the greener pasture 8.20.2012
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.