Snow Falling on Hawthorns

Long-lost Jackson Pollock painting we discovered behind a framed print of dogs playing poker bought at a yard sale in Frenchtown, Montana. (Not really. This is actually a photograph of snow falling on hawthorns at Dark Acres.)

A day late and a dollar short, again. Adding to our growing list of why the Daily Missoulian sucks is the report in its Dec. 29 online edition that a head-on collision near Lolo, Montana may have resulted in "possible fatalities." Meanwhile, KPAX reported soon after the crash that MHP says the accident "involves a fatality." (29 December 2016)

Why the MissoulianArbitrate this. On Nov. 4 we received a notice from Citibank (otherwise known as “Shittybank”) informing us about “important changes” to the terms of our credit card. Central to this announcement was the statement that we have the “right” to reject the arbitration provision of our account. We wrote the bank immediately and told them that we refuse to be compelled to submit to what amounts to Judge Judy rulings, and will take them to a real court if the need arises. (We have some experience in these matters, having been part of two successful legal campaigns against big businesses; first versus Hollywood producers for age discrimination against writers, and second, versus the Bank of America after the bastards compelled us to buy flood insurance we didn’t need). That’s because the arbitration process, which settles disputes without litigation, tends to favor the defendant in the matter of complaints of consumers against businesses, and those decisions can't be appealed. (12 December 2016)

Autopsy. We believe that Donald Trump was elected because bourgeois liberal women who regards themselves as feminists decided it was time for a female President and, goddamnit, Hillary Clinton seemed as good a choice as any. The problem, which must now be evident even to Pantsuit Nation, is that Clinton was a Democratic Party toxin. Her corruption and sense of entitlement sucked all the air out of the room. As polls showed Bernie Sanders drawing better numbers than Clinton, insiders such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz began ratfucking the Socialist Senator from Vermont, and eventually brought down the only candidate in this cycle who could beat the tar out of Trump. (And to the crybabies pouting about the Libertarians and the Greens robbing Clinton of her crown, fuck you. We voted for Jill Stein because of her platform, not because we didn't like the major party candidates. Without Stein in the race we would have written in Sanders. Want to win the White House, Dems? Get a better candidate. (10 November 2016)

Duck Boat on the Clark Fork

The Duck Boat Mystery.
Shotgun blasts are common in the fields and waters around Dark Acres, but whenever we hear one that might have been fired on our land we always walk back into the forest by the river to check it out. In the fall and winter these nearby fusillades are almost always discharged by duck hunters floating the Clark Fork. So we weren’t surprised on the foggy morning of October 27 to see a duck boat moored in the shallow waters off Radish Island, eight miles downstream from the Missoula city limits.

That there had been only a single blast seemed a little odd. Duck hunters usually smudge the air with multiple blasts trying to bring home dinner. We also thought it peculiar that there wasn’t a hunter in sight. Had he or she or they threaded into the willow thickets on the island to retrieve a doomed bird?

Back at the house we forgot about it. Two days later when we returned to the river to cut firewood the boat was still moored on the island. Maybe because of all the LSD we’ve taken our imaginations sometimes beat out everything else for control, or maybe we just enjoy the exercise of jumping to conclusions, but we imagined a suicide, a heart attack, an alien abduction or a drowning (although this last end of life scenario would be a stretch since the water around the boat is only a foot deep). Still, we thought it was strange that someone seemed to have abandoned a perfectly good boat. This scenario was complicated by the fact that the only way to get to it is by boat.

When we called 911 and explained the situation the dispatcher asked us what we wanted the Sheriff to do about it. Send a deputy down the river to investigate, we responded. Call Fish, Wildlife & Parks, she suggested. So we did. But as of November 11 we haven't heard back from the game warden we spoke with, who agreed with us that the stuation was "weird." And the duckboat is still there. One of our tennis partners suggested we check for unusual numbers of birds hovering around the craft. But there hasn't been any unusual avian activity, reinforcing our theory about alien abduction. Stay tuned. (30 October 2016, updated 10 November)

Margin of Error. Montana incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is leading his Goper opponent by only two points, according to a poll conducted the second week of October paid for by Lee Enterprises, the parent corporation that owns several of the Treasure State’s fading daily newspapers. This alleged lead signifies nothing because it’s well within what statisticians call the margin of error.

The real error is the deeply flawed methodology used by Mason-Dixon Polling Research, which conducts surveys for news organizations. The survey was based on “likely” voters answering their cell phones and, yes, their land-line phones. To complete a typical 1,000-person survey as many as 20,000 cold calls might be made to land-lines. These calls are made by a robot, which hands the phone off to a human surveyer if an actual voter answers and is willing to cooperate. Federal law bars pollsters from making robo-calls to cell phones. (See more at “The Problem With Polls”)

Land-line sampling typically undercounts poor people because they can’t afford land-lines and don’t want them, and it typically undercounts people who vote Democratic, which includes minorities such as Montana’s Indians. Like most pollsters Mason-Dixon has historically been biased, in this case biased toward conservative outcomes. This prejudice occurs because of the manner M-D “weights” responses to calls to compensate for the pollster's sampling deficiencies.

In 2012 Mason-Dixon's poll for Lee predicted that Jon Tester would lose his Senate seat to Dennis Rehberg by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent; and, by a margin of 49 percent to 46 percent, GOP candidate Rick Hill would beat Bullock for the governship. Both polls were wrong. We have no idea why Lee would spend money on another poll done by Mason-Dixon.

Another telephone poll in 2012, this one conducted by students at Montana State University-Billings, also predicted that Rehberg would win the Senate seat, by a margin of 3 points. Almost 57 percent of the 477 interviews were conducted on land-line phones.

Anyway, we know of only one Montanan who still has one of these antiques—a sixty-something troglodyte who believes cell phones cause brain cancer. He drove around in his beater car with a land-line in the 1980s, obstensibly attempting to make people believe he owned one of those expensive, new-fangled car phones and “mobile” devices, but in fact his purpose was to ridicule those who did. (17 October 2016, updated 25 and 26 October 2016)

How we voted. On October 18 we drank a Martini for courage as we filled out our mail-in ballots. Here’s how we voted on what we consider the most interesting races and ballot issues. And why:

President: Jill Stein. Our vote is based on our support for the Green party’s economic agenda much more than our massive negative opinions about the other three candidates. We favor replacing Obamacare with free universal health and dental care financed by taxes and administered by the government. We support universal social security, with a living minimum income made available for every American, financed by closing loopholes that have spawned corporate welfare and which make it possible for privileged assholes like Donald Trump to avoid paying any Federal income tax. We support a thirty-hour work week, free child care and free, universal education for everyone who wants it, from kindergarten through graduate school.
Montana Governor: Steve Bullock. During Bullock’s tenure Montana’s economy has grown. His Goper opponent, Greg (“Giant Fortune”) Gianforte ran a software company that made it easier for corporations to move their call centers overseas. Giant Fortune believes evolution is a hoax, and that the world was created in seven days six thousand years ago. He supports the legality of rich landowners to restrict our access to Montana’s streams. He cozies up to conservative ideology that includes transferring control if not ownership of Federal lands to Montana governments, making them vulnerable for sale to private interests. He has been on the record supporting a sales tax, a highly unpopular “idea” that would shift the cost of government from people with real property to those that have none.
Montana U.S. Representative: Denice Juneau.Her opponent, Ryan Zinke, is a former Navy SEAL who exploits his overrated military experience, much to the dismay of other SEALs. Most of what we dislike about Zinke’s positions are those he shares with other Gopers, including the sociopath running for POTUS. That is, he’s opposed to government-run health care and raising taxes on the wealthy. He’s in favor of the Keystone Pipeline and escalating America’s military involvement in the Syrian and Iraqi wars.
Montana Attorney General: Larry Jent. His incumbent opponent, Tim Fox, had vowed to use his position on the Montana Board of Land Commissioners to promote fossil fuel exploitation in Montana.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction: Melissa Romano. We defer to the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Romano and gave her opponent, Elsie Arnzen, a failing grade based on her education votes as a Montana State Senator.
Montana Public Service Commissioner: Gail Gutsche. Gutsche is endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters, which is a good enough recommendation for us. Her opponent, the reactionary Bob Lake, voted as a state legislator against creating the Renewable Energy Standard and voted to gut the Montana Environmental Policy Act as well as Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. As commissioner, Lake voted to shift the burden of costs from Northwestern Energy to consumers during an outage at Colstrip and voted to make it harder to grow Montana’s solar energy industry.
Montana Supreme Court: Dick Sandefur. Sandefur is respected by law enforcement and the legal establishment. His opponent, Christen Juras, is a lame-brained, Bible-thumping extremist whose relatives spearheaded a campaign to keep Montanans away from streams whose banks happen to be owned by rich pricks (full disclosure: we own three-hundred yards of wooded riverfront on the right bank of the Clark Fork, which is routinely visited by floaters, anglers and duck hunters). Juras has vowed to take positions on the bench that support government officials who choose to perform their duties according to babble spouted by lunatics in the Old Testament, rather than the law.
Missoula County Commissioner: Dave Strohmeier. When Dark Acres was threatened ten years ago by a gravel pit and asphalt plant proposed for a piece of agricultural land next door, in their wisdom Missoula’s County Commissioners told the landowner and his little gravel industry playmates who stood to profit from this ludicrous scheme to fuck off. As a Missoula City Councilman Strohmeier has demonstrated that he would also have no tolerance for dirty, bellicose industrial projects such as this in clean and quiet residential neighborhoods.
House District 96 Representative: Andrew Person. For his voting record in the last Montana Legislature Person was given high marks by the Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Audubon, the Montana Sportsmen Alliance, the teacher union, the Montana Public Education Center, the Northern Plain Resource Council, and the AFL-CIO. His opponent, Adam Hertz, routinely opposed the majority on the Missoula City Council while he served there, including a vote against a resolution that supported expanding Medicaid in Montana.
CI-116, Marsy’s Law: No. We’re opposed to tinkering with Montana’s Constitution to address matters that are better dealt with by legislation.
I-177, Ban Trapping: Yes. We don’t allow trapping at Dark Acres, and wouldn’t want to take our dogs onto public land where the inhumane and economically pointless practice of trapping is allowed.
I-181, State-funded Biomedical Research: No. This measure would establish a system of grants to fund research aimed at finding cures for brain diseases. A cheaper, albeit partial solution would be to stop voting for members of the Tea Party.
I-182, Medical Marijuana: Yes. Although Libertarian Gary Johnson is an example of why they call it dope, most people don’t abuse themselves any more with marijuana than they do with alcohol.
Missoula County Library Bond: No. We haven’t been inside the library in ten years, getting all our books as Kindle editions from Amazon. With the money we will save in property taxes when this bond is turned down because voters will rightly see it as an expensive luxury, we will be able to buy even more e-books. (19 October 2016)

Urban blight. The groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a six-story apartment building on Front Street in Missoula is scheduled for September 9. This warren of crappy apartments is intended to warehouse 488 University of Montana students and some 150 of their cars. The drawing furnished by Farran Realty Partners, one of the developers, is a cookie-cutter rendition of “Avenue C,” the company’s apartment complex in Billings. To our eye it looks like it was inspired by the former headquarters of Stasi, the Orwellian East German secret police notorious for using informants to spy on people suspected of harboring anti-communist “tendencies.” (8 September 2016)

Student Ghetto
The new student ghetto on Front Street in Missoula

The former headquarters of Stasi, the East German secret police

Champion Tree. Ten years after it was first measured and entered into the record books, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation confirmed in August that the largest Douglas hawthorn in the state is still the largest Douglas hawthorn in the state. This enormous Crataegus douglasii, which we named Maeva after the legendary Irish warrior queen, lives at Dark Acres, our property along the right bank of the Clark Fork in Missoula County. Thriving as it does in an extensive grove of hawthorns overshadowed by black cottonwoods, it’s a wonder thatMaeva with chair Maeva could grow to a height of almost forty feet with a crown of more than eighty feet across. Her main trunk is almost forty-five inches in circumference. These new figures represent a growth of some 1 percent per year over the last decade, surprising vigor for an individual who’s between 125 and 160 years old.

For a few years Maeva held the record as the largest of her kind in the world. But the 2015 National Register of Big Trees replaced her with a tree growing in Liberty County, Washington. We question whether the circumference of this interloper was measured correctly (really, eighty-four inches?); that is, was the aggregate circumference of its multiple trunks measured instead of only—and correctly— its main trunk? And what proof was submitted to American Forests, the Register’s sponsoring organization, that this tree is not a Crataegus suksdorfii, whose classification as a separate species is based on subtle taxonomic differences—Suksdorf’s hawthorn has two sets of chromosomes and twenty stamens, douglasii four sets and ten stamens. (5 September 2016)

Go Greens, Smash State. As a rule we don’t sign petitions because most of them are ignored by the decision makers they’re designed to influence. But we recently signed a petition directing election officials to put the Green Party on the November ballot in Montana. The law requires that at least 5000 registered voters in the Treasure State endorse this petition by August 17. Oh, we know what you liberals are thinking--Ralph Nader and the Green Party put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000 by taking less than three percent of the vote. This is bullshit, of course, since the election was fixed by a partisan Supreme Court, and the people who voted for Nader wouldn’t otherwise have voted for either of these jokers. And yeah, we understand why Bernie Sanders is now supporting Hillary Clinton--because the alternative is Donald Trump. But we’re not liberals or “progressives” or European-style “social democrats.” Without Sanders on the ballot we are supporting the Greens because their platform is similar to his (our platform is more radical than either but you can’t always get what you want). And failing to get the Green candidate on the ballot—Jill Stein—we plan to vote for Gary Johnson and the Libertarians. Trump is insane and his supporters are bigots. Clinton is a war-mongering lackey of big corporations who believes she’s entitled. And if we have to see one more of her human cozy outfits we fear we’ll choke on our own vomit. (8 August 2016)

Send them your dirt. The vast majority of animals on earth are too small to see without a microscope. They’re the oldest beings among us, beginning their domination of what was then a toxic world 3.5 billion years ago, over time transforming it--by inhaling methane and exhaling oxygen--into a place where humans could evolve. And their biomass outweighs ours by a factor of a hundred-million. Yet, as a piece in the New Yorker points out, science knows almost nothing about the secret lives of microbes because only a small fraction of bugthese species have been grown in a laboratory. “From just the one percent of bacterial life that scientists had been able to cultivate,” the New Yorker writes, “researchers had derived virtually every antibiotic used in modern medicine.” Now that some bacteria are developing a resistance to the drugs others supply, the medical establishment is bracing for an epidemic of infection. (On a personal note, I declined to have surgery performed on my ruptured Achilles tendon because of this risk.)

But in recent years a Cambridge, Massachusetts company called NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals developed a device that encourages the growth of microbial colonies that won’t grow in a petri dish, the standard culture medium. The company tries to cultivate exotic soil bacteria, which are readily available because dirt is plentiful and easy to get. One of these newly discovered bugs secretes a substance that’s deadly to the bacterium that causes staph infections. In response to the legal implications of taking soil samples from public land NovoBiotics uses social media to solicit donations from private land owners. That’s where Dark Acres comes in. We went to a spot on the left bank of Mabel, one of our sloughs, where the world’s largest Douglas hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) has been growing for at least one-hundred and twenty years. We named this behemoth Maeva, after a legendary Irish warrior queen. Very little grows on the ground under Maeva’s dense and thorny branches because she allows very little sunlight to reach the ground. Due to the strange history and taxonomy of hawthorns (see my book, Hawthorn), and because this land has never been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, we shipped Amy Spoering at NovoBiotics a gallon of Maeva’s dirt. How cool would it be, we thought, if it turned out to be harboring a life-saving microbe. (5 August 2016)

Making book. Here's a review of Making Bones published July 8 at "I loved this book. The plot had a bunch of twists (the last line made me laugh out loud at two in the morning), a great group of characters, often humorous dialog, but what really sealed it for me was the author’s descriptions of the setting. I’ve never been to the Breaks, but after reading this book, I feel like I’ve lived there." (12 July 2016)

Just when you thought it was saffe to go back in the water. According to CNN Missoula County is the site of one of more than 5300 communities in the U.S. whose water system is in violation of Federal laws intended to regulate levels of lead and copper. (28 June 2016)

Please, local calls only.The caller had an accent that says English isn’t my first language, but neither is Spanish, Hindi or Urdu. “I see you once subscribed to home delivery of the Missoulian,” she said. “Would you be interested in subscribing again?” Because our Border collies and the neighborhood’s free-roaming mongrels think ripping apart newsprint ranks in the top five best things to do at Dark Acres, along with rolling in horse shit, we declined. She called again the next day, as well, using a toll-free number (877) whose point of origin is untraceable. Like everyone in America except the senile and the desperately lonely, we dislike telemarketers. But we believe the local daily ought to spend its promotion budget on local companies. . . . It couldn’t happen to nicer people. The economic turdstorm about to savage England after the UK’s vote to secede from the European Union, based largely on Limey xenophobia, is a poetic reward for centuries of sometimes brutal, sometimes indifferent subjugation of the natives of India, Australia and Ireland. . . . New life for old bricks. When Missoula’s decrepit Mercantile building is finally demolished we will be the first to get in line to buy some of those old, friable red bricks. Like stones we brought back from France, Ireland, Borneo and the Sweet Grass Hills, the bricks will be mortared into our garden wall, where they will soak up the sun all day and keep our poppies, roses and tomatoes warm at night. (24 June 2016)

Missoula plants trees that pollute. On any hot day in the Garden City the 100,000 “hybrid” poplars planted by the City of Missoula near the frenetic intersection of Reserve Street with Mullan Road emit several tons of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These include isoprene, methanol and terpene, substances that combine with atmospheric elements to create an aerosol cloud the plants use to reflect sunlight, thus cooling themselves. It’s thought that this form of air conditioning evolved when the earth was considerably warmer than it is now. The best example of the phenomenon is the blue haze that shrouds the spruce and fir forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.


VOCs are natural emissions generated by many plants, and are also produced by the evaporation of petroleum products. When they react in sunshine with airborne pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, which is produced by gas and diesel engines and thermonuclear explosions, they accelerate the accumulation of ozone, the major ingredient of smog. Different species of trees emit various levels of VOCs. The highest floral discharges come from eucalyptus, the genus Populus, which also includes cottonwoods, and oak. Hawthorns emit no VOCs at all. Some researchers advise urban foresters to think twice before they plant poplars in large numbers.

The poplars on Missoula’s 130-acre poplar plantation are fed more than a million gallons of sanitized sewage effluent per day from the nearby Wastewater Treatment Plant. Officials claim that the nitrogen and phosphorous in this effluent that would have been poured into the Clark Fork (because the city can’t afford better pollution control equipment) is processed by the poplars instead. The trees apparently like their diet, having grown almost twenty feet high in only a couple of years. (Hybrid poplars are basically giant, messy weeds—the surface-spreading, tentacle-like roots of the fifty-foot specimen we cut down at Dark Acres this spring throw up a small forest of suckers that we must mow once a week until we can find the time to excavate the roots.

City officials plan to harvest their poplar plantation in 2027 and sell the wood, which is too soft for use as anything but ceiling molding and painted furniture (as firewood, it produces more ash than heat). Documents claim the project will cost $1.375 million but will recoup its expenses when the lumber is sold.

Maybe. Removing the stumps and restoring the land, which is leased from a family, will be considerably more difficult than the city has estimated.

Officials also claim that the plantation will “sequester” at least 8,000 tons of the carbon in the carbon dioxide that trees inhale.


However, what has not been figured into this apparently happy win+win=win equation is the amount of ozone being produced by the reaction of the VOCs emitted by the city’s plantation with huge volume of nitrogen dioxide emitted by vehicles idling at and finally crossing the busiest intersection in Montana. So far there hasn’t been a word from the Missoula County Health Department regarding ozone levels in this smelly, noisy neighborhood, which includes an asphalt plant and a Walmart.

Read more about trees that pollute in Scientific American and the Denver Post. (24 July 2015, updated 20 May 2016)

Welfare rancher. Like the whackos who vandalized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last winter, the Goper candidate for Montana Lieutenant Governor doesn’t like our national government and its most visible presence in the Treasure State, the Bureau of Land Management. She has routinely advocated for the transfer of Federal lands to state and local control, a deeply unpopular idea in Montana. Yet for two decades Lesley Robinson, a Phillips County Commissioner and a cattle rancher, has taken welfare checks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to public documents, her ranch, the Lazy JD Cattle Company, applied for and accepted $67,581 in conservation, disaster and commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2014. (21 April 2016)

Endless winter. One sparkling May afternoon in 1979 I answered a knock at the front door of our house in Missoula to discover a large, angry man. “Bill Finnegan and I vowed that the first one back in America would kick your ass,” he said.

My wife had some nice pieces of antique furniture I wanted to spare so I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. “Who are you?” So began a confrontation that would end peacefully but leave me bewildered.

I had taken a job the year before working for Outside, a slick new magazine targeting the burgeoning outdoor adventure crowd. My credentials for this hire had nothing to do with any wilderness skills(although I’ve taken some risks on the backs of horses, I’m only comfortable with sports played in safe, artificial venues, such as tennis.) In fact, I got the job because I had designed and edited a fishing book that made a New York publisher some money (I don’t even fish). There were those who apparently believed that because of my title, Contributing Editor, I was in a position of power. Although I had commissioned my girlfriend at the time to draw some illustrations for my section of the magazine—the equipment reviews in the back—I was not authorized to make feature assignments.
Finnegan and the man on my porch, Bryan Di Salvatore, had been told otherwise by a respected author who led them to believe I would be their contact. So off they went, sailing west across the globe on their surfboards, and sending me pitches for articles they assumed I was sharing with my fellow editors (most of whom had no idea who I was, since they worked in San Francisco and I worked in Montana.) [read more]

They’ve got a wall in China
It’s a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners
They made it strong

An excerpt from Making Bones. By Bill Vaughn, Arrow Graphics, November 2015. ("An absolute winner . . .The True West shines through in this one, with a truly admirable character at the center." —Nate Briggs, The Kindle Book Review

Making Bones by Bill VaughnIzzy sprawled in her lawn chair, holding hands with Mark and trading gossip about the latest acquisition of the local polygamist, while they waited for the sheriff. Rolex, Izzy’s bay-and-white paint, and Sally, Mark’s long, tall buckskin mare, were saddled up and tied to Mark’s trailer.

At ten a streamer of dust on the horizon announced the arrival of the local constabulary. Smudge Iverson was already red-faced and out of breath as he lowered his considerable heft from the county’s old stock truck to the ground. He’d brought along one of his three deputies, a scarred and wiry Cree named Fenton Welch. Their horses stomped in the rack, eager to get out and get on with it.

“Porta,” the sheriff rasped, apparently unwilling to waste any additional effort to shake hands. Mark had told Izzy that Iverson informed him in their most recent professional conversation that he was no different than his constituents in the matter of their position on Washington D.C. and its most visible presence in the Breaks, the Bureau of Land Management.

“What did he really say?”

Mark shrugged “The BLM can just suck on it."

Izzy watched Smudge examine her in a guy way, chest first, then crotch. Then he looked again, in reverse order. “Hey, Smudge . . . .” She resisted the temptation to ask him if he’d like her to turn around so he could check out her ass.

“Izzy,” Iverson rasped, ignoring her to deal with Mark. “What’s this, Porta? You bringin a date to a body search?”

Despite herself, Izzy laughed. Everyone in Hilger County knew that she and Mark were doing more than sniffing around each other. After all, they were high-profile individuals—Izzy resented because she inherited a big spread in a part of the world where there wasn’t enough ranch to go around for even the male heirs of these old families, Mark reviled because he worked for the land-grabbing socialist government that was trying to confiscate their property so rich liberals on the Coasts could have even more playground in the Big Empty.

“She’s here in an official capacity,” Mark told the sheriff.

“Welch will take all the pictures we need,” Iverson rasped. “You know we cain’t take no civilians along.”

She went to her saddle bag and came back with her badge. The BLM office in Lewistown had issued the shield to her after Mark convinced his bosses that her knowledge of the Upper Breaks qualified her to be sworn in on the Castel case as a special deputy ranger.

“Ain’t no civilians round here,” she said. Iverson took the badge and poked it with what seemed to her an unwholesome gesture.

“Well, fuck me and the horse I rode in on.”

Izzy tapped her index finger on her lips. “Tempting. But how about just the horse?”

Hawthorn by Bill VaughnAn excerpt from Hawthorn. By Bill Vaughn, Yale University Press, May 2015. (A Missoula Independent notable book of the year, and named one of four 2015 honor books by the Montana Book Award committee.)

“There’s no sense in getting killed by a plant.” —Day of the Triffids

During our first spring at Dark Acres I filled my chain saw with fuel and oil and lugged it across a pasture to a tangle of twenty-foot trees in full white bloom. The morning was moody and overcast, glowing with that gauzy, shadowless May light photographers love. Overhead, a chevron of Canada geese passed so low I could hear the hiss of their wings. The air was perfumed with pennyroyal, and the languid fragrance of cottonwood buds. A breeze blowing up the Clark Fork pushed hypnotic waves through the fresh green grass, lush after a week of warm rain, making our river valley look more like Ireland than the normally parched terrain of western Montana.

Now that we were living in the country again, in the same sort of redneck backwater where I spent my motherless, feral boyhood, the only thing that could have made me happier on this perfect day was finding a hundred-dollar bill blowing in the wind.

On closer inspection I saw that these bushy trees were actually one tree, which had shot out eight trunks in all directions. The trunk causing our recent problem had grown parallel to the ground for fifteen feet and a yard above it, building a thorny wall of zig-zaggy branches that embraced a confusion of vines and a length of web fencing that had been strung between pine posts, now rotted. Woven from steel wire into two-inch squares bound at the intersections with tight twists of a thinner gauge, the fence was the sort used decades ago to confine dogs, or pigs. It had been rusted and pitted by the weather, and warped and folded by the force of the growing tree.

Male shrike with his prey impaled on the thorns of a hawthorn. A well-stocked pantry attracts females.

I wondered why the ranch family whose cattle once wandered across this floodplain had used webbing here instead of the odious barbed wire snaking everywhere else through the forest. But recalling that my sister raises a few pigs on her cattle ranch in central Montana, I decided that pork must indeed be the explanation. Whatever, like the barbed wire, which I was beginning to replace with more horse-friendly post-and-rail fences made from treated pine, this nightmare union of briar and metal would have to go, as well. And right away.

The day before, when I had gone out to bring in our quarter horses from the pasture, I was horrified to find Timer, our old brood mare, standing by this tree, head down, her left front hoof raised. Walking closer I could see that it was caught in the webbing. While concentrating on her work, which was the grazing she and the others were allowed four or five hours a day, Timer had somehow managed to step through a gap in the fence.

I ordered Radish, our noisy red heeler, to back off. But he’d already launched himself at the task, and couldn’t be recalled. When Timer saw him charging, his yap turned to full volume, she pulled back from the fence in alarm. I stopped yelling at him, expecting the worst. [read more]

Other Recent Posts

Old Buildings. Of the three major issues inflaming the denizens of Missoula County, the looming deconstruction of the old Missoula Mercantile building on Higgins Avenue is the most emotional.

Submission. For François the end of western civilization begins quietly. A review of Michel Houellebecq controversial novel.

Being There First. Because I was raised in a building that previously sheltered turkeys, the news that I am actually a blueblood came as quite a shock.

Weed Control. Some places, like some people, are lucky.

It's a Wonderful Life. For us, getting screwed by banks has been a deeply intimate experience.

Bad grades. Besides varsity sports The University of Montana can't seem to do anything right.

Scooped. Has the Missoulian given up?

Rare birds. We woke up on the last day of autumn to see cars lined up along our snowy country road and people with binoculars and cameras on tripods pointing in excitement at a copse of crabapples.

Wrapping Fish. Recent highs and lows in the small world of Montana journalism.

What’s the lowest form of art? Karaoke and photo manipulation are on the short list. But the lowest of the low is the book reading.

WHO? In response to the World Health Organization’s warning Oct. 26 that red and processed meat can cause cancer, American carnivores rushed to feed their bacon to the dogs and, holding their noses, scurried to stock up on kale.

Don't like your town? Then nuke it. Every couple weeks I drive twelve miles down the Mullan Road to get food and gin. I always see a building that wasn’t there on my last visit, a box store, say, or a house.

Bad launch.The Missoulian rolled out its new website to a chorus of boos.

The latest project by filmmaker Andy Smetanka is an homage to Missoula called A Place, Sort Of.

Getting what you pay for. Lee Newspapers announced September 15 that the corporation has hired two reporters to cover Montana state government.

Trojan.On September 4 one of the computers at Dark Acres received an email notification that a fax was waiting for us from a Montana auto dealership from which we bought a pick-up a few years ago.

A Montana Noir. In Heads or ? rough-looking customers named Tailfin and Boxcar play a game of Cards in the Hat.

Were the Celts real or imagined?The ten-thousand people who attended the Celtic Festival in Missoula July 24 and 25 watched young women dance Irish dances, listened to bagpipe bands and applauded as a scowling seven-year-old won the red-hair contest.

Missoula plants trees that pollute. On any hot day in the Garden City the 100,000 “hybrid” poplars planted by the City of Missoula near the frenetic intersection of Reserve Street with Mullan Road emit several tons of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Earthquake relief. How can you be sure the money you donate to help the victims of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal actually does anyone any good?

Despite the bad press fraternity and sororities are not going away. They yelled at us and made us do pushups. We slept on the floor like dogs. At four a.m. they switched on the lights.

Country mice: beware of Kirkland brand toilet paper. Although Dark Acres is only eight miles from a box store we sometimes feel like we’re living on Mars.

Is a journalism degree worth the expense? According to a new study from Georgetown University the job market for college graduates has improved for everyone except those with degrees in journalism and communications.

For individuals and families coping with mesothelioma these websites offer help. For legal assistance go to For information about doctors, treatment options and clinical trials go to Mesothelioma Resource Online. Read more about the legal battle in Libby.