Montana has a long tradition of listening to and respecting — revering — its writers and the state’s literary tradition. In an unprecedented show of unity, more than forty of Montana’s best writers have gathered, in rapid response fashion, to write original essays and testimonials advocating for the protection of our public lands, and endorsing Democratic House of Representatives candidate Rob Quist’s position on this (literally) most common ground of issues. Please vote on May 25.
Protect This Place
Carter G. Walker
It could be any season here. The hills always golden, the clouds swept like a scatter of bones across a pale sky. The grasses blow this way, then that, waves in an ochre sea. When the wind is loud it smells sharp with juniper. When there is barely a breeze, I smell sage.
I come here less than I used to, twenty years ago, before kids, when time was cheap. But I come here still when I need to. And I do need to.
Lately, I come here a lot.
I come like a wounded animal that needs to lie down. I come in joy too, in my gratitude for beauty I can walk across. I come for the way my heart beats fast on the climb, and the way my whole body slows when I rest in the limestone windbreak.
I love this place because I know it.
I know the cracks in the cliff where a child can climb up, and the ones where a dog can get down. I know where the tipi rings are, and the ancient cairns. But I never remember the way down through the trees. Never once in twenty years. I find it new every time.
The truth is, I come here to be lost.
On trails like stretchmarks over sandy earth, I see boot prints, hoof prints, paw prints, none of them mine.
When she was seven, my oldest daughter found bone shards. Together we imagined the mother and child who might have worked those same bones into a tool or a toy a thousand years before. Sissel was disappointed when I asked her to empty her fat pockets of bones and rocks, but she understood this place needed to stay as it was, so other people might find what we found.
Some years later, I picked up maybe the same shards with my niece and nephews from a faraway city. “How many children do you think have held these old bones?” I asked, teaching them to lick their fingers to tell bone from rock. “None,” they said. As if we were the first, the only. As if the last thousand years had never happened.
I would bring you here if I could. You who can protect this place. With your voice. Your vote.
I would walk you up the gentle side trail, pointing out orange lichen and the almost-neon-green moss that grows beneath wind-twisted sagebrush. I would bring my dog, and we would laugh as tiny clumps of cactus turn this lumbering Lab into a Lipizzaner. I’d dig my fingernails into juniper berries and offer you a whiff. I’d show you where I came eye-to-eye with a hawk once, a surprise that I remember in my body. I’d tell you how I wait for that bird to come back.
We’d sit in the windbreak and look out over the wide valley to the snow-covered mountains beyond. I’d ask if you have a place like this.
It’s yours, I’d say then.
Ours. Ours to lose, ours to defend.
Carter G. Walker is a writer in Bozeman.