Aggressive Regionalism: Texts
4. The Frontier
The Northwest is industrially alive and agriculturally alive; it needs to show itself spiritually alive. Culturally it has too long either turned for nourishment toward the East or accepted uncourageous, unindigenous “literary” expression of writers too spiritually imitative and too uninspired. We in this territory need to realize that literature, and all art, is, if it is worth anything at all, sincere expression of real life. And the roots for literature among us should be in our own rocky ground, not in Greenwich Village dirt or Mid-west loam or European mold or, least of all, in the hothouse sifted, fertilized soil of anywhere. Out of our soil we grow, and out of our soil should come expression of ourselves, living, hating, struggling, failing, succeeding, desponding, aspiring, playing, working—being alive.
The Frontier is pioneer endeavor to gather indigenous Northwest material. It offers itself to readers and writers as a non-commercial channel for expression. It desires hardy writers; it will need hardy readers. Living is active. Literature is not only escape from life. Literature is a vigorous dive into it. Literature plunges into the joy and the sorrow of it, into the ugliness and the beauty of it with equal energy and with understanding and sympathy. Literature has its eyes both on the ground and on the sky; and it persistently pours its searching glances into the depth of the depths of the human soul. It can dally, work, play; sing, groan; despair, aspire; shout, purr; cajole, chastise, cheer, delight; throw light and absorb light, lift a spirit and cast it down—make men of its lovers. This it does for readers through imaginative pictures of life.
This region, from Colorado to Washington, has vast store of material in experience of the pioneer warring against physical nature, of the exploiter who trailed the ways of the discoverer and pioneer, of the settler, who, finding conditions made by the pioneers and exploiters, devoted himself in uncritical spirit to making a living. The present generation, restless in the settled physical and social conditions, finds a spiritual condition also irksome. “The frontiers are wherever a man fronts a fact”—these younger generations are turning their gaze upon the world that makes comparison of near and far-off matters and conditions. Out of their critical attitude it is to be hoped will come spiritual growth. Truly, materials for true expression lie at hand lavishly strewn. The early day, the present day; the ranch, the mine; the lumber camp, the range; the city, the village, these have not yielded their treasure of the comedy and tragedy of human life.
It is not cleverness or sophistication or sheer brawn or realism or romanticism or pessimism or sentiment that we want; it is all these—life honestly seen and felt, and passed through a healthy imagination.
What is the state of civilization in this Northwest region of the United States? We hope that The Frontier will furnish some joyous and provocative material toward an answer.
—[H. G. Merriam], November, 1928
Several readers of this magazine think it time for harvesting a crop of literary creativeness in the Northwest. They have expressed the hope that The Frontier might prove to be the mellowing rays of sunlight that ripen the fruit. Other sections of our country have had harvest and await another season. In the Northwest, has the soil even been prepared? The nation's literature challenges this region to reveal what culturally it is making of itself.
When the project of changing The Frontier from a student magazine into a general regional one was placed in the minds of several Northwest people they asked, "Is the region ready for such a venture; and are there workers?" Most of them thought it was not, and that the workers were too few. They thought that whatever fruit came would be undersized and flat flavored or would windfall. "The land is still stubbornly wild."
All there is to write about, one person thought, is Indians and pioneering, and readers are tired of them; they have been exploited by the ignorant or the salesman writers; the picture is painted. Another thought, The past is past; let it lie in time. In reality, the early life of this region has yet to be built into honest and significant verse and story.
But portrayal of the past is not the fundamental need. The Indian, pioneer, prospector, trappers, cowhands, traders, railroaders have meant something to the life Northwest people live today. They are inworked substance. But one would never guess that they are from what one reads of them in verse and story. They remain outside the real life of the region. They don't "belong." One doesn't see, in most of our literature, any authentic background for them to belong to. If life in the Northwest today is individual, and unless it is there is no sense in looking for a literary harvest, it is individual because these men and women have belonged. Our writing should reveal that they have and how.
Three issues of The Frontier as a regional magazine have appeared; this is the fourth. Writers of active imagination and sincere purpose who are endeavoring to interpret Northwest life have come forward in numbers with their writings. Others will come. As they seize upon that life as individual, forgetting what, according to literary exploiters, it "ought to be," they will be bringing a crop of literary creativeness to the harvesting stage. Some matured fruit has already been harvested. The crop is fast ripening. And workers are at hand.
—H. G. Merriam, November, 1928
The Northwest is not short of writers. What it lacks is literature.
Once, instead of writers and no literature, we had a literature and no writers. There were men who made songs. Some of the songs are obscene, beastly, and possibly morally upsetting. Some of them appear to be completely ignorant of every artistic regulation from Aristotle on down. All of them are quite unsalable. They are a total loss, morally, artistically and commercially. The devil of it is that they are Northwestern literature, and the moral, artistic and commercial successes are not.
"Old Mother Kelly" is inexcusably lewd. Last Thursday I listened to a cow-puncher singing it as he peddled out hay in a feeding corral. I did not tell him that he would do a lot better to look up some of the lyrics of our present-day poets; I couldn't conscientiously say that any of them would fill the bill.
I don't mean that people should stop writing as they do, and write obscene hymns. Indeed, I sincerely hope that no writer will harbor such irreverent thoughts as are embodied in the one which the puncher sang, and I think that my hope is well-founded. But I do mean to note that people among whom I live have remembered these old songs--and not because of their obscenity, either. For I have heard, within the last two months, "Get Along, Little Dogies," "The Arkansaw Run," "We Started With the Cattle on June Twenty-Third," and "Old Booker Burns," not one of which would bring the blush of shame to any cheek. They have remembered these, and they don't even know there are contemporary poems or recall the details of a "Western" story fifteen minutes after reading it.
They remember the literature which was composed for them, not that which was written about them. These songs talk to them of things they know and recognize, tersely, without "local color" or explanation.
That is how all literature is made--Chaucer, and the Norse saga-men, and the Greeks wrote as these song-makers wrote: for their people. That, and not accident of scene or residence, is what ties literature to a locality. That, and nothing else, is what gives life and identity and fulfillment to a new way of life, making it into a civilization. Without it, the identity is lost and absorbed and standardized and flattened.
We began here with a new way of life, new rhythms, new occupations. We have failed to make that freshness part of ourselves.
If you, in the FRONTIER, can manage to turn up any young writers with any aristocracy of mind, any conception of what their duty is to their own people, and the courage and resolution to accomplish it unflinchingly, you will deserve to be canonized.
—H. L. Davis, March, 1928
Every locality has its own inevitable and destined writers. Sometimes they are born there, grow up there, and go away--but all their writing forever smacks of that soil, has the tang of its speech. All the impressions that were taken in unconsciously in the formative years of childhood or adolescence flow out at the pen's point. No landscapes seen afterward can dim in the mind the picture of those mountain-tops. No flowers will be as real as those picked in boyhood's woods. No bird-songs will come back in the creative memory except those heard at dawn in early years.
But some writers belong to a place in which they were not born. They find it in later years, by accident, or drawn there by some odd sympathy. But having seen it, they fall in love with it, and it is theirs. Its shapes and colors its air and sky, the characteristic manners of that region, fulfil some deep need of theirs. The men and women, their ways of life and of love, take hold on the imagination, and stories are dreamed and written that could only happen here. So it has been that fishing-village, desert, tropic island, have found their writers more than once.
The Northwest has its writers of both kinds, and both are authentic. The place knows its own, and takes them to its heart, opens its secrets to them, lures them on with the spell of its past, teaches them its stories, makes them its children, gives them its own robust virtues, its own gusto and generosity and daring. First is the land, and out of it comes the literature. It springs from the soil, humbly at first, then beautifully. But no matter how sweet and strange its later blossoming, it must have its roots deep in the ground and nourish itself with rain and sunlight, feed on common things, and be a part of that spot of earth which it celebrates and adorns.
—Floyd Dell, May, 1928
The Backward States are in for criticism--that I know from reading the World's Greatest Newspaper, in Chicago. They send sons of the wild jackass to the Senate. Their scarcity of population is only equaled by their simplicity of life. Their meagreness of resources is attended with illiteracy and primitive ideas. They hold to the frontier idea that social ills can be remedied by legislation, by a freer issue of money, by something which could be enjoyed if it were not malevolently withheld by the metropolitan and industrial areas of the country. Cotton and canyons have combined to produce legislative futility in our government. The map of the nation as it exists today is an absurdity, giving Nevada with its 80,000 inhabitants a voice in the Senate equal to that of the 12,000,000 in New York. State lines must be altered.
Without questioning whether the World's Greatest Newspaper represents the mid-continent mind--which I hope is a question!--and without turning back-files to see if the President of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association included Montana in the Backward States, I find myself frequently comparing the two states of civilization.
Within myself I realize now that Western Montana has no skyscrapers, nor debutantes, nor grand opera, nor art galleries, nor theological seminaries, nor gangsters, nor multi-millionares, nor the world's greatest anything. Our railway trestles, lumber mills, wheat farms, mines, lakes, and University trackmeet are, I believe, only seconds in size. But here in Chicago one is constantly made aware of the primacy of things--of The Tribune, the Mercantile Mart, the Stevens Hotel, "the greatest acting company ever organized in the plays of Shakespeare," the Opera, Michigan Boulevard, the coming World's Fair, professors' salaries at the University of Chicago--all are on the way to or arrived at the status of World's Greatest.
Many things, of course, we have in common. Here and in Montana parents are torn between spanking and reasoning with children, Edgar Guest is published in the best newspapers, higher education is motivated largely by scholarship cups and grade systems, college faculties are responsible to boards of practical men, few males have the courage of their cultural convictions, religion is often defended as a beneficent fiction, and hard problems like birth control, girls' smoking and religious prejudice at election time lack all the saving grace of frank discussion. It would be foolish for either the W. G. N. or me to suppose that there is much difference between life in this "natural capitol of the continent" and life in the canyon areas.
But there are some differences. Very plainly, Chicago has money, and money seems to be the root of civilization as well as of evil. The center of the city is filling with beautifully pyramided buildings. There are no water towers on top nor fancy work at the entrances. It is pure architecture, stark and sheer, our own. But the architect seems to have been only half master of the situation: you cannot see the buildings as you walk in the chasms between them and probably not as you work in them, and as yet all the workers have to ride
long miles of ugly railway night and morning to get to them and away. The architect is emancipated from the design, but not from the economics of individualism of the past.
It is the day of philanthropy in Chicago. Millions are being given to art and music centers, and the public interest and participation in these things has greatly increased in the last few years. The foreigners in the city supply two-thirds of the artists and of the concert audiences, I would judge, as well as two-thirds of the bootleggers and gangsters. But the money counts, and it is determined to do more. There is a reputable organization now working to create a fund of $25,000 with which to induce some men of first-rate literary promise to remain and do their writing in Chicago. At present, whenever the Middle-West develops a good author or a good football coach, it loses him to the East or West--respectively.
Education is being given its money-theistic basis, too. The figures in the press from week to week are fairly deafening, and discouraging to one who hails from the area of limited resources. Northwestern University has announced a one hundred million dollar expansion program for the next fifty years. President Hutchins, the thirty-year-old head of the University of Chicago, has taken charge of a ninety-seven million dollar plant and is now asking his board and alumni to dream of the power of a highly paid faculty, and is reiterating that the universities cannot get better men without paying them more money. To be or not to be--well off, that's a question one doesn't easily avoid here.
It all seems individualistic, that is, that everyone, who can, is making money, and then that anyone, who will, is doing something for the public. I have no impression of what the public is doing for itself. The Business Man is the master more than the servant of the State, and the question of what kind of a society will eventually be realized depends on the answer to Mr. Laske's recent question, Can Business Be Civilized? The head editorial writer of the city's best newspaper recently said that the editorial section of the modern newspaper has declined considerably on account of its responsibility to advertisers. The President of the Teachers’ Emeritus Association told his followers a short while ago that "the months preceding the Chicago World's Fair are most favorable to promoting every good cause in Chicago for schools and teachers, due to the fact that big business men behind the fair will not want Chicago's educational status to fall short at the time of the exposition." The drift of such comment is clear. Chicago's crime is a byword now for the world. But I remember that Havelock Ellis calls criminality a poisonous excretion which is also the measure of vital metabolism. It is easy to see it here as a by-product of the community's energy. The whole pace of life is so much faster than ours. The citizens killed over one thousand of themselves with automobiles alone last year. I don't know how many more with guns and alcohol. Heart disease killed twice as many as any other disease. In their desire for speed they have driven two fine auto roads through Lincoln Park. Under their spreading influence we shall probably soon have a network of fine roads through all the National Parks so that the public can save itself time and energy in getting back occasionally to Nature.
But, seriously, one wonders if there
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is any more spiritual mastery in all this energy and efficiency than there is in the Backward States--any more "inward aim and fixity in affection that knows what to take and what to leave in a world over which it diffuses something of its own peace." Some months ago, A.E. remarked that he felt something like an heroic childhood in America. Here, he said, one is certainly struck by an extraordinary display of external efficiency, gigantic engineering feats, the flinging up of skyscrapers, and yet amidst all these external achievements, one finds an even more extraordinary immaturity of mind. You will find engineers who can plan and carry out mighty constructional schemes; but if you talk with them as human beings, they are no more advanced than a boy of sixteen.
I have not talked with any engineers nor with many business men, but the intellectual level of editorial pages, the quality of government and of the present political campaign, the imagination in handling foreign news, particularly from Russia, and the good-will and intelligence at play in current comments on economic theories, radicals, and dissenting Senators, all this seems to me to be as inglorious as the architecture is glorious. As I understand it, the idea of political representation by means of economic or occupational interest is one of the advanced and advancing ideas of our day. But if, when The Tribune approved Mr. Grundy's criticism of the Backward States because our present representational system gives Nevada as many Senators as New York; if some one had gone on publicly to argue that we ought also to modify our system so that we could seat the President of the Miners as well as the President of the Manufacturers of Pennsylvania in the Senate, I suspect that The Tribune would not have been the last to cry, "Red." Not that the Backward States would have been much slower with the cry. But I don't see what the main stream of American life and ideas is that The Tribune thinks the Backward States are outside of, when our newspapers have been full for years of all that newspaper's favorite ideas, from the dread of communism to the derision of pacifism. Probably the difference which the W. G. N. is so concerned with is the difference between agricultural and industrial interests, with democracy and plutocracy involved. But I am uninformed in the direction.
Some of our "meagreness of resources" in the Backward States can be made into advantages if there is any such creative energy in those who went west as our traditional stories say. If we have no millions now for art galleries, we have not many millionaires either. There is little rationality in a society of such violent contrast between rich and poor as one must see every day here. "The humility of man to man--it pains me." Even tho our more equitable division of wealth is owing not to any democratic will so much as to the mere fact that our millionaires have left us, our condition is better, for ideals can grow out of conditions as well as conditions out of ideals. We have a better chance to achieve democracy.
There is a danger, however, at the point of the opportunity, that we seldom face out in mind. If the masses have been kept poor in the modern plutocratic state, the wealth that has been denied them has been in large part turned back into productive industry and into art and institutions. So that
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the Museums and Opera in Chicago have been made by poverty. It remains to be seen if they can be made elsewhere by economic democracy. If we fulfil the democratic ideal we shall need to pass beyond the goal of reasonable division of income to think of the distinction that has been, and is now, created by holders of wealth. We shall need a whole public, and not only a few philanthropists, who will tax themselves to provide for the leisure and freedom and intelligent environment in which discovery and scientific thinking and artistic conception can occur. We shall need to stop the deification of riches and individualism and the disparagement of governmental processes. With the Forest and Roads and Indian and Reclamation Services and State Universities working in our midst, we ought to have a better chance to realize the socialistic idea of respect for responsibility and depersonalization of property. We shall need to achieve William James' standard for a good education--the ability to know a good man when we see him, and add to that the determination to use our best men in our own public services. We shall need to give no more quarter to the idea that we are a young country and must wait for our art and leisure and freedom until we are mature. Art shall shape our culture as well as finally blossom from it.
That the frontier areas do not have replicas of all the museums and seminaries and artists of the Old World and of metropolitan centers is not pure misfortune. We are pushed back the sooner on the inspiration of our own personality and of Nature. Before we achieve many cultural products we shall have to build some continuity of cultivation and thought; and in the end tho the beliefs and practices and arts that we achieve may be much like the old, they will be more our own. Much of the culture in America is still a very borrowed thing. Devotion to it is often little more than pedantry or sentimentality. With our lesser sophistication we have the better chance to realize and idealize our own organic passions, and from the ways of life and vision of a new country to believe and create new things.
Our frontier Universities are in point, I think. Copied as they are from the East, and impressed with many standardizing agencies, they still are not without their own inspiration. Formal education is peculiarly a thing of tradition, so much so that the garment of culture is not easily borne without leaving the wearer a little anemic. Carpenters often know more of life than scholars and speak with more art. Those who study hard in Universities too often are possessed of a kind of pedantic classicism that prizes the remains of some older culture, or of a single scientific technique and otherwise narrow intellectual interests. Our whole concept of cultural education is still in need of a more fundamental remaking than traditionalists can enjoy. Scientific information must be put much more into the center of education. Teachers of literature and history and religion soon will be unattended if they ignore the scientific implications of their materials--and science teachers if they ignore the historical development of their materials, it can be hoped.
As this change occurs, involving new combinations of materials and new methods and attitudes, our new Universities, without a too heavy load of conservative tradition and respected ability, have the
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chance to turn some of their very lack into advantage. In some ways already, I feel, we have almost unknowingly made changes in our methods and emphasis that older institutions must yet labor to make. Intolerance of academic material in which they can find no vital interest is more marked in western students, if I mistake not. The lack of endless materials on poet, literature and history, which makes us often dissatisfied with our libraries, really leaves us a little freer to discover ourselves and our own times and to follow the master scholars who have dared to neglect all the culture in which they did not find spiritual life. Of course, our modernity may only come to superficiality, or "practical courses." The flexibility that is not too resistant to new inspiration may only discard the discipline of old and exact subjects for a miscellany of mental interests that holds neither values nor discipline. But I feel sure our educational situation is one of great opportunity if we will not grow weary of being different and unacknowledged.
Our greatest source of inspiration for a fine culture in our own frontier area is the land. If we can let that work its influence in us we shall add something majestic and serene to American culture. Without indulging the romantic idea that Nature is only beneficent and a sufficient education, the man who goes into the busy city away from doing his daily work in the sight of a mountain slope comes to believe that topography must eventually leave its mark on religion. I do not understand what the instinct to worship can feed on in our modern city. "No one can speak with the Lord while he has to prattle with the whole world." When one walks a trail alone he gets his thoughts on what for him at least are higher things. And when one walks up a mountain side only a hundred yards, something clarifies in his spirit. If the lights come on in the town below him he does not begin to reflect on the greatness of the electrical age. All the cars are only scurrying things and all the buildings are only shelter. Man then feels the mystery of the universe and the human spirit is the only thing of worth. There are counter-impulses and habits enough, God knows, when we come off the mountain, to keep us from fulfilling the ideals and visions that come to us there, and the elaboration of those ideals may be only for those who are in touch with the greatest traditions that have been built in older places. But still, the places off the highway are now mainly with us in the Backward States.
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Mother was planning to visit her sister. She had a reason for going, but I didn't know what it was. Her sister was my aunt Esther. I did not know the two were the same, at first, when father said, to your sister. When I found out it made me feel part comfortable and part disappointed. It was like sitting in my own chair instead of in one I had been told not to use.
Mother had known she was going for a long time before she went. The only thing she did not know was which of us she would take with her. There were three of us. There had been four until Augusta went to stay with her grandmother. Augusta and Carl had a grandmother, and Teressa and I had one. They lived in different places. Father and mother talked about who should go with her, when Teressa was feeding the chickens and Carl had gone to milk. If I did not look at them as they talked they did not send me away.
Deciding who was to go was like fitting pieces of a puzzle together. They would fit only one way. Father and mother fitted the pieces around and around every way but the right one. I did not say this.
If mother took me with her it would leave Teressa alone with father and the hired men. Sometimes mother said, alone with Carl. I did not know why Teressa could not stay alone with Carl. They did not quarrel. Carl told Teressa things the hired men told him, and neither of them would tell me. Sometimes they played together, but not often, and would not let me play with them. They knew a game called Being Enchanted. I shut my eyes and counted ten, and when I opened them they were not there.
If mother took both Teressa and me there would be no one left to cook for the men; and Teressa would have to leave school. She liked school. Mr. Cummings was the first teacher who had been nice to her. Father didn't like him because he taught grammar and said I seen. Father liked English and not grammar. Mother liked both. She knew grammar and father did not. Mr. Cummings lived by himself in a dug-out close to the schoolhouse, and mother liked him because he whipped only boys bigger than himself. The teacher before him had whipped only little boys.
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I didn't go to school. It was too far for me to walk. Teressa was angry because I studied algebra at home, so mother let her study physiology and not me. Mother made me study algebra to punish me for a joke. I said, "Two apples and two kittens are four." Mother looked at me a long time to see whether I was being naughty or being stupid. I didn't look away from her, so she couldn't tell. She said, "Four what?" I said, "Four adds," quick, without laughing, so she couldn't tell again.
After that she taught me, "Two x and two x are four x; two y and two y are four y." I didn't say, "Two x and two y are four," because that didn't make me want to laugh.
It was interesting to learn arithmetic with x's. It was like not having to put a nightdress on. Mother forgot she was punishing me, and taught me pluses and minuses. I learned all my arithmetic out of the algebra. She wouldn't let me touch Teressa's physiology, but I heard the lessons when Teressa recited them, unless mother sent me away. After we were in bed I would whisper, "There are two hundred and eight bones in the human body," to see if Teressa was asleep. If she called mother, she wasn't.
Mother couldn't take me with her without Teressa, and she couldn't take us both. She had to have somebody with her, coming back, to carry her satchel. She would have more to carry coming back. I wondered what aunt Esther was going to send us. Father laughed when I asked, and said mother would have something in her arms coming back. Mother said, "I will have my hands full," and shut her lips tight for me to stop talking. I wondered why she didn't take Carl. Carl was big. He was eleven. He was two years older than Teressa, and Teressa was three years older than I.
At dinner, when no one was talking about mother's visit, I asked why Carl didn't go. Father said Carl had to help milk. Father milked three cows, and Carl three. I said I would milk Carl's cows. Father's eyes twinkled, and mother said, "Don't be foolish."
I wanted to milk Carl's cows so that he could go. I had known how to milk for a long time. I learned on a cow that limped when she walked. She didn't stay with the other cows; father had turned her outside the fence where she could get plenty to eat. The milk ran out of her bag, and I milked her for my kittens. She used to come where I was, to be milked; but after I could milk fast, she stopped
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giving much milk, and pawed dust over me when I tried to come near her.
The kittens had learned to have all the milk they wanted, and were hungry, so I had to milk other cows. The pan I milked into leaked; it made me milk a good deal. The kittens were all fat. After they had eaten their tails stuck straight out. The mother cats lapped the milk off the ground, and crowded in beside the kittens and ate, too, because they knew there was always more. I didn't mention milking to any one.
I kept offering to do Carl's milking until mother was not pleased with me. She told father she should punish me, but didn't know how. I did not know what for. Father said that was a simple matter. He would give me a pail and tell me to come and milk; when I saw that I couldn't, that would end it.
He called me early the next morning, and told me if I was going to milk Carl's cows it was time to get up; I must milk them a few times before Carl left.
I dressed fast. Usually I was slow, because there was a game I could play while I buttoned my shoes. Father took a pail and gave me one. We carried them with our outside arms, so that I could take his hand going to the corral. It was not bright outdoors, yet; everything was one color. Father put my pail under Old Whitey (she knew me), and gave me his milking-stool. He went to the other side of the corral to milk Young Whitey. Old Whitey had big teats and was easy to milk. Young Whitey milked hard, and kicked. I used to chase her away before I milked in the afternoons, so when she saw me in the corral it made her keep stepping farther away to look at me. It took father a long time to get her milked. He said she was possessed of the devil. I finished Old Whitey before he was through, and he said, "All right, all right," when I told him, "I'll be there in a moment." When he saw the milk in my pail he said "Ju-pi-ter Pluvius!"
He took our pails to the house before we milked the other cows. He said, "She can milk."
The next night father said, "Why not take Carl with you! It might do the blockhead good. He might even learn to close his mouth." Carl used to hold his mouth open, and father said, "Carl, close your mouth," every time he looked at him. Mother thought Carl couldn't breath well, but father said he kept his mouth open out of inherent
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perversity, to annoy him. We had a mule that let its lower lip hang down, and kept its tongue between its teeth. Father hit it under the chin every time he came near it, to make it bite its tongue. The mule learned to pull its tongue in, and stretch its head high out of reach to one side, away from father. It made father laugh. He said that since he had succeeded in making an impression on the mule, he had begun to have hopes of curing Carl.
Mother took Carl with her. Before she left there was a lot of getting ready to do. Father told Carl, every morning, to count the number of persons he saw on the train who went around with their mouths hanging open, and to notice the look of intelligence it gave them. Mother told Teressa how to do everything, and made father promise that she should not miss a day of school. Father promised. She told me how to set the table at noon, and to put on bread and butter without telling, and whatever else Teressa cooked in the morning before she went to school.
I set the table the first day. Father got up from the table twice, once to get the sugar and once to get the butter. We didn't talk, but we looked at each other and laughed. The second day father told Teressa it was too hard for her to go to school while mother was gone. He called her his son Dick, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and said she could stay out of school until mother came back. I do not remember about meals after that. Teressa got them. At first she cried as soon as father had gone from the house. I milked three cows in the morning and three at night, and the rest of the time I played.
Except for milking, and seeing Lost in London, only one thing made mother's being away different from her being at home. That was father's eating her peaches.
When mother left, the peaches were not ripe. Before she came back they were all gone. They got ripe and fell to the ground. Teressa canned them all day, and cried. Mother didn't know they were being canned, because she thought Teressa was in school. Mother liked peaches. Every time she wrote me a letter she put in it, "Save me some peaches." The wind got cold, and the leaves fell off the peach trees. One day when I was playing in the farthest orchard I found a tree that still had fruit on it. The leaves were so nearly gone that I could see the peaches on a high branch. There were some under the tree. They were smooth, white-skinned peaches, pink on one side. They felt cold in my hands, were mealy and not very sweet. I
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picked all I could find, and carried them to the house in my apron. I put them on the high kitchen shelf where the clock was. Every day I looked at the tree. Some of the peaches I could reach with a stick, and I gathered all I could make fall. One day I got four. There were eleven on the shelf, altogether.
When father wound the clock before Sunday he saw the peaches. He said, "Hello!" and took one. He ate it. I watched his teeth sink into it. I felt heavy inside, not like crying and not like speaking. He took another. I told him they were mother's. I told him over and over. He ate six. He said they were a poor variety, quite dry and insipid.
When he started to reach for them the next night, I told him again that I was saving them for mother. I pulled at his coat until he looked at me. He laughed without making any sound, as he sometimes did with Teressa and mother. He said, "Your mother doesn't need any peaches. She hasn't done her duty." I watched him to see what he meant. Everything except the lamp was dark and still. He stopped looking at me and said mother had plenty of fruit where she was, and wouldn't care for peaches; and that a warm shelf was a poor place to keep them. There was only one left.
The next morning there were only two peaches under the tree, and they were the last. There was not one more. The branches were bare, and I could see. I put the two new peaches and the warm one together in the writing desk; but father asked for them that night. I had written mother that there were eleven, and would be more. She asked in every letter how many there were now. I didn't answer.
When mother came home there were things that kept her from asking for the peaches right away. One was that we had gone to the theater the night before she came. We drove eighteen miles to see Enoch Arden, and when we got to the theater the play was Lost in London. I had never been in a theater before, but it seemed as if I had. I liked everything about it, but I was the only one of us who had a good time. Being where people were made Teressa's head ache; and father was disappointed because we weren't seeing Enoch Arden. He had seen Enoch Arden with his wife once, and wanted to see it again. He said, with my wife, and I said, with mother; because I knew that. Teressa hurt me with her elbow and said, "Little idiot!" under her breath. After the theater we waited for the train that mother would come on, but she didn't come. We drove home in the moonlight.
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Teressa slept, but father and I made rhymes. The last one came right in front of the house,
At the hitching block!
Father drove back alone the next day to meet mother and Carl. He had told us not to tell about going to the theater, but he told mother, and that made it seem queer that we didn't.
The first afternoon that mother and I were alone after she came back, she sat down in the rocking-chair by the kitchen window to talk to me. She asked me if I thought it was right to go to the theater and not tell her. I said, "Father took us," so she asked me if I had been lonesome for her while she was away. I said, "No." Then she said, "You may bring me my peaches now; I feel as if I could eat one." Her voice sounded as if she was punishing me.
It was so hard to answer about the peaches that before I spoke she said, "You couldn't resist temptation, could you! I knew you would eat them before I got back."
My dress was loose. I could feel my body shake inside it. After a while mother put her arm around me, and felt it, too. She took me on her lap.
It was hard to explain about the peaches, because I didn't understand about them. Something had happened while mother was away that father and she were not happy about, and eating the peaches seemed part of it. I hoped mother would tell me it was wrong for father to eat them. It seemed wrong. If it was wrong, and he did it, I would understand and not care. I did not know whether things grown persons did were ever not right. Mother did not tell me. She said all the orchard was father's, but I explained to her why those peaches were mine. She said, "It was the love, not the peaches--surely you did not think it was the peaches that I cared for." I did not understand. She said, "Since you thought of me, and denied yourself, it is as if I had had the peaches."
She held me on her lap and rocked me until it was time to get supper. I lay and looked up at her face. Her eyes were closed. It was the first time I had noticed that tears could come from under a person's lids when they were shut.
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The rabbits an' the weasels is a-turnin' brown to white,
The geese is restin' on the river bars;
The elk has started runnin'; you can hear them call, at night
When the coyotes is a-howlin' at the stars;
The tamaracks is yellow an' the mountain ash is brown,
A magpie flits across the meadow bare—
The bucks has left the ridges an' they're slowly workin' down,
An' autumn haze is hangin' in the air.
The fire season's ended an' we've sent the lookouts in;
A rim of ice is on the water pail;
My overalls is tattered, an' my shoes is gettin' thin—
So I've locked the door an' hit the downstream trail
—John C. Frohlicher
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