Friday, October 23, 2015

TOWN COUNCIL A Rainy Night on the Prairie

Entering Valier

The Town Council meeting last night was immediately preceded by a preliminary Valier Local Government Study Commission. It’s supposed to determine which of three “forms of government” the town would like. Presently it’s “Commission Executive.” (Four commissioners and a voteless mayor who manages.) The main change recommended was merging the town’s two wards into one, since the population is shrinking, it becomes ever harder to find people to serve as commissioners, and the whole town is fairly mixed as to prosperity, history, desires, and so on. (75.9% in favor when surveyed.) There was strong support for keeping the nonpartisan elections (93.7%) which is in line with the county and also previous practice. People want their elected officials to get training for the very complex and layered issues and therefore an ordinance is recommended requiring that all elected officials attend classes.

That’s the official story. Unofficially, on the level of gossip, three prominent citizens are moving away: one for a bad reason, being caught in an FBI pedophile sting; one for a neutral reason, moving to be closer to work; and one because of increasing discomfort, partly caused by drifters. Her house is in an area where floaters tend to try to squat, between a drinking establishment and blocks of wheat bins once owned by the government and now clustered on the land of one individual but owned by various grain farmers who separately own the bins according to their needs — some only one, and some more. There are no alarms or lights and poison use is liberal in order to eliminate vermin. In such a shielded but easily accessed place near the highway, it’s not hard to imagine “poisons” in the form of drug sales to finance adventures.

A Memoir about Valier, MT. and the east slope of the Rockies

In the beginning I only idly wanted to write about Valier, but was a little wary. The town is hostile to Ivan Doig, whose memoir “This House of Sky” is one of the “ten best” on lists of literary scholars and popular readers in other places. This is a strange phenomenon that’s also true of James Welch, Jr. on the Blackfeet rez and was true of Wallace Stegner in Eastend, Saskatchewan, until they realized they could make money from his reputation. (The book is “Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.” (1962), in which the town is called “White Mud,” because of a deposit of white clay quite famous for its use in porcelain.

Stegner’s boyhood was just north of here on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Both Doig and Stegner wrote the same story again and again, Doig drifting towards a popular and sentimental fiction style; Stegner becoming more essayist, environmentalist, and universal. Welch was far more inclined to try new subjects, but his readers didn’t like it. Readers, or at least publishers’ understanding of them, are highly conservative and resist anything new or different. “The Indian Lawyer” (1990) offered insight into what he’d learned on the Montana parole board and “The Heartsong of Charging Elk” (2000) explored the French love of Native Americans, but readers cling to “Fools Crow” (1986), a traditional 19th century tale. It remains to be seen whether “Winter in the Blood” (1974) will be read on account of the movie version.

This is a traditional “feathers and horses” story with a strong moral spine.

These three writers are all dead and their books are decades old. Have the rules changed enough to allow writing about Valier? One woman leaned into my face and spat, “If you EVER write about me or my family, I will KILL you!” Why so emphatic? What’s at stake? Nothing less than survival, which they are convinced depends upon reputation. They believe a reputation is something that can be controlled. If you watch Masterpiece Theatre very much, you’ll soon acquire this mindset. It is a Brit bourgeois understanding of culture, dependent on prosperity.

When one drives through Valier, many of the houses and yards seem bright and tended, esp. if one doesn’t go up and down all the streets. Darrell Kipp, when he went through Valier on the way to the Great Falls airport, used to drive up and down all the streets, trying to understand White Town. It remained a mystery to a boy who grew up in Blackfoot, for a long time the terminus of the Great Northern Railroad, so a concentration point for writers and anthropologists, people who wanted to drive up and down the rez. As an adult, Darrell’s house was more elegant inside — good furniture, fine paintings — than most in Valier. The yard was shaping up. It’s yards that obsess Valier — they don’t necessarily want fences, but they want lawns and landscaping as indicators of propriety.

Someone in our quiet little conversation last night said they had noticed that the people who were constantly besieging the town council with complaints and demands tended to have moved to town about the same time I did — 1999. I suppose it was a recession, but I lose track since there is always a succession of recessions. There’s supposed to be a study somewhere. I came from the city, but these tended to be retirees moving in off the ranches and farms that were formed in their youth. Or industrialization in the form of giant machines made their homesteads redundant. Some of the houses followed the people into town.

As the oil industry shrinks and reshapes itself, responding to the world economy and to earthquakes caused by frakking (there was one, very small, north of here a few weeks ago), the Hutterite boys who went to make their fortune on the Bakken are likely to be filtering home, quite changed. What will that do? The Hutterite communities are more involved in Valier than the town thinks. Their schools are managed by ours.

When I inquired about the town’s archives, I was told that most of them have been shifted to Helena. I wonder how much care has been taken of what must seem insignificant to them. But some boxes remained here and among them might be a very interesting period during which Valier was technically not a town because the state had required something the town didn’t supply. They managed to regain their status.

The webwork that ties this town into a potential book is a kind of vascular system of irrigation with its head in the Rocky Mountains where the snowload diminishes yearly. The end is not here in town, but far away by railroad and ship until it reaches nations that the US can control by bargaining with its vast store of grain, more powerful than the threat of bombs, more powerful even than bargaining based on response to disease. Famine is the ultimate, most ancient, killer.

Grain storage bins right in town.

This isn’t just a little town that’s always in the throes of family feuds or mercantile arrogance or entangling fees and regulations. It is a source of life-blood that we are beginning to understand is threatened by experimental grain seeds, climate change, political gridlock at every level, and the constant hydraulic-like pressure of diseases on plants, animals and people, some — like pesticides — ironically turning against our families with cancer and miscarriage. The planet is a sheet of relationships looped together like the fragile fabric of sheer stockings, easily rent and "run" into what the Brits call “ladders.” Going down.

There’s a Finnish man old enough and big enough that he can speak the truth. Last night he was frank: we are all at stake, but only a few will address the problems. They ride on the efforts of others and don’t even admit it. How can they NOT know what is at stake? Their own lives.

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