MARCH 12, 2021
I ONLY KNEW my great-aunt Virginia from a book on my mother’s bookshelf — A Treasury of American Indian Herbs: Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine — and a story. Published a year before I was born, the book is inscribed on its first page to my grandmother, “To Harriet and the Brood, Love Sis. Virginia Scully, May 24, 1970.” The back-jacket photo shows a tiny gray-haired lady with a fringe of short bangs, grinning in the pine forest in a ridiculous hat and a man’s coat. The story is that she was ugly.
Everyone told her she was ugly. Too ugly to marry. Born in 1898, she emerged from a world of middle-class Midwestern privilege. There were traditions. It would be better if she stayed at home, in the big house in Grand Rapids with her crazy brother in the attic who had come home from World War I with syphilis, caring for her mother and her father, the Episcopal bishop of Western Michigan — a maiden aunt until she died. Instead, she ran away. She ran away to New York City. She met Mike Scully. He fell in love with her, ugly or not, and they married, even though she was 30. They left for Mexico. They wrote guidebooks for car travelers. The war came, and they disappeared, but there was so much going on, how could anyone keep track? Letters arrived, from South America, full of travel. This made sense. No one wondered about anything. The war ended. They came home. They bought land in rural Wyoming, deep into the mountains around Fort Laramie. Scully died, on the edge of the 1960s. Virginia called my grandmother, Mac. “The funeral will be in Arlington National Cemetery,” she said. My grandmother asked why, he’d been in the military, but why there? “Well,” said Virginia, “we were spies.”
I’d come back to this story — as comfort, as prophecy, as goal — and lose track of it. But, deep in the Great American Pandemic, I would turn to it again. It became not any of those things, but a way to investigate how to be a feminist, writer, and lover of the land and its bounty, its complexity, its natural and cultural histories, as a white woman within a culture of settler colonialism. In it, I would begin to find clues to the cruelty of the American Century, the complexities of playing Indian in the bohemian culture in which I was raised, importance of female beauty to my family, the quest for female freedom, and the ways in which even a good story obscures something better, more complex, and more true. Because, only days into my research into Virginia’s life, this story was replaced by one that dodged the dramatic, unreliable narration of my family, revealed hidden wounds of voice and privilege, and helped me zero in on an ache that haunts me — the ache of being a writer looking at oceans of pain and loss and trying to make a small difference, when failure and control are everywhere, even the failures of your own voice.
That story took me to books about religious life, and car travel in 1930s Mexico, Mike Scully’s work as a writer for The New Yorker, to postwar Central American politics, and Virginia’s late-in-life love affair with a retired Army colonel who helped liberate Auschwitz and was living in a Wyoming sheep shack in used underwear, even though he was a millionaire several times over. Even the tiny start at research I’ve made so far taught me more than I could have expected about how we can come to understand what brought us to this moment where we are feverishly, desperately trying to reckon with our old ideas of America — our land and potential — and create something new.
We are poised on the edge of changes in how a racist dominant culture must listen to Indigenous voices, how humans must listen to the land, how men must listen to women. It is a moment when lives lived ahead of their time — and poisoned or compromised by it — can provide a map as true as anything for how to confront a coming century that asks us to be so much more than we were taught to be.
“You’re not very beautiful, and you’re smart. If you want men to like you, you’re going to have to pretend you’re not so bright,” my mother used to tell me. Virginia’s story sat on my shoulder every time she did, whispering that there might be more. I rebelled by studying harder, wearing dresses as if I were pretty, driving across the country alone, learning to write songs, dreaming of writing books. I heard her whisper when my mother told me that I was taking too many risks, that I was too interested in too many things. Virginia was everything mom told me it was too risky to become. I stole the book one night when I was home from college, and stuffed it in my suitcase, and kept it as a talisman through every random move from college in New York, to the music scene in Chicago, to teaching writing, to parenting. I kept it as I morphed from a frightened girl on her way to get a PhD, to a messy bohemian singing on stages in the late ’90s, to an amateur naturalist and a working journalist, to a mother knee-deep in tidepools picking over seaweed and crabs.
Virginia was in the back of my mind all that time, her pixie self in the book I rarely opened, in her cabin, with her spy history. Someday, I thought, I’ll be ready to find out if any of that is true. Someday, I’ll be ready to look at how she carved a life out of the 20th century filled with love and adventure and writing, even though she was an ugly white girl from a rich family.
I’d take the book out now and again. I’d read her introduction, writing of the day when she came to the ranch in the Wyoming mountains,
Bounded by the dark dignity of lodgepole pine, I was absorbed that afternoon into a world of color. There were flowers everywhere, of every size and hue. Three thousand feet below, at the foot of the precipitous trail we had climbed, spread the golden plain and, distantly across the plain, the winding green line of willows and cottonwoods that bordered the Platte River and obscured the view of Old Fort Laramie.
And I was there with her, standing in the place she’d chosen as home, smelling pine.
I’d read her self-deprecating references to her research, how she’d armed herself with a beret, a knitting bag, and a bus ticket, traveling all over the region to get cowboys and their wives to talk to her, asking of a person coughing next to her on a bus, “‘Did you ever take onion juice and honey as the Indians once did?’”
I read her glimmers of understanding of how her obsession put her on the wrong side of things,
The acrid smell of alkalai soil after a rain, the mighty voice of storm sweeping across great empty spaces, the awesome lightning, the silent snows, the first small flower of spring — all is beauty. All is life. The Indian identifies himself with that beauty and integrates his life into it. They did not talk to me of this, the elders, the old women, the young girls. This is their inner sanctuary, to be protected from alien eyes.
Breadcrumbs were there, small hints at the story that would be waiting when I was ready to find it — she acknowledged people on the first page, “Foremost is Colonel William C. Rogers, owner of the ranch in Wyoming who, with me, discovered the myriad of mountain herbs and speculated as to their uses.”
When I was writing a novel that now sits in a drawer, obsessed with herbal remedies one might use during an apocalypse, I found the copy of A Treasury that I’d stolen from my mother’s house. I took it down; I looked at her picture again. She and I looked so alike. I wore my hair short, and prematurely gray; I wore huge overcoats; I spent as much time as I could in my urban life outdoors. I had lived nothing like a conventional life, and there she was, with a light behind her eyes that said that she had something else to tell me, some way to make sense of my own choices and hers. I finished writing my novel with Virginia’s book at my side, always there to tell me how mustard seed was used for fevers, or the way foxglove tea was prepared. I started another book about ocean animals. I worked. I raised my son. I divorced and remarried. Still she sat at the back of my consciousness, every time I felt inadequate to the tasks I’d chosen, every time I felt ugly or unlovable, she’d surface.
She’d settled on Albany Peak, in view of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on land that belonged to Arapaho, Cheyenne, Oceti Sakowin (Sioux). I wondered what that bohemian had gotten wrong in attempting to honor the history and practice of herbal medicine in the Rockies. She had only been a tourist, playing Indian in a world that didn’t belong to her at all.
Philip J. Deloria, in his book Playing Indian, describes the history of white appropriation of Indigenous culture throughout the history of America. He begins with the Boston Tea Party’s insurrectionists, dressed as Mohawks, and lands at the People’s Park Manifesto of 1969 San Francisco, chronicling the summer camps with invented “Indian” names and societies of bohemian poets wearing invented “Indian” dress. “Playing Indian is a persistent tradition in American culture, stretching from the very instant of the national big bang into an ever-expanding present and future,” Deloria writes. He concludes with this,
Playing Indian, then, reflects one final paradox. The self-defining pairing of American truth with American freedom rests on the ability to wield power against Indians — social, military, economic, and political — while simultaneously drawing power from them. […] Intricate relations between destruction and creativity — for both Indian and non-Indian Americans — are themselves suspended in an uneasy alliance. And so, while Indian people have lived out a collection of historical nightmares in the material world, they have also haunted a long night of American dreams. As many native people have observed, to be American is to be unfinished. And although that state is powerful and creative, it carries with it nightmares all its own.
Virginia was journalist and writer used to going into places that were not her own to try to understand, to learn. But I wondered if I was allowed to fall in love with her story of empowerment and freedom, feminist rebellion and international intrigue, and still understand her privilege and the ways in which she spoke about people, and not for them. She was reaching toward something that she didn’t understand. She was making mistakes but there was this work she’d produced, cited in location after location as a standard reference on herbal medicine in the American tradition. My Twitter feed was lousy with corrective articles on how white people grabbed and bastardized healing and spiritual modalities that didn’t belong to them, white girls using unsustainably harvested palo santo sticks for rituals that were never theirs, influencers touting yoga and sweat lodges, and conspiracy theorists playing Indian as the American Experiment flamed up into violent reckoning with its origins in genocide and the Slave State. I picked up the book again, and it looked different in the light of the Dakota Access Pipeline battles, and the outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Navajo nation.
“I am not sure how to finish my book,” I told friends on a Zoom call.
“The ocean one?”
“Yeah.” I’d left my agent that week, after two years of trying to wrangle a book proposal into shape, something about grief and family, my chronic illness and the illness of the oceans — ultimately failing. It was an amicable breakup, but still a breakup. I had a hangover. Leaving the old book for a while was like burning photographs of the ex in a bonfire. “I am still writing, about all that collapse. But I’m entertaining myself with another idea.”
“Yeah,” I told them the story, Virginia, the ugliness, the marriage, the travel, the spying, the cabin in the woods, the plants.
“Jesus Christ,” Martha said, “that’s the book I want to read. Right now. Write that.”
I spent two days barely getting up from my computer, my husband next to me, both of us searching for information about the story.
“How do I look up a history of espionage on someone’s war record?”
“I think maybe the CIA website, but there would be declassified stuff if it was during the war. Where do they keep OSS data? You could FOIA that.”
Every single hit led somewhere more amazing.
I ordered the book she’d written with her husband, The Motorists’ Guide to Mexico. I ordered a copies of the books her father had written when he was bishop of Michigan, The Litany and the Life, A Small Part. I went to the basement with my son and started digging into the family archives I’d inherited when my mother died two years ago. In July 2019, we’d emptied her last storage space, boxed up the piles of family archives she’d kept, and sent them back to Chicago on a truck. They were in our basement, spilling out of the closet and onto the dirty floor we needed to refinish. There was the smell of mildew and must, but also the thought that somewhere my mother had saved Virginia’s diary.
I’d looked at it as a kid, the spidery turn-of-the-century script of Michigan elementary schools tightly packed in what I remembered as a tiny book fitted with a tiny lock. I’d hoarded that memory for years, waiting to be ready to spend time with Virginia. I was in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of feeling lost without an agent, in the middle of menopause, in the middle of reaching for a different herbal cure every day, in the middle of the beatings of activists only miles from my house in Chicago as they called for the removal of the statue of Columbus in Grant Park. How was this story relevant, or mine to tell? How was Virginia’s story more important than those of these people’s? What was I doing trying to write anything about plants?
I wasn’t a botany person. In the dunes on Lake Michigan once, a botanist told me that something we were looking at was remarkable, the farthest south a certain plant had traveled from the arctic tundra. I forget entirely what that plant was. I researched a whole book about pencil manufacturing, but I have forgotten the botanical details of the cedar trees used to make pencils. The only thing that remains is an image of how graphite was discovered under a lightning-struck tree in England, the drama. Plants are rarely dramatic. I wasn’t a modern witch. In recovering from my mother’s death I spent time in reiki sessions, then told people, only partly joking, that I’d like to become a witch. A few days into researching witchcraft, that desire left me quite aware that my idle interest, my dabbling, wasn’t going to be welcome anywhere. There were lots of witches. I’d met some of them. Any one of them would be able to smell the dilettante nature of my curiosity from a few feet away. I wasn’t a forager. The woman who’d helped deliver my son, our doula, she was a forager. I’d taken her classes, even taken my husband on an early date into spring woodlands covered in lesser celandine and tiny violets, searching for ramps and eating the spicy leaves of trout lily. But though I could tell you that Queen Anne’s lace has the same ancestor as carrots, I still can’t spot poison ivy in the wild without a much more sophisticated guide at my elbow.
At a film festival in California, I met a woman who ran a small business out of her mountain town. Online and to her neighbors, she sold herbs in bundles, menstrual sponges made from real sponges, and small collapsible knives decorated with a drawing of a piece of yarrow and the phrase Respect boundaries. I wanted the knife. I wanted to be able to do what it said. Virginia had become an amateur botanist, a forager, a practitioner of herbal medicine — not a witch exactly, but some kind of ancestor of the women I knew who were trying on practices with greater or lesser degrees of awareness of their complexity. But her story wasn’t one of long years of discipline — it was a magpie’s story, like mine, of following interest wherever it led.
In her introduction to A Treasury, Virginia writes of yarrow,
If a botanist happened to encounter it, his informed mind would instantly slap the tag Achillea millefolium onto a proud erect plant, strongly scented and decorative with its flat white flower clusters. But for every scientist there would be scores of others like me who, having identified the yarrow, wanted only to learn its manifold virtues. In this book, yarrow is yarrow.
If yarrow was only yarrow in her book, neither more complex nor more insignificant than it was in life, perhaps her story had to be as well. Simple, clear, a map followed as plainly as she’d led people to recognize herbs, or drive through the mountains of Oaxaca.
Virginia Scully was born Virginia McCormick on August 5, 1898, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to John Newton McCormick and Bessie Taylor, sister of Douglas Newton McCormick, born two years earlier, my grandfather.
On the wall in our stairwell there is a photograph of the McCormick homestead in Virginia. It shows a palatial home — white columns, the whole bit — and in front of it an army tent. To the side, along a fence in front of the house, a Union soldier stands with a foot on a stone. He is blurry and indistinct, as if he had moved just slightly as the image was made — a long gun or a stick propped against the fence next to him is still. On the tent hangs a pair of pants. The inscription on the back reads, “Culpepper Courthouse, V. A. Aunt Kate’s Family House — Burned Down by Gen. Meade — General Meade’s Troops Took it Over; later skirmish there + house was burned down — Dad there as a baby Gen. Meade’s pants on tent.” Behind that note, a Xeroxed copy of a fainter handwritten note from someone that must have been on the original backing paper for the frame. I hold it up to the light but cannot read it at all.
There, in the middle of the Civil War, my distant family had gathered to wait out a battle. My mother told me,
They huddled in the basement, your infant great-grandfather, Virginia’s dad, in the arms of his mother, Virginia. Virginia Scully was named for her. As they waited in the dark, candles dimming, a cannonball fell through the roof of the house, down through two floors, making perfect holes as it went, to land in the center of their circle, harming no one.
In my great-grandfather John Newton McCormick’s book, A Small Part, he explains that this was the house in which his parents were married. The book spends a great deal of time mentioning the famous people in the family tree, the generals and celebrities and artists closely associated with the McCormicks. But John Newton mentions only briefly that his father had been a member of the Confederate Treasury Department. That they fled Richmond, Virginia, for this house in the middle of the Battle of Brandy Station, is treated lightly, as if playing soldier and being fascinated by the Confederate uniforms still worn on the streets of his childhood didn’t require comment.
His father was devout, and in the heat of the battle, with the family in the basement, no one sat still there, directly in between the artillery batteries firing at each other, waiting for death. Instead, he “had the whole company kneel down on the cellar floor for prayers.” The mortar shell that fell through every layer of the house, which I imagine in a Wes Anderson–style building cutaway, fell without explosion, which he reports in his typical writing style, a combination of name-dropping and dismissal, “It seems that there were duds in those days.”
The serendipity meant that my great-grandfather would survive, though the house would not in the end. The owner, my grandfather’s cousin, was a newspaper publisher of some fame, and failed to take the side of the Slave State once too often. His home burned, and his neighbors didn’t care. He rebuilt, then lost it again. But my great-grandfather, surviving, would marry, and he would have children, and he would become a bishop in the Michigan Episcopal Church and become chaplain to the Armies in World War I, heading up religious support for the soldiers and the Red Cross medics and hospital tents. He’d bought the house in Grand Rapids where Virginia grew up, leaving behind the South, the family history on the wrong side of a war, though sometimes on the right side, and the distant cousins who were making an empire on the enormous global revolution of the McCormick Reaper, which was altering forever the city that would later become my home, Chicago.
Little record survives of Virginia’s early life, and the house is long gone, replaced by the parking lot of a Masonic Lodge. I imagine Virginia emerging as a grown woman, blinking on the front steps of the Victorian mansion, and regarding the new century as a 20-year-old woman, shy and reserved, cloistered, but hugely curious. In the story my mother told, like a folk hero, Virginia took one look at the century dawning, smelled the revolution in the air, gathered up her skirts, and took the first train to New York City. This narrative makes sense coming from my mother, a bohemian of the first order who had been at parties at Andy Warhol’s Factory in Manhattan in the 1960s and waitressed at Alice’s Restaurant in the 1970s. She would imagine Virginia that way — the lone bohemian in the conservative religious family on her father’s side, where every male went on to be a minister until my grandfather rebelled by getting a PhD in philosophy. My mother, a New Yorker, would think that running away to New York was the best, most radical thing imaginable, and the source of all good things that came after. My mother, a person convinced that her worth lay in her ability to attract men, would think that New York would gift Virginia with a savior, a mentor, a husband — Mike Scully waiting in the canyons and smoke and roasting chestnut smells of the 1920s metropolis as if on a gilded plinth labeled Reward for Bravery.
But Virginia didn’t run away to New York. First, she went to work at the local paper, and it was there that she met Mike, who was working at the paper himself. Michael Scully had been born in San Antonia, Texas, the same year as Virginia. Not in a fancy house or to a fancy family, but at a borderland that meant he learned about rough-and-tumble border culture, and Mexico, and the shadows of America’s past. In The Motorists Guide to Mexico, Virginia and Mike write,
Mexico comes northward to meet you at San Antonio. This most historic of the Texas cities is the logical point from which to set out across the Rio Grande, and not because of geographical location alone. The ghost of the Spanish Empire still hovers over the spot that was an outpost of New Spain until 1821.
Mike had been born 77 years later, and ghosts must have haunted him, too.
Mike and Virginia were married in Grand Rapids, and I assume, though my research hasn’t found it yet, that they were married by her father, the bishop, in full pomp and circumstance in the St. Mark’s Episcopal pro-cathedral where he preached. In The Litany and the Life, Virginia’s father John Newton writes, of the need for “the use of reason in the domain of prayer.” He goes on:
We know what we ask and why we ask it, and when, and how. Things are called by their right names. There is no euphemism, no circumlocution. Sin is sin, and the devil is the devil. Famine and pestilence, sickness and desolation, lightning and the tempest, battle and murder, widowhood and orphanage, birth-perils and death-pangs, are declared in their grim and dread reality. The hopes and fears, the ups and downs, the loves and hates, the glory and the shame of man, from the cradle to the grave, and on to the day of judgement, are faced and named, with no apology and no disguise.
In the face of God, yarrow is yarrow, hardship is hardship, and love is love.
There, under the soaring oak beams of the church, Mike and Virginia, both 30, journalists, standing at the end of the 1920s, unaware of what was coming, depression and war, travel and change, Virginia’s father’s death 10 years later, an old bride and bridegroom by the standards of the day, must have been centered in the reality of that moment, with a sober parent overseeing their union.
I can’t help but think of Virginia and John Newton, across time, writing to each other as if there was a true form to find of anything. Yarrow and sin and love, all available in some absolute form that can be called forth in prayer or study, or a life lived in harmony without apology or disguise. In the middle of Virginia’s desire — maybe handed down from her Bishop father — to get to the plainest, simplest meanings of all things, to search back to truth and relationship to God, there is a false choice at the root.
Yarrow is not the name given that plant by the Indigenous people who used it. It is European, coming from the Scots’ Gaelic word meaning “rough stream.” But the plant exists in both ecosystems, meaning that when discussing yarrow, one must be clear that the traditional uses for it have origins in ancient white history and ancient Indigenous history. Is it possible to say what the absolutes are for this plant, any more than it is to say there are absolutes for sin or marriage or ritual between cultures encountering each other on the same land?
There’s dispute about whether yarrow was introduced by Europeans to North America, though there is evidence that there was a native of the family growing here prior to contact. It seems more likely that the popular medicinal herb was brought to North America by Europeans who had used it for centuries as a staple of the healers’ toolkit, and that it may have interbred with native plants to form the more common hybrid plants growing today.
It is clear that yarrow had many and various uses for Indigenous people. It is listed as one of the Sacred Life Medicines for the Navajo and is burned in purifying work by the Anishinaabe people. It was used in similar ways to those the Europeans favored. It was boiled for fevers and used to seal and heal wounds, treat burns and nosebleeds. It was used to soothe stomach complaints in the Rocky Mountain region. It was sometimes made into a tincture to bring on abortions. Proving that there is no absolute truth in recording the uses of plants, Virginia notes that “[t]he Indians long had been using a strong infusion as an abortive and Doctor Charles F. Millspaugh, writing in 1892, conceded that, at that point in the United States, ‘the oil in doses of ten drops or more’ was ‘one of the most frequently used abortives of ignorant people.’”
“Things are called by their right names,” writes John Newton McCormick, but that is a voice born out of white history, religious surety, financial safety, telling the rest of us that there is only one way to be in relation to truth. Yarrow always proves otherwise.
Achillea millefolium was named after Achilles, who used it to treat soldiers on the battlefield. It was called many things, yarrow being only one name. In English, it has been called bloodwort, soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, herbe militaris, staunchweed. In Chipewyan, it was named “holy flower,” t’ àchay delagi. In Cree, wapunewusk, astaweskotawan, mistigonimaskigiah, asgunimasgigah — variously, “white flower,” “to put out a campfire,” for its ability to soothe burning pain, “head medicine,” “bone medicine.” In modern Canadian pharmaceuticals, it is part of more than 20 distinct medicinal formulations. It is understandable that Virginia rejected the Latinate, scientific superimpositions over the plain flower, looking instead to have simple, understandable conversations with her interview subjects about an herb they knew by sight and use. It is understandable, but like thinking that there is an absolute to sin, it is simplistic — dangerously so — as we try to understand the healing that is required of this moment.
Yarrow is no more yarrow than Virginia is a small, harmless woman asking questions. She is that, but she may also be a devourer of secrets and land, a colonizer of place and tradition, or a preserver of stories that whites might not otherwise have recorded, a pioneer crossing between worlds with care. It is as impossible to know at first glance which she may turn out to be as it is to understand all the names and purposes of the pale, fragrant yarrow from glancing at the one I saw this summer walking through a prairie on the edge of a decommissioned nuclear power plant. There is a story, but as you try to grasp it, it splinters into seeds like tiny helicopters loosed from an open milkweed pod.
“Can you picture it?” my mother asked. “Her in some old beat up car. Dusty mountain road. Scully’s driving, and she’s craning her head out the window to shoot at Nazis following behind in the next car! She had a derringer!”
I could picture it, for sure. The image slotted in right alongside the images from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film that had come out when I was 10, dark foreign locales and ominous cars full of Nazis, the excitement of tagging alongside the hero — and Scully was always the hero — as he brought you into adventures you’d never have been privy to otherwise. The heroine in Raiders was strange, bohemian, mouthy, and while it was clear she was beautiful, she’d introduced when she’s busy drinking a burly man under the table, she’s able to follow other men around the world, when the Nazis femme her up as a trophy, it looks weird. She’s living on some edge of espionage and feminism, still bound by her looks, still bound by men, but out there, in the thick of things.
But my mother never speculated about where, exactly, the car chase Virginia was in would have taken place. Were they in Mexico, a place they’d traveled for years? Mexico was at least close to the home they later made in San Antonio, and then in Austin. Were they somewhere else? Fighting the Brazilian Nazis one heard so much about in the 1980s? Somehow, the images of Virginia blurred not only into those of Raiders, but also into the collection of slides my mother’s mother, Mac, had left behind. Mac had been the original recipient of Virginia’s inscription in my book. She was a world traveler in later life herself. After her husband died, Mac had gone to South America and Indonesia, Mexico and Europe, Iceland and Australia. Kodachrome slides from all her travels were boxed into carrousels, stacked on top of each other in my mother’s closet. Though only related to Virginia by blood, Mac had also not been beautiful — not like my mother, who had been featured in a Playboy Publications book called The Essential Woman looking like Sophia Loren in a tasteful black-and-white image that showed her long throat, her cleavage — but she’d been everywhere. Her photographs of Machu Picchu were projected on our collapsible screen in the living room on winter evenings when there were no good movies on TV, and those small jungle roads merged with Virginia’s story into a postwar medley of images of escape.
That escape was forever linked for me to the romance of New York City in the years between 1925 and 1955, the years when the Midwestern side of my family had decamped to Riverside Heights — Mac in graduate school in Columbia, Mike and Virginia working as reporters.
I have a hard time finding Virginia’s work from that era, though she did work, reporting in Baltimore and Paris before they settled in Manhattan. Archival records for the two of them reveals passenger manifests for boats and trains, border crossings, addresses, moving, excitement. There are passenger manifests to and from Puerto Rico, border crossings in Texas, steamship manifests to Southampton. Scully and Virginia, then married for four years, had shown up in New York on the 1930 census, living at 1 West 85th Street. She is listed as “wife,” but under “occupation” the line reads “writer” and under “type of worker” it reads “working on own account.”
A quick search for Mike Scully’s byline turns up nine articles in the New Yorker archive. These begin in 1931. Scully’s voice in these early works should be read in Mid-Atlantic accent, clipped, laconic, and full of a Texas boy trying to match the cadence of the big city. In a column for the New Yorker recurring section called Our Footloose Correspondents — which featured writing from John Updike in the 1980s — Mike writes on the relationship of a modernizing Dallas to its cowboy past.
Dallas, Texas, April 23, 1932. These lines, communicated by one who in early youth watched one Texan accomplish the immediate demise of another at fifty yards, might well be titled “Yoo-hoo! Virility!” It was just the other evening that twelve Dallas youths, most of them scions of doughty old cattlemen, were introduced to society at a Brook Hollow Country Club coming-out party, and at approximately the same time the local Little Theatre, requiring cowboy outfits for “Green Grow the Lilacs,” was dispatching an order for chaps and six-gallon hats to a Broadway costume house.
Scully covers strange things for the paper, as peripatetic as their early travel — conventions, mailing lists, catalogs, the highway modernizing Monterrey, Mexico, trade magazines, fans writing to Walter Winchell, an immigrant radio singer. In April 1932, Scully writes about going fishing in the South. In this story, he spends time with the man pulling the oars for his fishing boat, a Black man he’s hired for a dollar a day. Once his traveling companion refers to the man, Rooster, with the N-word, once Rooster uses the word himself to describe a relative. Scully remarks on shoes and outfit, on the man’s arms, and the misunderstanding they have when discussing the Depression. Scully writes, without a hint of self-awareness, “It gets so hot on the lake in summer, that only a Negro can row a boat without inviting sunstroke.”
I feel like an ugly voyeur reading his work, trying to parse the complexity of his relationship with race and place, this man who grew up where he could witness cowboys shooting each other, where he could see segregation firsthand, where he learned Spanish. In The Motorists Guide to Mexico, Mike and Virginia write that Mexico must be understood through the complex history of the place, not a Little Spain over the Atlantic, but a place of mestizo origins, where place and Indigenous history and race matter very much to people, for good reasons and bad. It is tempting to find his use of I-dialect, or his reportage of other people’s language, excusable in the context of the time and place, the way of conveying the moment and the editorial exigencies of the 1930s. But this was the era just after the Harlem Renaissance, and Mike and Virginia were living blocks from the center of that movement. In only three years, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God would be published. Rooster discusses moving north to live on 138th street with his sister, just one man in the middle of the Great Migration. In the end, Scully’s witnessing, his reportage, feels judgmental, and leaves me empty of the romance of imagining him penning New Yorker articles in the apartment. In it I imagine I can read the shadows of what will come, the days when he may have been a spy after the war, aiding the US government in gathering intelligence on Central American politics, aimed perhaps at advancing certain colonialist agendas that would plague the rest of the 20th century.
Virginia only shows up tangentially in any of his work for The New Yorker, and not until after they’d published The Motorists Guide. Virginia isn’t named in the piece, instead his wife is called Vivian. The piece is entitled “People Are So Careless,” and Scully writes about an experience in an apartment in Riverside Heights where their landlady quietly acquired objects discarded from her tenants, current and former. Mike was the first person to see her storage room when some papers went missing from his wastebasket. The super took him to see Miss Weeks, the owner of the building. She took him to the storage space, produced a large and closely guarded key, and once the door is opened, a dragon’s hoard of lost things is revealed — papers and linen, medical bills, paintings, love letters, and a huge photograph of a child’s coffin surrounded by burning candles.
If things were as they certainly seemed to be, this prim little woman had the secrets of almost fifty households precisely catalogued. We had through of her as a lonely soul, and here she was living the excitements of dozens of lives, piecing together the clues in an unending thriller. With any sort of luck, she must have the material for divorces, income-tax suits, and a hundred miscellaneous embarrassments tucked away in her memory.
I’d begun to feel like Miss Weeks reading Mike’s work, like I was sorting through the embarrassments of his history, of Virginia’s. But still, in the shadow of Mike, I hardly saw her at all. She was only Vivian, shutting the door to their apartment and saying, after their first encounter with the landlady, “That was Miss Weeks.”
Where was the woman with the gun in her purse? Where was the future Virginia Scully, courted by the colonel? Where was the woman driving all over Mexico in search of the new? She hovered behind her husband, more invisible than my grandmother in the photographs of her world travel, than my mother in the pictures of her years as a model. Virginia waited, her 30s drifting away while Mike wrote and she worked, “on her own account” through the Depression and into the shadow of World War II.
I wrote away to the archivist at the University of Wyoming, where the papers belonging to both Virginia and the colonel are kept, hoping that somewhere I might find evidence of her life in World War II as a spy.
COVID-19 had closed the library, and precluded all hopes of travel for research, but there, tantalizingly, on the website for the America Collection, was a list of 13 boxes of material about Virginia. I wrote asking what could be sent, how could I access the archives. The librarian wrote back, “You cannot visit the archives, but if you look through this index, we might be able to copy materials for you. There is a fee of $0.75 per page after the first 50 pages.” There, picked out in bright blue was a live link to the materials, and on that page, when I clicked through, boxes with titles that made me ache for a month in a humidity-controlled room with the papers, love letters from 40 years of Virginia and Scully, embryonic books on Bernardo O’Higgins and Calamity Jane, the notes from A Treasury, diaries, more correspondence. In the list, a small title I’d never heard of before, Voices of the Wind, by Virginia McCormick, her maiden name, reminded me that the little old lady was once John’s daughter, writing away in that big house in Michigan, well before marrying Scully. I plugged the title into a book dealer’s site and up popped a signed copy from 1924, when Virginia was 26. I ordered it.
The book arrived weeks before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, in the run-up to a presidential election that could determine the future of women’s rights in America, when the nominee to replace that lioness of equality hails from a religious sect that may have been the model for The Handmaid’s Tale. I set aside Mike’s writing, and dove into Virginia’s.
The book was pristine, slim, covered in a thick plastic protector, and in small black script on the front page was written, Mary Leslie Newton, 1924. Virginia had most likely sent the book to Newton, possibly a distant relative, who was a prolific writer in the period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and often corresponded with young women, especially young female poets. In a poem of hers, the gentle images of a turn of the century delicacy, female interest in plants, unquestioning, naïve, shows up on the page,
Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has washed her lace
(She chose a summer day)
And hung it in a grassy place
To whiten, if it may.
Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has left it there,
And slept the dewy night;
Then waked, to find the sunshine fair,
And all the meadows white.
Queen Anne, Queen Anne, is dead and gone
(She died a summer’s day),
But left her lace to whiten on
Each weed-entangled way!
Newton was passionately interested in the education of young women, and Virginia sent her the book, and perhaps was one of the many correspondents that Newton accumulated in her long life, a sample of which show up in an exhibit in the archives of the Bowling Green State University libraries. She encouraged women to think of their futures, their voices. In Part Three of Voices of the Wind, Virginia dedicates the section “TO ALL WOMEN, each for her own reason.”
Virginia, in the book, emerges as a sheltered young writer, the woman on the edge of leaving home, rejecting the life planned for her in favor of her own reasons. In “Nausikaa,” she writes, “Nausikaa, have you / No adumbrated longings from the tomb / Or buried grandsires to imbue / Your soul with deep, hereditary desire?” And in “Autumn Meadows,” her voice feels raised again in argument with John, in finding her theology and future,
Not theologians’ arguments can weave
Such patterns, reason-capped in finite grace,
As meadowsweet and sorrel may achieve
Or spiders spread in handkerchiefs of lace.
Perhaps including a nod to Newton’s lace poem. In “God,” she writes,
Your God, a fearsome king, above a mass
Of cirrussed, white-grey clouds, aloof and cold,
Is not for me … On the green, lonely wold
Is He made manifest. … The soft young grass,
All trampled by the hurrying feet that pass,
Dew-drenched white clover, kissed by dawn winds bold.
Hearth-fires at evening when the year grows old,
Faint silver-mist upon my window glass;
A thrush’s song above the home nest-sill,
All friendly sounds from out the cool, sweet night,
Ripe fields of wheat below a fir-crowned hill.
A baby’s eyes, — blue pools of captive light, …
These are the things wherein I find my God.
There she is, becoming the woman who was waiting all along, the one straining to escape that big old house, only to fall in and out of the shadows of men until A Treasury alone outlasted their work, and she was left to tell people that she had always been more than her father thought she might be, as her God was more than the one she had been taught.
“This is my Great Aunt Virginia,” I texted my friends from the Zoom call.
“Dudes, she also wrote about Calamity Jane.”
“Gold mine! How’d you find that out?”
“Her papers are collected at the University of Wyoming. And her husband’s reporting on the geopolitics of Costa Rica is cited by scholars of the WWII and post-War period in Latin America.”
“So cool Eiren”
“DUDES SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH A MILLIONARE PHILANTHROPIST WWII VET AFTER SCULLY DIED. They bathed nude on Mexican beaches and brought medical supplies to Indigenous people.”
“This woman is my new role model.”
“He donated his ranch to science. He was among the first people to liberate Auschwitz. He lived in a shack in used underwear and invited Hippies to stay on his property through the Whole Earth Catalog.”
One night, my husband found an article about Virginia’s long-term partner, Colonel William Rogers. He wasn’t hard to Google; he’d been an influential figure in the world of naturalist Wyoming from the 1960s until he’d moved back to California in failing health at the end of his life.
The two of us spent the weekend researching places to move if things got much worse in Illinois, COVID-19 surrounding the state on all sides. Neither of us had ancestors who we could use for EU passports, and we did what white, well-educated people throughout our circle were doing, imagining where we might go. “Vermont,” he’d decided. “Great state-based healthcare for you if we lose federal care. Your preexisting condition won’t be a death sentence. Legal weed. Liberal politics. Winter. Mountains.” Having grown up in New England, his plan sounded good. I had friends in Vermont, the closest thing I had to a sister. My bass player was planning to move there. It would feel like a homecoming. Though, of course, I wasn’t even born in New England, and my family had vines instead of roots, trailing from urban places to rural, north to south to east to west, liberated by old money and bohemian privilege to go wherever we could. In the panicky summer of uprisings and fascist pronouncements, of masks and temperature checks, I trolled real estate listings while I tried to fall asleep, looking for land that had water access, room to spread out.
Maybe Virginia and Mike did this, as he was dying. Maybe they thought about where land was cheap, and water was available, and they could settle down on land they loved. It is a luxury white people indulge since all the land feels like something that can be acquired with little work, piling theft on theft. Some of us think better of it, stay where we are and use our privilege to fight. But in dark nights, we text each other. Maybe Virginia and Scully lay in bed, doing the same. Wyoming wouldn’t be a homecoming for either Mike or Virginia. Mike died before they got there, and Virginia arrived in Wyoming alone. From what I can gather, she lived with Colonel Rogers. My aunt tells me that after Scully’s death she wrote an article about the struggles of the newly retired young generals of World War II, perhaps she met Rogers there.
In the story I had in my head, Virginia was at last independent, and arrived in Wyoming with a car full of possessions, and walked to the mountainside lauded in that passage in A Treasury, and stood looking out at the river and the pines and felt a sense of home. Then, like Blair Brown in Continental Divide, the 1981 romcom movie I watched on repeat on HBO as a child, she lived alone in the mountains until romanced by some strange man. Only this one wasn’t John Belushi the Chicago Tribune reporter, it was a millionaire living in a sheep shack. I think like my mother, in the end, romance and drama more attractive than the prosaic story that might be revealed.
When I try to tone down my imagination, I like to think they fell in love over plants. I like to think they researched Calamity Jane late into the night. My aunt tells me she became a researcher of the history of the Wounded Knee massacre, alienating her white neighbors, I like to think he helped. I know he loved her until she died. He said it to plenty of witnesses. In the archives in the University of Wyoming, the real story of their romance is locked in letters I will pay 50 cents a word to read, that may or may not save my sanity as the world burns. In the article Andy found, Virginia is not named. She is simply the romantic partner he was mourning still in the 1980s, well after she’d been lost, crying into his whiskey around the camp fire on his ranch, a tin of salted peanuts on a table next to him, in the lowering light of the pines, telling his story to travelers who had been allowed to camp on his land.
None of them knew that there were millions of dollars in his bank account. None of them knew he’d abandoned all of his blood family to run away to the West, that he’d left railroading, and the Army, the memories of liberating Auschwitz, and managed a modest sum of money he’d acquired into a stock portfolio that allowed him to donate millions to Sloan Kettering, to buy a brand-new ambulance and have it driven to Mexico to be delivered to an Indigenous nation in need of health care. No one knew that he and Virginia spent months in Mexico delivering aid he purchased, swimming naked in the ocean. They only knew he’d weep when he spoke of her.
When he died, he left the ranch to the University of Wyoming as a research station. You can read about that land even now. Online you can find the Rogers Research Site bulletin. An abstract from 2019 reads,
This is the seventh in a series of bulletins focused on research, teaching, and extension at the Rogers Research Site (RRS), a 320-acre property in the Laramie Mountains that Colonel William C. Rogers bequeathed to the University of Wyoming in 2002. Bulletin 7 details a study that compares soil characteristics at RRS before and after the 2012 high-intensity Arapaho Fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres in the north Laramie Mountains, including RRS lands. One of the goals of this ongoing research is to examine ecological impacts of the burn. Preliminary results show marked soil chemical and biotic changes following the fire.
I read this just weeks after the height of the 2020 fires in the American West, when over seven million acres had burned, and fires were burning still. I read it during the month when the president denied that the fires were worsened by climate change, when he ignored science such as that collected in those forests in the bright red state of Wyoming, where COVID-19 means I cannot read Rogers’s letters. I read it when people reminded each other that the Indigenous nations of this country had for generations known the role of fire, and the management of it in relationship to the land, the way that fire is protective and necessary and required. I wonder what Virginia and Richard would have said if they had lived to see these days. I wonder what their easy access to land that wasn’t theirs by rights, though theirs by law, helped to bring into being in this terrible moment of reckoning for all of us. I wonder what A Treasury would look like if she wrote it today.
Like most of us trapped in this endless burning loop of American collapse, I think about what I want to do when the world stops burning, and I can lead the life I imagined for myself. I thought that I had narrowed down my own expectations. I have a chronic illness and a vulnerable child. I write about nature in the Anthropocene. I married a union organizer. I had no illusions that the time ahead would be easy or simple. I expected to fight, to research, to dig for the roots of what falls apart as we pull free the tangles of denial and abuse in America’s history, as we seek to imagine a better version of ourselves, one with equity and access, a redress of the scars that litter every family in one way or another, either as the figure that profits from an unjust system, or one who is stolen from in legal means of pillage. I always expected to be deep in that work. But I expected I would be allowed to drive to libraries, and camp in forests, and spend time reading and learning about what came before. And perhaps I will be able to again. My FOIA requests will be answered, and I’ll find out if my great-aunt was a spy. I’ll find out if her husband served his country by reporting on South American politics in a way that beat back communism, laying the seeds for the terrible evils of the Reagan era, or if, as his obituary in The New York Times says, his last article on Latin America “warns that the violent Anti-American demonstrations directed against President Nixon on his last South American tour were as much a product of United States mistakes there as of Communist propaganda.” I’ll find out if they somehow get to keep the golden burnishing of a story that starts out with him shooting at Nazis from a speeding car. I’ll find out how Virginia and the Colonel met, and what she did to connect with Indigenous leaders, and how she interviewed people, and what she got right and what she failed to get right, and what moments of herb gathering by novices and extractionists her writing made possible. I’ll find out more about the shifting politics of her family of origin and her marriage and her sense of the importance of her own voice. And somewhere in all of that will be some answers for me about how to live in the moment while I read all these archives, while I write about her.
Because there are days when the escape of telling her story feels like a criminal indulgence, or maybe a violation — spending too much when you fear losing your job, buying land to move to a better part of a country that fails all the tests of justice and equality that face it. In my family of talky, self-aggrandizing people, middling writers best at hagiography, we told ourselves stories of exceptionalism. In many ways, those stories were true. Virginia lived an exceptional life. But as the century that raised and nurtured her fades further into memory, and the people who lived fully in it leave us behind here, the work of excavation is essential.
We have to understand who formed our myths of exceptionalism, in our families and in our country. We have to find a way to dig into them, for the ways in which they pushed us toward who we can be, and in the ways in which they reified the worst of who we were. I want to stand in that cool library and take all the boxes down one by one and pick through her life, so I understand it better. I hope that I will read through all the papers in them as the world wakes up, arrests the spiral of its disappearance into the worst versions of itself. Because yarrow isn’t only yarrow, and it never was.
Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Her work on loss and nature, oceans and collapse has appeared in Al Jazeera, Literary Hub, Minding Nature, Entropy Magazine, The Rumpus, the book The Time After, the short filmBecoming Ocean, and three record albums.