I’m usually fairly immune to environmentalist gloom, but tonight, despite writing this from the cabin porch, the kind of spot I dreamed of for decades only to find myself gobsmacked by the good luck of getting to live here, tonight in the smoke and the heat and the apocalyptic light, I’m on the edge of despair.
I got into it today with an out-of-work fishing guide, who was ranting about irrigation continuing when the river is closed. The fish kill is exacerbated by low water, he was saying. Maybe there’d be more water if they weren’t draining the tributaries to spray on alfalfa fields. He’s not wrong, but he apparently didn’t know anything about water rights. Water rights, I tried telling him, are entirely separated by history and law from natural resource protection. The river has no rights. The river, its fish, its beauty, its value as an economic driver of the economy in this county (a county for those of you not in Montana, about the size of the state of Delaware) — none of those things have any bearing on water rights. None of those things are considered “beneficial use” — for which water rights are claimed on a historic first-come, first-get, basis.
The fish have no rights to water. The cattle and the ranchers who grow hay to feed cattle have rights, but the fish have no rights.
(Neither do the Native Americans, as evidenced by the current protests at Standing Rock. But in Livingston, fish matter more than Native Americans, as they do in most of the country).
He wasn’t wrong, we would have more water in the river if the ranchers weren’t irrigating. But what got to me wasn’t even his ignorance about such a basic fact of Western historical and political life. What got me was, again, the notion of beneficial use. It’s defined as beneficial to humans, particularly humans involved in the agriculture, timber and mining industries. Along with Manifest Destiny, it was the excuse for white people claiming vast swathes of western land, this notion that by “improving” it for extractive use, they could claim ownership. This is the idea the Bundy clan and their ilk were defending when they occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge last winter — the notion that the land exists for human use, that it exists solely for human use. This is not a fringe belief in the West (or, in the East, as evinced when an environmentalist writer friend from the Carolinas posted on Facebook about how mountain lions are showing up in Tennessee, and even his friends commented that they wanted them all killed, because they scared them). While the Bundys taking over the wildlife refuge because they believe setting aside any land for wildlife threatens their historic claims, there are plenty of folks out here who believe that while wildlife is important, it’s only really important for the uses we put it to. These are the folks who think, for example, that the point of the Endangered Species Act is not to save species from extinction because biodiversity is important in and of itself, but that the act exists to bring species back in order that we can hunt them. The Grizzly Bear for example. There are plenty of people commenting all over the intertubes this very minute who think the entire point of protecting the Grizzly all these years was so that we could hunt it again. (To be clear, I have no gripe with hunting or fishing for meat on a non-industrial scale. I’d almost always rather eat clean organic game than even the nicest grassfed local domestic meat. My gripe is with trophy hunting of predator species. And no, I’m not buying your “scientific game management” arguments, because if this essay has any idea at its core, its that “the wild” is, a self-regulating system that is not in need of our interference).
In essence, my guide friend wasn’t being any less anthropocentric than the ranchers or the guys who want to hunt trophy grizzlies. He wanted the water in the river, not for the fish themselves, but so he and his buddies and the rich guys who hire them could get back to pestering the fish for fun, as if nothing had changed.
While I am more than happy to see the outdoor recreation and tourism industries surpass the old extractive mining and timber interests economically, and while the fact that they’re catching up to agriculture is going to make for some interesting legislative opportunities, I’d also like to take a moment to point out that outdoor recreation and tourism are not without environmental impact. We’ve literally flogged the Yellowstone into a state of exhaustion this summer.
So perhaps while we’re in this enforced time out, it might be time to take stock. It might be time to rethink the consumerist mentality we’ve had toward the river — that it exists primarily for our pleasure, and that all our fishing, and boating, and rafting, and SUP paddling, and throwing balls for the dogs, and driving trucks and trailers on 20 and 30 and 40 mile river shuttles are not extractive uses. Maybe we could use a little of that most un-American trait, restraint.
And maybe we could go back to some of our core writers on the subject — Aldo Leopold comes to mind, who noted that: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Because what I’m seeing off this cabin porch is a disaster, and one of our own making. We’re can’t continue the way we have been. We have to change.
This photo was taken from the bluff overlooking the Mallard’s Rest fishing access. On a normal August Saturday, there’d be boats and rafts and tubes and SUP boards launching and taking out by the dozens here. August is the peak of the season — kids are still out of school, tourists and fancy anglers are all on the river, fishing and floating.
The problem is that the river is at a historic low flow during the hottest summer ever recorded planet-wide. There are flow records going back to 1872. The river has never been this low, ever, at this time of year.
Climate change is here. This is what it looks like. A river we all think we know, a river we all think we can just float and fish at will, has turned over like the thousands of dead whitefish littering its shores. We beat up the river we claim to love to the extent that when someone put in with a boat they hadn’t cleaned, a boat that had been somewhere over on an infected river in Idaho or Washington, the river didn’t have any resources left to fight off the introduction of a parasite.
I can’t help wondering why anyone is surprised. It’s been insane around here this summer. The tourist season has been manic, and I don’t think that it’s just because of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System. Every morning when I walk Hank-the-dog, I watch traffic fly past on the main road between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park. Both local and tourist traffic is almost entirely made up of enormous trucks, sometimes pulling a boat trailer, but just as often driven by one lone person, flying down the highway at 75 mph alone in a 150 or 350 pickup. And then there are the RVs — huge RVs that are bigger than the first railroad flat I lived in in Manhattan (with a roommate), also flying down the highway at 70 or 75, often trailing a car, or a trailer full of 4-wheelers behind them.
This is madness. This is a collective action of denial on all our parts.
We cannot keep burning fossil fuels the way we have been if we intend to survive.
We probably cannot keep abusing the river with the levels of recreational and fishing use we’re used to.
This is a tourist economy, and figuring out ways to save the river we love, is going to take some real creativity, and probably some regulation. But if this summer makes anything clear, it’s that application of a consumer capitalist model to outdoor recreation, that is, one where tourism and recreation are marketed as an unlimited resource, and where increasing tourism numbers are only ever interpreted as being good for the local economy, is as flawed an application as any other model. No matter what the resource, it’s not infinite. The river has told us in no uncertain terms that it has a carrying capacity for humans, and this summer, it reached that capacity.
Himself called from the cabin yesterday evening. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s drive up to Tom Miner and see if we can see bears.”
I was in the middle of a project — I took on some freelance work that overlaps with the job-I’ve-quit-but-am-still-working-out-my-notice. I wasn’t at a great stopping place, and today is going to be a crunch, but when your person calls to ask if you want to go bear watching, you say “Great idea!” and “I’m getting in the car.”
So that’s what we did. We loaded up the binoculars, a cooler, the dog and headed up Tom Miner Basin, which is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It’s almost all private land, which makes it not much of a resource for those of us who like to hike, but it’s managed really well, and we’d been hearing rumors that folks were seeing bears from the road.
And there were bears. In one meadow, we watched two young-ish bears grazing on something. The Tom Miner Basin Association website says it’s caraway, which is invasive in some of those meadows, but which also provides good tubers for bears. They were lovely bears — maybe three or four years old, silvertip coats, distinctive humps and dished faces. And they were just right over there — maybe 50 yards away — grazing peacefully despite the four or five cars of us watching.
A car came by and asked us if we’d been “up to the top” yet? They said there had been nine bears up there the night before, in a meadow. Which is pretty astonishing. Tom Miner is known for bears, but as Himself said when we saw those first two hanging out, “I didn’t think it’d be this easy.”
We stuck around and watched the two juveniles for a while, and glassed the basin up behind them, and generally were just glad to be there. It’s a stunning basin any time, but the sun was setting and the gold meadows were gleaming against the dark fir forest, and there were spectacular peaks and pink clouds up above.
We drove further up the road to where a bunch of folks had pulled over. It was like a cocktail party, with bears. People had big spotting scopes, and were chatting quietly among themselves, and watching out across the meadow. There was one sow with two cubs, who we watched for a while, and a herd of cattle behind them, and neither the bears nor the cattle seemed the slightest bit bothered by one another. Clearly they all knew one another, and were used to hanging out together in the evenings.
The viewing party was a little noisy for us, so we drove up to the campground at the top of the road and turned around. There was a big herd of goats all tucked up for the night behind an electric fence — Hank-dog was very interested in them. There were campers. There was cattle, and some deer, and who knows what hanging out down in those willow thickets below the road. There were peaks and sunset and a big white moon coming up.
It was pretty perfect as a Saturday night goes. And then this morning when we woke up, the hummingbirds were having air wars over the feeder, so we watched that quietly for a while while drinking coffee.
The backside of the garden has gone a bit feral on me this summer. Actually, the whole veggie garden is pretty feral — there’s way too much grass, and weeds, and because I’ve been experimenting with broadcast sowing, things are just coming up where they will, or not. Domenica Marchetti, of the new book Preserving Italy (blog posts to come), has been using the hashtag #gardenofneglect, and that’s kind of how I feel about mine this summer.
Or do I? Is it neglect, or have I finally gotten the garden to where it pretty much does what I want it to, without a whole lot of work? A couple of years ago I read Masanobu Fukuoka‘s book The One Straw Revolution. Fukuoka turned me definitively away from row planting, and although I’m not nearly as observant as I should be about what will sprout when, and how to plant vegetable crops so that they’ll shade out the weeds (will anything shade out my Bermuda grass?), the book did turn me toward a richer, messier mode of gardening, and one that also somehow broke through my notion that flowers don’t belong in the veggie garden.
A couple of years into the most-casual adoption of the Fukuoka “method” — one I think of as “throw out the seeds and see if they take” and “plant stuff that will reseed by itself” — I have a wild and messy garden, but one that produces greens in abundance, the beans are doing great this year, the tomatoes are a little slow, but this is also the first year I haven’t started my own, and the identification sticks got lost, so I’m not even sure what’s out there. But I’m starting to get Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes, and two different red ones — one a tiny bright red, and another that’s over on the purpler end of the spectrum, and I seem to have planted at least one beefstake — which is unusual for me. Our season’s so short, I don’t usually bother. The flowers are also doing great — I have a big Monarda that came back from last year, and finally got a Gaillardia to take root. I have a couple of echineacea’s that I’m babying along in the veggie garden before transplanting them into the flower beds (which I don’t water as much as I should do, hence they need to be big enough to survive). The borage has gone to town, and is self-seeding all over the place, and I have the wall of sunflower and cosmo and hollyhocks that I envisioned in the long bed along the fence.
It’s a messy garden, but I think it’s the garden I’ve been intending to grow all along. I look out back and it just says abundance and color and food and joy. Which is what I wanted. A feral garden on the edge of miles and miles of wild country.
I’ve been waiting and waiting for “the Utah Fruit Guys” to come to town, and Wednesday evening, there they were at the Farmer’s Market. I did my graduate work at UC Davis, and the University of Utah, both of which are located in the midst of serious orchard country — and it ruined me for grocery-store stone fruit. So I wait. Every year, I wait and wait for the Utah guys, or sometimes we really luck out and get a truckload up from Colorado’s western slope — but we wait for real fruit.
And then we make jam. I was out of raspberry jam so I was thrilled to find beautiful flats at the market on Wednesday. In general, I don’t really believe in buying fruit to make jam — for me, it’s always been about being creative, and using up the excess from my yard, but I make a runny raspberry jam that I particularly like, and I was out of it, and so I spent what seemed to me a small fortune on a flat of nice raspberries.
So here’s the the other thing about the fruit coming to town, raspberries don’t last. It was Wednesday, right in the middle of the week, and the job-I-haven’t-quite-stopped-working-at-yet has been really busy. So I washed and weighed the raspberries (after a gentle spin in the salad spinner), and put them in a container with about 1/3 the sugar I was planning to use for jam. I like a runny jam, one that can be used as a topping for ice cream, or as a filling for cake, so I use 3/4 of the weight of the fruit instead of a 1:1 ratio. I gently shook the sugar into the fruit, and left it to macerate overnight — it’s a trick I picked up from Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It bought me some time, since I didn’t want to refrigerate the fruit, which spoils the flavor, but raspberries will go moldy in a flat second so I didn’t want to leave them out overnight.
It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I had a free minute to cook them up, and as it was my first batch of jam for the year, I had to give my Beautiful French Jam Pot a little scrub, as well as wash up a flat of brand-new half-pint wide-mouth jars. I threw the jars in the oven at 225 to sterilize, added the rest of the sugar to the berries, and set them over a low flame to start cooking down. A couple of podcasts later, the fruit had gone shiny and thick, and it was ready to jar up.
Here’s the thing about making stuff, when you’ve been doing it a while, it’s not such a big deal. You get better at it. I’m still amazed when I run into people who think it’s magic, this ordinary preservation of delicious ingredients in season. I put up 11 half-pints and one leftover pint (in the fridge) during an afternoon when I was also fielding emails, and handing off files, and it wasn’t a big deal. Except for the waiting part, the waiting for good fruit.
Ever since we lost our cherry trees two years ago, I’ve got one eye cocked for the End of Fruit. For years I took that grove of cherry trees down the block for granted, and even after the guys who owned the lot built a big building there, they told me of course I could still pick cherries, and that no, of COURSE they weren’t going to bulldoze that grove, their mother would kill them if they messed with her pie cherries. And then we had a killing frost — it went from 65F to -10F in less than 12 hours, and we didn’t know it until spring, but it killed every cherry tree in town. My beloved grove is gone, and I’m hoarding my last few jars of precious sour cherries. I know the East Coast lost their peach crop this year, and when it seemed our Fruit Guys were late, I started googling to see if there was any problem with the Colorado and Utah crops. Perhaps it’s the other reason I can, to preserve what we have, to shore up our stores against an uncertain future. At any rate, I’ve got enough raspberry jam for a year, and more peaches than I can eat fresh this week, so there will be more noodling around with fruit.
Himself has a theory about minor demons — minor demons are what beset you when you are unduly annoyed by other people, usually other people who are just going about being the other people that they are, without any intention of bothering anyone.
The first time we encountered minor demons was years ago, when we were hiking in the Columbia Gorge on a trip to Portland, and we Could Not Get Away from these two chattery teenage girls on the trail. We’d hustle to get ahead and get some space between us, and they’d pick up their pace. We’d drop behind to let them get ahead, and they’d stop at a fork in the trail, chatting innocuously, but loudly, and loitering until we’d caught up with them again. Then they’d fall in, right behind us, chattering. On a trail. In the woods. Where we’d hiked to have a little peace and quiet. Could not shake them.
Minor Demons, Himself said after we finally managed to escape them, just as we re-entered the crowded trail from the waterfall, when it was too late and it didn’t matter anymore.
I had a week of Minor Demons. There have been too many people here in town — there was a big free concert on Main Street, a huge success, ten thousand people packed into three blocks having a great time and spending money in local businesses. I’m two blocks away, so starting mid-afternoon, my street filled up, there were crowds heading over, there were just people hanging around. It was fine, I told myself. People like this kind of thing. Its good for the town. And it was. I was on a deadline, and had to work, but people were happy, they liked it, they danced and sang along and had a great time.
But then, three days later, the PBR Bull Riding at the Rodeo Grounds across from Himself’s house. It was raining. I was still on a deadline and was working. I left here late and went over to his house and there was not a parking spot for blocks. It was raining, and I was tired, and I’d been working two jobs all day and I was Just Over It. Plus, there was loudspeaker announcing in that Gee-Shucks rodeo voice that is so annoying, and did I mention, even in my tiny new car, there was no where to park for blocks?
I came storming into Himself’s house In A State.
Minor Demons, he reminded me.
I hate crowds. It’s one reason I moved to Montana. There’s fewer than a million people in a state the size of most of the northeast. I am a short person and I get enormously claustrophobic in crowds and this summer, with the highest-ever visitor numbers to Yellowstone and through town, it has been A Trial. I like my nice quiet life that just hums along on its steady baseline of routine, and there have been too many people, and too much noise, and sirens and car wrecks and forest fires and crowds and by Saturday night I had just Had It.
And this is the minor demon part. Minor demons are things like this, things sent to test us. I don’t work in tourism, but most of my friends and fellow townspeople do. Tourism is great for our local economy, and is quickly becoming the major economic driver of the state. Which is great for things like pushing back against the two gold mines they want to build in the Paradise Valley, and perhaps might even help us save the grizzly bear after delisting.
I know all this. But Saturday night, when I was tired, and there were too many people, I lost my damn mind. Minor demons. They’re sent here to test us. I might not believe in big-G G-d anymore, but I certainly believe in minor demons. And Saturday night they got me.
We had a rare open night at Himself’s cabin last night, and one peaceful sleep, with no noise other than coyotes hunting bunnies in the willow thicket, went a long way toward quelling the minor demons.