Monday, December 02, 2013

"LANDSCAPE AND LEGACY" By Dr. John A. Vollertsen

The storm has hit.  Warmed by my reading lamps, one a general ambience and the other a spotlight aimed at my book, I doze.  The book has fallen to my flannel shirt front alongside the cat, though some of what I’m reading is my own writing.  The book is “Landscape and Legacy,” edited by John Vollertsen, and I’m proud to have a chapter in it.  Outside the wind is howling as it stacks snow in inconvenient places.  I know because I dared it long enough to carry catfood out to my feral family in the back shop where they are hyper with hunger but snug in their dog house with two old sleeping bags and my threadbare “satin” reading lap robe from seminary.

Back in the house, the big fat dowager indoor cat has claimed my chair.  She’s not very formidable, but my head is full of grizzly bears and I resettle in a different chair.  

John is telling about watching rival male grizzes squaring off -- first doing “the Cowboy Walk” like gunslingers in the street.  (Cue the music: “Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’!”)  Stalking past each other, waiting for one to trigger, side-on, presenting a target -- dare ya!”)   But they don’t shoot.  Stiff and bristling they part slowly --  “I could’ve if I’d wanted to. . .”  This time they don’t do the Stomp Walk like pow-wow dancers: hit the ground with your foot, then step, hit the ground with the other foot, then step -- but do it hard to show you’re tough and you mean it.  These are Western grizzlies, even if they live on the east slope.  East slope of the Rockies -- that’s the landscape in question.  Cowboys and Indians, yeah.   And also writers, biologists, ranchers, and hikers with bear spray on their belts.  My neighbors.

John tells great grizz stories.  At one point there was a protest about naming the bears as they were trapped for study.  “You’ve got to be SCIENTIFIC!” the purists said.  “Just number them.”  Now their numbers have become their names.   He defends 346, perhaps unjustly accused of being the “Falls Creek Bear.”  And tells about the massive 355 who was repeatedly captured and simply waited patiently for the folderol to be over, but the always enraged 412 from Smith Creek tried his best to lay everything waste.  Often his scariest stories are like Peter Matthiessen’s snow leopard or John McFee’s moose --  the perfect setting for a large dangerous animal, but sans animal.  Maybe.  Eyes felt on the back of your neck.   Yet he includes watching a grizz plunk on its butt in a meadow to zone out on spring and sunshine.  He has worked with two of my personal biologist heroes:  Mike Madel and Chuck Jonkel.

Mike Madel on the left.  Dunno the other guy.

Chuck Jonkel

The most remarkable chapter is very simple but entirely unconventional in biology circles: John went back to a 1974 “cold case” report of a mama bear that chased a boy named Fox up a tree and dragged him back down.  (There were three cubs.)  With the full weight of a trained investigator, which he is, John brought to bear YouTube, Google, finder websites, Historical Society, newspaper, and re-interviews of everyone from reporter to witnesses.  What actually happened was not so much the point as that the story became a revelation about how much information there really was latent in the situation and how emotionally committed everyone became to their version of the incident.  He found Fox, who refused to make contact.  The bears were never found.

The chapter about the Old North Trail is also unconventional: it is the notes taken by Vollertsen at a talk by Brian Reeves, a Canadian archeologist who defends the idea that the Blackfeet were here far earlier than some experts claim.  Like, thousands of years.  He can point to evidence.  Such insights have considerable political power but men like "Barney" are often too busy to write out papers.  ANY record of their ideas is valuable.

Ear Mountain from high above

The first chapter, written by Karen Porter, goes back to the time before there were any animals or any life at all anywhere on the planet -- it’s geological, about the shrugging, wrinkling, buckling, eroding slabs of rock that override each other in a pattern seen plainly from over-flight photos.  This account of a zillion years of developments is clear enough for us to say,  “Oh, THAT explains it!”  Geology is the foundation of every kind of life -- limber pine or mule deer buck.  And it’s STILL changing and moving so that the animal populations are continuing to make new patterns, increasing and decreasing.  The history of the rocks themselves go back to the Proterozoic, 2,500 million years ago, and in spite of jumbling and plugging with volcanic magma, it is ten miles thick and called the Belt Supergroup.

So at last I understand the channeling of air patterns that makes it snow so much in Glacier but not so much from Heart Butte on south.  The passes, the height of the mountains, the intersection of two wrinkle patterns -- the result is that the Blackfeet are sitting on a renewing reservoir of environmental water.

No one can complain that Indians were not consulted for this book because Vollertsen IS one, enough to be enrolled with the Assiniboine, but more than that, he slips around alone with his snowshoes, paying close attention and thinking hard about what he’s looking at.  He's not a library Indian.  The first time I ever went hunting was with Bob Scriver up Blackleaf Canyon about this time of year (1962) in about this kind of weather.  I thought we might not survive and I didn’t care because what a way to go!  John is far more prudent, though not immune to the glory of it all.  He will forgive me for now being a library white woman who wrote my chapter on the writers and others who took refuge along the East Front.

Ripley Schemm, poet, at her cabin on the east front.

Most of the people John persuaded to write chapters are local.  Larry Salois was my UPS man, who endangered his schedule when he made my deliveries because we talked Metis history;  and Stoney Burke was my lawyer, working out of a log cabin in Choteau.  I can see most of the sweep of the East Front from the end of my street.  I’ve been using a photo of the East Front from the west boundary of Valier for my blog banner.  That storm, now here.

There’s a chapter on cougars and another on mountain goats.  Then come the more technical and political coalitions and proposals.  This book will not let you forget that all these technicalities and desiderata are based on the real lives of animals and people, plants and rocks, the webs of interaction that are being stretched too far, even tearing in places.  There’s a lot more at stake than pretty scenery.  Go back and look at the photo of John at the beginning of this post.  Maybe to you he looks like a mild-mannered computer nerd.  Think again.

You can get the book through Far Country (below) or on Amazon.

Sue Johnson
Sales Representative
Farcountry Press

PS  FROM JOHN V:  Re: The two fellas pictured with the grizzly.  Jim Williams is on the left.  Jim wrote the mountain lion chapter.  Jim is head of the Kalispell region of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.  On the right is Dr. Rick Mace.  He is the head grizzly researcher for the same agency and is working on the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly project to firm up the count on grizzlies and makes some projections on numbers.

Stay warm as best you can.  This is just the beginning.

Thanks, John.  I get my pics from Google images. Mike must have taken the photo so his name was attached.  
 I'm fairly certain THIS is Mike Madel.
Prairie Mary

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