CLOUDS OVER LAKE FRANCIS, VALIER, MONTANA
A BOOK PROPOSAL
A high altitude circle of wind blows around the North Pole, so dependably that airplanes catch rides on it. Sometimes it comes down almost to the ground and then the strong winds tip over railroad cars and semi truck, rip off roofs, and tear up trees by the roots. Lately there have been bubbles of air torn off the Arctic Circle and carried on the jet stream, chilling the prairie to forty degrees below zero fahrenheit. Then we can see it, know it is there.
This wind makes our water on the East Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Moisture-laden Pacific air scrapes over the Cascades crosses to the Rockies and drops the rest on that cordillera, creating a winter reservoir of snowpack that provides water all summer as it melts. Both the Willamette Valley and the Flathead Valley are sodden and green by that time. Often summer air inversions seal off the valleys, so they are grateful if the jet stream stirs through. In winter it is the dry side that benefits, because the drier rising air becomes warmer as it goes up, and melts any snow that made it past the mountains. We call it catabatic or more mythically, Chinook.
It’s a machine that invented itself. But down under the continents it was the tectonic plates that pulled Alaska and Siberia apart, sinking Berengia deeper into the water and smashing two plates together until they rumpled and buckled up into the Rockies. (The Cascades are volcanic, but the vast subterranean plates had something to do with them as well.)
So all winter the snow piles up and all summer it runs down the sides of the mountains in streams or seeps through the underground to the prairie. Some estimate that it takes thirty years to wander among the jumbled stone layers until it gets here where I am. Though there’s not enough water to support a forest, there is enough for the resourceful grass and the many plants that form bulbs, corms, and rhizomes that store plenty of calories for people and grizzly bears, who come equipped with digging tines on their paws. The grass feeds ungulates of various sorts, first bison and now kine, which in turn feed humans and grizzlies.
So it is that on the east slope the air and the water are closely related and life in all its forms has learned how to fit into their relationships. There are some things that are still fatal. Lightning and floods persist. Out-of-season intense blizzards still kill many animals. Humans poison both plants and animals to which they object. The insect population reacts to all these forces. Human-caused climate change may change the macro-forces of ocean currents and jet stream consistency enough to end this fit-together reciprocity, to end successful agriculture, to end the cultural inventions of dams and windmills.
These conditions existed for many aeons. It is estimated that three times the Rockies have been thrown up and worn down. Only in last ten thousand years have the glaciers retreated, melting so quickly and forcefully that they dug the coulees now still traced by rez rivers: Milk, Cut Bank, Willow, Two Medicine, Badger, Birch. These are the hospitable shelters where cottonwoods grow and people live — until one day the houses and people are destroyed by floods, their bridges washed out, their access roads breached. Then they rebuild because this is a place they love.
Chapters and sections
In the beginning
The story of how a planet has formed into places inhabited and loved by living creatures, even as it goes on forming and challenging them.
Rivers and Beavers
This discussion is about water and what it does on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains. Geology and the jet stream bring snowpack to the high altitudes and follow the slopes down across the prairie, creating the rivers that were the first highways to follow. In the process beavers learned how to build their houses and pools everywhere there were aspens and cottonwoods to gnaw down. Their dense soft fur was the first reason for Europeans to come seeking, following up the rivers. But from the beginning some people were simply seeking a place to run off to, abandoning their previous life.
This was earlier than curious explorers came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri rivers into the heart of Blackfeet country. By the time Lewis and Clark came seeking the boundary at the top of the watershed that divided the US from Canada (1803), there were already white trappers and people who had joined the indigenous people. The first treaty with the Blackfeet was in 1850, but Rupert’s Land, the drainage of Hudson’s Bay run by the company of that name, didn't become Canada until 1870.
Bison and Livestock
The prairie was rich with bison who operated according to Savory grazing, that is, staying in one place long enough to harrow and fertilize the ground, then moving to a new place so the old one could regenerate. Likewise, the Original People moved through the land with their dogs and later with horses. Back east the solution to the pre-existing people was to bundle those left from plagues onto reservations. They left the dwindling Blackfeet the nearly top half of what became the state of Montana because they thought of grass as worthless.
But the ranchers knew that grass was high value and that if they displaced the bison with cattle, they could make money. The reservation kept shrinking and being invaded as livestock became crucial even in the face of devastating blizzards.
Wheat and the industrial revolution
Though the grasses continued to sustain livestock, the ranchers turned to the grass called wheat. The industrial revolution that turned humans formidable created a new “machine” opposite to the one that brought water.
Irrigation from a dam made it possible to raise huge amount of wheat that covered the land with rows and rows. Combines cut and thrashed the seeds of grain and carried them to clever elevators where conveyor belts managed them until they could be loaded onto the new railroads that carried them backwards along the jet stream to the big coastal ports where they could be loaded onto ships and sold to countries like China or Africa, or even the European people who were once customers for beaver fur.
Now we are farming wind. The families of citizens are pushed aside by major corporations who can consolidate the financing of industrial level production, fueled by high tension electricity lines and still fed by the webworks of irrigation. But this is riskier than we thought as the population keeps growing and nations keep competing. The Chinook wind keeps forming cloud arcs in the sky but is it the rainbow with a pot of gold that we had thought? Will climate change stop the stream of water that makes the snowpack for run-off country?