Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The silence of the hogs

Snow on the prairie, February 27th, 2011
 It's 2 degrees, which is downright balmy.  Ish.  It's above zero for the first time in days.  Belle Fourche is actually located just this direction of the Black Hills and sits in a pocket of relative warmth.  Some people call it the banana belt of South Dakota, which means that disastrous weather is not as common as it might be elsewhere in the state. 

You have to talk about the weather out here because it's a serious, serious matter.  I'm reading The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (Harper, 2004) right now.  It's creative nonfiction along the lines of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, where the lives of real people in overwhelmingly life or death situations have to be somewhat imagined to describe the horror of a given moment.  I have to say, I'm impressed that settlers managed to tame - a relative term again - this place, at all.  I'm surprised anyone survived it.  The German/Russian contingent that pioneered their way Westward after being kicked out of Russia by Alexander the Great (after Catherine the Great had invited them in to farm the Steppes), were used to tough circumstances.  But yowza, tough doesn't quite measure up to what they found on this green and golden, blazingly beautiful, but desolate land.  Droughts, grasshopper plagues, floods,and  blizzards of biblical proportions raged through the Dakotas (and still do today; however, weather reporting, proximity to food and shelter, modern transportation and means to snow control have vastly improved the situation) in the 1880s, when settlers were arriving in droves, sent that way via advertisements and speculative ventures that promised land if a claim could be staked and worked for 5 years. 

At any rate, they didn't expect the vulnerability of the prairie to bugs and severe storms.  A series of blizzards swept the state throughout most of the 1880s.  In 1887, millions of cattle were killed during what was termed (rather charmingly) as The Winter of Blue Snow.  Havoc wreaked over a whole winter, or a series of winter, were bad enough.  But one blizzard, in 1888, killed scores of children, farmers, and anyone caught out on a falsely-warm January 12th (my birthday) day.  That day, warm after severe cold, was cause for celebration.  And hundreds of restless, home bound children set off for their prairie schoolhouses.  Farmers and ranchers set off to see to livestock and to do chores they had not been able to do for weeks.  Many of them didn't dress for impending winter weather.  Some of them were kept home because their Mamas thought the day was 'eerie' in terms of the color of the sky - a copper cast - the mugginess of the air, and the quiet. 

Enter the perfect storm - warm air streamed up from the south, while stupendously cold air from the north met it in the middle of a third cold front coming over The Rockies.  A maelstrom issued that resembled a giant, driven-by-hell cotton-bale with streaks of lightning roiling along the ground at a tremendous speed, with a roar - after a minute of complete silence - that sounded like am approaching train.  The ground storm sucked up what snow there was and pummeled it into cornmeal-sized ice that proved deadly.  The storm was called "The Children's Blizzard" because many teachers let the children out for the day to head home after the storm struck.  Cold, wind force, ice that clung like a mask to exposed faces and bodies, disorientation and lack of visibility, took their toll.  And children, and adults who were out and about, perished.

Bob told me a story about his childhood, in which an early March blizzard in 1966 forced him to stay on at a cousin's place for three days, until his father rode up on horseback to take Bob home so that he could help with the chores.  When they dug out the hog barn, a huge chicken-coop-type structure that was completely snowed-in and over, 89 of the 90 hogs appeared to be sleeping, lying on their sides, steam rising from their bodies, all suffused in an eerie blue light cast by the nine feet of snow on the roof and surrounding the hog coop.  But all but one hog had died of suffocation.  That one pig, that lucky pig that managed to breathe in what air was left, managed to shake it off and stagger to its feet.  The weirdness of this whole scenario gives me the shivers.  My Eastern upbringing finds this weather-driven brutality a hard thing to comprehend. 

We had such different childhoods, Bob and I.  Although he finds that my beloved East Coast trees tend to block the view, the shelter they offer is immeasurable in terms of survival.  Having lived through some of the winter here, and been privy to the vagaries of the temperatures and storms, and having actually been isolated to one place because the major highways have been closed to travel, I am agog with the fact that people managed to stick it out.

I have learned not to be foolish.  I walk the little dog in subzero temperatures, and sometimes we only go out because she never learned to use the toilet.  (My cat has, by the way, and I'm so proud of him.)  Some days, the dog and I play inside.  But sometimes, we venture out until her paws get too cold.  And I know when to go in, now.  Below zero is nothing to play with, particularly ten or so more below zero in a prairie wind - a nasty creature with little mercy.  I have learned to respect the temperatures, and I have noticed that when I'm out too long, I tend to have mood swings when I go back inside.  My speech is slower, I'm crankier, and it has taken more energy than I thought it would.  So, it's above zero today, but it's still cold.  I will walk the dog tonight for about twenty minutes, tops, and then I will go inside to our warm place, eat barbecued pork sandwiches put together by my descendant-of-tough-pioneers baby, drink some wonderful Pinot Noir picked out by our sweet friend, David, and we'll watch too many episodes of The Sopranos while the weather does what it will, outside, where it freakin' belongs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How I got that story...

October woods, 2011, Quaker Point, West Bath, Maine
I've been thinking lately about mentors.  I don't know what sparked that, but if we had a list of random thoughts that stray through our brains on a second-to-second basis during a 24-hour period, those thoughts might stretch to the sun and back.  Or at least to Rapid City. Since I typed Rapid City, for instance, these are the thoughts that have wandered through the murk.  Rapid City - is neither (Jerry Seinfeld).  Randy Newman.  Sail Away. Snow and sun.  Wish I could play piano.  Well, sit down and do it.  Where are people going today, it's a holiday?  President's Day.  Lincoln.  Ford.  I want a CRV.  Honda.  

Mentors.  More specifically, those people who see a glimmer in you that you hope and wish someone would identify and validate.  Something inside that you dearly want to come to light, that you think is true about you, that constitutes what could be the best part of you.  I've always been a writer.  But Lordy it's lonely on that page.  And when I was first starting out, the fact that I wrote was secondary to day-to-day survival.  Writing?  Really?  How about getting through the day intact - creeping past, dodging through, and swerving from missiles shot from the slings and arrows of mundane chores, baffling homework, and the sometimes harsh reality of my childhood.  How do any of us survive?  More specifically, how does something as tender as an imagination survive?  Why can I still make up people, give them life, make them real on the page - how did I save that within myself?  I did some of it, myself, in the best ways I knew how.  I listened to music.  I put the speakers next to my head and snuggled down to listen to Tommy by the Who.  (And by the way, I still have A plus hearing...go figure...).  I embraced dance. I remember dancing alone in the living room of my house long after everyone had gone to bed.  I wandered through the woods with our Irish Setters and made up someone else's life.

And I had wonderful childhood friends that loved to make up stories.  We acted out our stories, and we wrote them down and drew pictures of what they looked like. We fed each other's sparks, and we still do that. And there were adults, specifically one aunt that kept me from going crazy when I was in my early teens. I babysat my younger cousins, and when she came home, we'd sit at the kitchen table and I would talk to her late into the night.  I don't even remember what we talked about, but her warm brown eyes kept me on the planet and, unconsciously, on some sort of creative path that I had yet to find.

I remember two anti-mentors (because oddly enough, sometimes criticism is the best kind of mentoring) who told me that I had copied assignments when I knew I hadn't.  That was frustrating, and unfair, but I also recognized that I was good enough to warrant notice. Another anti-mentor, a French professor who was overly harsh with me, because she knew I was capable of so much more.  I learned French that year, whether I wanted to, or not.  Still another taught me that I needed to take care of myself, to learn to foster relationships with people who filled me up, not drained me or made me feel small.  I'm grateful to her, and I wish her well.

A Creative Writing class I took was taught by a gentle writer/teacher who took me aside and said, "This story is almost good enough to be published."  That still echoes, after 30 years.  Another creative writing class.  A different teacher.  My stories were praised to the skies by other students, which was great.  But the teacher said, "What if you went deeper?"  Again, something that has stuck with me as a writer, something someone thought I was capable of doing.  Inner fodder to chew over (I live amongst cattle now after all.  Fodder is a word that does crop up, as does 'crop').  Another mentor, a quiet, intense therapist who, at the end of our time together, left me with the word "Kindness."  And how right she was.  It takes copious amounts of energy to stay angry.  Much more energy than it does to let things go.  Letting things go lets so much more in.   

Finally, I met thirty-two mentors in my MFA program.  It was such a revelation to me to sit in the same room with others who made up stories, who populated pages with characters that sprang from somewhere that had been saved, nurtured, and realized within themselves, as well.  How did we all get to that day, that place, listening breathlessly to the program director as she explained what would be happening in the following weeks?  Book groups, writing groups, classes, encouragement from someone(s) we trusted.  Each of us has a story, the one that we tell to ourselves, the one that we share with our family and the one that we keep about our families to ourselves, and the stories that we share with the world.  We find each other, sniff each other out, search for our tribes, and keep in touch.  We seek out places that feed our souls and visit them again and again.  We read, we listen, we observe and absorb. 

In the end, belief in oneself is the ultimate mentor.  But to believe in oneself, one has to somehow be acknowledged by someone else - no matter if it's one word, a look, the work of someone else admired, or a tiny crumb of a gruff but tender whisper that says, "Yes, you are a writer.  Now, write, for chrissake ."