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.
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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
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Jana Harris
All rights reserved.
Little Helen Welch and Her Circle
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
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
A hundred and sixty acres waiting
since before Moses to be
taught to bear wheat.
Returning, startled two
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
ContentsBook 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),