“There was a man who loved islands. . . . He wanted an island all of his own: not necessarily to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.”
— D. H. Lawrence, “The Man Who Loved Islands”
Lawrence could have been describing Ernest Oberholtzer. Ober’s spirit permeates Mallard Island. You feel it in the whimsical, eclectic dwellings and buildings — Louise Erdrich describes one of the cabins here: “There is the Birdhouse, rising like a Seuss concoction into the pines, story after story, with a zigzag of steps and ladders” (from Books and Islands in Ojibway Country). Little garden plots that dot the island are testaments to Ober’s love of landscape architecture. The pianos, gramophone, shelves of sheet music hold his love of music (Ober played the violin). The porches and many chairs hold memories of his many guests. Oberholtzer’s choices created an idiosyncratic world.
But it is the books on Mallard Island — over 11,000 of them — lovingly collected and well-thumbed, that best reflect Oberholtzer the man.
“Other than actual writing, the books a person leaves behind reflect most accurately the cast of that person’s mind. . . . [Oberholtzer’s] assemblage does reflect his character, as the best collections do, which is why it is is important that the heart of it be restored. His books on exploration, the great north of Canada and the Arctic, and his painstakingly procured works on Native American life, as well as the volumes of poetry he so loved and the works in German and the books on music, probably reflect as much as anyone can know of him.”
— Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibway Country
There are books everywhere. Most of the little cabins and buildings hold hundreds of books. The Oberholtzer Foundation has inventoried them and decided to keep them in the places where Ober himself kept them and used them. To find a particular volume necessitated the development of a unique coding and cataloguing system by title, author, and subject. The books are coded and tagged by the building where they are housed, the wall where they are shelved (N for north, S for south, E for east and W for west), and unique number where they fall chronologically on the shelf.
“The little houses are all lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. They are all full of nooks and crannies, little hidden spaces reached by narrow, steep stairs with still more stuffed bookshelves, trap doors leading down to yet more rooms.”
— Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands
“There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober’s island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a low swell of grief, a panic.”
— Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibway Country
If I have one regret from my six day art residency on Mallard Island, it is that I did not have enough time to be with Oberholtzer’s books. I made painting a priority for my time there, but I could have been equally happy browsing the bookshelves, discovering books that spoke to me, delving into their text and illustrations, and perhaps being inspired to start a book-related art project. I guess I will just have to make an application to return to Mallard Island some day to indulge my bibliophilia.
“Books are our guardians of memory, tutors in language, pathways to reason, and our golden gate to the royal road of imagination. Books take us to new places where boundaries are not set by someone else’s pictures on a television screen and our thoughts are not drowned out by sounds on a boom box. Books help us pose the unimagined question and to accept the unwelcome answer. Books convince rather than coerce. They are oases of coherence where things are put together rather than just taken apart. Good books take us away from the bumper cars of emotion and polemics in the media into trains of thought that can lead us into places we might not otherwise ever discover.
Reading a book can become a private conversation with someone from a time and place other than our own — a voyage into both mastery and mystery.”
— John H. Billington, “The Modern Library and Global Democracy,” from The Meaning of the Library; ed. Alice Crawford
Last week I spent 6 days as one of ten artists in residence on Mallard Island in northern Minnesota. I applied for and was awarded this residency by the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation, whose mission is to maintain the legacy of Ernest Oberholtzer — wilderness preservationist, explorer, book collector, and one of the founders of the Wilderness Society — and his North Woods home on Mallard Island as a “source of inspiration, renewal and connection to Indigenous Peoples, kindred spirits, and the natural world.”
I was the only painter among this year’s group of artists; others included writers, photographers, a sculptor, musicians, a composer, and researchers. The week-long residency offered us time to work on our own individual projects in a supportive and convivial environment. Mallard Island is a tiny island on Rainy Lake, which borders Canada and northern Minnesota. It was remote — I was without internet access or cell phone — and rustic — no hot water nor flush toilets.
I first heard about Mallard Island years ago when I read Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. This was also my introduction to Ernest Oberholtzer, who was instrumental in saving the Quetico-Superior Wilderness from a lumber baron’s plans to dam and alter the Rainy Lake watershed. Here is Erdrich’s brief synopsis of Oberholtzer’s life: “He was born in 1884, grew up in an upper middle-class home in Davenport, Iowa, suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. He went to Harvard, where he made friends with bookish people like Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. His heart kept bothering him. Told by a doctor he had just one year to live, he decided to spend it in a canoe. He traveled three thousand miles in a summer. Paddling a canoe around Rainy Lake watershed and through the Quetico-Superior wilderness was just the thing for his heart, so he kept on paddling. He lived to be ninety-three years old.”
Oberholtzer established his home on Mallard Island — accessible by boat in summer and across frozen ice in winter. Writer Bill Holm, who was also one of Mallard’s artists years ago, described Mallard as one of three “skinny sardines of rock and scrub timber” (Eccentric Islands). Holm continues, “Mallard is only twelve hundred feet from stem to stern, in places as narrow as fifty feet from port to starboard. A leisurely stroll of five minutes will get you from one end to the other. It was not a vast kingdom physically, so Ober set about making it large in other ways.”
Mallard has nine eclectic buildings, three compost toilets, an outdoor sun shower, two pianos, numerous canoes, a wind-up gramophone, and over 11,000 books. It was this personal collection of books in its unique wilderness setting which attracted me to the idea of Mallard Island and led me to investigate the Oberholtzer Foundation’s programs.
I will write in more detail about my week on Mallard Island in some blog posts to follow. For today, I will showcase the watercolor journal pages I completed during my stay, as well as a few other small paintings. Enjoy!
Years ago I drove several times with my young daughter from Seattle to Minnesota, and this month I am embarking on a solo trip across this great swath of America, crossing Washington, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Once again I spent some time reading in preparation for this excursion. This post continues my series about reading my way across America.
Montana is the fourth largest state in size, but ranks 44th in population. I asked the reference librarians at the Missoula Public Library for their recommendations for the best books about Montana or by Montana authors, and Christine made these suggestions:
Fools Crow by James Welch
Anything by Ivan Doig, a beloved Montana author
The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, ed. William Kittredge and Annick Smith
The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan
Tough Trip through Paradise 1878 – 1879 by Andrew Garcia
Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke
A Riddle in Ruby Trilogy by Kent Davis
Any titles, both fiction and nonfiction by Sneed Collard III
Nonfiction books by Dorothy Patent
And these are the books I actually read:
As Good as Gone by Larry Watson. Calvin Sidey has been estranged from his son and daughter since he abandoned them after his wife’s and their mother’s death. Now his son, Bill, needs him to watch over his grandchildren while he is away in Missoula. Bill’s wife is undergoing surgery, and Bill wants to be at her side. So Calvin returns to the small town he left under a cloud years ago. He is rumored to have killed a man (perhaps a false claim) but he definitely abandoned his children, and living as a cowboy for hire and a recluse for many years has not improved his temperament.
Bill’s children harbor some uncomfortable secrets. Daughter Ann has broken up with her boyfriend after he made unwanted advances, and now he is stalking her. Son Will has been suffering peer pressure to engage in things he is simply not comfortable with. Bill himself, a successful real estate businessman, is evicting a single mom whose boyfriend is likely to push back and resist. When Calvin becomes aware of these problems, he steps in the only way he knows how — with Old West frontier eye-for-an-eye mentality. His tough guy techniques bring order and a sense of safety to the children, but Calvin remains a misfit in the culture at large.
English Creekby Ivan Doig (book 1 of the Montana trilogy). Jick McCatskill, age 14, tells the story of his summer in the fictional Two Medicine region of Montana where his father is a forest ranger. Jick describes his father as “a man born to the land.” He says, “[S]tepping out a door somehow seemed to extend him, actually tip his head higher and brace his shoulders straighter, and the farther he went from a house the more he looked like he knew what he was doing.”
Jick loves the great outdoors, too, and looks forward to accompanying his father on the annual sheep counts needed to manage the range allotments in the national forest, helping his uncle harvest the hay fields on his ranch, and sneaking off to his favorite fishing holes.
Jick’s older brother, Alec, starts the summer announcing his intention to marry his girlfriend, a high school senior, and work as a ranch hand rather than attend college. This independence streak causes a rift in the family: “And the entirety here was that my father and my mother rested great hopes on my brother, especially given all that they and others of their generation had endured in the years past, the Depression years they had gotten through by constantly saying within themselves ‘Our children will know better times. They’ve got to.’ Hopes of that sort only parents can know. That Alec seemed not to want to step up in life, now that the chance at last was here, went against my parents’ thinking as much as if he’d declared he was going to go out on the prairie and dig a hole and live a gopher’s existence.” When Alec stated that his parents were “Done running my life,” his Dad’s parting words were: “Nobody’s running it, including you.”
Jick observes that “the fracture of a family is not a thing that happens clean and sharp, so that you at least can calculate that from here on it will begin to be over with. No, it is like one of those worst bone breaks, a shatter, you can mend the place, peg it and splint it and work to strengthen it, and while the surface maybe can be brought to look much as it did before, the deeper vicinity of shatter always remains a split that has to be favored.”
The summer holds fun moments, like the town’s Fourth of July picnic and rodeo, and stressful moments, like a forest fire that refuses to come under control. Jick is a great observer of the characters in his community, his family, and the region, making this a solid story about Montana and its people.
Fools Crow by James Welch. This novel portrays the life of a Blackfeet Indian, Fools Crow, and his family and band during a pivotal time in history. In the 1870s, whites are moving into the territory and the native tribes are beginning to realize co-existence and appeasement is unlikely. The whites have not honored past agreements to give food and blankets in exchange for grazing rights on the land. Now they are encroaching even more, threatening traditional buffalo and hunting grounds. The Indians are at a severe disadvantage — they lack guns and suffer decimation from small pox.
More and more it seems that the whites are covertly trying to eliminate the Indians completely, killing them or driving them from the land. The Indians are divided — some counsel peace; others want to fight to the death. Either way, the Indians lose: “Who betrays who? Those who would seek to drive them from our land or those who would chew meat until there is nothing left?”
The Indians know they face a heartbreaking future: “Either way we will lose. . . . We will lose our grandchildren . . . They will be wiped out or they will turn into Napikwans [whites]. Already some of our children attend their schools at the agency. Our men wear trousers and the women prefer the trade-cloth to skins. We wear their blankets, cook in their kettles, and kill the blackthorns [buffalos] with their bullets. Soon our young women will marry them. . .”
Fools Crow, warrior and medicine man, sees the future in his dreams: “I grieve for our children and their children, who will not know the life their people once lived. I see them . . . and they are dressed like the Napikwans, they watch the Napikwans and learn much from them, but they are not happy. They lose their own way.”
A wise counselor tells him that despite the grim future, he can do much to prepare his people for the times to come: “Much will be lost to them . . . But they will know the way it was. Stories will be handed down, and they will see that their people were proud and lived in accordance with the Below Ones, the Underwater People — and the Above Ones.”
Perhaps James Welch’s novel is his attempt to preserve these stories.
Pictures from an Expedition by Diane Smith. This is the story of a paleontological expedition to the Montana Territory in the summer of 1876. It is told by the expedition’s illustrator, a 30+ year old single woman, who was tasked to document the findings. Her recollections are prompted by a collection of her drawings and paintings, some photographs, letters, journal pages, and the art of her teacher and mentor, an aging eccentric artist, who accompanied her and died there.
The setting along the Missouri River was “a very fossiliferous region,” and scientists were just starting to unearth dinosaur bones in the hope of unveiling the earth’s secrets and our evolutionary past. There was an air of secrecy about the camp — scientists were cutthroat about their discoveries, thefts were not uncommon, and the politics of scholarly research meant that the wealthy scoundrels who funded expeditions often walked away with the credit. Another layer of danger came from the Indians, who were seen as a threat after Custer’s massacre at Little Big Horn.
This was an interesting tale about a woman determined to earn her rightful place with her drawings and illustrations in an unsettling and dangerous time.
High Divide by Lin Enger. In 1886 Ulysses Pope, husband and father, walks away from his wife and two sons without a word of explanation. Before long. the two boys set our west to find him — following a string of clues that lead them to the Dakota and Montana territories. Meanwhile, his wife Gretta begins her own journey, determined to find him but afraid of what she might learn when she does.
We gradually learn that Ulysses is trying to make amends and own up to a secret he has been harboring for years since his military service. He participated in Custer’s massacre of innocent Indian women and children at Washita, and he and a buddy committed a grievous wrong in killing two young Indian boys,
The novel explores the themes of forgiveness and redemption, coming of age, and trust in a marriage against the background of a painful part of American history, the extermination of the Indians, and the near extinction of the buffalo.
The Home Place by Carrie La Seur. Alma is a corporate lawyer in Seattle who left Billings, Montana at age 17 to go to college, never looking back. Now she is pulled back into her dysfunctional family life after the death of her younger sister. Was this death an accident or a murder? As Alma picks up the pieces of her sister’s troubled life, she is forced to confront her 0wn past — why she left the home place she still loves, her struggling family, and her high school boyfriend.
“[S]he loves the feeling of the great open lands, the ranges she’s hiked and skied, the peace and isolation of the plains, the fortress of solitude. It holds the greatest safety, this land, once you know how to live on it. Nothing can come at you across the high plains that you can’t see from miles away.”
All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family by Mary Clearman Blew. These essays tell the stories of Blew’s family going back to her great-grandparents arrival in the Montana territory in 1882 and ending with the dissolution of her second marriage in the 1980s. Her reminisces are not romantically tinged. The tough Montana environment — droughts, depressed agricultural economies — took its toll on the people of the land, and Blew’s family suffered its losses, not always gracefully. When Blew disappointed her father by leaving Montana to attend graduate school, she remembers her father’s words: “Somewhere you got the idea in your head that you know something, but you don’t know a goddamned thing.”
Blew’s great-grandfather moved to Montana while employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad as a surveyor. “It was Abraham’s task to transform a thousand square miles of primeval grassland into straight lines and right angles on a map, to convert landscape into property.” Blew remarks on the impact of surveying on our culture and way of seeing our world: “Surveying is the application of geometry and trigonometry to achieve a representation of the land on a reduced scale. Surveying exchanges one perspective for another; it exchanges the physical for the abstract. As land is measured, it shrinks into its dollar equivalent. It can be purchased or sold. With its conversion into capital, land loses its primacy; it becomes a resource.” For the white settlers to the region, strangers in a strange, desolate land, the cure for discomfort was transforming the “wasteland” into something economically profitable.
Another of the darker interpretations of her family’s history includes her father’s and neighbor’s intolerance of recent Hutterite arrivals. Blew says, “It is curious that westerners, so tolerant of the eccentric, the loner, or the crazed, so ready to make a folk hero out of a Butch Cassidy or and Long George Francis, can simultaneously harbor such dread of cultural difference — although perhaps it is inevitable that westerners, made up entirely of displacers, should fear displacement.”
Like all families, Blew’s was a mixed bag of individuals who in their own ways, lived, loved, and lost in the wide open spaces of the Montana landscape.
Brown Dog of the Yaakby Rick Bass. Rick Bass and his family are one of 150 human inhabitants of the Yaak Valley, “the wildest valley in the lower forty-eight,” in remote northwestern Montana. Bass is an activist fighting to preserve the last wild places like the Yaak against the threat of logging and development. In this book, Bass writes about art and activism, their sometimes oppositional pulls; he learns that he has to reconcile both, live with both in his life: “There is no choice. If you love a piece of country or an issue, and see that subject being harmed, you have to act.” He says, “You have to engage with your beloved, even in the face of impending loss — especially in the face of that loss — as a means of showing honor and respect to the subject.”
I especially enjoyed Bass’s thoughts about living life versus writing about it. He says, “. . .it is important to know when to get up from your desk, and when to sit down at it — and that you move back and forth between the two places, living versus writing, with some semblance of balance (lest you disappear) — and that you try always to remember that the subject is more important, or more powerful, than the shadow of the subject, which is your artistic treatment of the thing.” And, “. . . it seems a great danger to me for a writer to become lost in or too much in love with, the shadows themselves, and his or her trafficking in them, rather than the objects themselves, which cast those shadows.”
Bass’s reflections on art, writing and activism are interwoven with the story of his beloved dog, Coulter, who disappeared when he was just four years old. You could see how certain anchors — the land, family, a beloved pet — sustain and sculpt Bass, like all of us as, individuals and artists.
A Riddle in Ruby Book 2 by Kent Davis. This is a story of adventure and paranormal talents. Ruby is a thief and a pirate’s daughter. Her mother was a grandmaster alchemyst who forged a secret in her daughter’s blood before she abandoned the family. Ruby apparently has magical talents, too — she can change shape, but so far she has not discovered how to manage this skill. Now enemies have kidnapped her and seek to uncover and decode the mysterious secret in her blood. Ruby uses her wits to survive in the prison, which doubles as a training school for hundreds of orphaned cadets. Meanwhile, her father and a few faithful friends are on an adventure-filled journey of their own to find Ruby and save her.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. This novel about a young single woman homesteading in eastern Montana was inspired by the author’s great-grandmother Hattie. We read about one year on the prairie — 1918 — “the days of Model Ts rather than covered wagons.”
The fictional Hattie was orphaned at age 3. Now, at 16, she learns she has inherited an unproved claim on 320 acres near Vida, Montana. Having been shuffled from relative to relative during her childhood, Hattie is drawn to the idea of having a real home, and she strikes out to complete the requirements of proving the claim before it expires in one year’s time. Her uncle had fulfilled one of those requirements — building a house (a claim shack, really). But Hattie would need to build about 8000 feet of fence, cultivate 40 acres, and pay a final fee of $37.75 before she could take title to the farm.
Like many homesteaders, Hattie had no idea how hard it would be to farm profitably in this part of the country, which suffered from heat, drought, grasshoppers, and other hardships. She observes, “There was too much promised of eastern Montana.” When writing one of her letters to a school friend, Charlie, who was now serving in WWI France, Hattie thinks, “I guessed Charlie and I were in the same boat. We’d both signed up for something we’d envisioned as heroic and glamorous. The heroism and glamour might be there somewhere, but you had to dig and scrape and scrabble through the dirt, pain, and misery to find it. Assuming you could find it.”
Hattie finds help and support from kind and generous neighbors — Perilee and her husband Karl, a German immigrant; Rooster Jim; and Leafie. But sentiments in the town run high against German immigrants — Perilee’s children are bullied at school, their Lutheran preacher is forbidden to conduct services in German, Karl’s fences are vandalized and torn out, and their barn is burned down, killing the milk cow and calf. Hattie learns the importance of standing up for her values despite pressure and adversity: “It’d been something big to ship myself out here, to work on Uncle Chester’s claim. But I was beginning to see there were bigger things in life than proving up on a claim. I was proving up on life.”
With hard work, Hattie may have succeeded, but fate intervened. Hail destroyed her newly cut flax and wheat before they could be harvested, and she lost her crops. Then the Spanish flu struck the area, and Perilee’s little daughter died. Peril and Karl decided to move away because everywhere they looked reminded them of their loss. Hattie would move on, too.
But she looked upon her efforts as a valuable experience in spite of her failure to keep the land. “The blessing is that these heartbreaks are but a few of the patches in my prairie year quilt.” She finished the year rich in friendships, and young enough for a new adventure.
Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James. This book won the 1927 Newbery Award for best children’s book of the year. While it would appeal to youngsters who love horses, it seems an odd choice to me because there are no juvenile characters in it until a few pages near the end when an unnamed girl takes the horse out riding.
Smoky begins his life as a wild range mustang on the prairie. After five years, he is captured and broken in by Clint to become a cow horse on the Rocking R Ranch. Clint immediately falls in love with Smoky and honors his wild spirit even as he trains the horse to cattle work. Smoky is an outstanding work horse, and all is well until he is stolen by a horse thief and taken out of state.
The horse thief cannot control nor ride Smoky, and now Smoky’s years of abuse and punishment begin. Smoky eventually escapes the thief, but is once again captured and put to the rodeo circuit where he is known as the Cougar. He is the wildest of bucking broncs and builds a reputation as untamable. Years there take their toll, and the horse is sold as a riding horse to a stable owner who names him Cloudy. Too old even for that work, he is let go to another abusive man.
Quite serendipitously, Clint crosses path with the beaten, dispirited horse and recognizes his former prize animal. Clint rescues Smoky and gives him a loving retirement, hoping to restore his wild spirit. In the end, they succeed.
The author lived part of his life on a ranch in Montana.
The Governor’s Dog is Missing! by Sneed B. Collard III. 12-year-olds Slate Stephens and Daphne McSweeney are spending the summer in Helena, Montana’s capital, while their geologist fathers are out in the field studying earthquake faults in the area. When the youngsters hear that the governor’s beloved dog, Cat (named for the Caterpillar tractor), has disappeared, they set out to find it. As they gather clues and sleuth around Helena, we learn odd facts about Montana civics — for example, the state legislature meets only every other year. This was not a complex narrative; it would be suitable for youngsters just starting chapter books.
Hangman’s Goldby Sneed B. Collard III. This book its a sequel to The Governor’s Dog is Missing! During the final weeks of summer, Slate and Daphne accompany their fathers to the Montana ghost town of Bannack. While their fathers work out in the field doing geologic research for a gold mining company, Slate and Daphne find an apparent treasure map in the derelict schoolhouse. They are convinced vigilantes from 150 years ago buried gold, and they set out to find the treasure.
In the meantime, a thief steals two priceless Charles Russell paintings from a university art museum in the nearby town of Dillon. The criminal is on the loose and believed to still be in the area. Rather predictably, Slate and Daphne cross paths with the thief and are instrumental in bringing him to justice. Both of Collard’s books are platforms for bringing interesting tidbits from Montana’s history to life.
The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale by Sneed B. Collard III. I liked this nonfiction book better than Collard’s fiction. Every third weekend in May, visitors and locals converge in Miles City for a horse sale and rodeo. The Miles City Bucking Horse Sale began in 1951 “as a way to get rid of wild or ‘spoiled’ horses that ranchers couldn’t use.” Cowboys ride each bucking horse, and immediately after the horse is auctioned off.
The author gives a short history of horse culture and history in the western plains. The region gave rise to the horse-based native nations of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow and Blackfeet. When white settlers sought to remove the Indians, Army cavalry units arrived: “Montana became so well known for horses that the U.S. Army converted Fort Keogh — outside Miles City — into the nation’s largest remount station in 1909.” The military continued to use horses throughout WWI, shipping Montana horses to battlefields in Europe. The use of automobiles and trucks coincided with the interest in rodeos as sport. So the timing was good for the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale to thrive.
Miles City itself is a perfect Western town to host the sale. Back in the day, it was the model of a wild west town. In 1880 the local paper noted: “we have twenty-three saloons in our town and they all do a good business; we are going to have one church soon. . .”
Today the World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is a multi-day festival with local parade, pie-eating contest, bull riding, kiddie sheep riding (mutton bustin’), horse races and the main draw, bucking broncs, both bareback and saddle. I think I will have to put this event on my bucket list!
Animals on the Trail with Lewis and Clark and Plants on the Trail with Lewis and Clark by Dorothy Henshaw Patent. These nonfiction books for children are well-written overviews of the Corps of Discovery’s expedition exploring the Louisiana Purchase and finding a route to the Pacific Ocean. The books are illustrated with photos by William Munoz. Meriwether Lewis was tasked with making observations of the flora, fauna, and natural world and documenting these finds with journal notes and specimen samples. Over the course the expedition, the Corps found 121 new species of vertebrate animals and they collected 239 plant specimens, most species new to science at the time Lewis collected them.