The captivating magic of a dry, dusty text

An encyclopedia-style book published in 1933 offers surprising perspective.


Over the past couple of months, I have galloped across Comancheria with the Texas Rangers, discovered lost Epicurean manuscripts in the company of the Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini, endured a raging snowstorm conjured by Tolstoy, and contemplated the cloud-reflecting Yangtze with ancient Chinese poets.

I am an omnivorous reader: sonnets, satires, you name it. I’ll read and read, regardless of subject, so long as the words sing to the heart and the lines snap together in the mind like puzzle pieces — so long as it’s “good” writing, painstakingly crafted to create some intellectual-emotional movement within me.

Strange, then, given my appreciation of literary artistry, that the best book I’ve encountered in some time is a monotonous, encyclopedia-style academic text originally published in 1933 as part of the decidedly obscure Bulletin Of Milwaukee Public Museum series. Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, written by a pair of University of California anthropologists and based on interviews with “Native informants,” should be a total snooze, right? Outside of a few ivory tower-dwellers, primitive-skills enthusiasts, and families descended from Miwok stock, who cares that a decoction of skullcap was utilized as a wash for sore eyes? Or that acorn mush was “regarded as insipid” without an accompaniment of seed meal? Or that the Plains, Southern, Central and Northern dialectic groups each had their own unique terms for the twined burden basket?

It turns out that I care, intensely, and if you’re a bibliophile, that’s big news. There’s a certain aesthetic at work in Miwok — what I’ve taken to calling the Anthropological Aesthetic. This is über-nonfiction, nonfiction that goes so far into reality it becomes a unique subspecies of art, a poem-myth about skills, knowledges, possibilities. Not only is it beautiful, it’s useful.

I don’t want to oversimplify things by saying that the American Empire is crashing, taking much of nature down with it, but I can’t deny that, looking around, absorbing the news and the sights, it often feels as though I’m falling. What to reach for? The Russian masters? Vanity Fair? How about a book that gazes forwards and backwards at the same time? To borrow a phrase from the late Arizonan writer Charles Bowden: “memories of the future.”


I found Miwok at a yard sale three years ago and bought it for a dime, mostly because the cover — a black-and-white photograph taken in 1880 of two painted, deadpan, headdress-wearing fellows — was intriguing and a little spooky. Over the past handful of summers, I’ve explored what once was the core of the Sierra Miwok’s territory, a huge swath of “Gold Country” running from around Mariposa in the south to around Placerville in the north, but I never intended to study the landscape or its people. The book was one more volume on a crowded shelf, that’s all.

Last winter, needing something to browse at the breakfast table — and why not something with pictures of obsidian blades, deer-bone awls, soaproot brushes, willow cradles, and dance skirts made of magpie feathers? — I gave Miwok a try. To my surprise, I was swiftly transported to a strange and vivid world, one that sprang from the empty spaces between the dry-dusty facts.

Women wearing hide skirts chatted as they milled nuts in a bedrock mortar, golden sunlight on their bare shoulders. An entire hungry village circled a meadow for a grasshopper drive, beating the insects towards pits and smudge fires. A hundred pairs of hands worked sinew and milkweed fiber and grapevine withes and steatite and soil, crafting from the raw earth a richly nuanced way of life.

Figure 24 — Baited snare

Manzanita cider.

Walnut dice games.

Shamans shaking butterfly-cocoon rattles.

Come evening, the book was finished and I was exhausted, most every page dog-eared and exuberantly underlined.


Wanting to better understand the word-magic of the Anthropological Aesthetic, I picked Miwok up recently and read it once more, cover to cover. As with the fantasy and sci-fi stories that captivated me as a kid, for the better part of 24 hours I inhabited an alternate reality. But here’s the wondrous thing: It’s a real reality, not a make-believe realm. Visiting the quarry at “Lotowayaka,” observing the tattooing of an adolescent girl, these allow for the most expansive, important and enlivening thought a person can think: There are other ways to live. Our way right now, with its glowing screens and nature-deficit disorder, its drone strikes and La-Z-Boys, its Trumps and Clintons, is not the only way. That may seem obvious, but it’s depressingly easy — and dangerous — to forget.

Other ways? Sweet blessed breath of fresh air and perspective! Miwok provides what Malcolm Margolin, publisher of the magazine News From Native California, has described as “glimpses of almost forgotten aspects of our own selves.”

Still, the question remains: How does a basic text — not a masterfully told narrative or entertaining yarn — cast such a compelling spell? The answer lies, I think, in another quote, this from the Montana writer William Kittredge: “Listings are attempts to make existence whole and holy in the naming.”

The no-frills Miwok — essentially a 150-page ladder of paragraphs with rungs labeled “Salt,” “Ear and Nose Piercing,” and “Dogs,” to mention but a few — is surely meant to be consulted, browsed, not read straight through. When we do read it page by page, though, its thousands of super-specific details form a pattern of daily life, cycling seasons and humans in place. This survey of material culture isn’t limited to tools and ornaments, but encompasses everything from the proper technique for harvesting Pinus sabiniana’s cones (twist them off when they’re green), to how people should treat their hair during a period of mourning (cut it and bury the locks alongside the deceased). There’s a hypnotic, incantatory quality to the relentless iterations: X was stone-boiled or roasted in ashes, whereas Y was exclusively boiled, whereas Z was parched, pounded and eaten dry.

On the other hand, what this survey of material culture omits (along with characters, plot and similar devices) is any commentary on the meaning of the artifacts and techniques documented. I’ve come to believe that this absence of interpretation — this vacuum around the bare, skeletal facts — is actually integral to the functioning of the Anthropological Aesthetic.

George Saunders, a much-lauded contemporary fiction writer, says he cuts everything he can from a story so that the reader is forced to fill in the gaps and engage. In Miwok, the novelist’s imperative “show, don’t tell” is pushed to an extreme. For example, the section “Taking of Fishes” offers a tantalizing reference to rainbow trout “caught by hand in the holes along the banks of creeks and rivers.” That’s it. No glimpse of interior life, of a real person standing motionless in cold water, performing what most of us today consider an impossible task.

Critics might accuse a book like this of draining a culture’s vitality by presenting its flutes instead of its tunes, its bead necklaces minus the ceremonies they adorned. But this spare treatment is precisely what can spark a whole and holy existence in the imagination. How does it feel to stare for hours into a swirling eddy, waiting for a shadowy piscine flicker? And what is it like to snap awake, the trance of focus broken, a rainbow trout glittering in your fist? To find out, Miwok insists, we must wade into the current ourselves.


Photos: Ernest Amoroso, National Museum of the American Indian, NPS

As mentioned earlier, the highest pleasure of reading is, for me, a synchoninzed movement of the intellect and the emotions — that’s when we’re truly in the current. The epiphany of “other ways” is primarily mental. What, then, of that juicy red muscle beating inside the chest?

In the early pages of Miwok, a truth most of us would rather avoid forces itself upon the heart with words like “disrupted,” “impacted,” “depleted,” “vanished,” “replaced.” Of the numerous California tribes decimated and displaced by white settlers and military troops, we learn that the Sierra Miwok were arguably “the greatest sufferers because the principal gold-bearing regions lay in their territory.” It’s a familiar story, one of intricately textured inhabitation and catastrophic violence. Miwok doesn’t tell it outright, instead moving briskly along to the fire drills and arrow straighteners and coyote-skin pillows, but the story haunts the margins of each page nonetheless.

I encountered this very ghost during a summer backpacking trip in the Stanislaus National Forest, on the Sierra’s western slope. Douglas firs, granite outcrops, northern flickers galore — these ridges and valleys were once also home to an animal called Homo sapiens. Now they’re a federally protected wilderness area where a guy needs a permit to walk and sleep. Times change, as they say. And cultures, for sometimes ghastly reasons, disappear.

On that trip, there were moments charging uphill when I felt as if my heart might explode. It’s just the exercise, I told myself. But then, upon reaching some incredible vista, I’d want to both weep and laugh: for the beauty of the land and for its sadness, for the memory — and the future possibility — of people living on it and with it and as part of it. At those moments, I pulled out a certain dog-eared, exuberantly underlined book, took a seat, and read a page at random.

Brush assembly house.

Digging stick.

Warriors in grass caps.

Thank you, I said aloud, remembering that morning at the breakfast table, the cover falling open to reveal a whole and holy world I didn’t yet know that I badly needed to read, and read again.



Grizzly bear.

Thank you, I said, standing up, shouldering my pack, pushing deeper into the range — into that world and this world and the next world, all at once.

Leath Tonino's writing appears in Orion, Sierra, The Sun, Men’s Journal, Outside and other magazines.

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