The Dust of Everyday Life: An Epic Poem of the Pacific Northwest

The Dust of Everyday Life: An Epic Poem of the Pacific Northwest

by Jana Harris


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Spanning the years 1853–1933—beginning with conveyance by oxcart and ending with air travel—this series of dramatic monologues tells the story of Helen Walsh and Thomas Hodgson, whose families trekked the trails of the great migration to the West. Helen and Thomas get married, and together, tame the remote corners of the wilderness by means of their imperishable love and a clear, well-beaten path.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504018845
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is an editor of  Switched-on Gutenberg: A Global Poetry Journal, and the author of the memoir  Horses Never Lie About Love  and the poetry collection  You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore: Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier.  Next  

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The Dust of Everyday Life

An Epic Poem of the Pacific Northwest

By Jana Harris


Copyright © 1997 Jana Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1880-7


Book One

Little Helen Welch and Her Circle

(Oregon, 1865–1879)

    I. Helen, Singing The Names Of Wildflowers

    Umatilla Country, 1865

    Blooming on the rooftop:
    bachelor button, black-eyed
    Susan, bitterroot petals pink
    as taffy. At night by tallow dip,
    "the spirit and the gifts were ours"
    as we made up stories about worm
    trails through bark walls next to our beds.
    Our house? Cottonwood logs,
    tules and sod above a dirt floor.
    When snowmelt ran through
    the ceiling, we children raced with
    pots and kettle to catch the worst,
    emptying in the rain barrel. Singing
    and name games, rain games, then came
    strings of packers freighting
    to the Idaho mines.
    Our ears pitched to the wind, waiting
    "amid their flood of mortal ills."
    I never tired of counting prairie
    schooners, so tall I wondered how
    drivers climbed into them — each hitched
    to sixteen jennies guided by line jerk.
    First came Hookey Burke, waving
    a missing hand. His wagon trailed by forty
    pick-and-shovel piled oxen. Next
    Chinamen by the baker's dozen
    getting the best of dust and mud,
    a fifty-pound rice mat on either end
    of their yokes. We tried to imitate,
    carrying buckets attached
    to a singletree braced
    across our backs. Our favorite:
    Whispering Thompson — heard for miles,
    encouraging his team up a long pull.
    We strained our ears to catch
    contraband words. As he passed,
    Mother pulled out
    her leather-bound Lute of Zion:
    "One little word shall fell him," we sang
    to the accompaniment of spoon and kettle,
    comb and paper, mortar and pestle, anything
    to raise us up, up into
    "A mighty fortress is our God ..."
    The power of song conquering summer
    riffraff flooding over our country.

    II. Helen, Musing on the Fifteen-Hundred

    Father ran sheep. Wig-headed
    and judge-faced,
    they sometimes fell into pits, too
    timid to bleat for dear life until
    they heard Father's special voice
    or Kip's bark. Papa always said
    I would do well to emulate the traits
    of lambs — submissive and close
    to the sacred heart of Jesus. I darned
    socks to the rhythm of cud chew, wondering
    how the vacant-eyed
    could be trusted to provide:
    tallow, milk, mutton; wool — a dollar-twenty
    a pound this year.
    Winter on the Umatilla desert
    so cold our Romneys could not
    crack the snow crust. With my lost
    brothers now only names and dates
    scrawled in our tattered Bible,
    Father hired bands of Minnesotans
    to break through ice to bunch
    grass so our bleaters could feed.

    The hirelings! Never seen a stove,
    their women cooked over open
    fires. Not a match to their name,
    they came to our place to borrow
    coals when their mud hearths turned cold.
    When 'Sotas spoke, they dragged
    their "A's" over rocks, causing our sheep
    to scatter as if stalked by wolves.
    Father and Kip had to go into hip-deep
    drifts, calling each back by name.
    Later Papa preached: Flight
    in the face of strangers
    should not always be named
    vice, whether it be
    in daughters or sheep.

    III. "Come Sit by My Side If You Love Me"

    Odd how strings of words got
    stuck inside my head — one, a line
    of camp song first heard
    on the trail west. The other,
    my brothers' unspoken names,
    heavy as the harnesses
    our neighbor Yankee Jim
    left on his team all winter
    so the leather wouldn't freeze.
    That song chiseled into my thoughts
    like the names Father engraved
    into two uneven halves
    of a broken grindstone
    planted on either side
    of the rockrose growing
    between barn and water trough,
    blossoms the hue
    of newborn lamb tongues.
    I had to bend down
    to read Bucky scratched
    into granite on one side,
    Chipper on the other.
    Each time our neighbor
    stopped to freshen Turk and
    the rest of his team, he cast
    a mournful eye at our rockery
    and, afraid to ask, must have thought
    them stillborns or tots
    the harvestman snatched
    from the tit. But
    no child slept beneath
    that broken millstone.
    Lost on the Overland,
    I couldn't even recall
    my older brothers' faces, though
    I'll never forget the song
    Mother sang each day
    to jagged snippets
    of precious memory.

    IV. Meat-Meat, Want Some

    Wooding near our cabin,
    Mrs. Joe brought kindling.
    So old, she bent double and herself
    looked like a stick.
    Meat-meat, want some,
    she told Father, who'd just been hunting.
    Father said, for part of the doe, she could
    tell us children stories. She knew
    a little English and her withered hands
    turned to wrens who helped her speak.

    We wanted to know what it was like
    when the white men came.

    She'd been playing at Rock Creek, she said,
    while her mother dug camas.
    On the horizon, a string of strange clouds
    pulled by giant deer with
    buffalo horns. Women rode
    on the white clouds, men walked alongside
    holding black snakes which made
    pop-pop noises across the animals' backs.

    You'd never heard of white men? we asked.
    Father gutted the doe and strung
    it from a tree next to our outdoor kitchen.
    The old woman's wren hands flew up, perching
    beside her mouth. For a long time, she said,
    we knew there were white men and white
    women with animals called cows which gave
    white milk which they drank.
    We wanted to see this cow, we wanted
    to taste this milk.
    My sister Fiona asked, What happened after
    you saw the land schooners?
    Again the wrens flew up: Tyee White Man
    reached into a wagon, offering us
    something round and awful and pale.
    Scalped head, we thought, so scared
    we could hardly run.
    After that, Indians began following
    the wagons. Afraid of white people,
    they wanted to see what milk was like.
    Sneaking up on emigrant camps,
    they made war whoops, stampeding the cows.
    After that, hundreds of white men
    rose up like sagebrush.
    A scalped head? My sister asked.
    Head of cabbage, Mrs. Joe said.
    Her man's name was Columbia Joe.
    Out of respect we called her that.

    Meat-meat, want some, she told Father.
    More stories, we pleaded.
    Mrs. Joe told us: Tyee White Man said,
    the Indian needs work,
    held out long poles to us.
    At one end, sharp stickers like teeth.
    Tyee White Man scratched
    our ground with it, dropped seeds, scratched
    our ground again. Plant, he said.
    He gave us rakes and seeds and told us:
    Plant, make grow, and eat.
    We did not believe this.

    Many times white men have fooled the Indian.
    We children giggled. Wasn't telling
    a Siwash the wrong word for something
    our favorite game? Father skinned the deer,
    stretching the hide between two saplings.

    Mrs. Joe's bird hands fluttered, swooping
    to her sides, then rose again.
    Once, she said, her brother saw
    a white man carrying a bucket
    of water the color and shape of the sun.
    He gave a cayuse for that bucket, taking it home
    where a teepee pole fell and broke it.
    He took it to the tinner to mend
    like a white man would, but the tinner
    said he could not fix
    a smashed pumpkin and called him stupid.
    Mrs. Joe's hands fell from flight,
    dangling on her bony arms.

    She said to Father: Meat-meat, want some.
    He gave her half the hind-quarter and the hide.
    As was the Siwash custom,
    she left without
    good-bye or thank you.
    We liked her story. We wanted another.
    Meat-meat, want some, we said.

    V. Mr. Elija Welch, First Planting

    Gray Back Flat

    North of Powder River,
    north of the Grand Ronde,
    antelope trail my only footpath.
    Not a tree, not even a rock
    for shade, the stone-strewn
    ash-colored ground grit-fine,
    rocks and soap weed
    the same shade, lichens
    the only gaiety — that yellowing
    green of unripe lemons
    scattered across hills rising
    up to a coppery sky.
    Sun the color of the new
    plow blade pressed
    down, pushed forward,
    breaking in oak handles
    to the curve of hands.

    Midday meal taken in the stream-
    cool of a canyon bottom
    while contemplating:
    A hundred and sixty acres waiting
    since before Moses to be
    taught to bear wheat.

    Returning, startled two
    salt-hungry antelope,
    tongues caressing
    plow handles.

    VI. Helen, Bringing in the Sheaves

    We watched packers freighting
    to the Boise mines across
    a sage sea of dunes and
    sand as gray as February. Mud
    caked head-high on the barn wall,
    my sleeves and skirt tattooed.
    Hand-held, walk behind plow,
    Father was first to break sod while
    goad stick — wielding wagon drivers
    ribboned our treeless horizon.
    My sister and I tried to imagine
    the miners' nuggets which
    they sometimes brought to Mother
    for safekeeping as there were no banks.
    What if, by magic, our seed sacks
    filled with gold dust? Unlike rock,
    wheat nuggets turned to fruit,
    was Father's stern reply.
    He spread seed from a soiled tow sack hung
    around his neck by harness strapping.
    Eighty acres, handful by handful. Sometimes
    I followed behind, barefoot, mud
    jellied between my toes; now and again,
    a stone to bruise my heel. When I looked
    up, Father's head a shadow beneath
    his hat, when he leaned over,
    a sweat-stained sack where
    his face ought to be. May, June,
    knee-deep mud turned
    to knee-deep dust, grain ripening
    to nuggets. Father mined
    the field with a scythe; Mother,
    Fiona, and I following behind, binding
    bundles the size of Baby Bessie.
    Dried, carried to the barn, fed
    to the fanning mill — like a colossal
    coffee grinder — separating seed
    from chaff which the blessed afternoon
    breeze blew away, bringing the noise
    of goad stick crack and packers calling,
    "Something to eat? Something to eat?"

    VII. The Hardest Thing

    Butter Creek Schoolhouse

    From a sod floor beaten to hardpack
    by use, we watched Miss Teacher sweep
    loose grit, putting down
    gunny bag carpet except for a square
    near the stove for us to scratch
    our letters and numbers into the ground.
    During the first year, she
    boarded at our house
    as part of her pay. At night
    we tried not to stare as Miss
    Teacher climbed into bed
    with all her clothes on,
    changing under the covers.
    We rode, three to a horse,
    the four miles to school.

    Neither blackboard nor books, only
    tattered Bible and ancient almanac
    to practice geography and spelling.
    Our only light, the open door until
    hollowed potatoes made perfect
    candlesticks. Light or dark,
    we mapped St. Paul's missionary journeys
    compared with equal distances down
    the road to home: If Columbia Gorge
    was our Jordan, then
    Mount Hood our Sinai and
    — without question — Umatilla Landing
    (with Spanish dance halls and
    twelve liquor emporiums)
    the Wilderness of Sin. But
    when Miss Teacher made us hold
    the scratching stick like a pen,
    pretend to drip the ink,
    now blot, blow dry
    — that was the hardest thing.

    VIII. While Father Drove Sheep to Summer Pasture

    Mama took in gold; twenty-dollar
    pieces hidden in the hay
    stack, parfleches of gilded dust tucked
    into Baby Bessie's cradle.
    Whispering Thompson and Hookey
    Burke dropped off their pokes
    pinching Fiona's cheek and
    leaving a nugget for our trouble.
    We'd no eggs to sell, and needed
    a cow — sheep milk hard on baby's stomach.
    "Better to have a packer or two
    in our pocket," Mama said,
    eyeing swarthy white men camped
    near our cottonwoods — she more afraid
    of Texans than Indians.
    Thinking a Tex sneaking up
    to our door, we got nervous.
    Lifting the stove lid, we hid
    Hookey Burke's six pokes down there.
    This the only time I heard Mama
    curse fate and mutter
    my dead brothers' names.

    The Texan had cut himself
    with an ax, asked Mama to sew up
    his arm. When he left, my sister and I swept
    the floor better than ever,
    taking filings down to the river
    where we panned out a dollar
    in gold flakes. Next morning
    clouds rolled in; Mama forgot,
    lit the firebox. We lost
    about twenty-five dollars
    in dust. For years we showed it off:
    The old black stove glowing
    saffron inside where a corner of
    Hookey's life savings melted
    against the firewall in the shape
    of a gnarl-trunked tree like
    the olives of Palestine.
    On brittle nights we ponder it:
    What omen this tree from which
    no olive branch shall ever fall?

    I can't remember when
    someone scratched the names Bucky and
    Chip between the "Y"
    in the limbs.

    IX. Mrs. Welch's Good Advice for Coping

    Never worry the Blue Ruin
    in the medicine chest and you will never
    mistake pigweed for amaranth.
    If you are blessed with a good laying hen,
    you'll never go without
    as poultry and eggs
    can be swapped for most anything.
    Though you were taught not
    to take the Lord's name in vain,
    it is fact, not theory, that you cannot
    drive cattle without raw language.
    When you see dust like a Kansas cyclone
    and hear the queer sonorous thunder
    of a stampede, remove the blue bottle
    from your medicine chest
    — the one you traded for six pullets —
    and hide it behind the hominy
    which you have covered with netting
    for protection against flies.
    Now is the best time for children
    to take shelter in the springhouse.
    Load your Winchester. A toothful
    of Blue Ruin will curb your tongue
    as you chase marauding cattle
    from the garden.

    A flat limestone rock is best
    for keeping beef under brine, and limestone
    improves the bones and teeth
    of infants. When a trail-weary drover
    looking for lost stock rides up full
    of Blue Ruin, six-shooter flapping
    on his hip as he eyes the ten gallons
    of syrup you swapped for two
    laying hens, then demands
    you give his pony, Cleopatra,
    all the Louisiana molasses she deserves;
    lock the children in the barn
    to contemplate past sins, re-check
    the net covering your hominy,
              and oblige him.

    X. 1872: For Her Twelfth Birthday, Helen Receives a Gift of a Diary

    Arriving home, discovered pigs
    — Abe Lincoln & Mary Todd —
    broke into our corncrib.
    Held the lantern so Father
    could repair slats.

    All week: Snow deep as dust,
    cold but dry, no wind, no school
    on account of drifts.

    Went to church.
    Mother, Fiona, and I
    pushed Baby Bessie's carriage
    three miles, through axle grease
    mud covered by three inches of snow.
    On our way, passed Webb's
    mired-down sleigh pulled by sable mules,
    one with a collar of bells, jing, jing.
    Mother said,
    for every Goliath there is a David,
    so christened Bessie's pram.
    Little Peggy Webb played her organ,
    the first in the county.

    Monday, Tuesday: Sky the color of lead
    pencils and school slates with chalk dust
    clouds bearing down. Friday: Rocks and sand
    piles so tranquil covered with snow.

    Went to church.
    Needles on the lone pine and branches
    of cottonwoods beside the frozen river
    encased in ice. Little Peggy Webb played
    "Hallelujah for the Cross."
    She got the organ as a bribe
    to let the dentist pull one
    of a double set of incisors
    coming in like dog teeth.
    Her father promised anything if
    she'd let it be done.
    Blessed are those who expect nothing,
    Reverend preached.
    When I said to Mother, imagine
    having money for the dentist and
    an organ; she said, Helen,
    you haven't been listening.

    Tuesday: School closed indefinitely by
    Superintendent Missouri Tucker
    on account of the new colored barber
    whose two girls would attend.

    Wednesday: So cold cider vinegar
    froze, shattering the jug. Our house
    no longer in danger of being
    carried away by vermin — all fleas
    and sand flies dead.

    Thursday night: Made ice cream
    out of snow and frozen
    sheep's milk flavored with
    corn syrup and coffee. Father
    heard it at the blacksmith's shop:
    a subscription school to be held
    in the attic above jail.

    Friday: Baby Bessie vaccinated
    against smallpox, the sore draining.
    Cutting teeth, her pain excessive.
    Abe Lincoln savaged
    one of Mary Todd's piglets.
    Father intones:
    Something must be done.

    Went to church.
    Little Peggy Webb played
    "Rock of Ages."
    With no school, she works
    her father's hardware, selling buckets.
    When Peggy hits a sour chord, she smiles like
    a pearl necklace and all's forgiven —
    Fiona always covers
    her mouth when she grins.
    Reverend sang, we all sang:
    "Let the water and the blood ..."
    Baby fussed though Mother took her outside,
    rubbing red willow bark
    against red gums. At home
    Bessie sucked fresh pork fat.
    Never ask me whose.

    February: First day of subscription school,
    snow like goose down
    on our thatched roof.
    Fiona, present.
    Little Peggy Webb, present.
    'Sota Tom Hodgson,
    George Bishop, Belle Bishop, present.
    Below in the cells, Indians
    howled, beating against adobe walls
    so loudly roll call interrupted.
    Outside, the wind muttered to frozen
    sage and juniper.

    Today: Our stovepipe caught
    the roof thatch on fire, melting snow
    and sod. Our plank cabin filled
    with mud, and gunnysack rugs
    had to be washed. Underfoot,
    Bessie prattled in tongues.

    Wednesday: One tawny spear of sun.
    At school, Peggy Webb talked
    about nothing but
    the maroon and buckwheat roses
    on her mother's new Belgian carpet,
    the first in Pendleton;
    inviting us to view it.
    Fiona told her she'd have to take
    the will for the deed,
    as we were wanted at home
    at railroad speed.
    Went to church.

    Tonight: Hungry Indians at our door.
    Mother's neuralgia spread
    to head and eyes. For dinner, a goose
    so tough Fiona had to chop it
    with raw turnips into salad. Baby,
    her teeth like nippers, bit in fun.
    Father ordered her whipped
    to correct evidence of temper.

    Saturday: Ice crust over snow glistens
    under moonlight like sugared egg white.
    Ghoulish coyote chorus sang me to
    nightmares. Come dawn, Mary Todd and
    piglets all accounted for under the house.

    Went to church.


Excerpted from The Dust of Everyday Life by Jana Harris. Copyright © 1997 Jana Harris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Book One Little Helen Welch and Her Circle (Oregon, 1865–1879),
Book Two The House of Before The Recollections of Thomas Corrin Hodgson (Isle of Man to Oregon, 1857–1865),
Book Three Granite Correspondence Concerning Helen Welch (Oregon, 1879–1880),
Book Four Ink Thomas and Helen Hodgson (Olympia, Washington, State Capital, Swantown Lane, 1890–1891),
Book Five Walking in the Shoes of My Name (Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and Spokane Falls, Washington, 1910),
Book Six Come Sit by My Side If You Love Me (Washington State, 1933),

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