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Archive for the ‘Colorado’ Category

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Alfred Knopf. New York. 2015. 179 pp.

Two unexceptional people in Holt, CO (the a small Colorado plains town setting of all Haruf’s books) strike up a highly unusual (and often speculated on by the town’s busybodies) friendship. In the short summer that they are together they act as “parents” to the woman’s grandson, a five year old, hurting from the constant battles between his dad and mom. Perfectly normal events take place: the three go to the rodeo, get a dog, go camping, tend a garden, sip iced tea and eat sandwiches. They put the little boy to sleep and then climb into bed together and talk.

images-1It’s the climbing into bed part that gets her son, his daughter, and the town riled up even though there is nothing “going on.” Just two lonely old people, a widow, a widower, trying to get through the endless nights.

This gem of a novella is perfect in its construction and execution. Haruf tells the story with crystalline and exceedingly simple language. Short chapters run through their days. Haruf has abandoned the use of quotes, even though the majority of the text is dialog. At first it’s somewhat disconcerting, but in a few pages the lack of those annoying punctuation marks becomes another metaphor for the story. It’s plain, unadorned. The dialog needs no more attention drawn to it than any other normal thing that takes place in this uneventful summer.

Still, there is foreboding and ultimately a truly tragic ending. But like the rest of the book the power is derived from the sheer mundaneness in which it evolves and is described. The final line: “Dear, is it cold there tonight?” is at once wrenching and incredibly beautiful.

As I reached the conclusion I wept, for the characters and the story, as well as for the realization that this is final gift that Kent Haruf will give. Sadly, he died shortly before its publication.

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The Song of the Lark. Willa Cather. originally published in 1915. For this review I used: Early Novels and Stories. Library of America. New York. 1987. pp. 291 – 706.

b7864763c8b7f89da30ba6e7bfb3beb0The Song of the Lark was the middle volume of Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. In many ways, it’s surprising that it should be book-ended between O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. Where those two books were both set in Nebraska and firmly planted in the pioneer farmer tradition, Lark begins in a railroad town on the northeastern Colorado sand plains. And the central character, a prairie girl at heart, is no farmer; she’s an aspiring artist. While the telling of Alexandra Bergson’s and Antonia Swoboda’s stories are spare, straightforward and deeply rooted in the prairie, Thea Kronborg’s story develops much more slowly with many more words, characters, settings and drama. Of course, Kronborg is destined to become a world-famous opera star, so it hardly seems inappropriate to take her to Chicago, New York and Dresden.

Kronborg is also a more complex person, at times amazingly self-centered and ungrateful for the many people who help her along the way. And yet, she grapples throughout the book with questions about what makes an artist and what makes a life. When the reader sees her through this lens, it is easier to accept her seeming self-absorption, perhaps more understandable as a dedication to developing her art, rather than herself. This is a fine distinction I know, and it seemed to me in some places she oversteps. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse of how artists perceive themselves and their “calling.”

To me, this is one of Cather’s finer books, in part because she is using a different style than her trademark spare prose with little expressed emotion. And yet, while we readers may feel we know these characters more deeply than some of her others—making it feel perhaps recognizable as a more standard novelistic style—I still come away with that sense that Cather has remained firmly in control her words, adroitly telling the reader this remarkable story in exactly the way it should be told.

“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, know how difficult it is.”

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Just Askin" thanks to Daily Kow

Just Askin”
thanks to Daily Kos

Here’s a Voter Lookup Site:

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Benediction by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2013. 258 pp.

I read a lot. All sorts of books—literary fiction, history, environmental reviews, even (too many) mysteries. Most are acceptably written ( although I must confess I quit a book last week at the sentence: “She took off her gloves, and ate them.” Of course it was a reference to the strawberries the author had mentioned three lines earlier, but ouch!) Occasionally books rise to the very top form of writing.

Courtesy of Knopf

Courtesy of Knopf

In that category, Kent Haruf has to be in the top five living Americans writing fiction. So it was with great excitement that I read Benediction, his most recent novel published in 2013. As with his earlier four novels the setting is Holt, CO., a small town out on the plains east of Denver, and as with the others my heart literally hurt by the last page.

As always Haruf tells such a seemingly simple, quiet story. Holt’s residents are ranch people scraping by day-to-day while rising to any occasion: from two old bachelor brothers raising up a runaway pregnant teenager in Plainsong (1999), to Benediction which describes the events leading up to the death from cancer of a local pillar of the Holt community, hardware store owner Dad Lewis. We learn of so many unresolved issues for Holt’s characters: Dad’s estrangement from his son; the minister who tells the truth too well; his teenage son full of angst and anger; the local old widow and her spinster daughter; the next door neighbor grandma bringing up her grandchild. Each is a remarkable tale, but told so plainly and matter-of-factly that each seems a mere breeze, not the chinook each actually is in the life of Holt’s people.

The writing is “exquisite, breathtaking, astonishing”. I’ve read these words all too often in reviews and generally find them to be hyperbolic after reading the book itself. But for Haruf’s books? The words are exactly right. Each is a book you will devour while never wanting it to end.

Haruf’s Holt Novels: The Tie That Binds (1984) Where You Once Belonged (1990) Plainsong (1999) Eventide (2004) Benediction (2013)

Benediction’s last two paragraphs: “That was a night in August. Dad Lewis died early that morning and the young girl Alice from next door got lost in the evening and then found her way home in the dark by the streetlights of town and so returned to the people who loved her.

And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.”

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”

WHERE MY WEST CAME FROM

 

 

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In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston

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