On the road to prose
By Annie Proulx
singer Christy Moore clips out Don't Forget Your Shovel, a
song I like not only for its tripping rhythm and sly social commentary
but for its advice to the diggers of the world, a group to which I
A whole set of metaphoric shovels is part of my tool collection,
and, for me, the research that underlies the writing is the best part
of the scribbling game. Years ago, alder scratched, tired, hungry,
and on a late return from a fishing trip, I was driving through Maine
when a hubbub on the sidewalk caught my eye: milling customers at
a yard sale. I stop for yard sales.
Pay dirt. I found the wonderful second edition unabridged Webster's
New International Dictionary with its rich definitions and hundreds
of fine, small illustrations. On a collapsing card table nearby sat
Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, The Oxford
Companion to English Literature and other weighty reference works,
discards from a local library and the best catch of the trip.
I am an inveterate buyer of useful books on all possible subjects.
Collectors pass up ex-libris books, but I need reading copies. Because
I often fold down page corners and scribble in margins, it is best
to keep me away from first editions.
On the jumbly shelves in my house I can find directions for replacing
a broken pipe stem, a history of corncribs, a booklet of Spam recipes,
a 1925 copy of Animal Heroes of the Great War (mostly dogs but some
camels); dictionaries of slang, dialect and regional English; a pile
of Little Blue Books (none are blue) from the 1920s featuring titles
like How to Be a Gate-Crasher and Character Reading from the Face.
One of these, Curiosities of Language, treats us to the tortured orthography
our grandparents thought hilarious:
There was a young man, a Colonel,
Who walked in the breezes volonel;
He strolled in the aisles,
Of the wooded maisles,
And, returning, read in his jolonel.
This digging involves more than books. I need to know which mushrooms
smell like maraschino cherries and which like dead rats, to note that
a magpie in flight briefly resembles a wooden spoon, to recognise
vertically trapped suppressed lee-wave clouds; so much of this research
is concerned with four-dimensional observation and notation.
These jottings go into cheap paper-covered notebooks that I keep
in a desultory fashion, more often on to the backs of envelopes and
in the margins of newspapers, from there on to the floor of the truck
or on to the stair landing atop a stack of faxes and bills.
The need to know has taken me from coal mines to fire towers, to
hillsides studded with agate, to a beached whale skeleton, to the
sunny side of an iceberg, to museums of canoes and of windmills, to
death masks with eyelashes stuck in the plaster, to shipyards and
log yards, old military forts, wildfires and graffiti'd rocks, to
rough water and rusty shipwrecks, to petroglyphs and prospectors'
diggings, to collapsed cotton gins, down into the caldera of an extinct
volcano and, once or thrice in the middle distance, in view of a snouty
I listen attentively in bars and cafes, while standing in line at
the checkout counter, noting particular pronunciations and the rhythms
of regional speech, vivid turns of speech and the duller talk of everyday
life. In Melbourne, I paid money into the hand of a sidewalk poetry
reciter to hear The Spell of the Yukon; in London listened to a cabbie's
story of his psychopath brother in Paris; on a trans-Pacific flight
heard from a New Zealand engineer the peculiarities of building a
pipeline across New Guinea.
The grand digging grounds are still the secondhand bookshops. Every
trip ends with boxes of books shipped back, dusty old manuals on the
hide business or directions for the dances of Texas with footprints
and dotted lines reeling across the pages.
But bookstores are changing. Recently, I rattled the latch of a favorite
in Denver before I saw the sign announcing that it was forever closed,
but the inventory could be ``accessed'' on the Internet. Another dealer,
a specialist in local histories, operated from his living-room for
years and put out an interesting catalogue from time to time. Both
the catalogue and a visit to his bookshelves are things of the past,
rendered obsolete by chilly cyber-lists.
I rarely use the Internet for research, as I find the process cumbersome
and detestable. The information gained is often untrustworthy and
couched in execrable prose. It is unpleasant to sit in front of a
twitching screen suffering assault by virus, power outage, sluggish
searches, system crashes, the lack of direct human discourse, all
in an atmosphere of scam and hustle.
Nor do I do much library research these days, though once I haunted
Libraries have changed. They are no longer quiet but rather noisy
places where people gather to exchange murder mysteries. In bad weather,
homeless folk exuding pungent odors doze at the reading tables. One
stands in line to use computers, not a few down for the count, most
with smeared and filthy screens, running on creaky software.
I mourn the loss of the old card catalogues, not because I'm a Luddite,
but because the oaken trays of yesteryear offered the researcher an
element of random utility and felicitous surprise through encounters
with adjacent cards: information by chance that is different in kind
from the computer's ramified but rigid order.
THIS country swims in fascinating pamphlets. In a New Mexico greasy
spoon I pick up a flyer that takes St Paul sharply to task on the
subjects of hair style, clothing and women. (``Shorts, miniskirts,
halters, bikinis, etc., are all OK. You don't have to listen to Paul
... God wants women to look nice and be in style with the times. As
far as men, Jesus had long hair. Paul must have been a religious fanatic.'')
A hundred miles later, I read a narrow sheet with advice on how to
behave in the presence of a mountain lion. (``Do not make direct eye
contact ... Try to appear as big as possible.'')
Food and regional dishes are important research subjects. Some you
can order in restaurants, but others exist only in out-of-print cookbooks
and must be prepared at home, like a duck roasted inside a watermelon,
a dish called Angel in a Cradle, or another called the Atlanta Special,
which sounds like a train, although the ingredient list begins, ``1
beaver (8 to 10 pounds)''.
I like to drive the West, making a slow drift over caliche and gravel
roads, volume cranked up and listening to music (this, too, is research),
usually regional subtexts of alternative genres. But, two that I never
tire of hearing are Glenn Ohrlin singing Barnacle Bill, the Sailor,
in his two-tone voice, and the good ol' boy Texas country-and-western
yodeller Don Walser with the Kronos String Quartet, sliding a heartaching
Rose Marie straight at me.
The truck wanders around intersecting roads as tangled as fishing
line. At times, topographic maps, compass bearings or keeping the
sun at my shoulder are better direction guides than signs, usually
nonexistent or bullet-blasted into unreadability. The rules of road
drift are simple: always take a branching side route, stop often,
get out and listen, walk around, see what you see. What you see are
signs, not direction signs but the others, the personal messages.
We live in a world of signs.
I am amazed when people mourn the loss of the Burma Shave jingles.
Better stuff is all around us, in public restrooms, in phone booths,
on rocks, stapled to telephone poles, struck on lawns. I remember
a large billboard that stood for many years on a back-country road
in Colorado. The community used it as a kind of enormous greeting
card, welcoming home a son on leave from the navy, congratulating
a child on her fifth birthday, inviting neighbors to a party.
The signs of urban panhandlers seem to indicate that many of them
took creative-writing courses.
These messages are always printed in neat capital letters: ``WILL
KILL FOR FOOD''; ``BIG DUMB UGLY BUM NEEDS YOUR HELP''; ``MY MOTHER
LOVED ME BUT NOW SHE'S GONE''.
The digging is never done because the shovel scrapes at life itself.
It is not possible to get it all, or even very much of it, but I gather
what I can of the rough, tumbling crowd, the lone walkers and the
voluble talkers, the high lonesome signers, the messages people write
and leave for me to read.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx is published by