What I wanted to do and what I did do this summer are worlds apart, and yet if I stop and think carefully, perhaps that is not a true sense of the meaning behind emerging events. I’d planned to go to Montana to complete research for my third book, much of which takes place there. I was going to dig deep, search for information and reach out for experiences not contained within files, photographs and musty papers. I’d wanted to be there---to place my feet on that piece of land, to feel that sky sweep above me. To touch the wind as it caressed my cheek, to taste the ice-cold water. I’d wanted to experience the scent of grass growing green from beneath the earth. I’d wanted to hear the songs of those birds. As is my habit, I wanted my knowing to be first-hand for one can’t experience the real Montana in a day or two, or on a week’s vacation, or simply by driving through. To really know something about living in that place during the chaotic sweep of the 1800’s, I would need a stretch of time from the end of one winter to the beginning of the next---affectionately known in these mountains as “summer”---a brief idyllic respite from harsher aspects of life within which is contained the entirety of all seasons.
Since I wasn't able to go peacefully into Montana for the summer, I had to find a way to bring those mountains here. After all, our mountains are not much different from their mountains, and our grass is not easily distinguishable from theirs. What exactly would I do differently if I were there instead of here?
Truly, not much would change. If I were to look at the teeming life around me under the same glass that I had intended to bring to Montana, would I not experience much that was the same? And of course, provided I am not run over by a truck in the very near future, there is still time left to verify this summer’s conclusions.
There is no time like the present. Today is a fine young day in these mountains. There are already a few snow banks forming on the east-facing ridges above me. And a ruby-throated finch is singing, heart full of joy, atop the blue spruce tree directly in front of my newly opened eyes. A river, foaming, frothy with white water, well-fed by tiny cascading brooklets racing madly down each crest, roars past my perch on the porch above it. And a sharp breeze moves directly up river coming all the way from the Bitterroots to kiss my cheek as I write.
The views from where I sit could not be more akin to ones I’ve clung to had I constructed these with my own hand. A rock, my rock, as big as or bigger than our house, sits serene in the sunshine clothed in springtime green, garlanded by tiny blue asters and the dark green leaves of violets that soften the stark and craggy stone. And a natural “park” as pretty as any designated by federal authority sits beneath my rock, lush and inviting, with music provided by a rock band of red-winged blackbirds nesting in the willows beyond. A natural stone chimney at the edge of my park invites us to grill our favorite treats over hot coals at its base, much as the aboriginal people did a century and a half ago when they enjoyed the bend of this river as their home. Summer here is good and we have duties. It is our turn now to be caretakers of this place. Mountains, river, the music of life, glorious green things clinging, tall grass growing, a scent of fresh feathery sage---I have only to let myself go, to close my eyes and breathe, to keep my eyes closed and listen. I have only to touch the strand of hair that blows against my cheek to be in a place called “montana”---land of mountains.
When my stories had their beginnings, there was no place called Montana---no strange-sounding name. All this was THAT with no lines on paper to demarcate territory or ownership. There was only THIS which stretched unlined, untouched, forever expanding in all directions within the great circle of awareness which lives in all things. There was only this...and it was good.
Photo credit: Natalie Neal Whitefield