Monday, June 12, 2006


This is the month that settles in to drop steady rain on the grass. And this month it is really happening, which it hasn’t for a while. Sometimes it does it too much: in June 1994 we were overwhelmed and on June 8th three dams broke, killing three dozen people. Part of the reason so many died was that everyone had just finished the school year and all the grannies and little children had moved out onto the old ranch places along the rivers, just as Indians have been doing this time of year for several millenia.

So now, just as all the professors, anthros, writers and wanna-bees show up, all the institutional buildings are empty. The towns are quiet. Everyone is out in the country -- with any luck, on horseback. Even in the white ag towns things are slow and the men are out on machinery. No one wants a lot of outsiders to feed and entertain, esp. since it’s cold, damp, and gray so no one is anxious to go outside. This is when tourists cluster around the big fireplaces in the lodge hotels. With luck the management will supply a guitarist. If all these people come back at Indians Days -- and now they don’t because it has become so big and intense that whites are scared of it -- they won’t learn much because it’s like trying to learn about small rural towns by attending county fairs.

Another June dynamic is that the rain makes the gumbo swell up, which changes the ground our houses are built on so that doors that normally swing open have to be wrenched from their frames and doors that usually stick fly open easily. Who knows what it’s doing to the plumbing. My gutters are somehow malfunctioning so that rain is getting inside the walls. Since the insulation is loose vermiculite (full of asbestos, so it can’t removed without special equipment and huge expense) it has packed down wet, and no longer insulates -- aside from the inside walls getting wet enough to buckle. The other night my attention was attracted to the top of the frame of the front door where a tiny pile of particles was growing. Inspection revealed an ant-nest behind the frame. Vacuum, poison, and things seem under control -- but what else is in there?

It could be worse: my friends were flooded in this last downpour. Their house is much bigger and grander than mine, which means that being flooded is much more serious. I have my trapdoor to the crawl space open, so the whole house smells like damp clay, but at least I can tell I’m not flooding. Crackers, the scairdy cat, is sure there’s something bad down there, but neither cat seems to mind going out in light rain and coming back empearled with moisture. This crawl space was flooded the spring before I bought the house, but not because of rain. The water pipe froze and broke during a cold snap in March.

This gumbo, they say, came from volcanic airborne dust from the Pacific Northwest volcanoes. The rain and the dust followed the same path from west to east. It is extremely sticky and plastic when wet, as hard as cement when dry. Brother Van, the famous Methodist missionary, got off the steamboat in Fort Benton about this time of year and struggled across the street to a saloon. By the time he got there, each foot weighed fifty pounds. He didn’t order a drink, but did tell the barkeep who he was and why he was there. With a fine sense of destiny, the barkeep rapped on his bar with the butt of a revolver and demanded quiet so the Reverend could speak. Brother Van played his hole card -- instead of lecturing the assembled drunks and gamblers, he burst into song, his rich voice soaring out the old familiar hymns of home. They were converted on the spot -- for at least an hour.

My other favorite story about Brother Van has him traveling to a town that had just been notified by telegraph that a famous murderer had escaped and was headed their way. Brother Van never kept a horse of his own but walked, accepting rides from wagons. When he saw that the town seemed to be absolutely deserted, he remembered one of the wagon drivers telling him about that dangerous man. He realized that what he looked like to the town -- a walking man -- was a target! So he began to sing and was relieved to see people stand up on the roofs and step out from behind buildings. Let ‘em put THAT on Deadwood!

In wet June everything is emerald green and growing as fast as it can before the rain shuts down and everything dries to cougar fur -- tinder and fuel. This is the real significance of the mown green lawns that homesteaders love so much: they are a firebreak and they discourage snakes.

Smells are intense. Windows are open. We’ve all shut off the heat to save money, so we’re in sweaters and sweats. They say the wildflowers this year are better than they’ve been for decades and a good brisk walk is well-rewarded. You might need a slicker. Stay dry enough to defeat hypothermia. It’s really excellent weather for fence-mending -- pounding posts, stringing wire.

But watch out for flash-flooding, because as local radio KSEN kept fatuously reminding us the other night: “Flash flooding is dangerous because it causes flash floods.” Small streams can bulge over the road, erode it away, and quickly subside -- leaving a ditch trap for the unwary.

To live on the high prairie is never to forget that the earth is a live thing, moving and breathing in ways not at all convenient for people. Stay alert for both hazards and sheets of flowers. Watch for fawns and tourists, those dangerous innocents.

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