Looking at magazine-type websites is something I do when the rest of my day’s writing is finished and ready to post that night at bedtime. Sometimes I reply to Aeon which has Aussie roots but lives in the vicinity of the Templeton leafy world in England. Recently they published an article about land ownership by a young Montana woman. I was offended. The problem with this upper-class, educated set of people is that are always unknowingly offensive when they venture out of their own circle. (The same goes for me.) What they see from their perimeter is all mapped monoliths but the world is made of sand, and geology is crucially various.
The writer, who is living in Missoula — the humanities university which has now become fodder for a Krakauer exposé — made a pitch for common ownership of land. She lives in the Flathead Valley across the Rockies from me but her family once homesteaded in Geraldine on the High Line which means a lot to her, a point of pride that dates back to 1900. My location and emotional attachment are on the East Slope of the Rockies, an ecotone that underlies the Blackfeet Reservation. (In Canada the Blackfoot Reserve; to the Siksika the remnant of a great gyring culture that circled the prairie behind the buffalo.)
I told her — intemperately because I’m not a temperate woman when it comes to my heartlands — that the next person who said the mountains were “beautiful” and paired that with “hardship” was gonna get socked. I called them “echo words”. Hallmarkian exhalations of the tour leader pointing out features. If some Blackfeet crusader goes on about saving the Badger-Two Medicine or Sid Gustafson, in his new book called simply “Swift Dam”, were to talk about the sacred land, I would agree but step away from the agonizing over Euro-abuse. (Headquarters in Missoula.)
My view is geological and cosmological. Tectonic, volcanic, sedimentary, and apparent only over the aeons. (Ironic.) When I drove back from the laundromat in Cut Bank the other day, there was just enough snow left to limn the huge ledges created when uplifting the continental crust from the cellar of the world. That is, the buckling collision of two tectonic plates, one under the Pacific and one under what used to be a great sea from here to the midwest, which is what deposited the zillions of minutias that created the broken layers. This uplifting is technically called “exhumation” but the editor where I sent a query said that was too grim. After all, the mountains are beautiful. She took the word out, shuddering. It just means lifting humus, earth. Echo: human, humility.
These Rockies are the third cordillera to rumple up out of the continent and they say that the underlying pressure, unbelievably deep, creates a kind of ringing that some people or some instruments can feel. From the side they look like a silhouette, just the top edge making a line. From an airplane they look like an unmade bed, rumple after rumple. Peter Matthiessen advised me at a writers’ workshop sponsored by Missoula professors that I should not use small domestic words and images for phenomena so grand and overwhelming. (I had said buffalo have purple mouths like chow dogs.) I do it anyway. Matthiessen is dead — he was old-school, wonderfully so, but still from my father’s generation that so venerated explorers, even if they risked being cannibalized. Buddha and atahuasca were his edge. They’re not mine, but I respect them because they are cosmic.
The land on the east slope is tilted up (or down from an eastern perspective) so that when the glaciers melted ten thousand years ago, the melt water all ran out through the Mississippi drainage, creating a doomed port for New Orleans where the Euros landed their sea-going ships and boarded flat bottom boats that could steam upstream to Fort Benton, the farthest north they could go because of the great ledge of limestone left by the ancient sea. It was far enough north to get them into Blackfeet country.
Fort Benton was where the first Indian agency was located. That was where the first governor disappeared overboard, drunk again. That is still where there are public monumental bronzes by Bob Scriver and the replicated fort houses a gallery of his Blackfeet bronzes. This is where the roots of the Baker Massacre took hold in the family feud of Malcolm Clarke, an intemperate man who married a Blackfeet woman, whose even more intemperate renegade relatives murdered him. The Clarke children feature large in the politics of the Blackfeet ever since. Particularly the fact that the cavalry sent to punish the bad guys ended up exterminating an innocent peaceful band instead.
The white cliffs along the Missouri, a tributary of the Mississippi, are limestone, just like the White Cliffs of Dover. Tour guides on float trips point them out and they provoke the imaginations of Euros who see castles and cities. I don’t know what the Blackfeet saw. They didn’t care much for boats. Nor did they long to climb mountains except to go to a high place for a dream induced by thirst and staring at the sun. (Don’t do that — you’ll go blind.)
The east slope is harsh in intervals because the Rockies make warm winds (catabatic) that come sweeping along, creating fifty degree temperature sheers. They have a definite edge. I recall stepping out of the van in Babb and feeling warm on one leg, cold on the other. It strips the snow down to grass, but not so far east as Geraldine, I think. Geraldine crushes homesteads because of lack of water — not low temps and wind.
One morning you look at the mountains and see a second range of piled up clouds that rise up in a “storm shelf,” hanging there while dropping water on the Flathead Valley. Overhead there is a great blue arc of sky where the high altitude wind pushed back the clouds — it’s called a Chinook arch. Sometimes a contrail from a Malmstrom cargo plane has passed across in a straight line. Depending on where the sun is, it may glow like neon, or just be chalk.
My friend Barrus has a problem with Aeon’s treatment of pornography. His relationship with the human body is far deeper and more multiple than that of most of us. It comes from experience, not just humping customers or setting their responses on fire by depicting forbidden acts. He’s done those things, but far more of his life has been washing autistic children and teens who have dirtied themselves with excrement or vomit, treating the terrible afflictions of those who have no immune defense because of HIV, calming the drug-deranged, and clasping hard against his own chest the bodies of boys threatening suicide. What taught him was the great plague of AIDS in SF where lovers eased each other through death, a tribe of Charons who knew about flesh.
To him pornography is not just a literary money-making project — though that as well — but a glimpse of the abyss inside every human aware of living on this fractally broken and potentially erupting world. How can we kiss each other when the whales are dying stuffed with our plastic? How can we say the mountains are “beautiful” and “harsh” when at their foot people are suffering “pornographically” because of sanctions and limitations and stigmas that come from the rest of us? All these mixed with fantasies of intimacy, specialness. It’s a very real question. One might say “religious.”