Sandra Perrin, a nurse, a master gardener and a member of the Missoula Women for Peace, died on April 19 at the age of 87. Born near the walled hilltop town of Carcassonne, France, she was the author of a series of books about horticulture, including Organic Gardening in Cold Climates and Organic Gardening in Montana and the Northwest. The first title in this series-Organic Gardening in Montana-was published by Barking Dog Books in 1975 and issued as a revised edition in 1976. Now out of print, there are five extant copies in the library at Dark Acres. Perrin donated all proceeds from the sale of this popular little pamphlet to the Borrowed Times, Missoula's nearly forgotten radical leftist newspaper, which was published from 1972 to 1980. Thomas McGuane, author of essays, short stories, screenplays and ten novels, has been awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement by the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Our favorites in his large body of work are his early novels, Ninety-Two in the Shade and The Sporting Club, and the very weird and funny movies he wrote, The Missouri Breaks and Rancho Deluxe, which were set in Montana, his home of many years after growing up in Michigan. (23 April 2017)
Today's Alt-Headlines from Missoula:
♦ City Council Addresses Homeless Issue by Raising West Broadway Speed Limit to 75
♦ Historic Preservation Commission Backs Preservation of Historic Trailer Park
♦ Voters Approve Bond to Build Space Port
♦ University of Montana Merges with Montana State, Bearcat Named Mascot
♦ Hungry Crows Devour Mt. Sentinel Hang Glider
♦ Woman Killed by Mountain Lion While Feeding Deer
(14 April 2017)
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.
Finally, in mid-March of 2017 the river began to rise from early runoff. On March 22 we discovered that the duck boat was gone, apparently lifted by the flood and sent on its way toward the Pacific. In June, after the river retreats, we'll paddle out to Radish Island and see what we can see. Stay tuned. (27 March 2017)
Un-Fun Fact. Greg Gianforte, GOP candidate for Montana's vacant Congressional seat, holds degrees from a college that was founded by a slave owner. The school, Stevens institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, was endowed by Edwin Augustus Stevens, a nineteenth-century inventor and engineer whose family estate at Castle Rock exploited the forced labor of captive human beings. (21 March 2017)
A tale of two trucks: Politically Incorrect. Land Rover refused to install emission control devices, mileage improvement systems, and safety features. But to me no other vehicle says romance and adventure like my fifty-year-old dreadnaught. By Paul Driscoll
ON JANUARY 29 last year the final Land Rover Defender rolled off the assembly line in the Midlands town of Solihull, England.The demise of this legendary family of four-wheel drive workhorses marked a significant milestone in automotive history. Land Rover, now owned by the Indian car maker, Tata Motors, continues to make its line of luxury SUVs-the Range Rover and the smaller, more affordable Discovery among other models. But gone is the true utilitarian rig known the world over.
We all know these trucks from newsreels of United Nation vehicles and the iconic images of African safari touring rigs. These are Land Rover Defenders, or their predecessors, the Land Rover Series vehicles. That old ride on the cover of whatever outdoor gear and clothing catalog is lying around your coffee table? Almost always an old Land Rover.
Rovers are uncompromised vehicles of adventure and wild places. At one time in the 1970s the company claimed- not unrealistically-that the first vehicle the majority of the world's population laid eyes upon was a Land Rover. Land Rovers were early penetrators of the African, South American, Australian, and Central Asian interiors. For better or worse, wherever Brits were to be found-from the Caribbean to the Ganges, from Lahore to Nairobi-Land Rovers followed. [read more]
A tale of two trucks: I get around. Three engines later my Ford Bronco had logged enough miles to circle the world a dozen times, after memorable stops in Hollywood, the Ozarks and those eerie places across the Plains American tribes consider sacred. By Bill Vaughn
DURING MY THIRTIETH YEAR I gave up promiscuous sex, ultra-left politics and mescaline (but not LSD) in exchange for something less dangerous: horses. One reason for this move was a marriage proposal from one of my girlfriends. Because Kitty had been raised in a Montana ranch family obsessed with performance horses I knew that in order to keep her I'd have to learn to ride competitively.
After the wedding our first major purchase together was a bay mare named Timer. A little later we traded in Kitty's old horse trailer for a better one, and went shopping for a new truck to pull it with. It was in the third show room that I met what would become the other love of my life. It was a gleaming white 1982 Ford Bronco with heavy-duty shocks and transmission, four-wheel drive, power steering and a rear seat that folded down to create a small apartment under a removable shell. I was smitten, and it had nothing to do with that new truck smell.
Every one of my cars had broken my heart, from the enormous green 1948 Chrysler whose engine exploded in my high school parking lot, humiliating me in front of jeering teens, to the 1970 candy orange Volvo whose undercarriage turned cancerous with rust concealed by her dishonest former owner. But once behind the wheel of the Bronco, which at the time, in these innocent pre-Hummer days, was bigger and shinier than most everything else on the road, I became confident, almost optimistic. I joined a softball team. I played golf. I took tennis lessons. And with Kitty's coaching, my riding skills improved so much I could gallop at full speed without shrieking like a girl on a rollercoaster. [read more]
Insurance Scam. Our 90-year-old relative, who has dementia so severe she believes that Days of Our Lives is the news, recently received a letter claiming that her "insurance premium" was past due. The company, something called the Affinion Group in Nashville, Tennessee, said that in order to keep her $10,000 "Accidental Death and Dismemberment" policy in force she must pay her quarterly premium of $3.30 by supplying the company with a credit card or a bank account number. We figure that these con artists bought a database of ancient Americans, such as one of those sold by Dirmark Media in Florida, and is using it to bilk feeble-minded elders out of their pensions, savings and social security. (25 February 2017)
Ban English Common Law. While the 65th Montana Legislature struggles to deal with budget shortfalls caused by dwindling tax revenues extracted from the petroleum industry, a Kalispell Goper named Keith Regnier has taken up the Senate's time by proposing legislation that would ban Treasure State courts from applying any foreign laws. These presumably would include Sharia law, a set of rules for Muslims. We have urged Regnier to specifically add English Common Law to Senate Bill 97 in order to insure that the oppression of the Irish by the English in past centuries, which drove our ancestors from the Emerald Isle to Montana, will not be repeated here. (16 February 2017)
Dainespeak. In early January we wrote Montana Senator Steve Daines to ask what he had in mind as a replacement for Obamacare. "No generalities, please," we said. "Give us the details." Daines and his fellow Gopers crow incessantly about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. But he didn't bother sending us a response until Valentine's Day (we appreciate the sentiment, however, and in his honor devoured one of our custom Biblical candy hearts, the one that says Blow Job.) Anyway, here is Daines' bullshit non-response:
"Thank you for contacting me to express your concerns about health care reform. I know that access to affordable health care is critical for hardworking Montana families and receiving such care can be especially challenging in rural communities. I value your perspective on this critically important issue and appreciate the opportunity to respond.
"Over the past several years, I have heard from countless Montanans about how Obamacare has hurt them. This year alone, families across our state are seeing insurance premium hikes that average 27 to 58 percent. The cost to insure the generation just entering the workforce has increased by 77 percent since Obamacare took effect. These young adults are the healthiest, and least expensive, demographic to insure. Americans in fully one-third of counties across our nation have only one plan to choose from and face staggering insurance premiums. Montanans were promised lower costs, expanded coverage, increased competition in the marketplace, and the right to keep their doctor. All of these promises have been broken.
"I will work with my colleagues in Congress, the Trump Administration, and Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price to reform our health care system."
Like Trump and his White House thugs Daines cites "facts" that are lies.
• How could the number of Montanans who have contacted him be "countless," especially in light of the fact that his staff routinely enters the names of constituents' who contact him into their database? Can he supply us with just one of these sad stories?
o The 20 million Americans who now benefit from the ACA couldn't afford any health insurance before the law took effect. When they had a medical emergency they went to the emergency room and paid off the exorbitant bill in bits and pieces, or not at all.
o While it's true that our premium has increased since we signed up for Obamacare if we brought this insurance on the open market it would cost us almost five times what does now. Yet it is the "genius" of the markets that reactionaries like Daines cite as the cure for what ails Obamacare. And when you examine their "plan," to quote Russell Berman in Atlantic Magazine, it resembles an impressionist painting. "The closer you look, the fuzzier it appears." For example, how much will the GOP's "plan" cost us?
Sen. Daines, please hold a town hall so we can tell you face to face that the only way to address America's sick health care system is a single-payer, Federally administered plan that cuts your fat cat insurance cronies out of the picture and accomplishes what you fear the most: income redistribution. (15 February 2017)
And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, "We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't we're gonna blow a 50-amp fuse"
Art anticipating life. Surfing HBO a couple of nights ago I came across a promising title starring two actors whose work I admire, Zooey Deschanel and Mark Warberg. Because The Happening was rated only one star I checked Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics said : "At first, a great deal happens," said one review. "Then nothing much happens for quite some time, then something so underwhelming happens that one is left wondering, 'Did that really just happen?'" I thought: This I've got to see.
Moments after the titles stop rolling people in Manhattan begin plunging off buildings to their gory deaths in the streets below. Then a cop in Philadelphia suddenly pulls out his gun and shoots himself in the head, the gun skittering to the pavement. One by one people strolling in nearby Rittenhouse Park pick up the weapon and blow their brains out. In Princeton, New Jersey, people festoon the old hardwoods by hanging themselves from the limbs. Patrons at the zoos climb into the lion enclosures to taunt the animals, who tear them to shreds, prompting a woman watching the news to declare: "My God! What kind of terrorists are these?"
When all seems lost Deschanel and Walberg emerge from the buildings where they've taken separate refuge in order to die in one another's arms (although if they're both going to kill themselves the choreography of this double homicide is unclear.) But miracle! The threat seems to have blown away in the wind! All is saved!
Or is it?
You can interpret The Happening in a multitude of ways (or dismiss it completely, like most moviegoers.) But for me it's emblematic of the pointless, self-deprecating and sometimes self-destructive manner in which many Clinton supporters are reacting to their guy's defeat in November. As the toxic GOP miasma wafts across our country-'tis-of-thee the "Progressives" have taken to wearing pink hats, breaking stuff and yelling demands in the streets, all symptoms of early dementia. And I expect that the suicide rate has risen among people vulnerable to perceived signs of the Apocalypse. Of course, like the death-dealing wind in The Happening the GOP isn't listening. The GOP never listens. And why should they? Republicans now have all of the power. The only way to change that is to vote these pricks out of office. That means subverting the corrupt Democratic Party, then going door to door in two years to persuade the retards who voted for The Orangutan's Son to consider the fact that their jobs aren't coming back, and they're still getting fucked, coming and going. (5 February 2017)
The dining room at Dark Acres, inspired by the chair paintings of John Register. (30 January 2017)
The Mercantile is ready for its close-up. Soon after Missoula District Judge Dusty Deschamps ruled Jan. 17 that plans could go forward to demolish the decrepit old Mercantile building in downtown Missoula and replace it with a hotel, an occasionally reliable source told Dark Acres that part of the deconstruction will be filmed for airing on a Salvage Dawgs episode. The popular DIY network reality show features the owners and workers of Black Dog Salvage, based in Roanoke, Virginia, as they deconstruct old buildings and repurpose anything from old doors and windows to mantels and staircases.
At Dark Acres we're preparing a bid to buy some of the bricks from the Merc's façade. These were baked six generations ago from local red clay so soft the bricks had to be glazed with a hard lacquer to prevent them from melting in the rain. We intend to use our Merc bricks to line the inside of our garden wall. They will be a daily reminder of all the fun we had taking pictures of ourselves in the Merc's old photo booth, and shopping for books and clothes and sporting goods and the couch that our Border collies sleep on our living room. (18 January 2017)
As we huddle inside with the dogs on these dreary sub-freezing winter days we turn for comfort to re-reading, re-watching and re-hearing our favorite books, movies, and music. Here they are:
Fave novels: Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis; the Millenium trilogy, by Stieg Larsson; The Little Friend and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tarrt; Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, Dog Soliders, by Robert Stone, the Rabbit books by John Updike, and Underworld, by Don DeLillo.
Fave non-fiction: The Face of Battle, by John Keegan; The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer; Theodore Rex and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris; The Great Shame, by Thomas Keneally, and A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.
Fave movies: Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron; Cop Car, starring Kevin Bacon; The Descendents, starring George Clooney, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, starring Warren Beatty; Warm Bodies, starring Nicholas Hoult, Zombieland, starring Emma Stone, and What We Do In the Shadows, starring Jemaine Clement.
Fave songs: "Country," by Keith Jarrett; "Primavera" and "Corazon Espinado," by Carlos Santana; "Precious Angel," by Bob Dylan; "London's Brilliant Parade," by Elvis Costello, "Wonder" and "I May Know the Word," by Natalie Merchant (the new orchestrations), and "Wasteland of the Free" and "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight," by Iris Dement. (17 January 2017)
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)
Arbitrate 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)
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)
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 that 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)
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 these 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)
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]
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.
"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?"
An 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]