the greener pasture 8.20.2012

When storms gather, I am not counting raindrops, calling a work dog scared of lightning, or fretting over the trade off of my raked hay getting wet over water nourishing my parched corps. And yet I am beginning to call myself Western. I do listen for thunder, counting seconds to miles. I register shifts in light and smell that may indicate changes in weather. My noticing is not idle. I am learning the names of towns, creeks, mountain ranges, birds, farming equipment, weather patterns, and families. I am finding my bearings.

I read Russell Rowland’s essay, the one I’ve waited for since he read a first draft to a crowd in the Harlowton Library two or more years ago. What does it mean to be Western? His question took hold of me that night… or defined something I had not yet put a name to, but already resided in me. I don’t think I ever thought of Western as what I’d seen on my 1950’s childhood TV set. I knew better, that was California. But, there was and is a stereotype: the West full of rugged strong individuals who actually work, the West home to self proclaimed renegades and Robin Hoods, and the West idyllic and pastoral to a visitor’s camera lens.

I do know that the harshness of land and climate in the arid West is a reality. It clearly impacts those who live here, perhaps shaping their natures. But this harshness may be just the dark side of the lover you can’t quit, and you won’t quit because the other side is so sweet. The aridity that makes survival so unpredictable, also keeps space open with room for both thinking and proving yourself. The difficulties of weather and isolation also bring people together in a community of action and assistance that never needs to be discussed.

So where do I fit in the West? My family started here in Montana, but kept moving until the continent ran out, landing in the anomaly of climate west of the 98th meridian that is the Northwest. It is the opposite of arid and has bred a different culture, even though those of us who came from the east were the same pioneers and outlaws, adventurers and outcasts that settled the rest of the West. The Northwest is a land of plenty where anything can grow. Western expansion quickly flooded it with farmers and timber prospectors until there was no more room. The whole prospect turned in on itself. Western Washington paved over some of the most fertile soil on the planet with Boeing plants and malls, then Microsoft and Walmarts. It happened within the three generations of my grandparents, my parents and me. The prosperity and growth did afford opportunities. My father grew a business based on moving houses out of the way of the new Interstate highway, my mother fed us from her flourishing garden and later went to college. I got a masters degree, the process of which fed my desire for something more… or perhaps less.

The Northwest was my mother’s dreamscape. She wrote her own essay detailing its virtues of water and forest and most of all mountains. She always had Mt Rainier in her sites since moving to the Puyallup Valley as a child. To her death, a glimpse of “the” mountain could make her entire body relax with pleasure. She felt it was her privilege to live in its shadow. I now greet Mount Rainier as if it were her. Perhaps she has claimed that status with her remains scattered on the Mountain’s side. I love Mt. Rainer, but I am called away to the rounder Rockies now.

It is the end of my mother’s essay that holds my attention. I will never understand why she included it in an expose of the wonders of her beloved evergreen Northwest. In her epilogue she quotes my Aunt Carol, the sister who returned to Montana. “it is too soft a life in [western] Washington.” My mother presumed that her sister felt a harsher climate and harder life made stronger people. She concedes that my aunt helped her to see beauty in the starkness of Central Montana. Harsh? Hard? Stark? These are not my words, though I don’t doubt they apply. And neither does the word “soft” apply for me to the Pacific Northwest. How much have these regions changed since my mother and her sister assessed them? And how much is just different perspectives. Today I would call the Pacific Northwest crowded with people, buildings, and foliage, sometimes burdensome with choices, which is a counterpoint to being laden with opportunity. The climate has always created density, one shrub clamoring over another. Lush or claustrophobic? It is all in point of view.

What caused my Aunt Carol to come back to Montana? She was a young girl when her parents, followed the lucrative promise of timber to the Northwest. Did she really believe life was too “soft” in a temperate, wet climate? Was she lured by space as I have been? Did she recognize the unimpeded avenue of thought and contemplation in the open prairie and surrounding hills? Did she, like her son, find rest for her soul in the environment? Was it the immediacy of weather that not only dictates what you do in any given moment, but can also have bearing on your livelihood? Did she believe that hard work makes strong people? OR was it just the handsome Norwegian rancher who lured her… everything else coming later?

It is easier for me to think about what might have drawn my aunt back to Wheatland County in Montana where her parents started their married life than it is for me to fully understand why I have been drawn here. I do know I can track my thoughts more easily here, like following flight patterns of birds crossing and open field. And the landscape makes sense to me, looking from river bottom to mountain ranges with a clear site line; the known and unknown all in one view. I can see the result of things too: weather, labors, history. It isn’t all pleasant, but it is clear. Ranches are often called by the name of their first owners. Water rights adhere to a priority of historic deeds. Status of “local” is most likely a reflection of where your grandparents lived. Roads are often defined by the 160-acre farmsteads that have long since failed. Certain hills are still known as buffalo jumps. It is all evidence of prosperity for some, loss for others.

There is also the history of generations of school children who came, willingly or not, through the doors of the schoolhouse I now own. That ownership is similar to those old farmsteads, no matter who owns this building it will be called the Two Dot School. I do have the deed giving me the right to do with the property as I please, but that doesn’t mean I will. The schoolhouse doesn’t just belong me, it also belongs to history. The books remain on the shelf, the swings are still in the yard and I will grant entrance to those who come to the door saying, “I went to school here.” Is the West purely pastoral, a greener pasture? Is it the manifestation of a cowboy myth, or a Norwegian farmers paradise? Is it the birthright of anybody? I am here now, by right or not, with my feet on the brittle grass that occasionally transforms with rain. I am under the open sky that can shift from blue to smoke-filled in an hour. I know that ranchers exhaust themselves and neighbors build pole barns in the middle of pristine views. Regardless, the greener pasture is here for me and it doesn't belong to ownership, it only has to do with being here. There is some kind of magic in this place for me. I only need to find how to return the favor.


my drought 8.15.2012

The weather forecast warned of cooling temperatures, showers, and possible thundershowers. I guessed a day of cloud cover, nothing more. I did hear some rain against the window early in the morning, but rolled over and shut my eyes. In fact the same seven drops are still on my window now. That may be the extent of it. I have listened to the ranchers all summer, watched my cousin’s hope turn to doubt and his doubt become cynicism, and that devolve to silence… just a single shake of the head in answer to the question of rain. I’ve had empathy and curbed my disappointment on these clouded days suggesting rain. The weather keeps me from drawing, but what is that against the loss of crops and selling off cows, the resulting loss of income and the set back to developing herds? I see the bales stacking up in everyone’s fields, but the stacks are small. Still, I am not a rancher and I have only really watched four rotations of summer, nothing close to enough to understand a drought summer’s impact. Yesterday we hiked up Haymaker Narrows. I knew the stream was dry down at the Vestal Place, but I assumed there would be water at the Narrows. I was prepared for the crossings with water shoes strapped to my pack. Even though the streambed was dry where we parked, I expected water as we got higher up. But my hope also turned to doubt after each dry crossing. Even the deep pool where we usually turn around was dry. We tired ourselves from heat rather than from picking our way back and forth across the stream. This loss I understood in my body.


nature, nurture, landscape 8.4.2012

Jim Moore is not idle. At 85, he has become an author, currently working on his 3rd, 4th, and 5th novels. He was an attorney from a ranching family here in Two Dot and he writes of both. I’ve read the first, Ride the Jawbone, and it is a page turning murder mystery. Not my usual genre, but I was drawn in by the details and historical references to my Montana home. I was even more interested in the author. Jim Moore took a group to the site of the imagined murder. It was probably 90 degrees and we were in the middle of Montana nowhere and yet he stood in cap and sweater vest, impossibly thin, using his well developed attorney’s skills: captivating his audience, occasionally asking for questions, usually answering more than asked, always gracious and entertaining. Was Jim Moore shaped by his years in the courtroom, or did he lean toward it with a orators passion?
Another older gentleman was present adding facts from his deep knowledge of the area. Norman Voldseth has a mesmerizing voice and easy manner of speech. The day was not about him, but I could have listened to him forever. What makes a person age as he does? Was Norman’s voice always so smooth with just enough melody and baritone to keep your attention? Did he always speak with the cadence of an afternoon stroll… the roll of a Montana prairie? Or have 95 years in this environment modulated it? It is enticing to think that your environment, the actual land you walk on, might find it’s way into your voice. I think it would come from an observers awareness of where you stood.


the great divide 8.2.2012

I haven’t been to the Martinsdale Hutterite Colony since I was a child. For years I’ve passed by with a vision from that time luring me and yet my adult and feminist eyes disparaging of the hierarchy I can see even from the highway. Very young boys oversee women working in the fields. And it is nearly always the men who are at community events, the women hidden away at home. Regardless I was happy to go when I was invited to attend a pre-wedding viewing of Mary and Dan’s new home. Mary is the daughter of Lena and Ben. Dan is the son of Peter and Dorothy. Both couples are acquaintances of my cousins and this is how I came to be invited.

I was drawn by my memory of a room of gleaming wood surfaces. A bed on either side of a window, a large chest positioned in between and everything resting on highly polished wood floors. I remember the sun was streaming through that window filling the air in a way the made me want to stay. There was also a particular smell: clean but unfamiliar… like everything had just been scrubbed with something strange. I was told that the room I saw was for one family; a harsh comparison to my own 3 storied reality. And yet I remember that room as a lovely place.

We went to Lena’s home first. The rooms were darkened against heat and all the surfaces were of new utilitarian materials: aluminum, vinyl, and plastic. Where was the shinning wood? Where was the Shaker simplicity? And was that a cell phone on the window ledge? Nevertheless, Lena and her daughter Mary were dressed in long skirts and headscarves exactly as I remembered. They asked if we would like to see Mary’s new home, and we stepped across the walk to the new building. Three couples would be marrying and each was to have a unit in this new complex. Nearly identically dressed women were collecting in front of Mary’s new door.

This was a casual event, but followed ritual form. We were shown every room and every cupboard, the furnishings and bedding provided by the colony, as well as the gifts displayed in shrink-wrap with nametags identifying the givers. The gifts ranged from laundry detergent to champagne, to a pair of gliders made by the groom and paid for by the bride’s family. Everything had a purpose. Each gift was proudly displayed and described. The crowd of women moved along with us. I tried not to stand in front of anyone and to offer appropriate compliments and congratulations, but it is hard not to make mistakes when you find yourself in a totally unfamiliar culture. Mary shied at references to her wedding day. Was it the prospect of attention, or sex, or just humility that flushed her cheeks? Lena insisted that we try the gliders. When I commented that they were so comfortable that I could stay there all day, Kate, an older white haired woman admonished; “That won’t get the work done.”

It is a harsh life; I understand that. These women all have appointed “women’s” jobs beyond caring for their own home and family. While they have many accomplishments, meticulous sewing, cooking for crowds, caring for each other…these are all prescribed. I’ve thought of it as a misogynist society. The culture allows for no crossing of guidelines, not either way. It is impossible for a man to be a cook, incomprehensible for a woman to drive a tractor, and unthinkable for a man to love another man. It is this lack of choices that confounds me. I am drunk with opportunities to choose my own path. I cannot see straight into any other reality.

Later, I dreamt about Hutterites. It was a very specific dream story about a single or widowed woman named Sarah. Her room looked out over a vast field and she had some lovely pieces of old furniture. I’d brought her books that I thought she might enjoy, but even before waking I realized that none of this was possible. It was all too full of the aesthetics of my world. It was then that I realized there had been no books at the Hutterite colony. Were they just away in one of the locked cupboards or were there actually none? This may have been my deepest point of no comprehension. I can’t say I didn’t respond to the profound sense of community, to the camaraderie of women. And I am sure somewhere else there was a company of men.

How does a culture radically different exist within another? It seems to require isolation. And yet there we were, invited in, asked back for another visit. Eventually the women asked me a few questions: Did I have children? How long would I be staying? Was my husband here? Lena complemented my shirt and I was so dumbfounded that my flustered response caused her to use a different word. “Your blouse.” What befuddled me? I was generous and complimentary from my side of the cultural boarder. Why did it surprise me coming the other way? What can we learn from either side of such a divide? These women are very real with complex lives. Can we really be so different?


real 7.21.2012

A real cowboy, according to Larry McMurtry is someone who moves cattle as a profession, like those he immortalized in Lonesome Dove. Hollywood may have made the cowboy phenomenon into something more than the reality of moving cows. We’ve come to believe cowboys are heroes, that they are larger than life. The fenceless era of moving cattle from one state to another is over, but there are still those who work cattle from the back of a horse. Whether they fit Hollywood’s role or not, they are cowboys and part of a culture of land and animal lovers. Bob Hathaway was a real cowboy. This was made clear to me on his death. I didn’t know him…hadn’t actually heard of him until the day of his funeral when it was suggested that I might want to see the cultural event of his post funeral procession making its way down the main street of town. The difference between my small town life and my city life is reflected in the seriousness with which I took this suggestion. In Seattle there is a constant barrage of cultural events; some of them genuine, some of them another overheated effort to make meaning. Here in Montana there are never ten events competing for my attention and the suggestion of something “not to be missed” is an invitation into community. So I did drive to Harlo and parked my car up on the hill where I could look down onto the rodeo grounds where the funeral was being held. I wasn’t the only one who watched. Others showed respect by not going to the funeral of someone they didn’t know, but were prepared to show respect for this cowboy’s role in the traditions and culture of their community as he rode one last time through town. After a bagpipe farewell, the procession began and we moved to Central Avenue.
The first rider crested the hill between the very modest Times Clarion building and the abandoned Graves Hotel. Both of these buildings are signs of a diminishing way of life, but contradicted by the gathering community’s celebration of a contemporary cowboy. The flag bearer was followed by two beautiful Clydesdales pulling the wagon with Bob Hathaway’s flag draped coffin and a riderless horse; not a metaphor but the horse that will not feel the weight of its owner again.
Arville Lammers’ stagecoach followed with the family and Hathaway’s beloved dog, Julie.
Finally, fifty riders paid respect to a horseman they knew, perhaps worked along side, but at the very least shared his love of horses and the accompanying life style. My throat choked closed restricting speech, but there was nothing to be said. Everyone there understood this deep show of love. Was it for Bob Hathaway? Yes of course, there were those who loved him, but also and maybe even more there was a palpable love of what he stood for.
Can I say this from my position outside? Perhaps I am guessing, but the word respect doesn’t escape my thinking. Later, someone relayed a story told by the Lutheran minister who officiated at the service. Apparently Hathaway was not a big church go-er and when prodded by the minister, he responded that he would rather be on his horse in the mountains thinking about god, that in church thinking about his horse. It seems Hathaway lived with respect for his surroundings, his animals and his work. He was still a working ranch hand at 72. It was suggested that maybe this cowboy was larger in death than in life. I think perhaps we all are. It is the time when our place in the larger story is sealed. When we become part of the whole. I cannot imagine for a minute that Bob Hathaway’s tribute was not earned by him and was not larger than him at the same time.
photo credit: Rufus Kimrey