Thursday, September 8, 2011

letters of a woman homesteader (a sort of book review)

Last month, in anticipation of my upcoming birthday (now just 20 days away for anyone who cares) I splurged on a Kindle for myself. I had found myself in conversation with a friend about our respective histories as readers and overcome with sadness contemplating how my own reading has tapered off to such a drizzle from the torrent it once was. It's been a confluence of factors: motherhood, the forced reading march through law school, entire days now spent glued to a computer screen. My best (and almost only) pleasure reading in recent years has taken place in the hammock overlooking Green Lake, on vacation. 

I'd been coveting a Kindle ever since we bought one for Hank's mom last Christmas and I thought maybe, just maybe, having an entire library on a wafer-thin device would restore my reading to at least a respectable stream once again. So I took the plunge.

Of course, having bought the thing, I needed something to read. An aside: I find it very frustrating to have hundreds of books sitting on my shelves, bought and paid for, many from Amazon, but no way to transfer them to my Kindle. One of the brilliant aspects of iTunes, in my opinion, is the manner in which a CD can be imported into iTunes and then, voila! it can be transferred to my iPod. If Amazon was clever, I think they'd come up with a system whereby one could (at a minimum) download for free to Kindle an e-copy of any book that user had purchased from Amazon. Tell me why that wouldn't work.

Anyway, I began shopping for books to download and quickly realized that I could very easily rack up a bill equal to the cost of the device in a matter of moments. And so I turned to the free downloads. Many books in the public domain have been made available free for Kindle. I bypassed the piles of Jane Austen I'd already read and downloaded Dickens' Bleak House, recommended to me by a colleague at the ICSOM conference in the context of discussions about bankruptcy; Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I've never read; and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, also new to me. And I spotted a book called Letters of a Woman Homesteader, which looked like it was right up my alley. Boy was I right.

These letters were written by Elinore Pruitt Rupert Stewart to a former employer between 1909 and 1913 from her homestead in Burnt Fork, Wyoming. It's not entirely clear what happened to her first husband, but after a stint working as a domestic in Denver, she and her small daughter Jerrine headed out to Burnt Fork, where she was to work for Mr. Clyde Stewart and intended to stake her own claim to a homestead there. The writing is sophisticated, colorful and energetic--and her dry wit is a delight. Here is her description of the drive and her situation upon arriving in Burnt Fork in April of 1909:
Meantime my new employer, Mr. Stewart, sat upon a stack of baggage and was dreadfully concerned about something he calls his "Tookie," but I am unable to tell you what that is. The road, being so muddy, was full of ruts and the stage acted as if it had the hiccoughs and made us all talk as though we were affected in the same way. Every time the stage struck a rock or a rut Mr. Stewart would "hoot," until I began to wish we would come to a hollow tree or a hole in the ground so he could go in with the rest of the owls. 
At last we "arriv," and everything is just lovely for me. I have a very, very comfortable situation and Mr. Stewart is absolutely no trouble, for as soon as he has his meals he retires to his room and plays on his bagpipe, only he calls it his "bugpeep." It is "The Campbells are Coming," without variations, at intervals all day long and from seven till eleven at night. Sometimes I wish they would make haste and get here. 
There is a saddle horse especially for me and a little shotgun with which I am to kill sage chickens. We are between two trout streams, so you can think of me as being happy when the snow is through melting and the water gets clear. We have the finest flock of Plymouth Rocks and get so many nice eggs. It sure seems fine to have all the cream I want after my town experiences. Jerrine is making good use of all the good 
things we are having. She rides the pony to water every day. 
I have not filed on my land yet because the snow is fifteen feet deep on it, and I think I would rather see what I am getting, so will wait until summer. They have just three seasons here, winter and July and August. We are to plant our garden the last of May. When it is so I can get around I will see about land and find out all I can and tell you.
Yes, you noticed! She had chickens!!! And not just any old chickens, but Plymouth Rocks.

In May, as expected, she went to Green River, WY to register her claim. The trip there and back took a week. Here is her description of the evening of the first day of travel, bordering on rhapsodic:
The sagebrush is so short in some places that it is not large enough to make a fire, so we had to drive until quite late before we camped that night. After driving all day over what seemed a level desert of sand, we came about sundown to a beautiful cañon, down which we had to drive for a couple of miles before we could cross. In the cañon the shadows had already fallen, but when we looked up we could see the last shafts of sun-light on the tops of the great bare buttes. Suddenly a great wolf started from somewhere and galloped along the edge of the cañon, outlined black and clear by the setting sun. His curiosity overcame him at last, 
so he sat down and waited to see what manner of beast we were. I reckon he was disappointed for he howled most dismally. I thought of Jack London's "The Wolf." 
After we quitted the cañon I saw the most beautiful sight. It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun's last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes. The beautiful colors turned to amber and rose, and then to the general tone, dull gray. Then we stopped to camp, and such a scurrying around to gather brush for the fire and to get supper! Everything tasted so good! Jerrine ate like a man. Then we raised the wagon tongue and spread the wagon sheet over it and made a bedroom for us women. We made our beds on the warm, soft sand and went to bed. 
It was too beautiful a night to sleep, so I put my head out to look and to think. I saw the moon come up and hang for a while over the mountain as if it were discouraged with the prospect, and the big white stars flirted shamelessly with the hills. I saw a coyote come trotting along and I felt sorry for him, having to hunt food in so barren a place, but when presently I heard the whirr of wings I felt sorry for the sage chickens he had disturbed. At length a cloud came up and I went to sleep, and next morning was covered several inches with snow. It didn't hurt us a bit, but while I was struggling with stubborn corsets and shoes I communed with myself, after the manner of prodigals, and said: "How much better that I were down in Denver, even at Mrs. Coney's, digging with a skewer into the corners seeking dirt which might be there, yea, even eating codfish, than that I should perish on this desert -- of imagination." So I turned the current of my imagination and fancied that I was at home 
before the fireplace, and that the backlog was about to roll down. My fancy was in such good working trim that before I knew it I kicked the wagon wheel, and I certainly got as warm as the most "sot" Scientist that ever read Mrs. Eddy could possibly wish.
I can imagine finding it too beautiful a night to sleep on a bed of soft, warm sand, sheltering under only a wagon tongue and a sheet of canvas, with the discouraged moon and flirtatious stars above and coyotes and sage chickens playing out a drama alongside. Although I'd expect after a full day of hard driving sleep would come easily. And I can't imagine being even remotely cheerful about waking up covered in several inches of snow. In May.

So much of this book spoke to me. Elinore was full of spirit and humanity. She understood the value in a life lived close to the earth, at a time when, thanks to the industrial revolution, more and more people were moving to the cities and seeking their fortunes away from the land. Spending my days as I do now, tethered to a desk laden with electronic devices, mostly sedentary, I very often think we've got it all wrong. My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression, close to privation and borne of that generation that believed city living was synonymous with a better life. They always cautioned me not to work too hard--by which they meant physical labor. Physical labor was to be avoided; desirable was the modern life in which machines did the hard work for us, liberating our bodies and minds for more pleasurable pursuits. But the joke was on us because the way that story came out has us laboring every bit as hard as our forebears--except instead of doing so in the open air, moving our limbs about and feeling the sun and wind on our skin, we breathe stale, conditioned air, rarely rise from our desks and only see the sun and the wind as they course through our urban concrete cañons, on the other side of the glass. And then we wonder why we're so sick and depressed all the time.

Even in 1913, when the choice was between hard physical labor on one's own land and hard physical labor in the service of another, I think Elinore had it right:
When I read of the hard times among the Denver poor, I feel like urging them every one to get out and file on land. I am very enthusiastic about women homesteading. It really requires less strength and labor to raise plenty to satisfy a large family than it does to go out to wash, with the added satisfaction of knowing that their job will not be lost to them if they care to keep it. Even if improving the place does go slowly, it is that much done to stay done. Whatever is raised is the homesteader's own, and there is no house-rent to pay. This year Jerrine cut and dropped enough potatoes to raise a ton of fine potatoes. She wanted to try, so we let her, and you will remember that she is but six years old. We had a man to break the ground and cover the potatoes for her and the man irrigated them once. That was all that was done until digging time, when they were ploughed out and Jerrine picked them 
up. Any woman strong enough to go out by the day could have done every bit of the work and put in two or three times that much, and it would have been so much more pleasant than to work so hard in the city and then be on starvation rations in the winter.  
To me, homesteading is the solution of all poverty's problems, but I realize that temperament has much to do with success in any undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone. At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end. 
Here I am boring you to death with things that cannot interest you! You'd think I wanted you to homestead, wouldn't you? But I am only thinking of the troops of tired, worried women, sometimes even cold and hungry, scared to death of losing their places to work, who could have plenty to eat, who could have good fires by gathering the wood, and comfortable homes of their own, if they 
but had the courage and determination to get them.
Of course I've never had to live as she did and perhaps it would have broken me. Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of an idyllic agrarian fantasy. And perhaps I have the best of all possible worlds, putting my wits to work in the service of good people most days, dipping into the well of creativity to make music on some days, and, between times, stepping out into my yard to cultivate food for our table. And I've never had to awaken outdoors in several inches of snow. But the photos of the ruddy and vigorous Elinore at this page suggest she was nothing but content with her lot!

If you want to read the book, you should probably stop reading now, because I can't resist including Elinore's account of how she finally managed to prove all she set out to prove. Listen to this recitation of abundance:
I never did like to theorize, and so this year I set out to prove that a woman could ranch if she wanted to. We like to grow potatoes 
on new ground, that is, newly cleared land on which no crop has been grown. Few weeds grow on new land, so it makes less work. So I selected my potato-patch, and the man ploughed it, although I could have done that if Clyde would have let me. I cut the potatoes, Jerrine helped, and we dropped them in the rows. The man covered them, and that ends the man's part. By that time the garden ground was ready, so I planted the garden. I had almost an acre in vegetables. I irrigated and I cultivated it myself. 
We had all the vegetables we could possibly use, and now Jerrine and I have put in our cellar full, and this is what we have: one large bin of potatoes (more than two tons), half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, one of turnips, one of onions, one of parsnips, and on the other side of the cellar we have more than one hundred heads of cabbage. I have experimented and found a kind of squash that can be raised here, and that the ripe ones keep well and make good pies; also that 
the young tender ones make splendid pickles, quite equal to cucumbers. I was glad to stumble on to that, because pickles are hard to manufacture when you have nothing to work with. Now I have plenty. They told me when I came that I could not even raise common beans, but I tried and succeeded. And also I raised lots of green tomatoes, and, as we like them preserved, I made them all up that way. Experimenting along another line, I found that I could make catchup, as delicious as that of tomatoes, of gooseberries. I made it exactly the same as I do the tomatoes and I am delighted. Gooseberries were very fine and very plentiful this year, so I put up a great many. I milked ten cows twice a day all summer; have sold enough butter to pay for a year's supply of flour and gasoline. We use a gasoline lamp. I have raised enough chickens to completely renew my flock, and all we wanted to eat, and have some fryers to go into the winter with. I have enough turkeys for all of our birthdays and holidays.    
I raised a great many flowers and I worked several days in the field. In all I have told about I have had no help but Jerrine. Clyde's mother spends each summer with us, and she helped me with the cooking and the babies. Many of my neighbors did better than I did, although I know many town people would doubt my doing so much, but I did it. I have tried every kind of work this ranch affords, and I can do any of it. Of course I am extra strong, but those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing. I just love to experiment, to work, and to prove out things, so that ranch life and "roughing it" just suit me.
The Stewart Homestead, now a ruin  
And now I will stop because to paraphrase Elinore, who was forever apologizing for the length of her letters, said:"I am ashamed of my long [blog posts], but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything."

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