When I first moved back home to Montana last year, people encouraged me to write about the experience. A year later, I finally understand why I couldn’t do that at the time.
It has taken a full year – a cycle through four very distinct seasons – to combat the writer’s block that paralyzed me from this simple task. It’s a strange thing, this connection to the land that drew me home. It informs everything I think, and it informs everything I do. It has such a hold on me that it required a year of penitence (for ever leaving in the first place) before it loosened its grip and my pen. What I finally realized is that, in order to leave in the first place, I had to shut off a part of my spirit to find the courage to go.
But it has worked on me, this year and this land, and now my finally-addressed heartbreak of the first leaving, the first loss, so many years ago, has begun to heal. I am not sorry I left and yet I now understand the full toll that the leave-taking exacted on my psyche and my spirit.
Now home, eyes back open and Montana spirit reviving, one would think I’d write about the special draw of the people here. Even I thought that the reason I came back was to be nearer to people who know me, who know so deeply this place of my birth, and who better understand who I am. But instead I find myself starting with the land.
But I can tell you the land and the people are completely intertwined. Where I had been living, in a very beautiful but very big city, that connection is not so obvious. When I finally bought a home there, a yard was on the top of my “must have” list. That seemed shocking to my friends back here. Who would have to put a yard on a list of things that come with a home? Values and opportunities differ from place to place, so yes, there, in that lovely city, a place to garden and a place to sit and sip coffee outdoors in nature comes as a hard-fought-for premium. Because of that, the inter-connectedness of people and land is subtle, often-hidden, sometimes perhaps even nonexistent or forgotten.
But here, the land dominates. Hiking on the land, walking on the land, playing on the land, tilling the soil of the land. For a place with the shortest growing season in the universe, it seems odd that everyone gardens. OK, maybe not everyone, but if you bring up your garden at a dinner party, as I did on a recent Friday night, you open a reservoir of tumbling-out, faster-than-can-be-caught ideas, experiences, stories, advice. Everyone participates. I learned that you shouldn’t torch your potatoes if you have “early blight” but only if you have “late blight,” unless of course you are just trying to be proactive and overly-protective of your other plants, like, say, your tomatoes. Which, unless you have a greenhouse in our part of the state (the mountains of the Seeley-Swan), you shouldn’t even really try to grow if you aren’t prepared for probable failure and certain eventual despair. But, on the other hand, you can grow prodigious rhubarb and sorrel (which, it was argued, tastes either like sour lemons, wild strawberries or kiwi, depending on whose taste buds you trust). All of this in just the first few minutes of conversation! (Note to self: Gardening is indeed a most satisfying dinner party topic back here at home.)
Animals also dominate, and sometimes they are even connected to gardening and the land. Like this weekend, when I was out at the frost-free yard hydrant (something people who live on winter lands with wells understand but, city folks, just think of a free-standing spigot for a hose) getting a bucket of water to drag to my newly planted deer resistant Japanese red barbera and lavender garden. A neighbor drove by and waved to me from the end of my long winding driveway. I waved back. “Bear,” he shouted, and I laughed, conditioned to the continued hazing that the traitorous years of living in California had earned me. He pointed. “Careful – really! – black bear coming down the hill!,” he shouted. I turned to look. Then, against all conventional Montana wisdom and storied advice, I dropped the water pail and sprinted to safety. Big Mama was definitely on the prowl.
On a morning walk not so long ago, I spotted the first baby deer of the season. Everything is late this year, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting my first glimpse of the babies that dominated my landscape last spring. The mothers had weathered a long, cold, harsh winter and when they first appeared back in the spring, they were so thin and fragile-looking. I wondered if we’d even have babies this year, and I fretted and I worried. I wanted to feed them, but I know it is not as kind a gesture as it seems on the surface, so I just watched and allowed them to nibble on the branches of the dogwoods and the lilacs that were reaching through last year’s slightly outgrown deer-safe cage. It seemed an even exchange, their company for a bit of choice garden food. The privilege of spotting the first babies of the season and watching them fatten up and grow makes it well worth the minor irritation of their garden munching, at least for the moment.
Then, on an afternoon when the local nursery guys came to cut down two beetle kill trees on my land, we were swarmed by a gang of hungry female deer who love the moss on the branches that is most often too high for them to reach. I told one of the young guys how happy I was to see them eating and how worried I’d been about their nutrition after such a long, hard winter. He confessed that his parents were feeding their deer oats, and I felt less city-bumpkin-ish for my over-wrought concern. As he cleaned up the debris to throw onto the burn pile, I watched him pull off the moss to leave piles for the deer that stayed close, hanging around the edges, eager for a treat. It touched me so deeply, this young burly tree-cutting guy, gently pulling moss from the branches and leaving piles of deer food all along the path.
I understand him. Even after so many years away, I understand this place.
And I am home, I am so gently and quietly and happily home.
Next: Art and Culture, Food (Farmers Markets and Potlucks), Politics (this one is risky), Winter (all 10 months of it) and we’ll see where else this leads.
Lynn Ingham is publisher and CEO of New West.