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EXCERPT FROM A GEOGRAPHY OF SAINTS:
Our first summer on the ranch up in the high country of Central Oregon,
Peter and I were cage-trapping feral cats one by one and having them cut
if we liked them, killed if we didn’t. Up there in stock country, cutting
animals wholesale is a common and necessary practice, although it’s not
usually cats. Nor is it always cold-hearted: Horses sometimes get what’s
called cut proud, which means a cut gelding can still get hard and mount
fillies. He’s got no sperm but he’s got his pride.
A lean, sunburnt horsewoman named Faith Gaines told me about proud cuts.
She was a local veterinarian, so I figured she knew. Faith was doing our
cats in exchange for Peter’s legal advice. She said to me one day,
“Those good ol’ cowboys wait until a stallion’s had sex and then they
cut him, so he keeps the male menace in him, menace to cow a steer with,
the horse is absolutely carryin’ menace in his brain.” Faith went blank
after she said that, stood absolutely still, as if the menace had got
her, as if the whole cosmos had stopped and was waiting for her to move.
It was eerie. I was sucked right in.
She started up again: “So, uh, uh anyway,” she said tonelessly, faded out,
stopped. I swallowed, waited. Palpably, then, she made an effort, used
more juice to get going, got over the hump this time: “So, uh, anyway,
they do it that way an’ the horse knows sex, so he’s always wantin’ it,
a real pain in the butt, an’ so he presents a problem in terms of you
being able to manage him the rest of his life . . . male cats too’re
the same, except they don’t kick you in the head. Anyway . . .”
I remember not quite following Faith when she was saying this. I was
thrown by the contrast between her flat delivery and the edginess of
what she was saying. I got off into thinking instead about the sex I
was having with Peter then and how it was not at all a pain but a
lingering pleasure not quite in the butt but near there. We were like
wild animals, Peter and I. My flesh chattered, travelling the distance.
I stopped listening to Faith Gaines. This explains why I couldn’t
follow her, because you had to listen very closely to Faith. She was
In any case, right at the beginning, Peter and I were catching the
feral cats the only way we were ever able to: We waited until they
came out of the crawl space under our house directly into a wire-mesh
cage trap, whose door fell shut when the cat would reach for the chicken
bone. Bam, it was caught, and the whole cage would leap up and down wildly.
I’d take the caged cat into the town of Saints, to the clinic where Faith
Gaines practiced, the crazed beast next to me on the seat of the pickup truck.
The eye contact and adrenaline level caught me up, went right to where I lived,
wouldn’t let go. I could hardly drive straight. With each animal, neither
of us could see exactly what was coming when we got to town, and with each one,
I would make the choice - cut or kill - on the basis of that brief ride.
While Penny Allen has lived in Paris for the past decade, her largely autobiographical novel
A Geography of Saints begins in 1985, as she lands to care-take a hobby ranch nestled below the
Three Sisters in a spectacular setting with her new lover ‘Peter.’ The writer presents a
compelling voice in her first outing; the novel well deserves substantial regional and national
audiences. Best known for her films Property (1978) and Paydirt (1981), Allen has played a
prominent role in Portland’s artistic community.
An exceedingly creative intellectual, Allen numbers among local colleagues director Gus Van Sant
and cinematographer Eric Edwards, both Property collaborators, authors Katherine Dunn (Geek Love),
Walt Curtis (Mala Noche), V.O. Blum (Equator) and Elinor Langer (Josephine Herbst), painter
Henk Pander, radio talk show host Joe Uris, and a large cast of actors, activists, and artists.
‘I discovered the “neighb” right there in my hometown,’ her character states, ‘a jewel of a
community, and it had grown into a big extended family where we’d all known one another intimately
throughout the seventies, seeing life through the prism of our passions, becoming artists because
we had something to say.
But art money dried up with the Reagan recession…the culture narrowed as people hunkered down.
Saints chronicles the period immediately following her active film career as she left the city
to elaborate a new relationship and redefine her sense of community. Several concurrent plot
lines run through Saints, each at first seemingly autonomous and then gradually blending as their
points of linkage are revealed. Initially, the magical landscape and the pleasures of an erotic,
dynamic relationship with Peter dominate her horizon.
As the duo gears down to the rural pace, local affairs, including nearby poising-to-implode
Rajneeshpuram, begin impinging on their virtually private enclave. We were unprepared for the
psychological demands of a big sky… The picture asked to be filled in, to have dynamic human
activity in the foreground, a little sin. You could see how Sheela [Ma Anand Sheela, the willful
kingpin of the Bhagwan’s empire] could be inspired to hyperbole just by looking at the landscape.’
Allen opens herself boldly to her communities of inquiry… ‘Saints,’ Antelope and Rancho
Rajneesh…and to her reading public…carnally, territorially and philosophically.
Standing in as a surrogate ‘urban déclassée’ for readers, most of whose lives remain metropolitan,
Allen rekindles her childhood passion for horses and open air reverie. The blissful lovers are
jolted to awareness by imminent threats to the paradise they’re making a home. There’s the
Vietnam vet Buckner who patrols their landscape as his own; The Forest Service and cut-and-run
operators’ collusion to take down the mature forest around them, a true ‘climax community’; the
great fear that sexually explicit behavior engenders in these seemingly chaste communities.
The couple’s intimate relationship inevitably falls prey to these converging forces.
She enquires from a local sage about the ‘High Desert Paranoia.’ It’s ‘the need for Evil
personified,’ he claims. ‘But it’s not paranoia…things do really happen out here. I’m telling
you there are forces at work you couldn’t even guess at.’
A Geography of Saints provides readers an excellent entrée into its territory, even if
the particular objects of disaffection (the Bhagwan, and a trail-building Mormon scoutmaster)
have long since blasted from the scene.
Allen needed the remove of more than a decade and a new life in Paris to bring her experiences
into clear relief. The novel’s cinematic feel and flow will satisfy those who’ve wondered what
she’s been up to all this time. A Geography of Saints has already taken after another first novel,
Nard Jones’s 1930 Oregon Detour, which tells of life in tiny Weston just north of Pendleton.
Though scarcely scandalous, that novel has never been allowed to settle into its homeland. Each
and every copy in the Umatilla County Library system has disappeared, and they continue to vanish,
despite librarians’ efforts to keep the book by the best-known local author in the system.
While A Geography has been stocked in ‘Saints,’
Allen found her reading there cancelled due to highly critical phone calls from concerned
citizens. Banned in Boston? Weston? Saints? Readers eager to bridge the rural-urban divide
all too frequently defining our state’s civic culture cannot help but wonder: How much more do
we need to learn from one another?
October 19, 2001
SHOWDOWN ON THE HIGH DESERT
By Ellen Emry Heltzel
The people who live in Central Oregon have mixed feelings, to put it mildly, about serving as
Portland's favorite playground. As those of us who were raised in small towns know, the trouble
is not so much the tangible effects of increased tourism and traffic. Rather, it's the disquiet
that change brings to rural areas. This tear in the fabric of normalcy is a theme Penny Allen
explores in “A Geography of Saints,” her story about the eight years she spent in Oregon's high
desert. The book is dubbed a memoir and, indeed, offers a lusty account of Allen's love affair
with a lawyer-turned-rancher who was her reason for being there in the first place. But it is
also a portrait in time and an admirable piece of writing. Allen, a filmmaker and native
Portlander, moved to Sisters (the town she calls Saints) in the early 1980s. There, she
witnessed a watershed period that brought economic, environmental and social transformation
to the dry, pine-dotted region east of the Cascades. Punctuating this development was the
arrival of the Rajneeshees and their infamous commune, Rancho Rajneesh. It was a local's
nightmare, and a writer's dream. Allen signed on with a magazine to write about the Rajneeshees
and their mysterious leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Although her book doesn't touch on the
commune's darker aspects, such as the poisoning of salad bars in The Dalles by some of its
members, she lends a sinister air to her own contacts with the Rajneesh and his followers.
Her book bounces like a tennis ball between the Rajneeshees with their mind games, and the
townspeople with their secrets and resignation regarding nature's power. “Ultimately, the
commune was a great clarifier,” the writer remarked during a phone call to Paris, where she
now lives. “There was a tremendous fear of the 'other,'” she says, and this cast in relief
the values and customs of the established residents. She says the term “Northwest Gothic”
aptly describes their lives, which reflect the legacy of frontier hardships and result in
sexual repression and emotional denial. Although many books have been written about the
Rajneeshees, few have accurately unravelled the complicated strand of the Bhagwan, his followers
and their hostile reception in Central Oregon. If Allen's book gets the mood right, that's
because she comes at the subject indirectly. “A Geography of Saints” is as much about the
independent swirl of events and undercurrents of violence she observed as it is about the
cult that came and went, like a passing wave, under the high desert's clear skies.
It's fitting, somehow, that after Allen and her lover moved to france in 1991, they ended
up going their separae ways. “It came as a shock,” she says now. However, this outcome
seems somehow inevitable after reading her book, which reveals how much a person's identity
and his relationships with others depend on their context.
READERS' REVIEWS from Reiki-Bookshop
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars - An Intimate Tale in a Broad Landscape
Set in a vivid and dramatic landscape, this memoir tells a story filled with honesty, humor,
and courage. Allen observes with a keen eye. She takes on one of the great challenges for a
writer, giving us not just the surface of the moments of a relationship but the deep undercurrents,
both real and imagined, and succeeds with a grace that seems effortless. Allen's inner journey blends
perfectly with the wild spaces, the free spirited horses, and the quirky human world, which is at once
familiar, weird, and sobering.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars - Americana Memories
Memoirs are the current hot genre. Often they depend on one big event for their oomph, or they putter
along in a very interior manner. Penny Allen, a radical bohemian filmmaker now living in Paris,
caretook a horse ranch in eastern Oregon, which would provide enough gist for most memoirist's mills.
Perhaps Allen is lucky, perhaps she draws intense people and events to her, perhaps her filmmaker's
gaze sees and frames life as most of us do not--certainly most of us wouldn't have emerged with such
an amazing quilt of interlocking stories. Thoreau observed that most people lead lives of quiet
desperation, and Allen's time on the high desert proves no exception. She finds these desperate lives
and recounts them brilliantly, but after the regular weird folks come the hardcore character actors:
the cult of Rajneeshpuram, the Vietnam vet "on patrol," the ghost, and more. With the constitution of
a war journalist, she never averts her eyes, and she is willing to tell us exactly what she saw.
--Hollis Taylor, Sydney, Australia
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars - Outside/inside
I was very taken by this wonderful real-life novel. Even if the reality level is relatively high,
the author manages to turn it into something that transcends the documentary, the journalistic.
By mixing many atfirst sight totally unrelated elements, in the end it turns out to be a novel about
spirituality in daily life, or about how to see meaning in it.