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.
I’m not a fan of cell phones. Having one is necessary, however, for practical reasons, and I am not impractical, at least not entirely. Wearing clothes in hot weather is unpleasant too, but we choose our sacrifices.
My phone’s wallpaper shows the first licks of sunrise on a high cloud morning over a river valley. The water flows dark, reflecting touches of orange sky. In the distance, ragged hills claw the horizon, the snow covering them is barely visible, but I know it’s there. I know because I took that photo from a hill on the opposite side of the river valley, climbed that hill well before dawn, boots biting wet clay through the previous night’s dusting.
The photo itself is poorly lit. It would mean little to a stranger who happened upon my phone, slipped from pocket, lying silent on gravel at a trailhead. If anything, they’d probably notice the skyline, the pastel sunrise: yellows, purples, blues, oranges. But that’s only the upper third of the frame, and not the most important part, at least not to me. The most important part is the land: the twisting valley, the tangled cottonwoods, alders, and willows that appear as darkness, lifelessness, nothingness, empty space. The shaded, in-between spaces, these I covet.
I took that photo from one of my favorite places to watch the world wake. That place is, for now at least, available to all Americans willing to exert the effort to get there. In the fall, deer appear and disappear between the liminal, shaded underbrush, and pheasant cackle up the light. The hike is steep, just treacherous enough to be interesting, and just long enough to coat me in sweat. Watching the sunrise on an icicle morning, tucked into a rock fold, steam rising from my collar, knowing I’ll soon cool into discomfort. Dry twigs. Cold sage. The photo brings me these images.
To those who have never tasted them, never wetted ankles in creeks, or scratched knuckles against boulders, our public lands are the photograph on my phone. They might see the pretty sky, but miss the richness beneath. That beauty must be known to be valued. Public lands are not valueless, as Congress asserted. But what can we expect from those who don’t know?
Most Montanans know, and we should be angry. If we allow our land to be traded, sold off, locked up, razed, plowed, drilled, dug, blasted, grazed, exploited, we will be the last ones to know its value. Our public lands will become shadows in old photos. We stand to lose our visceral understanding of the complicated, brutal, sublime, minimalist, uncaring poetry of place, to lose the spaces that teach us to experience ourselves as human animals. These experiences do not exist on screens and cannot be represented in ones and zeros. They cannot be created by laws of men, but they can be destroyed by them.
Carrying a cell phone and wearing pants in summer are compromises I will abide, but when it comes to our land, compromise is unacceptable.
Miles Nolte is the Angling Columnist for Gray's Sporting Journal, and an avid supporter of public lands.