Wednesday, July 06, 2011


Some years ago I wrote a manuscript I called “Heartbreak Butte” about teaching in this remote foothills Blackfeet reservation town for two years, 1989-91.  Predictably, I was fired before I could get to the third tenure-granting year, and as predictably the manuscript was full of whining and resentment.  Now I’m revising it.  One of the things that I did RIGHT was to keep on thinking about the situation and looking for real solutions that weren’t just vengeful.  More about all that later.  
One of the criticisms from publishers (and there were conventional publishers then) was that there was too much geology, something like the criticism that Norman McLean got about his early logging stories:  “There are too many trees!”  The old split between city editors and country writers.  But I see that this manuscript is four times too long and I’ve composed other manuscripts that follow up on this geology angle.  Nevertheless, I hate to just throw out all those rocks, so this seems a good place and time to get them into print.
One summer I attended a literary conference honoring Wallace Stegner after his death.  It was held in his boyhood town, Eastend, Saskatchewan, which is just to the north of Havre, Montana.  At about the same time, it was revealed that a complete skeletal fossil of Tyrannosaurus Rex had been discovered not far away.  It had been kept a secret for several years, because such a find is very valuable -- not just the fossil itself, but also the tourist value of the location.  Quickly, the organizers of the conference arranged for the chief paleontologist to come speak to the literary conference.  (And just as quickly, an enterprising ranch wife put her kids to work baking and decorating dinosaur cookies to sell.)
"What was it like here when the dinosaur was alive," asked someone.
The paleontologist scratched his head.  "Well, the first thing to remember is that there was no "here" then.  One hundred million years ago -- the dinosaurs died out around sixty-five million years ago -- the continents we know now were still together in one mass, Pangaea.  The whole continental mass was much closer to the equator than it is now -- or so we think -- and the weather may have been entirely different.  Quite tropical."  The audience was fascinated.  Prairie people live by the weather.
In the Sixties, the year after the Big Flood, Bob Scriver, his grandchildren, and I had been prowling around the bluff above the Cut Bank Boarding School, idly looking for arrowheads, when we realized we were standing over the complete skeleton of some kind of dinosaur:  head, ribs, legs and tail -- all where they ought to be.  Galvanized by our find, we rushed home to the telephone and tried to find out what we ought to do.  No expert or organization we could locate got very excited.  "Just leave it alone," they said.  "There are lots of dinosaurs."  Crest-fallen, we tried to just forget about it.  So far as I know, it eventually eroded away.
In the June 20, 1996,  Glacier Reporter,  an organization called the Blackfeet Human Rights and Sovereignty Coalition paid for an advertisement covering an entire page to accuse the current Tribal Councilmen of allowing a fossil to be sold for $25,000 which was then resold by a "Canadian firm" for $1,000,000.  Fossils large and small had been "rustled" off the reservation for years and in fact the Council had passed laws against it, but this was the first time anyone had gotten so aroused.  Nothing attracts attention like the words, "one million dollars."  
Much more than a million dollars has been pumped out of the reservation as a legacy of the Cretaceous Era.  Huge oil and coal fields in Alberta hint that there is still more oil and natural gas left under the Blackfeet lands.  As technology advances, resources that were left behind as uneconomical to recover have now become accessible.  Mining companies long to get back to the Sweetgrass Hills, sacred land for the Blackfeet and other tribes, in order to try cyanide heap leach mining on Gold Butte, where a conventional mine was played out decades ago.
But the most valuable legacy of ancient geology is still the Rocky Mountains, the upheaval of sedimentary ancient stone that was later carved by glaciers into Glacier National Park.  It is a major tourist attraction, but the value of the mountains is beyond visitor industries.  Because the clouds coming inland along the storm tracks and jet streams must drop their moisture on those mountains to lighten their load and rise over to the prairie, the mountains themselves constantly feed a myriad of streams that carry water down and out across the dry rainshadow on the eastern side.  The East Front of the Rockies has the fortuitous combination of sun and dependable running water that can create prime grass country.  Of course, because the air has risen, dropped moisture, and then compressed in descent, winds blow constantly -- warm winds that are called "Chinooks" in winter.  They can strip snow off the land in hours.
This is high country -- the prairie comes up from the east in a long easy-rising slope that is imperceptible unless you are watching an altimeter or driving a heavy load.  When the wind comes from the east, it is hot in summer or cold in winter.  Once in a while, a slow bubble of extreme cold drifts heavily from the Arctic and sits . . . and sits . . . and sits, until the foam seats of pickups are like blocks of wood and you must not touch metal without gloves.
The Rocky Mountains are relatively young mountains thrown up by tectonic forces under the continents.  Beneath the Rocky Mountains are other, older mountains, formed over many millions of years of colliding forces.  However the combination of forces worked, the mountains of Glacier Park were overthrown up from the Flathead Valley, so that the oldest stone is some of the oldest on the face of the planet, and the younger layers are on the bottom.  The stone is sedimentary, accumulated as limestone at the bottom of seas when tiny sea creatures died and their skeletons drifted down, as aeolian sediments blown in by the wind, and as volcanic dust, probably mostly from the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest Ring of Fire.  All of this has been compressed under great weight and heat in the past.
The prairie is also sediment, but moving and shifting whenever the cover of grasses is disturbed, and worn down into coulees and valleys where ever watercourses tumble down from the mountains.  It is estimated that the land has risen three times and been worn away into bench and coulee just as many times.    One more upheaval may be underway now.  No one knows for sure how many periods of drought have set the dirt free to blow or how long the rainy periods may have lasted, except that there have evidently been no trees for a very long while.  No water.  Prairie fires set by lightning or humans.
Huge structures best observed from satellites still persist from the thousands of years ago that glaciers crept down to cover the northern half of Montana, even scooping into the mountains.  Along what would become the United States/Canada border, volcanic action raised a line of hills which during the glacier ages became islands in the ice:  the Sweetgrass Hills, the Cypress Hills, Old Man Lying on his Back, the Bear's Paw Mountains.  Vegetation on the tops of these hills is ancient.  Deep in the earth, poking up through the sediments of the prairie, came blisters of lava that didn't surface, finding ways through cracks and forming what would be-- when the land was worn down again -- buttes and dikes of stone.
Plants and animals must have thrived along the southern edge of the glaciers, just where the climate was too warm to allow the ice to persist, so that there was always water.  And no doubt human beings found their way back and forth along this ice edge, just as they found their way north and south along the east slope of the Rockies until they formed the Old North Trail.  Travois marks are still visible on that trail.  No wonder the people thought of the four sacred directions when their north/south axis was the mountain ramparts and their east/west axis was a green edge along the blue glacier.  Human beings have been on this prairie so long that there seems to be a Blackfeet word for "mastodon."  It may have become the word for bull, "stumik."  
Ten thousands years ago the glaciers began to melt again and form huge impounded lakes, more like seas.  For centuries they deepened, until they found gaps in the hills and finally the gigantic glacial lakes of Montana swooshed down through the southern part of Idaho and through the bed of what is now the Snake River, pounding through lava in what is now the Columbia River and continuing to the Pacific Ocean.  This is how the rivers made such deep gorges through the volcanic rock-- with irresistible force and long-term erosion.
Long ago as this happened, there may have been witnesses.  To this day the Blackfeet don't like or trust water.  They have flood legends, which pleases Biblical universalists.  Their story about the origin of death involves a wager between Napi and his wife over whether a stone and then a buffalo dung will float or sink.  In the end, death wins and it is the woman's bet that makes it so.  So much do the Blackfeet distrust water, that even when they were starving they refused to fish.  An effective form of discipline was water thrown on a child or even up its nose.  Today some Blackfeet are assimilated enough to enjoy fishing from the shore, but few own boats.
A rancher on Milk River ridge, a glacial moraine, once showed me a place on his land where road-builders had dug for gravel.  Where the hillside had been trucked away, the layered remains of three glaciers were clearly visible because of the different colors and textures of the soils.  The rancher pointed out sorrowfully that the middle layer carried wonderfully fertile soil from what must have once been Canadian forest, but the top layer was full of rocks.  "If only the order had been different," he lamented,  "I could grow so much more barley!"  Yet they say that when the glaciers crossed a huge limestone deposit in Canada, ice carried limestone on down to Montana, powdering the stones nicely on the way, and scattering the mineral so that it enriched the grass.  
Sometimes the huge boulders called "erratics" were brought along by glaciers and left sitting solitary so that grass grew up around them, until the buffalo used them for scratching or shade and wore a dirt moat around the bottom.  Hawks perched on them and the Blackfeet found them full of stories.   Just as boulders were left, huge chunks of ice were left embedded in the land.  These melted, forming potholes or "kettles," perfect for ducks and geese.  Around the little potholes grew willow breaks and bush berries, so that humans and animals could stop in the shade or find shelter from the wind.
Along the old North Trail, north of the Sweetgrass Hills and Milk River Ridge, is a place good for scaring buffalo over a cliff.  A meadow nearby offers good grazing, and then an abrupt drop, so that buffalo falling over it would be killed or crippled enough for human beings to finish them off with a spear or a club.  Many of these places can be found.  Layers of ancient bone are interspersed with layers of charcoal where the hunters got rid of their offal.  These people were fire-users, setting fires to renew the grass or drive animals.  Some say the Blackfeet got their name from walking through burnt grass.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where today there is a fine provincial museum, the archeologists have sifted down through the layers of bone char until they came to the bottom.  They estimate that the jump is roughly the same age as the Egyptian pyramids.  This place near Fort Macleod got its name when a smashed-in human skull was found among the buffalo bones.  The archeologists envision a man running ahead of the buffalo, taunting them to make the thundering monsters chase him and leading them to the cliff-- but when it was time to leap aside, by accident getting swept over in the huge thunder of the herd.
No need for those long ago prairie people to build pyramids.  The outcrops of the land provided plenty of high places.  The land was their life and they fitted themselves to it inseparably, drawing from it not just shelter and water, but also their understanding of time, their sense of fitting behavior, and their endless stories.  The day, the month, the seasons, were their clock.  They watched the sky.  Generation after generation the babies came, grew up in families and cohort groups who taught them how to be human, went out onto the land alone to seek a vision, fought skirmishes that brought joy and grief, made love, talked about everything, sang often, sometimes danced-- until they grew too old and their voices shrivelled into silence.  Then they were wrapped and left on a ridge or perhaps high in a tree with all their material belongings.
This way of life has been described as "deep community," an evolved relationship among land, plants, animals and humans where everything fits together into an ecosphere that sustains lives disciplined by the good of the group and the inevitability of hardship.  Over thousands of years the sensory world becomes numinous, holy, so that everything has meaning in the sense of poetic depth.  The people dream in order to tap their deepest intuitions.  Today many yearn after this way of life. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to the video they show at the museum, the Blood/Kainah have a story about a young man standing below, and wanting to look up and see what the buffalo looked like as they came over the edge. He was killed doing this, and this is another version of how it got its name.