Sunday, February 8, 2009

Willa Cather and My Grandfather's Peace Pipe

Willa Cather, knew all about the power of material things, as this description from Lucy Gayheart shows: "Lucy stuck the telegram in her mirror and hurriedly began to dress. She was thinking that years from now, when she would probably be teaching piano to the neighbours' children in Haverford, nothing would recall this part of her life more vividly, or make it seem so real, as that slip of paper."

I have most of Cather's books, two copies of some of my favorites. I prefer the buff-colored Vintage Classic editions. Unlike most paperbacks, whose covers and spines bend and crack, these are supple and flexible, with a clothlike feel that makes them comfortable to hold even with one hand. I got my Vintage Classic edition of Lucy Gayheart, along with several other books, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, at the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial. They cost more than they would have if I bought them used or on Amazon, but I enjoy knowing that they come from the very town where she spent most of her childhood.

There is much of Cather's own material culture in Red Cloud, but the object I remember most didn't belong to her at all, but to Annie Sadilek, the real woman on whom My Antonia is based. I will never forget standing in a frame house, in the tiny bedroom where she slept. Seeing her modest iron bed and faded quilt was incredibly moving. I love My Antonia. It pulses with life, not only Antonia's, but the life of the prairie, where there is "motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping."

Cather's descriptions -- of the wolves chasing the bridal party's sleigh through the snowy forest or of Mr. Shimerda frozen in a pool of his own blood on the barn floor -- form part of my mind's architecture. And I will never forgive Jim for his inability to respond to Antonia, for his need always to see her as a mythologized set piece in his imagined Arcadia.

I'm not sure I understand my fascination with things touched by those I admire, the pull that draws me to visit places like Red Cloud so I can stand where Cather stood, see the very Bible in which she changed the date of her birth (making herself three years younger), touch the white picket fence surrounding her home. But in addition to the books, several objects in my own home intersect with the same cross-country trip that took us to Red Cloud and other places where imagined and real lives blend together.

After we left Nebraska, we headed north, taking in the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Wall Drugstore, the Corn Palace. My partner (who prefers to be known in these pages as "Frink") will never let me forget that we drove a hundred miles out of the way and paid a farmer $3.00 to see what Frink calls "The Hole in the Ground." But this wasn't any hole in the ground; it was the actual place where Pa built the dugout described in The Little House on Plum Creek. I snipped a few stalks of grass from the field bordering the creek, which I keep in a vase of dried flowers. Seeing them makes me feel a tangible connection to Laura, who lives in my mind as surely as the grass grows next to the hole in the ground on the banks of that creek. (Truth be told, this was the second hole in the ground we visited on this road trip; we also saw the wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail, which sent shivers up my spine but left Frink cold.)

We also went to Pipestone National Monument, on the South Dakota/Minnesota border. I didn't even know that the monument existed, but as soon as I saw it on the map, I wanted to go there to trace the history of one of the few things I own that once belonged to my grandfather.

My grandfather was the black sheep of his family, a heroin addict and drunk who abandoned his family in the 1930s when my father was six. My father never spoke of him and even changed his own
first name to distance himself from a man he seemed to resent bitterly until the end of his life. (Of course, the fact that his first name was Wirt might have had something to do with the name change.) I know little about my grandfather, but I do have a few photographs of him. In one, he is about 13 years old. He stands, looking out with a more imperious version of my father's face, his hands resting on a beautiful, long-legged white dog. This formal drawing-room photograph does not at all jibe with the whispers I have heard about my grandfather, or with another of his things that has been passed down to me: a brick-red stone peace pipe, which I've been told he purchased in 1905 on a trip to Yellowstone. So, when I saw how close we were to the pipestone quarry, we veered again to visit yet another hole in the ground. Frink liked this one far better than the first two.

Pipestone National Monument is small and lovely, with a bubbling creek, a pretty waterfall, and the thin seams of pipestone from which Native Americans still quarry their sacred pipestone. The artist George Catlin, who collected Native American pipes (especially the pornographic effigy models), recorded the origin of the pipestone:

At an ancient time, the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it. (Sioux account of the origin of the pipestone, as told to George Catlin, 1836, from park website.)

By the time Catlin was collecting and drawing such pipes, they were being produced for the tourist trade, and I'm sure my grandfather's pipe was never used in a sacred ceremony. But it is weighty and beautiful in its simple elegance, decorated only with rows of concentric circles carved on the bowl and stem ends. I keep it on a bookshelf in the living room, nowhere near the Cather books, which are upstairs in my office, or the prairie grass, which is in a green vase on the dining room buffet.

Still, these things are all connected in my mind -- Willa Cather's novels, a prairie landscape which for most of my life I knew only from books, a pipe held by a grandfather I will never know at all. The thing that unites them might be simply the roadtrip through the prairies, but it feels deeper than that, like the prairie itself. I remember hearing somewhere that for every six feet of grass growing on a prairie, there are 18 feet of roots growing beneath the ground. That's how these objects feel to me. Somewhere under the surface they are all tangled together, woven by memory and imagination and by a longing for something that remains elusive and mute. It can only be felt, like the heft of a cool stone pipe in my hands.

Click here Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial website. (If you're a photographer, you may be interested in their current photography contest.)

Click here to visit Pipestone National Monument.


  1. Welcome to the blogging world! The most fun I've had in years and such wonderful people from all over the world. It takes a while to get your blog out there, but it happens and people begin to come and it's great. Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your comments. Always appreciated!

  2. Lovely post.

    There's a wonderful song - 'Montana Song' - by David Ackles on his "American Gothic" album that covers similar ground; I thought of it as I read this. It ends:

    A man and wife are buried here
    Children to the land
    With young green tendrils in her hair
    And seedlings in his hand

    Deeply romantic songs like this opened me to moving to the U.S. Your story would have done the same.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement Sylvia & Richard. I'll look for Montans Song. The lyrics for some reason remind me of that poem by Frost with the line "The land was ours before we were the lands." I'm glad your part of this land, too!