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Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Prairie Wind





The weather remains stubbornly unfriendly: 42 degrees, grey and blowy right now, which is nine o’clock. Yesterday it did manage to creep up towards 60 down here by the river, but the wind was gusting at around 45 mph up on the range. I ventured out for a couple of short walks and was all but blown off my feet. It was great! On the second occasion I’d gone up there to call my buddy Glenn in Albuquerque, where, he gleefully announced, it was sunny and approaching 80 degrees. And there was I, huddled behind a cedar tree that the herd had recently selected as a public toilet, the sand flying, the signal coming and going, trying to ask him technical questions about my Facebook account. I got some answers and staggered home doing a passable imitation of Groucho Marx’s trademark walk.

So that’s the feature photo today: wind. What you’re looking at is the trail that leads to the red house. Where it disappears from sight is the point at which it dips sharply and descends what is more or less a ravine, but is known as a road. It’s a bumpy old ride, coming or going. Actually, I’m posting a second picture I took a second or two later, less well defined but a tad more ‘atmospheric’.

Good old Mother Nature. I was up at the ranch house yesterday and learned that the two ducks Kitty adopted a year or two ago were visited by a raccoon a couple of days ago. It got in through a weak spot in the wire that covers the coop. Ate up the hen bird and killed the cock. Matt managed to track the perpetrator and dispatch it with his rifle – and Kitty couldn’t resist making a crack about him not getting into the same fix he got into when he went after that skunk a few weeks back (when he shot himself and came within a hair’s breadth of dying). So, after a decent interval, he’s a fair target for jokes, is he? She laughed. “O yeah, he’s going to catch some crap now that he’s better.”

The ducks aren’t the only birds up there. There’s also a little flock of guinea-fowl, excellent, I am assured, for gobbling up grasshoppers and ticks. And, talking of ticks – nasty little disease-bearing s.o.bs – I found one climbing up my sweater last night as I sat reading. You can’t squash them: I had to take a knife to it. So, a nightly inspection of naked self is now on the agenda.

I’ve been reading some of Mari Sandoz’ correspondence. After she died, in New York City in 1966, her sister Caroline shipped four and a half tons of books, papers, letters, manuscripts and research notes from her apartment at 422 Hudson. Some went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, plenty to Caroline’s house in the Sandhills, where I was privileged to look through them that time in 1993 (see earlier blog).

Caroline later put a lot of time into reading and collating this mountain of papers. The book I’ve just been reading is a collection of letters that she published in the Gordon Journal.

Reading Old Jules, it’s easy to dismiss her father as a dirty, cantankerous and violent man, simply a brute. He beat Mari when she was a baby, for squawling. He beat her mother until the old lady turned on him with a shotgun. He banged his fist on the table and insisted that women were to stay home and raise children to populate the new country. Mind, when I tackled Caroline about him she told me, “We younger ones [she was 14 years Mari’s junior] used to laugh at him and run away; with his crippled leg he couldn’t chase after us.”

But if ever a daughter had cause to be bitter about her father, Mari did. He scorned her attempts to make it as a writer. “Writers and artists,” he famously wrote her, “are the maggots of society.” And when she was 11 and published a tiny short story in the Omaha paper, he locked her in the snake-infested cellar. “Fiction is for serving girls!” he stormed.

Much, much later – on his death-bed – he did ask her to write up his life. I’ve always contended – and I’m sure I’m not alone – that Old Jules is almost an act of reconciliation between father and daughter. Mari clearly sees him, in the end, as a visionary, a man of historical significance, a western hero. So it was beautiful to read this in one of her replies to the hundreds, the thousand-plus letters she got from people who had read Old Jules and had an opinion:

“Don’t be too disturbed about old Jules… I would not have him any different at all – a man of less impatience and less violence could not have come out from his sheltered and safe environment and stood alone, cap to his brows, gun across his forearm, against the entire world. Such ego, such courage, is given to few of us. The world is full of ordinary women and children to be sacrificed. And by one of life’s paradoxes, we were not sacrificed at all. Instead we were given a close look upon the lightning such as is granted to few. I, for one, have no complaint to make over my singed eyebrows. What does anything in this world matter except that here and there walks a man who is unique and gives all the rest of us a glimpse of the life that is denied us in person?”

I think I’ll leave it there and go check the football scores. Soccer scores. One or the other.