Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Amato, Joseph A., Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History. (Berkeley, CA: U of California Press, 2002. ISBN 0-520-23293-3)

Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. ISBN 0-8070-6439-4 pb)

Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Reverie. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969 ISBN 0-8070-6413-0)

Bogart, Barbara Allen, In Place: Stories of Landscape & Identity from the American West. Glendo WY: High Plains Press, 1995) ISBN 0-931271-27-4

Fiffer, Sharon Sloan and Fiffer, Steve, editors. Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of their Own. (NY: Random House, 1995. ISBN 0-679-44206--5)

Gallagher, Winifred. The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993. ISBN 0-06-097602-0 pb)

Goodrich, Charles. The Practice of Home: Biography of a House. (Guilford, Conn.: The Lyons Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59228-416-7)

Greene, Elaine. Thoughts of Home: Reflections on Families, Houses, and Homelands. (New York: Hearst Books, 1995. ISBN 0-688-16988-0 pb)

Hiss, Tony, The Experience of Place: A New Way of Looking At and Dealing with Our Radically Changing Cities and Countryside. (New York: Random House (Vintage Books), 1990. ISBN 0-679-73594-1)

Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8061-2227-7)

Nisbett, Richard E., The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why. (New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6 pb)

Pearlman, Mickey, A Place Called Home: Twenty Writing Women Remember. (NY: St. Martins Press, 1996. ISBN 0-312-12793-6)

Pollan, Michael, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. (NY: Random House, 1997. ISBN 0-679-41532-7)

Rybczynski, Witold, City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World. (New York: Scribner, 1995. ISBN 0-684-81302-5)

Tuan, Yi-Fu, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. (New York: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974. ISBN 0-13-925230-4 pb)

Tuan, Yi-Fu, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977. ISBN 0-8166-0884-9 pb)

I notice that sometimes when I mention a book, people assume I'm recommending it. But this is not always the case. I haven't even read all the books above. Some of them (Yi-Fu Tuan, Rybczynski, Bachelard, Kemmis) are highly respected and certainly OUGHT to be recommended, but for different reasons. Kemmis is a practical and humanistic politician considering human community. Bachelard is a French philosopher writing poetry as much as reality. Tuan is a pseudonym for a respected professor. But Elaine Green simply edits a series of House Beautiful columns by various folks. (Not that they aren't intriguing!)

Feel free to add your own choices to the comments.


It has been so cold here that I’ve resorted to heating the cat food in the microwave so they’ll eat it. (How warm? To the temperature of mouse blood!) I’ve been so hunched over to keep warm, that my shoulders ache. And that’s with an electric laprobe, two layers of fleece, and long underwear. This old house leaks little knife-edges of chill when the temp goes below zero. But today we’re up to eight above and headed for the twenties tomorrow.

That wasn’t the biggest problem: my internet provider had what they called an “issue” with “authentication” for several days. Since when did the cyber community begin to pick up psychotherapy talk? Anyway, I was left adrift for a while and had to resort to filing, which was a rather psychotherapeutic occupation in itself. What do I REALLY want to keep? Where are the boundaries? What is the core issue in this file? Why am I doing this anyway?

Self-publishing is going slowly. Some friends claim they are buying dozens of books -- not knowing that I can see at my Lulu website every sale made and so I know they’re fantasizing. But when I search my name or the title of the book it comes up everywhere. It’s on Amazon, Powell’s, etc. even as a “used” book. How can it be used? It’s Print On Demand -- unless someone bought copies to resell. But I’d know that -- I can account for every sale so far. Quarterly, one is supposed to be sent one’s profit and the third quarter check (Aug, Sept, Oct) was supposed to come in November so I’m sitting here like a little bird with its mouth open, beseeching for a worm. Tomorrow is the last day of November.

One childhood friend, who has not bought a book and does not read my blogs, and yet protests that she thinks I’m a fabulous writer and so on, became so angry -- when I boasted about getting a thousand hits a week on my main blog and expressed some worry about starting a literary career at 67 -- that she told me off. I think she wrote me off because she was afraid that I might write her off -- self-fulfilling prophesy. You can’t fire me -- I quit. So, if I DO have a literary career, how many friends will it cost me?

Indigo agrees to highlight self-published Canadians

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail

Toronto — Canada's largest retail book chain, Indigo Books & Music, has agreed to carry a selection of books by self-published Canadian authors, provided those books are packaged by iUniverse, the Nebraska-based affiliate of U.S. super-retailer Barnes & Noble.

Participating authors will have to process their books through iUniverse's Premier Plus system which, for a $1,349 fee, gets a writer an editorial evaluation of his or her manuscript, custom cover and book design, a "marketing tool kit" and other services. Copies of the books will be published on an on-demand basis, with the author paying for the print run, the fee being based on a discount of the book's retail price.

There's a selection process for all titles and those chosen will be displayed in "high-traffic areas" of Chapters, Indigo and Coles stores "for at least 60 days -- longer if the book keeps selling."

This strikes me as a sort of hybrid (i.e. half-assed) approach to coping with the new technology/old venues. is much less expensive for just printing and listing ($100 for an ISBN and Amazon, et al) but if one took advantage of the adjunct offers for design, publicity, marketing kits, and so on, it would be pretty easy to spend that much. Probably the most expensive part of this would be the editorial evaluation, but how does one know whether it is worth anything? Back in 1961 I was stung by Famous Writers, which was all encouragement until one was signed up for an expensive course with an airtight contract -- then an instructor’s assault began that was pretty hard to withstand for a person just starting out. The idea was to install writer’s block so you didn’t send any more assignments -- just checks. It worked, well, “famously.” Until the law caught up with them.

The “best” part of the above Canadian arrangement is the display deal, if they actually carry through. The most insidious part is “the author paying for the print run.” Don’t have to do that at unless you’re going to buy a bunch of your own books and sell them from under your arm at a conference or something.

I predict a lot more blundering and experiments before we settle into a new pattern. The headache of it is that one must commit to strategy without knowing whether it will ever amount to anything more than... well, dust bunnies.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers"

When I was in seminary, Steve Beall was always trying to develop a “theology of pastoralism” from the Tom McGuane book, “The Bushwacked Piano.” I never really understood what he was up to, but I began my own topological theology from Tillich/Eliade to the effect that there is a “horizontal” dimension (the earthly), and a “vertical” dimension (to the other-worldly, whether heavenly or satanic). This is a spatial assignment suprisingly widespread in various religious systems, some of which actualize the symbolic by climbing down into a hole (or Kiva) or by hiking to the top of a prominence (on a vision quest).

Then I organized the rest around the “home” (center) and the “wilderness” (as far out as you can get). Of course, you can make metaphorical hay out of this all along. The center (axis mundi: turning point of the world) is always where you are -- narcissistic but true. What choice do you have? Generally I got a bit confused when I went to working out the meaning of pastures, gardens, fields, and so on.

So I was pleased with my most recent remainder investment, a book called “Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began” by Colin Tudge. It’s an endearing 5” by 7.5” hardback, 52 pp., the dust jacket split top from bottom: emerald on top, purple on bottom. Considering that I’ve been putting lots of time and effort into capturing the actual worlds of my prairie ancestors (some fields, a lot more wilderness than now) and have been reading about the reconsideration of neanderthals in terms of both the skull of a little girl and the genomic patterns of their protein, this little book is really more of a book “marker” for ideas.

Written in 1998, there are no really new ideas in it. It’s an essay in the purest sense, essaying to reconsider a lot of old ideas in the light of then-new research. Gradually, the idea dawns that converting from hunting (pax Paul Shepherd) to agriculture was not a simple matter of progress nor was it quite the curse depicted in the Bible when the people were driven out of Eden and beset by the Flood -- but nearly. Climate study was confirming that indeed there was a mighty and unprecedented flood, more than just the melting of the glaciers. In fact, a climate shift that melted the ice caps in a few decades, raised the ocean by many feet, drowned the easily cultivated lands of what is now Iraq, forcing them to reinvent agriculture in tougher places. It could happen again, and not just in New Orleans. (A recent competition for a vision of Manhattan in the future took into consideration the possibility of it looking like Venice.)

A parallel body of theory was that human beings, through overpopulation and clever technology (the atl-atl), killed off whole species of animals -- just as we are doing today. Between Cain and Abel, we have changed the Earth and we continue to do it -- though we wonder, like Paul in the New Testament, “Why do I do what I would not?” So this little booklet is worth pondering.

Tudge’s idea is that people went to agriculture gradually, in several ways and stages, an insight which I appreciate:

1. Horticulture (from the Latin hortus meaning garden): “growing food plants intensively, initially on an individual basis.” So, one of the ways one can find the ancient camps of the Blackfeet along the paths they followed is to look for clusters of plants they liked and evidently took along to put where they would be convenient. Sarvisberries, sweetgrass, tobacco. Years ago I read an account of someone walking through the South American jungle with a “medicine man,” who watched for certain herbs and flowers, stopping to dig them up and transfer them closer to the village where he lived.

Second category is “arable farming” which entails breaking the soil, removing all pre-existing plants, and planting something new. Seeds, potatoes. Storable foods in enough quantity to support a city, which spares some people from "sweaty faced" toil so they can think but enslaves the plowman and his ox.

Tudge’s third phase is pastoralism -- animal keeping but not in the nomadic way. Most people would put it first, not third, seeing it as “more primitive” somehow. Doesn’t it go: “hunting, herding, fencing?” But Tudge is after another new idea from research: the management of grazing animals through the use of fire to move them around and to renew the grass. Another Blackfeet skill.

In some ways Tudge is only summing small paradigm shifts (if there IS such a thing -- maybe I should just call it “reframing the evidence”) that have begun to add up to something far more momentuous and world-shifting: how we came to be us and how we must save ourselves. Quite a religious subject: “what must we do to be saved?

His answer is shocking: We must be lazier. He points out that in hunting cultures, the hunters -- like lions, or horseback Blackfeet -- mostly sleep and groom. They can catch enough meat for pleasant enough lives for most of them: the quick, the clever and the community-based. The others die. But in an industrious, hustling, production-based society, there is enough to encourage more and more people who do less and less that isn't just busyness. The few must feed the many. (What is it now, 2% of the people are farmers?)

I won’t go farther. This is Thanksgiving weekend. Thank you, farmers.

Friday, November 24, 2006


There are two kinds of little old ladies in Valier: the kind who dreads wind and the kind who dreads cold. (Of course, we all dread ice underfoot and the threat of broken hips.) Hardly anyone dislikes neither and many people of every age and gender dislike both. Personally, I don’t mind wind, but I’ve come to hate extreme cold. I’m not talkin’ zero -- I’m talkin’ SUBzero. The kind of cold that leaves white coin dots on your cheekbones and makes your fingers numb.

When I was young I hardly cared and zipped around with no jacket (for short distances) and bedroom slippers for sprints to the foundry or shop. (Of course, they were often Bob’s bedroom slippers, which his mother bought for him. Substantial wool objects with a zipper up the front and a hard sole.) Out to the woodpile, no prob. Rarely any gloves either. The Sixties were the era of the mini-skirt and a couple of the senior girls froze their thighs. No one could decide whether that was reckless, brave, or maybe (ahem) erotic. “Oh, let me rub your limbs, dear! Warm you up!”

My best winter footware in those days was felt liners inside four-buckle galoshes, which I never buckled because I liked to go clashing and jingling along through the deep snow we used to have in those days. Old-time Indian cowboys would stop me on the street and make me buckle up, lest I fall flat on my face when the buckles caught on each other. In those days they neither loved nor hated white people -- they just tried to take care of everyone.

Today it was zero when I got up at 6AM and the ground was bare. After I read the paper and went back to sleep, I re-woke at 9AM and knew by the light -- muted and matte white -- that there was snow. Now -- late afternoon -- the temp is up to ten above and the sky has cleared so that the light has changed again. Now it’s bright, striped gold and blue. Just now I went out to sweep my sidewalks -- in my slippers, no gloves. Not that cold if one keeps moving.

Everything is very still, so that even this very dry light snow is staying balanced on the twigs. It’s easy to swish the snow-dust off the sidewalk, which is cold enough these days that it stays dry. The only problem is where people have stepped, crushing the snow into a felty cake that wants to resist the bristles. Someone insists on walking down my sidewalk, no matter what state it’s in. There’s only one other residence -- Loretta next door -- and she goes in and out the alley, ignoring her sidewalk in front. The rest of the block is mostly the Baptist church which clears the walks for Sunday only.

Alongside the house, where I swept earlier, some of the dry snow has already sublimated, been absorbed into the even drier air. The humidity in the house, where I’ve been washing dishes and boiling things, is 30%. Our precipitation, which was far above normal early in the year, has fallen to “trace.” Doorknobs don’t sting with a static discharge because this is an old-fashioned house with rugs instead of carpets and no electrically propelled heat.

My furnace is under the floor and works by convection. It’s great to stand on, except that the “modern” grille over the top is fairly fragile and costs $400. The directions say not to install it in a doorway, but that’s exactly where it is, so traffic beats it up. I try to remember to leap over it and guests following me through the house take my example, so we look like sheep or goats, imitating the leader.

The thing I dread the most about the cold is not the cold itself -- thanks to fleece, down, and electric bedding, I can cope pretty well. It’s the money. The cost of natural gas, piped, is supposed to be less this year than last, but my heat bill is double or triple in winter. The gas company was released from regulation a few years ago which has turned out to be a HUGE mistake. An international corporation from Australia is trying to buy it at the moment. I’m sure they’re not looking for a nonprofit investment.

In another of those “help the poor and the old” gestures that only use those categories to subsidize international corporations, one can apply for help with heating costs. I’ve applied for three years straight and been turned down each time, even though the people in the office helped me with the application and assured me that I qualified. This year the application form is much longer and includes the demand that one permit access to all records: financial, medical, employment, assistance, and so on -- plus the entire year’s bank statements.

There is an assurance of confidentially. I’ve learned from bitter experience that nothing NOTHING on the county level is ever confidential. Or impartial. The demonstrations and scandal over Bob Scriver’s sale of his artifact collection was propelled by the “confidential” list of the values (a MILLION DOLLARS!!! CANUBELIEVEIT???) that the white local insurance businessman maliciously leaked to NA political opportunists. He thought it was funny to see Bob, the “Indian lover,” attacked like that.

The most profound cold comes in the night. The house begins to pop and creak. Both cats want under the covers and as close as they can get. Usually it has cleared and stars stab the blackness. Aurora Borealis may wave her veils, but who can stand out there to watch? Our porch lights are less alluring but more reassuring, although if it gets cold enough the lightbulb in my “jam jar” fixture explodes.

When it’s so cold, little old ladies can’t sleep and prowl from one window to another. They might read or turn the radio on low. I don’t need to worry about an electricity blackout shutting down my heat, but others do. The people with hot water heat are at most risk. Who might be out there in the cold? Is that a dog howling? When the county snowplows can be heard far away, grinding and scraping, it’s time to sleep. Now they’ll watch for trouble.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Thanks to the Kovar machinery, the Sam Strachans were at their most prosperous and optimistic point. Then came a 25% tariff on the machinery and the decision to move to Oregon. In the meantime, the Brandon house with the Kovar warehouse behind it was as comfortable as they had ever been. The address was 724 10th Street. There was a “sacred fireplace” that became the new anchor point for ceremonial photographs, and even a “sacred staircase.” The house would be an excellent location for several graduations and a double wedding as the children reached maturity.

Seth and Glenn were formally posed in fall, 1927, just before they left for “flying school” in Marshall, Missouri, in preparation for the acquisition of a small airplane for Kovar business. Seth began his lifework as a pilot in this way.

May is posed in her graduation splendor in June, 1928, dressed almost like a bride with a bouquet on her arm. (She earned a Certificate in Domestic Science from Manitoba Agricultural College.) In those days the fashion was white stockings with white satin shoes -- just as in the Seventies the fashion was black stockings with black patent leather shoes. The fireplace itself appears to be of glazed brick with a fancy enameled grill over the opening, probably intended for coal rather than wood. It seems quite English to my eye. The area above the mantel shows a built-in mirror. Two candlesticks adorn the actual mantel -- at least one can’t see the mantel clock. Maybe it stayed with its bookcase from the previous houses or maybe it just doesn’t show. There is an elaborate columned carpentry surround framing the whole fireplace area. The chair in both photos seems to be an unremarkable wooden chair, borrowed from someplace else. Other photos show the hearth as rubble! Broken rocks and possibly brick. This suggests that the original hearth -- marble? -- was removed for some reason and the pieces were a stopgap.

The stairway is very nice: carved wood, gracefully designed. A radiator shows, meaning that this house has a furnace or boiler which probably means a basement. This, along with a lack of easy chairs for reading near the fire, might suggest that the fireplace wasn’t really used for heat. This would be an excellent stairway for a bride to descend -- or two brides since the Strachan wedding was double. (Unusually good-looking couples, I might add! The brides dressed as May did for graduation except for veils gathered into little upside-down sugar bowls on top of their heads.) I suspect that the frieze at the top of the wall and the window shade were left by the former owner. Also the quite remarkable art nouveau wallpaper in the main room! I wish I knew the colors. I'm guessing turquoise, plum, orange!

The family was quite proud of the fact that this house had belonged to Martha Ostensko, the author of “Wild Geese,” published in 1925 and a great hit. Slyly dedicated to her father, the story is about a prairie patriach in territory more like Minitonas, who in his drive to succeed ruled his family too harshly. There is a terrible prairie fire arising from Caleb’s greed. The passage below comes late in the book after the fire. Lind is the school teacher who boards with the family.

“The first hoar frost came, and Lind woke one morning to find the earth covered with white, powdered glass. The sun took its glitter within a few minutes, but the land was not the same after it had gone. It seemed to have left a shadow over the stubble and over the short brown grass of the pastures to the west, and over the black corpses of the trees that had been ravished by the fire. The days that followed were as full of mellow radiance as those that had gone before, the wind was as soft and the sky as intimate a blue, but there was some change in the mood of the earth.

“Then Lind heard the honking of the first wild goose, high overhead. On a night that was cold with moonlight she heard it, a full, clear trumpeting, in a sky that was vacant of clouds. The wild geese were passing over -- passing over the haunts of man in their remote seeking toward the swamps of the south. They marked the beginning and the end of the period of growth. Next year they would fill the sky with their cold, lonely clamor at sowing time, and again when the earth would have closed in upon itself after yielding its growth.”

In 1996 a movie called “After the Harvest” was made for Canadian television, based on this novel.

Sam Shepard played the patriarch, but he was nothing like Sam Strachan, nor were his children like the trapped siblings in the story. Still, especially in Brandon, there was a sense of them trying their wings, looking to the south. Probably the exception was Elsie, who grew up in Brandon. When she married Glenn, she may have felt that the future of the family would be securely and prosperously in Brandon. In fact, she became a poet and would eventually have her work published in The Saturday Evening Post and Arizona Highways. Most of her adult life would be in Southern California, but she had no inkling of that yet.

Murdock McLean, called “Doc,” met the Strachan sons in Winnipeg at MAC and then their sister May. After a year back home in Reston, Ontario, on his father’s substantial farm -- big house with stone foundation, even bigger and always expanding barn, and a family to match with a patriarch a bit more like Caleb -- he decided to throw in with the Strachans in Brandon. He and May, along with Glenn and Elsie, formed a foursome. In old age, the two widows called each other late at night when rates were low to share their lives and memories, still close as school girls.

In fall of 1929 Bruce, graduated in Winnipeg, left for Oregon State College to get an advanced degree in “scientific agriculture.” Sam and Beulah, facing the economic future of Kovar, bought a house in Portland. May and Doc soon joined them. Glenn and Elsie stayed in Brandon in hopes that Kovar would somehow recover or at least survive. Elsie ran a little beauty parlor in an upstairs bedroom.

You know what happened next: economic depression like a prairie fire: so harsh and widespread that people across the continent died of starvation and suicide. Sam went up to Brandon to help close out the business and move the remains to Portland.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


House Passes 'Terrorism' Act Against Animal Activists
by Megan Tady
© 2006 The NewStandard

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 -- Monday afternoon, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that reclassifies unlawful animal-rights tactics as terrorism under certain conditions, even if they are non-violent.... the bill will classify civil disobedience actions -- such as blockades, property destruction, trespassing, and the freeing of captive animals -- as terrorism... enhance penalties against activists who "interfere" with animal enterprises by destroying property or engaging in behavior that appears "threatening." It even includes perceived threats to companies that work with animal enterprises and takes into account resulting profit losses.”

In other words, Oprah as terrorist. No more civil trials -- straight to criminal law. Not just “spitting on the sidewalk” but hard-core, locked-up-in-Guantanomo terrorism. It was easy to see this one coming.

There are several elements to this development. One is the meat industry, which wants no attention to its de-beaked chickens crammed into gym-baskets, it’s e-coli-spreading slaughter practices and feedlots, its illegal employees scalded and slashed by lousy work conditions, and so on. Another is the high-minded medical research community and its specially bred and expensive white mice and rats with “knockout” genetics, monkeys confined and infected because that’s the only way to find out about human diseases if they won’t let you do such things to humans, or cats literally wired for sex and violence in the name of understanding those potent human forces. The fur industry -- of course. So far growing plants are not included as victims of cruelty, but that food industry is also intent on eliminating public interference with its more dubious practices like not providing latrines for workers in the fields.

In short, 9/ll worked so well as a political ploy for Bush, was such an argument for power and secrecy, that entire industries have decided to follow suit. In the past when attempts have been made to regulate such organizations, they have depended on simple passive resistance: making things unavailable, stonewalling, conforming to the law only when inspectors were present, blocking the funding of enough inspectors to enforce the regulations. It’s all worked pretty well, a kind of board game of approach and avoidance.

But this is different. There is a edge in this approach, a determination to skewer the individual, to intimidate anyone who tries to take on the status quo by punishing him or her as “other.” At the very least, ecoterrorists will need a lot of money for lawyers. At the most they may simply disappear into “rendition,” confinement in a country with low standards about torture and no habeas corpus.

True enough that setting fire to laboratories, liberating mink from “ranches,” setting loose millions of dollars of mice and destroying the experiments they support, are bad things to do and often come from people who are neither thoughtful nor helpful. They meant to be provocative and look what they provoked! But defining them as “terrorists” ups the ante enough to attract the truly nutso. Do we want people blowing themselves up in local animal shelters?

In the last wave of extravagant superrich industries, the 1900’s Age of Gold, which many writers are beginning to compare to right now in terms of growing wealth disparity, there was violence against workers, sabotage against factories, riots and assassinations enough to dislocate public order. Is this what we’re moving towards?

Many humane workers think that they’re trying to make everyone be gentle pacifists who never kill any animals anywhere. They never consider overgrazing, belligerent deer in towns, vicious animals, or anything else that interferes with their vision of life as naturally an Eden: a zipless, prelubricated, eternal childhood Land of Sunshine. Instead, their harassment of government and corporate bodies has irritated the latter enough for this kind of out-of- proportion overkill.

I understand the irritation. When I was doing animal control, there were always individuals who locked onto us as evil monsters, used sunshine laws to demand time-consuming and expensive compilations of records, got on talk shows to whip up emotion over incomplete versions of lamentable cases, and generally hounded us into plugging our ears. But they weren’t terrorists. And a few of them had good sense -- they could become valued allies and friends. Still, there was always a rough edge of law enforcement that muttered, “Those women need a good ...” you know. Only a short step from there to rape, which can hardly be separated from violent assault. If they’re “only” terrorists...

No newspaper has discussed this federal law. I see no articles in magazines about it. Journalism believes that animal stuff is for children. All that tiresome stuff -- so hard to sort out. So...well, icky.

They tell me -- and I guess I believe it -- that in France there is no law against cruelty on grounds of being inhumane. Rather it is illegal to offend the sensibilities of others through cruelty. In this country, we don’t care much about sensibilities. The great overriding consideration is the profit margin. It is increasingly illegal -- to the point of being considered terrorism -- to interfere with anyone’s profit margin. Crimes against the dollar are crimes against the State.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


For a while there, it appeared that the Sam Strachan family would make their fortune from crabgrass -- the elimination of it. Well, the attempted elimination of it. In fact, they were about to leave farming and become manufacturers, working as the agents of the Kovar Kultivator Kompany. The great success was a harrow designed for the pesky long-rooted quack grass. “Dry and die” was the motto of the horsedrawn machine that pulled them out of the ground so the sun could get at them.

From the Internet:

Crabgrass is a common weed that almost everyone knows. (The "great philosopher" Pogo said, "Work is the crabgrass in life."). {The Latin name, Digitaria, alludes to the finger-like spayed out ends.] Digitaria were introduced from Eurasia and are widespread throughout the United States. Crabgrass is found in turfgrasses (mostly smooth crabgrass) and in ornamental landscapes (primarily large crabgrass). Large crabgrass is also found in orchards, vineyards, and other agricultural areas. Crabgrass also has many other names including crowfoot grass and summer g

It was 1926 and the Sam Strachans had been married for twenty-five years. Sam built his own homemade version of an RV, a home on wheels they called “The Ranger,” and they set off to explore the Continent. Strachans never paid much attention to the 49th parallel, though it gave them trouble through tariffs at the border on their Kovar Kultivators. The tariffs would end the business but not yet. (If the tariffs hadn’t put Kovar out of business in Canada, the soon-to-come invention of herbicides would have anyway.)

After many adventures getting to Portland, that Christmas the couple lived in the Ranger on a parking lot across from the Congregational Church. Of course it rained the whole time, which Beulah, used to the high and dry prairie, thought was wonderful. She hung a bucket to the eaves and collected soft water for hand laundry. The two of them walked down to the waterfront where there were still sailing ships and they went to stage shows. In the daytime they separately patronized the YWCA and YMCA. Each of them kept journals which I’ve typed out and distributed around the family. It was quite like a second honeymoon, although they were so enmeshed and had been for so long, that there was no need for such an interval to restore their relationship. They just needed time away from the frontier prairie.

There were several stops to make through the Strachan diasphora. One was to Sam’s cousin, George Ramsey Jr., (the son of Sam’s mother’s sister Mary Welch who married George Ramsey Sr.), thriving in Victoria, B.C. (I have no b&d dates for these folks. The Welch girls were born and raised in Scotland in the last half of the 19th century.) Across the street from the very substantial Ramsey house was another, and looming over it was Craigdarroch Castle. Sam took a photo from the top floor of the Ramsey house. It didn’t look like the little pink Pickler mansion.

Cousin Will Harcus, son (or husband?) of Jean Ramsey daughter of Mary Welch Ramsey lived in Everett in a rather less palatial house.

A South Dakota neighbor, Will Jackman, also had a pleasant house nearby.

The Sam Strachan’s appear to have kept up their relationships with the homestead neighbors as much as they did with their genetic diasphora. Which are stronger: bonds of blood or bonds of shared experiences? Best is when the two are entwined. Which draws people closer together, hardship or good fortune? Hard to tell. Maybe hardship.

Having taken a good look at the Pacific Northwest, the travelers swung down to Purcell, Oklahoma, where Sam’s mother and her sisters and Sam’s sister Jeannie (1877-1957) -- a second wife to the widowed Harmon Archer (1869 - 1942) -- were living. Sam’s mother, Catherine Welsh Strachan (b.1852), was buried there in 1918 and Sam had taken his father Archibald’s body (b. 1850) to her side in 1926. Matt Robertson (1880 -1967), a cousin who is in this photo and who referred to Archibald as “Uncle Archie,” had a story about Uncle Archie’s small brother, whose leg had to be amputated for some reason. After a while, when the boy had recovered somewhat, he asked when his new leg would begin to grow back. An optimist, that boy! I have no idea what his first name was or what eventually happened to him.

Matt, who was a lawyer and probably could have been a writer, said that on the Welsh side the family was descended from John Knox, the great Scotch reformer, through his second wife. Matt said he was of the 11th generation but couldn’t prove it. Also, he claimed as ancestors King Robert the Bruce of Scotland and William Wallace, the Scots hero of the 12th Century. Jane Welsh, wife of Thomas Carlyle, and Jane Welsh, wife of Alexander Hamilton, were also claimed. There is a long story about John Brown Gillis and his children, which I won’t include here.

Harmon Archer’s house is also quite romantic, with gingerbread on the eaves, a square tower with a not-quite spire, and unique windows. The family often spoke of the “round window.” Note the amenity of the screen porch at the rear. The front porch, concrete, is rather Greek with its curves and columns. I believe Jeannie Archer lived here all her life after marrying in 1907, so that means she was in residence for fifty years. Her sister Jessie stayed in South Dakota -- quite a different life.

Beulah and Sam returned to the far north, encouraged by the success of others and with renewed confidence that there was still time to succeed themselves. They would make several other swings around the continent, to Ottawa, New England, and to Alberta. Even a visit back to South Dakota. They had escaped John Knox and his dour Scots devotion to duty.

Monday, November 20, 2006


From the Internet:

Manitoba Agricultural College

After 1905 the agricultural education movement on the prairies was strengthened when the province of Manitoba established the Manitoba Agricultural College.

It might be argued that the objectives of the College had less to do with teaching students how to farm as then with equipping those who already knew how to farm with the scientific and management tools to make them better farmers. The College offered a core curriculum of coures in horticulture and field husbandry, agricultural engineering, animal husbandry, and natural history. In addition to these practically oriented courses, programmes were offered in the fields of agricultural economics, accounting and farm management, courses which reflected the increasing professionalization of farming.

Alongside the faculties that taught farming practises, MAC offered course in Household Sciences and Home Economics. This home economics division offered courses in foods and nutrition, clothing and textiles, physiology and hygiene and institutional management to women, and reflected a growing professionalization of the domestic sphere in rural society.

In addition to being a centre of teaching, the College was a centre of research and experimentation. College agronomists conducted research into agricultural techniques, inventing and improving machinery, determining the optimal methods for weed and insect control, tillage and ploughing, and crop rotation.

The College was also a primary instrument of agricultural education beyond its own classrooms and laboratories, and it counted among its objectives to bring news of agricultural developments to the attention of established farmers. The College sponsored field experiments and demonstration crops on private farms. It conducted extension courses, lecture series and practical demonstrations at which farmers could learn more about soil and moisture conservation, traction engineering, seed cleaning, and other aspects of modern farming. Between 1912 and 1914, these educational programmes took to the rails, as the College co-operated with the Agricultural Extension Services to send two Better Farming Trains across the province.

Since in Minitonas in 1924 the Strachans were raising row crops (onions, potatoes, raspberries) with horse-drawn machinery (the kind on which one sits, holding reins) and living in modest houses, Bruce must have been in a state of shock for the first months at Manitoba Agricultural College in Winnipeg. Huge blocky buildings sitting in straight lines south of Winnipeg were so new there was neither lawn nor landscaping. The campus looks rather Soviet. The first thing he did was go to the top of each building and take a photo of the other buildings from the top. The first impulse of most folks would be to stand before the entrance and take a photo looking up at the building, but I don’t see a single photo like that. Bruce was a freshman at age 23, evidently preferring to look at the larger layout -- and perhaps to keep some distance.

But the phenomenon of the Edenic, protected, inside over-against the monolithic, stony, forbidding outside is present at its most extreme in the horticulture building with its greenhouses. Inside is lush and blooming summer, nothing like the subzero of outdoors. The seduction of such a sheltered place cannot be overestimated.

In 1925 Glenn also attends college here and thus is able to photograph his big brother Bruce at the top of the 100 foot CKY radio tower while the latter photographs the campus from his perch. At the end of the first term, Bruce averages 82% and Glenn averages 84%. These scores are the highest in their respective classes. The next highest scores are several points lower. Despite their literal high-jinks, they work hard.

I don’t know whether they were atypically older or whether this was a common phenomenon in that setting, but I do believe they were proud, nearly to the point of arrogance. What kept the lid on them was a strong near-communist sense of social responsibility and political obligation to others. They had a keen sense of community and neighborhood, for the excellent reason of having saved each other over the years. This was the Roaring Twenties, sure enough, (probably rather muffled in Winnipeg, though even today that city has an avant garde edge), but there was also an element like the Sixties -- an appetite for experiment and a Peace Corps-like drive to reform and develop. My father was enthralled by people like Bertrand Russell and Margaret Sanger, but his idealism was not theoretical so much as it was practical. Rodale, the organic gardener, was in there with Freud. The prairie Strachans knew what hard times were like.

Traveling home on the train from school, my father’s resources had been reduced to 26 cents. Combining his knowledge of nutrition with a desire for value, he spent the money on a big bag of redskin peanuts to eat on the long trip. Throughout his life he kept a little cache of redskin peanuts as a buffer against starvation. I do the same.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


This farmhouse is in West Favelle, Minitonas, Manitoba. My father’s caption says, “Winter comes in October.” The date is October, 1919. This is not prairie, but rather scrubby brush that shelters bears and moose. The first winter, when money was short, they subsisted largely on canned moose.

The bears, like the Strachans, climbed the poplars. The Strachans, unlike the bears, climbed each other, the house, and whatever else there was. Growing up on the horizontal, they were fascinated by the vertical. This caption says, “Looking at the claw marks after a bear climbed this tree.” They did a bit of logging and a photo of a wagon-load of logs notes that the biggest log they cut was 27” across.

This house is taller than the South Dakota house and the added-on shed has a stepped roof (or edge) instead of slanted. The chimney is at the shed end of the house, so maybe the kitchen is in the shed, sharing the chimney with a heating stove in the front. Note the stained glass embellishment on the upper parts of the windows. (I’m impressed that in English movies the houses always have lots of stained glass, so maybe it’s an English predeliction.) Again there’s no porch.

Winter here was very hard. My father remembered it as a constant round of carrying out ashes and clinkers to put on the paths to sheds and outhouses and then carrying in more coal. There are always coal deposits on the high prairie if you know where to look. Even in the mild climate of Portland, OR, he would not give up the coal furnace, even after it became impossible to buy coal. (Finally my mother had the furnace removed while he was out of town.)

Even far to the north indoors was snug and safe. The result of having four nearly-grown children in a house this size was that things were a tiny bit crowded. In this house most photos were taken against this bookshelf with the mantel clock at the top, which I take to be a substitute because they are heating with a stove rather than an inefficient fireplace. Still, this family considered writing as important as fire. The mantel clock continued on to May’s household eventually, and the Bruce Strachan’s also had a plainer one which wasn’t sold until my mother died in 1999. The clock in this photo has a bronze portrait of a seated woman at the top, wearing Greek draped clothing. Probably she is meant to represent “Wisdom,” though I think I was once told she was “Minerva,” approximately the same thing. The books in the shelves look to be bound reports rather than popular books: the size of typing paper, but slim.

Mircea Eliade and other writers have pointed out that what the family values often becomes a kind of household altar: a piano, a staircase, a big window, a fine painting. In this house it’s pretty clear that classical time and books are the sacred objects. One photo after another is taken with this book case as background. (The camera case is hanging to the far right next to the calendar. I remember it from my own childhood. It was a bellows camera that made "post card" photos.) Of course, part of the reason is that this is an available-light time-exposure, so the windows need to be behind the camera or the result will only be silhouettes.

The sibs are probably doing homework -- May actually typing! But the caption says, “The family holds court.” That’s just a way of saying everyone is there and attentive, but it does look rather as though Bruce is the judge, sitting up high, May is the court stenographer and the two boys -- well, are they culprits or lawyers? Maybe they combine and swap the roles. They were in cahoots quite a lot.

Here’s Glenn with his horn, seated in front of the domestic altar. One can see the goddess and the sacred texts -- not quite the titles on the spines. Or maybe you have sharper eyes than mine.

The Strachan families that resulted from these sibs did tend to be self-contained and to feel that they were special, just by being Strachans. They were literate, they all worked hard on the farm, they saw nothing but progress ahead. No one had a clue that the youngest boy, Seth, with his love of heights, would end up as a bomber and transport pilot (B52's and B59's) in World War II, though they had admired the barnstormers in their little canvas and bamboo flying machines when they visited South Dakota prairie after WWI.

This photo actually begins a different essay, about touring the West in a homemade RV, probably funded by the estate of Archibald. I'm unsure whether this is the back of the same house, improved with a second chimney and porch, or simply another house. There are many hints about economic problems: good crops lead to low prices, you know.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


“GREY AND GOLD” 1942 by John Rogers Cox

A copy of this painting hung on our wall when I was growing up. It was an icon signifying my father’s boyhood in South Dakota. (My mother had her own, a photograph of sheep in the hills of Douglas County.) The book cover I’ve scanned here is called “Illusions of Eden, Visions of the American Heartland.” It’s actually a catalogue to accompany a show of art works and was sponsored by Phillip Morris. It’s in three languages: English, Hungarian, and German. I haven’t sat down to the read the book, but I did read the bio of Cox (1915-1990) and the information at, much of which is on the bulletin board section as messages from friends and former students. His work is considered to be “magic realism,” realer than real. His later years were spent in Washington State, in Wenatchee, though he was born in Indiana and taught in Chicago at the Art Institute for a long time. The example of his work on shows he detected a twisted and demonic side to the prairies as well as this orderly but foreboding landscape. Surrealists always seem to have a kind of horror-film side. Or is it the other way around?

This painting won the second medal in the “Artists for Victory” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two years later the same painting received the “popular prize” in the exhibition, “Painting in the United States, 1944,” held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. This painting now resides in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I don’t know whether my father knew all this stuff or what he made of it. His connection was just straight from the heart and my mother honored it. Over our fireplace was a “painting” (actually a print with a nice frame) that my parents bought together. I was present for the discussion of whether to buy it, but had no input. I was very small, but was impressed by their seriousness. A swan swims in a pond, looking very much like Laurelhurst Park, which I thought it was until I was grown up. It was to stand for their joy at living in Portland, Oregon, where we often picnicked in this park. My Aunt May and Uncle Doc also had a nice “painting” on their wall that looked very much like the prairie parkland of northern Canada. It was poplars in winter with snow and when the family gathered there, they would discuss whether the light was meant to be winter sun or moonlight. That signalled the beginning of the stories about Manitoba.

I tell all this as an illustration of how art weaves in and out of the lives of even fairly ordinary people -- without any discussion of modernity or political implications or ultimate value. My father’s art form was, of course, photography, which is why I have all these photos of houses to springboard essays off. My mother leaned a bit more to crafts but could do a respectable watercolor. My youngest brother has an MFA in metal-smithing, my other brother is also a decent landscape sketcher, and I dabble around when I have the inclination. My Aunt May filled her house with paintings. This gives me quite a different point of view from the new rocket-propelled art sales, which they say are fueled by hedge-fund millionaires. (See the latest “Vanity Fair” magazine.)

Instead of having a “picture window” out the front of my house so I could look in the “picture windows” of the house across the street (it has two), my picture window looks out the back and up a dirt alley with telephone poles alongside, just like “Grey and Gold” except that there are backyards instead of wheat. However, there is a wheat field at the end of the alley, which ends in a ridge that looks like the end of the earth, just like this painting. (A couple of miles beyond the ridge is the missile silo, aimed I know not where.) The cats spend much of their time on this windowsill since it faces east so it gets a lot of sun. They never tire of the view and neither do I. In fact, I get impatient if someone parks in the alley so that all I’m looking at is some RV’s rump.

We talk a lot in words about writing that has affected us, but art images can be powerful as novels, influencing choices, helping us interpret our environment and lives. Certainly “Grey and Gold” has caused me to see the world a certain way and to welcome the prairies, their electrical potential, their stored wealth. Part of my happiness in living here comes from this “magic realism.”

Friday, November 17, 2006


In the far past “culture mixing” has been local and mostly a product of shipping or packstring commerce: silk, sugar, slaves, spices, bananas and so on. Along came colonies, largely commerce-based at first (corporations), which shifted large numbers of white northern European people into “other” cultures as bosses. Then World Wars scattered people all to hell and gone over the face of the planet. Now we push ever farther into treacherous and unvisited corners, just to say we did it.

When people stay in one place for a long time, they develop meshed understandings of the place that amount to a culture: accepted ways of doing things with the resources at hand. Desert culture might be uncommonly focused on wells and herding. Fertile riparian places might be concerned with gardening and therefore the determining of “property” lines. These practices support religious concepts, economic means inform hierarchies, and order is kept by consensus as the oddballs drop out, are pushed out, or even are genetically extinguished.

All is well until someone different shows up and is able to make an impact or if the economics change, maybe due to weather or erosion or disease. Then there’s a scramble until a synthesis or at least a truce is achieved.

In the US today, we have a highly eclectic population except as they self-select in pockets by ethnic origin, economics (more and more), education, and so on. One cause is immigration, another is the shift from rural to city (rural used to be the baseline for everyone), another is the receding of two hugely unifying shared experiences (Depression and World Wars) that melded together the previous assortment of immigrants. The schism introduced in the Sixties and Seventies seems to lie latent within our society, with occasional flaring up of embers. Another fault line, which I blame on the media, is the barrier between parents and their young, who have been introduced to black ghetto culture through music, dialect and uppity persons. Even reservation kids who are lucky to get to Great Falls can talk Hip-Hop.

Culture just happens, mostly. Great Waves pass over us all. The media thinks it’s at least surfing on it, but I think the changes are more subtle and deep than any television or even literary expert can trace. Maybe most of all causes are economic, which always reduces in the end to environmental resources. Even our politics and certainly our movie culture is driven by economics: oil, sex, bling, and control to protect corporations.

Government is charged with regulation, both formal laws (short of the Constitution) and minor local regulations and everything in between. Regulation can try to restrain culture (no porn, no violence, no white collar crime, decent pay and working conditions, no monopolies) but also the culture tries to resist and do what it wants to though the mechanisms of voting. If worse comes to worst, there might be a riot.

Animals are caught in this struggle just as much as people are, but they have no say over it. Animal Control agencies are governmental, trying to keep order in communities, while Humane Societies depend upon the culture through the media. Somehow, in a time when people have forgotten about relating to cows and horses (except in the movies -- well, in the brief period when we all watched Westerns) but like to keep child-sized animals (cats and dogs) as signs of affluence and status or just to make family of a single person or a childless couple, we have managed to swap the status of pets and children. Some call this anthropomorphism, but I think it’s a little more specific than that.

Many people treat their pets as though they were children. Many people treat their children as though they were pets. The consequences are not very good for either category. An overfed little dog with a wardrobe is an aberration, but so is a child who is left to shift for his or her self, never receiving the transfer of human culture that is the function of parents. Schools themselves are no longer concerned with progress and civilization for the whole of humanity, but rather are told to make the children economically viable, as though they were race horses or milk cows. More, more, bigger, better. Make me proud of my child so I can buy one of those self-esteem bumper stickers.

The culture today has so sexualized every form of human intimacy that it’s only safe to be truly unguarded with one’s pets. A little too much fondness with one’s child and someone will knock on the door. (A little too much harshness with one’s pet and someone will knock on the door.) The kids want to escape anyway and run off with their peers. The pets might be willing to give up their peers in order to devote themselves to you. (If the pet doesn’t cooperate, you can always get rid of it in a way one can’t dump children.) Anyway, with both men and women working, nurturing careers instead of families, living in city apartments, not really willing to commit to lifelong relationships with another person, pets just make more sense.

Humane Societies have capitalized on the infantilization of pets in order to fund their work -- which is undoubtedly worthy work -- but it isn’t about the dignity of horses anymore. Their concentration has been on “adopting” all animals, maintaining the idea that euthanizing animals is as horrifying as euthanizing unwanted children, trying to capture all unowned cats and dogs so that none are “street animals,” encouraging the keeping of cats indoors at all times -- possibly declawed. Even “wild” animals are seen as very much like populations of people whose cultures are inscrutable. We read about elephants that weep and geese who “mate for life.” We giggle over bonobos who have such liberated sex lives.

Humans are animals but animals are not human. The culture has lost its grip on this, and the result is that governmental regulation -- Animal Control -- is hampered by a loss of social consensus, a constant barrage of bad publicity and lawsuits from the sentimental, and confusion in general when one culture says dogs are lovable children and another says dogs are to eat and another says one dog per household is plenty and another says dogs need their freedom to do their own thing and another says dogs are unclean, to be avoided at all costs.

I recommend several measures. First, animal control and humane societies must work together BUT paradoxically they probably cannot do this so long as they are the same entity. To the public and the media, animal control is the parent who is oppressive (but often inadequate when really needed) and humane societies are the children who are always good, always in need of money (and therefore can’t help demonizing animal control) and sometimes victims. Humane societies that contract to be Animal Control might not be able to do either very well.

Second, both entities need to get more sophisticated about culture, providing examples of successful ways to manage animals and Americanizing good animal care. (I would also recommend the uplifting of the American mutt as an exemplar of multi-culturalism!)

Third, the use of arbitration and mediation through boards in communities and neighborhoods is far more helpful than a full-scale court trial over a barking dog. Often bad dog ownership is part of a household collapse that already involves parole officer, public health officials, social workers, and so on. Local teams and panels help defuse the Big Bro image of government regulation. They’re far more work, especially at first, but in the end they CAN change the culture more than any judge could. Or any media outlet either.

Fourth, animals -- especially dogs -- have been a part of criminal and police action for a long time. There will continue to be a need for criminal prosecution and penalties for such situations as dogs that harm or even kill people, especially when they do so as agents of humans -- converted to deadly weapons. It would be the rare humane society that could cope with this. Likewise with emergency responses when people or animals ae in danger.

Fifth, animal regulation should be local as much as possible. Rules good for city dwellings are silly in small towns or rural countryside. Some suburban problems can be solved structurally: fences, a plumbing receptable for droppings, so on. High population of any animals -- including humans -- means more regulation. Economic inequity also needs to be addressed. Perhaps animal hoarding can be treated medically, but surely if the hoarders themselves had security and support, they would behave differently. They are rarely high-earning folks, often old and alcoholic.

This is only the beginning of the discussion. The culture changes -- the regulations pant along behind, trying to keep up. Burgwin used to push all the paperwork off his desk now and then, put his giant feet up there, and think. Think. Think. Figure it out.

Thursday, November 16, 2006



Recently two stories about cats were in the newspapers here and they provide a strange contrast in the way people interact with cats.

The first case is the more sensational and sad. An old man rented a trailer and lived in it a year with his cats. No one knows how many or why. He was “skint” as the English say, “broke” as the Yanks say, “impoverished” as the multisyllabic say, and stopped paying his rent. Therefore he was sent an eviction notice and left. But he didn’t take his cats with him -- just locked the door and left them in there with no way to escape.

The owner didn’t come to check for a month. In that time the cats increased to about thirty (it’s hard to count panicked cats), surviving with no food or water. Expert opinion was that they ate each other’s kittens. They also say the feces were six inches deep. The cats were sick, gaunt, inbred and freaked -- all were euthanized. There was no report on the owner. Everyone is mad at him.

The other story was quite different. It was about a program to spay and neuter cats, either pets in homes or captured feral cats or cats of ambiguous status. The idea was a day of sterilization with several veterinarians -- mostly women -- working in assembly line fashion. The photo showed volunteers, each sitting in front of a little pallet of blankets, each occupied by a cat recovering from anesthesia. Again, the volunteers were women who watched the cats for bad reactions while petting, reassuring and keeping them warm. It was easy to see ghosts of “Nurse Nightingales” hovering over victims of a catastrophe. (Sorry for the pun -- well, maybe not.) They were clearly tender, mothering women whose hearts went out to their “babies,” conked out with their tongues hanging sideways from their mouths, both appealing and comic.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: why wasn’t there a committee of women who went to investigate and help that feral old man? Because he would probably have fought and evaded them in the same way a feral cat would. The law won’t allow people to set livetraps for ornery old men. Anyway, what do you do with them after you’ve caught them? Cats can rustle their own grub if they can get outside. They can even solicit membership in a family. That old man will simply be found dead some day unless he can do the same.

No one’s child says, “Hey, Mom! This old human followed me home -- can I keep him?” Even if that happened, Mom wouldn’t say, “Well, don’t feed him or he’ll never go away.” She’d just call the cops. The two stories get at the difficulty our society has with the question of “what is human?” and “what is an animal?” What is the status of species -- ours and others -- and what relationship is there between the two. What are our obligations?

With animals the situation depends upon the concept of “owning.” That old man “owned” the cats and therefore ought to have limited their number to as many as he could take good care of. This is the premise of the laws that curb animal ownership. But no one “owned” the old man so no one offered him care. We don’t “own” humans, or at least in theory we haven’t since slavery was outlawed, but in truth the saying that one’s “soul” is owned by one’s employer or the government and the antique but persistent conviction that men own their children and wife are still there in terms of obligation and control. Needy people are considered the obligation of their families, even if you haven’t seen them for years.

As a society, we “own” our soldiers, don’t we? Aren’t we part of the same “family?” So what care of them are we taking? Damned little once their use is over. Amputees, the traumatized, are on the streets. But if we were to try to round them up and put them in institutions to be fed and sheltered, they’d fight. They fought for our freedom and most of them would no doubt fight for their own. Like cats.

As a society we are supposed to at least extend care to children, but one-fifth of our children live in poverty, some with parents trapped by economics as surely as that old man in a trailer, and some with parents deranged, never matured, or criminally violent. There isn’t enough money to help them, let alone volunteers to sit by their cots as guardian angels. Does this mean we shouldn’t sit guarding recovering cats? Absolutely NOT. It’s all of a piece -- the same continuum. Humane societies and investigating scientists have long known that we likely treat our human relatives in the same way that we treat our animals. Animal abuse is a good indicator of human abuse.

In the counseling community, people speak of “owning the problem.” Not people or animals -- the “problem.” It appears to me that there are two major components to this “owning” problem. The first is sheer numbers. Limiting populations is clearly important: we will extend care to individuals that we would never legislate for in great numbers. This small town watches out for our old men, even the prickly ones who have no relatives. We might not exactly hover over them, but if someone were in enough trouble even the other old men might intervene -- and have. In a city that might not happen.

Those who start wars should carefully consider -- among all the other costs not reckoned in advance -- the cost of veteran care, which the health industry had pounced upon with great glee. Think of the profit in all those expensive microchipped prosthetic arms and legs! But who will pay out enough money for people who can’t find a way to support themselves? Who will build enough of the right kind of housing for physically challenged people? How long will it take before we all succumb to “compassion fatigue?”

What answers are there? Affinity groups -- veterans taking care of veterans; cat-lovers taking care of cats. Clear legal standards for when intervention is justified and what sort of intervention it ought to be. Careful economic planning so people can afford shelter and pets. (Not necessarily charity.) Most of all, some careful and thorough thinking about what it means to be human on this planet. If we “own” this planet, shouldn’t we be attentive to it, responding to its needs?

Have we let ourselves by “owned” by corporations and politicians who have locked us in and left? Like poor people in New Orleans or starving children in predatory foster care or aging and damaged veterans on the streets?

There’s another component. Those women who took care of cats had a great time, made friends, built community, and went home feeling the glow. Taking care of each other feels great, and that’s hard-wired into being human. There's a reason why a cat's meow sounds like a human baby's cry.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The Strachan Homestead

By 1907 the Sam Strachans had built a more comfortable house than their claim shanties. The construction was “balloon framing” with a four-sided pyramid roof, which probably helped keep the square house rigid in the face of high winds. Many buildings around Valier with double-slant roofs have gradually converted to being parallelograms. Sometimes it is the gumbo ground, which expands when wet, then contracts as it dries, that distort a house unless it’s well-braced. None of my doors are square in their frames unless the weather is about the same as when they were hung.

After WWII many veterans built houses in stages, starting with the basement, where the family lived until there was money to put up the rest, but many prairie homes from that period had no basement or even cement foundations. The climate is so dry that one can often get away with building on railroad ties.

Balloon framing is a system of wood-frame construction, first used in the 19th century, in which the studs are continuous from the foundation sill to the top wall plate. Floor structures (one, two, or more) are hung from the studs. Balloon framing, which replaced post-and-beam construction, was made possible by the availability of structural lumber sawed to uniform sizes. A balloon frame, which is held together entirely by nails, could be erected faster than a post-and-beam frame, with the use of less-skilled labor; and the end result was stronger and more apt to be square and plumb. Balloon frames have one serious drawback: unless firestops are installed at the level of every floor, the stud spaces form what are essentially chimneys from cellar to attic, greatly accelerating the spread of fire.

In spite of the many fires these prairie houses still abound in small towns and modest farms. There are a number of them in Valier, with the same characteristic “lean-to” shed-style addition to a side and the small dormer window for light in the attic so it could be used for sleeping, or for cooling ventilation in summer. The SSS house had a nice big window in the front. The top of it probably tilted for air or maybe one couldn't buy a sheet of glass big enough for the entire opening. If one manages the shades and windows properly, one can keep even a small house on the baking prairie a little more comfortable. Ideally, there would have been a porch across the front. These houses could be bought as kits with the wood pre-cut to spare labor and waste. If the family had stayed, maybe they would have built a porch. There are few porches in Valier, though there are a growing number of decks.

In 1919 the family went far north to Swan River, Manitoba. For some reason the Strachans remodeled the barn before they left, making the roof “hipped” like a mansard. Maybe it was a condition of the sale of the farm.

Why did they leave? I have a fascinating book, “The Timetable of History, Horizonal Linkage of People and Events,” that reveals 1919 as both tragic and hopeful. WWI had just ended and the League of Nations was forming. (Beulah was a little nervous about being partly German in the post-war bitter times.) Sir Wilfred Laurier had just become the first French Canadian premier. I suspect this could only encourage a massive surge of French immigration to Canada, which the country would welcome and guide to their empty prairies with liberal homesteading policies. At the same time the population of the prairie small towns had just been reduced by 10% in the world flu pandemic and war veterans everywhere were badly damaged by the use of poison gas. Europe was laden with the bones of the dead. In the US prohibition had just begun. (Beulah Stachan was a strong WCTU supporter, I think because of a brother lost to alcoholism.) Thinkers and artists were releasing a lot of pent-up energy in what is now called “modernity.”

The American prairie weather had taken a turn towards drought, crop prices were low, the government was less interested in subsidies, and probably the railroad had some good deals for emigrants. In a sense the Strachans were staying in the same ecosystem, since they were moving north through the ancient drainage created by the melting of the glaciers and, before that, the uplifting of the Rockies which bent the continent like a piece of paper and drained the EXTREMELY ancient inland sea into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the personal scale, May Alice, who was twelve at the time of the move and defined herself as shy (though I suspect it had as much to do with emotional attachment and fear of loss as with being bashful), impressed it upon her adult children how traumatic that move was for her, not least because they got to Swan River, Manitoba, just as a plague of equine encephalitis killed their horses. In extreme old age (she lived to be over ninety) the last of her memories to fly away were those of the horses. She deeply loved them. She often spoke of my father, her big brother protector.

My father, eighteen, was rarin’ to go. These were his college years coming up -- at least once they got the family economics stabilized again -- and most of his lifelong ideas came from the thinkers of this period.

Moving to Manitoba meant that for a while the family would not own their own house.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


My paternal grandfather, Samuel S. Strachan, and my paternal grandmother, Beulah Swan Finney, separately proved up homesteads near Faulkton, South Dakota. Their families already lived nearby. When they married in 1901, they dragged their two tar-paper shacks together, ran another strip of tar-paper around the middle, and began their own family. The first baby, Samuel Archibald was born prematurely on 23 July, 1902, and died on 30 July, 1902. Beulah blamed herself because she had been so lonely for company that she’d accepted a jolting ride into town -- which she thought brought the baby -- but that might not have been the cause at all. (She may have had the baby alone while Sam raced for the doctor or maybe Sam made the delivery, then went for the doctor.) The little mite was kept alive those few days in a shoebox lined with cotton on the open door of the oven to her woodstove. For the rest of her life Beulah noted his birthday in her journal but never talked about the tragedy.

My father, Bruce, and the next child, Glenn, were born here, or it may be that they simply were brought to this home as infants. It seems likely that Beulah took the precaution of going to town well in advance of the births and stayed with family to wait.

Both of the couple were teachers. Sam was the County Superintendent of Education. In the Scots style, they valued education and culture above almost everything else. In old age they could reel off poetry by the hour. Their idea of a fine gift was a book, a fountain pen, or new eyeglasses. Beulah did have some nice things, notably bone china kept in a china cabinet. Once there was an unexpected earthquake that pitched the china cabinet over onto its face. Beulah went to the front doorstep, sat on the threshold (it must have been summer), put her apron over her head and wept for an hour. Then she never said another word about it.

In addition to putting their houses together, the couple now had two teams of horses. One day Sam decided to use Beulah’s team, but he considered them lazy and spoiled, so he touched them up up with the buggy whip. Beulah happened to glance out the window just in time to see him do that. Storming out, she snatched the whip out of his hand, exclaiming, “You’ll not whip MY horses, Sam Strachan!”

Homesteading in this time and place is vividly described in “Land of the Burnt Thigh,” which is about two resourceful sisters, unsuited to the task except for their exceptional will-power.

Rather than feeling this childhood home was embarrassing or difficult, my father loved it as most of us love the place where we first come to consciousness and was overjoyed to visit it in the early Fifties with his own three children, though it was in miserable shape. (I’m the oldest, the girl in the photo.) It had been a cowshed for a long time, but there were still shreds of the original tarpaper and he was able to find the place on one of the outbuildings where he’d shot at what he thought was an interloper in the middle of the night. It wasn’t, but he was pleased to think that he could rise decisively to the challenge even though he was a kid.

Monday, November 13, 2006



Among the humble homesteads of the prairie, there occasionally develops an exceptionally big or fancy house belonging to some particularly prosperous and outstanding citizen. There is none in Valier because the Conrad brother (two developed this area as partners) who was interested in such things ended up in Kalispell. The mansion he built there is maintained for tours and has been in movies. It’s probably worth seeing “Heaven’s Gate” just to see the house, which provided the setting for the cattlemen’s meeting. The daughter of that Conrad used to slip out onto the upstairs mezzanine (in the movie the space where Kristofferson plays billiards) so that she could watch her father’s Indian friends gathered in the half-light around the fireplace in the big hall. They told stories and in old age she remembered seeing their eyes gleam with firelight and memory.

The Kohrs’ ranch in Deer Lodge is another remarkable place, complete with the surrounding outbuildings and fields -- even a ghost who mysteriously rumples the beds. And the most fabulous of them all, in my opinion, is the “chateau” at Medora, North Dakota, a ranch house built by a French Marquis. It’s not as big, but FAR more elegant. Still, these exceptional places are kind of a problem. No one wants to disperse them and their sometimes quite precious contents, but what seems as first to be a valuable museum will, as time passes, be overwhelmed by ever more modern fabulous overreaching. Sometimes the mansions are in places where there simply isn’t the population density or traffic to support them with admissions. And yet the neighbors will fight to save them, feeling that it is a matter of reflected glory.

The following is from a brochure:

“The John and Alice Pickler home a prairie Victorian home featuring 20 rooms in three stories. Construction began in 1882 when Major Pickler, a Civil War veteran, built his claim shanty on his pre-emption... There was no architect for the constructiion of this prairie mansion, which was built in stages and completed by 1894.

“The first part of the house comprised the present dining room alcove (re: cozy corner) and part of the attached master bedroom... The kitchen and front parlor were added in 1883-84 with a secret room under the kitchen, separate from the rest of the basement. It is entered through a trap door in the kitchen closet...

“The library and music room on the south side of the main floor are part of a two-story hotel building moved from the ghost town of LaFoon in about 1890. When the railroad by-passed LaFoon, the county seat, in favor of Faulkton, most of the buildings “took wheels” and moved here. The library is the largest room in the house, 30 X 30, featuring a large arch and window ...a book alcove, a...stained glass window and fireplace....It contained one of the largest and finest libraries in the state at the turn of the century with more than 2,500 volumes still on the shelves.

“The most striking woodwork is in the music room. Pre-cut wood panels could not be purchased at the time so a carpenter, Archibald Mitchell Strachan, was hired to fashion the fir panels in the room and staircase. He lived with the family the winter of 1893-94 completing the project. [His pay was a team of horses.]

“When the house was completed, local artist Charles T. Greener selected a color in 1894 between a salmon and coral and it has remained this “pinkish” color and hence the sometimes name “The Pink Castle."

“A large lamp always hung in the tower of this home in the early days to guide the traveler to a place of shelter. The flag always flew from the tower, showing the family’s patriotic sentiments.”

John Alfred Pickler was a midwesterner who entered the Civil War at age 18, rose to the rank of Captain in the Third Iowa Cavalry and then was given command of the 138th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, and made a Major. He became a lawyer and then a Republican member of the US House of Representatives. He was a charter member of the Free and Accepted Masons and the Methodist Episcopalian church. His life might have made a better movie than "Heaven's Gate!"

The explanation the brochure suggests for the “secret basement” is Indian attacks and severe weather, but the Sioux of the area had been put on reservations since 1850, which was part of the reason this area could be homesteaded. I strongly suspect that given his command of the US Colored Infantry Regiment, the house may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad and the tower a beacon for them. I don’t know how long the need persisted after the Civil War. It could also have been a hiding place for something like liquor, but his wife was a force in the WCTU, as a good Methodist would be.

No Strachan except Archibald ever lived in this house, but because of his work there the family was quite imprinted with the place, particularly the library. Luckily, none of the family was ever inspired to paint their house pink.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


This posting may not be of much interest to the general public as they are part of a series about houses that will justify the name "Prairie Mary." They are family houses -- at first my ancestors, then my birth and growing-up house, and then the whole sequence of places I've lived until now.

About the turn of the century (1900?) Archibald Strachan came from Kilmarnock, Scotland, with his wife, two daughters (Jean and Jessie) and one son, Samuel. In the United States a fourth son, Thomas, was born. Archibald had the idea that he wanted to homestead on the prairie, to be a man of the land. He was a fine carpenter and was leaving a comfortable life, but he had Jeffersonian ideas about what was important. In Scotland he would probably never own land. He settled in Faulkton, South Dakota.

When in the summer of 2002 Gene Strachan (younger son of Thomas) arrived in Valier, Montana, to look at the family albums my father (oldest son of Samuel) had kept, this was the photo he most wanted to see. He remembered this house, but it was so atypical he couldn’t quite come to terms with the memory. I've certainly never seen one like it. He said it was a terrible house for cold in winter with all those windows and before modern insulated glass. Archibald must have been a man who loved light. There appears to be only one masonry chimney in the middle of the house but we don’t know what kind of stove or furnace it vents.

Neither is there any way to tell how the space inside was divided, but I’m betting that it was like my Valier house: four rooms up and four rooms down (except that I have no “up.”) It’s unclear whether there is indoor plumbing or electricity. I see neither wires nor outhouses. No woodpile. No trees.

When Sam and Beulah Strachan and their four teenaged children decided to leave Faulkton in order to homestead in Canada, they stopped at this house to tell it goodbye. Note the “bumpout” with windows on the front, which created a small porch screened and decorated with jigsaw Victorian trim. The house is not quite so well-maintained as I would guess it was when Archibald was young. I’m not even sure any of the Strachans were living there when this photo was taken.

Archibald later made a name for himself when he was hired to do wood paneling and other trim inside the "Pickler House," which counted as a mansion in those days. Not only did Archibald do the woodwork, but also he had made all his own tools. The house is quite famous. Google will bring it up. Archibald became miserably cranky in his last years, possibly due to strokes as that seems to be a family pattern. He had been living with the Sam Strachans, but had to be asked to leave. He died in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Minneapolis. Sam went to collect the body and bring it back to Faulkton for burial, though Sam's family was in Canada by then. It may have been Sam's share of Archibald's estate that helped the Sam Strachans to move to Oregon.

SAMUEL STRACHAN was born in Nova Scotia (18??) and Married Jessie Mitchell.

Archibald Mitchell Strachan
Annie Strachan
Thomas Strachan (died in a train wreck in Australia)
George Strachan
Jessie Strachan married an Ingram
John Strachan
Maggie Strachan married Peter Monie

Archibald Mitchell Strachan (b. June 17, 1850 in Stevenson, Scotland -- d. June 6, 1926 in Minneapolis, MN)
MARRIED July 25, 1873, in Kilmarnock, Scotland
Catharine Welsh (b. Jan 10, 1852, in Kilmarnock, Scotland -- d. Oct. 1918 in Purcell, Oklahoma) (Her father was Thomas Welsh, her mother was Jeannie Gillis)
Samuel S. Strachan (He was given no middle name and chose the middle initial "S.")
Jean Gillis Strachan
Jessie Mitchell Strachan
Thomas Welch Strachan

Friday, November 10, 2006


Part of our national -- or maybe it’s a world's -- or maybe an English-speaking world's -- conversation about leadership lately has been taking a look back at first leaders, like Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, and like George Washington, whose image needed a good refurbishing and reburnishing. This URL is for an NPR story about three recently commissioned portraits of George Washington in wax, using CSI technology to reconstruct what was a tall, athletic, blue-eyed red-head who rode a horse with style. It’s worth reading the whole story. The three portraits cost a million dollars and reveal that in his youth George looked maybe quite a lot like Liam Neeson. He was said to be a wonderful ballroom dancer but a really bad conversationalist. He just didn’t say anything. Maybe it was his teeth which were notoriously terrible. Maybe he just didn’t talk until there was something to say. They say he didn’t like to be casually touched either. He was simply a self-contained man. The most unexpected revelation is that the fashion when he was young was to put boys in corsets, so that he stood and sat on a horse with shoulders sloping back and his stomach slightly stuck out. That posture lasted through his life.

From the very beginning of the United States, the people of the new nation yearned for a big bronze monumental statue of their first president, as was traditional in Europe, but in those days sculpture technology was focussed on Italian marble and you couldn’t make a free-standing heroic-sized horse in marble because its legs would break. (Marble is more fragile than is fortunate.) Houdon was brought from France to make bust portraits of the founders, and his portrait of George was helpful to the CSI crew.

The sculptor Greenough was in Italy and made a seated Washington. In the Greco-Roman conceit of the time, Greenough made his Washington a mock Caesar wearing a toga and making a grand gesture with his index finger. American critics, strictly groundlings, said he was pointing to where he left his clothes. At great effort and expense, the carved marble was bought to its assigned spot but it was too big to go through the door. The door frame was ripped off and the statue struggled in and centered. Then the floor began to creak and sag. A crew quickly ran to the basement to shore it up, then puffed back upstairs to move the statue out onto the sidewalk where it remained for a good long time.

One of the first sculptors to manage a bronze monument of Washington was Henry Kirke Brown. This url will take you to a description and photo, plus the information that after the attack on the World Trade Towers, this statue in New York City became a rallying point for grieving people. He is portrayed giving a benediction:

In time there were a half-dozen equestrian bronze monuments of Washington. But the statue of the man that I like the best -- perhaps the one most in character -- is one that Francis Morrone put me onto. It’s by Henry Shrady (1871-1922), one of those many skillful sculptors who have been neglected by history. Mostly Shrady’s famous for his “Grand Memorial” honoring General Grant, which took him almost two decades because of its extent and complexity. Also he was excellent at animals, heroic or parlor-sized, and is known for “The Empty Saddle,” a horse grazing alone in cavalry gear. His bronzes sometimes show up among “Western sculpture.” It was “The Empty Saddle” that prompted a member of a committee sponsoring a competition for a statue of Washington on horseback for Valley Forge to invite Shrady to compete -- and Shrady won.

In George W. Bush’s Oval Office, clearly seen during many photo ops, is a Remington sculpture of a bronc buster -- the horse rearing. An uncontrolled rearing horse is not a good thing and I’d make more of it except that same bronze has been there through the administrations of many presidents and we’re in conciliation mode.

What I’d rather see in that office is the Shrady portrait of George Washington at Valley Forge. Sombre, dignified, shrouded in cloak, Washington sits his horse easily and what a horse it is! Beautiful, controlled, and powerful. All four feet on the ground. I hope the picture of it will transfer to my blog for Veteran’s Day. Can’t we take up a collection to buy a casting for the Oval Office?