Authors: Barry Lopez
Their Uncommon Grace
After the long letters
have been written, read,
distances grow absolute
and speech, too,
is distance, only
listening is left.
I have heard the dark hearts
of the stones
that beat once in a lifetime.
WILLIAM PITT ROOT
We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination, and this accounts for the dragon’s appearance in different places and periods.
JORGE LUIS BORGES
Among several tribes on the northern plains, the passage of time from one summer to the next was marked by noting a single memorable event.
The sequence of such memories, recorded pictographically on a buffalo robe or spoken aloud, was called a winter count.
Several winter counts might be in progress at any one time in the same tribe, each differing according to the personality of its keeper.
UST OVER THE MONTANA
border in North Dakota, north of the small town of Killdeer, there is a French mansion. It is part of a frontier estate built in 1863 for a titled family called de Crenir, from Bordeaux. When the last of the de Crenirs died in France in 1904, the two-story Victorian house, its contents, and the surrounding acres were bequeathed to the nearby town. Looking incongruous still in the vast landscape of brown hills, it has since stood as a tourist attraction.
There are various explanations for why the house was built in such a desolate place, after the fur trade had passed on but before the Indian wars were over and settlement had come. In time, the Great Northern Railroad reached it, but the first de Crenirs had to come up by boat seven hundred miles from St. Louis and finish the journey by horse. According to a pamphlet given to tourists, the family had had thoughts of establishing a cattle empire, but their visits were irregular and short. In spite of the rich furnishings freighted in and installed and the considerable expense and trouble involved in construction, only one, René de Crenir, ever overwintered there. His visits began in the spring of 1883 and he arrived each spring thereafter, departing each fall until he took up permanent residence in 1887. Seven years later, in the summer of 1894, he left abruptly, and no de Crenir ever came again. This young de Crenir, too, the pamphlet goes on to say, was the only one of the family to visit regularly with people in town, or who rode more than a day’s journey into the surrounding country.
The gray and white house gives the impression now of being a military outpost on the edge of an empire of silence and space, the domain, at the time it was built, of buffalo, bear, antelope, wolves, Hunkpapa Sioux, Crows off to the west, and others. Today there is little of value left beyond the house itself and a few pieces of period furniture except a collection of extraordinary books.
In the summer of 1974, this collection was in the process of being restored by a man named Edward Seraut. I was driving east and saw a highway advertisement outside Killdeer—
HISTORIC FRENCH CHATEAU • 12 MILES • ICE CREAM • COOL DRINKS • SOUVENIRS
—and had stopped and toured the mansion with other people on vacation. Afterward, with a guard’s permission and anticipating a conversation, I went back to the library on the second floor and introduced myself, somewhat hesitantly, to Seraut.
I had been struck right away by the sight of him, sitting still and jacketless in a straight chair with a broken book in his lap, as though bereaved. He was perhaps in his sixties. He seemed gratified by my interest, though I startled him when I came up. He showed me, still with a slightly quizzical look, a few of the books he had been working on—an oversized folio of colored prints of North American mammals by Karl Bodmer, and a copy, I recognized, of La Mettrie’s
He described a technique he was just then using to remove a stain called foxing from a flyleaf. I was drawn to him. When I asked if I might take him to dinner, he said he would be glad—delighted.
“I’ve been here for months,” he said, “and I’ve hardly looked out the windows.”
While I waited for the estate to close—Seraut said he was obliged to work in public view until closing time—I walked out into the surrounding hills. They had a smoothness of line, an evenness of tone, that is often called graceful, the sun-dried grasses being everywhere the same height. I wondered if these might be the native grasses, come back. The dry hills seemed without life, though in the distance, through shimmering heat waves, some Herefords or other kind of cattle were grazing.
When I returned to the house, Seraut was not quite ready and, glad to watch, I insisted he go on. His tools appeared surgical. Laid out on a long refectory table, amid presses and rolls of paper and leather, were forceps and scalpels, tweezers, syringes filled with glue, many spools of thread and several kinds of knives. The room was filled, too, with a pleasing light, but when I remarked about it, Seraut said this was one of the reasons the collection had deteriorated—that, and the fact that many of the books had been so heavily used. He indicated the worn headband on a book as he handed it to me. I knew this book, too, William Bartram’s
Travels Through North and South Carolina
—a first edition. But I was mesmerized more by Seraut’s efficiency. He had beveled a frayed corner clean and then anchored a new piece of book board to it with tiny steel pins, like a bone fracture. When he covered the corner with leather, the matching of line and texture was so deft the repair seemed never to have been made. Indeed, like the other corners, it appeared slightly rubbed from use.
He firmed the book in a small press and we left.
On the way into town we both marveled at the broad reach, the sultry reds and oranges, the lingering yellows, of the North Dakota sunset. Seraut remarked on the fine shading of colors, their densities. Leathers, he said, after a moment, could be treated with certain vegetable dyes to achieve a range of color as subtle. I asked, did one, in taking advantage of such skills, restore a book so well it avoided detection? Or did one leave clear evidence of what had been done, so as not to confuse the issue of originality? He leaned toward the former, he said, but always tipped a small sheet of paper into the back of the book, noting the date of restoration and what he had done.
I had been attracted to Seraut because of his work, and the atmosphere of well-read books; but there was a kind of incongruity about him, too, that was as attractive. His dress was foreign, a dark wool suit, a white shirt with a plain dark tie. He was mannered—a suggestion of polite intentions and cultivated tastes. There was almost the air of a prior about him. He seemed oblivious to the country in which he was now at work.
He had been hired, he told me, by a man in Illinois, a lawyer who had bought the de Crenir collection. A committee of townspeople had advertised it for sale in order to raise money to refurbish the mansion—629 leather-bound volumes belonging to René de Crenir, most on topics of natural history, some dating from the sixteenth century. The man had asked Seraut to travel to North Dakota, to restore the collection and prepare it for shipment east.
Seraut said he spent his days filling insect holes, repairing deteriorating spines, restoring gold tooling—“accurate and sympathetic restoration,” he told me, “not crude mutilations or the inappropriate embellishments of amateurs.” If necessary he would dismantle a book entirely in order to resize and rehinge each page, before sewing it all back together. He had been working for three months but would need another few weeks, he thought, to finish. He lived at the de Crenir mansion. He said nothing of any contact with the townspeople. The afternoon I met him he had paid no attention at all to the tourists who had wandered through.
Over dinner, perhaps because of the wine, he spoke with sudden passion of the art and obscurity of his profession, at one point emphasizing the obscurity with a gesture of his arm toward the far reaches of the prairie that lay beyond the walls of the hotel. I tried to listen politely but was caught by an offhand reference to being able to reconstruct René de Crenir’s intellectual life, through a study of the collection. How? I asked.
The volumes that have seen the most use, he went on, indicated de Crenir’s principal concern was with the presence of animals in North America that were unknown in Europe. The library contained first editions of the journals and letters of James Oglethorpe, Thomas Nuttall, André Michaux, and Cadwallader Colden, all of whom were among the earliest to make extensive, first-hand notes on the natural history of North America. There were copies, too, of many of the early accounts of plains exploration—Lewis and Clark, Bradbury, Stewart. Seraut said he believed de Crenir had been
with understanding the nature of animals foreign to the European mind, that he wanted a
understanding, rooted in North America and representing a radically different view of the place of animals in human ideas.
To want to try to do this, I said, was certainly reasonable. European naturalists had groped at first for European analogs to describe unfamiliar animals—they had referred to American coyotes, for example, as jackals. The stories of alligators and eight-foot diamondback rattlesnakes they brought home were not taken seriously, nor was the idea that a grizzly bear might not be fazed by three or four bullets. The soulless vision of creatures set forth at the time by Descartes and Linnaeus was not affected by the North American discoveries and it soon absorbed them, passing right over the native taxonomies. De Crenir, I said, may have wanted to throw out the European system and fit the American animals to a new system—but how?
We ordered brandy and cigars after dinner. I was now deeply affected by the atmosphere of ideas and history that emanated from Seraut, and periodically stunned by the sight of young, ferine men cruising in slow-moving pickups on the other side of the window, or distracted by the rise and fall of ranchers’ voices and the din of country-and-western music in an adjoining bar. As Seraut speculated, I became more and more fascinated by de Crenir. Had he ever published? Seraut shrugged. Perhaps, but he thought not. There were only stray notes, no manuscripts. Risking the feeling of camaraderie, I asked if I could examine the library the next day. I knew some natural history; perhaps I could construct an outline of de Crenir’s work. Seraut said he had no objection, though I sensed he thought my interest precipitate and improper.
I drove him back. In the August moonlight, the North Dakota hills appeared in soft outline, gentle and unearthly.