Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Darned if I know where I downloaded this when I was doing research for the Demeter story, but I thought it was fascinating.

Wheat was originally a wild grass. Evidence exists that it first grew in Mesopotamia and in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys in the Middle East nearly 10,000 years ago. As early as 6,700 B.C. Swiss lake dwellers used wheat in flat cakes.

It was the Egyptians who discovered how to make yeast-leavened breads between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C. Since wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten content to make a raised or leavened loaf of bread, wheat quickly became favored over other grains grown at the time, such as oats, millet, rice, and barley. The workers who built the pyramids in Egypt were paid in bread.

In 150 B.C., the first bakers' guilds were formed in Rome. Roman bakeries produced a variety of breads and distributed free bread to the poor in times of need.

In 1202, England adopted laws to regulate the price of bread and limit bakers' profits. Many bakers were prosecuted for selling loaves that did not conform to the weights required by local laws. As a result of the bread trials in England in 1266, bakers were ordered to mark each loaf of bread. The bakers' marks were among the first trademarks.

Wheat is not native to the United States. It was not grown by the colonists because it did not do well in the New England soil and climate. In 1777, wheat was first planted in the United States - as a hobby crop.

There are indications that wheat was produced as early as 1839 in the area that became the state of Kansas. Records on Kansas wheat production pre-date statehood (1861). Production statistics on wheat in Kansas have been published since 1866.

Between 1874 and 1884, 5,000 Russian Mennonites settled in Kansas. They brought with them Turkey Red winter wheat. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture also introduced wheats from eastern Europe in 1900. These wheats from the Russian Mennonites and the USDA provided the basic genetic material for the successful production of hard red winter wheat in the Great Plains. Although most of the early wheats are no longer grown for commercial production, most of the strains of hard red
winter wheat grown on the Great Plains prior to 1969 were developed from those early ancestors, first brought to Kansas in 1872.

The invention of the mechanical reaper by Cyrus McCormick in 1831, made it possible to harvest wheat much more efficiently than by hand with scythes or sickles. By hand, farmers could cut only 2 acres of wheat a day. With Cyrus McCormick's invention of
the mechanical reaper, farmers could cut 8 acres a day.

In 1928, the commercial bread slicer was perfected and used for the first time in a commercial bakery at Chillicothe, Missouri. By 1930, sliced bread and the introduction of the automatic toaster had increased consumption of toast at breakfast. But, in 1942 during wartime rationing, the sale of sliced bread was banned in an effort to hold down prices.

Today, wheat is grown on more acres in the United States than any other grain. Between 60 and 63 million acres of wheat are harvested each year in the United States. If all the acres were side by side, the wheat fields would cover more than 100,000 square miles. Today's modern combines can cut an acre of wheat in 6 minutes or less.

42 states produce wheat, which is divided into 6 different classes in the United States. Soft red winter wheat and soft white wheats are grown east of the Mississippi River. West of the Mississippi, the wheats grown include hard red winter, hard red spring, durum, hard white, and soft white. Soft white wheat is grown in the Pacific Northwest while spring and durum wheats are grown in the Northern Plains.

In the Plains States, such as Kansas, hard red winter wheat has dominated wheat production. However, that may change in the next few years, as a number of hard white winter wheats are being developed for states such as Kansas.

During the past 20 years, grain yields in wheat have increased approximately 1/2 bushel per acre per year. Kansas ranks first among the states in wheat produced, wheat stored, wheat milled into flour, and in the production of wheat gluten and wheat starch. With today's yields, a family of four could live 10 years off the bread produced by one acre of Kansas wheat.

More foods are made with wheat than any other cereal grain. Wheat contributes between 10-20% of the daily caloric intake in people in over 60 countries. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bread on the market.

A Short History of Bread

About 10,000 B.C., man first started eating a crude form of flat bread - a baked combination of flour and water.

Ancient Egyptians are believed to be the first to have baked leavened (raised) bread. About 3,000 B.C., they started fermenting a flour and water mixture by using wild yeast which was present in the air. Since wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten content to make a raised or leavened loaf of bread, wheat quickly became favored over other grains grown at the time, such as oats, millet, rice, and barley.

The Egyptians also developed ovens in which several loaves of bread could be baked at the same time. Bread for the rich was made from wheat flour, bread for those who weren't wealthy was made from barley, and bread for the poor was made from sorghum.

Even though the Egyptians and Romans and later bakers made leavened bread, it was not until the 1800's that yeast was identified as a plant-like organism. Yeast converts carbohydrates into alcohol, producing carbon dioxide in the process, which is a
leavening gas.

By the 1850's, the United States had 2,017 bakeries, employing over 6,700 workers.

In the late 1930's and early 1940's, bread was chosen as the foundation for a diet enrichment program in the United States. Diseases such as pellagra, beriberi, and anemia had become widespread. These diseases were associated with a lack of
B-vitamins and iron. Since bread was a daily food item for most Americans, even those with poor diets, specific amounts of iron, thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin were added to white flour. This enrichment program was a major factor in the elimination of pellagra and beriberi in the United States, as well as in reducing anemia among Americans. In 1998, folic acid, a key nutrient in the prevention of serious birth defects, was added to all enriched grain foods, including bread.

In 1910, Americans were each eating about 210 pounds of wheat flour each year. That dropped to an all-time low of 110 pounds in 1971 but has steadily increased since then. In 1997, American wheat flour consumption per person reached 150 pounds. In
contrast, Egyptians each eat about 385 pounds of wheat each year.

Wheat is primarily made up of complex carbohydrates which provide a source of time-released energy. Since 1990, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have recommended that Americans eat 6 to 11 servings of bread and other grain foods every day.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Gitting’s excellent essay on “Women & Wheat” gives a good accounting of the mythic structure and origin of the “grain goddess” cults and stories, making clear the deeper meanings that give them a religious significance. But this old tale of Demeter and Persephone has been revived and rewritten many times, just because it is an archetypal set of forces: mother trying to save daughter, who sees life very differently and is vulnerable to danger. These days, with drugs and sex nearly overwhelming us, the story has even more relevance and power. I have a former roommate who has been working on a version since college years, involving a “Mort Lethe” who was a professor. She, of course, was Persephone. Her “take” on it is very psychological and poetic, since she is a poet and a Progoff journal adept.

But I’m attracted to Westerns, out of fashion though they may be, and anyway, I’m living in the middle of both coal and wheat country, both of them life-styles and industries at the same time. There are little coyote mines close to here and I’m inclined to mark their locations in case natural gas gets too expensive. Meanwhile friends near Great Falls are fighting hard to prevent the construction of coal-fired electrical plants and the governor of Montana is fighting just as hard (with considerable more funding) to promote a big coal gassification project in eastern Montana where “there isn’t anything anyway.” Except some other friends of mine who happen to love their landscape.

The struggle with wheat now is over genetically altered seeds which are “Roundup Ready,” meaning they will not be killed easily by the carcinogenic herbicides used to kill weeds, and patented seeds that will not produce seeds, so they must be bought again every year instead of using a percentage of the previous year’s seeds. Already the “Roundup readiness” has drifted into the genes of objectionable plants and the patented seeds have pollinated adjacent fields so that the companies sue the ranchers for hijacking the genetics. In the meantime, bugs die -- bugs we like and want -- and seeds that were never tested for safety get into the food supply. Then there’s low-till seeding, which eliminates ploughing and the powerful “plowing=fucking” metaphor so much a part of the Demeter myth.

Except in the dimension of fertility in the fields, role models for Demeter and Hecate come easily to hand in my mother’s family of formidable women. My mother was halfway through college (she wanted to be a math teacher) when her father came home one day with a big mule, a plow, and a sack of seed corn. “Lou!” he roared. (He had no quiet voice and my mother, whose name was Lucy, was always called “Lou” and told she was “good as a boy.”) “Lou! This is your next year’s tuition. If you can get a crop of this in that lower field, it’ll be enough.” So she did it. She never much liked mules after that. In the end her father took part of the money to feed the family. From then until her marriage, aged thirty, she worked in town and turned over part of her wages to the family.

Mort Lethe was a little more problematic (my grandfather had a kind of boyish innocence in the midst of his bombast.) I’ve known plenty of powerful, driven men in my time -- some of them Unitarian Universalist ministers. I, of course, am both Persephone and Cory. Crossroads is a little black mare that belonged to Connellys here on the reservation. Toby? Hmmm. Hard to know exactly where that Tobacco Man came from. Too many possibilities. Hop, likewise.

My background in Greek mythology is not from schooling. As a child I went almost daily to the nearby branch library (Vernon, for those who might know, closed decades ago). After I got through “Make Way for Ducklings” and the Chinese brothers who stood on top of each other to keep from drowning (Blossom? Hop?), I started on the fairy tale section, then plowed on to the myths and legends, until I had exhausted the children’s room and the librarian took me around the corner to the sci-fi, where I lingered a long time. By the time I got to seminary in middle age, I’d been reading Campbell and Eliade. In this way I went back over the stories, the same stories, always a little deeper, from a little different angle.

Even so, as I’ve been working on this story, I’ve been Googling, which has taken me into ever richer territory. Try it yourself: Google up Ceres/Demeter, Hecate, Pluto/Hades, Persephone/Proserpine and so on. Find the black horse, the black dog, the Sacred Grove with the spring in it, the baby who didn’t become immortal, why the mare is named “Crossroads,” and all those John the Baptist and Jesus precursors whose names began with “J.” Lots more. I slipped things around a bit. “Serb” from “Serbia” is a silly play on Cerberus, the guardian of the Gates of Hell. Still, a high school or junior college could get a pretty good English paper out of deciphering this story. Or might even enjoy writing a play or video of it.

For the coal part, especially down in the mines, I happened upon a remaindered book (sometimes I felt rather guided when things came to hand so easily) from the U of Nebraska Press: “Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry,” by James Whiteside. It’s much easier reading than most of such books, which tend to be for people who like technical information. It includes a photo of a draft mule going pell-mell down the tunnel.

My intention is to let this story cool a while, then go back over it carefully, polish and tighten it a bit, then publish it on Lulu.com. One thing I’ll be looking for is whether I’ve kept to my “style” or “approach” or whatever you want to call it. I find I’m evolving a plot-based focus -- as opposed to interior monologues or author-spoken information -- what happened and then what happened and then what happened next. But I also find it helpful to work from a predetermined structure, like a legend or a time-table or a newspaper story. And I’m also quite happy with objects that can carry a little symbolic or poetic weight, like that statue in Mort Lethe’s study of a dead baby with its chubby white hand hanging over the edge. And though I’m not big on period detail -- the kind of gun is SO important to some guys! -- I do like to know how things are done, like cutting grass and hauling it along on a length of canvas. I mean, I might actually DO that.

One of the ideas in the back of my head is always who might want to read such a story. I’m thinking it might be useful for people trying to teach mythology to comparatively unsophisticated readers -- no one who is reading the myths in the original Greek! But some of this stuff is a little racy for junior high -- THEY won’t think so, but their parents might, especially in a conservative community that detests “Deadwood.” Still -- high school, junior college, state university... along those lines. Women like this story, naturally enough.

As I said, this state is in a great debate over the best use of land, so this story could be a great classroom entry-point into discussion of the issues: coal versus wheat, industry versus agriculture. Only recently have we realized that industrialized cropping depletes the land as much as open-pit mining. No one gets away with clean hands.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 12

The telegrapher had sent messages up the hill to Mort Lethe that the formidable man could hardly believe. His loans canceled, his railroad contract broken -- he was enraged, baffled, indignant. He was ruined. Up and down the room he paced, his face purple. Then another messenger came to say that the trickle of water that kept down the coal dust in the mine so that it wouldn’t explode had stopped. The spring that was its source had dried up. The man started to explain that cutting down the grove of trees was a mistake, but looked at Mort’s face, thought better of it and left in a hurry.

Down among the miners and their families, the realization was seeping through them that things had gone badly wrong -- the mine was somehow cursed. It was time to get out. Many of them had been through mine disasters before and had no desire to witness such a thing again. By daylight a steady stream of people wound down the road and out across the foothills.

Mort could see them from his study window. He stormed down the hill to the mine head, intending to tongue-lash his foremen and managers, but when he burst into their offices, they had already gone. Only the piles of ledgers leaned together on the cabinets and shelves. Papers had scattered across the desks and slipped to the floors, full of information that had seemed vital and significant only yesterday.

Mort slammed on through the offices to the mine entrance, where the rails for the coal cars wound their way into the darkness. No one was around. Grabbing a miner’s carbide-lamp helmet, he plunged down the tunnel.

In the mine Toby was not so much feeling sensory deprivation as a whole new set of unknown sounds and smells. In the darkness every hint of dim light took on significance and the gleaming of the shiny coal walls writhed across the rough surfaces like ghost masks. For a while there had been water moving on the floor, but now it was gone. The coal dust down there was still mushy, but some of it was drying and rising into the air. He had been cautioned to watch the little flame flare that would signal methane, natural gas, explosive, suffocating. “Fire-damp” they called it and it meant danger. But at Mort’s command, his captors had chained him to the coal cart.

Crossroads was not used to harness and she was having the same difficulties understanding her senses that made Toby struggle. Her gait was hesitant, which meant that she didn’t build up momentum for the long inclines that the mules took on the run. Most of all, she was tormented by her swollen hot udder. Toby’s chain, fastened to the side rails of the coal car, was not quite long enough for him to ease her by milking her.

Then it seemed to both of them that the mine became much quieter than usual -- no faraway voices, no soft thudding from the pickaxes, no vibration of the rails from other carts. They stopped and stood, wondering what it meant.

Being in the mine was usually soothing to Mort, but this time it didn’t work. He stormed along the rails, the light from his hat barely revealing the turns, and began to shout and roar, demanding satisfaction, boasting of past feats, and ignoring the flare of the little warning flame. In fact, though he knew better, as drunk on rage as other men became on alcohol, he lit a cigar. There was an explosion.

Toby and Crossroads felt the impact of the rushing air as the wrinkled black satin walls seemed to bulge with terrible noise. Inexperienced as they were, they knew they had to get out quickly. The little mare threw herself into the harness while Toby shouted encouragement. He climbed into the cart, throwing out chunks of coal to lighten the load, but now the ceiling was dropping debris on them and the rails twisted and humped. They came to where the mules were stabled in a room cut out of the coal and heard them screaming, trying to kick their stalls down, and Toby wanted to help them but his chain wasn’t long enough to get to their gates. Crossroads strained desperately to keep the coal car going, but she began to slow. Toby was feeling the effects of the gases in the mine, moving slower himself, losing his ability to reason. His only chance was riding that coal car out, but his weight was making the coal car heavy, maybe too heavy for Crossroads. Better that at least she should survive. He crawled forward and reached perilously close to her flying heels, trying to unhitch the harness and set her free.

There were more explosions and then fires. Falling rock pelted their backs. Then a rock as big as a footstool fell onto Toby’s head. As he lost consciousness, he was still feeling the movement along the passageway and the heat. Then it seemed to him that he was an eagle on a summer day, soaring high on a thermal updraft, his wings stretched out over the land as he rose above the mine, the village, the mountains, into a world of light and freedom. He wheeled and soared towards home.

A small cluster of people stood at the mouth of the mine. Demeter and Cate strained their eyes into the darkness, hearing the crashing roofs, the muffled explosions. It started to snow, making the darkness of the opening even more pronounced. Throughout the village no footprints marked the lanes because everyone who had stayed was huddled at the mine.

At long last a struggling figure appeared, hardly looking like a horse with her tail and mane burned off, still heroically pulling the coal cart which was now a hearse for Toby’s body. He himself was elsewhere. Hands from all sides reached out to the valiant mare, removing the harness, brushing the char from her coat, smearing the blood from many cuts and the blood and mucus that streamed from her nose. She stood with legs wide apart, shaking, barely able to stand, whickering in recognition when Demeter and Cate embraced her lowered head.

Pers’ bedroom was dark and cold, its heavy drapes closed. Demeter stood just inside the door, waiting for her eyes to adjust and trying to sense the locations of the big heavy furniture. Why had the servants let the stove go out? Of course, if she reflected, she knew.

She could hear breathing but it didn’t seem to come from the massive four-poster bed. In a few minutes she could see well enough to get to the window and sweep the drapes back. Sun bouncing off the snow filled the room with chilly light. Then she could see that a woman lay on a chaise longue under an eiderdown.

It was Pers, her dark hair streaked just a bit with silver. Her closed eyes looked bruised and as her mother looked down at her, the young woman threw an arm over her face. It was a thin arm, the wrist showing blue veins on the underside, but it was the left arm and her hand flashed fire from an ornate ring with six large garnets, red as pomegranate. Demeter looked for a long time at this daughter she had feared was dead, thinking of the little curly-headed toddler she had been and the slender woman who was just beginning to find a place in community when she was abducted.

“Pers, wake up!” The woman did not stir. Sharply, “PERS!” The breathing was deep and slow, to the point of being unnatural. The older woman turned to the polished table alongside the chaise. It held a carafe, half-full of water, a silver spoon, and a cobalt blue bottle. She picked it up and read the label. Laudanum. Drugged. Probably an addict. This was going to be hard.

In a surge of emotion and action, she went to the small stove, opened it to look for some small flicker of coals and, needing action, called to the servants to bring more wood, though there was still a supply in a box nearby. No feet sounded in the hall. Then Cate came in carrying a tray. Demeter, poking split wood into the stove, commanded, “Bring coffee!”

“That’s what this is.”

“If she won’t drink it, I will. This room is like ice.”

Cate went on building up the fire while Demeter chafed Pers’ hands and talked to her. It was hours before Pers began to stir and groan. By then Demeter had settled by the stove where she was mending her daughter’s underwear, bits that evidently hadn’t been sent for laundering. She had gone through her daughter’s drawers as though her daughter had nothing to say about it, which -- indeed! -- she didn’t. It was a way of asserting her motherhood. The wide closet had been reviewed as well. The clothes in it were luxurious, heavy, dark, but unworn. Evidently Pers had been living in a negligee for quite a while.

Cate had found a small trunk and was packing the most practical clothes. They would leave as soon as their drug addict could walk. Two train cars were already standing ready: a box-car deep with straw for the horse and Mort’s own private parlor car for the women. No one knew what had happened to Mort and no one cared.

So, years later, when Mort appeared in Boston, they were understandably surprised, having assumed -- hoped -- that he’d died down there in his imploding, collapsing mine. But here he sat, sipping tea, not allowed to smoke his cigar.

“You don’t seem to have prospered,” observed Demeter.

“No. No. It has been difficult. So many regulations. Too many politicians who keep office by pleasing the people.”

They sat in silence for a moment, hearing Cate moving around in the kitchen and some small sounds from upstairs, hard to identify. Finally Demeter asked politely, to break the silence since she had no real interest, “What has happened to your stallion?”

“Dead. Challenged a locomotive. What about that little mare of yours?”

“In the mews out back. Fully recovered.”

Suddenly Mort moved closer to what he wanted to know. “Do you hear from Cory?”

“She and Hop are in Mexico. There was trouble in the gold camps in California so they moved on.”

“And my granddaughter?” He looked away.

Demeter stared at him. She never thought of Cory as his daughter, but it was a fact. “Blossom is here with us so that she will get an education.”

Another silence.

“I heard about Pers, my wife.”

Demeter’s face hardened. “Yes. A suicide, though it was actually a murder, in my opinion. You infected her with death, poisoned her. Luckily, we saved the child.” She flinched, angry at herself. She hadn’t meant to mention the child. There was no need for Mort to know about this daughter, to even know that Pers had been pregnant when they brought her home.

He was sharply pierced, though this is what he wanted to know, and set down his clattering teacup too hard, then sat unmoving. “What is the child’s name?”

“We call her Persephone, just like her mother.” She was gritting her teeth with pain and resentment, but felt the justice of a man knowing his daughter’s name. “That reminds me.” She went to the fireplace where there was a small leather-covered box on the mantel. “You can have this back. No one here wants it.”

He looked and saw that it was Pers’ garnet ring. He put it in his pocket, briefly thinking -- only a flicker -- that he might use the stones to make a new stickpin since his diamond had long ago been sold. “May I see her?” he choked, knowing the answer.

“No. Nor Blossom either. That’s Cory’s daughter.”

He collapsed pitifully, the ebony shine of his hair now dull and grayed, the very bones of his face hinting at the skull underneath the skin. He shuddered and his shoulders curved forward.

“Don’t you DARE to die in my parlor, Mort Lethe.”

“I’ll go.” But he didn’t. He glanced sideways out of wet eyes, looking to judge his chances by reading Demeter’s face.

“You’re a wealthy woman. I just need a little grubstake to get a new start out West and then I’ll not bother you ever again. It’s copper, you see. A sure thing. Progress requires much wire for the new electricity. There is a nation to be wired. This is a service to the country, not just me.”

It seemed the best way to get him out of her house. In some tiny recess of her heart, she even felt a bit sorry for him. She walked to her desk and wrote a check. “Will this do?”

He looked at the gold scrap of paper. “Wheat Account,” he read. “Bank of the West.” There were ears of wheat embossed in gilt ink.

She remarked, “The coal will run out. The wheat never will.”

He bowed his head and left. When the door slammed, the two girls, Pers and Blossom, came pelting down the stairs, full of questions. Before Demeter could stop them, they ran to the window and pulled aside the lace curtain to see this ominous man whose voice had rumbled through the house. They were fascinated.

On the street Mort felt the piece of paper in his pocket and tried to remember where the bank was, whether it were in walking distance and whether it would be open right now. Then he looked up at the window, just as he had when he first came up the Beacon Hill. This time he didn’t see Demeter, but instead two girls, one older than the other, both dark-haired. Their faces glowed with life and curiosity but they soon turned away.

Crossroads had foaled a few days earlier and what obsessed the girls now was that clever, clumsy little gangler, a sorrel as red as Cate’s hair. They were trying to decide on a name: Peace? Freedom? Renewal? Maybe just “Birth.” They went out to the mews behind the row houses to embrace the baby again. He was so droll shaking his short mane and whisking his ridiculous curly-haired tail. Crossroads stood over her foal. The only signs of her ordeal were white spots in her hide where the harness had rubbed sores. She didn’t mind the little girls. They smelled like family.

Mort, briskly marching down the sidewalk, comforted himself, “I’ll get them all in the end.”

Standing in the kitchen, Cate heard him in her head. “Ah, yes. But only for a while. There is always new life.”

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 11

His desk was remarkably empty for a man with as much business to take care of as Mort must have had. Here and there were a small collection of bronzes, some of them useful objects that held ink or stamps, all of them patined black except where use had rubbed the bright metal through, and most of them on heavy stone bases of chalcedony. Though there were some small equestrian statues, many were portrayals of prey in agony, gripped by a predator such as a tiger. On a sideboard was a substantial marble sculpture of a dead child, evidently a portrait meant for a crypt. It’s chubby little white hand hung over the edge.

Mort sat before a dying fire, smoking a cigar, thinking about the new machinery he intended to buy for the mine and how it would increase profits. When there was a rap at the door, he called, “come,” and was interested to see that it was the Indian who had been carrying coal to the rooms. Somehow the man seemed familiar, but Mort couldn’t place him. Toby showed no curiosity about Mort but went about his business of raking a few klinkers out of the grate and renewing the coal supply in a zinc lined box to the side of the fireplace.

“Sit down for a few moments,” said Mort, grandly gesturing towards the other deep leather chair. “I’d like to talk to you.” The Indian sat gingerly on a footstool, which irritated Mort. Nevertheless, he offered a fine cigar to the Indian.

“Thank you, I have my own tobacco,” said Toby, and seeing the irritation, took out his old pipe so they could smoke together: in his own culture this was a ceremony of thoughtfulness and coming to agreement. Mort evidently saw it as some kind of competition or dominance. In the silence Toby eyed the fire warily. He didn’t like coal fires -- much preferred the snap and fragrance of wood.

“You’ve been working in this house a few days, but are you living here?”



“Not too far.”

“Your family along?”

Toby reacted the tiniest bit, wondering how much Mort was fishing and how much he really knew. “No.” He kept his eyes down, but the pipesmoke gave away the change in his breath.

“Ever consider going down in the mines?” asked Mort. “You could make a pretty penny besides being a part of the great industrialization of this nation! Coal is what makes the railroad run, what makes the big steam threshers operate, what heats the cities and drives the turbines that make the light! It’s time for all the Indians to join civilization, to help smelt the metals, steam across the oceans -- who knows, maybe even fly! Progress! America will rule the world, all because of her coal!"

This time Toby could not help looking appalled.

Mort regrouped. “You see those black lumps of coal? You know what they are? In ancient times there were swamps here and the dead plants piled up, compressed, were covered and pushed into the underground where they became very hot and even more compressed -- beyond what we can imagine. Now they are something valuable, stored up for our use today!”

Toby knocked the dottle of his pipe into the coal bin and rose, “I must finish taking this coal around.”

Mort tried one more time. “You see this diamond stick pin in my tie? Do you know what it is?”

“I’ve seen diamonds before.”

“But did you know it’s actually coal, compressed again, heated ferociously, until it turns from something black to something full of flashing rainbows! Something of immense value?”

“Hmmm,” said Toby noncommitally as he went out the door and closed it quietly. He was trying not to be rude. To himself he muttered, "I see more value in good grass."

Sitting there with his cigar, Mort took about five minutes of sorting through his mental files to realize that this was the Indian who had been traveling with Demeter, who had escorted the women to his Mandan home village. An hour later, Mort had made inquiries and knew that the three of them were camping in the trees around the spring just up the hill. He laughed! He’d known all along that Demeter was washing his clothes and was much entertained by it, but the addition of an adult male Indian was quite different.

Early the next day Cate and Toby were watching the foal buck and run in the grass next to the camp. Still a bit clumsy, the long legs didn’t always go where the foal expected them to be, and the comical sight made the couple laugh. Then they heard sawing, crosscut saws, rough voices, and the screaming crash of trees.

An armed group of loggers had arrived at the stand of evergreens to cut timbers for the mines -- there was never enough bracing down there in the tunnels, Mort remarked when he sent them. Toby warily came to see what was happening. “Our orders are to take all these trees by nightfall,” said the boss.

Then Cate, nearly crazed by the threat to what she considered a sacred grove, came out of the brush with an ax high over her head, ready to cut down anyone who got in her way. In spite of her screams and threats, they simply roped her from a bit of distance, took the ax and tied her to the wagon wheel. “Toby!” she shrieked. “The horses! Don’t let them get the horses!”

He was already on the way and in a moment was riding up the hillside behind the camp, bareback on Crossroads with the gangling colt coming along closely behind, bumping against its mother’s hips to stay in touch. When he cleared the grove and was on the open grassy slope, the boss of the tree-cutters lifted a rifle out of the wagon, sighted and shot. It was so easy.

The colt went down. Toby tried to make Crossroads keep going, but she would not. She doubled back to her colt, crying to it, urging it to get up and run away with them, but it was dead. Soon Crossroads and Toby were tied to the other side of the wagon.

Demeter, alerted by the shots just as she delivered laundry, saw what was happening from the stone porch of Lethe’s big house. There was nothing she could do, even with her revolver, except guard her freedom and curse them, curse Mort Lethe to forever hunger for success, wealth, and status without ever having any of it.

After nightfall, Demeter huddled without a lamp in her small cold house. Someone came in and she knew without seeing that it was Cate, bruised, rope-burned, enraged, and discarded. Toby and Crossroads had been taken down into the mines to work.

The women seldom saw the mules that ordinarily pulled the coal cars through the labyrinths of the mine. There were constant small fires down there, pockets of methane ignited sparks from the steel wheels of the coal cars grating on iron rails. Their tails and often even their ears were burned off. The constant darkness blinded them. They were well-fed, because one puts fuel into machines and that’s what they were considered to be, but they came above ground only to bring up the coal. Their stables were cut out of the coal down in the mines.

“The time has come to act,” said Demeter. The two women wrapped their shawls tightly around themselves and walked down the pathway, Cate carrying a bottle for the thirsty telegrapher. He was hunched over his desk with a green visor over his ancient eyes and his hands twitching at his task. Even when his fingers weren’t at the clicking mechanism, they spelled out words: “inventory,” “invoices,” “letter of agreement,” and all the other terms of finance that Mort constantly used to participate in the great web of finance and profit that stretched over the continent. The messages were the web of the spider. The coal was only, well, the fuel. The old man responded to a different fuel and his eyes lit up to see the women.

In a short time the old man had several messages that meant nothing to him, as they were phrased in a kind of code. One was to Plutus, Demeter’s banker son, who controlled the credit line that made Mort Lethe able to buy his new-fangled machinery. The other was to Boots, who owned the railroads that set the shipping fees for coal.

The women walked back up to Demeter's house. It was eerily silent. They saw that the little spring-fed stream that had run down along the road had stopped, gone dry. Killing the trees had killed the source of water.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 10

“The mare’s teats are waxy. She’s going to deliver the colt soon. We need to find shelter.” Cate knew they were on the right road to Mort Lethe’s coal mine, but they would have to take time for the horse. Toby agreed. Thunderclouds were building along the horizon but so far there was no sign of anything but rolling prairie with ridges in the distance.

Toby tried to remember what the old Mandans had said. If they were right and he had understood properly, they were about to come to a deep valley with trees, a valley so deep that the trees wouldn’t show until they stood on the rim. And they did. The valley was hardly a mile across and edged by steep sandstone cliffs, but when they followed along the bluff a bit, a game path led down to the cottonwoods where a stream wandered through the flood plain. The grass here was good and the water straight off the mountains. The mare stopped often and looked far away, unseeing but feeling. She carried a light pack and sometimes put her nose around to touch it, smell it.

Toby scouted ahead a bit and then returned. “Cave. Not deep, but better than being under trees when lightning is striking." The sky was dark now, partly because it was late in the day and partly because of the low purple clouds. Lightning glimmered and grumbled from behind the clouds as night truly unfolded.

The cave floor was covered with dry leaves from past winds. With her packs unloaded and after a roll in the leaves, the mare circled. Putting her nose low, she snuffled and blew, stirring the leaves up. Then, satisfied, she lay down. Toby and Cate sat on the two packs with their backs against the wall. There could be no fire because of the dry leaves, but lightning began to flash glimpses of the mare’s heaving sides and they could hear her groan with contractions. Then she stood and swayed for a bit, as though she might leave, but finally settled and stretched out again. The smell of internal fluids filled the small space.

Crossroads worked hard for a short time, then the two midwives could sense that the foal was emerging and then heard it slip out onto the rustling leaves. A brilliant light flash showed that it was wrapped in membrane and Cate leaned forward to clear its head so it could breathe. A flutter of snuffling and blowing and then a small new rhythm of breath pulsed in the dark. When the light popped again, eye gleams showed in the slick wet foal’s face. Cate and Toby laughed and leaned their shoulders together.

Crossroads stood in a moment or two, shook herself, and went to work cleaning the birth sac off the foal with her tongue and teeth, diligently massaging and consuming the membranes and traces of blood. Her whuffling and nickering were counterpointed with the squealing high-pitched noises of the foal, still experimenting with the stuff called “air.” Pretty soon the slurp of removing wet birth sac was replaced by steady rhythmic licking as Crossroads dried and massaged the tender new hide of her baby.

Thunder and lightning ripped and raged, but in the cave it was calm. After a while they heard Crossroads strain a bit and the plop of the afterbirth hitting the leaves. She turned and chewed it up. By this time the foal was trying to sort through its many legs and leverage them into some kind of system. Cate wished she could see it, so intense and comical. It was up, then crashed into the leaves, then up again, crashed again, and finally stayed up. They knew it was stretching its neck and running its nose along Crossroad’s belly, feeling for the warm hairless skin around her udder. Finally came the sucking and smacking they had been waiting for. They couldn’t help laughing.

Demeter had found a hut among the scattering along the final approach to Mort Lethe’s huge pile of a house high on a ridge. She quietly established herself as a laundrywoman and in a week or so was asked to wash the clothes and bedding from the big house. The woman’s clothing was almost entirely nightgowns with a scattering of chemises, petticoats and long black stockings. Pers’ smell was on them, mixed with something else unfamiliar to her mother, but still confirming that she was there.

The man’s laundry was white shirts, often pleated in the front and with French cuffs. She washed them with violence, wringing hard as though he were still in them. Mostly they smelled of tobacco, expensive cherry-scented stuff. And rose petals, unlikely enough, like a funeral parlor. She boiled them in her outdoor copper tubs set up over wood fires, but the smell clung.

Her source of water was a stream that came down the way past the little cluster of dwellings along the road, and then continued into the small town where the coal miners lived and the mine officials had their business offices. The stream originated in a grove of evergreens higher up the mountainside where a spring yielded icy clear water all year long. When Cate and Toby arrived with the two horses, they slipped into the quiet soughing of the grove and set up a camp in a patch of aspen on the south side near grazing that was out of sight of the big house.

Fearing that Cate’s red flag of hair would alert Mort, Toby was the one to slip down to contact Demeter and confer about what to do next. They agreed that they would need contact with the larger world as well as somehow finding out the layout of the stone house. Demeter took clean laundry up, being careful to keep her sunbonnet on and tipped forward, but she was told to leave it in the kitchen hallway. There was no reason to go deeper into the house and the danger of recognition would be great anyway if Lethe went past at close quarters.

Cate found the answer to contact with Demeter’s sons. Crossroad’s packs had been full of grain and the strange shape on top had held a distilling coil and kettle. She knew that moonshine was as good as money in a mining town -- maybe better in this town, because Lethe tried to keep the town dry. Miners who wanted to drink had to go clear down to the valley. It wasn’t that Lethe begrudged them their drunkenness -- but it made them poor workers and raised the chances of them making expensive mistakes. By the time they climbed back up to the mine head, they were mostly sober unless they brought bottles along, which they did.

Cate put a bottle -- she had harvested a good crop of them from the town dump -- into her apron, drew her shawl up over her head and around her face, and went to investigate the town. She soon found the old Irish telegrapher, whose throat was oh-so-dry, and offered him a bit of refreshment and sympathy. In no time they were remembering the “auld country” and even crooning lullabies together.

Toby, being Indian, faded into the crowd of Indians, Mexicans, Celestials and other dark heads and faces who moved through the population and its dwellings, doing the harder, more dangerous work. Boldly he went to the big house and applied for odd jobs, hoping to get inside. Almost at once he was lucky. The housekeeper wanted him to replenish all the coal fires through the house. Packing the heavy scuttle along the hallways, Toby soon understood the layout, but when he came to Pers’ bedroom and knocked, a Mexican woman took the coal in and shut the door, opening again in a moment to hand out the empty scuttle.

Late in the afternoon he knocked at a last heavy door and heard a rich male voice bid him to enter. It was Mort Lethe’s study, his inner sanctum, dark with burgundy velvet drapes and black horsehair-upholstered chairs. Mort didn’t even look up as Toby tumbled the coal into the box.

That night by the campfire in the aspen grove, he shook as he told the two women about it and drew out the plan of the house. Listening to Crossroads steadily cropping grass nearby and watching the foal lying flat near the fire, he gradually calmed. Wind sang in the higher evergreens.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

WOMEN & WHEAT by Anthony J. Gittins

This excellent essay is in the background of "Golden Wheat/Black Coal." Maybe Ash Wednesday is a good day to reprint it.

SPIRITUALITY TODAY Fall 1990, Vol. 42 No. 3, pp. 196-208
Anthony J. Gittins:
Grains of Wheat: Culture, Agriculture, and Spirituality

A study of early Palestinian cereal cultivation reveals the imagistic elements of John 12:24 to be characteristic of female roles in Ancient Near Eastern culture and religion. Anthony J. Gittins is a member of the Spiritan community and Professor of theological anthropology at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. His most recent book is Gifts and Strangers: Meeting this Challenge of Inculturatíon, Paulist Press, 1989.

"UNLESS the grain of wheat, falling to the ground [should] die, it remains alone. But if it [should] die it produces much fruit" (John 12:24). This is so well known -- even in a rather slavish translation -- as to be a classic as much in literary as in scriptural circles. Yet, as with many familiar phrases, it may have lost some of its impact when proclaimed in a world of high technology rather than one of agriculture. As commonplace as it may be in funeral orations and in times of suffering, it would seem worthy of even wider currency, and it could surely yield more layers of meaning and application than it has hitherto for most of us.

If over-allegorization tends to produce indigestion, it is nevertheless true that the (re)discovery of an original cultural or semantic dimension can sometimes illuminate a cliché in a most remarkable way; it is in this spirit that the present reflection is offered.

The implication in the statement of John 12:24, or at least the inference often drawn, is that grains of wheat do naturally fall to the ground to produce fruit, and that harvests follow as a matter of course from the developmental cycle of the seed. Actually, a harvest represents a 'cultural' achievement of stunning importance, and the 'natural' developmental process of a seed will never produce the kind of abundance that we call a harvest! This being the case, the disarmingly simple statement put on the lips of Jesus bears further careful scrutiny.


The transition from nomadic to settled habitation marks one of the greatest shifts in the development of civilization. Yet it could not possibly have happened unless human groups were able to acquire adequate food on a regular basis. The carcass of an enormous animal may be nourishing but does not keep well, is difficult to transport, and is rather difficult to come by. Small hunting bands may cover the country and live off the land; larger groups simply cannot.

Perhaps an unlikely claimant for the title 'most significant discovery' -- along with the wheel, the shadoof and the alphabet -- is bread-wheat; but it is arguably the most worthy claimant of all.

Scarcely 10,000 years ago 'wheat' was simply one of a number of undistinguished grasses that sprang from the earth of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia. These grasses were wild, but sometimes interbred, assisted by wind and rain. One of these however -- wild wheat -- not only crossed fortuitously with a certain goat grass, but even produced a fertile hybrid of twentyeight chromosomes, called emmer wheat. Emmer seeds scatter widely in the wind; indeed they can be said to 'fall to the ground and die.' And thus this new, plump wheat became widespread, or at least 'extensive' in range if not 'intensive' it growth. In other words, it was not prolific enough to be harvested economically. But emmer wheat had not completed it’s developmental process.(1) This relatively new strain, by crossing with a different goat grass, produced against all the odds yet another vigorous and fertile hybrid of forty-two chromosomes which was indeed prolific, and which we now know as breadwheat.

The history of bread-wheat, relying as it does on two surprising 'accidents; is remarkable enough; but the saga continues. In the first place, it is now known that 'but for a particular genetic mutation on one chromosome; (2) this hybrid would not have been fertile, and consequently 'bread-wheat' would never have reproduced itself, let alone produced bread. There would have been no harvest because of no abundance: the grain would 'remain alone', in the words of the Gospel. But secondly, the new forty-two chromosome hybrid is now too bountiful, its ear too tightly packed with grain, to be able to scatter in the wind It can no longer 'fall to the ground and die’; much less produce fruit!

There is a rather poetic passage in a recent account of the development of the Mediterranean world which is to our purpose here:
“The seed of wild grass is difficult to gather. If it is collected before it is ripe, it is not very good to eat. On the other hand, if it is left ungathered for long after it has ripened, the seeds will have fallen from the stem so that they may be distributed by the wind or the feet of animals. So there may be only a few days when the harvest is possible. Seeds that remain attached for slightly longer periods would, inevitably, be the ones most likely to be collected. So one of the first effects caused by people gathering and resowing grass was to produce strains that retained their seeds longer than the wild forms. Eventually, this tendency went so far that the plants did not shed their seeds at all. Thus fully domesticated cereals -- wheat and barley -- lost their ability to distribute themselves and became totally dependent on [human agents] for their propagation and spread [my emphasis]. (3)”

To rephrase the story: it is easily shown that but for some slight modifications in environment and plant-propagation genetics, there could have been little or no sense to the saying attributed to Jesus in John's Gospel. So we have, in the story of wheat-cultivation, the ingredients for a nourishing meditation on death and rebirth, barrenness and fertility, individuality and corporateness, dearth and bounty; and in the verse from the Gospel of John, a profound spirituality of resurrection and discipleship.


If it is legitimate to claim the domestication of wheat as a crucial index of civilization and settled human culture, then it is only appropriate to acknowledge the indispensable part played by women.(4) "Man's" rise to civilization is, in a particularly important sense, "woman's," at least in the cereal cultures of EurAsia, for alongside these cultures goes a measurable rise in the social and religious position of women. Different kinds of culture Semitic camel-culture, African cattle-culture, Asian horse-pastoralism, sub-Arctic reindeer-culture and so on -- have employed different configurations of human and other resources; but cereal cultivation has, in a unique way, been the legacy of women, just as the knowledge of sexual phases, natural rhythms and breeding cycles has tended to cluster together in a domain largely understood, nurtured and controlled by women. Cereal cultivation demands knowledge of cycles and seasons, moons and meteorology, the calculation of time and the control of temporal sequences -- knowledge and activities originating with and residing in women par excellence.

Ancient religious stories record the Goddess as 'inventing' agriculture, and recent scholarship supports the claim that indeed women were responsible for the domestication of plants, controlled the cultivation of fields, broke the ground and sowed the seed.(5) The fertility of women is intrinsically connected with the fertility of nature, and metaphors for the one -- nurturing, bearing, propagating -- become rather obviously and appositely metaphors for the other. The seed lies in the earth rather as the embryo lies in the womb; the earth, the land, the soil, may be referred to as a mother; and the plow opening up the earth in preparation for the seed is a figure of the act of procreation but from a receptive or absorbing, rather than from an aggressive or imposing perspective.

Women are the 'transformers' of culture or society through gestating, bearing, nurturing and rearing its members, just as domesticated wheat 'transforms' nature itself, producing crops and harvest in a hitherto unimaginable bounty. Indeed, the very women who transform culture also transform nature in a creative and life-sustaining fashion. And if we consider the contrast between the symbiosis of women and wheat and then look at certain relationships characteristic of non-cereal cultures, the point will need no further belaboring.

The cultivation of tubers (particularly yams, cassava root, and sweet potatoes) is effected by planting 'cut' or'dead' pieces from the previously-cropped rhizomes, activity which generates metaphors of killing and chopping, mutilating and violence. We see no signs nor language of nurturing here. And this sexless but aggressive process of reproduction is controlled by men. Rather than with wombs and mothers and female deities, tuber cultivators tend to operate with tropes and themes such as dismemberment, murder, and violent, cataclysmic regeneration.

Is it purely by chance that headhunting and cannibalism with their violence and death, and tuber cultivation by men with its characteristically vigorous and invasive approach, co-occur? Also, is it perhaps more significant than is generally realized, especially by men, that cultivation of the earth by women has sustained for millennia cults of the Goddess and civilizations marked by the sacrality of sexuality and respect for the mystery of life? And finally, what might be the significance of the fact that the Jesus of the Gospel of John, in his statement about the grain of wheat, employs a vivid image of death and rebirth evocative not only of the adaptive capacity of wheat but of the transgenerational life-sustaining capacity of women? If John 12:24 were addressed to women or were to be heard as a woman in a first-century Palestinian (agricultural) context might hear it, what new perspectives and meanings might be generated for us?


If Israel struggled to identify and worship a single God -- a 'High God', 'Above all others' -- as it forged a national identity and settled into the Promised Land, then perhaps the struggle had to be particularly keen and long-lived, given the prevailing environmental and demographic conditions. For it would have been nomadic pastoralists rather than more settled populations, who identified a High God associated with the sky or the above. Such herders and transhumants could afford to belittle the earth in their religious worship, as they looked to the protective vault of the sky and moved camp according to its signs and seasons, its moods and messages. But the other and more settled groups -- people who had learned to domesticate wheat and to produce harvests to feed large aggregates of people -- quite naturally looked with great respect to the earth as the bountiful provider; and they focused their religious worship largely on a Mother of the Earth, (6) a goddess, and not nearly so much on a god who was believed to have died and risen again as part of a cycle of renewal. This assertion warrants elaboration.

It might initially seem that we could associate the Johannine reference to the dying and the rising of the grain of wheat with popular ideas of dying and rising deities, or even that Jesus or the evangelist -- was prefiguring the Resurrection in this statement. But though perhaps tempting, that is fanciful and unwarranted. The gods usually cited as 'dying and rising gods' include Adonis (originally Semitic), Attis (Phrygian), Osiris (Egyptian) and Tammuz (Akkadian /Sumerian), as well as Aliyan Baal (Ugaritic), and Marduk (Babylonian); but recent scholarship (7) has revealed that there is at best insufficient, and actually untrustworthy, evidence as to the existence of any Gods that can be reasonably categorized as 'dying and rising.' Better put, it is a misnomer to speak of 'dying and rising gods'; no such gods constitute a natural category, and in spite of the fact that there were local cults and some adaptation of form, there is no incontrovertible evidence of any deity characterized by a cycle of dying and rising. Any information that does affirm such a cycle is either dependent on imaginative and hypothetical reconstructions from ambiguous sources, or represents a Christian reworking and reinterpretation of pre-Christian material, quite possibly in order to adduce precedents for the Resurrection of Jesus. The pseudo-category of 'dying and rising gods' is therefore an example of the rewriting of history from a doctrinaire -- patriarchal or theological -- perspective. It is the late Christian texts that see in the stories of Adonis, Attis and the rest, prefigurations of dying and rising, death and rebirth, as exemplified in Jesus and his teaching. And perhaps scholarly 'discoveries' of pre-christian antecedents for belief in death-and resurrection have been somewhat premature and unhelpful. It is surely too neat, too fortuitous, to discover a thread of continuity between the myths of resurrection in ancient civilizations and the reality of the Resurrection in Christianity, as if the one were a fulfillment of the other and a vindication through Christianity of humankind's timeless aspirations. If there were such a thread, then the johannine author; in employing the image of the 'dying' and the 'reborn' grain of wheat would be demonstrating Jesus' reiterating familiar notions, and contriving to link past and future by means of the theme of apotheosis through dying and rising.

But instead of attempting to reconstruct a scenario which would have Jesus or the Christian Church cautiously and self-consciously preparing an apologetic argument for the Resurrection, perhaps the pedagogy of the grain of wheat is actually quite different and even more engaging. Rather than evocative of dying and rising gods (and thus of putatively crypto-Christian traditions compatible with the uniqueness and maleness of the God of Jesus), does not the grain of wheat speak simply of Earth and Mother and Goddess, very consistent with the experience of the settled groups who had domesticated the wheat in the first place (yet novel, unexpected, and redolent of a god who is also -- metaphorically -- female, fertile, and bountiful)? And if the linguistic image of wheat and its life-cycle points more obviously to an agricultural, earth-rooted significance rather than to an other-worldly, earth-transcending experience, then is it not at least implicitly identifying and appealing to the nurturers and sustainers in the audience or the community?

Given both the potentially enhanced position of women in agricultural economies and Jesus' preoccupation with empowerment and liberation and minorities and marginalized people, can we not glean some appropriate lessons from the fact that he talks so often of sowers and sowing, seed and scattering, corn, wheat, barley, chaff, tares, barns and harvests? Was he more aware of the fertility metaphor and the female connotations than we might think, not only when talking of fields white for the harvest or of the sower going to sow the seed (why should we only think of men here?), but when declaring that 'unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground; it 'remains alone'?

A seed that quickens in the womb of the earth is as much a miracle -- no more but no less either -- than the familiar miracle of mammalian birth. But in an agriculture (rather than a camel- or a horse-culture), the most familiar mammalian births are of human babies, as intimately understood by the women as they are denied to the men. So, within an agricultural experience or metaphor or religion, and within a world of wheat and of women, the words of Jesus and the words of the Gospel might have carried much more force -- and been somewhat differently applied -- than at first appears to us now. Raymond Brown states simply if ultimately unhelpfully, that 'the general meaning of the Johannine parable is clear from the context (my italics).(8) Jesus is speaking of death as the means of gaining life. Indeed, in its present sequence after the coming of the Greeks (v. 20), it is meant to refer to Jesus's death as the means of bringing life to all. There is no mention here of Resurrection, yet no acknowledgement either, of women's part in the context.


The 'grain of wheat' of John 12:24 ['grain'= kokkos seed/grain; 'wheat'= sitos = grain (generic)/ wheat] refers to sifted wheat or corn, implying not a single grain but a quantity, thus a 'harvestable' amount: 'the grain' rather than 'a grain.' And harvests are, of course, produced from fertile seeds, not sterile hybrids. More than likely, Biblical wheats were the emmer wheats referred to above, and this is a favored position among scholars.(9) Emmer wheats have been discovered in old Egyptian tombs and were certainly cultivated in the Near East in Biblical times; down to our own day in Palestine, other types of wild wheat are absent, though found in northern Syria.

Assuming that emmer wheat is under discussion here, the forty-two chromosome hybrid known as bread-wheat owes its fertility to a remarkable genetic mutation, a freak, a coincidence, we might-even say a 'grace.' Unless the grain falls to the ground and dies and be 'graced' therefore, it will not reproduce: a profound reality.

But as also noted, the fertile grain is so tightly packed in the ear that it cannot, unaided, fall to the ground; even if it were to break from the ear, it is so heavy and its glume so brittle, that as the chaff disintegrates the grain will fall, but like a stone rather than like a seed carried on the wind. So, either the seed needs assistance if it is to fall to the ground, or if it falls it does not broadcast and propagate widely. Not only are we struck by the literal message about seed bearing much fruit, but by broader implications of metaphors of spreading and going, leaving and not turning back.

There is a symbiosis between humanity -- man and woman, the plower and the sower, the tiller and the reaper, harvester and gleaner -- and bread-wheat: a fruitful grain provides abundant harvests, yet the grain cannot reproduce itself in any quantity; plows and draught animals assist farming, but this wheat can only be harvested 'by hand'; and people need wheat for survival, while strains of wheat, 'bread-wheat; now rely on people lest they become extinct. The potential 'harvest' to be reaped from John 12:24 is indeed great!


The symbiosis of people and emmer wheat, made civilization possible in the Near East. Cultivation of crops allowed for permanent settlement and the development of sizeable social groupings. Bread-wheat mediated 'nature' and 'culture.' But cereal culture -- the cycle of planting, nurturing, nourishing and harvesting -- depended upon a characteristically female contribution which, while not totally independent of male work, was nevertheless indispensable and integrated into the total human endeavor in perhaps a more balanced way than under any other sexual division of labor.

Civilization requires human cooperation, willing or coerced. In an agrarian economy the planting of wheat, its harvesting, and the production of flour, calls for cooperation between people and the land, as well as for cooperation between different groups of people; if such is realized, the yield will follow. And the number of mouths that can be fed will of course be in proportion to the harvest. Bread-wheat, by its very existence, invites community participation; and community survival depends on bread-wheat, in an agrarian, cereal culture.

But not all grains are bread-wheat and not all people are within communities. There are wild grains and there are wild 'undomesticated' individuals. There are both great advantages and serious limitations to being wild. Of those forms of wheat that do not need the assistance of human hands for their propagation, many are the sterile hybrids unproductive beyond their own brief existence. Yet there are those -- by the genetic freak of nature or the supernatural actions of grace -- that can indeed propagate spontaneously and widely; in their turn they provide from their own substance the elements for future hybridization, with its slim but real chances of improving the strain and adapting to new environments.

Domestic wheats, tamed and maintained by human interaction and produced by nature, may be characterized as symbiotic or relational, interdependent or communitarian, abundant or harvestable. But wild wheats not needing human assistance, and blowing where they may, grow independently and robustly. They survive, if fit, according to natural selection.

Though scattered sparsely and never sufficiently abundant to be harvestable in quantity, they may be, qualitatively, exceptional.

Much contemporary scholarship is comfortable with the view that organized religion and religious symbolism developed in an agricultural context. Certainly Near Eastern religion was dominated by the fertility of agriculture, and up to the time of Josiah's reforms in 621 B.C.E. there was a female cult of Asherah that flourished alongside the male cult of Yahweh. Now environment influences and conditions the use of language and its metaphors, just as language produces ways of thinking and speaking about the world. There is something profoundly religious and grounded in the choice by the Jesus of the Gospel of John of agricultural language and imagery to speak about eternal values. This is, I think, not 'mere' or 'accidental' use of the analogy of the life-cycle of wheat in order to make a point about death and rebirth in a theological context; the Johannine language has more than a general analogical and more than a purely allegorical meaning. It has both a context-sensitive meaning and is also a 'condensed' reference which might be profitably expanded by those familiar with cereal cultivation in first and second century Palestine, and with Biblical theology.


Lessons from the 'grain of wheat' theme can be applied by the imaginative reader. But one or two may perhaps be gathered here. If we shift the hermeneutical stance from that of the male -- theologian or farmer -- to that of the female -- nurturer or marginalized -- the perspective afforded by the words attributed to Jesus is very different. And if we consider the perspective of Jesus as boundary-breaker and empowerer of minorities, then these words can be catalytic for many new thoughts. 'Domestication' may mean higher output, but also standardization; the 'undomesticated' may yield more modestly, but it does produce variety. Wild strains range free and widely; what is domesticated is also rooted to the spot. So, if the Spirit blows where she wills, how can earth-bound souls be caught and carried aloft and scattered widely? Must not the disciple retain something of the wildness and the freedom of the grasses of the field as well as the robustness of the wheat? Is the cost of 'harvestability the loss of mobility to the disciple? And how will we be both responsive to the call to yield thirty, sixty, or one-hundred-fold and at the same time scatter to the ends of the earth?

The tight head of grain in the ear can provide nourishment for large numbers of people; wild grains and grasses can sustain only small communities or hamlets -- or wanderers or pilgrims, or vagrants. So how might Jesus be calling followers to comfort the isolated, the broken-hearted, the dispossessed, the vagrants? If we are not very rich and "lords of the harvest", are we thereby absolved from nurturing and feeding those who have nothing?

There is something in the prophet and the martyr -- the spokesperson of God and the always-visible and sometimes destined-to-be-exterminated witness -- that identifies such a one with the wild and the undomesticated grains. Prophets and martyrs will never be plentiful like the fields "white for the harvest." But they will grow and produce the thirty, or the sixty, or even -- in a 'graced' season the hundred-fold, if blown and scattered by the Spirit. Prophets and martyrs, like wild grains, are necessary for giving glory to God, and for their contributions to new kinds of vitality and abundance: for the hybridization of seeds -- in new varieties and with new possibilities and new uses whose growth will announce the Reign of God.

1.Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (London: Futura Publications, 1973/1981), pp. 40-42.
2.Bronowski, p.41.
3.David Attenborough, The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), p. 68.
4.Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Vol. I, pp. 37-40.
5.Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 68-69, and notes 35-38.
6.Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), chapter one.
7.J.Z. Smith, Encyclopedia of Religion, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1987), Vol. IV, pp. 521-526.
8.Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 471. Brown also adds, rather tentatively, that 'others have sought wider afield for the back ground of the Johannine parable. Some like Holtzmann draw a comparison with the mystery religions where the annual cycle of death and rebirth was dramatized with an ear of grain'; and quotes Dodd who suggests that John's Hellenistic readers would be aware of the symbolism whereby there is in man a divine seed which has come down from above and is destined to return to its source; p. 472.
9.Michael Zohary, in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962); Vol. II, p. 286; Vol. IV, p. 840.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 9

Since there were still few frontier towns, mostly temporary boom towns, and since the traces connecting them were also few, it was not surprising that Demeter ran into her daughter, Cory, nor were the circumstances. Demeter approached a small boomtown, just past its peak. It was a dry spring and the prairie was slow to green. Few were in the streets. One big saloon dominated the town: “The Devil’s Schooner” with a big painting of a sailing ship on the front and under the ship the motto, “Drown your troubles here.” Late in the morning the front was still dark and locked. Demeter circled around to the back where there was a wide porch.

Wash was hanging in the sun and a child and big black dog sat side-by-side on a bench. The child seemed to be half-Chinese with a long braid of blue-black hair. “What’s your dog’s name?” asked Demeter to open a conversation without immediately asking for food.



“From Serbia. That’s the country he’s from.”

“Hmm. I’d have guessed Newfoundland or Labrador.”

“No, Serb.”

“May I rest here?” She tentatively braced her pack on the rough lumber of the porch. The child shrugged. A man’s shape came to the door. He was Chinese with an apron over his black pajamas and a queue down his back.

“Want food?” he asked. She was grateful. He brought a bowl of bread and milk.

A fleshy woman with dark hair, makeup smeared over her eyes, staggered to the doorway in a piegnoir once white but now gray and greasy down the front. “Hop! Where’s my coffee?” She threw up her hands to shield her eyes from the sun. “Put a little whisky in it, will you?” Hop went in to get it.

The two women stared at each other, Cory squinting and Demeter trying not to move her face at all. It wasn’t that they were slow to recognize each other, but rather that they were slow to admit it. “I might have known,” finally said Cory.

“Bound to happen,” her mother agreed.

Hop came back with the mug of spiked coffee and put it in Cory’s hand. The dog and child didn’t stir from their bench but simply watched with interest. They were used to drama, but this was an anticlimax. “Put my mother in some room with a bed, Hop,” said Cory, “She looks pretty rough.” She went back upstairs with her mug.

Hop took sheets off his wash line and gestured for Demeter to follow. The dog and child came, too. The room smelled fetid, but with the window wide open Demeter felt she could sleep and she did, so soundly that she woke once -- surprised to find the dog and child sleeping alongside her. The sound of hoeing came from Hop in his drought-stunted garden under the open window. She slept again.

When she woke the second time, the light was diminishing and reddening. Cory was sitting by her, dressed for “work” in a vulgar low-cut dress with festoons and rosettes. Her face paint was renewed. “Looking for Pers, I suppose,” she said.

“Where is she?”

Wild laughter made Cory’s shoulders shake -- and also her... well, her two chief assets. She loved it when men stared at her breasts and then moved their eyes up her throat to her red mouth. She knew they rarely listened to her words and probably wouldn’t understand them if they did pay attention to what she said. For them to pay attention was enough for her. She liked it better when they were drunk, besotted... confused. She’d have liked her mother better that way. She liked her SELF that way better. Swirls and jags of emotion, dramatic scenarios, power used and resisted -- to Cory this was life.

“It’s liable to get pretty noisy tonight,” she said. “Payday at the mines. I can’t really guarantee no one will find you up here. I don’t put locks on these doors. Slows things down if someone needs to get in, so they tend to break up the doors coming through them.”

Demeter wondered whether her revolver were in her pack as it was supposed to be.

“Hop sent you a tray. I put it on the dresser.” Cory left but her smell stayed, a strong musk.

Before she ate, Demeter got her revolver out of her pack, put it under her pillow, and -- with that security and the good feeling of the first real food in a while -- lay back, half-sleep, dreaming of the Old Country at harvest time when the daylight stretched right on through the white nights and work wore everyone out to the point where they were something like drunk.

It was there she’d conceived Cory, and she was pretty sure it was with the nobleman himself, the land owner. At least someone masterful had come to her where she had slept among trees to escape the bright moonlight, someone who had marked where she went, and knew how to deal with entangling clothes.

She hated entanglements and once she was freed and aroused by knowing hands, she had gladly joined the rhythm of conception, panting and working her strong fingers against the man’s back. She had welcomed the pregnancy, bloomed throughout it, and given birth with no trouble. The man never appeared again, but these summer fertility festivals often produced such children. It was as though they came from the earth itself. Marriage was not a question. She was wealthy enough, thanks to generations of work on fertile land, to raise as many children as she wanted. No one questioned her.

Her problem with Cory was not that she was so licentious, but that she did it so sluttishly, so half-consciously -- all right, so unhygienically. There was no style, so selection, just anything goes, all comers welcome.

Shouts and crashes came from downstairs, mixed with what was probably supposed to be music. In a while it blurred together into cacophony and she slipped back into her dreams of long ago, the smell and weight of her dark visitor becoming gradually more intense until she realized she was awake. Someone truly was on top of her. She pushed against him with no result.

“Long ago and far away, we made quite a daughter, didn’t we?” She thought surely she was still dreaming, but she wasn’t. How could this happen? Had she conjured him up?

“Who are you?”

“I think you know.”

She realized that she did. It was Mort Lethe. “Get out!” She felt under her pillow, found the butt of her revolver and pressed the muzzle against his chest.

He only laughed. “I took the bullets out.” She pulled the trigger and discovered he was telling the truth. “But I’m going. Just wanted to visit -- not to stay.” The weight on her lifted, the door opened and closed and she could feel that the room was empty.

For the rest of the night she did not sleep, though she lit a candle, found the bullets Mort had left on the dresser and reloaded her gun. When it was nearly dawn, the child and Serb came into the room and sat on either side of her against the headboard, as though they were guarding her. The noise from downstairs sounded like a riot, but it stayed down there.

At daylight Cory entered, looking like the survivor of some kind of war. She was badly battered, stained with spilled wine, even bloody in streaks and her smile was nearly a grimace. “Do you like my daughter as much as you like me?” she asked sarcastically, nodding at the child, who looked to see what Demeter would say.

“But she’s half-Chinese,” said Demeter without thinking. The girl wasn’t insulted. She already knew that.

“Hop and I have an understanding. We take care of each other.” She smoothed back the child’s hair from her forehead. “And the child and the dog do their best to help.” Both guardians clearly enjoyed Cory’s attention. Demeter was impressed in spite of herself.

Cory went on. “I like living at the mouth of Hell and Hop is a Celestial. He doesn’t believe in Hell. But we agree that you don’t belong here. Best go on quickly. These people are stirred up because of the lack of rain. They know farming is through -- they’ll lose their homes. Some have already lost family members.”

Outside there was a rising tide of noise coming up the street. The child went to look. “They have Indians, Mother. They’re going to force them to dance -- rain dance to break the drought.”

The crowd wanted to hang the two miserable Indians with their feet barely touching the ground so that they would struggle. They had thrown the ropes over a porch bracket and were putting the loops over the heads of the Indians. The child and the dog disappeared from behind the women and racketed down the wooden stairs out in the hall. “No,” screamed both women. “Come back here!”

Then there was a bigger racket -- it was Hop, charging out the front of the saloon, wearing a pot on his head, clanging other pots and lids as though they were cymbals, charging recklessly at the crowd as though he were a dragon in a Chinese parade, trying to drive off an eclipse. They didn’t know what to think -- most of them were still badly hungover and couldn’t tolerate the noise. The dog flew out at them, barking and snarling and then came the child hurling Chinese firecrackers.

At last Demeter came to her senses and began to fire her revolver over the heads of the crowd. All but one man fled. Even the Indians ran away. The one person who did not flee was attacked by Cerb, frothing and roaring. That person pulled a knife and stabbed the dog, then stalked off, wiping the blade on his thigh.

“Shoot him,” commanded Cory hoarsely. “Shoot that sunnavabitch! NOW!” But he had turned his back and was not running. Demeter was too civilized to shoot him. Cory tried to grab the gun, succeeded and dropped the man on his face.

“The law!” Demeter was appalled.

Cory snorted. “There’s no law here.” She handed back the revolver. “Time to move on, anyway. You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

“Wait, where’s your sister?”

Kory threw the answer over her shoulder. “Up at the mine. In Mort’s house.”

Monday, February 19, 2007


By now Demeter had a good sense of what the unfolding weather would bring and could feel that a serious blizzard was on the way. Sometimes she’d been able to find shelter in small towns or abandoned farmhouses -- a few times even with families, though most seemed to have been driven out by the drought. The first stray flakes of snow were swirling around her when she spotted a fairly solid-looking house with smoke coming from the chimney. She knew what a mixture of amazement and alarm she must cause when she knocked on the door, but was surprised to have to pound hard for quite a while.

She was thinking of just breaking in when the door cracked open and a small boy peered out, calling over his shoulder, “Pa, it’s an old woman. Not Indians.”

She couldn’t hear the reply but the boy opened the door wide enough for her to come in. The interior was dark and smoky. She could see at once that the boy, his father, and several other children were torpid with flushed faces and knew what the matter was. Their massive cast-iron stove was not properly drafting and the place was full of carbon monoxide. They were being killed by the very fire that had been keeping them warm and alive.

Pushing back the door against the boy, so that he staggered away, she hurried to the stove and adjusted the air intake and the draft control in the stove pipe. When she lifted the lids of the stovetop, she was puzzled by the fire for a minute, until she realized this was not a wood fire, but a coal fire. With the extra air, the red coals flared up and the dangerous smoldering stopped. She boiled water and the boy, who seemed to be the least affected, showed her a small supply of coffee beans and the grinder. Before long the air was renewed.

Later, when the family had normalized, Demeter realized no woman was present. “Where is your wife?” she asked, nearly afraid to find out.

“Come with me,” the man growled and led her through the now swirling snow to a shed in the yard. Inside was a small supply of wood and a generously filled coal bin. On a high shelf over it was a woman-sized bundle wrapped in a quilt. “There she is. Ground is too hard to bury her.” On the way back both carried more fuel for the fire.

As it turned out, the family was much luckier than most. They had a good supply of wheat from the crop that went unsold. “If there were only a railroad,” the man said, “We could have gotten it to market. But the horses died and everyone cleared out so I couldn’t even hire a wagon. We were stranded. I couldn’t walk away with all these small children and no transportation.” They had been using the coffee grinder to crack wheat for mush.

The man, who was from Appalachia, knew coal and when he had found a seam of the stuff a couple of miles away, he dug a small “coyote mine,” and working single-handed with the boy stationed outside his hand-dug hole to go for help in case of a collapse, he had dug quite a bit of the coal. He was lucky -- a half-dozen men in the area had been crushed and buried this way. But the family had been devastated by the loss of the mother -- paralyzed and unable to think properly. They had only the dimmest idea why she had died.

Demeter soon had the household reorganized, cleaned and on schedule. Her bottomless box produced a hand-cranked flour mill that clamped to the edge of the table. While the smaller children gaped, the boy turned the handle until there was a bowl of flour which Demeter made into bread, having found an old sprouty potato which she boiled and cooled to ferment for yeast. A bit of honey left from the destruction of the beehives, and the little family actually produced a few glimmering smiles. Human beings need bread and sweetness.

Snow was now piling into drifts as the wind drove hard around the buildings. Then the wind stopped and the temperature dropped. At some point Demeter went to throw out wash water and saw the black dot-eyes of rabbits clustered around the bases of the buildings. As the cold hardened, they had come to huddle in the faint shelter of house and sheds. Going back out to her box, she found a slingshot, a powerful one she used on small game to save ammunition. (She thought it better that no one realize she had a revolver and cartridges with her.) The small boy wasn’t strong enough to pull it and aim at the same time, but the father could. It took him a while to develop enough skill to nail a few rabbits, but he neatly skinned and cleaned them while they were still warm. Then there was stew.

The blizzard lasted quite a while, days -- then a couple of weeks. Drifts piled up in the lee of the buildings while snow was completely scoured from the windward sides. The temperature went even lower. Nailheads in the walls acquired a white fur of frost. If they went outdoors, their noses stung and their eyes watered. At night they sat in the dark for lack of kerosene or candles, but never lacked for warmth or food. There were five children, including the least, a little boy barely a year old. The three middle children were girls.

The coal supply sank low, but when there was a relative break in the pounding wind, the father took Demeter’s cart to bring more from his coyote mine. When she unloaded her box off the cart, she brought it into the house to look at the depleted interior without shaking from the cold. Not much was left. A mouth organ. She gave it to the older boy. Some ribbons which she gave to the girls. One dose of smallpox vaccine.

That night as they sat around the stove in the dimness, she proposed to the father that she vaccinate the baby. “Absolutely not!” he shouted, suddenly irate. “That hocus-pocus back-East stuff is no good at all! It’s poison, is what it is! We left to get away from it!” She tried to explain but he became even more upset. “God wills who should live or die! We have no control! If I had any control, would I have let my wife die? Let alone the little ones buried out back?” The living children began to cry. The boy tried to hide his feelings by working at the slingshot, straining to manage the hard pull of the rubber. The father said, “They can just catch smallpox and survive it the same way I did. If they don’t survive, it’s because God wills it.”

“Or maybe it’s because you’ve brought your family out to this Godforsaken part of the world where there are no doctors or hospitals,” retorted Demeter, but her remarks had no impact.

The father slung aside the ragged blanket hanging over the door to the shed room of the house, where he slept, and did not return. The children climbed the ladder up to the loft, which was a little warmer than the downstairs, and rolled into their pallets. Demeter had been sleeping on a pile of rag rugs by the stove and the baby boy had gotten into the habit of sleeping with her, cradled against her belly. She had grown very fond of him and didn’t mind his tufty white-blonde hair tickling her chin. She often dreamt he was Pers, a quiet baby who loved to sleep with her mother, unlike Cory who kicked in her sleep. Now and then she roused to check the fire.

In the darkest of the night she woke resolved to save this child whether his father liked it or not. The little boy didn’t stir when she slid out from the blankets. Removing one of the stove lids and putting in a bit of kindling so there would be light enough to quietly get the vaccine from her box, she moved slowly. Despite her carefulness, because she had her hands full, the wooden lid came back down a bit too hard and made a small noise. It was different from the stove noises which had grown familiar to everyone because she checked the fire so often in the night. For a moment she held her breath and listened, but no one seemed to stir. Laying out the needle and vial of serum beside her, she pulled away the blanket to bare the chubby little arm and prickled it in a small dot as preparation that didn’t even wake the baby. Blood welled up in dots like red Indian beads. She waited another moment.

That was her mistake. A big hand grabbed the serum vial just as she reached for it, swept it away from her and into the open stove hole. “I said you will NOT!” hissed the father. “And as soon as it’s light, you will LEAVE.” The baby woke then and wailed desperately at the sound of angry voices.

The father meant what he said. By now the sun had come out and the temperatures were rising. Wind had cleared the tops of the ridges so that it was not impossible to travel, though too difficult for a cart since the ground was becoming spongy. Demeter’s box was empty now and her belongings fit into a pack, so she left the cart with the family. They could use it for hauling coal, maybe even to move back East. The empty box, she knew, was likely to become a coffin for the small boy when people began to move around the prairie in another month and brought contagion to the family. At least he would have a decent burial. His mother would have no such civilized burial, but she would be with her children. Some of them.

One last delve into what was now her pack yielded a felt hat with a wide brim and some smoked glasses to protect her eyes from the near-spring sun now dazzling the broad land. The older boy brought her a wrapped packet of food. The father began to object and then went into his shed-room.

Shading their eyes with cupped hands, the children watched in front of the house as her figure became smaller and smaller in the distance. The girls were wearing their ribbons, weeping. The boy went off to be alone, in case he shed tears, and work at learning his mouth organ. The baby bawled and bawled, untended.

Demeter considered the snow with shrewd eyes. She figured there would be enough moisture in the ground this spring to get the seeds started -- if all the seeds hadn’t been eaten for food -- but unless there was steady spring rain, the sprouts would shrivel in the ground. The family would either leave or starve. God had less to do with it than nature.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Several things are bouncing around in my head, so I’ll try to weave them together. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll discover what I mean.

First, I’m using my Netflix account to work my way though English profiler crime series, which encourage a certain way of thinking. (Most recently, “Wire in the Blood.”) The profiler tries to put himself (or herself, in this case) in the mind of the perp (or author, in this case) and use empathy to discover who that person really is, what the case is really “about,” the signature pattern.

Second, I’ve now read three works by Sid Gustafson. The first was “Horses They Rode” which unfolds from a short story about a horse trainer in Spokane who rides a freight train back to the rez, accidentally sharing the ride with a grizzly bear that’s after fermented corn. But it was the second book written -- at least copyrighted in 2006.

The earlier book, “Prisoners of Flight” (copyright 2003) begins with a pilot crashing and then doubles back to pick up the “prequel.” The most recently written story is a novelette still in manuscript called “Swift Dam,” and it’s about an old veterinarian and a younger Indian Chief of Police.

I haven’t met Sid, though I know his dad a bit and now I’ve emailed back and forth to Sid. But I know this part of the world pretty well. So I’m going out on a limb to try a “Tony Hill” profiler interpretation of these stories. It’s clear that all of them are about two men, very close, and only one survives -- so I will suggest that survivor guilt is a major dynamic of these stories. If two young men of the Boomer generation around here are close buddies and one of them is an Indian, probably the Indian is closer to doom. The death rate for young rez men is very high and usually the deaths are traumatic.

Sid grew up in Conrad, a white town founded by a man named Conrad -- in fact, the man who built Swift Dam, about which I will be writing quite a bit as I explore the local irrigation based on the system of canals fed by Swift Dam. Barnaby Conrad, a descendant of that powerful historic empire-builder, wrote a fine book, “Ghost Hunting in Montana,” about the Conrads and I suspect that Barnaby shares the dream many young men have of being “Deerslayer” and escaping to some Shangri-La with a trusty Indian guide, a Tonto. Sid might be a townie white boy, but he spent much time on his family’s ranch not far from the Mad Plumes’, where their rodeo arena is called “Hell’s Half-Acre.” To Sid, Indians are part of life, exactly equal to him, trustworthy companions. This is not the same as coming out from Boston and picking up an Indian in a bar in order to write about the encounter.

There’s a pattern in “Prisoners of Flight.” Two young men (one Indian) want to fly high (literally so far as the plot is concerned, though they talk about drying out as well), but they become trapped “Prisoners of Flight.” At first they appear to have landed in Rainbow Valley, Beulah Land, a place of healing. (It’s actually the Great Bear Wilderness. Or maybe it’s a treatment center.) Things become worse and worse (and they become more sober) and they suffer. Then one gets out and the other is killed by a grizzly.

In “Horses They Rode,” the young father is also “flying” (drinking) with his Indian buddy but this time the the transportation is a train and the place of refuge is a ranch where there are supportive and wise friends. Still, in the end the Indian dies -- but he is old. It may have been his time. Time is a killer. Not just individuals but also cultures.

In “Swift Dam” it is not the half-Indian police chief who dies. It is the old veterinarian’s Indian friend who was killed when Swift Dam collapsed in the flood of ‘64. The old vet is now becoming narcoleptic and diabetic himself, slipping towards death. As the author works through the pattern book after book the deaths become more natural, less emotional.

I think that “Prisoners of Flight,” the first book, is a “screen” for a reality -- quite a successful one. I don’t know whether Sid is really a pilot or whether he’s ever been a prisoner of war or even served in the Vietnam War. I do know that a fellow who HAD been a prisoner came through here about 2000, lecturing various places about patriotism and explaining the same tapping code that Sid uses to excellent effect. In fact, I was teaching a bunch of renegades at Cut Bank High School that fall and they could not resist using that tapping code for weeks after the assembly where this man spoke. Picking up a detail like that and making it so powerful an element in the story is good writing.

This is not “Brokeback Mountain,” but these days every buddy story has to SAY that somehow or everyone sticks there. So in come two “earth cookie” girls, twins but distinguishable, looking for their dog named “Hope.” (Symbol alert. And these sisters seem very “nursie” to me.) They have their own little communication system: raised eyebrows, quirk at the corner of the mouth, etc. “Sling,” the protagonist, calls them “the Grimace Sisters.” Sling takes one to a hot springs for an idyllic moment that is welcome relief as the plot line gets ever more grim. But the girls don’t really engage the writing -- they’re a plot element and so is the second Indian from the west side, a salmon Indian, who shows up at the end.

My hypothesis would be that these books may be coming out of the experience of being hooked on alcohol or drugs or both, a prison that also trapped an Indian buddy who didn’t make it. The killer grizzly might stand for an overdose or a car crash -- maybe suicide. How many of my former students have died from these causes -- maybe a hundred? There was nothing I could do about it. At least I couldn’t think of anything. I hoped the survivors would write and that would provide some clues.

In the first of these books, “Prisoners of Flight,” the Indian is the one who accidentally shot down his friend, but the protagonist faked collaboration in order to escape the prison camp and was scorned for it. In the second book, “Horses They Rode,” the protagonist did nothing to kill his friend, except that his race horse, his gambling, accidentally killed the old man. In “Swift Dam” it was the dam collapsing -- an act of God? Old treachery? History? In any case, less about the guilt and more about the survival.

Those of us who love this place and the autochthonous people who lived here -- still live here -- wonder what we can do for the future and how we can help the children of those people who are gone now -- some of them people we knew and loved. Giving them old clothes won’t do it. Even occasionally feeding them is not enough. Weeping over “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” doesn’t help. They must have justice -- that means education. It’s good that Sid is teaching Blackfeet kids in Dillon at the University.

So this is not frivolous writing, written to sell. This stuff comes not just from the heart but from the guts, which must sometimes interfere with the actual writing. The very intensity drives it along almost too quickly for reflection. (“Slow me down, Lord! Oh, slow me down,” prays the protagonist.) These are journeys, lyrically traced.

Now let’s shift the paradigm a bit. Sid says that his maternal grandfather gave him an entire set of James Willard Schultz books, a gift more precious than a Charlie Russell painting. Mad Plume’s place is where Chewing Black Bone, Schultz’ good friend, finished his days in a lodge, making his own moccasins by feel because he was blind from trachoma. Sid, born in 1954, was barely old enough to have have known this old last of the warriors, who died in the Sixties. Schultz himself is buried up at the top of the bluff -- you can see the Gustafson ranch from there. Sid says he keeps an eye on those graves. Schultz stories are almost always buddy stories, two guys caught up in a dangerous adventure. This pattern is deep in Sid, but there is no frontier now. The warpath must be pursued in Vietnam, the wilderness is a federal reserve, the equivalent of a buffalo horse is a private airplane. But the essence of deep committed friendship is still there. Heck, it’s in Gilgamesh, it’s in the Old Testament, it’s human.

Why Gone Those Times?” laments Schultz. We can’t solve time but we can tell the stories. What about the eye? “I alone escaped to tell you.”