Sunday, November 11, 2018

Recently read: Lost communities

Eastside Road, November 11, 2018—
Doig, Ivan: This House of Sky
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979
ISBN 0-15-689982-5. pp 314     read 11/5/18
LeBaron, Gaye, and Bart Casey:
The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove
Historia II, 2018
ISBN 978-0-692-17702-0. pp 204     read 11/6/18
Wolf, Margery: Coyote‘s Land: a Novel Ethnography
Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2018
ISBN 9787-145756-430-7. pp 312     read 11/11/18
MANY HAVE RECOMMENDED Doig to me, but I resisted until urged by an engaging woman who sells her produce at the local farmer’s market told me she’d spent a night in his bedroom. (“It was not what it sounds like, he’s a friend of the family and lent his house while he was away.”)

The house in question is in southwestern Montana, where the author was born and raised in surely one of the last survivors of hard frontier landscape: cowboy country, sheep ranching, desperate economy. This House of Sky is a memoir centered on the author’s father — his mother died young. Like the other two books read in the last week or so are, it is nostalgic, evoking a time and place recent enough to be imaginable but irretrievably lost.

I'm old enough — older than Ivan Doig — to remember a landscape similar though less harsh than his high, bare, frequently frozen Montana: the bleak wartime northeastern Oklahoma of 1944-5, where we lived without running water, and impoverished Sonoma county farm country in the next few years, where we lived without electricity. Unlike the Doigs on their sheep ranches, we at least had society.

Doig centers his memoir on his father and on isolated ranching, but populates it also with other memorable characters: a stepmother; his grandmother; assorted dubious ranch hands; the drifters morosely drinking in a series of bars negotiating the limited available social stratas of what passes for his home town.

The book is poetic and laconic, like the best cowboy songs, and deserves the praise it's received. Doig's style is sophisticated, artful, but (except for italicized summaries to each chapter) never jarring, always related to what one presumes is the language of his subjects. Clearly the Doig line harbors — and passes along — a gift for language: the stories are so rich and at times improbable, the quotes so colorful and apt, that a reader could be forgiven for suspecting occasional authorial invention.

We need books like this, not only for their evocation of the land and society much of this country was until postwar prosperity and technological advance erased it, but also for its suggestion that the stamina and inventiveness of those times may be needed in a time still to come. In the meantime generations have grown to maturity lacking, with rare exceptions, first-hand familiarity with even the possibility of such virtues.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY in this country was a time of frontier expansion, hardscrabble farming, urban development, and robber-baron capitalism. It also saw a considerable reaction to the worst qualities of those developments in a wave of idealistic communitarianism. Some of the resulting societies are fairly well known: Brook Farm, Oneida, Amana. But one of the longest-living of them has been largely overlooked: The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove corrects that historical neglect.

The Fountaingrove community began, as so many such attempts did, in rural New York, where Thomas Lake Harris, only one of many exhortative preachers, after running his course in one parish after another, decided his only success must be in establishing a society of his own. He was apparently a magnetic, persuasive figure, and in lectures in New York, New England, and London he attracted followers who signed on with their fortunes as well as their lives as individuals.

With their labor and their money Harris built what can only be called a cult, at first amusing his neighbors, ultimately attracting sufficient cynicism and suspicion that he found it expedient to move along. Each cycle lasted seven years: a farm at Wassaic in eastern New York, bought in 1861, a more elaborate settlement near Brocton on the Erie shoreline, in 1868; finally, in 1875, the Fountaingrove community, outside a provincial city growing up north of San Francisco.

A number of strands weave through this history: the members of the community, including a disillusioned, wealthy Englishman and a Japanese samurai; the various approaches to financing, including investments and agriculture; the relations with outsiders including the press; and of course the cult psychology and culture Harris developed.

The principal characters are fairly well and efficiently presented: apart from the enigmatic Harris, they are the wealthy Englishman Laurence Oliphant and the quietly competent Kanaye Nagasawa. Harris began as a frontier preacher subject to fits and visions; eager to return humanity to its pre-Expulsion innocence, he dictated thousand-line poems describing that state of bliss while in trance induced by deep breathing — and, one suspects, slow sexual experiences. Oliphant, the only child of an important British colonial officer, was an adventurous traveler whose books brought Central Asia and the Crimean War home to England. And Nagasawa was sent in his early adolescence from isolated Japan to Scotland, then England, to learn the methods and values of the mysterious West so that his native country might enter the modern global world.

For every man in Harris's communities there seemed to have been at least three or four women — wives, mothers, sisters, friends. Except for Oliphant's mother they never fully emerge from this narrative. Even Harris's second wife, who was significant in the Fountaingrove years, is present more as referred to by other personages than as a fully limned figure in her own right.

The same might be said of Nagasawa, whose motives and values are occasionally hypothesized but not clearly stated. The temptation to fictionalize this history has been kept successfully and, I'd bet, carefully at bay.

Who, then, is this book for? It appears at a poignant time, the first anniversary of the destruction of the locally famous Fountaingrove Round Barn, until last year the only surviving physical evidence of the community that once prospered on the northern edge of Santa Rosa. I found the book satisfying — but I should reveal that one of the authors, Gaye LeBaron, is an old friend, whose dedication to history and whose insistence on fact I can attest to.

Much of the value of The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove lies between the lines, partly in matters only hinted at — the authors are decorous — partly in questions the reader will be led to pose. Foremost — and this question is raised, more than once, though without being settled — was Harris merely a confidence man? or was he truly visionary and idealistic in his attempt to found a new life based on communitarianism, free from the distractions of private ownership and individual expression?

TWO OTHER VERSIONS of the perfect life contend in Margery Wolf's Coyote's Land: the ancient and apparently perfected culture of the Coast Miwok, based not far from Fountaingrove in the present southern Sonoma and northern Marin counties, and the Franciscan version of Catholic Christianity as it evolved in the California missions early in the 19th century.

Wolf, who was also a personal friend, died early last year, soon after completing this book. She was an anthropologist whose career was somewhat outside the anthropological norm: her first book, The House of Lim, still used as a textbook in anthropology classes, was written without the virtue of a degree in the field. (She was married to an academic anthropologist at the time.)

Coyote's Land is an interesting and, I think, significant book for a number of reasons, one of them stated by the author at the outset. The first and longest and most evocative of its two parts is what she calls "informed fiction," fictional narrative informed by a comprehensive knowledge of both details and context. Her purpose, she writes, is to make ethnography interesting to the common reader. She is a little defensive about this, as she's been criticized by professionals in her field for straying from academic norms — but in truth it's the academic professional writers who should be criticized for forgetting, in their books, that readability and appeal are greater authorial responsibilities than convention and boredom.

If Coyote's Land is significant as "informed fiction," it is also important — especially at this moment! — for dwelling on the tragedy of one culture's destruction at the hands of another. And this particularly when the destruction is wrought in the name of religion. Wolf begins her novel with a series of chapters thoughtfully, pleasantly, sometimes entertainingly evoking the daily life of the pre-conquest Miwok; then turns to the inevitable end of that idyllic culture, in the early years of the 19th century, when the chain of missions reaches San Francisco Bay.

Wolf centers her narration on an improbable device, dividing the central character between two women: Charlotte, a 20th-century anthropologist eager to learn the (pre-conquest) Miwok culture, and Sekiak, a Miwok woman condemned to immortality for a transgression against the natural order. Driven by a fierce desire to make the Miwok way known to European-Americans, she renders herself and Charlotte invisible and gifted with fluency in all languages, and the two travel back and forth between the present and the pre-conquest past, enabling Charlotte to observe daily life and eavesdrop on native conversations, thereby comprehending the contexts of both Miwok and mission life.

Not usually attracted to Magic Realism or time-travel fiction, I tried to catch little failures in this narrative device, moments when anachronism of either detail or plot might break Wolf's success. I found none. I don't know if she planned it, but to me one of Wolf's greatest achievements here is her treatment of the plasticity of Time as we humans live it and in it. And this brings me to a final irony of Coyote's Land: a valedictory book, it often pauses to contemplate — even if only for a sentence or two — the nature of Death. Charlotte's invisibility is not dependably effective to those on the point of death.

One old woman was tending a slow, smoky fire under a couple of racks of drying fish. She stared in Sekiak and Charlotte's direction; then blinked her eyes several times before turning her attention back to the fire.

"Can she see us?" Charlotte asked uncertainly.

"A little maybe. She is very old… you know old people are less attached to their time than young people… They tend to wander. We need to keep our distance. She knows she will die soon, and she is watching for the spirits of old friends who will show her the way."

Toward the end of the book it becomes clear, in a few lines charmingly describing the presence of a fox in the bushes near a campfire, that Charlotte's invisibility is attached to the fact of her being in an alternate time. The fox immediately brought Leoš Janáček's opera Vixen Sharp-ears to mind, and I saw that intrinsic to both the style and the substance of Coyote's Land is a haunting, affectionate, even visionary awareness of the beyond-time nature of death and dying and of truly aware living. Janáček was 70 when he completed Vixen; Margery Wolf was dying in her last year, while completing Coyote's Land.

The irony, then, is that the death of the cultures — the Coast Miwok way, which had stood for millennia; the California missions, imperfect improvements no doubt on Spanish feudalism but unable to survive Mexican independence let alone the coming of the Yankees — those deaths are as natural and inevitable as the deaths of our grandparents and our parents. Immortality — Sekiak's sentence — is what is unnatural and wrong. The manner in which one culture destroys another may be condemned, but the destruction is inevitable.

Whether intentionally or for lack of time, Coyote's Land seems not quite finished. The novel ends inconclusively, Charlotte apparently returned to the present but certain plot elements still tantalizingly vague. The second part of the book, the "backstory," offers a quick historical survey of the Miwok and their land; the missions, their Spanish background and their ambivalent intentions; and a foretaste of the transition the young California will soon make into the United States. This part of the book is matter-of-fact and carefully documented in the conventional bibliography.

The backmatter does not detract from the real value of the book, the "informed fiction." It is a real gift: to those of us who live in what is still Coyote's Land; to those who want to see farther than the authorities who have (temporarily) survived the Miwok and the mission ways; to all the living.

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