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.

A Place to Be

Nancy S. Cook

Please don't reduce what we hold in common. Public lands are important to all Montanans. I know this to be true, and here’s why:

My parents divorced, I spent winters with my mother in a city, and summers with my dad on a sheep ranch in the Bitterroot Valley. The ranch was big enough to work all day without seeing anyone beyond family, and small enough to imagine we were in control. Sunup to sundown, there was always work, and it seemed that the ranch itself rebuked us — a sagging gate here, an irrigation pipe change demanded there, a new fence needed to manage pasture. Tools clanged in the truck bed as we raced from job to job, walking or  riding too slow in our race to improve the land. Buzzards circling told a gruesome story we followed-a lamb maimed, a ewe gone. Grim and pinched by death, we worked harder. We took pleasure in work done well, but we took no leisure.

Once in a while, my dad called a break in the late afternoon and we headed across the valley, often to Carlton Creek in the Bitterroot National Forest. At the end of the dirt road out we hopped and started walking, up. Here, we savored the silty sweat earned from walking not working. The land offered no rebuke, the lists quieted, and we listened in — the buzz of insects, the skittering of creatures indifferent to herding. Even after a day’s work, our bodies felt weightless without posts, wire, fence tool, workman’s gloves. Our sight shifted from the long view of tasks and goals to the near view — bluebell, balsamroot, fairy slipper, pussy toe, or shooting star — a poetry of names my father rarely spoke. Our imaginations floated free. No longer drudge, but sprite, I hopped rock to rock for the sheer pleasure of balance, fording, and re-fording Carlton Creek, cool and wet, tickling my boots.

Sometimes while they raced for a peak, I embraced the saddles, or the cuppy warmth of tufted grass and boulder. Here I rested, not against the clock, but an equal among living things, managed by nobody, or so it seemed. Our garden strawberries, carefully weeded, tasted nothing like the wild strawberries on these afternoons. Here were chipmunks, pika, a lizard — all independent of me and my fencebuilding.

Even though my family owned land, and a lot of it by some accountings, public land gave us what we couldn't own — a place free of the guilt of work unfinished, a place where nature did just fine without our plans, a place to play, to be quiet in, to slow down and listen in, to adjust our focus. We were not the powerful ones in such places. We need places where humans are humbled, and we need places where the gates are not locked, and the signs welcome rather than warn us to keep out.

Nancy S. Cook lives in Missoula, where she teaches at the University of Montana.

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