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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Amongst the things I sought when I planned this enterprise was to gain a few insights into what the pioneer farmers of this region faced. I have, of course, to use my imagination. I have a refrigerator, electric light, running water in the house, for example. I can get to a grocery store within an hour and buy whatever I fancy. I have a screen door – even though it required a deal of pioneer ingenuity on my part to erect it. And I am glad of all these things – more so, in the case of groceries, since the grasshoppers got into my lettuces yesterday.

They are also making rapid progress through the beets, but prefer so far to leave the tomatoes alone.
Yesterday, as I drove Don up the hill to where he had parked his little sedan, I stopped the car, just to take a picture of the pests we’d picked up as we ploughed through the five-foot tall weeds out here.

So, next time I look through the Little House books – and who knows, that may be when I read them to my grandchild in a few years’ time – I will be able to say, of the locust plague and the hailstorms that wrecked their hopes , ‘Yep, they wiped out my garden too.’

In fairness, this grasshopper problem is localised. Up at the center pivot, where the next crop is starting to poke through the stubble, there are no more than a few of them.

Don left early yesterday. I had hopes of producing some work during the day but in the end the heat got the better of me. All I did was complete some email correspondence, and  re-arrange things so that I now sleep in the living-room. On Kitty’s advice, I took a hammer – and a couple of wrenches – to one of the old wooden windows at the south end of the room and managed, after a lot of heaving and grunting, to prise it open. So, last night, when the wind got up and the lightning flashed (there wasn’t even a sniff of rain) I wallowed in a blissfully cool through-draught. And this morning I find that the temperature got right down to 68, and the forecast is for it to rise no higher than 90.

Apart from that, I spent some time in the river. Just walked down there in my plastic sandals and shorts and sat in the water –occasionally lying down – until I had cooled off. I was intrigued to notice that in the morning the water seemed several degrees cooler than it had been the previous afternoon. I don’t think I was imagining that, and after I’d thought about it for a while it occurred to me that it made sense. The river is fed by dozens – hundreds – of springs, and whenever I’ve paddled in one of those little creeks that come in from the bluffs, I found that they are really quite cold. The river, I guess, being little more than a foot deep on average, is heated as the sun gets to work on it, and cools off somewhat at night, aided by the constant influx of cold water. The average depth I refer to, by the way, takes into account certain channels to one side or the other where it runs eighteen inches to a couple of feet deep. What is impressive is that even in the shallower parts the current is swift enough to make walking difficult. And if you stand still for more than a minute or so the rush of water starts to cut hollows around your feet. The bed, I should point out, is a mixture of sands and rocks – which is why I wear those plastic sandals. But what a fabulous asset the river is. It makes all this bearable.

I told Don I would miss him and feel lonesome – just as I did when Chainsaw Phil took off. So far I haven’t. I’ve been absorbing some of the many, many stories he told me, and doubtless jumbling them up in my memory. The way he switches from academic discourse on the history of the fur trade, or his Dutch ancestors (the Schoonovers), his Welsh ones (Roberts), and back to earthy accounts of growing up on a cattle-ranch (and let’s not even get started on the love-life of a seventy-five-year-old!)… well, I guess this is how novelists work: let it all sink in, stir it around and see what comes out.

I have little experience of writing fiction, and I don’t think I’ve ever had any real impulse to make up stories. What I always wanted to do, from childhood, was to tell my own story and have people listen. I could never really do that – I was never noisy enough, or assertive enough – and so I wrote it down. And much of what I composed as a young writer was transparently autobiographical. Later I learned the joy of writing up other people’s stories. It began in my early years as a builder’s labourer, office gopher, gardener, parcels porter, freight train guard, rural rat-catcher and so on, when it seemed the world was full of people with infinitely more colourful pasts than I would ever have. Imagine a fourteen-year-old public schoolboy working in a steam laundry and overhearing the following conversation between two ancient crones (they were younger than I am now!)

‘Course, we never `ad no contraception did we, Else?’
‘Back in them days? No, Vi, we never did.’
‘Mind, we knew what to do, didn’t we?’
‘Course we did, Vi. Make `em laugh.’
‘That was it, girl. Make `em laugh. Popped out like a bleeding cork, didn’t it?’

I should point out that when I speak of a public school I mean a private one. It’s a British idiosyncrasy. And then I must add that I grew up in public housing (same meaning as the American phrase) but that, being considered extraordinarily bright, and having no mother at home, I was granted a scholarship to attend a boys’ boarding school. I still thank my brother (the one in Kentucky) for getting me the vacation job in the laundry, where he worked. That experience was the beginning of my re-acquaintance with a world – a world of common people, you might say – from which boarding school seemed to have abducted me, a world I desperately wanted to know. 

And now, I suppose, I am someone with a past of my own. And today I must continue with that part of it which deals with my fifty-year interest in the American west.

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