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 bargainbookreviews.com: "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

The Joy of Walls. The only thing I have in common with Donald Trump is a love of walls. I like building them. I like what they look like when I’m finished. Most of all, I like what they accomplish. I suspect that this affinity for structures that keep others out is now innate, since it began festering in the human psyche ten-thousand years ago as nomadic humans settled down in villages because that’s where grain and the alcohol made from grain were stored. In order to protect these resources the first town people built palisades of timber and earth. Later, as settlements grew across the planet stone replaced earthwork. Although the Neolithic Revolution and its walls made possible a reliable source of food and drink it introduced a host of unpleasant side effects: new diseases, decreased vigor, reduced life expectancy, and an increase in the violence we resort to when we want things others have.

Garden Wall at Dark Acres
A section of the garden wall.

The different sorts of walls at Dark Acres each have a purpose. The stone walls are intended to keep dogs, deer and horses away from the garden, and to absorb heat during the day so it can warm the plants at night. The wooden walls keep our dogs and horses in, the animals of our neighbors out, and serve as a visual aid to help outsiders understand our borders. A variation of these plank structures is the pallet fence I built on the bank of a slough at Dark Acres where it was impossible to dig post holes into the dense root system of the willows, water birch and dogwood that flourish here. I pounded steel fence posts into this tangle, and attached pallets to them in a line that snakes through the thickets.

To protect out fruit trees I’m planning to plant Douglas hawthorns around them, then work these into a living wall—a process called hedge-laying that produces in time a spiky, impenetrable barrier (see illustrations and a description of the process in my book, Hawthorn). These hawthorn and blackthorn hedges were used across Europe for centuries to keep farm animals and wild foragers away from the crops. They were also used as weapons against invading armies.

The question of whether The Donald’s proposed wall separating Mexico from the U.S. will work or not is moot. This is campaign rhetoric that plays on an old cultural or perhaps genetic compulsion. Hundreds of miles long and assaulting the natural world, this wall would simply be too expensive. The Donald promises that the Mexicans will pay for it. But in fact the Code of the West stipulates that it’s your job to keep them out, not the other guy’s job to keep them in. (31 January 2016)

Plank wall at Dark Acres
Recycled planks keep out one neighbor's vicious dogs.

Pallet Wall at Dark Acres
The Pallet Wall prevents our dogs from roaming in the forest.

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

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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).

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