Wednesday, July 28, 2010


This is not a typical late-July, but then in Montana there IS no typical late-July. This year is far wetter and therefore far greener and also the wet and storms are coming in pulses. Today is clear and warm, tomorrow is high winds and overcast, the next day is thunder, lightning and sluices of rain. I always wonder what strangers think. They have no way of comparing.

They won’t know that Highway 89 crossing Two Medicine River was completely rebuilt this last year. I don’t care to guess how much dynamite was used to move rock, how many man-hours on huge yellow earth-moving machines, how many mostly woman-hours for flaggers, one on each end of the construction. Will they see how carefully the angles were planned, how the ditches in the borrow-pit are celled to keep water from eroding away the borrowpits, Will they see the organic structuring rolls of straw and twine and know what they are? Will they understand that the slopes have been seeded with an air cannon and then covered with netting?

When they look at the fields will they know the yellow stuff is camelina and the alfalfa is a Middle Eastern forage plant that has been incredibly successful here because its roots go so deep and that the shock pink stuff is French alfalfa? When they come to a patch of lavendar-blue, random and intense, will they know it’s lupine and that lupine comes from lupe, the wolf, but that it puts nitrogen into the soil, like any pea? When they see horses that are gray and dun with abundant black mane and tail and eyes smoldering like a Spanish senorita, will they know they are mustangs, Spanish barbs?

My NPR feed comes from Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings/Bozeman. The programs keep being broken into by warnings that a hailstorm, a tornado, a high wind is coming through. They give the location according to Doppler radio and say which way it’s traveling (a guess) and just how fast it’s moving. “Get into a strong building,” they say, “Away from the windows.” Hail hit the North American Indian Days camp this year. A man showed me the welts it raised on his shoulder before he could get under cover. “Oh, it’s so BEEYOOtiful,” the tourists rave, checking “Blackfeet” and “Glacier” off their travel list. “How many miles to Spokane?”

The staff at one of the local sandwich shops went all out to quickly serve two bus loads of church camp people -- over a hundred people -- quickly so they could stay on their schedule. The next day another group came in and the same girls scrambled to make a hundred ice cream cones. Neither group left a tip. The boss put an extra twenty dollar bill in each paycheck envelope that week. The girls are from foreign countries. Locals don’t show up for work. (Don’t say racist -- not relevant.)

What it means to be local is knowing a lot of things without quite realizing it. The smell of the mower now taking down the verges of the highway, the exact tone of voice for making a dog behave, and the way to deliver justice in an oblivious world. It’s knowing about how long you can put off mowing the lawn before the town gets so mad at you that they mail you a letter and bill you for the postage. It means standing outside after a funeral, noting which emergency responders go wailing through town, and guessing what has happened -- then next day reading in the paper exactly what we guessed.

About this time the tomato plants have finally decided to grow and there are already bright yellow splotches on the deciduous trees where the phloem has been damaged so the chlorophyll has died. Bugs, wind, not enough sun. Many bare branches from last winter when the blizzards howled for weeks and the temps sank down to forty below. Birds coming through that I don’t know. That’s happened since spring. Small birds, hard to identify. But not as many red-winged blackbirds as I’m using to seeing and hearing.

Certain fields are managed in cycles: calving grounds and then feeding grounds and then irrigated and now the alfalfa cut and rolled into giant bales with a outside skin of plastic. If they are too damp, they can create so much heat from fermentation that they burst into flames. Very strange sight out there in the field, all the huge bales spaced out evenly, but one of them merrily blazing away all by itself, an exercise in surrealism. I don’t carry a cell phone and am not local enough to know which rancher to call. But here comes a pickup bounding over the field anyway. The cows are all up in the mountains. The grizzlies -- the young ones anyway -- have been following the rivers out onto the prairie.

Yesterday it was so warm that I thought of opening up my north side window, but today was so chilly that I put on a jacket in the house. There’s a big pile of clothes that starts with a sun top, then shorts and jeans, a couple of weights of shirt with different sleeve lengths, and a fleece vest. Might need them all in the course of the day. The down throw by my reading chair is an evening custom.

Harebells have invaded my front corner flower patch so I just pretend I planted them. Daisies are everywhere in town, spangling everything, and most people mow around them even though they’re on the weed list. Somehow they don’t suffer the stigma that dandelions have acquired. My sweetgrass is long this year and I sent a divot to Paul over where the sturgeon spawn in Idaho. I sent it in a Quaker Oats drum and it took two weeks to get there, both ends burst but intact inside the ziplock bag.

When you drive to Shelby now, you see lines and poles everywhere, windmills, transmission towers, radio towers, cell towers with strobes on top. You can’t see all the pipelines and underground cables. The town has decided to go for prosperity and to be a major exchange point for railroad, truck and cross-border traffic. They will link the tar sands project in northern Alberta to the American Southwest energy market. Consequences completely unknown. Except that my UPS deliveryman, Larry Salois, was the first person to have his land condemned for the MATL line because he wanted a small change in the route to save an historical site and wetlands. In my mind I can hear the managers: “Let’s take this guy out. He’s only one man. If we don’t use him for an example, we’ll have to shift the line every which way to suit everyone. That will cost us money.” They’ll pay him. But he didn’t want money. Not all of us want money.


Richard S. Wheeler said...

Rural Montana has soaked your soul, as it has soaked mine. This is one of your richest posts.

Karl Thunemann said...

Rural Montana has not soaked my soul, but I like the way it has soaked yours. I especially like the way you go with the flow, accepting the opportunistic plants that show up as flowers. At the same time digging in your heels ... just a bit ... with the Powers That Be condemning property in the name of growth.

This reminds me of the attachments I have to the land where I've lived the last 40 years, even though less of it is visible every year.
Karl Thunemann