Chasing Smallwood – 6. Astoria

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.6. Astoria

[Wednesday, December 21, 2005] 8:40 a.m. All right, Joseph, I’m ready if you are.

You’re ready but you’re nervous. We’re functioning on the theory that you’re getting some things wrong, remember, and can correct yourself later. But you’re also getting some things right.

All right. Always a struggle for me, and not just for me.

No. Well. You’ve always assumed that I went west and stayed there, or, more recently, that I went west and bounced back east. But in fact that’s just your natural tendency – anyone’s — to see another’s life as more simple than it is. That’s eliminating the cross-purposes, and the back-and-forth that makes life really. Think of your own life. To tell it is to falsify it because all anyone can do is lay out a few lines, and the other lines are as if they didn’t exist. But things that aren’t talked about, scarcely are thought about, may be as important as coloring, as flavoring, as what is talked about. Can’t be helped. I liked cats as much as you do – but that doesn’t mean we ought to spend a lot of time talking about cats. You understand. Of course, if we did happen to start talking about cats probably it would illuminate as much as anything else would.

Well, I spent the winter of 1844-45 in Astoria clerking, writing letters for people, selling stuff – dry goods and all, a lot of the stuff people need, all in by ship from the east and elsewhere – some down from Canada. You know, I spent the winter getting by, building up a war chest again. I sure hated to let Charley go, but I needed the money to live, plus I couldn’t afford to board him. I know you think it couldn’t have cost much to board a horse, but it was like your owning a car. It’s a steady drain, even if a small one. And while I was in Astoria it wasn’t necessary, which meant it wasn’t practical.

When you were here [in Sept. 2005] you saw what Astoria was, because I saw it through your seeing it, and you saw what I led you to feel about it. That happens all the time in your lives, though you might not think it. It is an interaction, not a dictation or a report. You tend to think you – being in bodies – are the focus of action and are reporting to the other side. That’s true but it is only one side of it. What also happens is that we feed feelings about what you are experiencing – which changes what you experience, which changes what we feed back to you. Yes, a feedback loop, and if the in-process Joseph wouldn’t know or understand the term, the completed-Joseph does, of course.

[I had had the difference explained to me earlier. Outside of time and space, each of us exists “completed.” Yet we can also contact the self as it was at any given moment in its life. That is what we call the “in process” life; what it does and what it feels is what that life knew and felt at that time.]

As I was saying. you saw what Astoria always was. It was a working town, a place of contact. Ships came there, and the men on the land came there and they traded. To my eyes it was just what we had done on the river. We had “made goods” – manufactured, you’d call it – and the Indians had stuff from nature, and we’d swap. It was the same thing going on at Astoria and it was profitable enough for both sides (or they wouldn’t have done it) but just as with us on the river, the side with the made goods got the better end of the deal. I don’t know that I ever thought much about it at the time, but I see now that it had to be that way – and that is why the Indian and the farmer and the mountain boys and the tree-skinners always pass away. There’s too much power behind the made goods. The goods themselves, I mean, are carried by the power. I’m not talking about people forcing anything; I mean, made goods are always scarcer than natural goods. Or, not scarcer. What am I trying to say? They are in the hands of fewer people when it comes time to trade. It skews things. I can’t put it better than that. Anyway, that’s what I saw. The city folks were the white traders and the farmers were the Indians, and it was going to be that way whether I liked it or not.

Well, I didn’t like it. But if you don’t like something and you can’t stop it, what can you do? You can get in on it on the fat side, or you can get in on the thin side, or you can move on somewhere else, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any different. Yes. You’re thinking of [author] Upton Sinclair and [his series of novels about] Lanny Budd. Long past my time, but I read them with you, and of course I agreed. Hadn’t I seen it?

I wound up staying in Oregon a couple of years – not quite three, and in that time I got to see some of it. Errands took me down the Willamette Valley sometimes, going up the [Willamette] river, but I never got over to Crater Lake: didn’t know it existed. Didn’t think to climb Mount Hood, either – that’s the kind of thing that came in later. We had other things to do besides climb mountains! Besides, even if I had wanted to do it, it would have been a long way. Try moving at 18 miles an hour and see how much bigger your world gets. Or try four miles an hour, walking. You won’t be so excited about climbing mountains!

You were thinking maybe I saw San Francisco when I was out there, but your timing is wrong. It would have been just a Spanish mission. Besides, I didn’t have any reason. Mostly after a while I was trading with the Indians, either on my own or working for somebody, and this didn’t involve a lot of boat travel except across the [Columbia] river. Knowing the lingo helped, of course, and anyway the Indians could see I was like them as much as I was like the white men at Astoria. They thought of me maybe as British rather than Yankee. It meant a different attitude. The British were more contained by rules. The Americans did what they could get away with.

I got up past what is now Seattle, up to the other big river, the San Juan, so you could say I spent more time in Oregon state but I saw more of Washington state. It was all Oregon then, of course. I remember the villages all about fish. You can’t imagine – you think you can, but you can’t imagine the size and the number of the fish! There was plenty for everybody, and who could imagine that it would ever run short? There was as many fish as drops of water in the river. Who could use them up? You see where your feelings were coming from in that museum [in Portland, in September, 2005]? What those folks [in the movie of the 1930s] were proud of was itself a shadow of what we had known, and they didn’t know it. But we didn’t have the resources to take so many. If we had been able to, we would have, don’t think I don’t know it.

And the trees! You are living in a shadow of the world that was! I know that you know it intellectually, abstractly, but your emotional knowing comes from reflections of my experience, and John’s [in Virginia in the 1700s] and so many others. And it isn’t just you, of course. Everybody remembers the world that was, but not everybody is in contact with the feeling – or rather, not everybody knows to let their feelings rule their ideas. And some of them still look at it all the way they did before, as dollars to be made. You have said often that you wouldn’t have the world your children are inheriting, and I felt that same way. Already by the 1860s it was clear what was being destroyed. Henry [Thoreau] just saw it a little clearer, a little sooner, because he was confined to the east and didn’t get blinded by so much plenty.

No, I never crossed the bar of the Columbia. That wasn’t something you did for fun, and I didn’t have reason to go down the coast by boat. As I said, I traveled mostly by land. I bought a horse after that first winter when I could afford it better and I was more comfortable riding, or walking, than I ever was on the water. For reasons that will appear, perhaps.

Well, to cut this short, I returned to the east in the late summer of 1847, 1848, [note this: he’ll come back to it] just a little ahead of the gold rush, had I known it. Interesting to think what might have happened to me. Lots of opportunities to sell to miners, and everything under the sun they’d need, I imagine. Maybe I’d have wound up getting rich in San Francisco. Funny thought.

You don’t ever think of people going back the Oregon Trail but of course some did. Some men were like professional guides, and did the trip three, four years in turn, out one year, a year in the territory, back again and out another time. It ought to go without saying it, but a man on a horse with no wagon party to stay with is going to make a lot better time going back than he did going out! Going out would take a train from first break-up [of the ice on the rivers] to late summer, early autumn, if they weren’t unlucky. But a man on horseback could go that distance in not much more than a month, not pushing.

Work it out. A hundred miles a day is 12 hours at 8 miles to the hour. So a thousand miles is ten of them, and another 500 is another five. Now, that’s if it was all flat and no rivers to cross, but you get the idea. In the mountains you weren’t going to get the eight miles an hour, and you weren’t going in any straight line. But the point is just that coming east with horses wasn’t like going west with wagons and woman and children and oxen and cows being herded and people walking the whole way, and putting it all together every morning and settling in every night. Well, there’s all the difference in the world.

Now, when I told you I’d come east, you were doing some calculating and you said 1847 because I’d said less than three years in Oregon, then saw 1848 and left that though it didn’t add up. You said late summer because that’s what made sense to you, and this is what is all messing you up. Let’s see if we can clear this up. You see, you’re trying to keep the story consistent instead of taking what I’m giving you. But what if I’m remembering wrong? What if I thought something long enough that it became my “story” and then you looking at it decide it can’t be? You could be right about the fact but at the same time lose the thread to me because it was something I believed.

When did I leave Oregon? You’d think I’d remember the very date, because that was the last I saw of the west, and I missed it the rest of my life. You see, you misremembered what I told you. You were thinking I got to Astoria in early ’44. But it was nearly ’45 when I got there, and counting it out I see that March ’48 was actually more than three years from when I got there, but that’s just the way things get misremembered. So I was there a little more than three years, not a little less. Anyway, I joined up with three other men who were headed back, and we started out in March ’48.

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