It's a Wonderful Life. When Bernie Sanders bashes Wall Street and Big Banking his rhetoric tends to be a broad brush that paints a large, impersonal seascape, with financial institutions as crashing waves and working class Americans as the beach.

But for us, getting screwed by banks has been a deeply intimate experience. In 1990 we bought Dark Acres with a mortgage supplied by First Bank of Montana, which promptly sold the debt to Mellon Mortgage without our permission. Over the years the mortgage was bought and sold by a number of financial institutions, none of which gave us any say in the transaction.

Bank of America in Isla Vista, California
The former Bank of America in Isla Vista, California.

In 2007, after Countrywide Financial Corporation bought the debt, they informed us that they were going to charge us for extended flood insurance because the coverage in place wouldn’t be enough to replace their property if it was ruined by high water. Since the 1997 Missoula flood brought the Clark Fork within inches of swamping the house we had no argument with this demand. Although it wasn’t technically our house, we liked living in it. The following year the housing bubble burst and the roof fell in on Countrywide and its arch-fraudster CEO, Angelo Mozilo. Countrywide’s many good and bad loans were bought up by the odious Bank of America (Remember Isla Vista!), which continued over the years to extract money from us to buy extra flood insurance.

In 2014 we were informed by lawyers that Countrywide and Bank of America had been bad boys. Here’s the account from

“An Oregon federal judge has preliminarily approved a class action settlement worth $31 million that will resolve allegations that Bank of America NA illegally forced homeowners to purchase overpriced and excessive flood insurance policies.

“The plaintiffs filed the class action lawsuit, which alleged that Bank of America sent letters to homeowners that claimed they did not have sufficient flood insurance coverage because they lived in flood-prone areas.

"The plaintiffs argued that there was no federal requirement for the homeowners in those areas to carry extra flood insurance. However, they claim that the bank forced them to purchase expensive flood insurance policies and received kickbacks from the insurers.”

Although the settlement didn’t cover all of our losses, the Bank of America was forced to deposit $148.92 into our escrow account, a pitiful sum but a comforting symbol. We will sigh with relief in ten months when our mortgage is finally paid off and we won’t have to deal with these crooks any longer. (4 February 2016)

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 occasionally 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

A wall of recycled planks thrown up as extra security against one neighbor's vicious dogs.

Pallet Wall at Dark Acres

The Pallet Wall, intended to keep 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

Izzy 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.

Making Bones by Bill Vaughn “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?”

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. No, I can’t trace my people to the Bourbons, the House of Tudor, the Kennedy’s or even the Osmonds. But it is a fact that in 1866 my great-grandfather, trembling with greed, joined a rush of equally foul-smelling fools who galloped off in the dead of winter from Last Chance Gulch in what is now Helena to the Sun River Country—where Charles M. Russell would set his paintings of cowboys and Indians—after some frontier wit spread a bogus rumor of gold. The date of the Sun River Stampede is important because it establishes that old Thomas Moran had set up housekeeping before 1869 in what would become the Treasure State. And that accident of history qualified me to join our premier organization of vintage names—the Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers.

Thomas MoranAs the date of my induction in Helena approached I got a little bit jumpy. First, would the other Sons and Daughters be snooty? After all, although Thomas Moran possessed determination and courage, he wasn’t exactly a fine gentleman. Before he made his way to Montana he had fled Ireland, was rejected for service in the Civil War, and sailed off in a snit to San Francisco, where he milked cows for a living.

But Kitty, my wife, reminded me that most of the citizens who founded this high, wide and handsome place were also scum. In fact, she and her four sisters, who had likewise been accepted into the Pioneers, claimed as their legacy a thief who built a minor fortune stealing cattle from his employers, and who lost it because he couldn’t stop getting married.

But my other anxiety was more vexing. The keynote speaker would be Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling author of Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I had just published an article in a magazine about a long journey of my own, playing golf and drinking vodka along the Lewis and Clark Trail from Great Falls to St. Charles, Missouri. To say that my account was not an academic treatment would be kind. In it, for example, I had described the explorers as carnivorous, murderous barbarians, and deduced that Meriweather Lewis was a homosexual who’d been having an affair with Peter Cruzatte, one of his men, both of whom were deeply into leather. I had further hypothesized that when Cruzatte shot Lewis in the butt during an elk hunt in North Dakota the assault had been intentional, the result of a lovers’ spat, and not accidental, as Lewis had claimed.

Still, I couldn’t be certain that Ambrose had read this hare-brained literature. But when we got to the dinner and saw the distinguished historian in bifocals and an angry red tie poring over his notes at the head table, my stomach sank. I began to imagine the vocabulary with which he would roast my eccentric scholarship, and how the Pioneers would rise, fingers pointing me to the door, eyes burning like those of Red Sox fans the night Bill Buckner let that grounder hop between his legs. Kitty patted my hand and ordered a beer. A gang of bushy-faced men in buckskin and fur filed through the door to honor the explorers with a loud rendition of a song from the period called "The Lowering Day." Then they sat down at a table together to gorge themselves on beef.

Two hours later, long after the dessert plates were cleared, the officers of the Pioneers were still giving each other awards and eulogizing dead comrades. Ambrose looked like he’d been trapped in night court. The speaker began announcing the organization’s 70 new members. As she called out my name I slouched in my chair and pretended that the program was the most riveting prose I’d ever read.

When he was finally introduced Ambrose stared right at me and launched into a story in a gruff, overused voice about how a twenty-something T-shirt clerk in the mall where he had signed copies of his book that day asked him who Lewis and Clark were.

“‘You graduated from high school in Montana and you don’t know Lewis and Clark?’” Ambrose growled, a mimic of himself.

“‘Well, I’ve, you know, heard the names?” he warbled in falsetto. “But, like, when were they?’”

I pushed myself lower in my chair. At the next table one of the senior Pioneers, head down, hands on his glutinous American belly, was already nodding off. He dropped into a deep coma when Ambrose began describing two chapters of the book his publisher had axed. They dealt with the tribes who helped the Corps of Discovery through its first winter and over the Rockies. “Without the Mandans and the Nez Perce Lewis and Clark might never have seen the Pacific,” he said, looking out at us. There was not, of course, a single Indian face looking back. “The Canadians would have armed the Blackfeet. And none of you would be here.”

It was a terrific speech. The applause even woke up our dozing Pioneer. But I wasn’t about to give Ambrose another chance to nail me in front of this partisan crowd. When the applause died and a blonde got up to sing "God Bless America," accompanied by a boombox instrumental in what sounded like a whole other key, I took Kitty by the elbow. Clutching our little blue Montana Pioneer ribbons, we slipped out into the hot, starless night and went looking for a martini. (By Bill Vaughn, posted 25 December 2015)

Hawthorn by Bill VaughnAn excerpt from Hawthorn. By Bill Vaughn, Yale University Press, May 2015. (A Missoula Independent notable book of the year.)

“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.

ShrikeMale 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]

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