Books and islands in oji.., p.8
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.8

           Louise Erdrich
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  We convene to eat in an old early twentieth-century cook’s barge used by lumber companies to feed their crews as they ravaged the northern old-growth trees and floated the logs down to the sawmills. Ober had this cook’s barge hauled onto his island. An old bell signals meals. Original plates and dishes of every charm—Depression glass, milk glass, porcelains, and sweet old flowery unmatched Royal Doulton china dishes—crowd the open shelves. A cabin just out front of the cook’s barge, hauled here too, was once a floating whorehouse, I am told. Now it houses a piano, and three neat beds. A child has written a sign, tacked to its wall, that advises visitors not to be alarmed if they see things they are unprepared to see—like spirits. There is supposed to be a spirit family that inhabits this island.

  I’ll tell you right off, I don’t see hide nor hair of the spirits. But I can’t speak for Kiizhikok, with her still open fontanel. They might be talking to her. Or singing her to sleep. Because she sleeps on this island, takes naps of an unprecedented length and then tumbles into sleep beside me as I read long into the night. There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober’s island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a low swell of grief, a panic.

  Once the baby is asleep I vault to Ober’s shelves. I first wash and dry my hands—I just have to. Really, I suppose I should be wearing gloves. Then with a kind of bingeing greed I start, taking one book off the shelf, sucking what I can of it in, replacing it. This goes on for as many hours as I can stand. G. K. Chesterton on William Blake. Ben Jonson’s Works in Four Volumes, Oxford University, 1811. Where The Blue Begins by Christopher Morley, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, first edition and first printing. An 1851 copy of The House of the Seven Gables. And The Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson, Being an Account of His Travels and Experiences Among the North American Indians. A wonderful volume, more recent than most, published in 1943 and transcribed from original manuscripts in the British Museum. I keep reading this last book until, late at night, the loons in full cry, my mosquito coil threading citronella smoke, I have to quit. Knowing that I must be alert enough tomorrow to feed Kiizhikok and take the stones from her mouth, I force myself to sleep. But as I drift away with her foot in my hand I am led to picture an alternate life.

  In my imagined life, there is an enchanted interlude. All children are given a year off from school to do nothing but read (I don’t know if they’d actually like this, but in my fantasy my daughters are exquisitely happy). We come to this island. One year is given to me, also, to read. I am not allowed to write. I am forced to do nothing but absorb Oberholtzer’s books. Every day, I pluck down stacks of books from the shelves upon shelves tacked up on every wall and level of each of the seven cabins on Ober’s island. Slowly, I go through the stacks, reading here and there until I find the book of which I must read every word. Then I do read every word, beneath a very bright lamp. When my brain is stuffed my daughters and I go swimming, play poker, or eat. Life consists of nothing else.

  Ober and Moose

  I find some lovely photographs of moose among the archives—Oberholtzer took them. Tracking down, sneaking up on, and photographing moose was a big passion with him. His guide, companion, and mentor, Billy Magee or Taytahpaswaywitong, thought Ober just a little strange, but went along with it, bringing him to within feet of some of the shiest and orneriest creatures of the lake. The photographs that resulted were the first such ever taken of the animal, and Oberholtzer became known as a great expert. Keeper of the Wild makes use of notes that Ober took on those photography trips. I think, of course, of the three young female moose we saw in Lake of the Woods, those awkward young beauties cavorting in the reeds, and so innocent about our approach. Ober wrote beautifully about a similarly trusting young bull:

  Inch by inch, scarcely moving, Billy propelled the canoe forward, while I knelt in the bow, camera in hand. The sun was fiercely hot, there was only a breath of breeze. The little bull several times raised his head to gaze at us wonderingly; and each time Billy stopped paddling. Thus, during the moments when the moose’s head was submerged, we advanced till we were only twenty feet away. The bull edged off a foot or so, turned his back, and suddenly faced around again, whined ever so slightly like a dog and at last, after a moment’s reflection, dipped his head under water. I was itching to take his picture, but I noticed something remarkable. Instead of immersing his head completely, as is the custom of the moose when feeding, he left half his long ears protruding. He was listening; and I was afraid that, if I clicked the shutter, he would scamper away. When he raised his head again, however, I decided to chance it. I clicked. He flinched, moved away a step again and then resumed his feeding. He seemed completely reassured, for I noticed now that even the tips of his ears were under water. We were still gliding nearer. I took another picture, a third, one after another. At last, lo and behold, the little fellow got down on his knees on the river bottom, and for a second or so his body was wholly lost to sight. His head came up first, with ears pricked. He shook it and the ears flapped drolly against his cheeks. When he rose, he looked at us inquiringly, almost mischievously, with his languid brown eyes. His shaggy winter coat was still clinging in patches to his hindquarters.…To my great surprise he calmly stepped toward us and sniffed with his long snout; and I could have touched him with the paddle. But Billy, always cautious and respectful toward a moose, backed the canoe a few strokes. Thus for fifteen minutes we played with this strange neighbor.


  The blueberries, miinan, have ripened on the island. The first thing Kiizhikok does the next morning is crouch low to the berry bushes and stuff herself with miinan. I show her how. This is the one traditional Ojibwe pursuit I’m good at. Now, before Kiizhikok picks and eats all of the blueberries, it is time to feast the first ripening. Rose Tainter, a traditional elder from Lac Court Oreilles, prays in Ojibwemowin, with her sacred pipe, at breakfast. We have a huge bowl of blueberries. A spirit dish is prepared. The dish is made up of small portions of the food we’ll eat, with tobacco set alongside the portions. The spirit dish is either left outside for the spirits or burned as an offering. This is the way the Ojibwe have always given thanks for the first berries of the year. After Rose has finished praying and the spirit dish is set outside, we eat. We eat seriously. We eat with attention. We eat with a lot of laughing.

  It seems to me that Ojibwe people always eat with happy grace. Food is part of every gathering and ceremony. Even our weekly meetings to learn the language are based around a potluck dinner, mainly centered around casseroles heavy on wild rice. Today on Ober’s island, breakfast consists of pancakes and Ojibwe maple syrup, scrambled eggs, fresh walleye breaded and fried, a hash of potatoes and crisp turnips, and a big bowl of blueberries. There is also lots more fruit on the side, coffee, and black tea. We’ll have a big lunch just a couple hours after the breakfast dishes are cleared and washed. And then dinner, which might involve venison sausage, more walleye, boiled cabbage and potatoes, or if we are lucky enough to see Nancy Jones, whatever she has hunted might appear.

  Nancy Jones, Ogimaawigwanebiik, happens to be one of the most extraordinary women I know.

  For starters, she holds the world record as the quickest beaver skinner. I don’t know where, exactly, she earned the World’s Quickest Beaver Skinner title, but I’m assured this is the truth. She makes a few judicious cuts and turns the animal inside out. It’s like sleight of hand. Nancy does exquisite beadwork, placing each tiny cut bead just so on makazinan of smoked moosehide, trimmed with otter fur, lined with blanket. Nancy has a great laugh and deep spiritual knowledge, she is an Ojibwe language teacher, and fiercely devoted to Ojibwe culture. Her children are language teachers, too, and she has taught them her bush skills. Still, they are amazed at her fortitude and endurance. Nancy has been known to kill, skin, and cart back to her cabin a whole moose and a deer in one day. She can snare r
abbits, trap anything from lynx to pine marten. She can shoot the head off a partridge sitting in a tree, and probably catch the partridge as it falls, too. Ojibwe are meat eaters, that’s just how it is. The joke goes: What is an Ojibwe vegetarian called? A poor hunter. Nevertheless, it was Nancy’s deer haunch and a fat string of bass three years ago that changed my then youngest daughter, Aza, from a supermarket carnivore to a thoughtful vegetarian.

  It was either the deer haunches, or the ribs. Anyway, on our last visit to Ober’s island, Aza made a decision from which she has never deviated. I was amazed that a ten-year-old could decide with such conviction. She won’t even eat a fish after she went to the dock to check on Nancy’s stringer. Later, she said to me that one of the fish had looked up at her. That did it. I must have been a hard-hearted little person, because as the granddaughter of a pair of butchers I helped kill chickens and watched from a corner of the slaughterhouse as my uncle knocked sheep, shot cows, scalded and gutted dead pigs. And yet it has taken my daughter Aza to make me really attempt anything like a consistently vegetarian set of habits, and it started out purely because I felt bound to support her tenderness on behalf of animals.

  At any rate, although killing and eating wild game is for the Ojibwe a spiritual as well as delectable enterprise, there is no vegetarianism this year on Ober’s island. Nancy and her son Paybomibiness are running an Ojibwe language camp this summer on her land about a forty-five-minute boat ride from Ober’s island. They come to stay for a night, but all the game is left at the language camp and so we eat the most incredible spaghetti bolognese. Maybe it’s the red pepper flakes in the sauce, or the type of onion. Maybe it’s the air. Maybe it’s the mosquitoes, and how we are free of them in the well-screened kitchen.

  Nancy remembers Ernest Oberholtzer very well—he made eggs for her family on their first visit, when they paddled over and tied their canoe to his dock. In Oberholtzer’s photo archive there are dozens of pictures of Nancy’s family, her late husband’s family, and of Nancy as a child, strong-minded looking even then, grinning, wearing a soft red woolen hat. Paybomibiness touches a picture on the wall. I recognize it as a photograph of Billy Magee, Taytahpaswaywitong—the man who guided and paddled with Oberholtzer on the great 1912 adventure into the unmapped interior of the Northwest Territories west of Hudson Bay was his grandfather.


  A hot wind blows over the island, and Kiizhikok and I are in and out of the water all afternoon. We edge ourselves carefully down a stone stairway into the cool tea-colored water of Rainy Lake. Pushing off, we float together, into the channel, sighing in dreamy relief. We bob along in our life jackets, talking part Ojibwe, part English, and part mother-baby nonsense. The world is perfect. The shadows are long but on the rocks they still burn like iron. The sun’s a fierce gold. Baby and I watch the silhouette of a big loon approach down the channel between islands. It comes nearer and nearer, as silent as we are. Then the maang is abnormally close, closer, too close, and again I am filled with the now familiar sense of uneasy assessment. That beak looks sharp! Will it peck Kiizhikok? The loon’s eyes are very red! But the loon isn’t going to poke my baby, of course, it only circles, coming close enough for us to count the white spots on its back and regard the spectral pupil of its weird reflective eye.

  Again, I marvel how animals seem attracted to the baby, and once we have emerged from the water and are drying off in the light breeze, I ask Nancy Jones if she saw the loon swimming with us. I ask modestly, sure that she’ll tell me that Kiizhikok has some unusual power to attract maang.

  “Geget, I saw it,” she says casually. “He liked your life jackets.”

  Our life jackets?

  “They’re red. That’s how we used to catch loons and eat them,” Nancy says. “We used red things. They’ll come close and investigate anything red.” Then she adds, “We don’t eat them anymore.”

  “How did they used to taste?” I ask her.

  “Rich,” she says.

  The Library

  I am haunted by a book that I found the first time I visited Ober’s island. It was stuck away in a corner of a little cabin I haven’t described, one devoted to books alone, the library. My find was a little pamphlet-sized inconsequential-looking book covered with a black paper that looked like oilcloth. I slipped it from the shelf and opened it. Tristram Shandy. The first novel in the English language. As it was originally published in serial form this was but a portion of the first edition and first printing. Laurence Sterne had signed the title page. I had a strange, covetous, Golum-like feeling as I held the book, my precious. I suppose it was the beginning of the sort of emotional response to books that drives those collectors you hear about, occasionally, to fill their apartments with books until there are only book tunnels to walk through and the floors eventually collapse down onto their neighbors.

  Of course, I have to see Tristram Shandy again. I want to visit this book, and also to make sure I really saw it. But this time I can’t find the book although I crawl with Kiizhikok on hands and knees looking for likely places it could have been stashed. Its absence bothers me. Although I’m helplessly in the grip of other books now, and currently in love with a corny purple edition of Catlin’s journals, I keep sneaking around the bottom of the shelf where I found my precious, peeking over other books, behind the shelves, like a dog sure that it will find a bone hidden years before.

  Mary Holmes goes through the catalog with me, and that particular volume isn’t mentioned. Which doesn’t mean, she tells me, that it wasn’t actually there. So I might have seen it. This is, for me, like a birder having possibly photographed an ivorybill then losing the film. I’m chagrined—why didn’t I do something about the book? Show it to someone? Make certain it was cared for? But I know that the answer is that I didn’t because I am in somewhat uneasy agreement with the spirit of the island, which is to let the books exist as they were meant to exist, to be read, to be found and then unfound. To have their own life. Somehow, that also puts me in conflict with a piece of my heart. For I also want the books to be protected from people like me, whose itch to hold them might overwhelm even the strictest conscience. Even now, I can feel it, the line is thin. Especially when you can’t find Tristram Shandy.

  Signed, goddamnit, I’m positive!

  Mary tells me that Ober had left no will regarding the island and his books and cabins, so that ten years passed while all of the legalese was sorted out. During those years, the books were alone. I brood on this. The books. Alone in the cold and through the humid summers, alone in the cabins for ten years as roofs collapsed, alone as squirrels invaded and dismantled eighteenth-century bindings to line their nests with rare pages. I am afflicted with such melancholy at the thought of the books all alone on the island that I have to walk back to Ober’s house, to nap with Kiizhikok, to settle my mind. This whole island, filled with books, and no one to care for them! I would have liked to have been here. I imagine it as something like living in a great Cornell Box, only while Joseph Cornell’s visual themes were white spheres and tiny glasses and peeling cubicles and star maps that suggested vast compressions of time and space, here the themes would be the books, the words stacked endlessly. Spine to spine, margin to margin. Peeling, curling, waiting in a thrilling passivity for someone—like me!

  There was an original Edward Curtis portfolio of portraits of American Indians among the books. I’m glad that I don’t know what else. Some of the most valuable were sold once the little foundation of Oberholtzer’s friends and supporters was formed. In a panic of retrieval, some were bought back. But a piece of the careful intention and depth of Ober’s collection was lost. Still, the collection is for me both a caution and an inspiration. It is surely a good thing that Oberholtzer devoted only a portion of his vast energy to book collecting. He was a dedicated bibliophile, careful and disciplined, ordering books from London booksellers with great specificity and detail, and receiving notes and invoices in return, some of which are still tucked into the pages of his
books. Nicholas Basbane’s wonderful book on book obsession, A Gentle Madness, begins with a description of the difference between the bibliophile and the bibliomaniac:

  With thought, patience, and discrimination, book passion becomes the signature of a person’s character. When out of control and indulged to excess, it lets loose a fury of bizarre behavior. “The bibliophile is the master of his books, the bibliomaniac their slave,” the German bibliographer Hanns Bohatta steadfastly maintained, though the dividing line can be too blurry to discern. Whatever the involvement, however, every collector inevitably faces the same harsh reality. After years spent in determined pursuit, a moment arrives when the precious volumes must pass to other shelves. Some accept the parting with calm and foresight; others ignore it entirely. Some erect grand repositories as monuments to their taste, others release their treasures with the whispered hope that they reach safe harbor in the next generation.

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