The Last Word: December 2013
Commentary on Tulsa life
Just as we’re abuzz and agog about the movie “August: Osage County,” I discovered another famous Oklahoma author who wrote about the Osage prairie.
Tracy Letts set his drama inside a house, but John Joseph Mathews went outdoors. And there he laid his heart.
It takes a special gift to write well about place and geography.
In her book “The Egg and I,” Betty Smith said the mountains of the Pacific Northwest made her uncomfortable, as if someone was always looking over her shoulder. Has anyone ever written so well about fly fishing in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River as Norman Maclean did in “A River Runs Through It”? Has another writer portrayed west Texas with such love and appreciation as Larry McMurtry in his memoirs?
Their equal is Mathews, who wrote eloquently about an Oklahoma prairie. It is a harsh place, though he wrote tenderly about it. Perhaps because he was writing to heal himself.
Mathews was born in 1894, part Osage, and grew up in the Osage Nation. As a scholar, he is renowned for his books about the Osage people and history. As a gentleman, when he wrote the biography of Oklahoma governor and oilman E.W. Marland, he was discreet about Marland’s scandalous marriage to the governor’s own adopted niece.
Mathews’ early life and career were exciting. He was a World War I fighter pilot, earned a degree in geology from the University of Oklahoma, studied at Oxford and married in Europe after a whirlwind romance. Back in the States, the marriage failed and the Great Depression knocked the wind out of his finances. It knocked the wind out of him, too.
In the 1930s, he went back to Osage County to live in solitude for a decade. He built a little sandstone cabin he called the Blackjacks, and he wrote. That’s why he is often compared to Thoreau.
Mathews said he went to the Blackjacks to live, “as one climbs out of the roaring stream of civilization onto an island, to rest and to watch.”
And how he watched. He watched the land, the seasons and the animals so closely, he found his natural place among them. He captured this in his memoir “Talking to the Moon.” It was published in 1945 and sank in the clamor of World War II. Thanks to the OU Press for republishing it and letting us discover it.
Each chapter describes a month and is titled with the Osage name for that month’s moon: Yellow Flower Moon, Deer Hiding Moon, etc.
When Mathews describes an Oklahoma summer before electric fans or air conditioning and degrees of 113, we swelter with him. When hunting season arrives and the first cold rain comes from the north with flocks of ducks on the wing, even the pacifist-vegetarians among us can share his soul-deep joy. He takes the time to truly see the insects in the grass, the birds in their nests, his rough cowboy neighbors and the Osage elders with their dry humor.
He writes in a style that is unadorned and yet musical. Some of his old hunter friends “have nothing but keys and a knife to jingle in their pockets,” he says. When he watches a coyote hunting field mice, “it stands on his hind legs like a fox in a fable.” Butterflies, he writes, “float like the thoughts of a lively child.”
Mathews died in 1979 at age 85 and was buried beside the sandstone cottage that he loved. Over the arched fireplace in his cottage, he had painted a motto in Latin. It had been the motto of a Roman legion on the North Africa frontier in the first century. Mathews said it was the motto of his life in the Blackjacks.
Translated, it says, “To hunt, to swim, to play, to laugh — this is to live.”