Friday, October 23, 2015


A.B. Guthrie Jr's beloved Ear Mountain from the air.
Five of his genre novels were in sight of this formation.

There has always been a discussion of “regionalism” among writers: is it a limitation, a sort of provincialism, a failure to compete or be universal in global terms?  In the other direction, there are efforts to connect “specialness” and privilege to certain places: the Left Bank in Paris, SF in the Beat years, and Montana either as a 19th century cowboy place or as a contemporary environmental paradise.  For a while Montana books were guaranteed to be popular, but now it is Portland books.

It struck me as an issue because several times now when I’ve told people that my “prairiemary” blog has readers all over the planet, maybe as many from China or Australia as in Montana, their reaction is “well, everyone romanticizes cowboys and is interested in the West.”  They give a "we're so special" smug grin.  But constant readers will know that though I privilege the high prairie -- the old Blackfeet territory -- I allot most space to stuff like sex or neurological research or something I have a hard time naming -- sorta like "the design of peak experience" (liturgical theory).  I spend time on small town dynamics and infrastructure, which seem to be universal in a way that transcends one continent or another.

In a way, thinking of something as “regional” like cowboys and scenery is to be confined by it and put down, but in another way it is a kind of pride, a confidence that the place is special, enviable.   (Last Best Place, God’s Country.) It invites visitors, but it’s an exclusion of anyone from “outside,” a xenophobia.  The newspaper makes a great fuss about local places to eat, local bumper stickers, weather jokes, creating an “in” space, a kind of club.

There is resentment of the more sophisticated and moneyed people who come in here and establish grand empires without having any ancestors who broke their backs and risked their lives to develop the prairie and establish the towns.  But then there’s pride that these big shots would WANT to come here and put up massive log entrance gates in the middle of 3-strand barbed wire fences.

There’s a certain kind of conservationist who brags about how deep into the wilderness they’ve gone, how many mountains they can name and how many trails they know from backpacking.  There are a lot fewer who are trying to understand aquifers and how to manage a sewage lagoon when the temps are thirty below zero.  Some are trying to get their cows up into the deep mountain grass for 19th century government fees, and others are plotting to get as many wolves and bears as possible down as low as people will tolerate.  Some want the profit and some want the romance.

The great commonality is that everyone wants the money.  Money is ironically the great leveler and equilibrium among all the types who try to occupy this long section of horizon.  Somehow we fail to notice that an island off the East Coast called “Manhattan” has a grip on the money valves of Montana and has had since the earliest days of extractive mineral industry.  This is also true of literary efforts, though most of the people in Manhattan have a weak grasp on what Montana is like.  

When I was circuit-riding for the Montana UU Fellowships, occasional big shots would come from Boston for ceremonies.  Invariably, when they first stepped out of the airplane, they gasped.  Sheer size finally dawned on them.  Even more so after being driven around my circuit.  Each location (Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, and Great Falls) was unique and didn’t much understand the style and circumstances of the other three, nor did they feel any need to find out. So the provincialism (if you want to call it that) of the state was echoed in each town.  That was more true in the Eighties when I was traveling.

Television made some difference, but the Internet has transcended the state and the nation for those who know to reach out.  The farther the reach, the more shared the basis for sympathy and understanding.  In some ways, the UU denomination I served has been exceeded by the world-wide population of people who are in cahoots with each other, which means that local physical groups are only a small part of the movement, not necessarily aware of anything but their own friends.  They are content with what they know.  Scientific mysticism hasn't been institutionalized, so it isn't yet considered religion.

Be very careful about praising the scenery to me.  I become contemptuous of people who rave about how beautiful Glacier Park is.  It's not that I don't think the mountains are beautiful -- it's that they are so much more than that. They are NOT the dwellings of the Gods, although when I was circuit-riding, I called the statewide newsletter, “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain Are the Feet of the Messenger.”  

The line is from Isaiah 52.7 and in context goes like this:  "Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore in that day I am the one who is speaking, 'Here I am.'" How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, "Your God reigns!"  Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, They shout joyfully together; For they will see with their own eyes When the LORD restores Zion.…”  

A ranch family actually named Zion lived nearby.

I doubt many people looked it up.  It was meant to get them to think about what the purpose of this circuit-riding gig was: a chance to grow, to learn, to form new connections.  I think they mostly thought in terms of “hiring,” a status upgrade, and making it easier to run meetings.  At the time I just sort of skipped over that.  I was still idealistic and believed in the “spirituality” of the denomination.

Now I feel much differently about mountains, esp. the Rockies.  My chapter of John Vollertson’s book, “Landscape and Legacy: The Splendor of Nature, History and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front,” emphasized the deep canyon refuges on the east slope where literary types and fiddler-playing Metis built quiet cabins.  Others identified the mountains with freedom and adventure.  Many fond memories. 

View south from the summit of Ear Mountain, photo by Ralph Thornton

Today I see that long sinuous cordillera as a living creature, pulsing over time with the forces of deep underground tectonic clash, breathing with hurricane-force storm and erosion, carrying snowpack, rains chuting down couloirs, the force of relentless sun heat opening cracks, the weight of glaciers shearing off cirques.  Metamorphized stone, sedimentation in a parfait of colors, avalanche to a skirt of scree, roots penetrating into every crevice and followed by the wedging ice, grizzlies levering boulders to get at the sweet-fleshed rodents hiding underneath.  Game trails of deer and elk weave in and out, making double and triple helixes that carry code for predators to read. Mountain goats climb ever higher on their sponge-bottomed hooves and ignore the peaks above them on the assumption that no predators will get that high.  Except humans.  Maybe eagles hoping for meat if they can knock a kid off a ledge.

The rosy alpenglow feels its way across the face of the ramparts in the early morning; all day the sun fingers along and around the knobs and chutes, the standing obelisks and fallen rubble; then at the end of the day sinks down into indigo cutouts of horizon.  A storm can bring shouts of thunder, speaking emphatically, then muting into rainbow whispers when the clouds move on through.  When a storm shelf of cloud stands behind the peaks, it’s an echo, a stanza of repeated chorus.  Often late in the day wind pulls back a wind arch to show the sun as a hymn to the day just past.

This way of talking is a little too twee, too fancy, too sentimental, too purple.  But that doesn’t make it untrue.  Such thick metaphor can mean nothing to people who only look at it as a kuppelhorizont panorama of scenery in a theatre best only visited with camera in hand, not lived in.  Check it off the tick list of things to see.  You could say it is a cathedral, so people will believe you are spiritual.

But it has nothing to do with formal religion or emotional spirituality or any historical legacy.  Nothing human.  It is the foundation of life, the substrate of the holy, before and after any human systems or uses.  It sustains us and destroys us without any meaning we can know.  Thus we are humbled and that is a valid use of the Rocky Mountains, but not one many people seek.

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