winter work

The sun broke the horizon at 8:20 offering a little glitter to the still white landscape. The thermometer at our window registered -27°… a new experience to add to so many new experiences in Montana. I remained under a pile of three down comforters, one quilt, and two throws, swathed in heat that I had generated myself, as the furnace had failed again in the middle of the frozen night. From this position I watched the sun rise in the most southeast window of our room, its light shinning in a square onto the north wall. There was work to be done…  we were in Two Dot to continue work on a studio project…but the schoolhouse was struggling to reach 45° with supplemental space heaters attempting to do the work of the furnace. I’d heard the temperature was suppose to rise during the day, but then I had also heard that it was only suppose to drop to -17°.

People who have lived their lives here in central Montana know what to do with predictions and realities. My cousin Richard, recites on queue of any winter forecast, “it will be colder and last longer.” He checks out the wisdom of our winter attire with a bit of his brain and keeps the rest on his livestock and what might need to be done in a long lasting cold.  

John Clay, our neighbor, made his way to our door to offer advise on our ailing furnace. He took care of this oil-burning beast for the school in years past and has always been helpful, perhaps out of loyalty to the old schoolhouse. On leaving, he laughs with preservations humor and says, “It’s never simple when its 0°.” But it was much colder than 0°.

We stayed a little longer under the protection of the covers. The sun moving fast beyond the corner of the last window in our room, making its way across the sky in record time. We have learned a little more about the cold and work with more layers than makes us particularly mobile, but it holds the heat in. Until the furnace is fixed, our two bodies figured large in the list of heat sources: seven space heaters, an open oven door, hot water, a weak winter sun and John & me.

The project, Flat Fall, inches forward and we are warmer when we work. It was the weight of snow and ice combined with a howling winter wind that brought half of our cottonwood to the ground last winter. It seems fitting that the fallen tree would go through its final preparations for exhibition under such freezing conditions and we are willing to do it.


solstice again

I slept through the shortest night of the year. Falling into bed after 11, there was still discernable light in the western sky. And when I first woke before 5 everything was already visible in a pink pre-dawn haze. While I slept, the tide had turned; summer officially began with its diminishing days. It was a little bitter, as is every sweet beginning that must eventually have an end. But there were months to inhale and memorize light, to preserve it for later. Perhaps for the longest night of the year when darkness and heavy skies, with out my really having noticed, have wrapped themselves around my shoulders and I have burrowed in. Then I might remember sunlight flirting from around a poof of bright white cloud, a canola field blooming brilliantly back at the sky, the cheerful scourge of dandelions in the lawn. I’d take theses things from their storage place, carefully peeling back protective layers of packaging, and reach into the preserved light of summer, releasing smells of cut grass, warm sage, and line-dried sheets. Snug in the dark of winter, I might link the longest night to its counterpoint, the longest day with the sweetness of reclaiming as each day lengthens.


Lost Long: a true romance

You are the landscape of my desire, long and lean. Your stillness keeps me steady, always a point to fix on, even when a rage of wind has everything above ground tossing helplessly back and forth, twisting round in every direction. Even then, you maintain a long horizontal calm. I am entranced by the morning sun cresting your eastern shoulder in burning hues, by the way you veil your northern face in a storm, then reward me for enduring your absence with beams of Jesus light over purple curves. I also know your flaws, your shortcomings, even your dangers, but I hold fast.

Romanced by this landscape of horizontals and expanses I feel, even from here, the embrace of its long stretching horizon line completely ringing around me. This crazy love is not a product of the familiar. My home is here in the arid west’s anomaly, the lush Pacific North. It is a land of peaks and valleys with forms springing out of every foreground and multiplying in the background. Constantly faced with the short view, shape after shape between the distance and me, I am lured back to the memory of an uninterrupted view. My mind bifurcates, part of it taking in the torrent of input that is here, while another part searches out the comfort of longing, of holding dear my beloved distant horizon. That yearning becomes tangible, a thing defined by what is lost. In this place of absence, I seek out anyone who will listen as I croon in descriptive sighs and lyrics that never really tell what my horizon is to me. I embellish its charming qualities: beautiful, lean and graceful. I recite its supernatural powers. And in so doing, I convince myself that I am the object of its desire. But we are apart and while I exaggerate my horizon’s virtues, my body aches to feel its real caress.

All summer long I sing to the hills and rivers and sunlight of the Musselshell River valley in Central Montana. These are not hymns; they are love songs. I wake up with lazy arias, notes sliding into place as the sun slips into the sky. The change in light at sunrise is palpable, my mouth opens without my being fully awake, a clear voice trampolines from my diaphragm. All this to the accompaniment of schoolyard swings clanging against their supports. With the sun firmly in the sky, I stand in the middle of the yard slowly turning in place, lifting each foot in little repositioning steps to scan the three hundred and sixty degrees of horizon line. Meadowlarks, magpies, and sandhill cranes sing as do the small brown birds that are hard to identify, but easy to listen to. And from this place, this particular place where the horizon wraps completely around me, I sing lullabies to the trees: sweet melodies of admiration, encouragement, and sometimes warning. “Hold on, be strong,” I croon in strong weather. Cottonwoods and Golden Willows drop branches in heavy wind: often twigs, but sometimes massive limbs thudding deep into the sod. I want to collect each one, to find its meaning, and sometimes I do, but ultimately bits and pieces accumulate in a brush pile and wait for a day safe for burning. I know cottonwoods are tenacious. I know they survive beyond reason, usually leaving good looks behind. But I occasionally hear the lone cottonwood in my yard mumble and groan. So I sing calming lullabies. I caress the gnarled trunk and remind this tree of its strength and talents. New leaves each spring, green and lustrous, nests held gently year after year, delicious shade in summer and invisible water witching roots. I hum sweet melodies while lying in the hammock that is held firm between this massive tree and the flagpole near by. The pole cants at an unpatriotic angle nudged by the trees easterly growth, but I easily sacrifice a flying flag to protect each branch, each limb still holding on to this tree. Back here in my other home my feet are on uneven ground, angling up and down and looking for rest. But separation is bearable if the thing yearned for holds a place for me, and I imagine that it does. Each cottonwood limb stripped of leaves and each willow twig bare and golden, bending to winter weather, swaying with the lullabies I sang to them all summer, feeling my trace, my fingerprints. But most of all it is the landscape as a whole, the land that is shaped by my view, that is mine to hold in a heart shaped locket on a delicate chain. All winter long it rests in that place where clavicles do not meet, where all that is gulped in can be felt, a most tender location.


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.