Salsa is the first bird dog that I trained. Huka was started by others before he came to me. One September, a decade ago, Salsa drove home in my lap from Idaho where she tumbled out of a kennel to say, “choose me”. She has always been quiet and thoughtful, prone to sudden outbursts of pure joy, especially in tall grass. She loves going after moving pheasants in cattails or irrigation ditches. She can be stubborn but more often than not is all too eager to please.
I’m training my next bird dog now. Many times when I’m hiking the younger dog, I will be bringing him in, honing him to hunt close. On “here” Salsa will immediately return to my side as the younger dog pushes his boundaries. She looks up at me as if to say, “I remember, I know this, I have not forgotten”. The love between a man and his hunting dog sit somewhere near the top of the greatest loves of all.
Montana, like me, is prone to extremes. Endless sun-baked days in August yield to the endless gray and the early dark of December. Late fall, early winter I stumble a bit, and the wolf of depression makes a visit. We must remember to stay pragmatic, do what you know helps, don’t listen to your thoughts, for they are, thoughts. We too should revisit what Lincoln said nearly 160 years ago.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away”
Abraham Lincoln, Wisconsin State Agricultural Society Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 30, 1859
I sometimes ask students if they had to give up one of their five senses, which one would they give up. Sight is not a common answer. I happen to think we underestimate how powerful hearing is and that we often tune out so much of what is beautiful. But if you walked out of Glacier High School tonight and saw the mountains you would have seen the alpenglow on the mountains and it would have taken your breath away.
The stoics said that we should constantly remind ourselves that everything can be taken from us without warning. Life, health, friends. reputation, career, everything is temporary. Here’s to taking every moment as they come, to living each day as if it truly is a gift. Every conversation engaged, every friendship sacred. Every alpenglow sunset special.
Sophomore year of college I saved up and bought a big Mountainsmith backpack. It has all the new fancy bells and whistles and from what I could tell, fit like a glove. Hundreds of miles through the Virginia and North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail that pack carried my gear. When I moved west it saw trips in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Elkhorns, the Snowies, the Absaorkas, up the Lima Peaks and down into the Missouri Breaks.
Last year that old trusted pack broke on a multiday trip into Glacier with C3. I tried to rig it back together but on a short trip into the Bob Marshall this past summer I sighed the sigh of resignation, knowing my beloved pack was not going to be on my next trip.
The other day a box showed up from REI. Smithers scored a sweet deal on a fancy-pants Osprey back. This past weekend I dropped my old Mountainsmith at the goodwill store. Goodbye old friend, many miles you caught my sweat, kept me warm and were with me as we discovered the most beautiful places on earth. Thank you.
It was the first day of 2018, January 1. A big snow had fallen two days before and we struggled to get up the North Fork Road to find a place to shoot skeet. It was already getting dark when we made our way south, back to Columbia Falls. As usually I was driving way too fast and just happened to see something on the east bank of the North Fork. As the ABS engaged we slid to a stop and quickly reversed. Turns out I didn’t need to rush, they were two Moose who had just crossed the river. In fact, at first we thought there was just one but then the other stepped out from behind the first. They were still for many minutes. I imagine they waited for the chill of the freezing water to fade away from their numb legs. Then, slowly they moved into Glacier National Park.
It started to snow this weekend though the backcountry has been covered for a few weeks. I can only imagine the slow hardship that winter is on animals. It’s a silent death, or a narrow survival.
The first time I went into the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone was in the winter of 1998-99. Despite the reintroduction of wolves in 1994, there were still huge herds of elk in the river bottom. I remember thousands and thousands of This past week the only elk in the Lamar Valley was a pile of dirty hide and red meat. The shapeless carcass was 150 yards off the road and we had heard that wolves were feeding on the lifeless mound. We were told to be there starting at pink sunset or before the blue dawn.
We arrived at 3, no sign of wolves. Other than the dozen bison on the North Ridge and a few black ravens in the trees dotted along the Lamar there was no sign of life anywhere. Clouds raced along to the south spitting snow. A few minutes of glassing around the valley revealed professional wildlife photographers on the ridge overlooking the carcass. They had spotting scopes the length of my arm and probably telephoto lenses equally as long.
Soon the wolves would appear, perhaps beginning with only one, circling, watching. By nightfall, the feast would begin. In a week the elk mound would be gone and another act of the Lamar Valley drama would begin.
I was unfamiliar with Greg Brown before I moved to Montana. I quickly learned that if I was going to be able to chat with any woman who I was remotely interested in I’d best become familiar with his music. Like all good folk prophets, he has the shaky, gravel bar of a voice that evokes wisdom and timelessness.
About the time I was leaving Montana the first time, in the late fall of 1999. Brown released his album Covenant. I pretty much had that CD on repeat for about a year after I bought it. Middle-aged heartbreak and longing are what I heard, something my late 20s self-thought was pretty appropriate for me.
The song, Rexroth’s Daughter, is still a favorite. I suppose it has something to say about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. I didn’t then and still don’t know much about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. Good art, good thoughts, good writing, good songs are vague enough to allow the audience to glean what they must and that certainly was true of this song.
“Coldest night of the winter working up my farewell In the middle of everything under no particular spell I am dreaming of the mountains where the children learn the stars Clouds roll in from nebraska dark chords on a big guitar My restlessness is long gone i would stand here like an old jack pine But I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter the friend of a friend of mine
I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me Are so daily naked for all the world to see That thunderstorm in michigan i never will forget We shook right with the thunder & with the pounding rain got wet Where did you turn when you turned from me with your arms across your chest I am looking for rexroth’s daughter i saw her in the great northwest
Would she have said it was the wrong time if I had found her then I don’t want too much a field across the road and a few good friends She used to come & see me but she was always there & gone Even the very longest love does not last too long She’d stand there in my doorway smoothing out her dress & say “this life is a thump-ripe melon-so sweet and such a mess”
I wanted to get to know you but you said you were shy I would have followed you anywhere but hello rolled into goodbye I just stood there watching as you walked along the fence Beware of them that look at you as an experience You’re back out on the highway with your poems of city heat & I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter here on my own side
The murderer who lived next door seemed like such a normal guy- If you try to follow what they shove at us you run out of tears to cry I heard a man speak quietly i listened for a while He spoke from his heart to my woe & then he bowed & smiled What is real but compassion as we move from birth to death I am looking for rexroth’s daughter & I’m running out of breath
Spring will come back i know it will & it will do its best So useful so endangered like a lion or a breast I think about my children when i look at any child’s face & pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace It’s so cold out there tonight so stormy i can hardly see & i’m looking for rexroth’s daughter & i guess i always will be”
Greg Brown, Rexroth’s Daughter
Good songs, good art has a message for every year of your life. Though I didn’t know it then the line “I think about my children when I look at any child’s face and pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace” breaks me down now, in a way that it never did so many years ago. Sure, add a marriage, add some kids, add the hills and valleys of life, the fear of the future world my kids will inherit. Time shifts worries. 19 years ago, I’d play this song on a cheap Japenese guitar, over and over again. How is that a line that can break me down now was a throw away twenty years ago?
Of course, the only thing that is constant is change. As much as I can I can’t slow down how fast they will grow, I can only hope that I’m present enough to be fully conscious of how beautiful this amazing grace is.
Thank you Greg Brown for brining me to my knees, then and now.
A friend gave me a copy of “Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” by Michael Finkel. This quick read is a narrative account of Christopher Knight’s 2o plus years of living in solitude near a central Maine lake. Knight lived within walking distance of hundreds of vacation cabins but camouflaged his camp so that no one, other than two people, saw him in 20 years.
I’ve spent the last three years getting increasingly serious about practicing my meditation. The thought of spending 20 years on what was essentially a silent retreat is certainly appealing. The tremendous insight and calm Knight exhibited after his capture certainly speaks to the meditative quality he experienced by himself. As a high school teacher, I recognized in Knight the agony of former students who presented as not able to find their place in the world. I feared that the end compulsory and structured environment of high school would create turmoil so deep that they would become unmoored.
One passage that I kept returning to involved the second time Knight was spotted by another human being. Three generations of ice fisherman (Grandfather, father, son) were post-holing through snowy woods when they spotted Knight. Immediately the grandfather yelled out that they would not report seeing him, though they knew who he was. In response, Knight bowed and non-verbally thanked them. The drama of this scene captivated me.
The book left me conflicted. Though personally envious of the blessing so many years of solitude gave Knight I was sympathetic to his many victims. Knight stole from unlocked or seasonally abandoned vacation cabins to steal his clothes, supplies, entertainment and most importantly food. The owners of these cabins suffered the anxiety of knowing somebody was out there, breaking into their homes. These thefts ultimately ended Knights hermit years when he was arrested mid burglary at a summer camp kitchen. It is one thing to escape from society and to live simply. But to turn to a life of petty crime in order to sustain yourself is unforgivable.
Clearly Knight had a tremendous well of willpower to stay hidden for two decades. He went into the woods a 19 year old kid and left a 40 year old man. Hard not to imagine elements of mental illness in his story. Solitude has been a component of man’s search for meaning since the dawn of time. Knight’s story fits somewhere in that narrative for good or bad.