Almost Pioneers

karen in her hat small

Contributed by Karen Wills

My mother, Evelyn Wills, wrote the following true account of her family’s move from their farm in North Dakota to Montana during the Great Depression. I’m so glad she left this memory, and I’m so proud of my grandparents. They exemplified Hemingway’s definition of  courage as “grace under pressure.”  

This first appeared in The Montana Journal January-February 1997.

Almost Pioneers 

Our western North Dakota farm family was hard hit by the Great Depression. Dad could repair any kind of machinery, but neighbors who needed him couldn’t pay. When my ten-year-old sister fell ill with appendicitis, my parents sold the kitchen table and chairs to pay doctor bills.

Then, in 1928 when I was nine, my oldest uncle left Tolley, North Dakota, in desperation. Miraculously, he found work with the Big West Oil Company on the high plains near Shelby, Montana. He sent word of the oil boom, and my parents decided to follow him west.

Dad cut down the sides of our Model T so the front seat could be folded back into a bed for the four of us on the 400-mile journey. He had $11.00. Of course, this was long before credit cards, and our bank had closed its doors.

My mother suffered from a fierce migraine during every mile on the dusty, rutted road to the unknown West. But my sister and I, dressed in knickers sewn by a neighboring farm woman as a good-bye gift, loved the adventure.montana here we come  We had crayons and paper and considered signs fair game for additional coloring. At night we camped with other displaced travelers, cooking suppers over little fires whose colors matched the blazing sunsets reflected in the broad Missouri River.

Unfortunately, when the time came to sleep, the curtains lowered over the Model T’s windows did a poor job of keeping away thirsty mosquitoes.

Our faithful auto did succeed at a tortoise-and-hare act as we were passed several times on the trip by a man in a shiny new touring car. He’d race ahead, stop for unknown reasons, then hurry on, passing us again. When we arrived in time to share the same campground for the third night in a row, the frustrated driver finally walked over, kicked our tire and sputtered, “What the hell kind of car is this?”

At the Big West Camp, a line of buildings on the vast prairie, the Company provided our own place—a former cook house. I remember the big stove. 

By the time blooming cactus and other wild flowers softened the fields next spring, we had moved to a normal house, but drilling for oil was so close that my mother didn’t hang out the wash for fear it would be splattered from a gusher. kitties in a basket

On hot days, we took needlework outside to the shade of the company coal house, where a cool breeze always seemed to rise from the foundation.

The Company promoted Dad, and the strain of poverty vanished. Pictures of Mama taken then show a sort of time reversal. She appears younger in each new photograph.

By having the faith and courage to pack their children into a Model T and venture west from one sort of country to another during the drought-ridden depression, my parents achieved a secure living. However, for the rest of his life, Dad kept his savings under the mattress.

 

Arbor Day Connections

By Karen Wills

Climate change thrusts us into a heightened awareness of nature. Oceans, lakes, meadows and trees are the living matrix of which we are a part.  Trees in particular have figured in much fiction and nonfiction of late. Of course, poets have long written about and concerned themselves with trees. overstory treesAmerican poet Robinson Jeffers planted about 2,000 seedlings on his sea cliff property near Carmel, California in the first half of the 1900s.

There is a kinship of us humans to trees. Tree deprivation became as real for me when we lived on the Alaskan tundra as it was for settlers living on the virgin prairies of America. I loved the big, empty tundra with its miles of tiny wild cotton, but trees have always meant shelter, the promise of something to lean against, and shade in the glare of summer. I missed them.

In a recent blog on my website I quoted from Joanna L. Stratton’s, Pioneer Women, which tells of a woman whose husband took her along on a journey to bring home wood. She’d not seen a tree for two years. “…when they arrived at Little River, she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical.”

That reminded me of when we lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. We explored the countryside, often peering into abandoned settlers’ houses. One was a stone cottage with a small grotto beside it sheltered by trees. The woman who pioneered there had walked nearly ½ mile each way every day carrying buckets of water to keep her seedlings growing. They flourished. She is gone, but her trees remain, providing homes for birds, being natural wind instruments, and soothing the prairie with their sighing leaves and branches.

An insightful novel about those who plant, nurture, and preserve not just trees, but whole forests, is The Overstory by Richard Powers–winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One of its most interesting characters is a Vietnam veteran who finds his purpose in life replanting clear-cut, logged-out areas for a living. But he learns that replanting rows of trees earns his corporate employer permission to clear cut more and more forests at a greater profit. That knowledge drives the veteran to desperate, reckless acts.

Another character in The Overstory is Patricia Westerford who devotes her academic and personal life to the study of forests. According to Patricia, everything that happens in nature happens for a purpose. “The environment is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other.” She also concludes, “We’ve been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”

To return to Jeffers, in his poem “Ghost” he imagines himself as a spirit revisiting the new owner of his former property.  He has the following exchange with the startled man:

“I see you have played hell
With the trees that I planted.” “There has to be room for people,” he
answers. “My God,” he says, “
That still!”

This Arbor Day, enjoy the forests if you can, plant a tree if you’re able, and take a deep breath. Feel your connection to the earth of which you are still a part.

When Change Comes is it Man that Counts? The Wild? Or Both?

by Mary Frances Erler

Today I ran across a book of poetry and quotes about wilderness that I made in response to a canoe trek I took in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters back in 1970.  mn boundary watersNearly 50 years ago–hard to believe so much time has passed in my life since then.  It was a very formative time in my life, influencing much of what I have become.  As I was reading the quotes I chose from Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt, and others, I was surprised to find one unsigned poem.  I have a feeling I wrote it–otherwise it would be identified with the author’s name. It was a long time ago, 1970, but as I re-read it, I could tell the words had originally come from within me. And I was surprised to find that my 18-year-old mind had thought such deep things.  But then, maybe not so surprising, for I was a very philosophical person back then.  Maybe still am.  So here it is.

Its original title was “Is It Man That Counts?”

‘How can you be so no-caring?’ a boy demanded,
Staring into the old man’s eyes;
‘Do you want all our life to die
And leave nothing to show our lives ranged?’

‘Every animal dies,’ the old chief would say
And gaze with deep-seeing silent eyes
About the village around them.
‘Timeless is not changeless,’ he would repeat.

But a boy’s heart-strength is different
And his restless feet thus wandered,
Searching over forest-depth and countryside,
His mind straining with searches just as deep.

He drank in the wildness ’round him,
Knowing in his animal-part
It had no time, no beginning,
And no end?  Their village

Already was shrinking, the forest depths
Pricked by hard, cold disruption,
A steeling chill so unlike winter–
More senseless–as rape or pillage.

And as the Wild spread its winter
Blanket, with its natural death,
He prayed that this might be
The end–to die as wild things died.

Then as the cold and steel creeping in
On them increased its breath to a roar,
He knew it wasn’t death that was coming–
Just as the old man had tried

To tell.  It was what the Wild was really
Made of; so though their villages–
And all men–passed; the Wild would
Sustain itself–timeless because it changed.

Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author