many-petalled flowers like suns.

He didn't really want his bundle. Thoughts were crowding onto him already, more than he could manage. His life had been full: many exploits, many sons, always enough food. He had been careful to keep his family away from anyone who might be carrying the pockface disease. His horse herd was legendary. But some things were painful to remember--not because they were hurtful but because they made him yearn for what might have been.

That long ago woman had smelled differently than any other woman: she smelled of corn. Parts of her smelled sharp and green like the tassels and parts of her were warm and rich like the cornmeal she ground out on her stone daily. Her hair was not in a braid, nor loose, but in a carefully arranged way he never really understood. It made him feel respectful but he secretly liked her a little better when she came to him at night with her hair loose. Her strangeness attracted him, but it also aroused a kind of over-awareness, a feeling of danger, of not being able to predict what would happen next. This must be partly why he still thought of her so many years later.

Her house was of earth, in the earth but up high in a cleft in a sheer cliff, and with all the others of her kin. They did not move around but caused the corn to grow where they wanted it, along with squash and beans. This food was strange to him. Sometimes he yearned for buffalo meat and thought he would become sick without it. He was thinner than he had been on the prairie and something else he couldn't identify. His dreams were different -- maybe that was it. He dreamt of the dangerous rolling boulders that used to chase Napi in the stories and he dreamt that the earth shook and opened into deep spaces with drawings on them. It was partly real and partly not like anything he had seen.

The day he came into her house and saw the bird from his youthful fasting dream, he had been deeply shocked. He knew now his dreams were coming through the small green bird with a crooked nose. It was her pet and it talked like a person, so powerful was this bird. Green was the thunder color--he should have expected that the small creature would have power. But it scared him.

The minipoka came back up the hill, her forehead glistening in the warming day so that the paint ran. Her dress was pouched up in front of her to hold the tobacco and sweetgrass. "All right. Now we are ready to open your bundle."

"Saaah. No."

Her jaw dropped. "What?"

"This is my bundle and I am not ready."

Minipoka stood up. She was between the sun and her father, so he could not see her face but only her dark silhouette. Then she careened down off the hill again, this time tripping once or twice.

His mind returned to that place far south, the corn woman and the baby he had never known. It was she who gave him the comb he had used on the minipoka's hair, a comb of something smooth and white that had come to those Corn People from much farther away through strange pale people who had always had horses. He thought of the shapes of the cornstalks, not just a flat pattern, but dynamically as they thrust up and drooped their long leaves over like the long ears of the burro. And then grew cobs of corn, so smooth and orderly. From his bag he drew out a corncob pipe and a little string of colored corn kernels that had been pierced when they were still soft.

The grass around him rustled in the wind. Down below, the minipoka came out from the lodge and marched off towards the horses with a rope wound around her waist. He had been just like when he was her age -- if his feelings were hurt he went off to the horses. Horse, actually. For a long time there had only been the old brown horse.

Since then he had had many horses, lost them to thieves and accidents, and then gained them back through his own raids and through his mares, until he needed a lot of space around his clan in order to graze them. He was not conscious of trying to become rich, but he had indeed gradually become a person of wealth in property and family. He had been generous to the poor and hungry, which meant that he also became wealthy in esteem and gratitude. In this way he became a chief -- not a war chief or a holy chief -- but rather a man who could settle feuds and keep order among the people. A civil chief. But he never lost the sense of danger the small green bird gave him.

It was only recently that certain old men had decided he must be a Pipe Keeper, to carry and protect the calumet and other accountrements until it was time to give the feast when the first thunder was heard in the spring. It would cost him a lot, but that wasn't the reason he resisted. The old woman had set such store by the summer festival ceremonies, but he had always seen that their value was simply in the socializing. The rest -- the Sun Vows, the secret Society doings, the show-off dancing and giveaways -- they were good -- he would not mean to scoff at them, but they rang hollow to him. Only a bit of women's quarrelling and the Old Dog Woman had run away to live and die alone with her dog pack.

Yet he felt his own personal Bundle was too sacred even for the eyes and prying questions of his daughter. Contact with it might endanger her, call her spirit away.

The enemies of Corn Woman's tribe came unexpectedly. There was not time to pull up the ladder that made their high-up house safe. They came, not many, sneaking in until they blocked the sunlight at the entrance. Corn Woman, the baby and the little green bird were in the next room. She squeezed into a small space in the wall, holding her hand over the baby's face to keep her from crying out, while Spring Bear, like his namesake, roared and charged the invaders. There was an explosion and then he didn't remember anything.

When he woke, they had gone. He had a terrible wound, unlike any he had ever seen before. His wife and baby were dead. He had failed to protect them. The small green bird with the crooked nose was walking around on the floor, talking, but it spoke Corn Woman's language and he couldn't understand it. He took it and left. When Wolf Going Away found him, he was walking north and in his hand was the small green bird, dead, squeezed to death. It was Wolf Going Away who nursed him and got them both home in the next few months.

By afternoon it was getting hot and thunderheads were gathering on the horizon, mounting up into the sky. He had moved his robe up the hill farther until he was in the shade of a jack pine. The heat felt good on his legs, which ached sometimes now, but he wanted his head cool.

Pockface came up the hill to sit beside him and work on some moccasins. She didn't say anything. In a while Spring Bear took more things from his bundle. He didn’t think the Bundle would hurt her. She was a part of him, hardly a separate person. There was a small wrapped-up package that he unwound slowly. It was the remains of the small green bird. Pockface looked at it. Wolf Going Away told me about that bird," she said. "He said it talked."

"Yes. It did."

"What did it say?"

"Don't know. It spoke her language only."

"Aaaaah," she said.

He turned the bird over in his hands, delicately so as not to let feathers fall off. "It's not as big as I thought a thunderbird would be, but it is certainly green."

"A buffalo stone is not big either, but it brings a very large animal."

"This is true," he said, as he opened his little packet of buffalo stones, red and polished from years of being rubbed with fat and paint. Some of the fossils were spirals and others looked like buffalo with four legs and a head. He looked at her, blinking and squinting. "You are my Buffalo Woman!"

She laughed, but she liked it, he knew. What he didn't know was how much she worried about him. "He is getting old," she thought. "And he is still not at peace." He was looking far off where Chief Mountain was at the end of the arc of mountains. "Wolf Going Away always said you really loved that Corn Woman."

"That was then. This is now."

"He said you blamed yourself that she was killed."

"And the baby."

There was a long pause. They sat not moving except to shoo flies away. Pock face asked, "What if they had lived?"

"What do you mean?"

"Would you have stayed down there forever?"

"I would have become homesick."

"Would she have come back with you, then?"

He thought for a moment and looked at the bird. "She would have become homesick. And her bird could not have lived here."

"So one of you would always have been unhappy." He said nothing. "I want you to know that I am happy with you," she said.

“Even though I killed your husband?” Everyone knew (except the minipoka) but no one spoke of it. Spring Bear had once been the Keeper of a Bear Knife Bundle. It was very powerful and dangerous. Wolf Going Away asked Spring Bear to transfer it to him. The way one transfers a Bear Knife Bundle is to throw the Knife, which is heavy and sharp, burdened with brass falconry bells, directly at the recipient, who must catch it to complete the tranfer. Wolf Going Away had failed to catch the knife. That was how he died. Spring Bear took his wife and supported her. She did not blame him, because Wolf Going Away was the one who had failed. They had grieved together.

“It was not your fault,” she said. She had said it many times before. “Wolf Going Away wanted that knife, he wanted something beyond him. Human beings cannot always control what happens. It is too proud of us to pretend that we do. We must be humble and accept what happens to us. All we can do is pray and help each other.” Then she gathered up her materials and went back down the hill to the lodge. Clearly he was mulling over matters he had already considered.

Towards evening, when the land was shadowing and the thundershowers grumbled along far away, the minipoka came back up the hill to her father, once more excited. He could see what was exciting her, for her grown-up brothers were coming in on horseback from a horse-raiding trip and it looked as though they had done well. Overhead they waved the trophies they had managed to capture: warshirts and feathered lances and buffalo neck-hide shields. He and the minipoka sat together as they came swirling and yelping to the camp, on through and up the hill to dismount in front of him with their chests heaving, their eyes glittering, and their horses foaming. The wives came running up the hill with their dresses hiked up and children came from everywhere.

He stood to praise them, raised his arms to bless them, and sang in celebration of the great spirit who had protected and guided them. "We are fortunate people! My sons are strong and brave!"

It was dark by the time the excitement had died down. Pockface was cutting more meat to make more stew when Spring Bear came into camp towing his robe and carrying his Bundle. She looked up expectantly and he stopped beside her.

"I will accept the Thunder Pipe," he said. "And I will put this small green bird on it."

She smiled and acknowledged his idea, but he held up his hand to keep her from saying anything.

"That's not all. I intend to put a second smaller pipe in that bundle, because a man needs a Sits Beside. The second pipe will be called the Woman's Pipe. I have spoken. This comes to me through my dreams. No one shall question it." He went inside the lodge. She knew he had found the way to resolve his old regrets.

When the moon rose and the oldest men came to capture him by its light to be a Thunder Pipe Bundle Keeper, he waited for them quietly in front of the lodge with Splits His Head on one side and Pockface on the other. In his hand was the little green bird who spoke, and he wept as he waited. The moon was a thin crescent. The Wolf Path went off across the sky and down behind the horizon.

In the darkest part of the night, Eats Alone rolled over to see what was moving. It was Splits His Head, sticking her head out from under the lodgeskin to look at the sky. "What is there, daughter?" he asked softly.

"Stars are falling out of the sky."

He stuck his head out beside hers. There were many more falling stars than usual. "They will make puff-ball children on the prairie. It is a good sign. We will grow and thrive and paint the puff-balls onto our lodgeskins. Our children will be many."

Side by side they lay in the dark, watching the stars come to the earth.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Introducing "Blackfeet Bundle Book" by Mary Scriver

Today I’m beginning to post a sequence of short stories about Blackft. I call it the Blackfeet Bundle Book, each story being like a Bundle to unroll and contemplate. Not necessarily sacred.

The first impulse to write this sequence came from reading reviews of a book called “American Generations.” The premise was that every twenty years is a “generation” -- roughly the time it takes a person to grow up -- and that each generation has its problem to solve, its style, its context, and so on. Each of these American generations was given a name. The first one took place at the time of the American Revolution, when it separated from England.

I wondered what a parallel book about just the Blackft Nation might look like, esp. since the horse got to the Blackft about the same time as the American Revolution. So I got out my time-line, divided it into twenty year sections, and looked at what happened in each. Of course, I had to begin with the coming of the horse.

Several other principles and little “hooks” kept my plots lined up. No one person can be in every story -- they’d have to live for more than two hundred years! But I did manage to at least refer to the people in the previous story so that one gets the idea of an on-going group, a tribe. At the same time, I thought I’d try to pick up the oddballs -- the individuals who were against type and rarely even thought of in “normal” Indian stories: those outside modern gender dualities, those who traveled far, those who were of mixed blood, and so on.

And I had one more little trick. Bob Scriver published a book of photos of his artifact collection (“Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains”) so I thought I would include one artifact from the collection in each story. Most of the objects in that book were things I’ve handled and knew well. In the first story, the object is the copper tea billy, a little pot with a tight lid and a bail for hanging over a fire.

One more thing: Some of these stories reminded me of real people -- not that they are portraits, but somehow the spirit of the person got into the story. I’d kind of forgotten that this first story brings to mind a character we called “Fonzie” when he was in my classes at Heart Butte in 1990. Something about his energy level and his willingness to meet the future. Yesterday I ran into him at the grocery store. Now he has a wife and three kids and he’s about twice the size he used to be, but he’s still that bright, high-energy person.

Maybe that’s why I’m posting these stories now. They’re about 8,000 words long, so they count for a week of shorter entries. (My goal is 1,000 words a day.) I’ll post the whole story at once so you don’t have to read it backwards, but the next story will be after this one in terms of generations. When all twelve are posted, you’ll have to get into the archives to start at the beginning.

Some on the rez will object that I shouldn’t write these stories because I’m white. I’ll say to them what I said to the Fonz: write your stories and give them to me. I’ll put them on my blog. This is not a case of me displacing other writers.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The First Hard Frost

Many things things are pegged to the “first hard frost.” The end of skeeter season. The time when chokecherries turn sweet enough to pick. The time to lift potatoes. And the time when I switch from salads to casseroles. Corned beef hash becomes my favorite breakfast and sausage with cheese replaces cottage cheese. The flannel sheets go on the bed and big woolly nighties replace the thin cotton one with tucks and embroidery. I can’t think what I did before size 3X men’s fleece shirts, because now I wear them over everything, around the clock, though they come off in the afternoon if I’m working and the sun is shining. All the poplar leaves have turned and dropped. That’s my work for a week or so.

This morning I drove to Cut Bank for a little grocery booster -- not that I really needed anything particular except cat food (always) but that the day is the chill crystalline clarity of the first morning after a hard frost. The clouds of the recent snowstorm have gone, leaving the mountains white with snow. This could mean the recharging of the Valier municipal wells, but maybe not. By nightfall the mountains may be back to stony and the water in the wells no higher.

Women who garden are “putting their gardens to bed.” Mine has been sprawling and groaning all summer, so it will be glad to go. There was never quite enough sun, nor quite enough water though there was plenty enough at the right time to get the grass growing like mad -- “I am the grass; I cover all.” Just not enough for roses or hollyhocks. Maybe it was my fault -- maybe I didn’t do the right things at the right time. I’ve lived in apartments most of my life. Even with Bob there was no hope of a lawn or garden with horses and badgers at large.

Gutters are on my short list, the poplar leaves stacked into them like coins on edge. Gutters are one of the structural Achilles’ heels of this house. I’m sure water is going into the walls in several places, a desperately serious matter. I figure that when I sell a book I’ll rebuild one side at a time, replacing the asbestos shingles with stucco as I go. On the last coat of stucco I’ll make big Celtic spirals.

Last night I watched my ancient tape of “Excalibur,” which I acquired when I was teaching “Idylls of the King” in Heart Butte. The senior class, which traditionally is the year one studies English lit, consisted of four or five young men -- no longer children, and selective about the days they chose to come to school. On a day like this one, I would not hope to see any of them. But the day I had scheduled “Excalibur,” a sort of adult precursor to “The Lord of the Rings” and maybe “Gladiator,” one showed up. Surprisingly, he was VERY excited to finally see “Excalibur,” said he’d been yearning to see this movie! It is full of violence and nudity, dire threats and terrifying sights -- for years afterwards I dreamt of the tree where the failed knights hung and an eerie child in golden armor laughed mockingly. Some might criticize me for showing the movie, but this boy in particular already had his own child, was mourning his best friend’s death in a trailer fire, had been in near fatal car accidents.

The movie was full of fires and fog. I thought of them this morning as I topped Buffalo Ridge and saw that Cut Bank was entirely obscured by a blue roll of fog. “The Dragon’s Breath,” Merlin kept calling it in the movie. I entered the fog bank just past where Lewis and his small scouting party killed two Blackfeet about the age of that Heart Butte senior class and stopped at the info kiosk to see if I could recognize the exact spot. We went there in the Sixties when it was first located. The kiosk features a photo of the fatal spot but FROM the spot, not AT the spot. The location is on private property and the rancher doesn’t welcome visitors so... a bit of sleight of hand.

The huge straw bales are still spaced in the fields up north, as though waiting to be arranged into a Stonehenge, but they are only drying. If the right combination of dampness seizes them, they burst into spontaneous combustion. I saw one once, merrily burning away out there in the field, a bale that refused to meet its fate in a cow, a bale intent on the dramatic, the exceptional. No rancher or fireman had arrived to deal with the renegade.

It’s bird hunting season: at dawn a few days ago when there was shooting by the lake, the cats and I raised our heads. Befuddled by dreams, we went back to sleep. First hard frost. Expected and yet shocking, transformative and yet paralyzing. An ambiguous event but one that demands definite preparations: bring in the latex paint from the garage, cover the outdoor hose bib with insulation instead of detaching it from the house plumbing because it might be possible to give the trees one more soaking. If the Black Willow doesn’t get enough water at bedtime, it won’t drop its leaves -- just let them dry in place. But I depend on those leaves coming down so I get sunshine on the south side all winter. One year I threatened to just climb up there and pick off the leaves one by one!

I’m reading “Warriors of the Wasteland: A Quest for the Pagan Sacrificial Cult behind the Grail Legend,” by John Grigsby. King Arthur, the wounded “thigh,” the search for the healing chalice -- and the answer to the question is “the king and the land are one.” At the “Round Table” of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment they’re arguing about whether discussions of nature ought to be sexy. They need a good hard frost.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Newspapers and First Snow

During the first snow, the first fallen leaves lie sodden on the uncut grass, and the cats go crazy from boredom. I’m saving my usual trick (drawers of junk pulled just open enough for a cat to get her arm into it) for later when the deep snow comes. This is only Oregon-type snow -- though in Oregon it falls in January -- and the temp is just above freezing, so that if one walks around outside (I’m not that bored!) one steps from snow to puddle to slush. The cats intermittently go out, crouching under the pickup and dashing to cover under the tall fir trees, which have limbs down to the ground and never really get wet underneath.

The reason I’m not bored is that two newspapers -- utterly dissimilar -- arrived in my post office box this morning. They often come together. One is the “Prairie Star,” an ag newspaper for which I worked briefly (that’s another story) and the New York Times Book Review. When I lived in Helena in the Eighties, I sometimes met new friends when their NYTimes Book Review got folded into mine and jammed into my PO Box. Although I simply remailed their copy, later at some event I would recognize the person’s name and introduce myself. After all, we tended to travel in the same circles.

Here in Valier I doubt that anyone else subscribes to the Book Review, but many count on the tabloid-sized “Prairie Star.” It doesn’t have news in it, per se, but accumulates enough copy “above the fold” to justify the many ads that fill the rest of the page and pay for the paper. It is free to the reader and was started by simply mailing copies to a state master list of farmers. On the basis of that readership, ads were solicited from the infrastructure ag businesses: machinery, insurance, fertilizer, and a host of indispensable “stuff.”

Pretty soon small ads came in from farmers wanting to sell or buy machinery. Often they were scribbled almost unintelligibly on scrap paper, with a signed blank check for us to fill in. These people were old-timers, often not too good at speaking English but scrupulous about economic matters and confident that others were, too. Their small ad “ventures” -- an inch or two in a column -- were a great source of interest to their kind and others. A sort of card game, with a blind draw element to it. Women told us that their husbands would sit in recliners all evening, reading these little ads and wondering what was really involved, speculating if they ought to make a phone call.

The copy, I was a little surprised to discover, was simply down-loaded from state ag agents’ websites, of which there are many. One of the constant controversies at the paper was whether information from the Dakotas could be included as helpful or whether it was too far east to be relevant for our area. (I kept one memorable long article about how to raise peonies for an income. State ag agents are a good source of info for gardeners, esp. if you’re more interested in healthy plants than buying the latest in garden ornaments.)

Once, when I was living in Saskatoon, I went off to a conference back East and acquired a copy of the Village Voice to read on the plane. It was when singles ads were blooming and I got a lot of chuckles from cutting out VV ads, as well as a representative group of a Saskatchewan ag paper’s singles ads, and pasting them side-by-side on one sheet of paper, which I xeroxed and sent to friends to demonstrate cultural width. The VV ads had a lot of references to “rubber goods” and exotic preferences. The Saskatchewan preferences were good teeth, strong backs, and compliant dispositions.

The Great Falls Tribune, which is delivered in Valier, belongs to a big publishing corporation. They have a formula: front page about local stuff unless something really BIG nationally is happening. Two next pages about international stuff. A page of editorial. A page of continuations of stories. Back page with the weather. Montana section. Sports section with a back page of business. “Living” section, two pages folded with the classifieds. A weekly insert on “Outdoors,” another on entertainment. The newspapers in Montana used to be dominated by Anaconda Copper. The impression I have now is that they are gripped by the big hospitals. Medicine is money: equipment impossibly expensive, meds supposedly miraculous, and always the hovering presence of the insurance industry. INDUSTRY. Many ads for doctors, clinics, research institutes, and hospitals.

If I had to choose only one of the above, it would naturally be the New York Times Book Review. That’s where I really live -- in that land of ideas and time-travel. I save far too many of the reviews, put them in boxes and files, and years later -- trying to throw them away -- once again rereading become enthralled and can’t give them up. In the end I’m intensely aroused to write -- but thoroughly confused about WHAT to write, HOW to write, WHOM to write for, where to send it anyway.

The news one gets from a newspaper is never about oneself, even the NY Times stories of brilliant psychological theories. The NY Times rarely writes about the Rocky Mountain east slope anyway -- except sometimes in the Book Review section there will be a review of a book about this place, these lives. Generally the review is either patronizing or gushing. But once in a while there will be something so illuminating, so tender, so tough-minded, that I have to save it. Then I want so much to be in some kind of relationship with people who say those things. But I have no phone number. They do not place small blind ads.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Tall Piece of Cake: Scotty Zion

Scotty Zion is the Crocodile Dundee of structures. “Structures? I’ll show you structures! How about a grain elevator? How about a three-story stone house? How about a steel bridge? Where do ya want ‘em?”

I’m the Wimpy of Structures. I’ve spent all day trying to nail extruded woodwork around my two bathroom windows. It’ll look great eventually -- when I figure out what to do about the bent nails and gaps.

I wrote about Scotty’s first book earlier and sent him a copy, so he sent me a copy of his second book. This is where the Wimp and the Croc meet happily -- writing stories. This one is called “Piece of Cake, Scotty, Piece of Cake!” That’s something the crew always said, but it’s also a bit of literary irony. Of course, as the author reminds us, 99% of the time everything goes smoothly with house-moving: the permit comes through, the crew that’s supposed to raise the lines is there on time, the Zion crew is not hung over, there are no risky corners but good solid fords on the rivers (bridges are usually too low or weak for hauling houses across), and so on. That 1% is where the stories come from. With tales as good as these, that counts as a silver lining. (And Scotty never skimped on good insurance policies.)

Here’s his account of something that was not house-moving: a rabbit hunt as done in Australia. The rabbits were entirely out of hand and eating “all the farmer’s grain that the grasshoppers and worms didn’t get. A rabbit committee was formed and built a rabbit corral, complete with wings to funnel those pesky bunnies into the gated killing arena.

“Well, it worked pretty good. Hundreds and hundreds of jackrabbits gathered in front of advancing people who beat the ground, bushes and tumbleweeds. Most everyone had baseball bats, or clubs of some kind, but no guns.

“Somehow the ‘rabbit bosses’ forgot to delegate who was to murder all those rabbits. So, everyone ran in amongst the bunnies, whacking in every direction trying to do some killing. But those rabbits were experts in dodging, running between the killer’s legs, and jumping over the top of others. All the rabbits headed for the gate where they came in.

“By this time, those hysterical killers were beating escaping rabbits, mostly misses, and each other, screaming all the while like mad. Anywhere you looked, rabbits were running like hell for home. The paper reported only forty-two rabbits killed, and most of the rabbit killers wounded. From the rabbit’s point of view, it was a very successful drive.”

Some of the funnier incidents came about when the house being moved wasn’t moving. Once the crew ran into a parade and refused to go on without seeing the whole thing, so they parked the house in an empty lot and sat on the curb to watch. Another crew, more mature, were moving a house on Sunday, came to a church with services in progress, and parked the house in order to attend.

When they moved the Fairfield Bank, everything inside stayed where it was and the customers went up and down a gangplank to do their business. One irate fellow came racing up, yelling, “This is an outrage! I’ve heard of bank robberies but you guys are stealing my whole damn bank!” The kicker to the story is that when they took hold of the vault, which had been left anchored behind, it disintegrated into sand, pebbles and cement dust. Valuables went scattering all over the street and officials and citizens had to quickly gather papers and objects. Evidently everything was eventually found.

Scotty belongs to the Hipshot Ricochet (the gunslinger in the comic strip drawn by Stan Lynde) school of religious thought. He tells about two graveyards at Gold Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills. One is fenced and commodious: “A great place to be buried, if you really have to be buried, with a view that goes on forever. The other graveyard obscurely overlooks the big cemetary from the hillside towards the mine... It is the last resting place of the ‘women of the evening.’ There is a pipe rail enclosure to keep the cows from tipping the one small headstone over, and the epitaph reads: Miss Jessie Rowe, born March 9, 1887, died Sept 30, 1902...

“Eight graves, none with headstones, cluster around the one small one and seem to hover in a protective manner as they did in life. These ladies of ill repute cared for the fifteen year old orphan girl until she died of pneumonia and buried her in their private little graveyard. If I were to be buried in Gold Butte, put me alongside of the girls, as it is probably several hundred feet closer to heaven than the other graveyard.”


“Piece of Cake, Scotty, Piece of Cake,” by Scotty Zion. (ISBN 0-9771808-008) Order from Scotty and Claire Zion, 460 McIver Road, Great Falls, MT 59404. 406-454-3394.