The spoiler on this month’s column is this: it’s about some books I recently read and, well, loved. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, sort of.
Being rather immobilized the last three months, I’ve been reading on a daily basis. I spend the mornings reading news stories. Afternoons, I write, and read in the evenings.
I’m clearly addicted to information. Information is power, at least political power. Political means in terms of ourselves and the matrix— the world—we live in. The more I know about the nature of brittle bones, the more I can relate to the orthopedic surgeon as an equal.
The more I know about Medicare and so forth: otherwise I’m caught on a sort of magical mystery tour—with no idea who’s driving the tour bus. That’s not good.
So I read, both on the internet and stuff that’s been printed. Ethnology and history. Spirituality. Memoirs. Story-telling—fiction— is nice, if there’s something underneath the story.
I want to tell you about a few books I’ve recently read, and how they affected me.
I just read Louise Erdrich, a regional writer from North Dakota. North Dakota does not seem like a location for insightful writing, and neither is northern Minnesota. Her “Islands and Books in Ojibwe Country” is a travel book about a trip she and her eighteen month- old daughter took to the boundary lakes between Minnesota and
Ontario: Ojibwe Country.
She brings that stretch of border alive with sun-dancers, tradition, history, bibliophiles, mother-anxieties, and just average people. Everything she writes about is all alive—everything:—lakes, rocks, books, all of it. I liked the book so much I read it twice.
Our town has a good library, but it hasn’t been particularly accessible to me lately. I discovered web sites for used books by mail order. Every title I typed in came up with new and used copies.
Some of them were books I remembered from years ago—
I’d had copies and lost them (more likely: loaned them out and never got them back).
“Fools Crow: Wisdom and Power,” was the first one I ordered. Then I ordered books about the Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk. Both Black Elik and Fools Crow were the real thing. There’re dozens of fraudulent medicine men and women who claim to have “the medicine,” in order to exploit people for money. Black Elk and Fools Crow helped people without asking for money. I wish I’d known them.
I also stumbled across Kenneth Rexroth’s “Communitarianism”, a book I hadn’t read in twenty-five years.
Rexroth wrote about communal movements in American history—Brooke Farm, the Amana Colony, Mormons, Shakers, Hutterites, and countless failed experiments in alternative communities. There are still some around, leftovers from the ‘Sixties. I know of two here in Oregon.
Very few communal situations (“intentional communities” many of them are now called) have been successful. The Mormons, Hutterites and a scattering of others have been endured: the majority of them are religious and structured.
In an increasingly fragmented society, living in small co-operative communities is very appealing. Utah originally was a cooperative commonwealth, under the usually benign hand of Brigham Young.
I’m fascinated by the Mormons; one line of my ancestors were LDS pioneers, and as a result, I have distant cousins—”shirt-tail relations”— all over the state.
Communalism isn’t about Lenin or Marx or the 20th Century mistake called “Communism.” Rexroth quotes a story about this confusion:
“…when the Communist International was formed, a delegate objected to the name. Referring to all these groups he said: “But there are already communists.” Lenin answered: “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them nobody ever will.”
This confusion of the two names is still with us. Non-Marxist communism exists, but on a very small scale. Too bad, because parts of it like communal housing, are viable and practical. I’ve lived communally many times and liked it.
Another old friend of a book I found was Jerry Kamstra’s “Weed: the Autobiography of a Dope Smuggler.” Jerry Kamstra is, at last report, still around in northern California, reminiscing about the old days, Mexican cops, and trying to sneak past U.S. Customs. Kamstra’s book has some scary and some funny moments.
His book rings true—I knew a couple of smugglers back then; they were adventurous and did it for small profits and the hell of it. Times have changed, and Mexico is no longer the pothead’s dream it was thirty-five years ago.
But, those days are part of cultural history and Kamstra’s book is both a good documentary and a good read. It carried me back thirty-five years into a scene that had been intense, scary, and fun all at the same time. I’m glad I’m not there any more.
So, there’re some books I’ve been doing archeology in, looking at my past and the world I lived in, and finding parallels to my life today in Ms Erdrich’s books. It took a broken leg to remind me how much I love books and reading.
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