The Big Burn

Last week I finally finished Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, a history of a massive 1910 wildfire in the northern Rockies. As I read the book, I realized that it fits into a wider set of recently-read books on the west and wildfires, including Philip Connors’ Fire Season (about time spent as a fire lookout in New Mexico), Norman Maclean’s short story/memoir “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” Rick Bass’s Winter (about his first winter in northern Montana), or a lot of the John McPhee I’ve been devouring.

Egan’s book is a little frustrating, though. As his (or his publisher’s) subtitle suggests, the book can’t decide if it’s the story of how Theodore Roosevelt and his forester Gifford Pinchot started the American system of forest reserves (and its guardian agency, the U.S. Forest Service) or the story of the Big Burn in and around the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana state line.

The former story (split across the book’s long and somewhat meandering first section and a shorter, quicker ending section) is interesting, and resonates now, at a moment when misguided public servants in Washington and throughout the West think it’s high time to sell off public lands to private interests – and not to the homesteaders who tried to colonize the Bitterroot forests at the turn of the last century. Roosevelt, typically, comes off as a heroic figure, right up to the point that he loses the three-way 1912 election. Pinchot is more complex – a visionary, a conservationist, a millionaire, a jerk – and more interesting for that complexity.
Neither Teddy nor G.P. figures in the story of the Big Burn, though, and it’s the fire itself – a natural disaster of Biblical proportions – that stars in the book, especially in the middle section, when Egan grippingly describes the origins and spread of the conflagration. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, some bad weather, and the inadvertent creation of an infinite amount of tinder by the Forest Service’s policy of fighting all fires, the Big Burn ironically defied the Forest Service’s efforts to fight it. Over the two days it raged, the fire laid waste to millions of acres of backcountry forest, destroyed several towns (not all of which were rebuilt), and killed 80-some people – not as many as might have been expected given the fire’s scale and scope.

All that is to say that the fire restored a massive swath of the American West. Its elemental power could not be resisted, only accepted or escaped. Some who accepted the fire did so against their will and tragically, dying in a variety of horrifying ways that Egan outlines in some of the book’s more compelling and terrifying passages. And some who accepted the fire survived, though often after suffering permanent injuries. Egan movingly describes several survivors’ unsuccessful attempts to obtain aid from the federal government. He does not, though, describe the forest’s own rejuvenation, which left me hanging. I wanted to read more about how the Bitterroot forests grew back, what they looked like ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years after the fire – a period when the USFS managed or mis-managed them for the benefit, offer, or big lumber companies whose effects on the land were apparently as bad or worse than the fire. 

That the Western forests (and those in the South and East as well as in Alaska) were preserved or at least managed for the good of the country is what, I guess, the subtitle means, and so I guess that Egan does achieve that goal: showing how the calamity of the Big Burn focused conservationists’ energies on arguing, more or less successfully, that at least some of America’s lands needed to be held in common for the nation’s good. That’s a battle that we’re still fighting. 

The Caldera Are Calling and I Must Go

A person can find all types of treasure, trinkets, and trash bearing John Muir’s famous line, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” which he originally wrote in a letter to his sister.

I don’t know what Muir thought of Yellowstone and the Tetons, but I bet he’d have found the Island Park area interesting: like Yellowstone, it’s got a fascinating geological history. For instance, Big Spring, near the northern end of Island Park, is indeed a big spring – one of the biggest in the world – and gives rise to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

More dramatically, the entire area occupies the floor of two nested caldera – collapsed volcanoes. The larger Island Park caldera is about the same size as the Yellowstone caldera, part of the supervolcano that – as the Onion jokes –  could choose to blow at any minute.

The Henry’s Fork and Island Park Calderas

Of course this relates to fatbiking! The Fat Pursuit course skirts the aligned western rims of the Island Park and smaller Henry’s Fork calderas, then runs south to the spot where the Henry’s Fork river drops off the edge of the caldera, forming the two Mesa Falls on its way to the Snake River. The course winds toward the eastern side of the Henry’s Fork caldera, climbing along its edge before dropping back down away from the rim to our first checkpoint. There the course starts to run north, climbing out of the Henry’s Fork again and then out of the Island Park caldera too on the way to our second checkpoint. Later, after the third checkpoint, the course bumps up and over the the rims again, just a few miles from the finish.

I doubt I’ll have the wherewithal (or the daylight) to notice these various encounters with the race’s geology, not maybe I can pick a few of the details up on the drive to the start in Thursday. And I’ll certainly hope that the super volcano doesn’t erupt while I’m riding in the race. That would almost certainly melt my bike and prevent me from racing the way I’d like.

 

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

Two quick Prince stories.

I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?

Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

A drink for Prince

At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.

I’ve still never seen *Purple Rain*, though.

School’s Out Forever

Tonight I filed my final grades for the online history course I taught this fall at Metropolitan State University, a public commuter school based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Owing to their administrative chaos and budget cuts and to my own lack of time (energy, interest…), this is probably the last course I’ll teach for them, and thus probably the last course I’ll ever teach.

I can’t say that I’ll miss teaching, really, but it’s been a good run. I started my history-teaching career in 1999 by serving as a teaching assistant while in grad school at Northwestern. Altogether, I served as a TA in three courses and taught one of my own in 1999 and 2000. No “teaching” I’ve ever done was more terrifying than that first lecture delivered as a TA to a giant auditorium full of undergrads.

After Shannon and I moved back to Minnesota for her first post-grad school job, I taught at least four classes (or was it six?) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2001-2002, while simultaneously working on my dissertation. The first meeting of my first class at St. Thomas was postponed because of 9/11. I commuted to that job from our apartment in the western suburbs – my only real experience with hard-core car commuting. (#hatedit)

When my one-year contract at St. Thomas ended, I signed on to teach history courses with Metro State – always only one per term, and always one of two or three U.S. history survey courses. I was by then working full-time in an academic support job at a different university in Minneapolis while finishing my dissertation. At first I taught “bricks and mortar” courses in the evening at Metro State’s branch campus in Minneapolis – four courses from fall 2003 to summer 2005. I remember waiting amidst the bar-hoppers on Hennepin for my bus back home – first a late express (or was it a ride from Shannon?) out to the ‘burbs, then, after we moved into the city, a local to our new house.

When I took my new job at Carleton in 2005, we saw that we (Shannon and baby Julia and I) would need to move to Northfield, so I volunteered to help launch the department’s online courses. I developed online versions of two of my courses: a global history of World War II and U.S. history since 1865 through the lens of science and technology.

These, I’ve been teaching in rotation ever since – spring, summer, and fall, year in and year out, with the occasional term off. All together, I’ve taught them 25 times: 12 editions of the World War II course (which I really liked) and 13 editions of the U.S. survey (which no). Though I never learned to love the online format, and never had the time to master it, I think I did some good teaching – as good as I could while also adjusting to and getting good at a new full-time job, starting and adding to a family, moving to and getting settled in a new community, and getting hooked on bikes.

My Metro State students were fascinating. About half of each course’s enrollees were “traditional age” undergrads – say, 18 to 25. The other half were adults who were “finishing their degrees,” often years after starting them. Once, I taught someone who had served in the Korean War, and I had numerous Baby Boomers who offered their first-hand perspectives on the historical events, people, and trends we were studying.

Though most of my students lived in the Twin Cities or at least in Minnesota, a few every term were doing the course from elsewhere in the country or the world, including a few soldiers in some very remote locations. True to Minnesota, I had a lot of Andersons, Olson, Carlsons, and Larsons as well as many Hmong and Somali students – though, interestingly, very few Latino/a students. In one course, I had three Hmong women with exactly the same names – first and last (They were unrelated.) Regardless of background, virtually all of my students were working full-time while engaged with the courses, so we had that in common.

Figuring 30 students per course, I’d estimate I’ve taught about a thousand undergrads since my first course at St. Thomas in fall 2001. Yeah, it’s been a good run. I’m not sad to be at the finish line.

 

Damn Immigrants

Even here at the windswept edge of the prairie, a patriot can find stubborn pockets of unassimilated immigrants.
Stubborn Anti-Americanism

This crude flag, seen today on an excursion southeast of my home town, speaks volumes about the recondite nature of the immigrants who dwell in the run-down compound of which this building is just one part.

Who knows what un-American spirits animate these immigrants. One can assume they’ve stubbornly retained the surnames they brought with them over the wide Atlantic – names full of ugly consonants and unlikely vowels that confound the American tongue.

Do these immigrants even know our Constitution, or recite our Pledge of Allegiance? Perhaps they – like their countrymen who never fled their rocky homeland – still follow the dictates of their king. Certainly, their farmstead suggests no interest in a Jeffersonian ideal of the citizen.

Whatever their political views, however, we can be sure that these immigrants adhere to the 16th century teachings of a raving Teutonic priest who sought to overturn the social order and who achieved decades of bloody religious warfare. As mute proof of their religiosity, a temple dedicated to this madman’s sect stands but a short distance from the compound, its minaret-like steeple looming over a think line of trees.

And what of more quotidian interests? Judging by the state of repair of the several motor vehicles in the compound, the immigrants can only with difficulty venture to the markets in town. Do they wear our clothes? Do they read our books? Do they eat our food? A patriot might reasonably wonder whether they have ever enjoyed the truest American delicacies such as hamburgers, pizza, or tacos. Until they do, that patriot should fear for the wholeness and unity of the Republic.

Going Feral

Through the first part of the year, I read a bunch of books on buffalo, all of which inevitably included at least a brief treatment of the Great Slaughter, during which colonizing whites annihilated the North American herd of bison that had numbered at least 30 million (and possibly 50 million) as late as 1850. By 1900, only a couple dozen survived, hiding deep within the Yellowstone country in northwestern Wyoming.

By the end of the spring, I was simply tired of reading stories about this and other destructions of nature, and so I sought out some reading that offered a more hopeful, if not exactly positive, perspective on environmental history and on our current environmental situation. Gradually, I shifted my bison reading to material on the array of bison conservation and restoration efforts that are underway throughout North America – perhaps most importantly, on the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, where conservationists hope to have a 12,000-head herd of wild, migratory bison by 2030.

I learned, in this reading, that these kinds of ambitious landscape-scale conservation efforts were called rewilding, and that under that rubric, many thoughtful, hard-working people all over the world are trying to reverse the arrow of human development (read: destruction) of the natural world and going back to something like the world that existed when humans were fewer, or absent.

Rewilding the Pastures of Goodhue County
Rewilding the Pastures of Goodhue County

By and by, this led me to George Monbiot’s Feral, an engrossing book on the idea and practice of rewilding. The concept could be merely romantic or misanthropically nihilistic, but Monbiot’s careful research and exceptional writing outlines a different vision. The kind of rewilding that Monbiot advocates rests on his particular perspective on nature (one learned from and shared with many others) and on his assertive, engrossing investigations of places where rewilding is already occurring, such as the nearly-lost Caledonian forest in Scotland.

More than anything else, Monbiot recommends – in a cleverly conservative way – that humans give up our drive to control nature (a drive that seems increasingly to doom us and nature) and recognize that nature is more complex, more obdurate, and more resilient than we can know. If – Monbiot argues and illustrates with powerful examples – people simply get out of the way, nature will take its course back to landscapes (and seascapes) that sustain a far wider range of non-human life than our arid cities and suburbs – and much more than even our “natural” areas such as denuded farmlands and largely un-natural parks.

Not only is this nature better for nature, but this nature would be better for humans, too – a world where we do not burden ourselves with the crime of destroying our home and where we can live in settings (forests, prairies, coasts) that look, feel, and are more like the places where we evolved. Of course, many can object – for good and bad reasons – to rewilding. It’s certainly just one scheme among many for living on Earth. But it’s one that resonates with me, and that I think makes more sense than a lot of other approaches to civilization that I see operating right now.

 

The State of Superior

I was probably in elementary school when I first heard people talking about how the area where we lived, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – a.k.a. Upper Michigan, the U.P., or now, “da Yoop,” – could or even should be a separate state.

This state – North Michigan or perhaps Superior – ought to be separate, the thinking went, due to the stark geographical and demographic differences between the U.P. and the Lower Peninsula – a.k.a. the L.P., “the Mitten,” or just “Michigan.” Anyhow, the only reason “we” were part of Michigan was the stupid compromise with Ohio over Toledo.

I didn’t know then, but was fascinated to learn later, that (as Wikipedia says in its article on Superior) Yoopers had agitated for the area’s statehood in the years just before I was born in the U.P.’s southermost city. This agitation in fact reached a high point just after I was born, with an unsuccessful effort to pull the U.P. and the northerly parts of Wisconsin out of their respective states and combine them into a new state, something like this, which I saw recently on the amazing Lost States blog:

Possible new state of "Superior"

I loved the idea then and I love the idea now, even as I recognize that a state of Superior would probably be unfeasible, if not terrible, as a political or economic entity. (Recent-ish news coverage of the idea says as much here in the Detroit Free Press  and here in the New Republic.)

One of the reasons that Superior would not be a great state is it’s big and empty – Wyoming, but all forests; Alaska, but no tundra. Wikipedia says in its entry on the U.P. (the actual place, not the imaginary state) that “the Upper Peninsula remains a predominantly rural region. As of the 2010 census, the region had a population of 311,361,” of whom only a third live in one of the twelve towns that have populations greater than 4,000 people.

Even if Superior included both all of the current U.P. and the Wisconsin counties that (or almost) border da Yoop*, you’d only get a total population (if you believe those lying liars at the U.S. Census) of 410,340. This scattering of humans over almost 22,000 square miles would make Superior – as of the 2010 census – the state with the smallest population, well behind Wyoming’s throng of 563,626. (The numbers would rise a little, but not much, if you included the several other Wisconsin counties that the Lost States map above include within Superior.)

For comparison’s sake, Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, had a population of 92,000 in 2010 – a third bigger than Marquette County, the most populous county in Superior, and 425% bigger than Marquette city, which, with a population of 21,355 in 2010, is the most populous city in the U.P. Superior. Marquette – as the putative capital of Superior – would be the fourth-smallest state capital, bigger only than teeny-tiny Montpelier (just 7,855 people lived there in 2010!), Pierre, and Augusta.

And like many a rural, underpopulated state full of white people and public lands and almost wholly dependent on tourism and natural resources (in the U.P., lumbering and mining), Superior would probably be a blood-red state. In 2012, all but two U.P.’s counties went for Romney in 2012, and all but one supported the (horrifyingly bad) Republican governor. The U.P.’s fifteen counties – grouped in Michigan’s first congressional district – have elected Republican and Tea Partier Dan Benishek to the House of Representatives in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

So yes, Superior is a terrible idea.

But still, we can have some fun with the idea, right? A few facts, ideas, and guesses about what Superior would be like:

  • Capital: Marquette (see above)
  • Electoral votes: 3
  • Industries: lumber, mining (maybe), tourism (including lots of outdoor sports in all four seasons)
  • Coastline: about 2,000 miles on three Great Lakes (more than any other state – even post-Superior Michigan, which would only have about 1,500 miles)
  • Flag: a white pine tree, green against a blue background
  • Metal: Iron! Copper! Iron! Copper! How about cunife, the little-known alloy of iron and copper (and that non-U.P. metal, nickel)? Nah, let’s go with iron, since there are dozens of places whose names include “iron” (e.g., Ironwood) but only a few named for copper. (Copper Harbor is pretty awesome, though.)
  • Animal: moose or wolf
  • Bird: Canada goose or maybe the chickadee
  • Good: the pasty!
  • Drink: coffee, eh, and maybe som’dat beer (the U.P. has fifteen breweries and brewpubs!)
  • Mystery: the Paulding Light (which isn’t much of a mystery anymore)
  • Interstate highways: one, the stretch of I-75 running from St. Ignace to the Soo
  • National parks: one, Isle Royale, though the U.P. also contains other amazing spots such as
  • State university: Northern Michigan University, or rather, Superior State U. (hell yes to that name, amirite?)
  • Rivals: Trolls – those who live “below the bridge” in the Lower Peninsula (the bridge being the mighty Mackinac – five miles long, the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world.
  • Holidays: St. Urho’s Day and the first day of deer season
  • Sports teams:
    • baseball: Milwaukee Brewers or Detroit Tigers, though leaning toward Detroit
    • hockey: Detroit Red Wings
    • basketball: Detroit Pistons
    • football: Green Bay Packers
      • Titletown is only about 175 miles from Marquette, versus about 400 miles to Minneapolis and 450 to Detroit, so it’s definitely not even a question don’t get me started. GO PACK GO!

 

 

* Running west to east, Ashland, Iron, Vilas, Forest, Florence, and Marinette. The latter is the most populous in the group, and would be the second-most populous county in the state, after Marquette County in Michigan Superior.

Origins of the Buffalo (the Bike, not the Animal)

I dunno if that many bike riders name their bikes, but I know a few who do, and I have named my last three bikes. My first gravel bike, a Surly CrossCheck, never earned a name, but my blue Salsa Mukluk fatbike was "the Beast," because it was a beastly machine that could go anywhere and looked (I think) a little scary, with those big tires seeming to be giant black paws. My Salsa Vaya gravel bike is "Giddyup," because it’s got a lot of get up and go – which is true even if I don’t ride it enough.

My favorite bike, my silver Salsa Mukluk, is "the Buffalo," a name that took me a long time to choose – or which took a long time to choose the bike. Quite a few people have asked me about the name – including several strangers at the Almanzo last weekend who rode up next me and asked, "Is that the Buffalo? Are you Chris Tassava?"

Despite or because of the weirdness of having strangers recognize me and my bike, I thought maybe I should explain the name.

I bought the Mukluk from my friend Ben, who’d built it up for himself a few years before but hadn’t had time to really put it to use. He gave me a great deal on the bike, so I snapped it up. Riding the nameless bike for months after I bought it, I thought about its many wonderful qualities and waited for the right moniker to emerge. My daughters lobbied for "Beauty," partly as a complement to the Beast (though I no longer owned the Beast) and partly because they’re girls. Honestly, the bike is pretty. Dressed in its blue and gray frame bags for winter racing or bikepacking, the bike looks, I think, like it’s wearing a comfortable, functional uniform.
Fat Pursuit Setup

Without the bags, the bike shows off all of its unpainted silvery titanium – definitely the bike material that’s easiest on the eyes.
Before the Almanzo

Despite all that, "Beauty" didn’t fit. Not that one can’t define beauty in many ways, but to me, the bike was too burly and too aggressive-looking to be "Beauty." Then, on a long training ride last fall, with the bike dressed in its all bags and laden with most of my winter-racing gear, as I ground my way up a long, messy gravel climb, it hit me: "the Buffalo."

My mind was primed for this revelation. I’d just read an article somewhere about bison. Most people know about the bison’s near-eradication in the 19th century, and also know the bit about how Indians used "every part" of the bison, but the animal itself is as fascinating as its history. It’s the largest North American mammal, the only survivor of the megafauna that thrived tens of thousands of years ago but that were almost all killed off by humans when they migrated out of Asia.

The bison survived because of their unique physical characteristics. They’re massive, but their physiology enables them to thrive in a wide range of conditions – hot southwestern deserts, temperate grasslands, lowland forests, mountain valleys, Alaskan swamps – and of course, the dry, windy grasslands that run up the center of the continent, which was where I live and where I would largely be riding the bike. A bison is fast – able to run up to up to 25 miles an hour. A bison is nimble – able to jump over fences that are six feet high or ditches and holes longer than their body length. A bison is tough – able to move dozens of miles a day in the right conditions (not to mention to survive the white mans’ guns). And a bison is very pleasing to look at, in a wild way.

Buffalo, by Larry Smith (from Flickr)

My fatbike, too, is fast, nimble, tough, and above all adaptable – good on pavement, great on gravel, excellent on dirt, and of course phenomenal on snow. With those rationalizations in place, I just had to make sure the name was right "Buffalo" is a laden term, with pedants loving to point out that the American bison isn’t a "buffalo" like the water buffalo of Africa. (This is true, but also dumb, since the French explorers didn’t give the name to the weird humpbacked cattle they saw on the plains because they looked like water buffalo.)

But "the Bison" didn’t sound right, and "Tatanka" (the Lakota word for "bison") didn’t seem right coming from a white guy. Growing up, I’d always used the label "buffalo" for bison, which mattered to me because riding bikes – especially fatbikes – can be a pure, childlike pleasure. And "the Buffalo" just sounded right when I said it. The name fit all the more because I’d installed some weird curved handlebars that looked – from above and behind, which was my view of them – a little like a horned bovine head. Within a few hundred yards of gravel road, the nameless fatbike became the Buffalo, and the Buffalo has taken me to some cool places.

Descending into Montana

At the Almanzo 2015 (photo by Marty Larson)

American History Wax Museum

Today was the long-awaited, much-anticipated American History Wax Museum, the culminating event of a big historical project that third graders at my girls’ school work on for weeks each spring. (When Julia was in third grade, she was Abigail Adams.)

Vivi, who has a scientific rather than a historical bent, chose Albert Einstein for as her figure. She did some great research on Einstein (who was, it turns out, not that nice a guy), wrote up a great speech in his voice (and memorized most of it), did the requisite almost-life-sized drawing (over about a week of evenings and weekends), and today dressed up as him (or as a third-grader’s vision of him) for the Museum. She did a great job!
Albert Einstein

Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild

I just finished reading this amazing book – Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild.
Forsberg, Great Plans

The Nebraska-based photographer Michael Forsberg thought up the idea for the book and filled it with dozens and dozens of exceptional shots of prairies from Minnesota to Montana, North Dakota to New Mexico – plants, animals, people, and especially the land itself.

Buffalo at the Buffalo Gap

Forsberg’s photographs are complemented by short essays by geographer Davis Wishart and natural historian Dan O’Brien, whose eloquence and erudition complement Forsberg’s artistry. Loss is an explicit theme in O’Brien’s writing, an implicit one in Wishart’s – the decline and death of countless plant and animal species, the near-extermination of the grassland’s original Native inhabitants, the continuing erosion (literal and figurative) of all three kinds of prairie…

Yet as O’Brien comes to realize through his work with Forsberg, denizens of the plains do have some reasons for optimism. Arguably, we are now experiencing a moment when more people than ever before are interested in "saving" the prairies as ecosystems, as homes for myriad living creatures, and as colossally beautiful places. Reading this book makes me – an immigrant to the prairie – want to do more to save it and expand it and love it.

Imbolc and Cailleach

A tardy note on the Gaelic holiday of Imbolc, traditionally held on February 1 and associated with the onset of spring – or a prolonged winter.

From Wikipedia:

Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.

Cailleach would be a great name.

Going West like Lewis and Clark

I finished Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage today, after years of meaning to read the book and months of work at actually reading it. The book is now a classic piece of American history, the best popular look at the Lewis & Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in 1803-1806.

Though I could quibble with various aspects of Ambrose’s treatment of the history of the expedition*, overall I found the book to be a superb piece of history. Ambrose’s writing is clear and occasionally beautiful, he does a great job of mining the explorers’ journals and other primary sources, and above all he effectively conveys the terror and wonder of the expedition into lands that were unknown to Americans.

A few aspects of the expedition really stood out to me:
+ The colossal scale and reach of the Missouri River, which dwarfs the Mississippi in every way. (Why do we even care about the Mississippi again?)
+ The variety and number of the Natives along the expedition’s route. "Tribes" is such a misnomer. If the Native peoples were not nation states, they were at least nations.
+ The incredible, already diminishing complexity of natural life on the plains and in the mountains.
+ The difficulty of getting anywhere when the fastest mode of transportation was a horse or a sailing boat.
+ The naïveté of Americans’ views about their influence on the European colonial powers and Native nations. The reach of American foreign policy has exceeded its grasp at least since Jefferson.
+ The majesty and obduracy of the western mountains.

I pushed to finish the book now because some of my drive later this week will follow the explorers’ route west and see some of the mountains they saw. It’ll be cool to see things they saw, more than 200 years ago.

Making Hay

Late-summer rides often pass by fields where farmers are haying. I wish I remembered more about haying on my grandpa’s farm in the U.P. I didn’t participate in the haying very often – maybe five times – but I remember driving the big old truck up and down the rows. I was in elementary school, so I could barely see over the dashboard. I remember how we’d freeze water in washed-out milk jugs so we’d have cold water to drink in the fields. I remember how the hay got into everything – clothes, shoes, hair… The warm, dry smell stayed with you for days.

Hay Field