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The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana
It’s impossible to sit in a cabin for a long time, musing in essay form upon the woods around you, without thinking occasionally of that most American of thinkers and spirits, Thoreau, and his own somewhat isolated residency at Walden Pond. Whether it’s true or not, I find it wonderful that Thoreau’s last words were reported to have been “Moose. Indians.” More economical than even a haiku, the two words twine perfectly the occasionally but not always harmonious relationship between landscape and humanity. The moose requires the deep summer shade of the far north, exists on deciduous browse and meadow marsh grass, but also wanders up into the deep blue-green comfort of high-altitude spruce forests; and it stands stalwart too, with its strange and fantastic body, its incredible bulk, bearing testimony as well to the natural history of snow, deep snow, and long winters.
From that one word, moose, an imaginer could write a thousand pages describing the natural history of the landscape that a moose inhabits, and the way that landscape has shaped the moose; and likewise, and even more so, from the next word, Indians, a thousand pages would not begin to hint at the complexity and drama and steady challenges of the human experience upon a landscape — the attempts at the daily and seasonal integration of that most curious and complicated and often confused of species, humans, with any landscape of singular force and integrity. A snowy landscape sculpts, across the millennia, a species well suited to deep snow and long winters; a landscape wreathed in fire sculpts species well fitted to that dynamic force.
And a wild landscape, then, will elicit from the humans who inhabit it a certain wildness, a certain dynamism of spirit that, though ragged, strives for an eventual elegance of fit. We have not been in the world nearly as long as moose or so many other fitted species and citizens of the world, but we are trying, and wild landscapes of integrity — while we still possess them — urge us along.
The thing about Walden, though, is that it’s an eastern treatise, beautifully written, deeply considered, and fully felt, but of-a- place, the East, even if the East in the 1850s was a hugely different kind of East from the one we know today. Reading Walden, I’ve always wondered what Thoreau would have thought of the West — a landscape he never inhabited though always wished to. How would the West have shaped those essays, and those values? Would there have been more tempering and refining, or more raggedness — or perhaps both? It’s an unfair reading of Walden, to be sure, but every time I read it or look at it, I find myself wondering, Can this be lifted and applied to a western landscape? The answer for some parts is yes, for other parts maybe, and for still others, no.
But I think the idea of holing up and hunkering down against the larger forces of the world has not lost its allure since Thoreau’s time. If anything that instinct, or impulse, continues to reside in almost all of us, sometimes activated or bestirred and other times dormant but always present. I’m not talking about out-and- out government-loathing misanthropy, not the survivalist’s manifesto kind of hunkering down, but something more peaceable and searching. And from my home in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to attempt to negotiate such a fit with the world, inhabiting an old homestead quarter-section that I went into debt to buy some twenty years ago, just before another individual sought to purchase it and clear cut it. I wasn’t looking for a full homestead, but it found me; and the first thing I did was unearth the old falling-down cabin from the turn of the previous century, 1903, and scrub the logs with hot water and soap before dragging them down to the broad marsh on the property — a perfect clearing in the forest, reminding me of the eye of a hawk or eagle or raven — and reconstructing the old cabin there, like a child’s toy, and putting a new roof on it.
And I went out to the cabin each morning, then — regardless of the weather — and sat at my desk and looked out the window at the marsh, perched so close to its edge that the swaying marsh grasses came right up to the window. The marsh grass seemed like a sea, and the cabin, a barge or ship, anchored. I stared out the window and daydreamed often, rather than writing.
The old cabin had been fitted between trees and bushes in such a way as to be almost invisible, even from the beginning, and subsequent years have enclosed it even further.
Butt-planted for four, five, even six hours at a time, laboring to make a few pages but often simply staring out that window and dreaming and listening to the sounds and silences of the forest all around me, and the marsh in its center, I have seen every creature imaginable up here, over the many years. They come and go, passing sometimes right by that window, eyeball to eyeball with me: marten, bear, wolf, mountain lion. Eagles have struck and felled geese right in front of that window, owls perch on the chimney, ruffed grouse drum and fan on the picnic table I have set outside, for those rare days that are neither too cold nor too hot, and when the marsh’s — and the valley’s — ravenous insects are temporarily dormant. Elk, innumerable deer in all seasons, coyotes, herons, cranes, and, yes, particularly moose, are drawn to the marsh’s fecundity.
The Yaak’s Indians are the Kootenai, a tribe from the Columbia River basin, who are now confederated with the Salish. Largely a fish culture residing along the Kootenai and lower Yaak rivers, the Kootenai people, I am told, came up into the Yaak’s mountains to hunt mountain goats and woodland caribou in the summer and fall, though they did not — I am told — inhabit the upper Yaak all year long. If this is true, then the Yaak is a remarkably young place, with whites moving in year-round only around the beginning of the last century. The 1900s were possibly the first century of full-time human habitation. I find this astonishing, and redolent, in some way I cannot explain, with mysteries, and lessons for the future.
In other regards, however, the Yaak is ancient. There are outcrops of mountain here that have etched in their strata wind-lapped ripple marks from the great inland Cambrian Belt Sea of roughly a billion years ago — and then yet again, the valley is new, for as recently as only seven or eight thousand years ago, the Yaak lay sleeping beneath more than a mile of blue ice, even as higher peaks in this corner of the world were emerging from that ice, being carved and shredded rather than compressed and sculpted. To my eye, at least, the Yaak possesses an elegance, and a calm, for this compression.
It’s gloriously remote, snugged right up against the Canadian border. It was one of the last inhabited valleys in the United States to get electricity, and even today, in twenty-first- century America, there are many parts of the valley that are not electrified, and others that do not even have phone service. (Needless to say, there’s no cell service here.) Whereas Thoreau lived famously only a few minutes away from his mother, able to join her for midday tea after only a mild saunter, folks up here live miles apart. Sometimes a path through the woods on foot, or on horse, gets one to where one desires to be more quickly than a roundabout trip in a car, and other times, of course, quickness is not the desired outcome anyway.
There is still an incredible raggedness of spirit up here, a scrappy, Yaakish way of doing things; of improvising, often, and the merging of two ways of thinking. Duct tape is paramount.
The Yaak is still very much a hunter-gatherer society, and at times still possesses elements of a barter economy. Five miles back in the woods live a couple with a team of sled dogs that they can’t leave untended. They’ve got a snowplow, and I don’t. Sometimes in the summer when they go camping up in Canada for a couple of weeks, I’ll go and check on their dogs, and then in winter, they’ll come now and again and plow my driveway. Eggs for firewood, old horse tack for studded Subaru tires. An old truck for a new solar panel. And on and on, around and around.
Something it took me a while to learn, through those slow and close observations out the cabin window, is that always, the Yaak is a beguiling mix of two stories, two ways of being; that part of its power or spirit comes from its geographical positioning, and that ecological fecundity. It’s where the fire-dominated natural history of the mountain West grades into the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, and it’s where Canada’s great legacy of boreal forest, and the immense Purcell mountain range — Canada’s largest — just barely tips a finger down into the United States.
And in that finger resides all manner of species, and interspecies relationships, and vegetative assemblages not found anywhere else in the United States. The Yaak is its own place, but it is also a critical gateway from the United States into Canada, and vice versa. (For wildlife, that is; there’s no border crossing for people, thank goodness, only rugged mountains and deep forests.) And likewise, the Yaak is a gateway east and west, between Glacier National Park and the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness — country known as the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem — and the Pacific Northwest, beginning in the Colville country of northeast Washington and continuing on across to the Cascades, and then the ocean. (The Yaak River rushes straight down out of the mountains into the curve of the Kootenai River, joining it like an arrow fitted to the arc of a bow — “Yaak” is the Kootenai word for “arrow” — and the Kootenai River, in turn, is far and away the largest tributary to the mighty Columbia.)
The Yaak is also the major ecological turnstile between Yellowstone and the Yukon; it’s the rarest and most singular, if not largest, jewel in the great crown of remaining North American wilderness, and yet none of it is protected as such, even forty-five years after the passage of the Wilderness Act.
Because of all this ecological mixing, this feathering of various ecosystems, the Yaak has more species diversity than any other valley in Montana; and although it’s the northernmost valley in the state, it’s also the lowest elevation. The Yaak enters the Kootenai, for instance, at an elevation of only 1,880 feet above sea level. It’s lush despite the long northern winters; and it is in the stippled chain, the glittering necklace, of the Yaak’s boggy marshes and buggy wetlands that some of the valley’s and the region’s greatest biodiversity is to be found.
t about those bugs: the Yaak is a biological wilderness, not a recreational wilderness. Parts of the valley have been hit hard by the previous century — it’s laced with thousands of miles of old logging roads, many of which are infused with weeds, and large sections of the valley are riddled with thousands of clearcuts — some old and regenerating with dog-hair thickets, and others still new. But other, farther parts of the valley are still pristine and possess an ecological integrity — whether they burn or rot — and a wildness that is qualitatively different from those places that have been roaded and logged.
I have spent the bulk of my adult life advocating for the permanent protection of these wilder, farther places in the Yaak through the congressional designation of wilderness areas. But right here, right now, is — in this book — the only time you’ll hear me carry on about any of that.
This book, unlike so many of my other Yaak-based books, aims to be all celebration and all observation, without judgment or advocacy. I’m not sure why I made that choice, with this book; perhaps in order to simply stay sane a while longer. One of the dreams and hopes I have for the Yaak is the establishment of an intricate biological survey, a series of ecological transects and measurements aimed at identifying the presence, distribution, and, if possible, population counts of as many different species as possible, to serve as a baseline data point for the coming century. As a natural historian, I wish very much that such a foundation of ecological knowledge had been established at the beginning of the 1900s, and I cannot help but believe that natural historians and scientists who fall in love with the Yaak in the year 2100 will wish just as intensely that there was some sort of usable record about the condition of this ecosystem — the nuts and bolts of it, and how it all worked — in the year 2000. I envisioned, and still do, some kind of multiyear, quasi-private, quasi-public expedition in which some of the country’s, or the world’s, finest scientists — lepidopterists, mammalogists, herpetologists, ichthyologists, and so forth — lead little seasonal bands of data collectors and surveyors along their transects, utilizing easily replicable scientific methods and protocols.
In the meantime, I reasoned, I could lay down a similar if not easily replicable transect across the year in a journal; though rather than bisecting the million-acre valley north to south, or east to west, I would let the valley come to me, flowing past me, and I would make notes, observations, markers embedded within the new century, beginning a few hours before the first day of the millennium. And though a fan of wilderness, I would seek also to chronicle the characteristics, movements, and patterns of the humans who inhabit this remote valley, here at one century’s end and another’s beginning.
Not quite Indians, really, living amid so many moose, but still, quite a bit different from the rest of the world: different enough that when you mention to someone in Montana that you’re from the Yaak, he might look at you as if a hundred years ago you had Introduction • 7 said Kootenai or Blackfeet, Assiniboin, Crow, Flathead, or Arapaho, the questioner taking a step backwards, even, and reassessing the one thus questioned, with traces of both fear and longing, and searching for a radiant, remnant wildness.
It still surprises me to consider where I came from and how I got here: growing up in the petrochemical suburbs of Houston in the 1960s, spending weeks at a time in the summer up at the edge of the hill country, at my grandmother’s, who was born in 1898 — before making it out to the mountains I longed for intuitively and attending school in northern Utah, at Utah State, then being pulled back to the South, to Mississippi, where I worked as a geologist for some years before getting in my truck one day and simply leaving, striking out back west, partly drawn and partly seeking, and aiming for the biggest, blankest spot of green on the map I could find, wandering all the way to the literal end of this country to do so. Falling in love with it at first sight and settling in, in fits and starts: a newcomer at first, but all of a sudden, or with what seems a suddenness, having become an old-timer as others fall back and away. It’s always been a hard place to make a living, and to live year-round.
I remember when I was a small child, perhaps six or seven, riding with my mother in the car, in Houston. Let’s suppose it was 1964, or thereabouts. For one reason or another, the topic of the year 2000 came up, and I asked her if I would still be alive. “You will be,” she said, laughing. “You’ll be forty-two” — a number that of course seemed at that time depressingly, impossibly, old. “You won’t be a young man anymore,” she said, “but you’ll have seen some things by that time” — and I remember asking her how old she’d be, and whether she’d still be alive then. Maybe, she said, hopefully. Probably. Sixty-six.
She would have been around thirty at the time of this conversation, and still a long way even from forty-two herself. She died several years ago, and as the millennium approached, she was much on my mind. I was filled with a feeling both large and hollow, crossing over that not-insubstantial line by myself — or rather, without her. Of the two of us who began that conversation, only one has continued it; though in my heart, as that date appeared, it was a small solace to know that even nearly four decades ago she took the time to consider it, and I can recall the thoughtful look she gave the subject as she answered my child’s questions.
It’s not just for the scientists of the future that I’ve profiled the passage of a year, here in a northern land still fortunate enough to have four full seasons despite the rising tide of the world’s increasing heat, the ever-increasing global exhalations of warmth and carbon. I like to imagine that this record has value, in a scrapbook sort of way, to my family, and to others who will in the future inhabit, and love, the Yaak. Often, particularly as I grow older, I am aware of wanting to share with my children little secrets, little points of interest, about the valley — where the huckleberries are best in a dry year, or late in the summer; where the elk are in November; where the wolves dig their dens; where the grizzly claw marks are on the old cedar — and that the passing on of such knowledge constitutes a transfer of some of the most valuable currency, other than love, possible; that the transfer of that kind of intimate and place-based knowledge, the knowledge of home, is a kind of love, and rarer and more valuable now certainly than silver or gold.
Some days I worry that there is a sand-through- the- hourglass effect to such observations, and the passing on of that knowledge; that though the knowledge might be passed on to the next generation, and the next, so rapid now are the ecological changes in the West, so severe the dissolution of various biological underpinnings as one piece after another is pulled from the puzzle, the map, of previous integrity, that the future will render such knowledge irrelevant: as if, already, I am describing things that are gone-away, or going-away.
But one of the key components of love is hope — enduring hope — and to let fear replace hope would be a bitter defeat indeed, a kind of failure in its own stead.
Already, nearly a full decade has come and gone since I set out on this project, undertaken when Mary Katherine was eight and Lowry, five — after much anticipation, the millennium got here so quickly, and then passed, even more so — and it is with no small degree of wonder and bittersweet reflection that I look back now across the unknowing divide of then and now, to a pre–September 11 time when we thought we were ready for the future, and possessed what already, in near retrospect, appears to have been a phenomenal, if unsustainable, pre-millennial amount of innocence.
I’m struck also by the prevalence of euphoria in these pages — the exhausting, exhilarating cycles of ever-ascending, as the seasons, and the valley, deliver more beauty, and more bounty, with each passing day. Who was the young man, or younger man, who wrote those pages?
I like to believe he was the same one who reads these pages now: who had the luxury, there at century’s turn, of slowing down for just a moment, and paying attention. That he was an observer to whom innocence was not an impediment, nor wonder and unknowingness a liability. As if each day, no matter what the season or century, we each and every one stand always on the other side of such a divide.
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