Image Credit: David Bradley (b. 1954), Chippewa, Another Minnesota Folk Legend, 1987, oil on canvas. Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art. Gift of James T. Bialac.
Recently when I was listening to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, I was surprised to hear a short discourse on the legend of Paul Bunyan during an episode about a book called The Commercial Determinants of Health. Nader was interviewing one of the book’s editors, Dr. Nason Maani, who said that "…our health is largely shaped by forces outside of health care…” These forces include whether or not we breathe clean air, how well off our parents are, if we live in a polluted neighborhood or live in a house near a highway. And of course some of these forces are determined by the actions of corporations, which is why big companies spend a great deal of time and money trying to affect our perceptions of them and influence our willingness to consume their products and tolerate the health consequences they bring us. Nader gave as an example of such corporate puffery the use of the legend of Paul Bunyan to encourage people to associate the destructive process of logging with the heroic and larger-than-life adventures of an American folk legend. He said that pamphlets about Bunyan were distributed at his school when he was a child, and he called Bunyan “a fictional creature of the lumber industry.” Then he added, “And the last line of the [pamphlet] was, ‘And Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox will continue until the last tree is down.’”
Shortly after I heard that Nader program, I went to the Tucson Museum of Art and saw the exhibit called Enduring Legacies: The James T. Bialac Indigenous Art Collection, which just opened in February of 2023. The exhibit features a large and extremely impressive collection of American Indian art from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and it was donated to the TMA by Bialac. The museum worked with indigenous scholars to mount this exhibition, and there’s a focus on community and nature. It includes work by a Pueblo artist I first encountered in Albuquerque -- Diego Romero, whose “Saints and Sinners” deals with Spanish colonization of Pueblo people. There's also work by Tohono O'odham artist Michael Chiago, whose “Spirit Dancer” shows off his knowledge of dance as well as his artistry. But when I saw David Bradley's “Another Minnesota Folk Legend," I couldn't help but think about what Nader had to say about the story of Bunyan and his ox, Babe. Though the painting is relatively small (25 by 20 inches), it had a powerful effect on me, and I understood why Bradley portrayed Bunyan as a monstrosity of sorts, a creature that Native people, dependent on the forest, were bound to be horrified by.
Valerie K. Verzuh, who wrote Indian Country: The Art of David Bradley, says that Bradley’s "... meticulous attention to the surface gives each area of the composition equal significance and resists focal points, inviting viewers to wander the canvas from top to bottom, following lines, shapes, colors, and concepts." But when I stood in front of "Another Minnesota Folk Legend,” I couldn’t force myself to give equal attention to all parts of the painting. The sight of Paul Bunyan and the highly feminized ox, Babe, portrayed in the top half of the canvas lost out to the familiar-looking trees and animals and the understandable reactions of the native people portrayed in the bottom half of the canvas. Verzuh also says that Bradley acknowledges the power of iconic images and “… delights in deconstructing these images to examine how they convey meaning, and then reconstructing them, injecting each with irony for comic effect or critical comment.” The humor and irony in “Another Minnesota Folk Legend,” has helped me understand the legend of Paul Bunyan more clearly, though the painting also works to tell a very sobering story. (It is in fact included with other works in a room that is collectively labelled “Storytelling and Community.")
With the exception of the slim crescent moon in the sky, everything on the canvas that's near Bunyan and his ox is unnatural and uneasy. As folklore would have it, Bunyan and Babe tower over the landscape, but they seem more monstrous than legendary. The lumberjack’s expression is hard to read, but his head is tipped back as though he's shouting something or howling at the moon. He carries an axe in one hand and a can of Hamm’s beer in the other. (Note that Hamm’s is brewed in Minnesota, “the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”) Though Bunyan's plaid shirt and jeans are what we might expect to see a lumberjack wearing, Babe the ox is far from a normal bovine. She has human eyes and lips, and the ring in her nose matches the one in her ear. The sidelong glance she gives Bunyan is uncomfortably flirtatious, and on her blue back end she appears to be wearing lacy stockings attached to garters. Whatever Bunyan is shouting or howling, he looks as though he’s upset in a very self-involved sort of way and so he doesn’t seem to notice the stir that he and Babe are causing.
Whatever you can say about the scene taking place below the two gigantic figures, there's nothing really surprising about it. The trees are at a normal scale, showing just how easy it would be for Bunyan to take them down with one swipe of his massive axe. Animals flee as they would under such circumstances. Some Native people are in canoes, leaving their shelters in which fires are still burning. A few adults are shooting arrows at Bunyan, but the reaction of the animals and most of the people is to get out of his way. Bunyan is so grotesque that it's sensible to find a vantage point from which to observe him rather than to be squashed by his gigantic feet. The trees, which have white bark and are probably birch trees, are at the mercy of the huge lumberjack. (Note that Bradley’s mother was from the Chippewa nation, and Chippewa people covered their dwellings with birch bark and made birch bark canoes.)
The Bialac exhibit contains many memorable works of art, but I went back a couple of times to look at "Another Minnesota Folk Legend" and decided to write a blog post about it. When I asked myself what a painting about a Northwoods legend has to do with Tucson, I decided that, in addition to the fact that David Bradley attended the University of Arizona before he settled into his life as a New Mexico artist, there's the fact that Tucson has its own statue of Paul Bunyan. Tucson's Bunyan is made of fiberglass, stands 20 feet tall, and has a more pleasant expression on his face than Bradley's Bunyan. He watches traffic go by at the corner of Glenn and Stone, and the statue is a quirky thing to see in a place with more cactus than timber.
|Tucson's Paul Bunyan statue at the corner of Glenn and Stone.|
But Paul Bunyan isn't entirely out of place in any corner of the United States. Stories about Bunyan originated in Maine and Canada, and he may have been based on a real French-Canadian lumberjack. But as the timber industry moved westward in order to find new forests to exploit, stories about Bunyan shifted to the Northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin and then to the West Coast. And statues of Bunyan seem to have followed the stories across the country; they can be found in almost every state. But inevitably the lumber industry saw that Paul Bunyan could be good for their public image, and in 1914 the Red River Lumber Company created pamphlets featuring Bunyan as part of an advertising campaign. A revised version of the pamphlet from 1922 was reviewed by the Kansas City Star, and Bunyan became a kind of pop culture figure and the subject of comics, books, and even an operetta.
As Marshall Fishwick said in 1959 in "Sons of Paul: Folklore or Fakelore?" American "folk" heroes are remarkably alike because, though their names and jobs are different, they have all been designed to encourage people to look with admiration at what Fishwick calls "the Big Build-Up." By this he means the ways that development has taken precedence over sustainability in the history of our nation. And though our so-called folk heroes are said to exert superhuman efforts to drill oil (Kent Morgan), dig tunnels (John Henry), drive cattle (Pecos Bill), or make steel (Joe Magarac), all of them are part of the project of turning natural places where American Indians once lived and ecosystems thrived into industrialized and developed spaces that makes big profits for corporations. Our sprawling city regularly participates in “the Big Build-Up,” and trees are often sacrificed to the developers’ needs.
Though the Sonoran Desert isn't known for having large numbers of trees the way the Northwoods once did, trees are an important part of the ecosystem. People frequently plant native trees like mesquite and palo verde, and there are also many non-native trees like citrus trees and Italian cypresses. As an acknowledgement that trees can improve our wellbeing and the quality of our lives, the City of Tucson under Mayor Regina Romero has been working on its Tucson Million Trees Initiative since 2020. The Mayor has said that she can see and feel the effects of climate change here in Tucson, and she worries about how people will cope with rising temperatures and the high cost of water. She added that "...these impacts are not felt equally across our neighborhoods. Frontline communities of color and lower incomes have been battling these changes for years already. If we are to face this future together, we must address the years of injustice that have left parts of our city hotter, with fewer greenspaces and less investment."
Planting trees in neighborhoods that need them is one way to address these injustices. There's even a metric called Tree Equity which "helps cities assess how well they are delivering equitable tree canopy cover to all residents." The tree equity score of a neighborhood takes into account how many residents are below the poverty level and other demographic and socioeconomic factors. The neighborhood I live in, Tucson Park West 1, though it's not the wealthiest in the city, gets a Tree Equity Score of 100 out of a possible 100. But many other neighborhoods in which there are a large number of poor people and people of color have some of the lowest scores.
|The palo verde tree in front of our house blooms in Spring of 2022|
The idea of Tree Equity represents a move toward environmental justice, but the fact that the trees in Oak Flat are in danger of being ripped out to make way for a copper mine shows that the spirit of Paul Bunyan is still present on our land.