When word reached me last week of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre author James Welch's death, his name reminded me again of all the magical properties in words, of the way certain words and their compositional sound and meaning can summon emotion, much as some of our forested ancestors believed, for instance, that the word "bear" would summon one and so never said it, never evolved a word that meant it.
For me, the name of James Welch has always summoned up kinder words and better feelings. It has always meant that at a summit of mastery somewhere, perhaps at a place within us where our taste for appealing sound and our need for meaning unite - there, words are spiritual volition.
Not everyone gets there, but James Welch did. His best-known novel, Winter in the Blood, is on my shelf and always will be, except for those occasions when it comes down for another reading. Many writings since have proved his staying power.
Even so, his finest words for me will always be a few he said aloud around 25 years ago, in the late 1970s. He had come to a small university in the Midwest, at the invitation of a professor of mine. I don't know if he gave a reading or a lecture, or if I attended. Every detail of the occasion has been eclipsed by the experience I'm about to describe.
It took place in an old stately residential building that had been converted to a casual setting for writing classes. The professor I knew introduced me to James Welch, and the three of us got into some brief conversation. At some point, the author uttered a magical phrase - "Plowing the Earthboy Forty." It may have been the title of a book of poems or stories, or of a single poem or story, or even only a line from other writings - I've never wanted to look it up. In fact, come to find out now that his only book of poems is entitled "Riding the Earthboy Forty." But in my presence, on the one occasion, he said "Plowing" - I remember good-natured laughter around us, so perhaps as writers will do he was ringing changes on a phrase known to other listeners. The meaning released for me in that single phrase is the reference I know it by, and the only way I've ever looked it up is at the name of James Welch.
Plowing the Earthboy Forty! What words were these? English, English poetry, but more so. An English of creativity on the wing, created as I listened. Perhaps by that time I had read T.S. Eliot on the "indefinite resonance" of poetry, but perhaps not. Perhaps I had read the incomparably subtle essayist, Paul Valery, on the same subject, but again perhaps not. What matters more is that in the words of James Welch, I caught hold of the trace elements they tried to describe.
Plowing the Earthboy Forty. The sound of it alone became something to live by, for a few moments at least of every day for months thereafter, or so it seems now. The meaning I would work on for much longer, turning it over and over, plowing some corner 40 of my own experience.
Years would pass before I really appreciated that Earthboy is a regular family name in Indian country. Still more years passed, and I realized that my own ancestry of crusty Welshmen and crustier Prussians, farmers all, gave me a blood connection to that continuum of experience, for centuries a survival issue, known as plowing a corner 40 acres for planting season.
I never talked to James Welch again, never saw him again, never heard him speak again. Yet we communicated. Every time his famous name came up, as it occasionally did over the years, the spiritual volition in words visited me again as again it conjured up the talisman that might as well have been ancient: Plowing the Earthboy Forty.
James Welch has plowed his field now. A sounding glory grows there.