Category Archives: Montana

Rain is grace

It takes some effort to live in a garden, where the beauty of nature is clarified and cultured. But this doesn't mean we have earned that beauty. It remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

Who could “deserve” to really see a peony on a rainy day? It takes some effort to make a garden, clarifying the beauty of nature near at hand. But after the work, it remains something we did not earn so much as a gift we may receive.

As much as I can, I live in a garden. I thought it would be a good place to sit and write, or at least read, but more often I find it’s a place that provokes busyness, a little like sitting in a messy house. Wherever I sit, I find myself noticing things that could be done—a day lily moved that’s be crowded by shrub that got larger than I’d guessed, a new curve to an established bed that would add a bit of elegance, or a decision to get rid of the self-sewn echinacea that is taking over the round bed under the office window. There’s no better way to procrastinate than by edging a bed of lupines in full bloom. But I also find I never enjoy the beauty so much as when I am working.

Beauty, when it is found in truth and goodness, brings us the sort of joy that gives substance to hope. A world with such mountains, and such waterfalls, under such a sky must be fundamentally good. It would be a betrayal of honest faith to be very pessimistic. Our best longings may yet lead us right.

I know from experience how easy it is to be misled by beauty, of course. Hell has its beauties, too. Whole industries have been founded on the artistry of giving bad things good appearances. The devious appear innocent and the manipulative seem free of guile.

But as we pay attention our powers of discernment grow, and as we gain experience with good and evil, all the decoys that are not good lose their luster. Junk food loses its appeal, as do junk art, junk science, junk culture, and junk society.

Not that one should get too snobby about it. The farmers of ancient Sodom were highly skilled, and through their hard work they became very wealthy, but their wealth made them cruel and self-righteous. This was their great sin. Hugh Nibley tells us that “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah put nets over their trees to deny the birds their lunch, and ‘Abraham, seeing it, cursed them in the name of his God.'”

It seems good, on several levels, to plant elderberry and chokecherry and mulberry bushes, mainly for the birds. And at unexpected times, the good moments do come.  I do sit and read, visited by goldfinches and cedar waxwings and dark-eyed juncos amid gardens that have drawn my consciousness outward to include them, moments like kingfishers landing and trout leaping in a calm metaxis whose horizons ripple and hum, there and not there, here and not here. It seems a good thing, living in a garden.

In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, one of the things Norman learned from his father is that “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Just so. Though I dug a hole and amended the soil and planted the peonies, I still don’t know by what miracle they grow, and I did not make water to fall from the heavens or sunshine to flood through the morning, though these things happen. It’s grace.

Also posted in Gardening

Learning stoicism from the bears


Michael uses the opportunity for a close up. A minute later, the cub advanced toward him, so he tapped it on the nose with his foot. The bear shook his head and moved back a half step, but didn’t turn and head down the creek to cover as older bears usually do. He was neither aggressive nor cautious. Mainly, he seemed hungry.

The cub was apparently an orphan. He didn’t know how to find food—or even what was food and what wasn’t. In recent days he had dragged out of my garage a 20-pound bag of millet wild bird seed, several bags of potting soil, a bag of peat moss, and a bag of fertilizer. He ripped them apart and spread the contents around the yard, but none of it was edible. I’ve had bears around for years, but mostly they stuck to edible garbage and other treasures, such as dog food. This little guy didn’t know what he was doing.

2014-0525-bear_0854He came out in broad daylight and couldn’t be scared away. He just kept ambling around, sorting through things, trying to get food. Not the sort of guest one can trust in a big yard frequented by dozens of children. Most of our bears are rarely seen in day light, and amble toward the creek when they encounter a person. They aren’t exactly afraid, but they are not aggressive and they prefer to keep some distance from people. Michael and I tried yelling at him (after kicking him in the nose) and rushing toward him swinging arms and making noise. He just moved around us and stayed up in the yard, still looking for something. He even started down the open door into my basement, but Michael chased him away. We were expecting fifteen or so grandchildren for lunch, some of them preschoolers. We couldn’t predict how the bear would interact with tiny people. We couldn’t, to be precise, predict how he was going to interact with us from moment to moment.

I’ve been trying to learn better how to live with bears. That seems better than simply removing them. But sometimes I don’t like the cost. I have eleven young fruit trees I need to replace, after bears broke them late last fall, a couple near ground level, and this was followed by the coldest winter in years–minus 35 degrees at one point. They’re quite dead. Also, I needed to either give up beekeeping or work on a more ambitious fencing system than suited by intents and purposes. Locking up garbage faithfully was simple until bears figured out they could rip off siding and tear down doors. I suppose I’m not through learning.

I couldn’t see what passed for a solution. I wanted to just solve the immediate problem—give him some food. Generally, we don’t need to solve the world’s problems to provide immediate comfort. The trouble was that a full belly doesn’t last long. What happens tomorrow and day after, when he learns that the way to get food is to hang around my place in daylight? There’s no real future for bears accustomed to getting food from people’s houses. They start scratching on doors and crawling through windows, or worse. Bears conditioned to forage in people’s garbage eventually get shot.

The tribal game wardens use a live trap with troublesome bears that haven’t harmed anyone, relocating them farther from town. But I doubted this little guy would fare much better in the world. His mama hadn’t taught him how to find. Bears are high enough in the hierarchy of being that they develop cultures and traditions. Cubs hang out with their mothers for a long time, learning about predators, food choices, and foraging sites. This guy apparently hadn’t learned any of that. We called the warden, and not much longer, he showed up, ready to shoot the bear. While we were walking down the creek attempting to locate him, we heard the unmistakeable banging of a bear in a trap. The trap had been set for several days, just across the creek. Finally, he had overcome his skepticism and walked into it.

I don’t know what the tribe did with him. So I am free to think they probably relocated him to a wilder place, and in that place he figured out how to forage in the wild. Happily ever after.

But I don’t believe it. So I find myself descending into stoicism, imitating those ancients who tried to see things as they are rather than hurling themselves against the cosmos to change what would not change. ‘”Seek not to have things happen as you choose them,” said the slave Epictetus. “Rather choose that they should happen as they do.”

The Stoics sometimes had considerable wisdom, but they tended not to accomplish much, having lost some essential vigor.

Also posted in Living

The killing frost

The orchard has few apple blossoms this year. Late frost has done its damage.

The large McIntosh tree by the driveway has very few apple blossoms this year. Most of the trees in the orchard have few or no blossoms. Late frost has done its damage.

Meanwhile, the trees along the creek—ornamental crabs—are in full glory, ethereal pink and radiant red. The warm air flows downhill, so there’s often an invisible river of warm air flowing down the creek bed, just above the water.

Some years the apple trees are heavily flocked with blossoms—mostly white—and the entire place takes on a celestial ambiance for a few days. But in years like this one a killing frost comes after the trees have left dormancy and formed buds. Large orchardists sometimes try remedies such as hiring helicopters to hover over the trees, pushing a layer of warm air down lower, or lighting smudge pots under the trees to generate some heat.

I pass on the helicopters and smoke—I make no money on the crop, and I won’t be hungry even if there is no harvest, so I’d rather not pass my time in a re-creation of Vietnam. Still, even when times are easy we take joy from bounteous harvests.

When the gardens and orchards are producing well, we are flooded with more goodness than we have space to use or store. This year, though, most of the trees have only a dozen or so clusters of blossoms, and some have none at all. What to do? I suppose I could cut down the trees and replace them with something more reliable. I could sell the place and buy a condo full of climate-controlled rooms, populated by potted plants.

Actually, I couldn’t. A single blossom is quite a lot, after all—enough to remind us that the tree is here as primally as we are, a manifestation of being. It’s when things become scarce that we sometimes recognize their worth. A single blossom means the entire vast miracle of fruit that even in hard times will abide. Our best thoughts are but seeing what is here.

In What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger writes:

We stand outside of science. Instead, we stand before a tree in bloom, for example — and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these ‘ideas’ buzzing about in our heads.

Heidegger wants us to awaken from the slumber of ideas that may distance us from existence. In the buzzing in my head, the tree has many aspects. It is part of my ongoing synethesis of scientific understanding, composed of objects and processes, involving vitamins, carbohydrates, and acids. It is part of the complex web of life I try to understand, relating bees hovering at the blossom to finches chirping in the branches to bacteria feeding at the roots. It is a part of my cultural heritage, stretching back to Eve and to the very different garden of the Hesperides, at the northern edge of the world.

And, leaving Heidegger, it is part of the voice of God, a silent music at once present in my mind and beyond my consciousness, the vehicle of a metaphor and somehow, also, the tenor.

Also posted in Gardening

Broken eggs


A nest of mallard eggs along Mission Creek, where no ducks have nested in the twenty years I’ve lived here. Like other forms of hope, they were fragile.

For years I’ve been planting berries and fruit trees, though I rarely harvest much. It’s a simple way to make the world better—the main payoff for me, beyond the elemental joy of fruit blossoms and plants taking root and unfolding into the sky, is that birds love it here. I watched a ruby-throated hummingbird this Sunday afternoon, sitting perched on a branch, grooming itself. It wasn’t hungry. It was at peace, amid bounty.

I get nostalgic for a world I’ve never seen, reading Lewis and Clark’s descriptions of the vast flocks of waterfowl along the Missouri River, or early descriptions of the enormous bison herds on the northern great plains or the salmon runs on the lower Columbia River between Portland and Astoria. I believe that sort of earthly abundance lies in our future as well as our past—it will be ours again as soon as we learn better how to live.

When a pair of mallards nested on Mission Creek where it flows through our place, I felt delight and surprise. My son had built a small dam to create little pool beside the sauna, to make a cooling dip a bit more graceful, and the mallards had begun frequenting the area. I was looking forward to watching the baby ducks make their way into the world, having a chance to observe them closeup. It seemed possible they would return as adults, since this place would also be “their” place in the world.

While I was working in the yard last week, getting caught up from spending a week in San Francisco, three boys came down the driveway and asked if they could walk through my yard to the creek. My policy is to say yes to such requests, glad to be asked, and to mainly ignore other kids who merely trespass, keeping a wary eye on me. It’s not their fault I own the creek, and I don’t think such resources should be walled off. Children in a well-ordered world will have wild places.

I forgot about them, and spent the next few hours on a lawnmower, turning an overgrown pasture into mulch for the garden. That evening, my son told me he came on the boys after they had removed most of the eggs from the nest—some were broken and they were carrying some. He put the three he salvaged back into the next, but the adult ducks didn’t return.

It’s not the first problem I’ve had with visitors. Usually, it’s small acts of vandalism such as throwing the Adirondack Chairs I leave down along the path for birdwatching into the creek. But I can buy another chair.

When we transgress the order of being we lose some of the richness of being. We cannot usually imagine the barrenness and sparseness of the lives we now live, or the earth we now inhabit, compared to what would be if we better controlled our urges to smash some things, or better honored our quite different instincts to make way for living realities that we did not plan, cannot own, and will not control. Much of the damage is invisible to our preferred mode of seeing, because it can only be seen in absences, such as the baby ducks that do not swim in the pool, the experience of which I cannot purchase.

We live in a world full of absences—millions of bison moving across arid, windswept prairies; millions of salmon surging up free-running rivers to spawn; nearly infinite flocks of wild fowl coming north to nest. Our families are small and fragile, our cities vast and fragile, with small gardens at the edges and in the margins.

Absences, too, contribute to our sense of disorder. A world without gardens might be clean and organized, like an army barracks or a workers’ neighborhood in a socialist regime, but organization is not order. I haven’t seen the boys since the event. I’ve been wondering what I could say to them. It would be nice if they could begin to see a way the world could be that they would like even more than the way it is now, and to think a little about how they could live to make that way real.

Also posted in Gardening, Living

Peak experiences


Michael on the way up St. Mary’s Peak in the Mission Range. (photo by Israel Lafrombois)

One way of reckoning time is to remember the hikes. The mountains don’t change, but our perspective does.  I remember vividly a hike Valerie and I took to Mollman Lakes on the divide of the Mission Range with our five children. The twins, Michael and Becky, were hardly more than toddlers, so teaching them how to press on when the going was tough was part of the game we were playing. My practice has been to slow down as much as it takes but not to stop.

Israel's first hike. His mother, Christa, carried him to Gray Wolf Lake (with help as needed from the rest of us).

Israel’s first hike. His mother, Christa, carried him to Gray Wolf Lake (with help as needed from the rest of us).

The trip had moments of perfection, which, of course, is what I remember. I suppose there were aches and mosquitoes, because there always are, but I don’t really remember.  The cutthroats were biting. Each cast of the lure was followed within a few seconds by a strike–mostly one- to two-pounders. Each of the kids was allowed to catch one trout, which we wrapped in tinfoil and cooked for lunch in a small fire on a massive boulder on the shore. The sky was blue and the air warm. An eagle glided in slow arcs overhead. We saw that it was good.

I remember another hike we all took right after my oldest daughter, Christa, had her first child–Israel–an overnight trip to Gray Wolf Lake. Israel was much too young to walk. He was set up in an aluminum backpack frame, and we took turns carrying him, though Christa did most of the work. We stopped to eat huckleberries along the way. Morning at the lake with the sun shining behind us and onto the peaks of the Mission Range–a visit to the dawn of Creation–the eternal becoming.

I didn’t take enough hikes with my kids. I was always either a teacher or a principal, and I always felt swamped by my work–mostly because I procrastinated so much, reading, thinking, looking for better answers than the ones I already knew. I was more distracted and distant than I should have been. But then, what is good persists and multiplies.

Last April at dawn Michael picked Israel up in his one-ton 1996 GMC flatbed. They drove to St. Mary’s Lake and parked at the end of the road on on the northwest shore of the lake. It’s not really a trailhead, because there’s not much of a trail. They had some granola bars and smoked oysters from the Amish store and their snowshoes.

Michael had been to the summit of St. Mary’s Peak four or five times, but it was Israel’s first ascent. They’d climbed Mountaineer Peak  near the Garden Wall together the year before, and Israel thought that was “pretty awesome,” and he wanted more.

Israel (without gloves) earns every step through the deep snow.

Israel (without gloves) earns every step through the deep snow. (photo by Michael K. Umphrey)

Most trails up steep terrain zig zag their way up. but the trail up St. Mary’s pretty much goes straight up to the ridge. It was too steep to stop and rest, Israel said. “Even just standing, you’re not really getting a break,” he said. It was hard going. He said his legs got tired before he really got winded.

“When I’m climbing, I don’t think of it as climbing a mountain,” Michael said. “I think of it as just walking. I’m just going to take a step. I’m going to take another step. Take another step. And pretty soon you’re someplace really cool. It’s not that hard just to take a step. ”

The snow and the snowshoes made it harder.  “Snowshoes are a pain,” said Israel. “About two thirds of the way up we needed snowshoes.”

“Every step you take your snowshoe sinks a foot or so, and so you’re kind of taking baby steps while you’re packing the snow down,” said Michael.  “It’s hard to take a step, and it does take a lot of energy because you’re tired, and you put your weight on it and it bears it for a half a second–then it breaks back down and you slide. That’s the hardest–the false steps.

“It takes effort to keep up morale when you’re doing that. It helps if you have a partner to switch off who’s leading.”  The snow was worse in some ways on the way down.

It had melted some, and  “even with your snowshoes you would sink to your knees,” Israel said. “And they’re hard to pull back out.”

Michael appreciated Israel’s grit. “Never did Israel say, ‘Oh this is really hard.’ He didn’t talk about how hard it was or mention that he wanted to turn back–maybe go sit in the hot tub for the day instead. He just kept talking about whatever interesting things came into his head.”

Israel felt the same way about Michael. “He’s a morale booster,” he said. “He enjoys it, and when he’s enjoying it it’s hard not to. He’s exciting.”

white out at the summit

Photographs don’t really capture the raw intensity of conditions at the summit. (photo by Michael K. Umphrey)

After about four hours, they made the ridge.  “The last section of the ridge is flat, said Israel. “You could land a helicopter up there. From the runway, it’s another hundred or hundred and fifty feet straight up to the peak.” The final ascent was in a sharp wind and white out conditions. Israel said you couldn’t see three feet. “It was pretty bad.”

“There are cornices at the top,” Michael said. “They’re formed by the wind blowing the snow over a steep ledge, so it kind of curls around, and it’s steeper than steep. It’s a ninety degree angle but then it bends back around–so it’s impossible to go up what should be the easiest route. You have to skirt around the very top of the peak to the south, where the most intense elevation drop is. It’s almost a straight cliff for nearly a thousand feet. So at the very top, right before you make  the summit, there’s an edge you need to skirt around. There’s no trail  because the snow’s so wind-blown. You have to chop a little trail out and go piece by piece, kind of crawling on your belly

“I got up there right before Israel, made a little path, stuck my ski poles in and pulled myself up on my belly–just terrified. I’m on my hands and knees crawling in the snow, digging my hands in and I turn around and take my gloves off and try to give them to Israel. He’s just about to crawl to the top of the summit on his belly too, and he won’t take my gloves.

“He says, ‘No, no, I’m fine. I actually like this better; I can hold on better.’ The wind is blowing, and it’s twenty degrees out, and he’s crawling with his bare hands in the snow trying to drag himself on his belly onto the summit up there,” Michael said, laughing. “He’s pretty tough. Not a whiner.

A day well spent.

A day well spent.

“We went snowshoeing to the top of a 10,000 foot mountain and he didn’t think to bring gloves. He did have a hat but his hands were probably almost frozen off. But he was captivated by other things–the mountains he was in, the interesting ideas he wanted to talk about while we were walking. When you’re hiking you run into really uncomfortable situations, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re there, and you’re a lot more uncomfortable if you dwell too much on problems. If you just work through things–pay enough attention and work through it–and keep going–keep enjoying yourself, it’s a lot easier, and you can look back with fonder memories.

“It’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you stand up there, and you’re looking down on a lot of other pretty impressive mountain tops.”


Also posted in Family