Packed Away

“I felt instinctively that should she ever decide to move one of the surrounding mountains to the other side of the canyon, she would go about it calmly and deliberately, some evening after supper, perhaps. And she would move it – every stick and stone of it – and would ask no help.”

~ Nell Murbarger
“Josie Pearl, Prospector on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert”
Desert Magazine, August, 1954.

The West is rich in stories about strong, independent women. You may have to scratch the surface to find them, but they’re always there. Of course there’s your standard-issue pioneer wives, cowgirls, and widowed ranch women who run the place singlehandedly once their man is gone. But there are others who don’t fit the comfortable categories we’re used to pinning on them. Lately I’ve been thinking about two such gals. They never knew each other but they have one odd thing in common, an extravagance I find hard to explain.

The first is Nellie Bly Baker O’Bryan. Early in life, Nellie seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a gutsy mountain mama. She started out working as a secretary for Charley Chaplin’s film company, First National Studio. Chaplin noticed her and invited her to play bit parts in his silent films. Eventually Nellie acted in 13 films alongside the likes of Joan Crawford, Edna Purviance, and Chaplin himself. She wasn’t a star, but work was steady and the pay was good. She’d made it in Hollywood.

By 1939, Tinsel Town had lost its luster and she took off for the rugged Sierra. She bought the ramshackle remains of a remote mining camp named Lundy near Mono Lake. She built her home out of boards scavenged from weathered shacks. Eventually she constructed four more cabins, a store, and a restaurant and christened her place the “Happy Landing Resort”. She lived year-round in this remote, avalanche prone canyon and became California’s first licensed fishing and hiking guide. Nellie toughed it out in Lundy until she was almost 60.

I once heard a story about Nellie’s first winter. She was freezing in her makeshift cabin during a typical Sierra blizzard. Snow blew through the cracks and she’d thrown every quilt and blanket she owned on the bed. Through her shivering she remembered a full-length fur coat packed away in a trunk. In desperation, she dug through the trunk, found the coat, turned it inside out, wrapped herself up in the furry cocoon and got back into bed. She said it was the first time she’d been warm in a week.

Many years after hearing Nellie’s story, I encountered the tale of Josie Pearl. She was a bona fide desert rat whose “retirement” cabin sat in a canyon on the edge of the Black Rock Desert. Josie had lived in boomtowns most of her life. She waitressed, ran boarding houses, prospected, and mined — mostly for gold. She was good at it too. When journalist Ernie Pyle visited her in the 1930s, he wrote, “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismated pair of men’s shoes, and on her left hand and wrist $6000 worth of diamonds! That was Josie — contradiction all
over …”

Pyle noted something else that, after Nellie’s story, came as no surprise. Inside Josie’s rough cabin was an “expensive wardrobe trunk with a $7,000 seal skin coat inside …” Of course! No hard-ass Western hermit woman would be without one.

There’s no mention of Josie ever sleeping in her fur coat. Or maybe she did sleep in it but didn’t think it worth mentioning. We’ll never know. The funny thing is, every winter when the blizzards start blowing, I think about those fur coats packed away in trunks. Now I’m not a fan of wearing furs. I was brought up when magazines featured Greenpeace pictures of pathetic baby harp seals about to be bludgeoned. But I realize that fur coats used to have a mystique for women that they don’t have now. They represented luxury and status. In cold northern cities, they actually kept you warm. But when Nellie and Josie were young, well-off married women, a warm fur coat was hardly necessary in Hollywood, California or Goldfield, Nevada.

So why did these women haul expensive fur coats out to their ratty cabins in the  sagebrush? It’s hard to imagine many opportunities to dress up in your fur and heels. If they didn’t have a practical use, what purpose did they serve?

Maybe they were like money in the bank — you could always take them to Reno and pawn them in a pinch. But jewelry or coins would have been handier for that.

Maybe it had to do with a certain feminine ideal they couldn’t part with? As long as they owned a fur coat, they were in some magical way, a “lady” by association. Maybe they remembered a woman who felt at home in a more glamorous world.

And they didn’t want to forget her.

Cranes in the Family

I love this historic Nevada picture! A Newe (Shoshone) gal and her tame Sandhill crane head out for a day of gathering … or gardening? She has her hoe and her basket and a bemused smile on her face as if to say, “What? You don’t have a pet this cool?”

If you want to know what it’s like to be adopted by a crane, read Dayton O. Hyde’s book, Sandy: The Sandhill Crane Who Joined Our Family. After rescuing an egg from floodwaters, Dayton gets it to hatch and has a feathered friend for life.

All that happened decades ago, before cranes became a protected species. Hatching out wild bird eggs is generally frowned upon these days. But there are marshes, irrigated fields, and riparian areas in the high desert where cranes will mosey up close, if you sit quietly and thank them for their long standing friendship.

Historic photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

Aloha Owyhee!

Most folks don’t realize Oregon was originally settled by Hawaiians. For decades following Lewis and Clark’s trip down the Columbia River, Hawaiians made up most of the non-Native workforce in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They built the first forts and villages along the Columbia River, and journeyed thousands of miles inland as part of  exploratory surveys. They left their mark in unlikely places, like the high arid rangelands of Eastern Oregon. The Owyhee River is named after three Hawaiians who disappeared there in the winter of 1819-1820. (“Owyhee” was a common spelling of “Hawai’i” back then.)

European, American, and Asian trading ships regularly sailed into port on the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s. Many Hawaiians took the opportunity to explore the far reaches of the Pacific by signing on with companies competing for the North American fur trade. These islanders possessed all the maritime skills needed for survival in the Pacific: navigation, boat building, fishing, and swimming. Swimming might seem like an essential skill for any sailor, but in the early 1800s most Europeans and Americans didn’t know how to swim. As a precaution, at least one Hawaiian was assigned to every boat, ready to rescue any person or cargo that went overboard.

If a Hawaiian wanted to go to sea, they requested permission from their ruling monarch. The Aliʻi generally set limits on the length of employment and specified the compensation. And he expected his subjects to return to the islands. Many survivors did return with fabulous stories they retold for the rest of their lives. Others came back to visit but were anchored to the mainland by marriages with native people or, occasionally, European and American settlers. Many Indian families in Oregon Territory still have Hawaiian names.

This congenial mixing of Pacific Rim people encountered resistance when American settlers arriving overland from the East began to outnumber the people who were already here. Among this influx of Easterners was Samuel Thurston. He was described by one biographer as  “young, brilliant, handsome, splendidly educated, with an indomitable will, and almost insanely ambitious.” One of Thurston’s self-appointed goals was to exclude African Americans and Hawaiians from Oregon Territory. As the territory’s Congressional delegate in 1850,  he won passage of a land grant act that legally closed the door on anyone who wasn’t white or a half-white/Native American mix. Thurston described Hawaiians as “a race of men as black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.” After Thurston and his ilk had their way, Hawaiians could not own land, become citizens, vote, purchase liquor or testify against “whites” in court. The territory at that time included the future states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some of Oregon’s racists laws remained on the books for more than a hundred years.

Many Hawaiian families in the Oregon Territory moved to Canada where they were welcomed as full-fledged citizens; some hid out with their native families on Indian reservations protected by the tribes’ sovereign status. But some stayed right where they were, as revealed by newspapers published on the islands. An article from Ka Lau Oliva, December, 1874, told of a Hawaiian woman who gathered Hawaiian language newspapers and books and sent them through a friend to Hawaiians living in Oregon. To express their gratitude, the Oregonians sent her a barrel of kāmano (salmon), “along with our warm aloha.”

And what would people on the islands do with a barrel of salted salmon? Make the popular luau dish, lomi-lomi salmon, of course! You see, everything just naturally flows together and no one can kill Oregon’s aloha spirit.

 

Photo: Sisters Luau, Sisters, Oregon, 2015, Jerry Baldock photographer.

Waking Up the Wheel Lines

Irrigation season always seems to start before I expect it. I associate the pssst, pssst, pssst of the impact sprinklers with warmth and sun. But the hay fields start growing as soon as the snow melts, so away we go.

Some mornings the ice sculptures are dazzling. I should have left a half hour sooner so I could explore the fancy filigree and not be late. Sometimes, you just have to be late.

Barnyard Ikebana

Ikebana is a form of sculpture that exists only within a limited time span, transforms from moment to moment, then perishes. 

 ~ Akane Teshigahara

When I was a teenager, my grandaddy took me to an exhibit of Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We walked into a long room glowing with diffuse sunlight and spectacular flowers. At least a hundred vases graced the tables lining the walls. We slowly walked past each one, admiring not only the blossoms themselves but the sculptural quality of every element within the arrangement. My grandaddy, a painter and gardener himself, used his hands to explain to me what he liked about certain arrangements. He talked about movement, balance, suggestion, grace — intangible qualities the flower arrangers conveyed with understated perfection. He’d taken a risk that I was ripe to appreciate the artistic spirit of Ikebana — and he’d guessed right. I ate it up.

After that day, I saw the world differently. I began to notice the underlying beauty surrounding my everyday life. The simplicity, spontaneity, and seasonal reverence behind Ikebana became my aesthetic practice. Or maybe I should say it became my aesthetic play, because that’s really what its’ about — fooling around. Seeing how things go together. Or don’t. Experimenting with what’s lying about. Arranging a small corner of the world.

For instance, there’s a retired farm nearby where hundred-year-old orchard trees drop fruit for squirrels and deer to glean. The other day, I picked up an apple as I wandered through the old barnyard. I sensed that apple had artistic aspirations before it became wildlife fodder, so we tried out a few ideas before I tossed it back in the deep grass. Is this Ikebana? I’m not sure, but it felt like it for a playful autumn hour.