Thursday, September 21, 2017


Mary Scriver feeding chickens

Plainly, getting old is like going back down the steps of growing up.  In those days I was constantly discovering new skills, new abilities, new thoughts, new awareness of a widening circle.  Now it’s all the opposite.  I can’t walk as far, as stumble-free, as quickly as I used to.  I can’t open jar lids or even sealed cellophane wrappings, and pulling up the tab on the cat food cans only breaks my fingernails.  People talk too quickly and softly about things I care nothing about.  I’m more incoherent in my thinking, have to think longer to remember the word I want.

Yet strangely — except not that strange since I spend a good half-day at the keyboard knocking out these posts for my blog and in the process watching specialized vids  — I know far more about what goes on in the world than the people around me even know exists even though their TV screens are four times as big as my computer monitor.  It puts me more out-of-sync in the eternal tension between the individual and the group than I ever expected to be.  In fact, after twenty years in Valier, I’m more different from everyone else here than I was in the beginning, partly because they are so out-of-touch with the larger world that I see on my computer screen.  There’s a lot of danger in these boundaries, because there is a lot of fear in them.

On both sides.  I become afraid of locals — even the locality.  With reason.  Small problems, like the fact that the soil under our houses is gumbo, caleche, unstable fine clay formed by the PNW volcano eruptions in the primal times of the continent.  This has meant that doors only occasionally fit their doorways when the humidity and temperature matches the conditions when they were installed.  The rest of the time they stick, maybe don’t fit at all.

But now it appears that my house has sunk as a whole house, so that the web of plumbing under it is pressing against the floor joists and is deformed to the point of preventing proper drainage.  This may cost a couple of thousand dollars, but the alternative is sinks and toilet (only one) that don’t work.  At present it all vents through the shower drain instead of out the standing vent pipe that I had considered the problem.  I can only pay for the necessary work by borrowing, but if I had to borrow locally, I would not be able to.  Luckily, I knew that, so my credit arrangements are back in Portland, except that I had not predicted the Equifax hacking scandal.

Venting the drain system inside the house means that I’m occasionally breathing a miasma of methane, human ick, and — much more than that — possible toxic fumes from illicit meth labs.  I’m on the main trunk of the city sewer line, so there’s no way to figure out who’s putting it down the drain.  I don’t know what it does to our sewage lagoon digestive microorganisms.  The town does notice who suddenly has an unexplained excess of money.  Prosperity is something that is closely monitored here but the impulse to flaunt wealth is strong.  It’s easier for out-of-town ranchers to show off, though it would be a mistake to think the neighbors don’t notice shiny new machines of great cost.

At the same time that people become more intent on money-as-security, more willing to risk punishment, our town is becoming weaker, less able to self-govern.  The county, which is presumably the backup, is also part of this weakening, thinning, dynamic.  The state is controlled by continental corporations, mostly resource developers.  (It would be cynical to say “exploiters.”)  The whole country was treated to an example of our political leadership when Gianforte assaulted a reporter.  What they didn’t know, thank goodness, was how many locals saw Gianforte as justified.  The only thing worse than being an outsider is inquiring into matters that might be embarrassing.  Like health care.

And aging.  “Montana’s older population is one of the largest in the country. By 2025 Montana is presumed to rank between third and fifth in the nation in the percent of older adults 65+, which will account for at least 25 percent of the Montana population.”  If you’re not from Montana, you might not notice that the counties with low percentages of oldsters are the ones with NA reservations.  The Native American population is still young and increasingly better educated than adjoining communities.  My sympathies are with them.  30% of Valier is now Native American.

The aging white population is not just a new minority, but --significantly -- born a set of baby boomers.  We have been used to the ethos of the WWII veterans: their belief in working together, their care for future generations, their wide world-view from being in other cultures.  Now the John McCains are slipping away.  It is their children, full of their own entitlement, who are running things.

I’m not quite a baby boomer — some people think I pay too much attention to time-lines, but being born just before WWII puts me in a small category of people who came to consciousness during a period that emphasized heroism and asceticism.  Since my paternal side was homesteaders in Dakota with NO consciousness of the indigenous people they pushed out (they didn’t know any of them) and since they had only one short period of prosperity, it makes me nervous to have much.  

Publishers Clearing House tells me yet again that I might win $1,000 a day and my main reaction is worry — not about being passed over, but about winning.  Of course, to me $1,000 a day sounds like an immense amount of money.  But I’m aware that taxes will take at least half, which means $15,000 a month, not enough to buy a really good car.  It would be good for my plumbing, however, and that would be a positive development.

If I used my new found wealth to buy an incinerating toilet, which converts poop to ash, I would still need sink drains.  If I used it to reinforce this house enough to install a metal roof, a water-accumulating system, and solar panels, the town would sneer.  It wouldn't look like prosperity to them.  I’d still have the same neighbors, both good and bad, and the same pot-holed streets.  It would not affect the feral cat population.  Maybe I could fund some kind of program.

If I used the money to upgrade my back workshed, that would be a good thing, if I had the strength to work there.  I could also upgrade my so-called bunkhouse to make it mosquito-proof, install real beds, and decorate it "cute".  But that would attract visitors and cut back on my writing time.  

My real wealth is time to write.  If I become unable to write, then I would be impoverished and ready to die.

2nd grade writing -- illustrated

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

THE HIPPOPOTAMUS: The film, not the animal.

Stephen Fry

Just when I despair of ever seeing anything worthwhile on Netflix, I stumble onto something that makes me happy.  This time is was a film called “The Hippopotamus” which was not National Geographic, but rather British fol-de-rol.  It’s actually a Peter O’Toole film, or maybe a Bill Nye vehicle, which would not be remarkable except that the crucial centerpole is played by that sober and fatherly supervisor of “Endeavor,” DI Fred Thursday, who is played by Roger Allam.  He does look something like Stephen Fry, who writes autobiographically about his gay, bipolar self.  

This time Allam is the outrageous and self-destructive crazy uncle.  It hadn’t really occurred to me he could play anyone but Thursday, but he’s even in Game of Thrones as Illyrio Mopatis, though so shadowy he’s unrecognizable, but he’s done enough voice-overs that I ought to have recognized that.  In the English tradition, he’s really more of a stage actor and thus quite versatile.

This plot is flimsy but crammed with Englishisms centering on the big manor house and its grounds, sheltering ingrown families whose members all hate each other even though they may have once been married to each other.  Maybe because of that.  Most boxes in the oeuvre are checked: the ancient butler, the out-of-it-patriarch, the animals in trouble, insane driving, mysterious ailments, too-gorgeous mothers and their unmarriageable daughters, etc.  A part probably bigger than it deserves to be is the huge loud gay man braying at the elegant dinner table.  Stephen Fry can get away with writing it because of who he “is.”

In fact, in a wildly entertaining opening scene he nails a pretentious staging of well-endowed, nearly nude, young men spouting nonsense.  Without his personal history he couldn’t do that either.  (Wikipedia serves the facts well-enough, so I won’t repeat here.)  The whole film is really an occasion to rehearse Fry’s ideas about religion when it is assumed to be magic, art when it takes on empty social values that the consumers don’t really fathom, and the touching but rather desperate attempts of sons to become something exceptional and full of genius.

For some of us, that’s well-trodden territory, but what makes it worthwhile is the wittiness of the dialogue and the sincere compassion that is under it.  Sure, it’s all hallucinations, constructs in the mind that can’t be resolved, totally controlled by social assumptions.  In the end, if one faces these eternal dilemmas squarely (even when drunk) then the stuck-ness that ordinarily haunts all creative people will be broken through by love and laughter to get things moving again.  The result, of course, is bound to risk being ridiculous.  The first poem that comes out of this blocked writer is entitled “The Hippopotamus”— and there you go.  It’s the first of a cataract.

In the US we tend to take these issues so seriously that they become murderous, esp. when the issues are intra-family.  The English gentry’s estates are only matched by giant ranches and none of them is much older than the Civil War.  Miraculous cures and some religious issues are delegated to the indigenous population, shamans and so on.  Well, that’s not the reality, but much of the plot fodder.

Writing in the US is money-making like everything else and we see it as a matter of workshops, MFA degrees if you can afford them, or the transformative holocausts of poverty — often delegated to a female survivor like Daenerys Targarean who can literally walk out of a bonfire.  (“Literally,” of course, in movie terms.)  In the US we punish hoaxes severely; in the United Kingdom, everyone laughs and goes on.

The basic issue of the hippopotamus is an equation of sex — very literally — with the creativity of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the most religious of poets.  It’s impossible to argue with the seriousness and skill of such a poet.  It’s not even very easy to make fun of him, much less imitate him.  But surely the fountain of inspiration is always hormonal and poetry must be bodily because it is based on sensuality.

A subset of this issue is that of healing: the argument here is against healing, which is a kind of denial of suffering, but also means ignoring what is learned from affliction, being forced to find one’s inner resources, which is not always respected by those around the sufferer, who react in ways that help themselves, either by aggrandizing the pain or by denying it.

Bipolarism is a self-management problem that is romanticized and even valued by our Brit-based culture.  Life is considered exhilarating if one goes from valley to peak and then is cast down again — as long as the progress keeps moving towards some grand climax of literary prowess — like “King Lear” or “Moby Dick.”  That’s why people climb Mount Everest, to fulfill that pattern.  Asian cultures where calm and temperance are admired are alien to us and some have suggested that our antipathy to Obama is due to his Indonesian elegant self-control rather than his skin color.  

We much prefer the violence and intemperance of the Red Neck American South.  The shocking excess and confrontation of the central character in this film are, I suppose, the British equivalent of a tractor pull.  But the wickedness is symbolized by old-fashioned alcohol rather than opiates, which have captured our mainstream, forcing the poets to return to hallucinogens in hopes of miraculous visions.  The Irish, of course, have not given up whiskey and enjoy their visions anyway.  Something about acid.

But Fry’s comments, acid as they may be, and more useful for flaying than healing, are still capable of clearing the artistic way that has become rotten and paralyzed.  A hippo is famous for submerging in rank old waterways, rising up to spray its fecal by-products by spinning its tail, a source of fertility.  However, hippos — clumsy and ugly as they may seem on land — are quite capable of killing a person.  Climbing too high without proper skills can also kill a person.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017



For months I’ve been watching the series of vids produced through GQ and entitled “The Resistance with Keith Olbermann Video Series”.  I was following on Twitter.  In case the vids have disappeared from that source,  you can still watch from the website:   That link will also give you a transcript.  I just want to quote the end:

“We will wake up one of those mornings
and Trump will be retweeting another anti-semite
or trying to provoke a deranged foreign leader
or whining about somebody on television
and it will all seem nightmarishly normal
and then during the day there will be
a bunch of meetings at the White House
that we'll hear about, featuring lawyers
and prosecutors suddenly appearing in car load lots
and that night around 6:00 we will suddenly hear
that Trump is going to resign the following morning.
And people will be surprised.
Well, some of them will be.”

The morning may be soon.  Olbermann, once a colleague and mentor of Rachel Maddow, is a dynamic bulldog of a man, the sort that once could command wide political or even ecclesiastical power with vigorous truth-telling.  He describes Mueller’s progress as dripdripdrip, but it might be more morbidly described as rapraprap as the nails go into the coffin of Donald Trump’s so-called career.  

The rumours now flying around are far worse than pee-pee tapes.  I gather that those who monitor them are grateful that they are sound rather than vid since they are repulsive even to imagine.  What that means is that once they are out — they ALWAYS come out — Trump et al will be so vilified that all the people who defend him now will want to dispense with a fair trial and just rip him to pieces.  They will no longer care whether allegations are true.

But the important work, once Oren Hatch (as some suggest since those ahead of him are all accused) is our new president, is to settle down to the task of figuring out how to make sure this never happens again.  We thought our checks and balances would work, but we hadn’t counted on a madman, even after watching hours of film about such people, often praised as genius because they are rich.

How could this have happened with conscientious people on the job?  Obama, Clinton, even Bush, were not stupid and were certainly aware of what Russia wanted to do.  There are several reasons, but the most salient one is the use of the Internet in very clever, hip, and youthful ways that get into minds.  It’s the Cyber Cold War.  Trump had no idea — he didn’t expect to be elected.  It was Jared Kushner who figured it out.  (The two sons are too self-absorbed and uneducated to do it.)  Candidly, he explained how he identified the social media geniuses, asked them to teach him quickly, and acted on what he learned.  The two DT clones were too busy shooting elephants to focus on something that required brains.  They’ve spilled more than they’ve hidden.

But even Kushner didn’t guard his flank.  As Hillary and a certain other irrepressible person put it, Kushner didn’t know what he didn’t know — he wasn’t aware that there was anything outside his own small world.  There was a cosmos of societies out there that he didn’t know existed.  To some degree, that’s true of all of us.  By definition, no one can know the unknown, but one can admit that it’s there and that it can creep up and throttle you before you figure it out. 

This point of view contributes to the idea of the “Deep State” which is a version of the persisting conviction that there is a hidden cabal somewhere that is controlling us all without any accountability or even consciousness.  Some people voted for Trump believing that he could and would break up that “deep state.”  No doubt Bannon was promoting this idea since his idea of a philosophy is a temper-tantrum.

This video from Moyers & Company is persuasive.  Not necessarily proven, though there is evidence when you look for it.  Trump, or whoever is coaching him, would like to pin this on Clinton, to make us think Clinton IS the Deep State.  Trump is too much of a tin man to be part of any Deep State — he has no sense of government, much less control of it.  Mike Lofgren on Moyers describes it as a structural evolution, the one that Eisenhower warned us against.  Lofgren doesn’t talk about how it has evolved in ALL big rich nations, until now they are linked.  

But also this evolution works in small rural towns and the counties that enfold them, then the states, and then the businesses and interests that stretch across the continent.  This is not invisible even up to the state level.  The old guys at the coffee shop can name the families who control everything, either because the power people own the businesses or because they are in office of some kind.  

None of this can be pointed to as a concrete entity, not even the buildings they inhabit.  It’s all paperwork — or rather cyberwork.  The Achilles’ heel of the local big shots is that they are blind to the conceptual level of the Internet.  They may be very adept at the accounting apps.  Moneymoneymoney.

Where women and kids join the system is that they are so free about posting all kinds of information without understanding that they are NOT invisible and that they are being identified and controlled, along with their families.  Celebrating birthdays means that the information gives authorities access to your police dossier.  That provides the new website that is publishing all your traffic offences for the entertainment of your neighbors.  And that provides the illusion that you know everything about people, which is always dangerous — another source of that unknown unknown.

So nail-by-nail our government machinery is trying to box up one man who has been access to the connections between politics and corporations that drain money into the pockets of people who hide their assets in legal pockets of secret accounting on idyllic islands.  One can possibly be forgiven for the fantasy that there is some kind of divine, or at least poetic, retribution in these hurricanes.  But would they affect the accounting “cloud”?

Monday, September 18, 2017


In the Eighties, when I was riding circuit among the UU’s in Montana, Linda Hasselstrom was keeping a journal of her fight to save the family ranch, which became “Windbreak House.”  (1987) It was part of a cluster of books by rural women authors that included Mary Clearman Blew, Teresa Jordan, Judy Blunt, Sharon Butala, and others born just before or during WWII when the shortage of men made room for wives, daughters and sisters to be “cowboys.”  I thought of myself as one of them, though I was not a rancher, but I found other paths.  I no longer feel I am a Montana writer, but probably still a prairie writer.

Not long ago, as part of clearing out my bookshelves, I sent Linda two boxes of books about women writing, both advice and critiques.  I’ve never been much of a feminist and didn’t really use them.  As it turned out, I was more of a humanist, then more of a “living things” writer, and finally have become an “everythingist” which can be a “nothingist” except that I’ve gone to a head-trip approach that Linda doesn’t — probably some of her readers and client writers are grateful.

Since I’d jogged her memory, her publishers have sent me her most recent books to review:  “Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal” from High Plains Press, and “Dakota Bones, Grass, Sky” from Spoon River Poetry Press.  This is the way publishing is now: local books sponsored by small presses and dependent on far too few reviewers.  I am not ordinarily a reviewer, but this is not just a service to a friend, but also to the local readers who prowl the library.

Linda had to leave the home ranch now and then to make a living or because of family dynamics, a familiar force, both for change and for tenacity.  Generational sequences of marriages, divorces, deaths, and the occasional stretch of time so sweet that it’s a talisman through all the rest — these are the maps of our lives.  Questions arise in the search for solutions.  And then solutions are found.  And decisions: both of us decided not to have children and don’t regret it.  

Ways we are alike are that Linda’s mother tried desperately to make a ruffled pink lady out of her with no better luck than mine.  Ways we are different is that Linda’s stepfather was her role model, her mentor, and — in the end — her betrayer when he lost his mind.  My father was never a hero, losing his mind gradually due to an auto accident concussion in 1948.  It was my first, only, and last husband whose relationship to me was like Linda’s dad’s.  The family struggle across generations is made stark against the background of an unforgiving land.  It’s never really solved.

Linda is far more of a “granola” than I am, putting off writing tasks by cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking her Westies, all of which improves her environment.  I’m the other way around — the writing rises up in me and pushes everything else out while dust settles and dishes stack.  I should be calling the plumber instead of writing this.  Something very bad is going on and I don’t want to know.

Reward for both of us comes from living interwoven with the life of the land, both plants and animals, both wild and domestic.  Work can be hard, but also fulfilling.  Linda has been masterfully resourceful in finding ways to survive so that at an age when most people are retired, she runs “Windbreak House” as a writer’s retreat that comes with consulting informed by a lifetime of interaction as a writer, a speaker, a publisher, a poet, an organizer, a buckskinner — all ways of survival.  She participates in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other functions on a part of the prairie a bit to the south and east of Montana, a bit north of Wyoming, not quite the Middle West.  She’s on good terms of with indigenous people but doesn’t make a fetish of it.

I kept thinking that I’d read some of this before and maybe even reviewed it — I did:  
4/3/17 on  But that’s okay.  Much of what Linda is doing here is revisiting old letters, journals, photos.  Her grandmother, mother and stepfather kept journals in the way that ag people do, keeping track of weather and crop cycles and in the process recording their human lives.  One visits such records again and again, always finding them a little more revealing, a little more relevant.  In the end she conveys them to historical societies, except for a couple of boxes of correspondence which she consigns to the dump, much to the exasperation of another snooper in the past.

Here’s a vid of Linda in her “habitat”.

Much of what attracts others and leavens the heavy thoughts is lyrical passages according to the seasons.  Though her homestead backs up to open nature where coyotes and pronghorns trot past the cattle, the front of the house overlooks a highway and housing developments of urban people.  The closest she comes to political indignation is outrage over those uncouth squatters.  Luckily, her rancher neighbor who runs cattle on her land and her life-partner who has a workshop across the yard, look out for her and agree with her philosophy.  They are a little younger.

Not that Linda is any kind of a wimp.  One of her essays that had quite a long life was about why she carried a gun, horrifying the softie liberals.  The one I still reread now and then is about her teaching the homestead feral cats about the mice out in the hay yard.  The first time she loaded them into the front-end loader they boomeranged all over the cab, so she could hardly drive.  As soon as she pulled down a bale and mice ran out, they got the idea.  After that, they would follow the packed trail of the loader out to the haystack without urging. is the website that will give access to all the rest.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


I get exasperated with the stubborn self-serving accounts of Trump’s shenanigans that I read.  It’s not that they’re wrong, but almost all of them are filtered by the point of view of the creator, which means they select only the facts they like and interpret only according to one frame of reference.  Some are indictments and some are whitewashes.  Part of what makes Trump so unaccountable is that he is a complex of contexts, a slumgullion of social understandings that is close to, but not quite, psychotic.  One frame will not contain him, nor does he fill any frame.

Remember that he called his family together the night of the election results to caution them that he probably would not win.  If it hadn’t been for Putin’s thumb, he wouldn’t have.  But once he was in place, there was a terrific rush to grab his coattails — until they realized the stinking effluent of that position.

“The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” will be published Oct. 3 by St. Martin’s Press.  It is reflection by the psych people, the ones who formerly have forbade themselves to comment: now it’s too dangerous not to.  Here’s an excellent account of why they are speaking out.  It’s the best interpretation I’ve seen so far.

Much speculation is being expended on ways to get rid of this ticking time bomb as he faces his mirror image across the Pacific.  Once assassination is off the table, there are several approaches.  Most writers put their energy into one or another, according to who they think their readers are.  The political people put their energy into impeachment or Article 25.  

The economics people do a lot of exclaiming over the revelations that Trump is NOT wealthy, is NOT a deal-maker, is NOT EVEN the person who wrote “his” book about making deals.  In short, he’s a fraud, a con artist.  But they are still stymied about a strategy for a trapdoor.

Then there’s the Cold War version in which Trump Tower becomes a nest of traitors, directly connected to Moscow.  This is very persuasive.  When Trump claimed Obama was wire-tapping him, what he really meant was that American FBI and so on were listening to “alleged” transmissions from Trump Tower suites, managed and enabled by Jared Kushner.  I expect that’s the real reason the FBI offices got kicked out even though part of what they were doing was protecting Trump.  But Trump thinks he IS the Tower.  They say the apartments are also occupied by mafia.  I believe it.  That tower probably has more bugs than the American Moscow embassy.  I think intercepted transmissions among criminals put the FBI onto Trump years ago, before his money borrowing made him a traitor.

Of course, everyone has been hacking everyone's computers EXCEPT that American senators and representatives (and the President himself) are too old and too uneducated to understand much about computers or the Internet.  They depend upon their “secretaries” for that, but are so sexist that they never really listen to or believe what they are told.  There are exceptions.  But even Blumenauer and Wyden can’t approach the powers of real adepts, the ones that live in a separate virtual world.  Those are the people who can make your microwave control your life.  KellyAnn Conway could not do this, but she knew people who told her they could.  (She’s always struck me as someone who wanted to “slum” for the thrill.)

This is the “frame,” to use Ervin Goffman’s technical term, that has been most neglected, the one that explains some of Comey’s decisions:  crime, plain and simple, both in the US and international.  These have been on the FBI agenda for a decade or more.  Money laundering, lies, omissions, and even murder.  Not counting terrorism.  Paper swindles cost the indigenous peoples everywhere the profits and ownership of their own lands, and has for centuries if not millennia.  But the FBI is not pursuing that.  They are after corporate CEO fish, so powerful that they control countries.

IMHO both Trump and Putin thought that if Trump were President, he would have unlimited power and could protect the two of them.  Now that Putin realizes how much the US was designed to thwart dictators, he says, “Trump is not my bride.”  Perhaps it would be more rhetorically accurate to say Trump is his bitch.  Such a client is disposable.  Putin may spare us all the trouble of a lot of courtroom and hearing panel work by arranging a “heart attack.”

On the other hand, it’s clear that in our care to block King George III, crazy as he was, time has made loopholes for Trump to penetrate.  Or grab.  So we will need to rethink how we write laws to account for social media and to prevent such toxic results of family pride and faux status-hunger from happening again.

These will be MAJOR shifts, including such things as what land ownership really means, how wealth is managed and taxed, what education will restore our understanding of propaganda and false news, how to keep legislators from making a career for themselves out of what is supposed to be service to the people, and better ways of managing international boundaries.


Bandy X. Lee is the compiler and manager of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”.  When I googled the name, I expected some far-out and furry older male denizen of academia.  Instead, in this Pacific-centric New World, she is a determined-looking female Asian.  She IS Ivy League.  Her powerful partner is Robert Jay Lifton, the man in the Moyers interview.  His bibliography is, well, awesome, and too well-known to need reprinting here.


Dr. Lee, whose degrees include both MD and MDiv, is a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine.  “Bandy X. Lee, M.D., M.Div., is a faculty member in the Law and Psychiatry Division of Yale School of Medicine. She earned her degrees at Yale, interned at Bellevue, was Chief Resident at Mass. General, and was a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School. She was also a Fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health. She worked in several maximum-security prisons, played a key role in Rikers Island reforms, co-founded Yale’s Violence and Health Study Group, and leads a violence prevention collaborators group for the World Health Organization. She co-teaches criminal justice clinic and immigration legal services at Yale Law School, and teaches a university-wide course on violence prevention for Yale’s Global Health Studies Program. She’s written more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and chapters, edited eleven academic books, and is author of the textbook, Violence.”

She is an editor who links and winnows, a person who sorts to get sense, a type we sorely need as we wallow through our half-baked theories.  The books she edits are expensive and expert.  You’ll probably need Interlibrary Loan.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


Even before the border slammed shut out of paranoia, I never could understand why Montana folks didn’t go into Canada more.  Scriver’s generation almost had to be reminded that there WAS a border, esp. the St. Mary’s Valley and High Line people.  Now, with the current local furor over the grizzly bear recovery, it would seem not just logical but highly desirable to join understandings with the Alberta people.  Maybe part of the problem is that the wildlife and conservation community that stretches from Waterton to Lethbridge is quite liberal, and on its own turf quite powerful.

Andy Russell was a rancher/outfitter who expanded into writing, film and — inevitably — politics.  His son, Charlie, two years younger than myself, was the only son not a biologist by degree but by enterprise.  With his artist partner, Maureen Enns (left out by sexist Wikipedia), lived in Kamchatka for ten summers in order to study grizzlies, called brown bears there.  They were in wilderness, built their own hut, and managed safety with electric fencing.  Expecting only to watch the animals up close, they ended up “cub-napping” three little sisters about the size of house cats and nurturing them into several hundred pounds each of adulthood, acquiring fellow-traveling bear families as they went.

The account of this, which I just finished, is a heart-warming book called “Grizzly Heart: Living without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka.”  One reviewer calls it “a joy to read,” and indeed it is.  Partly because of editing support from Fred Stenson, a noted writer himself, the book reads like silk in spite of some pretty rugged story-line.  Charlie’s one soft spot is Timothy Treadwell, whom he approves here (before the deaths of he and his girlfriend), but he does not back off from the gruesome death of Michio Hoshino, noted photographer, dragged from his tent in the night. 

He marks another human killed by a bear, but not so close to the authors.  In fact, there is a sinister cannibal bear, a big male, who killed and ate cubs, once while Charlie watched — eventually killing one of the three sisters — but not while the guardians were there.

What stays with the reader is the many walkabouts on snow and along lakes, always searching for food which is everything for survival except shelter from the weather which is extreme — much like Valier, in fact.  When the cubs first arrived, they were kept in a little hut of their own for a while, but gradually eased out into the world and eventually dug their own dens.  It’s soon obvious that those huge claws are for digging, big badger feet, and they loved to dig just for fun as well as to reach roots and bulbs.  

One of the most touching moments is when the bears are all grown up, but when their first little hut is opened up, they go in, along with Charlie and Maureen, all stacked together in close quarters.  Unexpectedly, the bears begin to “chirr” which is a sound like purring that cubs make while nursing.  Clearly they were spacing on childhood memory.

Another similar moment comes after the pair have had to be gone and the hut was guarded by a whole family that included two little girls who loved the bears, which were big by then.  The girls would go out in the morning and lie on the ground nose-to-nose with the cubs, except with the live electric wire between them.  After the family had gone back home, one cub would come to lie in the usual spot to wait for the nose-to-nose seance until she realized the children had gone.  Searching each other's eyes, breathing each other's breath, what were they learning?

One key to this adventure was a Kolb ultralight airplace that came as a kit that Charlie could assemble, repair as needed, and nimbly fly to land in surprising places.  He shipped and stored it in parts.  Support was provided with helicopters.  Kamchatka was once connected to Alaska and much of the business was very much like that of Alaska.

Except that as one learns about the big bears that are the powerful symbol of Russia (Putin riding bare-chested on one) it becomes clear that it is a place always on the edge of starving to death.  Whether mismanagement, political corruption, or some ancient curse, the people of Kamchatka live hard lives.  Urging conservation of animals on them seems almost cruel, and yet some of the most devoted and ingenious of the rangers existed right alongside monstrous bureaucrats with distorted ethics.

Kamchatka bears fatten on salmon and char runs that fill the waterways with easily caught protein.  Their characters are gentle and tolerant, even the ones not raised on sunflower seeds like Charlie’s three “girls.”  The influence of this environment on the essential nature of any bears is not considered much in the book, but that’s not the point.  What Charlie and Maureen are about is the most literal interface of mammal to mammal.  In fact, Maureen bonds with foxes, which exposes her to heartbreak when they are trapped out one winter by a father and son who also break into the hut and trash it.

There is a body of thought called “Theory of Mind” which is about the ability to understand what another living creature is intending.  Developed in response to the catch/don’t-be- caught of the dynamics between creatures, it has developed in humans to the point of guiding poker games.  What’s interesting in Charlie’s experience is that the bears tried to understand intentions.  If he stepped hurtfully on a paw, the bear was upset unless he apologized and expressed sympathy.  Then the cub just let it go.  At one point a visiting photographer fell over a cub and hurt it.  Charlie forced him to apologize, which the photographer thought was stupid, until he did it and saw the bear respond graciously instead of biting him.

Maureen’s contribution was major.  Her inserted versions of events are often enlightening, but beyond that she kept Charlie sane and provided an artistic platform for thought and feeling, deeper than the most skillful photo.

Maybe for readers Back East or Overseas these people are far away in a land only imagined, but for me they are local.  I hope that the recent wild fires that burned part of Waterton and endangered the Prince of Wales Hotel has not damaged their homes.  And I hope their spirits help people in Valier overcome the panic from grizzlies in the streets.  I'll give this copy to the Valier library.

Spirit Bear: Encounters with the White Bear of the Western Rainforest
Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka
Grizzly Seasons
Learning to Be Wild: Raising Orphan Grizzlies

Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia (PBS, 1999)
Bear Man of Kamchatka (BBC, 2006)


Friday, September 15, 2017


Front to back:  landing strip, Lake Francis, Rocky Mountains, impending moisture

At the Valier Town Council meeting this week a presentation was made by Dan Kramer, a circuit rider for the Montana Rural Water Systems, IncThis was a good thing, since water is “the new oil,” meaning that it suddenly has taken a jump in value.  In fact, Lake Francis, which is adjacent to town, was just now supplying water to “scooper planes” dousing the fire west of Heart Butte.  In recent tests this water proved free of invasive mussels, which was good for boaters and fishermen.  

Lake Francis is the impoundment for the Pondera Canal Company’s irrigation system, which starts by Swift Dam, the most upstream impoundment of water from the Rocky Mountains.  Wildfire reached the dam, requiring the evacuation of the caretaker and the closest ranchers, who are on the Blackfeet Reservation.  The dam was originally built with the cooperation and compensation of the Indian Agent of the time.  It was on the allotment of his wife, an enrolled Blackfeet woman.  

“Swift Dam” is also the title of a book by Sid Gustafson wherein it becomes a looming fate that eventually killed more than thirty people when it broke.  The story is about the effect on the people who realize what such modern engineering feats can do, who are haunted by it, but helpless to stop  industrialization of the wild land.  And now that a new improved dam is installed, the new threat is a diminishing snowpack because of the greenhouse effect, and the growing political strength of the people who own the damsite — but more than that, are entitled to a proportion of the water.  Ranching in the area can be dependent on irrigation from this dam.

The Town Council dealt with none of this because the town doesn’t get its vital water from Lake Frances.  Rather it draws on a handful of wells under the town which are managed constantly by the two town employees.  It is this management that is addressed by Montana Rural Water Systems, Inc.  The business is a private nonprofit consortium of experienced people who run a business that supports and guides small town water managers.  They are experts in both incoming potable water and outgoing septic systems.  Dan had spent the day with the town clerk looking at the constituents of the town.

The land under the town is taxed by the county, which then reapportions funds to the town.  This was not addressed.  The town is a kind of cooperative that pays for its infrastructure (water, sewer) with fees for service.  Getting the services properly aligned with the cost for service was what Kramer was addressing.  The land is divided into lots and each lot is charged according to its use, which is of surprising variety.  Some of the uniqueness is because of once being a boom town when the dam was built. 

Much of the town land is owned by Pondera County, including the little airport which is really only a grass landing strip with a shed for airplane shelter.  Some of the land has never been developed and would be hard to develop because of its altitude (the flow of the pipes would have be augmented with pumps) or maybe other characteristics.

Some of the land was ceded to the county due to nonpayment of property taxes.

Lots owned by private citizens include:

A grain-bin "farm" with no water or sewer.

Lots where houses or businesses stood during historic boom times that are now empty but have pipes under them.

Lots that are empty but could be built on, maybe using pre-existing pipes.

Lots with houses that are standing empty and would need renovation for occupancy.

Lots with houses or business structures that should probably be demolished.

Lots tied up in legal situations, with owners who are in nursing homes or with dead owners whose estates have not been settled.

Since the lake makes some people think of Valier as a resort town, there are houses that are used as summer homes or vacation cabins.  They do not want to pay for town services when they aren’t present.  The converse is people who live on remote ranches but move to town during the school year for the sake of their children or town jobs.

Houses or lots that are owned as investments and which are dormant.  Some of these are being acquired by a predatory investment group that buys property with delinquent taxes and sits on it to store wealth.

Some properties have liens on them because of unpaid fines or loans.

One property on the highway is not released from restriction due to contamination because of an historical service station with leaky underground storage.

One mantra that is often heard is that there are no rentals in Valier.  The truth is probably that there are few rentals publicly available: people are very careful about renting their property in order to protect it from abuse.  Some only rent to relatives.  Access is word-of-mouth and it benefits them to represent a rental shortage.

Another “wish” is that there were some kind of supported housing for the elderly so they could stay here instead of going to facilities in adjoining counties where families would have to travel to visit often.  

Because of the lake there are occasionally fantasies about wealthy people wanting to build prestige homes here.  Realistically, professionals like teachers or engineers are used to more modern and larger homes than are already here.  They expect more bathrooms, more appliances that use water in greater amounts, more lawn watering and even water features like fountains or ponds.  This affects local hiring.  

Town water is extended to the grain elevator just outside the boundary.  A ring of homes and ag uses are just outside the town, using wells and septic tanks.  They would not necessarily be pleased by moving the boundary.

Because Kramer and the town clerk spent an afternoon sorting these categories and thinking about what they mean in terms of costs and fees, the town expects to post the numbers they worked out on the town’s website.  The upshot of it is that we are barely paying our way.  The shocking news that we will have to remove the sludge from the bottom of the sewage lagoons at considerable cost will throw us behind the eightball.  There is some idea that we might be able to sell the sludge as fertilizer.

The town meets its bills in part by selling water to dry farms that have no wells but depend on filling cisterns with potable water from the town supply.  If we worked out the cost of water and sewer to the residents so that it came out even, we could put that extra income into a rainy day fund for surprises like that sludge problem, which are often mandated by state or federal agencies.  Locals despise those authorities, but nearby towns are finding out that defying them leads to disastrous penalties.  They are outside our control.  Thus the value of this independent nonprofit as guides.

Kramer’s approach to bookkeeping is practical and useful, but most townspeople are blind to it.  Luckily, our current mayor has had training as an accountant and has been keeping a close eye on the figures.  Some townspeople think that if they are ferocious enough in their sporadic attacks  on the council and mayor, they can stave off all these pesky costs and conditions.  They're wasting energy and preventing progress. 

Some towns are now imposing fees in the thousands of dollars for new building that will need infrastructure, esp. the extension of pipes to the properties and the expansion of treatment and lagoons to handle more people.  Since there are people who make money from building, as well as the people who have been planning to build on their lots, maybe for retirement money, this is the equivalent of a stock market crash.  They experience it as a “taking” though it’s only potential.

Because so many businesses have collapsed in town, even the ones that draw on the surrounding economy of ranchers like car dealers or laundromats, Valier is becoming a “bedroom community” where people come home to sleep.  This would be a better situation if the winters weren’t so severe.  Maintaining a car that will cope with blizzards and ice means extra cost for living here and working elsewhere.

An obvious salvation might be internet-based businesses, but so far the residents don’t have the expertise and therefore have not demanded good service.  It’s coming.