When I was a kid, aged 10 years or so, I used to climb on my cowpony and wend my way to a pasture that the family called "the Eighty." It stretched across a big prairie on the east side of the state highway. On the white man's record books, the Eighty had started out as an 80-acre desert claim taken up by my greatgrandfather Conrad Kohrs.
Out of that gravelly prairie, six or seven low mounds rose like gentle waves from some geological deep. They were greened by native short-grasses and sage that made gentle whistling sounds whenever the wind blew strong across them. You couldn't miss the mounds — they looked like they didn't belong there.
Often I got off my horse and sat there on the biggest mound, chewing on a stem of grass and listening to the sound of wind in the sage. The world was still very quiet in those days right after World War II — as yet, no commercial jets were flying overhead, trailing their blue thunder. Nor did any huge 16-wheeler trucks roar by on the highway. From the distant town, I might hear a faint whistle from a steam engine in the Northern Pacific switching yard. Or perhaps — if it was noon — the siren on City Hall would crank up to tell everybody that it was time to go home for lunch.
Other than that, the prairie was quiet, quiet. Now and then, a long-billed curlew ran through the grasses, with its mournful cry of "Eeeee, eeee, eeeee…..pur-eeee! Pur-eee!" Nearby a colony of prairie dogs had built their own little mounds, and one or two of them might be standing guard there, keeping an eye on me and clucking warily.
I wondered and wondered about the mounds.
According to my father, this was a place where the tribes once stopped to pray when they traveled through the valley in the fall, on their way to hunt buffalo east of the mountains. He'd heard this from the old men of the family — his grandfather Kohrs and his greatuncle John Bielenberg. In his own childhood, he had felt drawn to the mounds too. Dad told me that he remembered poking around over them and finding hunks of decayed old buffalo skulls buried in the grass — splintered horns, weathered eyesockets, with vestiges of red and blue paint still on them. According to him, his old Uncle Johnny had told him that the People always said thanks for a good hunt by leaving the painted skulls there.
So I wondered. Who built the mounds? How long had they been there? Hundreds of years, like some people said of the Medicine Wheels around the West? Or were they just natural heaps of gravel and dirt, left behind by glaciers, perhaps, that the tribes had adopted for their prayers?
Back at the house, nosing into books in the family library, I found archeologists and scholars who stated in authoritarian tones that "American Indian mound culture could only be found in the Mississippi Valley." But other books I found later would make mention of mounds in western North America — clear north into Canada. Clearly the experts didn't agree on the wheres and whyfores of mounds.
Why had Greatgrandfather taken up a desert claim right there, when he could have grabbed from anywhere near the ranch buildings? Was he protecting that spot somehow? He had been friends with the white and mixed-blood stockraisers who first settled in the Deer Lodge area in the early 1800s. All of them had Indian wives that he knew.
Why did this spot seem so familiar and dear to me — as much my heritage as clapboard churches in New England or Greek temples in Europe? Why did I feel like praying there myself?
Why did the wind sometimes sound like little voices talking to me — right there, buried in the grasses, yet too far away for the words to be heard?
So the wonderings took on an open-air blue-sky spiritual tinge. It was the beginning of hearing the faint far-off talkings of hidden history, of almost-lost human time and human doings, and stories that were as many as the stars I couldn't see in the daytime. It was the start of learning how words on a printed page can be made to lie — of learning how unprovably accurate an unwritten tradition can be.
Fast forward to 2009, when I became involved with Gregory Hinton's new "Out West" lecture program at The Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. The association with the Autry prompted me to look back at all the material about the West that I had generated over 54 years of writing and publishing — not just several novels with Western settings, but several short stories and dozens of nonfiction articles. I was stunned to see how much of my total "short-format" output was occupied by ponderings about that vast region of the U.S. where I had grown up.
The subjects had a wide range — from the popular history themes that one would expect, like free-grass ranching and old-time cattle, to contemporary controversies like racism, human rights, land use, wildlife conservation, censorship, marriage. Today's West is as much about styrofoam as sagebrush. It's as much about the 1994 L.A. Riots as it is about the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. It's as much about the immigrant Muslims and Bantus and H'mong who settle here today as it was about the immigrant Irish and Chinese who built the railroads. My West is the Sons of the Pioneers singing "Cool Water," and it's also Stevie Ray Vaughan singing "Texas Flood."
In my West, the "frontier" is still out there. But the "frontiers" are different ones today. They are economic and political and social and environmental horizons that our country is crossing, with no possibility of ever going back to what it once was — life-and-death decisions that our society is being compelled to make.
Even when the subject of a piece wasn't entirely Western, I found myself harking back to some west-of-the-Missouri perspective in order to find a measure for something, or a good example of something, or a what-not-to-do.
Indeed, growing up on a ranch had given me a crassly practical view on many political issues. As my dad always said, "When your horse is caught in some barbed wire, you don't stand around making speeches. You grab the goddam wire-cutters and get to work."
These days, it seems to me that the White House and Congress and state legislatures are way behind on wire-cutter time. Indeed, neither political party is very fast with the wire-cutters right now.
So my body of Western writing is rayed through by a changing perspective over half a century — as I evolved from young hopeful college scribbler to published best-selling author. As I left Christianity to become an ever-questioning pagan. As I came out to live the life of a gay woman.
These writings ranged from editorials, commentaries and essays, to history pieces, blogs, letters, speeches. Most were published by print media, including Acres U.S.A., American West, Atlantic Monthly, Corporate Africa, Denver Post, Gay & Lesbian Review, Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, Montana Magazine, Persimmon Hill, San Francisco Chronicle, The Californians, The Reader's Digest. Some appeared in anthologies. Others were posted online, in Web publications like Whosoever and Outsports, or at political sites like Politech, or blogs like Bilerico Project and Huffington Post. Some were distributed on an online newslist that I did for several years in the 1990s, called "News You Didn't See on TV." Still others appeared in a series of public-health columns that I've written for A & U Magazine since the 1990s.
Out of this mass of material, I've picked the 47 nonfiction pieces in this anthology. They include those that I could get permission to reprint at this time, as well as some for which I retained ownership of publishing rights. Most are in their original word-for-word version. In some cases where a piece was long, I've abridged it or excerpted a section that seemed pertinent. For some pieces that touched on newsy issues, an update was needed at the end.
Some choices are editorials that never got published (because news editors wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole).
I've dedicated this book to my brother, Conrad Warren, a gifted writer in his own right. Though he's spent his life in the type of creativity called for by being a pilot, engineer and inventor, I still hope he will do that book he plans to write about our native West — especially that ranch where we both grew up. His unique perspective on the Grant-Kohrs and the technology side of rural life, shared with me through constant phone calls and visits over the years, has contributed richly to my own understanding of that place and time that has shaped us both.
At publication date of this book, I will be 75 years old. I'm still asking questions. My views are my own, and they're still evolving. I do not belong to, or say that I represent, any established tradition or belief system. In a mysterious kind of way, I'm still a kid sitting on that grassy mound, trying to ponder everything out.
—Patricia Nell Warren