Consolations From Unusual Places
Last night I had a dream that I was taking an exercise class and I needed to stop in the middle to take a nap. I slept on the floor while the class continued around me. When I woke in the dream, it was dark outside and snowing. The teacher looked at me kindly, as if to say, "It's okay. Sometimes you just need to sleep." The class was practicing backbends, and I was not able to do one, which is unfortunately true in real life as well. When I woke from the dream, it was snowing hard outside—in mid-April—and I didn't want to get out of bed, so I continued to read Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Sometimes consolations in a pandemic come from unusual places. Ms. Stewart lived in a cabin in southwestern Wyoming in the early nineteen hundreds and wrote many letters to her friend and former employer, Mrs. Coney, in Denver. First published in book form in 1914, the letters are a remarkable account of rural life out here in the west almost exactly a century ago.
Right before the lockdown order was issued in Denver, my family drove out to The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge where you can drive a ten mile loop to look at bison and deer, and get a clear view of both the eastern plains and The Rockies to the west. Everyone in the car was cranky—kids bickering in the back about whether the windows should be up or down—and I was annoyed because cars were bumper-to-bumper in the loop and it was taking forever. Is there anything worse than gridlock on a scenic drive?
In the middle of the refuge sits a solitary farmhouse, and with social distancing very much on my mind, it was impossible not to marvel at just how far that house must have been from its closest neighbor in 1910. I wondered what a homesteading family might have to teach us now a hundred years later, in the midst of a very different kind of social isolation. So few of us nowadays stake our lives on a piece of land—on soil, weather, and back-breaking physical labor—nor do we much value the degree of self-reliance and resilience a farmer living a day's horseback ride from their nearest neighbor needed to survive. As I sat there in our Toyota Highlander on the paved refuge loop road, that life seemed like a dream all its own. How little our modern city lives require us to remember the physical landscapes on which they were built. Ms. Stewart writes with such eloquence about her beloved land:
"The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage . . . all was so peaceful that horse-thieves and desperate men seemed too remote to think about."
For her, the land was her life. For me, the land is something to look at while killing a couple hours out of the house. Surely, a good part of my own pandemic panic is the realization of my dependence on both government and private industry for nearly everything that sustains my family. Complex supply chains and infrastructure are responsible for our water, electricity, food, clothing, medicine, and the natural gas that heats our home in winter. Hoarding toilet paper is but one small manifestation of this fundamental vulnerability. Protesting lock-down measures in front of Capitol buildings is likely another. With the awareness that our lives and livelihoods are not in our own hands, the hands must still do something. Some of us bake bread, some of us clutch semi-automatic weapons and shout "Live Free or Die".
What was remarkable about those living on the frontier a hundred years ago is just how self-sufficient they were. Their lives were full of hardship and tragedy—Ms. Stewart lost several children and two husbands to accident and illness—but throughout her letters, she maintains a fierce pride in her ability to take care of herself:
"I have done most of my cooking at night, have milked seven cows every day, and have done all the hay cutting, so you see I have been working. But I have found time to put up thirty pints of jelly and the same amount of jam for myself. I used wild fruits, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, and cherries. I have almost two gallons of the cherry butter, and I think it is delicious."
In the span of only a handful of generations, we find ourselves in a state of interconnected dependency that would utterly baffle those living on the prairies of the American West. Why does reading Ms. Stewart's letters on a snowy spring day bring me so much comfort? Perhaps because while we can't go back in time, the capacity for such resilience still resides within each of us, or at least I find it a balm to imagine it so. In our hi-tech culture that values "knowledge workers" above all others, it is a powerful reminder that those who work in trades, those who make and deliver food, those who parent and educate children and care for the sick have emerged as the "essential" ones. They were essential all along, of course, because like the jack-of-all-trades Ms. Stewart on the American frontier, fundamental skills have always been the most valuable to sustaining human life.
COVID is a reckoning in nearly every way imaginable, and the uncertainty compels us to look anew at how we feel about ourselves, our families and friends, our occupations, and what we are both capable and incapable of making with our own hands. Perhaps much of my modern-day ambivalence is a consequence of having strayed so far away from what is essential and enduring about being a human being. The beauty of many tasks that sustain us is they create their own meaning. Why is there no flour on the grocery store shelves? Because we must find things to do with our hands. These are the activities that connect me with Ms. Stewart on the prairie: walking, bathing, sweeping leaves from the steps, digging in the yard, cooking, caring for my children. And so I stay in bed just a little bit longer, and return to Letters of a Woman Homesteader.
"We made a fire first, then I dressed my trout while it was burning down to a nice bed of coals. I had brought a frying-pan and a bottle of lard, salt and buttered bread. We gathered a few service-berries, our trout were soon browned, and with water, clear, and as cold as ice, we had a feast."