Little House on the Oregon Trail

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The first books, other than the Bible, that I owned–the seed corn of my personal library–were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My dad and mom, both avid readers, gave them to me as soon as I could read. I received a beautiful hardbound copy of the next book in the series each birthday and Christmas. I read and re-read these treasures countless times.

So it makes sense whenever I read a “pioneer” story to have a flash of recognition, like seeing a long-lost cousin as a grown-up instead of a child. Written in 1968 by the 84-year old author, Walter L. Scott’s book Pan Bread ‘n Jerky is a rustic autobiography of a settler who saw a lot of life here in Eastern Oregon.

I call it rustic because the writing is choppy and lacks cohesion.  The author’s eighth grade education isn’t the problem as much as lack of editing. Rustic, because it describes a rough life.  Not unhappy, but full of the vicissitudes of living in a wild country.  Food was hunted, trapped, gathered, and gleaned, seldom purchased.  The pioneers were scrappy folk who eeked out a life any way they could from the land. 

Walter Scott was a horse man.  Many times he earned his bread by handling horses. My favorite sentences of the book:

Horses have played an important part in my life since I was a colt myself.  Many times I’ve been on a horse when I went up but there was no horse there when I came down.  I’ve been bitten, kicked, struck, stepped on, run away with, treed on a corral fence, and had horses fall on me, but I still like horses.

The stories remind us that the “good old days” had their share of sorrow and tragedy. Gold mines used cyanide in the 1890’s and dumped it into the rivers.  A boy lost both legs from cyanide poisoning after wading in the water.  Snowslide, homicides, horse rides, suicides all snuffed out lives.  But there are huckleberries, sage grouse, snowshoes, and horses which mitigate the austerity. 

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This a bear killed by the author’s father.

The bonus for me is that all the locations of this book are…local.  Believe me, you East Coast and European friends, not many books are located in Eastern Oregon.  (Okay, I forgot about The Shack.)  Getting a glimpse of life here a hundred years ago was worth the wade through the problematic prose.

 

The Philosophy of a Photograph

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like Camera Lucida.  Although it is a short book, I found I had to read it quite slowly.  It required a good dictionary close at hand.  It required time to ponder; it made me think longer and deeper than most books do.  So, while I don’t wholeheartedly endorse it, I did enjoy the experience of reading it.  When it came time to watch Jane Austen on PBS, I chose to keep reading this book instead.

Roland Barthes’ first three sentences entrapped me.  Oh, how I know those little touches of solitude!

One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napolean’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852.  And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it. (p.3)

This book is one learned man’s subjective approach to understanding why certain photographs grab him and others don’t. He employs two Latin words: studium and punctum.  The studium is a general, enthusiastic commitment.  It is the part of the photograph that is as it should be, i.e. background, lighting, composition.  The punctum is the detail that breaks the studium: a wound, a prick, a sting, a speck, a cut, a little hole.   This is the “something” which grabs your eye, your mind or your emotion.  He writes as a philosopher, which is to say, he writes about a photograph as a death, a madness, a myth, and a reality. He even writes “Photography has something to do with resurrection.” More quotes:

Henceforth, I would have to consent to combine two voices: the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself). It was as if I were seeking the nature of a verb which had no infinitive, only tense and mode.  (p.76) (my emphasis, but what an intriguing sentence!)

The Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor … the truth of lineage. (p.103)

What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs…(p.119)

In a poignant and personal passage, Barthes writes about looking for
his mother’s essence in photographs after her death and finding her
(There she is!) in a photograph taken in 1898 when she was five years
old.  He concludes that capturing the air of a face (we might call it the soulfulness of a person), although recognizable is unanalyzable.  Barthes died shortly after he wrote this book in 1980. 

If you are a word-bird like me, see if you are familiar with any of these additions to my vocabulary.  Since the book is translated from French, I don’t know how if these words are from the author or the translator.

heuristic = providing direction in the solution of a problem but otherwise unjustified (Einstein often used this word)
eidolon = unsubstantial image, phantom, ideal
hebetude = lethargy, dullness
oneiric = related to dreams, dreamy
phenomenology = study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to philosophy
metonymic = use of a name of one thing for that of another, i.e. the land belongs to the crown
fulguration = flash with lightning
praxis = exercise or practice, customary conduct
palinode = a formal retraction
anamnesis = a recalling to mind; reminiscence

For the one person I haven’t lost (those little touches of solitude!), if you are still interested awake, you can read a seven page excerpt of the book here.

The Sword and the Circle

When I decided to learn more about the Arthurian legends I had a choice between Thomas Malory’s lengthy Le Morte D’Arthur or Rosemary Sutcliff’s trilogy written for children.  Mark Twain is quoted as saying that “the reading of any two chapters of Le Morte D’Arthur would put even the Knights of the Round Table to sleep.”

Heh, heh.  It’s no agony to choose, for apart from time limitations, I believe that Sutcliff is one of the most gifted writers of children’s books.  She has been steeped in the old literature (yes, even Malory); she comes as close as a modern author can to replicating the cadences and word pictures of the great medieval poets.  Her turns of phrases (he drew a breath of quiet), the kennings (compound expression used in place of a noun, i.e. hunger-water for saliva), the pulsing verbs (horses went bucketing along the road) and in particular the vivid similes are quite extraordinary. 

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Meanwhile, on a day of late summer when the air shimmered like a midge cloud with the heat… p.89

…the wind howled like a wolf pack in the long dark nights.  p. 103

Then the woman who had come up behind him gathered round her, and one took off her own smock and slipped it over her head, and another wrapped her in her cloak, for she was as naked as a needle. p.151

And the love between Tristan and Iseult would not let them be, dragging at them as the moon draws the tides to follow after it… p.183

I [Iseult]  must end what has been between my Lord Tristan and me, not leave it flying like a torn sleeve. p.191

So much separates us from medieval thought; many stories are thus inaccessible.  Some are plain cheesy. There, I said it. Others ate around the edges of my heart, to quote my friend Di.  My favorite is Gawain and the Loathely Lady.  It  touches the tender psyche of women, most of whom are insecure about their appearance.

In short, King Arthur gets in a bind; an ugly, deformed, misshapen hag (Lady Ragnell) saves Arthur in exchange for one wish.  She asks for one of his Knights of the Round Table to marry her.  He’s devastated to have to honor his word.  All the married knights praise God they don’t qualify to serve their king this time.  Gawain takes one for the team, really for his king, and offers to marry her.  He is kind-hearted and determined to make the best of it.  On their wedding night he steels himself to be a true husband in the biblical way, ahem, and when he arrives at the bed, lo! she is changed into the babe of all babes.  

Lady Ragnell tells him that his kindness broke half of the spell and now he must choose whether to have the babe at night and the hag at day, or vice versa.  He bounces between the options and then asks her which she would prefer.  In asking her preference, he breaks the entire spell, because he allowed her to choose.  The next day the court is astounded at the beautiful woman who is his wife.

It’s a sensitive story, well-told, but it leaves lingering questions.  The puzzle Arthur could not solve without the hag’s help was this: What is it that all women desire?  The correct answer is: Their own way.  Gawain profited from giving Lady Ragnell her own way.  Does Genesis 3 come to mind when you read this?  While the story doesn’t indicate that this will be the pattern of their marriage, the thought of a marriage where I always got my own way is terrifying.   Hmmmm.