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.

Monumental

In my last post I wrote about the Confederate monument in Waverly, Missouri. That summer morning, I met two little girls playing near the statue. That got me thinking about the statues I grew up around and the impact they had on me. Like the contested Confederate monuments in Charlottesville or Richmond, we also had a towering man on a horse. The statue was “El Cid Campeador” in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was created in 1927 by Anna Hyatt Huntington, a famous American sculptor. El Cid was a flamboyant Spanish knight brandishing a flag. He looked down on you with furrowed brows, a dagger poised on his belt. So, we too had our mounted military hero with a flag from an extinct nation state.

But that was not my favorite statue. About fifty steps away, in the courtyard of the Hospitality House, was a fountain called “La Tehuana” (Woman of Tehuantepec). She was sculpted in 1935 by local artist Donal Hord. I remember being drawn through the dark Moorish arches into the light of the open courtyard by the sound of falling water. There the stone woman sat, endlessly pouring water from her olla. I had to look up into her serene face, but not too far up. She didn’t tower above me. Instead, it felt like she welcomed me into the embrace of the courtyard and the blue tiled fountain. I could dip my fingers in the water and reach — but never quite touch — the water pouring from the olla. I thought of her as Mother Earth.

I loved her long hair that trailed in two thick braids down her back. Like my hair. And how she sat crossed legged in bare feet, the way I often did. As a little girl, I didn’t think about why I ran to this fountain every time we went to Balboa Park. But looking back on it now, I think I felt validated in her presence. Here, in this public place, women in bare feet with long braids were honored. “La Tehuana” made me feel monumental too.

Day of Remembrance

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19th, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066 forcing all West Coast people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes for confinement in inland detention camps. The families only had a few days to prepare and could only bring what they could carry. Successful businesses, farms ripe with crops, houses, cars, pets, Victory gardens, all had to be hastily sold, leased, given away, or abandoned. The majority of the “evacuees” were imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 without criminal charges or trial. By the end of the war, most had lost everything and had to start over from scratch.

This photograph by Dorothea Lange shows an art student at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, June 16, 1942. The evacuation ordeal is only two months old. Already University of California art professor Chiura Obata has set up art classes for his fellow detainees. This woman is probably only a few miles from home at this point but she’ll end up living in some horrid dusty “camp” in Utah or Arizona for years. She doesn’t know any of this yet. Perhaps art will help her survive. As Delphine Hirasuna wrote, “Everything was lost, except the courage to create.”*

As with all of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, this one is beautifully composed and executed. There’s a compositional tension between the vertical streaks of sunlight coming through the doors behind the artist, and the soft light washing over the horizontal surfaces of the tables. The placement of the larger tables focuses our eye on the small table holding the still life. Beneath the fruit bowl is a folded newspaper. It’s the Pacific Citizen, a weekly journal published by the Japanese American Citizens League. The headline is about the Relocation Centers. The paper has just moved from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to avoid being shut down. It will become the communication lifeline for the imprisoned Japanese American community. The whole scene conveys a quiet strength and dignity.

This image, and about 800 more of Dorothea’s Internment Camp photographs, were censored. Even though the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the “evacuation,” military officials quietly made sure the public never saw the photographs. For many years after the war, Dorothea didn’t know what had become of her work. Eventually, the prints showed up in the National Archives with “Impounded” written across them.

Those in power didn’t want the public to see photographs of well-dressed, middle-class American citizens, mostly women and children, living in horse stalls with open sewers flowing outside their doors. There could be no pictures of guard towers, barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, and especially resistance. No one was supposed to see the depression and despair on the people’s faces. They had been good neighbors, fellow students, church members, valued customers, and upstanding citizens but now, according to war-time propaganda, they looked like the enemy.

Dorothea didn’t see it that way. She had friends behind the barbed wire and quietly focused her camera on the injustice. Others would have to censor her vision.

* from The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 by Delphine Hirasuna.

For more of Dorothea’s photographs see: Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro (Editors).