Friday, October 28, 2016

The Latest: Vital Ground, HCN and a Big Opportunity

The summer rushed by. There were idyllic backpacking trips into the deep and jagged and trouty Montana wilderness. There were inspiring, joyful, sleep-later reunions with friends and family in Minnesota, New Mexico, New England, Idaho. And there was, tucked into the folds, a communications internship in Missoula with the Vital Ground Foundation, a spirited little land trust working to save grizzly bears one conservation easement at a time.

We're knee-deep in autumn now, cold nights and the World Series and larch and aspen and cottonwood popping out gold on the riverbanks and mountainsides. Last week, as I read Camas submissions from a coffee shop window, I saw the first long stringing V of Canada geese pointed due south against a slate sky. Fall is always a hopelessly nostalgic time. I put on my parents' old Bill Staines records, watch the land and weather change tangibly with each shortening day, and think back to those sprawling childhood autumns of jumping in leaf piles and covering the garden for the next hard frost. But there has been plenty of looking forward this fall, too. Here's an update on recent writing projects and an exciting one that lies ahead:

  • Alvord Lake Community Forest: This was my big summer piece for Vital Ground, telling the story of a chunk of Montana forest slated for subdivision that has now become a community-run forest. The full-length version is available on Vital Ground's website.
  • High Country News! Years ago, HCN became my go-to for informative reporting and illuminating writing about land and culture in the West. It was an honor to have them publish a shorter op-ed version of the Alvord Lake piece.
  • Great Burn Proposed Wilderness: One of those dreamy summer backpacks took me into the Great Burn, a rugged 1.8-million acre area in the Northern Bitterroots that conservationists have been seeking to protect as wilderness for the last 40 years. Afterward, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Missoulian about not forgetting wilderness protection as we celebrate the National Parks' centennial.
  • The Artists Field Guide to Greater Yellowstone: This is the exciting one lying ahead. My friend Katie Holsinger has embarked on an inspiring project to create a field guide "told through the words and artwork of fifty of the region’s most distinguished storytellers." I hardly qualify under those criteria, but I was thrilled to have Katie offer me a last-minute spot as a fill-in writer for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. There are some big names involved with this thing, and I'm very honored and excited to contribute. Stay tuned for more updates!
Early fall colors from a second trip into the Great Burn.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Published! "Common Ground" in Whitefish Review

Hello all! I’m excited to share with you the current issue of Whitefish Review, which includes my short essay “Common Ground.” The journal is a beautiful publication from Northwest Montana that highlights the art, literature, and photography of mountain culture. Released on June 4, this issue interprets the theme of Change through an inspiring collection of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art. It also serves as a tribute issue after the passing of the inimitable author Jim Harrison in late March. As such, I’m lucky and humbled to have my words published alongside those of some of my literary heroes: Rick Bass, David James Duncan, Doug Peacock, and Harrison himself.

My small contribution to the issue began—perhaps unsurprisingly—with a walk in the woods. Shortly after I moved to Missoula last fall, good friend Kurt Imhoff and I seized a breezy, sun-polished Sunday to venture up the Camas Creek drainage in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (an area part of which just burned in Western Montana’s first big wildfire of the season). It was the first of many trips I’ve made into the 1.3-million acre roadless area straddling the Idaho-Montana border, and my imagination took off like a roadrunner afterward. The essay came together in Phil Condon’s Environmental Writing workshop as I researched the origins of the wilderness area and its even-larger neighbor, the Frank Church-River of No Return, and as my Environmental Studies coursework challenged me to think about global and local change in new ways. “Common Ground” is just the tip of a tough iceberg: it asks more questions than it answers, but I hope it inspires readers to learn and protect wilderness areas during a present and a future when nothing—even wilderness—remains fully stable. While I posted an earlier draft of the essay on Hartwords last fall, I hope you’ll consider reading the latest version, along with the other work in Whitefish Review, by purchasing a copy of the issue and supporting a dedicated and important publication. Here’s a quick excerpt from my piece:

Short on answers, I seek sanity with trips into wild places, the healing sites preserved by our forebears, vital to our successors. I call up Kurt and we drive to a trailhead before light hits the valley, turning off the news when pavement turns to dirt. Then we start walking and stop talking. On a good day, I stop thinking, and listen only—listen to the old rhythms of this planet. What sounds is the inevitability of change. Larch needles turning and falling, ice ages and droughts, brachiosaur to Brooklyn—march on, ragged world.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

GFC, and Other Images After an Ending

My grandmother made the best fried chicken I knew. GFC: Grammy’s Fried Chicken. Onions, lots of onions, rosemary, salt and pepper. She would cook it with one cast-iron skillet flipped face down over another, a stroke of genius picked up somewhere long ago. I’ll never forget the sight of her in a floral apron, wielding those two skillets like tennis rackets in a rare display of physical strength, the steam and the smell of sautéing onions rising up out of the kitchen as I watched mallards through the living room window. And the meals: chicken, white rice, green beans steamed and squeaky, probably pulled from the garden hours earlier. Vanilla ice cream and home-canned peaches out of the cellar for dessert. Unpretentious, beautiful, prepared and served with quiet but steadfast pride.

When I was young, in the summertime, we would ride bikes to the neighborhood garden down the street from Grammy and Gramp’s. Gram rode a big, elegant maroon bike with a wide leather seat. It was another forceful image, like the skillets – she rode with the same slow-motion grace a child sees in the sight of his father casting with a fly-rod or his mother scooping him out of harm’s way from a passing car. In the garden, she and Mom would pick flowers while Gramp drilled us in the finer points of pulling carrots. We’d all ride or walk back to the house, baskets laden, triumphant in our simplicity.

Sometimes, when we were visiting around Christmas, we would drive into downtown Rochester to see The Nutcracker. We’d put on our dress shoes and nice shirts, Gramp a dark suit and a red tie, and Gram would bring out her fur coat. After the performance, my parents and Gramp would hem and haw about this scene or that, noting a lackluster or extraordinary performer, or discussing the Philharmonic’s next concert. Gram might chime in with a smile and a nod here, an “oh, yes” there. I will never know what emotions passed through her as she watched candy canes waltz and the violin sections sawed Tchaikovsky to the rafters. Somewhere in her past, probably before the Depression, had the young Jean Lincoln dreamed of dancing with a prince through a moonlit forest? Had she known that her life could be as beautiful and free as a sleigh cutting through freshly fallen snow?

We are losing the generation that knew a different world. The world of the Dust Bowl and Auschwitz and Hiroshima, in which barbarism could still run rampant and tornado-like across the surfaces of our so-called developed nations. My grandmother: the antidote to savagery. Beautiful, composed, private to the end. What irretrievable knowledge will pass as our elders do?

Too many of my memories fall during her waning years, when Gramp handled much of the cooking and yardwork to avoid boredom, or after they left the house, after he died suddenly, momentously, like a record ripped from the turntable with the final track unfinished. Her days then passed like the slow rolling of a placid sea, waiting for the occasional swells of family or friends visiting, holidays or the first snowfall, the single weekly uplift of Sunday dinner with my aunt and uncle. Or perhaps just waiting, patiently as ever, for that distant shore to finally appear.

At one of those Sunday dinners this past December, the last meal I would share with her, we ate strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert. I asked Grammy if she and Gramp had grown rhubarb in the garden for pies. I knew, of course, that they had. Strawberry rhubarb is my dad’s favorite, and my own, for a reason. But I wanted a story. What I got instead was poetry. “Oh, yes,” she said, smiling, then pausing as the grin faded. “Goodness, I guess those days are gone now.”

That night, unable to sleep, I wrote that Gram’s ninety-five year old mind had become a blizzard, everything blowing around, relocating, indecipherable. But beautiful to witness in its transience.

My own mind jumps too quickly to images of her in a wheelchair, fumbling a pillbox or fussing over unkempt hair, trying to remember which grandson lives where these days. But deeper back, deeper down, is the image that I know will last, the touchstone of enduring love. The sky is blue and the house snow white, and Grammy and Gramp are standing together, hip-to-hip by the old mounted bell at the end of the driveway fence, waving goodbye for now.