Pay Attention to The Details: A warrior woman knows the terrain and is prepared with skills for survival. She is resilient and brave. She moves in harmony with the natural landscape and honors all the animal and plant beings.
With little information about the setting and circumstances of this woman’s photograph, I see her as capable, independent, and ready to face whatever presents itself. I imagine her in a western landscape immersed in the land and its inhabitants, far from the societal norms for women in the Victorian times.
Women immigrated west primarily once the United States government announced the chance to homestead these “territories”, which were actually ancestral lands already occupied by Indigenous people. Women who chose to go were willing to face the unknown hardships and dangers that awaited. To survive they had to be resourceful and willing to take on whatever tasks were at hand even those requiring physical strength. This included raising and gathering food and preparing for the winter months, clothing her family from handspun cloth or leather, caring for livestock, birthing and raising children, doctoring the sick or injured. Living such a life could only bring about great psychological change. Although the story of the Western Frontier is written primarily as the story of men, women were writing in diaries and journals about their everyday experiences.
Willa Cather, a novelist of the frontier west, draws on her own experience of her family’s move from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine. In her novels, she speaks of living in expansiveness of the western landscape, the beauty and challenges of the environment, and the west as a crossroad of immigrant experiences. This is from her book “O Pioneers!”:
“She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”
When I created this piece, “Pay Attention to the Details” it stirred up memories of my own relocation at age 21 from New York City to the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Upon arrival, my whole being was suddenly engulfed with new and exhilarating sensations. I felt suddenly very alive and awakened by the smells of cedar and sage, the vast star-filled night sky, the crackling warmth of the wood stove, the movement and scent of horses close by, and a deep quietude that felt like a long slow exhale. That was how it felt to go from my charged urban life to a small rural mountain community and it forever changed me. Since that time, I have never strayed far from the Rocky Mountains- moving north to northern British Columbia for a time and then finally settling in Montana.
For more reading on this topic:
Women and the Myth of the American West
The Other Frontier: Women’s Experience on the American Frontier