Cover design by Leeann Falciani
THE PARROT TRAINER
Swain Wolfe has created nothing less than a new
genre ... and a rousing read.
Legends of the American
Desert: Sojourns in the Greater Southwest.
fascinating, splendid novel
He knows how to tell an engrossing tale.
--Douglas Preston, author of
Cities of Gold, and
The Parrot Trainer won two
Southwest Book of the Year
awards in 2003
A LOVE STORY
In The Woman Who Lives
In the Earth, Swain Wolfe introduced himself as a writer of great
imagination and sensitivity. Now...he proves himself to be a storyteller
of awesome proportions...
--James Welch, author of
Fools Crow, and
The Heart Song of Charging Elk.
exploration of an almost primal erotic attachment . . . The beauty of
s prose illuminates both the Montana lake that provides his novel=
s setting and the shifting interior landscapes that arouse his
New York Times
THE WOMAN WHO LIVES IN THE EARTH
Beautiful and profound, both
fantastical and utterly real.
--William Kittredge, author of
Hole In The Sky, and
The Nature of Generosity.
Enchantingly told and beautifully realized
Y his prose resonating with a deft and heartfelt honesty that
owes as much to poetry as to the straightforward storytelling style of,
say, a Hemingway.
--Charles de Lint,
author of Widdershins, and
Make a Joyful Noise.
Signed Copies of Swain's books can be ordered from:
Fact & Fiction Books
Biographical Notes on Swain Wolfe
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Swain Wolfe's most recent book
The Boy Who Invented Skiing: a memoir
Wolfe is a
gifted storyteller whose natural curiosity and fascination with
the world around him come through on every page, and they're
--The Washington Post
. . . is more than a
compelling tale; it's a primer in how the imagination finds its shape
and strength in the forge of raw experience. This is one of those
rare books that make you want to call up your friends and read passages
--Rick DeMarinis, author of
The Year of the Zink Penny.
Those who like memoirs by really talented writers who have lived very
lively lives are going to enjoy Swain Wolfe's recollections of how the
West used to be. --Tony Hillerman, author of
The Skeleton Man.
Swain Wolfe is as
much a poet as narrator and memoirist...With
great skill and gentle charm, the author offers the stories of
his life, taking readers along on his amazing journeys.
--Cathie Beck review
for The Rocky Mountain News
Below the surface of the tale, as
in all Wolfe's work, is a subtle strain of what one reviewer
dubbed "cowboy metaphysics" -- i.e. a deep appreciation for the
poetry and mystery in the land below our feet.
--Terri Windling review for Endicott Redux
Photo by Mark Bryant
Interview with Swain Wolfe
So how did
you invent skiing?
I’d heard of skis, but I’d never seen them. When I was nine or ten, I
came upon a pair of ancient, hand carved, cross-country skis in our barn
loft. They were several feet taller than I was. They were pretty simple.
Just long boards that turned up at one end and each ski had a leather
straps to put your boot through. In my case, galoshes. I took the skis
into the pasture, worked the toes of my galoshes into the straps, and
tried to move. I didn’t get far.
I needed a push. I needed sticks. The ground was covered in deep snow,
so no sticks presented themselves. I found two brooms worn to the nubbin
in the grain room of the milk barn. They worked fine, except they iced
up after a while, so I was pushing myself along with poles attached to
clumps of ice. It was slow going.
the ice over the Taylor River and climbed up the side of a steep mountain in
an elk trail . The snow was so deep that I couldn’t see above the trail.
I climbed quite a ways up the mountain, made stairs in the snow to get
on top, put the skis on and pointed myself down hill. After several
attempts, I could shoot down the mountain through the trees—if I aimed
well—and out into a meadow, without damaging myself. Most of the time, I
came apart all over the mountain side and I’d have to dig snow out of my
pants and the galoshes, located the skis and brooms and climb back up
the mountain. Crashing became a common theme in my life.
down-hill racing on cross-country skis in galoshes with brooms for poles
very much a mother/son story. In fact, the book starts with your
mother’s eagerness to believe that the devil was her father when she was
a child on the homestead near the "badlands" of Eastern Montana. Why did
you start your memoir with this story?
When my mother was four, her grandmother tried to keep her from running
off into the prairie to look for rattlesnakes. Grandmother told her that
anyone who liked snakes was evil and must be the devil’s daughter. The
tactic backfired. Mother liked the idea that her father was the devil.
She also developed a deep distrust for her grandmother and proper
authority in general. She believed that people who wanted power were
shaped me in many ways. Writing this memoir made me much more aware of
how connected we were, but we didn’t always get along. She was angry
about her life, because her abilities were not recognized. She was a
couple of generations too early for that. There were long periods when
we hardly spoke. Fortunately we made up well before she died. When she
was in her eighties, we would sit up all night, drinking brandy, and
telling stories until dawn. Those were great times. I loved her very
reviews of your three novels all praise you for your storytelling skill.
How do you think you leaned to tell a tale?
When I was coming of age and as a young man, I was surrounded by men who
told stories. I worked with loggers, cowboys, and miners, among others.
They told stories, and I listened. I was shy and awkward, because I’d
grown up fairly isolated and wasn't great at social interaction. I'm
still not. But I may have learned something about what makes a story
work. I certainly had a life of adventures, so I had stories to tell.
Dangerous, stupid work leads to discovering who you are. Until
automation replaced most of human labor, men and women had stories to
tell about how to survive bad situations. The most interesting story
tellers today tend to be cops, lawyers, and waitresses. Everyday they’re
tested by the attitudes and behavior of the people they have to deal
with. They become acute observers. Office jobs tend to produce gossip,
which is something like post-it notes about who did what to whom.
write, I’ve noticed I have to free my characters of certain constraints
like parents, school, office jobs, and extremely neurotic behavior. Our
lives happen away from repetition. I don’t tell stories about drunks,
crazy people, or druggies, because they don't hold my attention. To
often they do the same things over and over without solving the problem
or discovering anything of interest about themselves or the world.
did the loggers, cowboys and miners talk about?
Loggers talked about women, drinking, and fighting mostly. Some talked
about having their own outfit some day. They all wanted independence.
The younger ones didn’t have dreams, but they had a tremendous need to
prove they were tough. That usually ends in a brawl. Loggers didn’t have
much time to talk on the job, so talking was done in the cab of a truck
on a bad road or in a bar. It was always noisy. Loggers shouted a lot.
Around loggers I learned less about telling stories than about how and
why people project attitudes. Loggers tended to be on the spiky side,
like their boots.
cowboys told stories about horses and girls. The horse stories were
interesting. Not so much the girl stories. They knew more about horses.
There was a lot of dead space between talking, which was comforting. You
didn’t have to fill the air with words. They seemed to know that somehow
things would work out. The older ones were usually curious about the
history of various ranches in the area, who owned what and how they came
by them. They talked about having their own place someday. Being your
own boss was cowboy heaven.
talked about everything: their adventures, their women, wives, and
ex-wives; teased and tortured each other; told terrible ethnic jokes,
and made up all kinds of stories about what happened underground. You
never knew what to believe, because they were more interested in
entertaining each other than telling the truth. They were fatalist,
which seemed to free them up.
cowboys, and miners were stuck in time. Not much changed for several
decades, then machines did away with most of them. After the second war,
the people who became townies were full of dreams and possibilities.
Most of their stories weren’t stories so much as plans for the future.
It sounded good at the time.
you grew up isolated. Where were you?
got loose early. I ran away a lot at three and four when we lived at the
tuberculosis sanatorium in Woodman, Colorado. I explored the hills and
mesas, then the steam tunnels that connected all the buildings. I could
usually get away, because my parents were busy running the sanatorium.
mother and father divorced she married a rancher. We were dirt poor, but
I had a horse named Joe and thousands of acres to roam in. Joe and I
knew every place on that ranch. There was a stream, Rarick Creek, which
started on the ranch and flowed into the Taylor River. Rarick Creek
became my heaven. I knew every bend, each grove of trees, every pool,
the way the bank broke away under the grass in places, particular
stones, colors, masses of roots, and the way the light looked on the
various pools at different times of the day. I was that creek. I didn’t
have to deal with people telling me what to be and what not to be.
contrast to your nature wanderings, the ranch life you describe seemed
so hardscrabble and desperate. How did that affect your family’s life?
mother and step father were violent, particularly toward each other.
Their fights were caused by lack of money and personal demons, jealousy
mostly. They were so terrified of losing each other that their fear
turned to hate. They both became suicidally depressed. Being around that
kind of depression was a lot worse than beatings. You knew somebody was
going to die, but you didn’t know who or when. My parents’ fights and
moods made hiding out in the barn at twenty-below seem like a luxury.
memoir, you describe how wrenching it was to move from a 5,000-acre
ranch to Missoula when you were in seventh grade and the identity crisis
that followed. What happened?
When I lived on the ranch I spent every moment I could exploring the
mountains, the river, and Rarick Creek. In nature, you’re just there,
you become the place. I went to school, of course, but that was a
managed environment, like prison, and at the end of the day I escaped
back to the ranch. When the family exploded, I ended up in Missoula in a
tiny, rotting shack on South Ave. with my mother and sisters. No Joe, no
Rarick Creek, no wilderness.
other people become your mirror. They define you. That yanks you around
if you’re not used to it. My mother couldn’t afford to buy me shoes so I
wore my old cowboy boots to school. I was an alien. A naked alien in
cowboy boots: the Wyoming Cowboy from Colorado. It’s humorous now, but then it was pure pain.
that you found yourself in work after you dropped out of high school.
What sorts of jobs did you do?
had a lot of jobs. I left them for every reason you can think of, but I
never got fired for being lazy. Some jobs were seasonal, some bosses
were too stupid or mean and I’d quit. Got fired for being an SOB, died
of boredom, pointed out the obvious once too often, the contract ended,
the boat sank, the trees started talking to me, and once I had a vision
at the end of a shift1300 ft underground that changed everything.
I was a
hooker, a choke setter, and sawyer for Cameron’s gypo logging outfit; worked the
log pond at Hamilton’s mill in Missoula, pulled the four’s in Delaney’s
mill and ran the planer; built a steam house out of railroad ties for
the plywood plant in Polson; was a crew chief on the Bellmoore Trail
Fire for The Bureau of Indian Affairs; made molds and laid up fiberglass
for Anderson’s Gull Boat in Missoula; logged Flathead lake with Petie
Baker; pulled calves; broke horses; drove cattle; cut, raked, and
stacked hay with a team of horses; plowed, planted, and harvested wheat,
oats, and barley; rebuilt bull rake and tractor engines; ground bone
meal for Schumacher’s slaughter house; built prefab houses; was a
ticket agent for Global Travel, and for about seven days when I was
sixteen, I was Missoula’s youngest bar tender. I got fired for reading
on the job.
job in the Butte mines was to "go down to the 32 and put the bulkhead on
the Moose." I didn’t know what any of that meant. Next they put me in the
"cold hole" that was just off the air shaft. It was nearly dark and 20
below zero and the place was filled with stalactites and stalagmites of
ice. It was a gulag, the most miserable job I’ve had. I did all sorts of
day labor jobs, then they put me on the grizzlies blowing up big chunks
of rock. I worked in the mines just long enough to I discovered my natural talents lie in digging and blasting.
your jobs, working underground in Butte copper mines had the greatest
influence on you. Why?
Underground everything is compressed. Air, rock, water, and men. In the
Badger I worked between the 1300 ft and 3200 ft levels. The farther
down, the greater the compression and the heat. The mine was a lattice
work of drifts and shafts filled with cages, skips, track, trains,
loaders, pumps, and cables. Veins of copper, zinc, magnesium, silver,
and traces of gold ran up and down through hard and soft, punky granite.
And men told stories. There were roaring trains, long silences, and gut
shaking blasts. Once you’re underground for a while, it changes you.
When you're above ground you begin to wonder what's under the surface.
It becomes a way of thinking.
were a little like the natural world. You
learned what was expected of you and you lived in that expectation–like
living in a cloister or a temple. I did think of miners as monks with
You have a
wonderful story about the Junior League screening foreign films for the
miners and their wives on Sunday afternoons. Tell us about it and how
seeing those films affected you.
The Junior League, which was made up of the wives of the men who ran
Butte and most of Montana, decided it would be a good idea to bring a
little culture to the town, as if we didn’t already have enough culture
of our own. They put on a foreign film festival. I think it was a weekly
event and it took place in one of Butte’s huge, defunct movie palaces.
Many of us went, prodded along by our wives, dressed in our Sunday
best–as culture was the new religion--and line up in the lobby for punch
and tiny sandwiches and stared across the room at the wives of wealth
men. The wealthy men were not in attendance. The League showed movies by
Antonioni, Fellini, and Brunel. We liked Fellini, because he could tell
the films, the miners’ stories, and the underground all came together in
a burst of images as I set off a large blast in the grizzlies on the
1300. I decided I was going to make movies.
finished high school or college, and essentially educated yourself. How
did you do that?
got in the habit of reading in the barn and the outhouse when my parents
were fighting. That was the corner stone of my education. In Missoula, I
discovered a magazine store called Rudy’s News. It was run by Art Evans.
He had a nook in the back stocked with New Directions paperbacks by
Becket, Burroughs, Bukowski, Pound, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos
Williams, Baudelaire, Kenneth Patchen, EE Cummings, Rimbaud and so on.
It was my reading room. Art introduced me to the hidden men in town: Al
Partol, the anthropologist who spent his life with the Salish Indians,
but never wrote up his notes–he was strictly oral; E. B. Pfeiffer, the
biologist, whose discovery of plutonium from Nevada in Minnesota school
led to the first nuclear test ban treaty; the
Englishman, Chas Bull, who questioned everything, including his own
existence; Henry Ephron, who tried to teach me Latin, and who had
deciphered the Phystos Disk, the Enkomni Tablets, and Linear B
concurrently with Chadwick; and countless others who challenged and
shouted down the bullies.
around with a kid named Kurt Fiedler, whose dad, Leslie, taught
literature at the local college. One evening Leslie brought out his
collection of 78s and played Robert Johnson’s, Crossroads for me.
I was mesmerized. The greatest literary critic of his day sat there and
smiled at the storm he’d just unleashed in my brain. As educations go it
wasn’t bad, but I didn’t do it myself.
memoir is filled with stories of a variety of outsiders. Did you
naturally gravitate to those people or did the West foster and protect
definitely gravitated, but the West provided a sanctuary for them. For
one thing they could afford to live out here. The West was settled by
people who were either aggressive and greedy or by people who didn’t
want anything to do with other people. The in-betweeners were called
befriended a man in Roundup, Montana named Lee Steen. He made human and
animal figures out of tree limbs and stumps. He gave them what they were
lacking: eyes, ears, an arm, a head, hats, noses, and lips, then he
painted them up and gave them a story. He had thousands of these
He insisted it wasn’t art. He called them his guys. He had over a
hundred thousand dollars in fifty dollar bills stashed in a dresser
drawer, and a desiccated monkey in a mason jar. His skin was dark and
shiny with black pores. The last time I saw him he had boards on the bed
to keep the dogs off and he slept in an overstuffed chair in front of a
potbellied coal stove. He was burning his guys for fire wood. Lee was
one of the kindest, sweetest men I ever met. And if you believe in
art--he was probably Montana's greatest artist.
Hillerman said your memoir recalls a West that used to be. What
has changed, and what do you think has been lost?
Money happened. The work horses are gone and ranches
are being absorbed by corporations who hire managers. When the priced is
right, they divide the land into ranchettes or tract housing. Ranches that
cost $5 to $10 an acre in the late forties, start at $10,000 an acre today.
A lot in town that went for $500 is up to $100,000. Land on the edge of
towns that once grew hay and oats
and horses and cattle is covered in track housing and big box stores.
And the pace
of life changed. Like the rest of the country, we’ve run
out of time. Too many people I know are
strung out working two jobs and living pay check to pay check. They
don't even have the security of being slaves. Certainly the exuberance
is gone, along with the happy illusion that next year will be pretty much
like last year.
great loss is in the look and feel of the place. Most blocks in Manhattan
have more character and exhibit a better sense of their history than almost any
western town. The West lives under the tyranny of a corporate
landscape that stifles hope and imagination. That sounds harsh and
extreme, but a lot of people feel it's true.
The West exists only as
an abstraction in the minds of many environmentalist,
architects, and social planners.
Were they to read about the creek and the mountains of my boyhood, they
would say I experienced "a sense of place." What pathetic,
life sucking garble.
I lived in
a place. I became Rarick Creek, explored the
mountains on a horse named Joe, and shot off the Comstock on a pair of
skis at half the speed of light and crashed into a five strand barbed
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