Friday, October 23, 2015


Highway 44 thru town.

The reason I like reading about brain function and its evolution is that it’s so explanatory.  One thing it explains is that the brain sets up categories and interpretations of the forces it encounters and then refuses to give them up, even when facing facts.

Grain bins in town.

So people insist that Valier is a pretty little town in spite of the fact that some blocks consist of nothing but big metal grain bins, there is a feed lot next to the town limits (very well maintained, I must say), gray chemical fallow fields come right up to the town edge, and the worst “weed” in the mown yards is Roundup Ready alfalfa which comes back as soon as you cut it.  The older folks insist that other weeds be sprayed with Roundup and will not believe it is carcinogenic. (The same as they will not believe that a high sugar/flour diet will trigger diabetes.)  But then one of the complaints at the town council meeting was that the edge of someone's yard had been sprayed against their wishes, rendering it a brown dead strip.  As the complainant said, growing grass is a better deterrent to weeds than Roundup.  What no one said was that you can’t grow grass without water and our water is currently so expensive that only the prosperous can afford green lawns.

Chemical fallow, poisoned land.  The road is the town edge.

Logic has nothing to do with it.  Much of the agitation is driven by the high school fear that the other towns will look down on us, that they’re doing better and that somehow we aren’t trying.  Some of it is people blaming the town for their own aging and for the velocity of time-related change.  Our citizens don’t believe in global warming but if they did, they would be convinced it was the fault of the town council.  When you read what the VADC writes, they sound like advertising copy for a new dress shop.  “Unique, pretty.”  Many women here are in the habit of driving their husbands to try harder without much experience of the real world.

A big part of the problem is “outsiders”.  I’ve been here sixteen years and have spent half a century in the area, but I’m an outsider and will be until the day I die.  They say the only way to become an insider is to raise kids here all the way through to high school graduation, esp. if their year has good athletic teams.  Outsiders speak in terms of safety, raising kids, and Mayberry USA, which was about the past even in 1960 when it started being on television.  Most of our residents weren’t born yet in 1960.

Valier could be a “pretty town” if you only look at the parts where the more prosperous and employed people live.  Its streets are often empty most of the day.   It’s not as industrial as Shelby or Cut Bank where the tracks and transmission lines go off over the prairie in all directions and the smell of sour gas lingers.  Browning is considered ramshackle no matter how much one points out sculptures, shops and -- of course -- the hospital, museum, casino and rodeo grounds. But Valier will never be as historic as Fort Benton, never have as many interesting little shops as Choteau, and can never be a resort town like East or West Glacier, St. Marys or Babb.  No matter the fishing and boating, Lake Francis is always an irrigation impoundment -- not an alpine lake.

This was Ivan Doig's teacher's house, Currently for sale.

In the fifteen years (plus) that I’ve been here this time, maybe half the businesses have closed, but the real change has been in the morale of the town.  It has turned cross and intolerant.  Consider that Valier is the access town for Heart Butte and could double its customer base if it would kick the racism always simmering.   There are 698 people living there.  The estimated median household income in 2013 was $28,259, which is roughly twice mine.  The median resident age is 24.7 (one-third mine) while the Montana median age is 39.6 years.  Do people say life begins at forty nowadays?

One of the complaints has been the volatility of student numbers, but that doesn’t account for the fact that rez kids have the choice of Valier, Heart Butte or Browning and often move back and forth according to the gossip opinion of which is more effective, more fun, or more likely to have winning teams.  When kids realize how much power they have through simple attendance, they use it.

Heart Butte

It’s a strange thing to think that Swift Dam, the source of water for the Pondera Canal Company is on the rez above Heart Butte (which meant HB was devastated in 1964 when the dam broke) but the 1910 boom caused by building it was in Valier, just OFF the rez.  Of course, that’s where the irrigation water went, too.

But let’s leave all this for now and think about how Valier might reshape itself for preservation in the future.  I’m not talking about the kind of Sim City  ("simulated") little “improvements” always suggested after busy note takers come around to claim they represent everyone when they don’t even represent the double-dozen people who show up as Seniors for lunch in the town hall or who appreciate Meals on Wheels.

It’s obvious that racism just has to go, though it’s a national problem, like the constant polarizing that can turn into riots between blue and red interests or black and white populations.  We’re small enough to go against the tide.  If we were more activist on the state level we might even be able to head off the forces always trying to force us to do our shopping in Great Falls.  I’m talking about the distributors who refuse to deliver bread and fresh vegetables, who make rules supposed to be about health but really about monopolies (no home-based bakeries) and tending to close down small town grocery stores.

It’s beyond me why missionaries from Georgia are necessary to keep kids busy in summer and teach them their own heritage.  The same in Browning, though it’s more obvious there that the missionaries are enjoying a subsidized adventure in an exotic place.

This is the grizz family just captured on Lake Francis and moved.

Too much underground stuff goes on.  I did not know until I tapped into gossip that there has been a problem with teens swiping coolers from the campground in hopes they hold beer.  I made a swing past the campground last night and saw that it was empty.  Maybe it was just the capture of grizzlies at the edge of the lake.  I did not know that one reason for the bright campground lights is that there are night fishermen who are NOT grizzlies and the diligent use of the cleaning station is to keep fish guts from becoming bear beacons.

Already this town has a number of excellent craftsmen.  The library is booming.  Valier is part of the mystique of “This House of Sky” and Ivan Doig’s nationally beloved books about this area.  It is so strange and self-defeating to say the resentful things that one can overhear people express:  “Doig never did anything for us.”  “Libraries aren’t meant for kids.”  What is going on in their heads that they need these defenses?

If you ask, what you get is a long list of complaints.  If you interrupt the list, they will immediately go back to the beginning as though it were written down or recorded -- often repeating word-for-word.  They cannot take in new information or consider alternatives.  This is a brain adaptation to homestead life where there was no alternative to breaking ground and harvesting -- grueling, painful work that might not end in profit, driven by sheer determination and focus.  The only path to success was repetition, unvarying.

Library art project done by kids.

But in today’s world, the way to succeed is variable, inventiveness, asking the big deep questions.  How can we become stable without becoming paralyzed?  I think it is by trusting each other enough to tell the truth and work together.

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