by Martin Murie
(Swans - February 26, 2007) I've been in 1860-1880s Montana and Alberta lately, by way of Lightning, a fine Western novel by Fred Stenson. (Fred Stenson, Lightning; Douglas & McIntyre, Ltd., 2003.) Also alternating bits of that journey with antiwar demos in Franklin County, on the north border of New York State. In both places I rejoice in people: cowboys, bartenders, scoundrels, confidence men, and north-country folks, sharp-eyed, searching, angry. In both places, weather rules. February 15 headline, front page of Plattsburgh Press-Republican: SNOW CONQUERS LOVE.
Did our president give one thought to D.C. climate? Did he pause yesterday to consider whether he should put on an extra layer of clothing before meeting the press? Well, the cowboys did, and so did laborers laying railroad track westward from Dillon, Montana. And we protesters against the war put on all the winter gear we own, and find it hard to stand in the snow in cold wind.
Stenson's cowboys, Lippy, Doc, Dog Eye, holed up in a soddy, dodging rain or snowmelt drip from the sod roof, they pay constant attention to what late winter Montana brings them in the way of climate change. Lippy, a harelip, but "keen as scissors." Doc, who from childhood had the urge to help others, doctor them, though we don't learn this till well along in the story. Dog Eye, sulky and carrying self-blame that nobody knows about. They will meet lightning more than once as they trail cattle north into Alberta.
Riding away Doc lifted his hat and felt his hair rise. He fanned above his scalp and the fine strands bent against his skin like cobweb. Then it came. The first-sky-dividing spear. A splitting blast like dynamite. His ribs quaked. The lightning was on the river side, and as the thunder faded, Doc heard silence. Not one cow was calling. (Lightning, 109.)
Peace demos are noisy; traffic roar rises and falls, never quite quits. A big fuel-oil tanker gears up as red turns to green, and dammed if it doesn't give us a deep honk, underlining the higher-tone beeps of passing cars. Another truck seconds the motion, this one a town or county vehicle, snowplow attached. We're getting more honks and waves than ever before. To distance the cold we peaceniks talk to each other, our signs sometimes tilt or sway or droop, hard to read from the traffic stream, but we've been here before, most drivers know which side we're on. Alison's [ed. Martin's wife] sign this time reads: NO $$$ FOR WAR. It's a beauty. Mine says, THIS WAR IS DESTROYING AMERICA.
I'm thinking about the history of our land, the terrible things we've done, the courage shown for bad causes, and for good. Thinking about people, how diverse we are, and how often we catch patches of reality, learn to manage our differences for a greater goal.
Doc, riding his favorite horse, Louie, and Jim, a skilled man with a rope and mounted on an alert cutting horse, are working for a highly class-conscious man from England, Victor, a recent arrival in Albertan ranching communities. He's a pain in the ass, this man. He insists on everyone dressing for dinner every single evening. I can believe this. In Wyoming, English capitalists or agents of English capitalists were common among the cattlemen rulers. They had regular gatherings in an exclusive clubhouse, wives dressed to the hilt of current fashion, men in tuxes, aka Herefords. Victor has the nerve to tell the cowboys they shouldn't use the front door. "That door's for guests."
Our demos sometimes attract people along the sidewalks: a couple of drunks, an old man pretending to be a Vietnam vet, a couple of guys who nod in agreement while waiting at the crossing, women who say, "I agree," women furious, Raging Grannies: "I'll join you when the weather gets better." Once the mayor came, wanting to put on record that he did not approve of our position; remembering his father, a staunch military man, the mayor insisted he didn't like our standing on Veterans' park land. Some of us were veterans. We argued, saying we supported the troops: Bring Them Home. The mayor also felt he had to stick up for the right of people to assemble and protest; he kept repeating that he wasn't about to order us off the park. A Union soldier stands there, on a high pedestal, a reminder of our own civil war.
Now Doc and his cowboys are in Alberta with a trio of carpenters putting finishing touches on the ranch house and a disapproving Chinese cook. Victor is the center of discord. Amusing scenes, but sometimes dangerous. Doc has to stick up for the rights of hired hands while pursuing a gentle love affair with Victor's wife. Earlier in this 428-page novel, another employer had given Doc a copy of Leaves of Grass. At first Whitman confuses Doc, but he's a compulsive reader, goes through the whole thing, wrassles with Whitman's idea that there is no such thing as evil in the world. Doc fears evil men. He has struggled a long time to tame his fearfulness, put it into operative mode. Whitman's claim stays with him like a sharp bone stuck in his craw, but at the end, while speaking to his sworn enemy, now locked in jail, he reconsiders.
What I think Walt Whitman was getting at was that it's all cracked-brain stuff. Sort of like a headless-chicken running in a circle. Evil's too fancy a word for that. If there is no evil, a person who dedicates himself to it must be nothing too. (Lightning, 424.)
I do think there is evil in this world, and chronic lying is one manifestation of that. But I'm also loosening up a little, taking Whitman's bold statement as something worthy of a second look. One-size-fits-all words are a hazard of our trade. "Stupid," for example, in reference to people in their millions, their billions, "the people." Stupid applied that way is a static mark, a hazardous abstraction ignoring flow and turbulence of real life.
Near the fire, a boy grabs a kicking leg and sits down hard. The branding iron comes running. Dabs a message in hot iron through hair on hide. Sizzle of sudden grease. Roll of yellow smoke into the brander's face. (Lightning, 301.)
Cliché: Like all animals, we have an ability to learn from experience. Cowboys and bartenders, ranchers and activists, desk clerks and checkout clerks. All of us. The results, as history teaches, are multifarious and often disastrous, but there are times when solidarity takes over a mass of people, because personal experience has moved them into that stance. I was reminded of this when noticing Gilles d'Aymery's quote from Goethe on our internal listserv:
All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.
Yes, we sometimes move like cattle, subject to panic when lightning strikes, but sometimes plain bovine intelligence, or stubborn humanity takes over. That's what's going on in this northern outpost, and all across the land.
As for winter, what good can be said about a season when the air, the friend that keeps you alive, turns on you with a dagger? (Lightning, 231.)
We are asking for your help. If you consider our work valuable, please send us a financialThank you. Remember, we are making this work available to you free of charge and advertising.