Mary Strachan Scriver
5 min readMay 6, 2021


Major migrations of people means several dynamics develop: ways of teaching people how to handle modern phenomena like escalators or hailing a cab or conversely how to navigate a street crowded with motorbikes and donkey carts. There might be formal classes in vocabulary or local manners. One must think about how to dress, to wash. There are not many places that approve of a daily morning shower or the use of scent.

Moving to this village means knowing how to navigate the post office hours and the little letter boxes. I’m grateful that ours are opened with keys rather than combinations that I can never remember. But much of what happens here is guided by numbers like box numbers. If I wore my big city clothes, I would be considered pretentious, but since I dress at a lower standard that local people (sweats, workshirts — I sit at the computer alone all day as though I were in quarantine) I’m suspected of maybe drug use and the crime of poverty.

My worst crime is low lawn maintenance — the whole movement about short green lawns being poisonous and using too much water has not dawned here. Much of the point of self-respect here is the appearance of a village being a photogenic mock suburbia. Television is our role model and what we see there is what we try to reproduce. The mayor who lasted three weeks and then quit (and has since died) was a guy who sold automatic lawn watering systems. When water meters were forced upon the town by the state as a necessary conservation measure, this man predicted disaster for our lawns. Until the meters the village water was considered a group benefit and charges were simply a standard amount, almost like club dues. He WAS right.

Out of a complex of reasons — poverty, health struggles, ideology (agreeing with water conservation), no habits appropriate to a house and lot because of living in apartments, and my time priority going to reading and writing, I let my yard crash. It was illegal but I was rescued by a man who voluntarily and generously worked over my front yard. It was painful to the community because a previous owner had taken extra care to maintain a beautiful yard. Inside the standards of a community, there are always micro-cultures because of individuals.

The house next to me is a mechanical dogpatch. Someone became angry at the town zoning manager and turned him in as breaking sanitation laws: he was keeping an old Volkswagen to convert for something. Just one. The complaint rose to the level of Justice of the Peace court where it was closed out. The assortment of machinery and car parts next door is not ticketed so far as I know. I don’t know why. Old cars in particular are a problem where people don’t have a lot of money and were raised in the country where there was plenty of space.

Another war of mine is the big cottonwood tree that may or may not be growing on the boundary of the lot. As far as I know, the lots have never been surveyed, but the Southern Baptists are constantly trying to make “their half” meet their standards of what is picturesque. I’ll be interested to see what they do now that a major limb has died. In fact, many trees may not have made it through the severity of this winter. They think English movies; I think habitat.

People who move here from population-thick places can find us woefully deficit, so they are busy trying to trap cats, forbid chickens, and eliminate potholes. When I was working for the City of Portland twenty years ago, I answered the phone in the complaint department where the callers complained about roughly the same things, but were wary about drug use, people who collected camp trailers where the serious cases could hole up, and the sound of gunfire in the night. I’m talking about the house next to my mother’s. It was the sale of her house after her death that paid for this house.

Right now there’s a big movement of people from places they consider dangerous or too expensive out into the sort of places they have seen on television, “Mayberry Syndrome.” It never occurs to them that they are changing cultures, maybe climates, and must meet the obligations of houseowners in that place. They bring their afflictions with them.

Something similar is seeping through the work of academics and scientists, realising that the assumptions they have made about life have been skewed by their restriction to a certain set of living and eating practices. Today John Hawks, a highly valued paleontologist, reminded us on Twitter that using the fact of graves with artifacts as the only marker of Neolithic beginning culture is blind. He phrased it thus:

“This leads to a scientific problem and a moral one. The scientific problem is the erection of an arbitrary “modern human” form of burial that accords only with a specific cultural practice that was rarely observed by most historic and prehistoric humans.

“The moral problem is when we concede that readers of our work will limit their interest and empathy only to ancients who share their own cultural practices, and so we promote and dedicate attention to those cases, while ignoring or glossing over others.”

I chimed in to note the tree “burials” practiced by Plains Indians and then used the words “simple cremation” to describe the open-air burning of bodies in India, nearly overwhelming the supply of wood in this pandemic. Right away someone alert asked me to justify saying, “simple.” Then I had to describe the elaborate arrangements depicted as the norm in movies: a chapel, a coffin, flowers, a conveyor belt, automatic doors, a gas furnace managed by pressing a button “backstage.”

But I had to admit that if a person must take his loved one’s body to an open air arrangement of burning pits and witness the cremation while praying, is not simple. The cultural practice is very old and emotionally, religiously, complexly, responding to a very different ecology and demographic.

This is a far cry from trying to justify my weeds and brown grass, but we are challenged to find ways to understand and adapt to different circumstances. The world is not only various, but also changing constantly. Evidence in the film series linked below.




Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.