CONTENTS The Measure of the Man
Montana, His Way
A Sense of Space
AROUND THE OVAL
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
About the Montanan
A Sense of Space
by Joan Melcher
In the late 1970s I rode with a group that called itself the Smith Gang. The gang was composed of people who might now be loosely classified as Montana yuppies. Most of us had attended UM, if not graduated. Many had advanced degrees. We lived in Missoula, Helena, Butte, but we were far from urban in our outlook. We embraced our states past and the Western myth with cowboy boots, tight Levis and periodic cries of Powder River, Let Her Buck.
Our boss was Paul Smith, a Missoula lawyer at the time. We just called him Boss. Or Bossie — when we felt sentimental. Our main annual activity was to ride the Amtrak to the Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City, starting in Missoula and picking up members along the way. Other notable events were the Augusta Rodeo, floating the Smith River, and the original Testicle Festival (Bosss invention, with the main fare coming after a branding at his fathers ranch). Mainly, what we liked was to be together as a gang and travel the back roads of Montana, stopping in every little bar that whispered our name.
Memories of the Smith Gang emerged as I began to read the first of three books published in 2001, all of which consider Montana and its people and try to understand how we fit into the general scheme of things: This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West by Daniel Kemmis, The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Planes and Rocky Mountains by Dan Flores, and Fifty Years After the Big Sky: New Perspectives on the Fiction and Films of A.B. Guthrie, Jr., essays edited by William Farr and William Bevis.
I remembered a discussion I had with Boss as we traveled that stunning high mountain plateau in central Montana framed on one side by the Crazy Mountains, the Bridgers on the other. We were debating who should make decisions about Montanas land. Growing up in Forsyth, what I considered a community of almost enlightened farmers, ranchers and railroad men on the Yellowstone River, I argued that the people closest to the land knew the most about it and should, largely, be the decision makers. Boss said, no, public land belonged to all Americans and the federal government likely would be more protective of the land than some people he could think of.
The debate continued for miles and was ended only by our arrival at Twodot, a round of Bloody Marys and another gang members offering of an interesting tidbit of information: The Ringling Brothers Circus had wintered in a town nearby. This captured my attention. I remember gazing out the small window in that short-ceilinged old bar and imagining elephants lumbering across the sagebrush plain, their trunks snaking up to gather the scent of predators — a Pleistocene tableau juxtaposed on an unlikely vista: ageless, primitive, inscrutable.
At that point, the reality of Montanas inherent treasures of sky, land and assorted wildlife took center stage, but the debate has been at the heart of Montanans discussions and considerations since European descendants first settled it.
In This Sovereign Land, Kemmis immerses the reader in the discussion and offers a surprising conclusion: the jurisdiction of the eight states of the interior West, where nearly half of the land is under federal control, eventually will shift from Washington, D.C., to a regional governance. Kemmis offers as an example the Citizen Management Alternative, a force to emerge from the debate about reintroducing grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Kemmis notes how the two sides, veterans of environment vs. resource extraction wars, had determined that the various means available to them — garnering legislative support to kill the reintroduction or evoking the endangered species act — resulted in a revolving door of activism and obstruction. They determined that by sitting down and reasoning together they could keep people working in the forests and also allow room for the grizzly to roam.
Kemmis uses this and other examples to argue that forces shaping the West — as well as global forces outside it — are creating a dynamic that is moving the region closer to John Wesley Powells vision of government organized around regional watersheds and further from Bernand DeVotos understanding of the relationship between the West and its patriarchal federal government — get out and give us more money.
The West will be in charge of grizzlies and grizzly habitat, of salmon and their rivers, of mining in the mountains and grazing on the grasslands, Kemmis writes. The West will be genuinely sovereign over itself, as Ukraine is now sovereign and as Wales is becoming sovereign.
Not surprisingly, Kemmis has friends and colleagues who dont agree with his premise, but he puts forth a strong argument for a reality that is not likely to transpire with any certainty or dispatch and offers an interesting, well-researched variation on Montanas ongoing contemplation of place, ownership and responsibility.
What was fascinating about reading these three books in sequence was observing the authors as they wove various strands of similar themes in works that looked at Montana and the West from three points of view: governance, environmental history, and literature and popular culture.
Dan Flores would seem to disagree with Kemmis, at least from a historical perspective. In an essay on the Rocky Mountains in The Natural West, he credits the creation of a permanent Western public domain in the form of forest reserves by the federal government in 1891 as the first step in defining the West: . . . the Mountain Wests salient contributions to Western history are the core national forest public lands that today define the region as unique in the United States, he writes.
Flores essays are at once earthy and intellectual, UMs Hammond Professor of History bringing a new insight to a depth of research and knowledge in his field. In the aforementioned piece he debunks the myth of the arid West, providing a riveting discussion of mountains and their connection to plains that does the obvious — ties the arid plains to the life-giving runoff of the mountains. He writes: Accepting that the elevated mountains — with their verticality, their lifeforms and their moisture — by all logic ought to stand alongside aridlands as the yin and yang of defining influences in Western ecology and history really ought not to stretch our imaginations.
Other essays are as mentally engaging. In Natures Children he makes a compelling argument that homo sapiens evolved in much the same way as other species, with selfish genes passed on that prepared us to survive. He writes, Religions and environmental regulations limit the selfish genes freedom to act, which is why every anarchist militiaman in the West has a bizarre conception of religion and the purest of hatreds for the state. ...
Seen in this light, then, human environmental history is manifestly not a history of a once-godlike creature gone over the edge of sanity, but the story of a widely successful species that has been doing the same things, for the same reasons, for three million years.
Flores does not exempt the Native American from this analysis, and in the following essay he uses new information, much of it from Indian sources, to discuss several factors as major contributors to the demise of the Wests vast herds other than the oft-cited government-sanctioned slaughter of buffalo in the mid-1800s. But first he notes the special relationship Plains Indians had with the buffalo, noting more than eight thousand years of bison hunting on the Great Plains constitutes the longest-sustained human lifeway in North American history.
Key factors Flores cites for the decline of buffalo populations in the nineteenth century were drought and the availability of the horse to the Plains Indians, which allowed them to hunt much more effectively. He also explores other factors, including the impact of predators such as wolves, the participation by tribes in a global market for hides, bovine disease, a preference of young female cows for meat and hides, and grazing competition from horses. He concludes: ... the great days of the Plains Indians, the primal poetry of humans and horses, bison and grass, sunlight and blue skies, and the sensuous satisfactions of a hunting life on the sweeping grasslands was a meteoric time indeed. And the meteor was already fading in the sky a quarter century before the Big Fifties began to boom.
As I read the essays in Fifty Years After the Big Sky, my thoughts returned to a statement by Wallace Stegner quoted by Kemmis in This Sovereign Land. In an essay titled A Sense of Place, Stegner writes, No place is a place until it has had a poet. Kemmis describes how a group of writers, including Stegner, Guthrie, Joseph Kinsey Howard, and DeVoto, created their own Bread Loaf, Montana conference in the late 1940s after attending the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont for several years, led by Robert Frost.
The sense of place Montana writers have since been able to articulate is well-known today. But Howard, with publication of Montana: High, Wide and Handsome in 1943 and Guthrie, with The Big Sky in 1950, were our first poets.
The wide-ranging essays contained in Fifty Years After the Big Sky shed light on this sense of place, which Flores defined in an essay in The Natural West as space plus culture equals place.
Guthries contribution to our understanding of Montana and the West may begin with his character, Uncle Zeb, who exclaimed, Shes gone, damnit! talking about the wide, open country in 1820. This sense of loss — or fear of loss — defining a sense of place is still at the core of our public discussion. In many ways, it is central to being a Montanan.
James Welch explores this in his essay for the book when he writes about Uncle Zeb being reduced to hunting meat for Fort Union: ... for an old mountain man like Uncle Zeb, this was the end of innocence, or the end of pristine wilderness, pristine country. It was all gone for him. And I found that pretty interesting because 1820 was only fifteen years after Lewis and Clark.
Welchs exploration of Guthries fiction, along with Indian culture and his own work, particularly Fools Crow, provide fascinating insight into the clash of cultures. Its interesting to understand that in 1820 Indians had more reason to think its all gone than would a white mountain man, but Welch cannily describes the cultural differences: I think one of the reasons that the Indians did survive is because they were adaptable. For better or for worse, they pretty much embraced a lot of the white culture. Where the mountain men in The Big Sky seemed to reject the materialistic world of people back in civilization, back in America, the Indians pretty enthusiastically accepted things that could make their life easier: horses, guns, sugar, mirrors, steel knives, trade cloth, and unfortunately, whiskey. ... I think that may be emblematic of the difference between the Indian perspective on the West and the white perspective. The Indians accepted things. These early white people rejected things. And that made a difference in the way they looked at the country.
In an essay that makes the case for a state/federal partnership in governance, Pat Williams, former Montana congressman, discusses how he helped protect the Rocky Mountain Front from oil exploration in the early 1980s, partly in response to a plea from Guthrie. Williams discusses Montanas relationship with the feds by first outlining how the political parties have historically divided seats and elections.
He then writes, When is the last time you can remember two senators differing on interstate highway funding for Montana, regardless of their party affiliation? There has been no difference in how members both Republican and Democrat, eastern and western, have encouraged an active federal partnership when it comes to Montanas airline service and airport construction. On energy, they are clones. ... There has been a quiet, sometimes almost camouflaged, but nonetheless remarkable unanimity among the members of the Montana delegation for fifty years — agreement that there are critical elements that absolutely cement the Montana partnership with the federal government.
In another essay William Bevis defines Guthries theme: The story Guthrie tells is profound: It is the western story of killing what we love, the story we must rewrite. Other essays in this impressive collection explore Guthries Hollywood years, the portrayal of women in his novels, the evolution of his fiction, his connection to his hometown of Choteau, and environmentalism and Western myths.
So ... how does the Smith Gang figure into all of this? The gang has moved beyond our mythic portrayal of place as Montanans and Westerners. Boss is now a caretaker of the land, having inherited his familys ranch; Im a city dweller and editor of this magazine. We may have changed seats in our discussion of who should govern Montana land. More likely, weve both broadened our perceptions and understanding of how we fit in this place we love, for when you talk about a sense of place being created from space and culture, you know that in Montana the space side of the equation is dominant. And just as it may frighten people not accustomed to it, it is what keeps us here. Its not the myth of Montana and the West that we love; its the reality. But the debate goes on. And it is in the discussion and exploration by writers of books like these that we can find a place for all of us.