Mary Strachan Scriver
5 min readOct 18, 2021


My book of sermons called “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke” was edited and published by Moosemilk Press, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Edmonton First Unitarian Church run by a committee of volunteers who thought the task would be easier. They added the subtitle, “Lessons on Being Where You Are,” thinking that would help sales, though not everyone is attracted to lessons. Many people think religion is a matter of belief that arrives somehow mystically on the wings of a dove rather than a hawk. They don’t think of it as something to be learned.

Nevertheless, the little book sold well enough to finance the next book which was a serious history of Unitarianism in Alberta, which didn’t sell.

“Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke” sermons were intended to move the subject of religion towards experience and embodiment/sensation. The book still sells on today’s used book market, a lively and rich source of books now that it’s online.

These days I’m in a context where the terrain is the same through the old Blackfeet lands but specializes in exploiting the water run-off from the snow accumulated on the Rocky Mountains over winter. This snowpack results from Pacific Ocean water-laden air hitting the peaks and dropping the water as rain or snow. If currents change so that the jet stream coming onshore is different, that will change how much snow piles up and therefore how much water will fall to accumulate for spring planting on the prairie.

In the past people here survived by using the grass, passing it through buffalo or livestock. Grain and pulse crops are more recent. There is some worry that the soil itself, the microbial and chemical resources in it, might be exhausted by the intense industrial cropping with big machinery under the control of corporations focused on profit. They don’t employ many people and are trying to bypass the small local elevators and railroad spurs that used to transport the grain over to the coast, where it can be shipped to nations.

People here don’t think about such things except in the little enclaves like Nature Conservancy, which is in Choteau, an hour’s drive away. Until recently lifespans were shorter and education was more basic. Health challenges were more often fatal. The ambitious who found it impossible to get ahead here sent their children to college and cities.

They also become more interested in schemes like a 401k which holds them in jobs and gets them invested in Republican aims for supporting businesses. One woman said to me frankly, “I don’t give a damn about Trump’s life. His times are good for my 401k.” Local people are remarkably well-skilled in the kind of computations that use complex systems to produce a bit of profit. They have sympathy for oligarchs who do the same thing. (Or rather their staffs do it for them.) It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but rather a clever thing, like the idea of using the equity of a house owned free and clear to go into debt for a second house that produces income. At one time the equity built up in owning a house or land was a principle means of retirement, but it demands constant growth, sometimes called a “bubble.”

“Drummers,” as salesmen used to be called, used to come through the Scriver Studio daily, stopping to pick up clues about locals but also to push ideas about what was smart dealing, shooting their cuffs with their rocketship cufflinks. Don’t call it deception — call it “playing your cards close to your chest.” The obsession with card games keyed into the computational definition of success.

And now it is the constant computation of data, often distorted by assumptions and skewed on purpose. The sexy graphs and illustrations obscure the basic questions that raw numbers would suggest. People are sly about presentation, but weak on analysis, which is necessary for what is called “numeracy,” that is, the ability to see numbers and their interactions accurately.

More than that, such issues keep people so busy figuring out interest rates for desiderata without really figuring out what they desire or ever seeing their own small town’s limited concerns against a background of national policy or world geophysical forces. The internet is only just now beginning to break that up with the help of National Geographic streaming programs vivid enough for even an exhausted person to keep watching at the end of the day.

So much gets put off until some check point — kids in school, college finished, marriage, and eventually retirement if you’re still healthy. In a small town, one sees the examples daily. Is the cluster of cars at the Lutheran church every day actually memorials for Covid deaths or is is because of AA meetings for people preventing suicide by self-medicating, or is it committees for agricultural progress and transformation?

I can see the Lutheran church out my window — can’t see the bigger Catholic church up the street. The Southern Baptist church next door is small. At least they finally took down their deafening electronic bells. Or maybe the speakers were struck by lightning since the tall trees that used to be lightning rods out front were cut down. Even the most spiritual setting is subject to the ecosystem. Their connection to the town is partly maintained by being a food bank. The meaning of religion is buttressed by survival through eating.

“You don’t count,” in its pejorative sense is meant here. It counts. If no one counts you, you don’t exist. Until the computer programs began to list the percentage of enrolled (tribal) people in Valier (30%) everyone thought of this as a white town because the railroad and the Catholic church populated the transition to an irrigation town by importing an entire community from Belgium. No one reflected on how long ago that was. No one noticed who built Swift Dam, the key to the canal complex, or that it was on the reservation.

Likewise, this is considered a pretty little town, but when I deliberately drove around beyond the occasional “suburban” blocks, I saw a lot of empty swaths, blocks of grain bins, giant gravel heaps for road repair. Meanwhile at city council meetings I heard about the lack of storm drains and the state requirement for removing the muck collected at the bottom of our sewage lagoons, the ones we just figured out how to keep from freezing.

But I do not want to write a book called “Storm Drains and Sewage Lagoons”. I don’t preach anymore anyway. Not on purpose.



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.