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Archive for April, 2009

Everybody wants a piece of paradise,

A house upon a hill, and a view of heaven.

Elegiac lyrics to “Paradise Lost” by the musical duo Storyhill mourn the domestication of the vibe, vistas, elbow room, and rural character of gorgeous Western towns such as Bozeman and Missoula, Montana. Among the swales, kettle ponds, forested draws and wind-blasted ridges here in Missoula’s North Hills, though, there are still few houses — just views of heaven, room to roam, and the illusion of undisturbed paradise.

Missoulians have largely managed to keep homes off their signature hills and mountains, especially looking north of town, beyond Interstate 90. Ascending a public trail starting near the Orange Street exit, outdoor lovers witness spring wildflowers such as arrow-leaf balsamroot, shooting stars, sagebrush buttercups, and yellow-bells, but soon start noticing leafy spurge, an intruder left largely ungrazed due to a milky, poor tasting substance it contains.

Just east of Bozeman, there’s a subdivision along the Old Bozeman Trail, replete with a gateway entrance sculpture of a sow grizzly and her two cubs, not far from where one of the last area ranchers still herds cattle from pasture to pasture, slowing down summer mountain bikers and motorists, or heavy trucks hoping to dodge stop-and-go traffic on Main Street downtown. To Bozeman’s southwest, away up Cottonwood Canyon, a few of these sculptures’ wilder brethren likely persist. From there, a checkerboard gauntlet of private and public, motorized and non-motorized lands becomes their travel artery into Yellowstone National Park’s wild heart, and wherever else they can still manage to roam throughout Greater Yellowstone.

Back in the 1860s, the unpaved version of The Bozeman Trail hurried through then unceded Native American lands, allowing Fort Laramie Treaty-breaking fortune seekers a risky route to gold fields farther west, especially to boomtown Bannack, population 3,000 back in 1863, and Montana’s first territorial capital. “The Bloody Bozeman” did in fact pass through some of Montana’s true gold — the Gallatin Valley — home to fertile agricultural lands, enriched by glaciation, wind-deposited loess, and a relatively wet climate.

This valley lured many gold seekers to leave the trail, settle the area, and found the town of Bozeman, to fulfill the burgeoning needs of those prospecting farther west. Large scale agriculture began flourishing around the turn of the 20th century. Today, nearly a decade into the 21st century, considerably less farmland is being tilled. Instead, more foundations are poured, houses thrown up, and roads constructed, for the peace of Big Sky living that these new homes afford their owners-a slice of paradise. Some of the most productive agricultural land here is disappearing fast, seduced by some of Montana’s highest real estate prices.

It’s impossible to close the fence after cordoning off your own slice of paradise. People will continue leaving untenable places for ones still exuding possibilities; I was one of them, 17 years ago. Almost always, the deterioration of a place seems to have occurred sometime after we got here. Blame it on newcomers, gated communities, real estate agents and companies, you name it. The larger world keeps intruding and encroaching nonetheless. Whose land is it anyway?

Montana’s resourceful, self-reliant spirit beats fiercely in its remaining wild lands and landscapes, in the wisdom and traditions of its many Native Americans, ranchers, farmers and other stewards with deep and enduring ties to the power of place. In the late 19th century, many Native Americans in the western U.S. performed Ghost Dances, unsettling newcomers and fledgling state governments alike. Stripped of their livelihoods and lifestyles, their intention-fueled prayers and dances focused on driving out white intruders, reclaiming ancestral lands, replacing cows and ploughs with bison, and returning to living in integrity with their surroundings.

We all know how that ended, Native Americans most painfully of all. Montana ghost towns such as Bannack remind us too, that prayers, dreams, and intentions alone don’t guarantee a happy ending, no matter what your wishes may be for the land. The land doesn’t truly belong to anyone. It’s time to start treating it that way.

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Powder ski days

Blue skies, puffy clouds

Rushing mountain streams

Napping outdoors

Plunging, though rarely lingering, in healing Montana waters

Nurturing passions and dreams

Tubing and hanging on the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers

Living close to Yellowstone and Glacier

Hula-hooping

Live music in a smoke-free environment

Dancing

Sleeping in and snuggling

Fat lazy breakfasts

Kids, dogs, cats, smiles

People living in the moment

Autumn colors

Friendship.

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Earth Day is 39 years old now, perhaps the equivalent of a lightning strike in time compared to the actual age of the one planet we all call home.

Wherever you stand, be the soul for that place. I am unsure whether Rumi meant that place where we are standing right now, or to taking a stance as well. I am fortunate to be standing in a place where the earth’s wild soul can still be readily sensed and experienced. Friends and family living in more crowded, urbanized places remind me nearly daily of the natural gifts Montanans have right outside our door.

I stand in many places-as a Missoulian, a Montanan, an American, a Westerner, an earthling (though my 10-year-old niece thinks that I may be an alien) and a fellow human being. Someone governed by G-8, G.A.T.T., the W.T.O., N.A.F.T.A., C.A.F.T.A. and other international agreements and arrangements.

My stance, though, is global. I am for Earth’s long term health, for protecting, nurturing and restoring natural systems and processes that provide freely and abundantly for all planetary inhabitants. I am for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation between individuals, families, communities and nations. I am for openness and honesty and integrity, spontaneity and jubilation and irreverence. I am for fully being and living in the now.

I stand for education that allows people to discover, bring forth, nurture and capitalize on their greatest strengths, talents and potential. To be adept at critical thinking, and impassioned to create meaningful employment that enriches people’s lives, while also doing no harm. To step away from being merely consumers, and to step up as fully empowered, competent citizens and stewards of a healthier planet instead. There’s nowhere left to stand if we don’t.

Happy Earth Day.

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Nature doesn’t care who you are,

What you think,

What you do,

How much you make,

Who you sleep with,

Who you vote for.

But Nature does await your attention,

Your presence,

Your humility,

Your respect,

Your connection.

Lives hang in the balance.

In Nature, everything has value,

A reason for being,

A niche and role to play.

Are we spectators?

Detractors?

Saboteurs?

Armchair quarterbacks,

or full participants?

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The Primal Call

Author’s Note: I did a lot of spring cleaning over the past week, and came across some older poems from earlier in the decade.  “The Primal Call” was inspired by a silent walk taken the last morning of a five-day retreat in southwest Montana. Nearly four years later, its message resonates with  urgency and accuracy…

THE PRIMAL CALL

Stark, dark morning.

The hardest and most naked time of all.

The allure of sleep, the battle with ego, the call of the larger world,

all seductive sirens, screaming for their own attention and desires.

Stumbling in the void of dawn, laboring up the path,

Lost in self-made clouds of doubt and fog and limited vision,

The rapid hoot-hoot-hoot-hoot-hoot of a great horned owl

awakens me to the present moment,

Reminding me,

To go deep,

For all the answers lie within.

Calling me,

To Move,

Beyond all fear, all discomfort, and all hesitation.

Asking me,

If not now, when?

If not you, then who?

I hear the primal call.

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It’s amazing how much has changed in just the past week. The snow atop Cha-paa-qn Peak (a Salish Indian term meaning treeless or shining peak) west of Missoula has already diminished in depth, while some of the trees here in town are just beginning to bud. South-facing lawns are greening up, their north-facing cousins still looking a little sickly. Daffodils and crocuses are on the cusp of becoming something beautiful.

I had dinner with friend Robin last night, who reported seeing her first osprey of the season, “Oscar”, on her lunch hour walk yesterday. “Oscar” sets up shop with its mate atop a nest surrounded by a wire-fenced enclosure, sharing habitat just behind left field where the Missoula Osprey baseball team plays its home games.

A few days ago, Robin’s Rattlesnake Valley neighborhood church had its garbage cans ransacked by a rambling, hungry, fresh out of hibernation black bear. Every week now, more and more wild residents are reappearing, such as flocks of violet green swallows I witnessed ten days ago, swirling above the Clark Fork River in a snowstorm, catching and eating God knows what, and resting occasionally in barren cottonwood trees.

That same night, red-winged blackbirds hunkered down in coral-colored willow stands on numerous river islands, waiting for the same storm to pass, while a year-round resident, a great blue heron, stood silently by the water’s edge, intent on catching dinner.

Last Sunday, mountain bluebirds flitted between trees on the south face of Mount Jumbo, meters away from sagebrush buttercups glowing tenuously close to the ground. Two meadowlarks called from atop a massive ponderosa pine tree, unseen to half a dozen folks craning their necks to glimpse Montana’s state bird.

An hour earlier, we had watched a lone bald eagle soar above while we were lounging on Jumbo’s  broad and open summit, catching our breath after slogging in snow up the mountain’s forested north face, snow riddled with  tracks and scat from deer and elk, their scent still lingering among the lichen-draped conifers.

Another friend reported seeing about 50 elk not far from home in Lolo, and watched several coyotes trying to spook and run down some resident mule deer that same afternoon. Two weekends ago, during a snowy cold snap, gray wolves were  chasing white-tailed deer not far from a subdivision south of town. I haven’t heard of any cougar sightings lately, but stay tuned…

It’s hard to believe that all this is happening in a city of 60,ooo in a county with 100,000 people, but wildness surrounds us, and in spring, it’s impossible not to notice. Everything and everyone seems to be on the move again. Spring is here, and we’re not the only ones emerging from a long winter, full of new promise, potential and possibility.

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Shit. I slid into a deeper side pool, wondering whether the rushing water and swirling steam would mask my presence. If  it didn’t, I hoped that whatever was approaching would at least tolerate my unannounced intrusion in their prime winter habitat.

The sight of a 400-plus pound cow elk towering several feet above me as she came ashore,  followed by her crying, wary yearling,  inspired prayers that she would not stomp or slash me with her front hooves, hooves powerful enough to kill or maim a wolf, bear, or other predator that got too close.

The calf appeared hesitant and agitated on the river bank, and Mom looked extremely impatient and annoyed. This wasn’t getting any better for anyone.  The pair approached even closer, then suddenly stopped, as if unsure whether I was a threat, or a mere obstacle soaking in the exact spot near where they wanted to cross. Either way, I had no clear or easy exit strategy.

They came about five feet closer, to the edge of a wall of sharp rocks piled high alongside a channel where fresh and thermal waters merged, water vapor coating the cow elk’s auburn ruff of fur around her neck. Beads of water dripped and flowed from her eyelashes, nostrils and whiskers down her face and front.  Her dark brown eyes penetrated mine, yet she loomed so much larger, more powerful and alive than I was feeling in that trapped, vulnerable moment. Her yearling started crying and fidgeting again.

They edged and then waded into the same hot waters where I had first sought refuge, yet they didn’t linger long or cower there as I had. Cow and calf elk gracefully navigated the slippery stone-studded stream bottom (so unlike how humans, barefoot or in river sandals, navigate the same terrain), then exited onto the nearby trail, ambling toward a bench where dry clothes, water and a towel lay stashed inside my backpack.

Within moments they had found new shoots of emerald grass emerging alongside warmer channels where hotter waters spawned from the earth. Smaller groups of elk slowly joined them by crossing and swimming across the river upstream,  avoiding the spot where moments earlier Greater Yellowstone’s predator and prey species had shared an uneasy and unlikely peace.

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