Stegner’s “The Blizzard”

A long section entitled The Whitemud River Range lies at the heart of Stegner’s Wolf Willow. “Genesis” is the story of a giant blizzard that struck the area in 1906 and, for all extent and purposes, ended cattle ranching in Saskatchewan while preparing the way for farmers like Stegner’s father.

Like all of us who have lived even temporarily in cowboy country, Stegner longed to be as noble as the cowboys he admired:

Many things that those cowboys represented I would have done well to get over quickly, or never catch: the prejudice, the callousness, the destructive practical joking, the tendency to judge everyone by the same raw standard. Nevertheless, what they themselves most respected, and what as a boy I most yearned to grow up to, was as noble as it was limited. They honored courage, competence, self reliance, and they honored them tacitly. They took them for granted. It was their absence, not their presence, that was cause for remark. Practicing comradeship in a rough and dangerous job, they lived a life calculated to make a man careless of everything except the few things he really valued.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising, then, that he chose as the hero of his story a young Brit with a literary flair who longed to become a real cowboy:

He wanted to see everything, miss nothing, forget nothing. To make sure that he would not forget what happened to him and what he saw, he had begun a journal on the train coming west from Montreal, and every evening since then he had written in it seriously with posterity looking over his shoulder. He watched every minute of every day for the vivid and the wonderful, and he kept an alert eye on himself for the changes that were certain to occur. He had the feeling that there would be a test of some sort, that he would enter manhood or cowboyhood, manhood in Saskatchewan terms as one would enter a house. For the moment he was a tenderfoot, a greenhorn, on probation, under scrutiny. But at some moment there would be a door to open, or to force, and inside would be the self assurance that he respected and envied in Jesse, Slippers, or Little Horn, the calm confidence of a top hand.

The challenge he ends us up facing is the 1906 blizzard, the kind of challenge that can easily end up costing men their lives, though it’s not the kind of heroic challenge that Rusty had imagined:

That cloth house stamped itself into Rusty’s mind and memory. It spoke so plainly of the frailty and impermanence of their intrusion. And yet that frailty, and the implication of danger behind it, was what most nettled and dared and challenged him. Difficult as this job was, it was still only a job, and one done in collaboration with seven others. It called only for endurance; it had very little of the quality of the heroic that he had imagined Saskatchewan enforced upon the men who took its dare. Some time, somehow, after he had gone through this apprenticeship in the skills of survival, he would challenge the country alone some journey, some feat, some action that would demand of him every ounce of what he knew he had to give. There would be a real testing, and a real proof, and the certainty ever afterward of what one was. The expectation had no shape in his mind, but he thought of it in the same way he might have thought of sailing a small boat single handed across the Atlantic, or making a one man expedition to climb Everest. It would be something big and it would crack every muscle and nerve and he would have to stand up to it alone, as Henry Kelsey had, wandering two years alone among unheard of tribes in country not even rumored, or as young Alexander Mackenzie did when he took off from Fort Chippewyan to open the mysterious Northwest and track down the river that carried his name. There were even times when he thought of the wolfer Schulz with near envy. Like him or not, he didn’t run in pack, he was of an older and tougher breed, he knew precisely what he was made of and what he could do, and he was the sort from whom one might learn something.

Though much of the time Rusty sounds like anything but a hero, in the end he ends up risking his life to help a cowhand he has despised most of the story:

The notion insinuated itself into his head, not for the first time, that his sticking with Spurlock after Panguingue left was an act of special excellence, that the others must look upon him with a new respect because of it. But the tempting thought did not stand up under the examination he gave it. Special excellence? Why hadn’t anyone praised him for it, then? He knew why: be cause it was what any of them would have done. To have done less would have been cowardice and disgrace. It was probably a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.

Needless to say, this is the kind of everyday heroism that Stegner admired in the cowboys that he met in his daily life, rodeo cowboys who carried on a tradition that was short-lived in all but its hold on the imagination of our nation.

A tripod of geography, history, and law

In a long section entitled “Preparation for Civilization” Stegner explores the history of Cypress Hills,

The forces were powerful enough sooner or later to overrun any divide, but for a long time power flowed around the flanks of the Cypress Hills as once ice had. But once history touched the hills, once the stalemate was broken, the stages of the Plains frontier would go through them like fire through prairie grass. As late as 1868, when the American frontier was in its very last phase, it had hardly begun here. The fur trade, already by that year a fading memory south of the border, was just reaching out to this remote tumble of high land. The tribes lay in precarious balance. The métis who with luck might have made a mixed blood nation, a sort of Mexico, in the Canadian West, had not yet made their first rebellious move on the Red River, and their hivernant skirmishers had barely felt their way into the dangerous divide.

Within little more than a decade, fur traders, métis, and Indians would find their whole world collapsing under them, the buffalo would be all but gone, and law and order in a red coat would be patrolling the coulees where a few years before hardly any man, red or white or halfway between, would have dared go.

and, particularly, the effect of the establishment of the border between the United States and Canada:

[the 49th parallel] … exerted uncomprehended pressures upon affiliation and belief, custom and costume. It offered us subtle choices even in language (we stooked our wheat; across the Line they shocked it), and it lay among our loyalties as disturbing as a hair in butter. Considering how much I saw of it and how many kinds of influence it brought to bear on me, it might have done me good to learn something of how it came there. I never did until much later, and when I began to look it up I discovered that practically nobody else knew how it had come there either. While I lived on it, I accepted it as I accepted Orion in the winter sky. I did not know that this line of iron posts was one outward evidence of the coming of history to the unhistoried Plains, one of the strings by which dead men and the unguessed past directed our lives. In actual fact, the boundary which Joseph Kinsey Howard has called artificial and ridiculous was more potent in the lives of people like us than the natural divide of the Cypress Hills had ever been upon the tribes it held apart. For the 49th parallel was an agreement, a rule, a limitation, a fiction perhaps but a legal one, acknowledged by both sides; and the coming of law, even such limited law as this, was the beginning of civilization in what had been a lawless wilderness. Civilization is built on a tripod of geography, history, and law, and it is made up largely of limitations.

Though I live just a few miles from the border and have a sister-in-law whose a Canadian citizen, I’ve never really given much thought to the border. However, Stegner makes a convincing argument that this Medicine Line, as the Indians called it, because of it’s power, had a defining effect on Cypress Hills.

Stegner’s also convinced that Canadian dealings with the Indians was much more effective than American dealings, though he admits historically that might have been because America had been settled first:

The important thing is the instant, compelling impressiveness of this man in the scarlet tunic. I believe I know, having felt it, the truest reason why the slim force of Mounted Police was so spectacularly successful, why its esprit de corps was so high and its prestige so great. I think I know how Law must have looked to Sioux and Blackfoot when the column of red coats rode westward in the summer of 1874.

Never was the dignity of the uniform more carefully cultivated, and rarely has the ceremonial quality of impartial law and order been more dramatically exploited. Since the middle of the 18th century the red coat of the British dragoons had meant, to Indian minds, a force that was non and sometimes anti-American. The contrast was triply effective now that the blue of the American cavalry had become an abomination to the Plains hostiles. One of the most visible aspects of the international boundary was that it was a color line: blue below, red above, blue for treachery and unkept promises, red for protection and the straight tongue. That is not quite the way a scrupulous historian would report it, for if Canada had been settled first, and the American West had remained empty, the situation might well have been reversed. Certainly Canada had its own difficulties with the tribes when the buffalo disappeared and the crisis came on; and though its treaty system was better considered and its treaties better kept than the American, still Canada in red coats hunted down its hostiles in 1885 just as the bluecoated Long Knives had used to do. But given the historical context, red meant to an Indian in the 1870’s friendship and protection, and it is to the honor of an almost over publicized force that having dramatized in scarlet the righteousness of the law it represented, it lived up to the dramatization.

Considering America’s constant betrayal of its treaties it’s not surprising the Indians trusted the British more than the Americans, particularly since the Canadians gave refuge to Sitting Bull after his clash with Custer.

More importantly, though, the Canadian Mounties brought order and justice to the frontier in ways Americans either couldn’t or wouldn’t, starting with the suppression of the American whiskey runners:

Uncontrolled from 1868 to 1874, the whiskey traffic on the Whoop Up Trail had gone a long way toward demoralizing Blood, Piegan, and Blackfoot, had brought on riots and murders, had pauperized families and made drunks out of hunters and squalid drabs out of hunters’ wives. Left to run its course, it could hardly have avoided stirring up in the Alberta country a racial war as vengeful as the Minnesota Massacres of 186162, and it would as certainly have brought defeat and tribal collapse to the Blackfoot. The pattern had been repeated many times south of the Line. It was by no means out of the question that the Black foot might choose at any time to take the risk and wipe the little force of a hundred and fifty Mounties out. If the police had worn blue coats instead of red, the Blackfoot might well have tried.

Instead of that, and within a month of his coming, Macleod made a firm peace with the confederation which had never submitted and never did submit to the United States. As combined magistrate and peace officer, he would have his patrol duties, and occasional incidents of violence or illegality to handle, but to all intents and purposes he took care of the critical Whoop Up problem the first winter. He took care of it, one might say, simply by being there. Altogether, his was a remarkable demonstration that law, when strictly and equitably enforced, is incomparably stronger than the random or violent powers ranged against it. Rechtssicherheit proved a quicker and surer way to peace with the Blackfoot than carbines and promises.

Perhaps the latest news from Iraq has me unusually depressed, but you have to wonder if the Americans have ever learned that “ law, when strictly and equitably enforced, is incomparably stronger than the random or violent powers ranged against it.” Does our celebration of the “Wild” West, and celebration of outlaws like Jesse James reveal a terrible flaw in our national culture? Is greed, disguised as some misguided form of Capitalism, inherent in our culture, willing to justify the exploitation of other countries if it makes a profit?

Stegner’s “History is a Pontoon Bridge”

Stegner’s second chapter entitled “History is a Pontoon Bridge” contains one of the most tantalizing quotations I’ve read in a long time:

Unless everything in a man’s memory of childhood is misleading, there is a time somewhere between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds to the phase ethologists have isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life. This is the way a bird emerging from the darkness of the egg knows itself, the mechanism of its relating to the world. Expose a just hatched duckling to an alarm clock, or a wooden decoy on rollers, or a man, or any other object that moves and makes a noise, and it will react for life as if that object were its mother. Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies. The perceptive habits that are like imprintings or like conditioned responses carry their habitual and remembered emotions.

If the statement is true, and I’m inclined to believe it is, then it seems paramount that the individual explore and understand those years if he hopes to understand himself.

The corollary to this, of course, is:

I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I can say to myself that a good part of my private and social character, the kinds of scenery and weather and people and humor I respond to, the prejudices I wear like dishonorable scars, the affections that sometimes waken me from middle aged sleep with a rush of undiminished love, the virtues I respect and the weaknesses I condemn, the code I try to live by, the special ways I fail at it and the kinds of shame I feel when I do, the models and heroes I follow, the colors and shapes that evoke my deepest pleasure, the way I adjudicate between personal desire and personal responsibility, have been in good part scored into me by that little womb village and the lovely, lonely, exposed prairie of the homestead. However anachronistic I may be, I am a product of the American earth, and in nothing quite so much as in the contrast between what I knew through the pores and what I was officially taught.

Though the environment we grow up in may not be the only factor in determining who we become, it’s obvious it plays a major part in shaping each generation. No two homes are the same, but much of what we learn is dependent not on our families but on our community and our peers. It’s hard to imagine totally escaping their influence.

Stegner feels that he grew up in a golden age of the West:

So the world when I began to know it had neither location nor time, geography nor history. But it had a wild freedom, a closeness to earth and weather, a familiarity with both tame and wild animals. It had the physical sweetness of a golden age. It was blessedly free of most conventional restrictions, and its very liberation from the perspectives of time and place released our minds for imaginative flights into wonder. Our sensuous and imaginative education was exaggerated, but nobody told us much about what is now sometimes called “vital adjustment.”

I suspect many of us feel we were born in a golden age, one that seems to recede as we grow older, leaving us longing for a past that may or may not have ever existed. I don’t think I’d want it to be any other way.

Stegner also offers one of the best justifications I’ve read for studying history:

For history is a pontoon bridge. Every man walks and works at its building end, and has come as far as he has over the pontoons laid by others he may never have heard of. Events have a way of making other events inevitable; the actions of men are consecutive and indivisible. The history of the Cypress Hills had almost as definite effects on me as did their geography and weather, though I never knew a scrap of that history until a quarter century after I left the place. However it may have seemed to the people who founded it, Whitemud was not a beginning, not a new thing, but a stage in a long historical process.
History, when it’s used to help us explain who we are as individuals and why we’ve become who we are seems a fascinating topic. Of course, I was always more interested in psychology and sociology than I was in what passes for traditional history.

Stegner ends this introduction with a six page section entitled “The Dump Ground” where he explains that the only history of Wolf Willow he knew as a child was discovered in the local dump, where he discovered even relics of his own life:

Some of the books were volumes of the set of Shakespeare that my father had bought, or been sold, before I was born. They had been carried from Dakota to Seattle, and Seattle to Bellingham, and Bellingham to Redmond, and Redmond back to Iowa, and Iowa to Saskatchewan. One of the Cratchet girls had borrowed them, a hatchetfaced, thin, eager, transplanted Cockney girl with a frenzy for reading. Stained in a fire, they had somehow found the dump rather than come back to us. The lesson they preached was how much is lost, how much thrown aside, how much carelessly or of necessity given up, in the making of a new country. We had so few books that I knew them all; finding those thrown away was like finding my own name on a gravestone.

Since I doubt that this is the lesson I would have learned from this discovery of old books, I would gather that that a key idea in the book will be “ how much is lost, how much thrown aside, how much carelessly or of necessity given up, in the making of a new country.”

If Stegner is right in venturing that:

Poetry is seldom useful, but always memorable. If I were a sociologist anxious to study in detail the life of any community I would go very early to its refuse piles. For a community may be as well judged by what it throws away, what it has to throw away and what it chooses to as by any other evidence. For whole civilizations we some times have no more of the poetry and little more of the history than this.

Our society will probably go down in history as one of the most wasteful societies ever, one that has produced more garbage per individual than any throughout time. We may discover that many of our advances have come at a heavy price, both to ourselves and to our environment.

Stegner’s “The Question Mark in the Circle”

Though I was proud of having scored higher than anyone in my high school on a National Constitutional Test, generally the only thing I find more boring than history is geography, and the only thing I find more boring than memorizing state capitols or countries in the world is memorizing the dates of battles. What’s the using of having books, or computers, if you have to fill your brain with historical trivia?

Thus, it’s rather remarkable that Wallace Stegner can interest me in the history of Wolf Willow, a place I’ll never see. The catch is that it’s really not a history book at all, though it is. It’s probably closer to being an autobiography, though it’s more historical than that. No wonder, then, that the book is entitled Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.

Whatever it’s called, it has managed to hold my interest for several days now, and given me more to write about in the first thirty six pages than I like to cover in one blog entry. So, I’ll limit myself today to the first chapter entitled “The Question Mark in the Circle” which seems to explore why it is worthwhile to write this sort of unconventional book.

He begins by describing the significance of Wolf Willow:

It is the place where I spent my childhood. It is also the place where the Plains, as an ecology, as a native Indian culture, and as a process of white settlement, came to their climax and their end. Viewed personally and historically, that almost featureless prairie glows with more color than it reveals to the appalled and misdirected tourist. As memory, as experience, those Plains are unforgettable; as history, they have the lurid explosiveness of a prairie fire, quickly dangerous, swiftly over.

Stegner’s combination of the personal and historical — how he is able to relate the history and geography of the areal to his own development and to the history of his family — is what most appeals to me in the book.

And, of course, the naturalist in me loves his descriptions of Wolf Willow:

The drama of this landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving. The earth is passive. And yet the beauty I am struck by, both as present fact and as revived memory, is a fusion: this sky would not be so spectacular without this earth to change and glow and darken under it. And whatever the sky may do, however the earth is shaken or darkened, the Euclidean perfection abides. The very scale, the hugeness of simple forms, emphasizes stability. It is not hills and mountains which we should call eternal. Nature abhors an elevation as much as it abhors a vacuum; a hill is no sooner elevated than the forces of erosion begin tearing it down. These prairies are quiescent, close to static; looked at for any length of time, they begin to impose their awful perfection on the observer’s mind. Eternity is a peneplain.

He transforms this natural setting to an abstract beauty that is hard to resist, even if I do prefer mountains to his prairies.

In these memoirs Stegner explores the very nature of memories:

Who in town remembers Phil Lott, who used to run coyotes with wolfhounds out on the South Bench? Who remembers in the way I do the day he drove up before Leaf’s store in his democrat wagon and unloaded from it two dead hounds and the lynx that had killed them when they caught him unwarily exposed out on the flats? Who remembers in my way that angry and disgusted scene, and shares my recollection of the stiff, half-disemboweled bodies of the hounds and the bloody grin of the lynx? Who feels it or felt it, as I did and do, as a parable, a moral lesson for the pursuer to respect the pursued?

Because it is not shared, the memory seems fictitious, and so do other memories: the blizzard of 1916 that marooned us in the schoolhouse for a night and a day, the time the ice went out and brought both Martin’s dam and the CPR bridge in kindling to our doors, the games of fox and geese in the untracked snow of a field that is now a grove, the nights of skating with a great fire leaping from the river ice and reflecting red from the cutbanks. I have used those memories for years as if they really happened, have made stories and novels of them. Now they seem uncorroborated and delusive. Some of the pioneers still in the telephone book would remember, but pioneers’ memories are no good to me. Pioneers would remember the making of the town; to me, it was made, complete, timeless. A pioneer’s child is what I need now, and in this town the pioneers’ children did not stay, but went on, generally to bigger places farther west, where there was more opportunity.

Perhaps we’re more apt to return to our roots to connect with the past and with old acquaintances as we get older because we feel the need to reconnect with ourselves, to assure ourselves that what we know is indeed the truth.

Sometimes in rediscovering the past we may realize that we have focused too much on bitter memories and in doing have forgotten more positive experiences:

Even the dreams of murder, which were bright enough at the time, have faded; he is long dead,, and if not forgiven, at least propitiated. My mother too, who saved me from him so many times, and once missed saving me when he clouted me with a chunk of stove wood and knocked me over the woodbox and broke my collarbone: she too has faded. Standing there looking at the house where our lives entangled themselves in one an other, I am infuriated that of that episode I remember less her love and protection and anger than my father’s inept contrition.

Only by exploring memories can we hope to put them in the proper perspective. Sometimes it takes an adult perspective to accurately judge what has happened to us.

Standing outside his childhood home, Stegner resists going in:

It is there, and yet it does not flow as it should, it is all a pump ing operation. I half suspect that I am remembering not what happened but something I have written. I find that I am as unwilling to go inside that house as I was to try to find the old homestead in its ocean of grass. All the people who once shared the house with me are dead; strangers would have effaced or made doubtful the things that might restore them in my mind.

Sometimes in re-examining memories I find that it was impossible that events happened exactly as I remembered them. In fact, I often suspect I’m remembering things as they were retold to me rather than as they really happened. In fact, I had one particularly vivid memory of watching a cowboy hat float downstream, until I remember that I was the one who was supposed to be inside that hat.

For Stegner it is the country itself, not his home that restores old memories:

It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home. For a few minutes, with a handful of leaves to my nose, I look across at the clay bank and the hills beyond where the river loops back on itself, enclosing the old sports and picnic ground, and the present and all the years between are shed like a boy’s clothes dumped on the bathhouse bench. The perspective is what it used to be, the dimensions are restored, the senses are as clear as if they had not been battered with sensation for forty alien years. And the queer adult compulsion to return to one’s beginnings is assuaged. A contact has been made, a mystery touched. For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.

This seems remarkably similar to the tentative conclusion I’ve reached in my ongoing exploration of what “home” means to me. As I noted previoiusly, I have very little recollection of most of the houses we lived in but extensive memories of areas around them.

Though I’ve only finished about two-thirds of the book, Stegner has already made a rather convincing argument that:

It turns out to have been a special sort of town — special not only to me, in that it provided the indispensable sanctuary to match the prairie’s exposure, but special in its belated concentration of Plains history. The successive stages of the Plains frontier flowed like a pageant through these Hills, and there are men still alive who remember almost the whole of it. My own recollections cover only a fragment; and yet it strikes me that this is my history. My disjunct, uprooted, cellular family was more typical than otherwise on the frontier. But more than we knew, we had our place in a human movement. What this town and its surrounding prairie grew from, and what they grew into, is the record of my tribe. If I am native to anything, I am native to this.