Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
I don’t know what to do in the wilderness and I seldom go to it. I live in Missoula, Montana, perhaps one of the best cities in America for easily accessing world-class wilderness areas, and yet I am an infrequent visitor to the hills surrounding town. Sometimes, when I am feeling lazy, I blame this on the fact that I have neither a car nor a driver’s license, but then I remember a 20-minute bike ride will do, because I live in Missoula, Montana.
I’m not saying I never get out. Just last week I went cross-country skiing at Seeley Lake. But if you asked me what I remember about the trip, I would tell you about my human compatriots, my friends, and the stories we told and the bonds we formed. The snow was a startling white, the sky an aluminum gray, and a few times a bird passed overhead, but if it was a majestic hawk or a crow I couldn’t really say. There were trees. I saw a squirrel.
We ate strawberries on the way home.
I grew up in Montana, in Billings, a town encircled by smokestacks, sandstone bluffs, Wal-Marts and casinos. Although my father occasionally dragged me out into the woods, I was, at best, a halfhearted outdoorsman. My empathy overpowered my will to hook a fish in the mouth. I was not overly fond of dirty hands. I flailed spastically in the presence of bugs. I can’t help but think that my father—an avid fly fisherman and carpenter—must have questioned whether I had been switched at birth with the child of a more fastidious family.
I know the names of trees now. And shrubs as well. Even a few select flowers. But I did not learn them trekking in the woods, a careful eye darting to individual boughs and branches, specific needle and leaf formations. I gained the knowledge working at a plant nursery in town. I studied up and paid careful attention to my boss’s lectures and tours around the yard in order to be a better salesman, in order to pay my rent, buy my groceries.
I appreciate the information. I know it is long overdue and something I should have focused on, made into a goal of sorts, a long time ago. I can walk in the forest now and throw out names with a studiously faked ease. I no longer label conifers with the blanketing term “pine tree.” This past summer I hiked around Glacier National Park with a landscape design friend from Seattle, and we went back and forth naming plants. But still, as I traipsed past Rocky Mountain Maples and native spirea and potentilla, I flashed in my head to their allotted spot on the nursery grounds, in neat rows, with absurd names like Neon Flash and Mango Tango, ready to be bought and planted in front yards.
“What kind of warranty do you offer?” the customers ask. “Will it grow big and tall,” the elderly ask, “before I die?”
I consider myself an environmentalist, a mostly useless term with severely degraded meaning, but a label I usually stick with anyway. After college in Tacoma, Washington, I worked for the Sierra Club for a year in Seattle on climate- and coal-related issues, so I can claim bona fide Big Green credentials, but I didn’t last long sitting in an office, watching people walk along the canal outside, waiting for someone to email me a conference call number. And before that I worked as an independent, unpaid, scrappy youth organizer, corralling my fellow students across the state for various environmental causes. It felt great, all that young, idealist power without a dollar to our names, but that was also too large and too much and I burnt out there as well. For a while I volunteered with a community gardening organization in Seattle called Alleycat Acres that married my twin loves of biking and gardening, and that was better, more holistic and solutions-oriented. I started, finally, to appreciate a little dirt under my nails. I went to the occasional rally or protest, marched and held hands for a minute with the Occupy movement, but that was always secondary, kept at a purposeful arm’s length.
I focused in on my daily decisions, learned to stay away from plastics and the unnecessary flow of electrons. I agonized over light switches.
Then I moved back to Montana, to Missoula, for grad school in creative writing. An old friend was at the heart of organizing against coal exports, the shipping of Montana coal to West Coast ports and then to Asian markets. And I found myself again dipping into the turmoil surrounding that extractive industry.
Last week I was alone at the bar on Valentine’s Day, wearing a red shirt with a white heart in the middle, surrounded by nervous couples carefully not finishing their meals. I was watching the Winter Olympics and, as a USA athlete won silver in the skeleton and leapt into the stands to embrace her husband and baby, I tried not to cry and mostly succeeded.
I cried once, in my mid-20s, when a monkey died in a comic book.
I have never cried from joy in the great outdoors. I have been overwhelmed by full moons, captivated by clinging starfish, shocked by frigid mountain lakes, but I have never been moved to tears. Movies and books and inspirational videos on the Internet give me cause for tears on a more or less weekly basis, but the majesty of thousand-year-old California redwoods has yet to do so.
More likely to bring tears to my eyes is the possibility of losing those redwoods, of losing the natural world I so rarely venture out to see.
I have, however, found a way to sort of trick myself into the outdoors. The vehicle is a rather simple old invention called a bicycle. I first discovered it when I was a little kid, doing endless laps around the church parking lot, aided by my father’s instruction.
Although I never forgot about the bike (and in fact used it as an essential mode of transportation all throughout my youth) it was not until I graduated from college that I learned how far it could take me. It turned out it could take me all the way across the United States of America, from sea to shining sea, on a broke-ass budget to boot. I somehow convinced (OK, he was drunk when he agreed) a friend to come along and we camped all across the country, in small town parks and front yards. It was kind of like roughing it. We went dirty and unshaven and shared a single, leaky, rank tent. But, truthfully, although we biked through Glacier National Park and spent plenty of time exposed to the elements, we never really left the pavement, anchored by our bikes’ skinny tires to the world of man’s creation.
I repeated the trip two years later, on a doomed environmentally themed trip I had spent years organizing and recruiting for, right near the end of my burnout. Although I ended the trip, sans the rest of the group, in the small town of Machias, Maine, home to the awe-inspiring activist artist group the Beehive Collective, it still left me emotionally drained.
And then, three years later, I biked solo down the West Coast, from Seattle to L.A. Although I was once again attached to the pavement, I made time for hikes, for climbs down steep banks to swim naked in the ocean. I woke from a nap to see dolphins leaping in the distance. I watched elk graze on the beach. It was good. It reminded me that the natural world, for all my reluctance to enter it on a regular basis, is still there, waiting for me when I need its calming salve.
My father once threw me outside by my belt loops. My baby sister was napping and I had refused to leave the house, to go play outside, as instructed. He laughed a little when he did it, but I could hear his nervousness. We both knew it wasn’t funny.
I was arrested six months ago, for the first time in my life, probably not the last. I sat, along with 13 other people, near some railroad tracks in Helena, a banner reading NO COAL EXPORTS held up between us. The head of security for Montana Rail Link kindly informed us we were trespassing and would be arrested if, in 10 minutes, we still remained sitting in the gravel. When, 10 minutes later, we were still sitting in the gravel, he asked a group of Helena police officers to arrest us, which they did. The jail was full so they actually ticketed and released us on the spot.
As I crossed the street to the cheers of the 50 or 60 gathered supporters, I felt good. I’d spent a sizable portion of the past year helping to plan the event. I’d convinced a few friends to get arrested with me and made a number of new friends in the process.
And in the morning, after we’d been fingerprinted, mug shot and arraigned, and after we visited the offices of various decision makers, there we were on the front page of the newspaper, making coal exports an issue and promising to continue doing so for as long as it took.
I’m starting to suspect that one of the most effective ways to save the natural world is by sitting down in the city and refusing to get up.
For my money, for all the time I’ve spent regaining my calm in the garden or biking along the Mississippi or sleeping on the beach, there’s still only one thing that has actually saved my soul. That’d be music, specifically its live incarnation. The reunion tours when the entire crowd, re-living our adolescence en masse, sings along with the band. There’s the excitement of finding someone else’s blood on your shoe as you leave the punk rock dive bar. Or dancing your ass off in the back of a VFW to a wild math rock band with the only other five people who showed up. Those are the moments when my world wells up into my chest and I know everything, despite its infinite complexity, is going to be all right.
I have plenty of friends who could tell me, with absolute credibility, about the music the trees make in concert with the stars, of the primal rhythm of the seasons. Or even, more simply, of the necessity of a few guitars around the campfire. But what I need is more electric, more crowd pulsing, more hearing the one song you and everyone else in the audience cried to after your first break up, that powered you through, that wormed its way into your ear the way the gentle sound of a swaying tree never could.
I’ve had sex in the great outdoors, on the edge of a lake high in the Cascades on a ridiculously beautiful October afternoon. I’d certainly like to do that again.
The city, with its greed, with its disregard and endless expansion, will doom us. I love the city.
A month ago, around 1 a.m., I joined hands with a consortium of Native Americans and assorted other folks in the middle of Missoula’s busiest street. We walked in a circle around a few beating drums. Cops, private security and a gaggle of interested onlookers stood by and watched. We were blocking a massive truck, part of the mega-loads shipment process getting equipment to the tar sands operation in Canada. The extraction of the tar sands is quickly turning the boreal forest into Mordor, and I thought it was the least I could do, to stand in the street for a few minutes.
After 10 minutes—that magic number—the cops began to usher us back to the sidewalk. Three elderly women refused to leave and sat down in the street. I lingered. I took pictures and I watched. The cops helped the women to their feet and then arrested them. But still I loitered. I couldn’t quite get myself to leave the street, to allow the enormous truck and its police escort, to pass, to aid in the ravaging of the lands to the north. I was the last one in the street and several officers approached me, confused and a little perturbed that I was still there.
“Are you making a decision?” one asked me. I wasn’t sure what to say back. She repeated her question, reaching for her handcuffs.
“That’s a really tough decision,” I said, being as honest as I knew how. Tough decision or not, she unhooked her handcuffs. Sighing, considering my shaky finances, I walked to the sidewalk.
A few weeks later I did sit down, with four other women, but the cops, for whatever reason, refused to arrest me that night. “You’ve proved your point,” the officer said to me. “Not really,” I said, pointing to the massive truck on its way north.
Recently in Spokane, I walked to the end of a crumbling cement overlook at night and peered out over the churning waters of that city’s river. Below me, right up against the edge of the bank, undoubtedly wet from the spray, was a large goose. It stood there looking out at the water as I stood there looking out at the water. I am tempted here to say something about the goose and I being in the same plight, in the same city, but that’s not right, not even close.
Across the street from my house there is a tree with a plastic bag in it. The bag has been there for months, tenaciously holding on through the snow-whipping winds. I’m not sure why I haven’t thought to unsnag it, to free it from the tree before spring comes and the tree starts to push out new growth. If I were in the forest I’m sure I would go to great lengths to get it out of the tree, to purify the great outdoors. But this is a city tree.
Then again, we also have a city river. And city air. And city deer and birds and flowers. And people. And me. A city boy.
J.P. Kemmick is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Montana. He is working on a novel set in and around Anaconda and Missoula. He has been talking about reading and writing with his uncle, Ed Kemmick, since he was a kid.