"It was my wish that somewhere there should be a memorial of it all . . . for our like will not be there again." -- Tomas O Crohan's
Blasket Islands autobiography
During the year 1841, a young shipping clerk from the Boston docks embarked on a business trip to Liverpool and subsequently, some time after his return, was married. Neither event was extraordinary for that era. Neither would be noteworthy 140 years later, except that during the same year, clerk James Gilchrist Swan also began a diary. Of the two experiences that marked 1841 for him, it was the voyage to Liverpool which "jarred Swan's writing hand into motion" to fill 30 pages with details of sailing the Atlantic and wandering observantly about Britain. His first diary ends with his return to Boston.
Nine years had passed, two children had been born, and unrecorded marital conflicts had separated him from his wife before Swan took up his pen once more. Again, it was a voyage which inspired him to write, this time around Cape Horn and up the Pacific coasts of two continents to San Francisco. Following a brief juant on a potato schooner bound for Hawaii, he spent the next few years dockside as a clerk in San Francisco, his work varying little from his days in Boston. Few qualities beyond a decided propensity for the bottle and the pen distinguished James G. Swan during these years. Then, in 1852, lured by a smooth-talking oyster entrepreneur (compared by Swan to Baron Munchausen), he moved up the coast to the rich oyster beds of Shoalwater Bay, north of the Columbia River. His introduction to the Chinook and Chehalis tribes of the area inspired an interest in Indian ways and awakened a dormant linguistic skill that were to shape his uncommon future.
Nine years later, after writing the first book to be published by a resident of the newly formed Washington Territory and serving a term as aide to the territorial delegate to Congress, Swan landed on the Olympic Peninsula. In this remote corner of the nation, he began his last diary, a daily chronicle that would record nearly half a century of change. Here, as schoolteacher, self-taught doctor and arbitrator for the Makah Indians, as collector and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, as author, entrepreneur and politician, he would spend the remainder of his years, recording "with simple stubborn dailiness" the events of life on the westernmost edge of the American frontier.
One hundred thirty years after Swan's journey round the Horn, Seattle writer Ivan Doig spent a winter poring over the voluminous diaries consigned to the depths of a library archive after Swan's death early in 1900. From his immersion in the 2,500,000 words Swan had written, Doig emerged with a 90-day diary of his own voyage through Swan's life. Doig's journal of his days, interwoven with a biography of Swan and passages from Swan's writing, records the daily growth of a strange and powerful bond between the long-dead "coastal nomad" and a sensitive modern writer.
"At first they can only have been curiosities, griffin met with centaur, to one another; then . . . exchangers of lore; then . . . friends," Doig writes in his first week, of Swan's growing friendship with Swell, a Makah Indian, in 1859. "Such a growth of regard sometimes will happen when two people are cupped together in a single happen chance season of closeness -- aboard a fishing boat, in a line cabin of a cattle ranch, a military outpost." Swan the clerk cupped together in a season of closeness with Swell the chieftain . . . Doig the "suburban druid" in his own season of closeness with Swan the diarist, long forgotten in a heap of archive boxes: "By that late winter night, the two of them had entered . . . a kind of adopted kindship, stronger than differences of blood can ever be. Winter brothers, perhaps call them."
For his own time, four our time, for any time, James Swan was an exceptional person: oysterer, schoolteacher, railroad speculator, explorer, amateur ethnologist, lawyer, judge, homesteader, linguist, ship's outfitter, customs collector, author, small-town bureaucrat, artist, clerk. Above all, he was diarist, keen observer and meticulous recorder, tirelessly foraging for knowledge. ("I never yet found that information was useless to anyone," he once wrote.) With the detachment of a man untroubled by his own insignificance, Swan wrote to glorify not himself, but the world he so tenuously inhabited. The Northwest frontier of people, landscapes, technologies, Indian lore and language changing irretrievably before his gaze were a kaleidscopic paradise for his passionate curiosity. Like a sort of Wild-West Gully Jimson, he asked little more from his world than leave to sketch and record it. Solitary, vulnerable and competent, he was always a little perplexed by the affection he earned from Indians, merchants, children, townsfolk and all whose lives he touched in passing.
Ivan Doig tracks Swan along the broken Northwest coast, compelled initially by a question relevant to his own transplanted identity as well as Swan's. Why are such men as he and Swan and countless others drawn from the security of home, family, job and status to risk discomfort, loneliness and anger on the unruly brink of a young nation? It was a question Swan never troubled to ask, and as his diaries unfold within Doig's journal, its importance dims. By the last days of his winter with Swan, Doig's world of freeways, suburban settlements and Trident missiles fades like stage scrim before the richness of its history. On a promontory at Dungeness and over the doomed Hood Canal Bridge, "the old wind in the old anger" threshes the same waves Swan's Makah friends threaded with their graceful canoes, hurls its sodden baggage on the same implacable Olympic Range that loomed always within Swan's view. Jays and juncos, hummingbirds, ospreys, snowy owls and eagles grace a northern jungle for Doig as once they did for Swan. In the constancy of elements, geography, wildness, and finally in the constancy of one man's wistful dedication to recording the lives and days he passed among them, Swan and Doig spend their season of closeness together.
Seasons end with a change of light, diaries with a blank page. For punctuation, the Port Townsend Morning Leader records Swan's death and the arrival of a delegation of Indians from Neah Bay, "to take a last look at their oldtime friend and adviser. The Indians as they gazed upon the rigid features gave expressions of their grief in low moans and each affectionately patted the face of the dead man."
A simple, loving ceremony of touch. Eighty years later, Ivan Doig performs that ceremony again with this journal of a season with his winter brother.