The Weather Is Real

The Weather Is Real

Here’s a little essay I wrote a few years back about the domestic and the wild, the virtual and the real. It’s part of the longer project I’ve been working on, both in print and in the real world of my backyard. That is: how do we survive enormous grief? How do we prepare ourselves for hard times, times when we might need to rely on ourselves and others? Times like these.

Scott McMillion was nice enough to publish it in Montana Quarterly, but since the archives aren’t online, I thought I’d post it in case it’s useful for any of us during this strange planetary time of trouble.

Garden in the Wild

I park my car at the cattle guard and let Hank-dog out. We’re going for our daily walk, on a gravel road about ten minutes outside of town. There’s a trailhead at the top of the road, and as much as that trail is one of my favorites, during this year of recuperation after ankle surgery, I’ve fallen in love with walking the road. For one thing, there are fewer people on the road, and since dog walks are when I think, and in particular when I think about writing, I don’t want to talk to people. And the other thing is that this trail, the Suce Creek trail, is where I’ve been both barked at by a very large bear, and charged by a bull moose.

Thrilling experiences both of them, but sometimes a girl just wants to walk the dog, look at the scenery, and let her mind wander to whatever is going to happen next in the novel she’s writing back in town.

The Suce creek road starts with a fairly steep little climb — maybe a couple of hundred vertical feet in that first quarter mile. Uphill, fir forest rises unbroken to the ridgetop, while below lie a couple of fields with horses, and a ranch house where an elderly herding dog barks as we walk past. Next, the road winds through an aspen grove, and comes back out into the open with a beautiful view down the drainage and across the Paradise Valley. The Gallatin range hoves into view on the far side, and most afternoons, the skies light up as the sun sinks to the west. This stretch of road is open, and warm enough in the wintertime that there’s a cow moose who beds in the sunshine here sometimes, we’ve come across her impression in the snowbank, steaming a little where she left it. Sometimes the cattle are loose up here, which can be a trial with a two year old border collie, but they’re fierce, and he’s getting better about listening when I tell him no, no freelance herding. Then the road winds through a deep wooded stretch. I love this half mile. It’s like a forest from a children’s book, deep and cool even on a hot summer afternoon. Past that, is the trailhead, and if the parking lot’s empty, we’ll keep going, up through the willow thicket to that open piney stretch where we startled that bull moose two years ago, got charged. He rolled the puppy as I jumped off the trail, hid behind a terrifyingly thin fir tree. But we all came through unscathed. Terrified, but unscathed.

Then, down through the aspen grove littered with slash piles from where the Forest Service decided to improve things by cutting down the fir trees. A perfect bureaucratic project. Count aspens, cut down firs, count new aspens, declare it a success. Entirely unnecessary to anyone but the Forest Service ranger who got herself a promotion out of it. She’s happy I hear, up in Helena.

After the manicured aspen grove, the trail passes through a sweet little meadow where I scattered the ashes of my last two dogs, we say hello as Hank pees on their rock, then follow the trail where it drops steeply down into the creekbed, crosses with a ford and a little one-log bridge. Hank fell off that bridge once as a puppy when he stopped to lick himself, toppled backwards into the creek. There’s another ford about a half mile up, just past that clearing where years ago, I found a large bear standing on the game trail just uphill from the big Wilderness Area boundary sign, chuffing at me in a puzzled, yet deliberate manner. I called the now-dead dogs and remarkably, they came. We backed slowly out of the clearing, clutching the bear spray, thinking about the book my friend Scott McMillion wrote about grizzly attacks. What did Scott say to do? I remember thinking as I didn’t make eye contact, as I backed away, as I talked to that puzzled bear like he was a big drunk man in a bar. Hello bear. Nice bear. Didn’t mean to bother you bear. We’re just leaving bear.

Again, everyone was fine. Spooked, but fine. I called Doug Peacock to tell him what happened. “Congratulations,” he said. “You had a real experience out there.”

 Although the trail does cross the boundary into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and although I’ve had more wild animal encounters in this drainage than anywhere else in the county, we’re still in the front country. It’s wild up here, but there are people on this trail, folks on horseback, in fall there are hunters. It’s wild, but it’s not what we think of when we think of wilderness, it’s not pristine, it’s not remote, it’s not untouched by humans.

It took me twenty years to get to Montana, and even then, it wasn’t Montana I was after so much as Rocky Mountains. I’d lived in Telluride, and in Salt Lake, and from California, all I wanted was to get back to the Rockies. There’s nothing wrong with the Sierra, and my first novel is set there, but they’ve never been my mountains. You imprint, I think, on your first real western landscape. I remember watching a graduate student when I was at the University of Illinois, one of the climbing club guys, clicking through a carousel of slides from a summer trip: granite peaks, white snowfields, blue skies. I was seventeen years old, stranded in a sea of cornfields, marooned among the sorority girls. We’d spent a summer out west when I was ten. Watching those slides, I could smell the specific scent of willows in a sandy midsummer creek bottom. I knew in my bones I had to get back there somehow. To those mountains, those snowfields, those willow bottoms.

I finally made it west in the late 1980s, and the first time I found myself on the top of a Colorado ski hill in January, wearing only a sweater, in warm sunshine under a clear robins-egg sky, I told myself I was never going back east. And I didn’t. It was part of what scuttled my academic career, refusing to go East again, but I didn’t care. I went West, to the Bay Area, got a job in high tech, desperate to pay off my student loans. Three years into my tech job, I was commuting back the long way, the way I chose most nights because even if it was about fifteen minutes longer, most of the time you weren’t standing in traffic, and it took you through some of the last open agricultural fields in the Bay Area. But they were filling up. Houses were going up on perfectly good farm land, just as I’d watched the last few migrant workers hoeing a zucchini field that was doomed, to become the new Cisco “campus.” I wished I’d had a camera that day. I was stopped in traffic, and across from me were several guys with computer cases standing at a bus stop, while behind them, four or five Mexican guys hoed zucchini rows, and behind them, another three story Cisco building, identical to all the others, was going up.

It made me nervous, California. It had been good to me career-wise, twice. Once when I left Colorado for UC Davis, once when I left Salt Lake City after my PhD, came back out to live with my brother and find a job. But it was getting so crowded and I could feel the big change coming — whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the anthropocene, the great acceleration — I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by unreliable parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right, and I wanted to get out of the way.

I was trying to figure out how to do that, when I heard a little voice in my head while driving to Whole Foods one Saturday morning. An actual voice, saying what about Livingston?  I knew about Livingston from running writers conferences, knew there were writers there, knew house prices hadn’t spiked yet. It was like there was someone in the car with me, that’s how clear the voice was. It spooked me, but I went home and looked up houses online, called a friend in Bozeman to see if she’d put me up.

Six months later, I was living in a small town smack in the middle of all the wild country a girl could want. It had been two decades since that slide show in the central Illinois flatlands, but I’d finally made it. I’d bought a house where I could see peaks and blue sky and snowfields from my front porch.

I bought a house in town, in part because I was moving alone, and feared if I bought a place out in the valley my agoraphobic tendencies would kick in, I’d hole up, never meet people. But I also bought a house in town because it already existed. I wasn’t cluttering up some hayfield with another new house, wasn’t chopping up the country with another five acre tract. In town, I could walk to Happy Hour on Fridays, to the dog park where I met the people who are now my family. It helps that I moved to a town full of writers. Writers, and painters, and fishing guides and carpenters and used-to-be-movie-stars. Who all get on together, who all wind up at the same happy hour, the same parties, the same art walks. It’s a good place, inhabited by people who wanted to live someplace beautiful, who needed to be near Big Wild Beauty, and who (with the exception of the rich summer people) were willing to take a hit financially in order to be here. We’d all rather be here than be rich, which is good since we’re mostly fairly broke.

Fifteen years later, it turns out that while I moved here for the wilderness what I did was build a garden. On my town lot, one I bought in part because there was a gigantic vegetable patch in the backyard, I hammered boards into raised beds and erected trellises. I moved dirt with a wheelbarrow and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and greens. I pruned up the fruit trees, planted currant and raspberry and gooseberry bushes. I built a coop and got chickens. I learned to can and freeze and put up my produce. With a gift of sourdough starter from another writer, I now bake bread once or twice a week. I moved to Montana for wildness only to find myself diving deep into the domestic.

If there’s anything that’s sacred in Montana, it’s wilderness. And the domestic, we are told, is the inverse of the wild. The mere presence of the domestic nullifies “the wild.” Just look at the outraged essays coming from old-school eco-warriors like George Wuerthner who collected a bunch of them in   “Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth.” If there’s anything profane in this part of the world, its domestication. Just try being a single woman here, walk into the Murray Bar and watch the fishing guides react with terror, as if you’re only there to kill their fun, rope them into domestic life, tie them down with babies and houses and gardens. In the same way, there are plenty of people I know who would sneer at my Suce creek walk, especially the part I do on the road. I can hear it now, you moved all the way to Montana to walk a road?

But in Montana, the domestic and the wild are not always entirely separate. One of my neighbors, who bartends for a living, told me he’d been on his front step late one night, having an after-shift cigarette, when he thought he saw a dog coming down the sidewalk. Turned out to be quite a large bear. “She peed in the street,” he said, pointing. “Then went off that way, toward those apple trees.” He wasn’t freaked out about it. It was both perfectly normal, and very cool to be sitting on your front step at one AM and have a little visit with a very large black bear sow.

Visiting Chicago and Seattle, I see Montana scenery plastered on city busses. Glacier and Yellowstone, the big animals, bears and moose and elk, are what we use to lure tourists. No one is luring tourists with photos of the jars of applesauce and jam I put up, the sauerkraut I make when the Hutterites bring cabbages the size of a beach ball to the Farmers Market in the fall.

I make my living online, and like everyone else I know, I waste too much time on Facebook and Twitter, reading meaningless gossip about people I don’t know, losing whole hours diving into virtual rabbit holes. I did much of my academic work studying the ancient human conflict between the wild and the domestic, and while I’ve never quite bought the argument that the wild and the pastoral cancel one another out, it seems we’re now faced with a bigger conflict, the one between natural and virtual realities. My friend Amanda Fortini, for example, who wrote a very good article for Good Magazine about what a shock weather was when she moved to Montana. She’d never realized that weather could be something that impacted your daily life, that you had to think about. She grew up in suburbs, and then spent her twenties in New York. Her description of how it sunk in one evening when she and her husband found themselves stuck in the snow outside White Sulphur Springs, where they’d driven up for a soak in the hot springs then decided on a whim to drive north to Helena for the night. Someone will come along, she told Walter, who knew that no one would, they were on a small side road, and so he dug them out with the windshield scraper. It wasn’t until the hotel clerk when they were checking back in in White Sulphur acknowledged that it was a good thing they got themselves out, they only send someone up that road every couple of days in the winter, that it sunk in. Weather is real.

While those of us over on the environmentalist front have been squabbling over whether acknowledging the anthropocene means the end of wilderness (and hence somehow magically believing that if we deny the anthropocene, wilderness will be saved), we lost sight of the bigger problem. For too many people, the physical world has faded away altogether. They live online, or in their phones. The distinction between the wild nature I encounter hiking on the Suce creek road and the domestic nature I encounter in my kitchen when kneading sourdough bread, seems less important than the fact that both of these activities require tangible interaction with the physical world.

Like I said, I make my living online. I moved to Montana but kept my tech job, and my working day is spent handling documentation files, and logging in to meeting software that allows my team, located here in Montana, in Seattle, in San Jose, in Dublin, in London and in Warsaw all meet with one another. We can see one another on our laptop cameras, we can share documents on the screen. I just spent two weeks training my replacement at that job, a woman who lives in rural Texas. We did it all over the meeting software — sharing screens so I could talk her through the program she needs to use. We don’t need to be physically co-located anymore. And yet, as my job has become more virtual, I’ve found myself more and more driven to get outside into the garden. I take refuge from the virtual by diving into the biological. Coaxing seeds to germinate, keeping them alive and watered and making sure they neither freeze nor burn up, requires a level of attention that keeps my head on straight. Too much time in the virtual world at work sends me back out into my yard, armed with a spade, eager to turn over the actual earth.

Its the same with the animals. I have chickens out back, chickens I raised from day-old hatchlings in a box with a heat lamp, chickens who lay more eggs than I can use, and provide compost for the vegetable garden. It’s a small closed system, and one that isn’t going to change the world, but simply having built it over these past years keeps me tethered to the reality of the physical world.

There are a lot of reasons we need to get past our binary thinking that the wilderness is sacred and the domestic is profane, but perhaps the most crucial reason is because we’re making the wrong argument. We’re arguing about degrees of difference between categories of experience in the natural world with people who have lost sight of the natural world altogether. My high school sweetheart for example, who arriving after a drive through Yellowstone said “well a lot of it was really boring. It was just forest. There weren’t any peaks or anything.” Yellowstone experienced not as a natural wonder, but as a slightly disappointing consumer experience. The difference then between the domestic and wild natural worlds collapses entirely when we’re dealing with people who have never stepped outside the human bubble of automobiles and roads and tourist boardwalks and malls. Who have never considered, for example, that the weather is real.

And so I cling to my hybrid life here. The one where my encounters with sourdough starter are as important to me as the blue grouse Hank spooks up on our morning dog walks. If sometimes it feels like the domestic has taken over my Montana life, something happens to remind me that our town is small and sits between several enormous wilderness areas. In the fall, at the dog park trail five blocks from my house, we’ll encounter big bear shits, purple with chokecherries, while, in spring you have to watch out for the moose that calves there, in the willows and creek bottom.

All those years when I dreamed about moving to Montana, I saw myself in the wilderness bagging peaks, or skiing across the Yellowstone backcountry. Instead I find myself living in a small town, puttering in the garden, complete with an old-lady straw hat, or in my kitchen, over a steaming canner filled with tomatoes during the hottest week of the year. But every time I go to some city where zombie-people walk around staring at their phones, I’m grateful to live in a place where people float the river, walk the trails and trade mason jars of canned goods at Christmas. We meet on Friday afternoons for happy hour, or show up for one another at readings and art openings and funerals.

And at night, sometimes we go out and get wild ourselves, put our party hats on and dance, while in the moonlit darkness, wild bears walk through our town in search of apple trees.

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