Pokin’ Around in the Fog and Dust of Time

Before the internet was invented research was different. I used to peruse obscure libraries and secondhand book stores for technical or historical information I needed. Looking for the right books required a great deal of searching–often in old bookstores with creaky floors that smelled of ancient varnish. There were publisher’s lists and sometimes special lists of books on the subject you were trying to find out about, but then you had to locate the book, which led to a lot of walking, rummaging and stale corners. It could get expensive, because some old books–invariably rare ones you needed–were costly.

It becomes a kind of a madness. You have to write other stuff like articles here and there to remind yourself you’re supposed to be working toward completing something. My first book, on vehicle dynamics, took me into many places, including the back of a large parts department for a well known local car dealer. I was doing a chapter about spring rates and I had built a portable machine to measure them. I spent nearly the whole day in semi-darkness checking load rates per inch, etc. The parts manager was able to adjust his inventory after I indentified some springs that he couldn’t find in his application book. My next stop was the University of Washington Engineering Library where I spent over a week perusing ten years of the Society of Automotive Engineers annual reports. Years later I realized that first book was just an introductory exercise.

When Wolf Comes was the biggest research headache of all. I had the internet then, but good information was sparse. The Northwest Coast was the last place in the country where non-natives dared to settle. The book started out as a straightforward adventure story about an area I knew and loved, but it became more. There were books and a few stories about the Pacific Northwest around 1800, but important details were left out and they often didn’t agree on crucial points. This feeling had grown from the realization that 200 years ago the people that lived here, in my region, were not as I had been told while growing up. They had a complex culture and a lot of it was secret.

I acquired all the James Swan books he had written in the 1850’s and 60’s and every other scrap I could find, including ship’s logs, short pieces of dialogue, the first explorer writings, and notes about oral stories of people that had landed here by chance and perhaps been killed or disappeared. Some truths began to emerge. But there was a James Swan book he had been commissioned to do for the Smithsonian that was not available anywhere. I finally located a copy in the University of Washington Archives Library. So I went there and walked in just as if I were a student or teacher.

It was a large format book unlikely to fit on anyone’s book shelf. The librarian brought it out and carefully placed it in a wire rack. He showed me where I could touch the pages to turn them and told me I should not touch them anywhere else. I sat looking at the book: James Gilchrist Swan’s most extensive writing about the Makah People of Cape Flattery. The Smithsonian Society had created a few copies in the 1860’s. Only a very few of these books were ever made. The information was extensive and closed many of the missing links I was seeking. After a week of study I had 59 pages of notes and a video they had allowed me to record of what Swan had gathered of the Makah language as it was phonetically spoken.

There was still one important thing I had to know about.

The Wolf Ritual (Klukwalle) was practiced with variations by most northwest tribes. But nobody, not even James Swan who the Makah actually liked, a man who lived among them in the 1850’s and 60’s, was their second Indian agent (the first one wasn’t so great), was not allowed more than an outsider’s view of the ceremony.

So the search continued in every non-descript bookstore or library in my area. And then I went into a bookstore near Northlake Avenue, in Seattle. I’d been here once before but didn’t have time that day to check every shelf. There was a narrow rack behind the cluttered counter area that I hadn’t noticed on my first visit. From the bottom shelf I pulled out two poorly bound books. The interiors were no better, both readable but images were nearly unrecognizable. But the title on one book stopped me cold: Wolf Ritual of the Northwest Coast. It was written as part of a master thesis in the 1930’s-early 40’s when the ritual was still being practiced. The other book was about the songs of the Makah, including lyrics and notes.

What I came to realize was that Alice Ernst had recorded the most complete description of the Wolf Ritual as it was practiced by the Makah and other tribes of the region that existed. It fit the story and I could now put it in with the confidence of knowing what I was doing. I understood what the ceremony was about and why it was so important. And the songs were there too. I read the words they sang. For these two little books I paid $40 and walked out of the store with a smile.

Even with the internet, some research still must be done the old fashioned way. That is if you want to get it right.

Jim Swan died in 1900, at the age of 82, in Port Townsend, Washington. Most of his books are still in print today.

Next I had to understand the Chinook People who once occupied the final 200 miles of the Columbia River. I didn’t know then there would be circumstances that would keep me from writing Lives of the Spirits for three years.

The book I’m working on now is about China: two women, sweet potatoes, sex, bathhouses, Great Wall, and the beauty of a thriving street economy you won’t experience on a guided tour. The research for this was scary at times, but there was very little dust.

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