“A prison becomes a home if you hold the key.”—Supposedly, this is George Sterling, when asked about the cyanide pill he carried for years before eventually committing suicide with it. I’d love if I could substantiate it somewhere, but I’m having no luck.
D’Arcy McNickle, 1978 (‘78 is the year after he died; I’m not actually sure when he wrote the book)
It may take me a while to collect my thoughts on Wind From an Enemy Sky. It seems to me to be a more ambitious and complicated, more beautiful and more flawed than The Surrounded. My biggest disappointment is with Adam Pell and his sister Geneva Cooke. When we meet them, Cooke’s son has just been murdered, and these two characters simply don’t act like a bereaved family – any plot device might have gotten them in the room to talk about their holdover squabbles from childhood, etc (151).
McNickle’s own biography (what I know of it) plays interestingly into the places and events portrayed here. He is critical of the conversion of the reservations from commonly-held lands to parceled allotments, and the subsequent sale of many ‘spare’ allotments to white settlers. He himself sold his reservation allotment to finance an Oxford education. He is also offering a nuanced critique of the Indian bureau (which succeeds in distinguishing the institution from the people working for it, as represented by Rafferty, the agent, and The Boy, the tribal policeman), one that comes from experience – he worked for the bureau under John Collier, whose papers I combed through looking for the famous circulars prohibiting traditional dance, about which my dear M. Austin had so much to say. The dance controversy reared its head in The Surrounded, and again here (4).
McNickle is also (like Zora Neale Hurston) an anthropologist. The book portrays Adam Pell, capitalist who collects and keeps a museum on the side (I’m reminded of the millionaire collector who showed up and made an ass of himself at Junior’s grandmother’s funeral in Absolutely True Diary)… he loves to say how much he respects the Native Americans, (as he imagines should be evident from how much he likes buying their art and artifacts and digging up their ancestors’ bones (149-50). Pell alternates between total ass and somewhat-anthropologically self-aware. He describes an Incan artifact as “ripped from its cultural context” but is dumb enough to think that the Indians of the (fictional) Northwestern tribe (“The Little Elk People”) might accept it in place of their destroyed medicine bundle.
We get various ways to understand that sacred object – as a physical thing (210), through its origin-story, never to be told to a white man but printed here nonetheless (207-8) and through the political and land-history of the region, which Pell thinks, rightly or wrongly, allows him to understand the sacred object (209). See also his collection of the pre-columbian cartwheel (142)! And the suggestion that ‘cultural respect’ can be just another system of control! (38)
McNickle has a reputation as one of the first ‘pan-indianists,’ but he’s clearly no fan of Pell’s practice of lumping South American civilizations with the Little Elk People. Pell’s attempt to substitute one sacred object for another turns out disastrously… but the day before that all occurs, Pell takes a drive around the reservation and sees the sub-divided lands, encroached on by outsiders… and with Pell’s enormous wealth, though McNickle never comes out and says it, he might have bought out those small landholders. This was the injustice begging to be righted, whereas the cultural disinheritance was a fate that never could be righted. Yet he never says it, just leaves that landscape-vision there, a way to derail the tragic train of events, trembling on the edge of obviousness.
Astonishingly, I’ve gotten this far without naming some of the complex and (in contrast to Pell), convincingly drawn characters, Bull, the aging chief, Two Sleeps, the outsider and seer (given McNickle’s obvious consciousness about cultural mixing, I found moments when Two Sleeps or Pell might have fit Christian martyr archetypes to be quite interesting, as well as moments of biblical language, ‘a cleft of the rock’ on p.1, etc.), Bull’s more assimilated brother Henry Jim, bitter Louis… and Bull’s grandson Antoine, who’s been (kidnapped) away at school.
Names are important throughout, often marking someone’s degree of assimilation, but there’s a meditation on the translation of them on 26.
“foolish Indian anger” - internalized stereotype? Borne up by the book? (24)
Great meditation on grid survey as a Great Plains necessity stupidly imposed on the northwestern terrain (191-2)
picture of paternalism (93)
A few scatters of gorgeous phrases:
wind from an enemy sky (197)
“the wind is pulling at my shadow” (19).
the ‘bleached bones’ of the ‘killed water’ (2-3)
Finally, both here and in The Surrounded, I appreciate how McNickle individuates horses. They’re more than just hooved set-pieces to him, whether it’s Henry Jim’s big bay, or Antoine’s little buckskin…
We associate John Muir with Yoesmite and the West, but this is the story of his growing up in Wisconsin. (Between Muir, Leopold, and even Little House in the Big Woods, I can’t help but feel like Michigan is getting short-changed while our neighbors to the west are so well-chronicled. I guess I need to spend some more time with Hemingway’s northern Michigan stories. But really, what’s good early Michigan literature?)
Anyway, on to content. Parts of this story make you wonder to what extent Muir is mythologizing himself, and/or if some people just live bigger than the rest of us. Muir’s waking at 1:00 each morning (I’m reminded of recent research on short sleepers) to tinker with inventions and efforts at stealing time from farmwork to read borrowed books read like something very like an Abe Lincoln biography. I keep feeling like there are also resonances with Wordsworth’s Prelude, but I’ve not managed to make that idea textually specific.
Add to my earlier observation on domestic animals: birds. As wild as the country Muir’s family settled was, 100 miles from a rail line, crossed by Indians (whose loss of land Muir seems to sympathize with) and marked by Indian mounds… he spends a good deal of time being interested in birds. How striking to find John Muir to be someone who loves nature because he had a pony and a good dog and loved to watch birds…
Recent woodcut illustration of a young John Muir by Michael McCurdy for Story of My Boyhood and Youth.
Things that have rattled around in my head for the last few days:
… see passage where Dillard narrates the pleasure of experiencing an unnarrated time in the woods while stalking muskrats. “For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I recieved impressions; I did not print out captions.” (200) (She attributes a charming ingenuity to photography (though they tell me I should not longer use that word to mean ‘ingenuousness’))
Also interested in her use of the microscope as a pleasure instrument rather than as science (or science for pleasure).
Giant water-strider section (early) and meditation on the motives of creation.
Dillard’s afterward on wanting to publish as A. Dillard or as a male pseudonym because “a great number of otherwise admirable men do not read books that American women write.”
Also, Dillard’s appetite for trivia reminds me of Rebecca :-)
“This is the roof of the world. An immense, sequestered place, the highest of the high plateaus, many times the size of the Reich. I’m still sick. The porters still gesticulate and exchange private jokes when they assume my attention is elsewhere. Beger’s bad ankle is still swollen. Somewhere I’ve misplaced my certainty.”—
So opens “Ancestral Legacies,” with Shepard’s trademark sucker punches displayed to full effect: an attention-getting opening sentence (nicked from Mingtao Zhang’s “Roof of the World,” and 10 bucks for anybody who knew that already), a sneaky reference (“the Reich”) that slips in a setting and a point of view while ostensibly describing the scenery, the establishment of internal and external conflict in a few short phrases — we’ve met several other characters and learned that the narrator is both watchful and ill — and a paragraph closer that works in a lovely turn of phrase while establishing our hero’s state of mind, then and now. All this in the tale of two Nazi scientists trekking through Tibet on a search for the yeti as a way of proving racial theories beloved by Himmler. I can think of six writers offhand, myself included, who might drag that idea through a 400-page first draft tentatively titled “Misplaced Certainty.” Shepard gets the job done in 15 pages, tipping his hat to H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James and still coming out ahead.
Hat tip to friend Ben for tipping me off to this review last year. (This is one of the reviews I’ll use to show my students what a good review can do.) In Ben’s case, he attests that it “forever changed the way [he thinks] about first lines.” That’s a pretty badass thing for a book review to do. I’m in the market for another great (film or book) review or two. Particularly something that uses a mediocre product as a great jumping-in point.
“We are facing a global crisis today, not because of how ecosystems function but rather because of how our ethical systems function.”—
Donald Worster on what the Humanities can do for the environmental crisis, as quoted in the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader.
I’ve been thinking about this quote for days. On the one hand, I like it. It justifies my existence in the humanities. It gets to the heart of a certain blockage I’ve been noticing in political discourse — a tendency to interpret statements of fact, about the finitude of resources, perhaps, as political statements. Of course, they are political statements - you wouldn’t ask a question like, ‘what would happen if everyone on the globe lived like an American?’ if you didn’t have a political agenda. But the desire to dismiss such empirical facts as Scary Socialist Sayings is a blockage in our debates and suggests that there’s an ethical system in play that makes the appraisal of the ecological system taboo.
Of course, I guess I’m also edging up on what I don’t like about the above quote — the bifurcation of ecology from ethics that it goes ahead and reifies even as it tries to make a bid of the relevance of humanities / ethics to ecology. It buys into the idea that ethical systems (culture) are apart from ecosystems (nature) and not something that stems from and is part of ecosystems. Isn’t it our ecosystems that made us competitive, self-interested bastards?
What on earth sort of use did Morton make of this text? I found it hopelessly tangled and useless.
I could shelve Haraway next to Latour’s We Have never Been Modern as someone interested in making some kind of stand against the tendency to divide the world into nature/culture, animal/human (modernist) binaries. The cyborg as a différance?
Fred Turner offers the garden as another such hybrid form in “Cultivating the American Garden” in the Ecocriticism Reader. Turner, very humanist, takes that to mean that we shoud take responsibility for nature! Dominate it, but do a good job of it. (It’s very O Pioneers!).
Not that I think Haraway and Fred Turner would get along. Not that I could locate any so easy a target in Haraway - it didn’t seem cogent enough to have a sort of ecopolitical / policy agenda.
I want to grab all my New York loving friends and tell them to read the “City Without Us” chapter of The World Without Us. It convinced me that a strong strain in this book - perhaps in any apocalyptic vision - is a love letter to the world under destruction.
More generally, the book made me wonder at its purpose as an object. What is the point of writing of a world without people (Weisman later reveals himself as having a fair bit of sympathy with the Voluntary Human Extinction crowd of the [off the] Deep [end] Ecology movement.
I mean, you’d have to be an environmentalist to ask a question like, “how long will it take for all of the plastic wastes reaking havoc in the ocean foodchain to break down?” But if the answer is, 100,000 years, maybe longer… what was the point of asking the question, and printing its answer in your book? Weisman seems to proceed from the idea that there’s something improving about being exposed to the vision of a world without us, some capacity for this kind of dream-vision, with its beauties and sadnesses and horrors, to reset man’s idea of his own place in the world? An apocalyptic sublime that makes environmentalists?
I liked this book a good deal; I’m looking forward to also reading McNickle’s late novel, Wind From an Enemy Sky.
McNickle’s characters are often hard to like at first glance. As the book opens, the main character, Archilde Leon, drifts on home to the reservation in Montana, where his father, Max, a Spanish immigrant, lives alone in the house, having kicked his wife out twenty years before. Living in a cabin on the grounds, Faithful Catharine, first of the Salish to be baptized by the Catholic missionaries, cannot seem to trust her son or reach out to understand the modern city he’s been living in, away in Portland. But you come to care about both of Archilde’s parents in the end, and much of the rest of the community, in a way that makes the story grow and gather richness to itself as it proceeds through reconciliation, misadventure and murder…
“It’s naturalism, it’s supposed to suck,” said Chris, trying to comfort me as I slogged through this 700-page behemoth. It was really astonishing what a slow sort of read this could be, even as it intertwined so many (often melodramatic) plot arcs. There is Vanamee, the grief-stricken shepherd whose dear Angele is in the end restored to him from beyond the grave (more or less). There is Annixter, boorish owner of Quien Sabe ranch, who is reformed and soften by love for his dairy maid, Hilma Tree. There is Dyke, the hard-working and lovable railroad engineer who turns highwayman. Magnus Derrick, the great man, the miner-turned-rancher, who loses his honor and his son, Harran, in the fight with the railroad. And looking on, Presley the poet.
There are some features of the book that do bear interest, even if the overall reading experience was often dull and painful: the California setting (something of a theme for me, between Steinbeck and Austin), and the often-uneasy yoking of buisiness and agriculture. The peculiar way in which we are meant to feel sorry for not just blue-collar Dyke, but also the agribusiness-man named Magnus, who opens the book by (rather villainously) turning all of his long-time tenants off the land and farming his several thousand acres himself in an increasingly mechanized way.
The book does harbor some stirrings of mistrust of agriculture on this scale, in Derrick’s wife, who came from a smaller, patchwork farm in the Midwest, in the narrator’s comment on Derrick’s attitude towards his land being like mining, an exercise of ripping wealth out of the ground, not an exercise of husbandry, and in the great plowing scene that is written much like a rape (125). The real villain here is not the wheat, but the railroad, which sets its freight-rates at or just beyond what the farmers can pay. The wheat appears at moments of religious exaltation (Vanamee: unless these grains fall to the ground…) The only really sinister wheat moment (having just finished the Omnivore’s Dilemma, with its whistle-blowing about “corn!” I was waiting for one) is when it kills the odious S. Behrman, less poetic justice than inexorable force.