Letters to Montana

Lessons in Landscape, History and Imagination

For Ibn, who managed to amble into the hearts of most everyone he met . . .IMG_2286

For me, some of the times that I marvel most at our human capacity is in those moments when we just know. I think we all can experience those moments–you know, when we understand how a stranger is feeling, just by looking at them, or when we know what it is we have to do to make a situation turn out on the right side.

Of course, sometimes, that thing we have to do isn’t always comfortable. But, I think those are the times when we actually get the chance to gain an even deeper understanding of the world we live in. At least . . . that’s how I justify what I did:

Nearly a year ago, Zach and I still had 3 old dogs and we took them, each morning, for a walk in Greenough Park, near our house. One particular morning, our friend Evan was visiting, and he joined us. The day was already hinting at the heat to come and the early light bounced in yellow-white halos from lush green trees and played in lacy webs across the stones at the bottom of Rattlesnake Creek.

We walked slowly, because by then, Ibn was more of a shuffler–his hind feet ensconced in booties to protect his toes while his arthritic hips inhibited movement of his hind legs. Yet, Ibn still embarked on his walks with a giant lab smile and all the exuberance he could muster. That was more than enough to make us content to move at his speed. We turned down a familiar path and Evan stopped to read a sign about the song sparrows that inhabit the area. I glanced beyond the sign and saw a young couple, sitting in the sun at the far side of the clearing. Then, I continued to walk on with Timber and Charlie. Within five steps, I was around a slight bend in the trail, where the shrubs to my right concealed the path from which I had come.

As I stopped to wait for Zach, Evan and Ibn, I heard this odd cry–somewhere between fear and fury–come from Zach. Only seconds had passed. The hairs on my neck rose. I turned and ran back around the bend. At first, through the leaves of the shrubs, I thought I saw a large brown dog hanging from Zach’s arm. But that was simply the flash before full perception.

How quickly the scene I left had changed. The large brown dog (a pitbull cross) actually had Ibn by the head. The young man I’d seen sitting across the clearing held the dog by the collar and was trying his best to pull the dog off of Ibn. But, the dog was locked on so tight, that both he and Ibn had only their hind legs on the ground, while Zach was punching the dog in the head as hard as he could.

Our sweet Ibn, mouth agape, tongue lolling out, eyes rolling back in his head, was helplessly hanging in the jaws of this dog.

I absorbed all this information and quickly unlatched the leashes around my waist, asking Evan to help me grab Timber and Charlie before they jumped into the fray. Then I handed them both to Evan and everything fell away. All the yelling, the motion, the racing of my thoughts absorbed into and hung in the sunny haze of the morning.

IMG_7637Around me but not in me.

I knew only one thing in that long moment. I knew what I had to do.

I walked around to the far side of the dogs, so that I was standing next to the young man who held his dog. I briefly made eye contact with him, checked that he had a secure grip on the dog’s collar, then crouched down at the dog’s hind legs. I looked up at the dog and noticed how he was a slave to his own jaw; his teeth dug into the skin at the crown of Ibn’s skull. I lifted the dog’s tail, took a breath and shoved my index finger into his butt.

Yeah, I really did that.

I watched the dog’s face the whole time, and the instant my finger went in, he let go.

Then time sped up again.

The young man dragged the dog a few feet away and pinned him to the ground while the young girl, who I had not noticed since I saw her sitting across the clearing, was at the dog’s face, crying, yelling and smacking him.

Ibn who had lost control of his bowels, was panting and pacing on the trail. Zach paced along with him, fists clenched, still yelling, and I knew we had thought the same thing:

“This can’t be the way Ibn is going to die.”

Evan stood quietly, holding the leashes in his hand.

The girl stood, quivering, and asked, “Is your dog okay. Oh my God. I am so sorry. Is he okay?”

She was so distraught that she appeared to be levitating and I watched her small hands rub her apparently pregnant belly. She didn’t seem to be more than 16 and I instantly felt protective of her.

Zach got ready to say something and I asked him quietly to check on Ibn–who as it turned out, was okay, aside from the stress.

“Has he ever done that before?” I asked.

“No ma’am,” she said.

This was probably the first time in my life I didn’t flinch at being called “ma’am.”

“You’re not lying to me, are you?” (Then I really felt like a ma’am).

“No ma’am.”

I believed her. “Well he better not do it again, but . . .”

“Oh he won’t. He’s going to be chained to the pole from now on.”

That, I did flinch at.

“Please don’t do that. He better not do it again, but just so you know, if he does: I stuck my finger up his butt to make him let go.”

That statement was met with a somewhat bewildered look from Zach, Evan and the girl. I realized that no one noticed, in the middle of the fray, what I did–except probably for the guy who was holding the dog. That made me laugh, inwardly. But, I continued.

“You need to find a trainer to work with you, now that you know he can do that.”

“Who do I go to?”

Of course I didn’t have the name of a trainer in my brain, but I told her to call Go Fetch and Missoula Animal Control and they could probably point her in a good direction. I tried to give her hope that she could work with her dog. I couldn’t bear to think of the dog chained to a pole for the duration of his life, nor could I bear to think of this young girl not being empowered to take charge of things for herself.

We spoke for a few minutes more, then continued on our walk, in effort to walk off the adrenaline, for all of us. By the end of it, we were all laughing about me hiding in the bushes and jumping out to shove my finger up the butt of anyone who was misbehaving.

How I knew what to do is a story for another time. Perhaps you’ll read about it. But regardless, I can’t advise people to start breaking up dog fights in such a way. It just worked out that time.

But, my point in telling this part of the story is that there was a time in my life when I did not have the wherewithal to do what I did, nor would I have had the patience to handle the aftermath with genuine love in my heart.

Even though a good friend dubbed me “Butt Hole Finger Hero,” what I did wasn’t heroic. It was simply a matter of listening to my intuition and striving to be a better human (and at this point, I am talking less about where I put my finger and more about where I put my words).

The memory of this event is so very bittersweet, since we lost sweet Ibn less than 2 months later. It was something that stirs a primal sadness in both Zach and me.

But, it also reminds me that opportunities to be graceful are all around us, every day, in in the least expected ways–even when we are tangled in pain or remorse.

It also prompts me to remind you:  my finger is more powerful than your bite. Look out! I might be lurking around the next bend in the trail.

Hopefully this post prompts you to hold your pets closer. It’s good for you!


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My Montana Moose  field note will air this Sunday, June 4th at 12:55 Mountain Time and on Friday June 9th at 4:54 Mountain Time.

Even if you aren’t a Montana resident, you can still listen to Montana Public Radio, here’s how.

Also, Montana field notes are archived on the station’s website, so you can learn all about Montana’s natural history–no matter where you are!

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My field note about blackbird flocks, airs this Friday, March 17th, at 4:54 Mountain Time.

Even if you aren’t a Montana resident, you can still listen to Montana Public Radio, here’s how.

Also, Montana Natural History Center’s field notes are archived on the station’s website, so you can learn all about Montana’s natural history–no matter where you are!



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After living in the same community for nearly 20 years, there are faces I recognize simply because we have the same haunts. Perhaps we’ve never exchanged names, but we share the same vicinity frequently enough to find comfort in each other’s presence. Some of these folks tend to show up only at certain times of the year. So, when they start turning up again (or maybe I am the one turning up?) I know the season has changed.

I can say this about a bunch of homo sapiens, and one heron.  A Great Blue Heron. No, I can’t say that he/she finds comfort in my presence, or even that he/she recognizes me, but I can say that we haunt the same creek all winter, each winter, and this bird always helps me to remember resilience.

Am I sure it’s the same bird? No. Not sure. But I suspect that is the case.

I don’t need to know his/her name (and probably couldn’t pronounce it). But, year after year, this particular individual reminds me that I’ve survived another one. Year after year, I am awed by the beauty of this bird. Each time, this bird strikes me with a commitment to stillness that only comes with absolute presence. Or when I observe this heron in flight, I can only think of blood pumping slowly and steadily through our bodies, warm, full of breath.

This year, the winter has been true: ample temps below zero and snow on the ground for months. This year, the winter continues to hold us in her grasp, waltzing carelessly between spring temps and fits of snowstorms. And, the heron waits, as if across millennia, feet in frigid water, gleaming eye, looking clear through me.

Migration and Territory:

Great Blue Herons tend to migrate out of the northern edge of their breeding ranges in the winter. Some take a trip to the Caribbean (that sounds really nice, about now). However, in this little pocket of Montana, herons are known to stay year-round.

Herons only tend to congregate when they are breeding and sometimes during migration. They might also throw a party at a fish farm. They forage alone and defend their feeding territories with grand displays that involve impressive wingspans and spear-like bills pointed skyward. If you’ve ever seen this, it’s easy to forget that these birds weigh a mere 5 or 6 pounds.

Gender Differences:

You probably noticed I refer to my heron friend as he/she. Males and females are very similar in appearance. Yes, males are larger, in general, but who can tell when you are looking at one bird? Just sayin.’

Cool Stuff:

Just take a look at this bird! What isn’t cool about it?

Wait, is that a pterodactyl?

I swear, when I look at a Great Blue Heron, I am transported back to the Cretaceous Period. (Yeah, I’ve been there . . . you?) It’s true, scientists believe that all birds are avian dinosaurs, but herons have a particularly dinosaur-like appearance and stature. Those eyes, those legs, those claws . . . that deadly bill!

Or a rock star?

Great Blue Herons also have specialized feathers on their chest that give them that fashionably unkempt look. The feathers continually grow and fray and they comb them down with their fringed claws to help remove fish slime and oils.

Maybe it is lightning, disguised as a bird.

If you’ve seen one close up, you’ve likely noticed how darn good they are at standing still. Don’t even try to tell me you’ve seen one catch its prey. They are faster than the human eye. Okay, not that fast, but they ARE really fast.






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I just recorded two of the field notes I wrote for the Montana Natural History Center. They will air on Montana Public Radio in the coming months:

Red-Winged Blackbird Flocks will air on March 12th at 12:55 Mountain Time and on March 17th at 4:54 Mountain Time.








Montana Moose will air on June 4th at 12:55 Mountain Time and on June 9th at 4:54 Mountain Time.

Even if you aren’t a Montana resident, you can still listen to Montana Public Radio, here’s how.

Also, Montana field notes are archived on the station’s website, so you can learn all about Montana’s natural history–no matter where you are!



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IMG_6498We are two pairs of lovers in the late Alaskan winter, setting out for the source of the river, as the sun hints at a pale warmth. We follow a trickle of water through neighborhoods and ponder the wisdom of our choice of footwear, trudging alternately through mounds of snow and washes of mud. Yard dogs assert their boundaries but still ultimately come in for a friendly scratch behind the ears–winter coat clinging to our fingertips as we wave goodbye.

Ahead of us, the river bed is wide, where machinery has moved it this way and that to prepare for spring floods. Each time the sun retreats behind a cloud, the world goes gray–a steel sky, bleeding down cliff and tree into slate stone and sand. The water–a ribbon of tinsel–calls us up the canyon. We laugh and snack; trying to keep our feet dry as long as possible.IMG_6514

Eventually, the river bed narrows between tall canyon walls and we spend time in shadow. Here, the water is more of a force; silty froth spills over boulders.

Gravelly slopes force us higher for a time, where we scramble across loose stone and around exposed root, to gain surer footing. We descend back to the water’s edge, where the canyon takes a sharp curve to the left. We must cross the river to keep going. There will be no dry feet to follow.

IMG_6517The gentlemen in our crew survey the various routes across, as I approach. I know they are talking, but can’t hear them above the rush of the water. Before I arrive, Chad has rolled up his pants and trudged through the current to the other side. He is the tallest, with the sturdiest build, sure of foot and not one to hesitate. Zach, sturdy in his own frame, follows not far behind him, choosing a slightly different route through the pool–the water washing a bit higher above his knee. But, he presses on, a smile lingering with his progress through the current. I look back at Kara and wonder what she sees.

This is no technical crossing, but I am also no stranger to the force of water. A slip under could mean, at the very least, a slightly hypothermic walk home.

I consider my route for a little while, exchange encouraging words with Zach, then go for it. Kara is not far behind, having chosen the route most comfortable for her. We continue up the canyon, until we meet steeper, more formidable walls where the water spills down. There, we are once again in the sun and spring flowers bloom in bowls carved by the journey of the river.

We will eventually turn back for home and cross the water again, without incident.

Honestly, I don’t remember my route across the river and I don’t consider this the greatest challenge I’ve faced, by any means, but in that moment, the water gave me a reply to a question that came much earlier and bubbled up again, much later.IMG_6502

After more than 20 years of hiking, climbing, skiing and riding in the mountains, I know there is no set formula for getting somewhere. I am a different person than I was in my 20s, when thoughts of tomorrow did not determine how hard I grip stone, 200 feet above earth. I am a different woman than I was when I spent time with a man who bullied me into skiing lines that terrified me. My landscape changes as much as the landscapes I spend my time in. I am no different than most.

On this day, each of us chose our own way across the water, in some way asking it which way we should go. While we all encouraged each other and shared thoughts, not one of us told the other what to do. I attribute that in part, to a hard-earned confidence in our own abilities and judgments.

Though we may share journeys in life with each other, even a similar experience will never be exactly the same for any one person. And often, we have no experience to draw from that even remotely parallels someone else’s experience.

That’s easy enough to say, but it’s more important to remember.

Sometimes my heart aches so deeply for the capacity to fully understand the journey of my loved ones. Sometimes, I overreach because I want so desperately to have the answer to ease someone’s suffering or protect them from the what-ifs.

Yet, empathy isn’t about knowing exactly what another’s experience is. It’s about just being there, with them, through the journey. Sure, we can share what we’ve learned, but we must understand that what worked for us, may not work for them. If I’d followed Chad’s footsteps across the river that day, I would have surely felt the river snatch my breath from me as I slid below the gray surface.

That piercing shock of a thought is what reminds me to love others in the space they occupy, not from the space I want them to be.


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I grew up in a small town and no matter where I went, someone always knew who I was, even if I didn’t know them. I was always spoken to, my parents inquired about, my performance in school a topic of importance.

I went to college in a small town, where the weather of the North Country made quick friends of strangers sipping hot drinks and people did not speak unnecessarily, but were comfortable with a shared, silent acknowledgement.

I moved to a big state that still felt like a small town and therefore, never expected anything different. Montana delivered on that expectation–whether in the Ruby Valley, on my way to Glacier, somewhere near Glendive or in the Clark Fork River basin.

People in passing cars on dirt roads wave to each other–neighbors or strangers, no matter.

People on the street look you in the eye, and at least smile if not add a hearty “Good Morning,” or “Nice day!” or “I like your dog,” while the grocery line usually yields rich and often humorous conversation.IMG_7766

In 2012, I left Montana, after 16 years. As I drove away, I watched one dear friend from my side-view mirror, as she stood in front of our ramshackle fence with a crowd of sunflowers behind her. Their luminous, wide-open faces–hers and the flowers–told me I would always have a home to come back to. And, during the two years I spent in a far northern city, I would often return to the front stoop of that house in my mind. I would watch the sun’s progress through the glowing petals of the flowers. I would see the wind push them around so that they appeared to be jostling with each other for the best view of Mt. Jumbo.

Those flowers weren’t simply there to satisfy my love for them (although that is how it all started). In the time that I lived in that house, they came to absorb the community I loved. People LOVED those flowers. If a fellow Missoulian discovered that I lived in that house, their eyes would light up and they’d ask how I got so many to grow and bloom so early.

Some days, I’d be working in my office and I’d hear voices outside. Peeking out the window, I’d see girls posing for photos under the flowers, while their boyfriends cracked jokes and shook pollen into their hair.

Other days, flocks of small children would parade past my window and I’d hear the classic muffled Charlie Brown teacher voice with the inflection of a question, before a chorus of little voices would shout, “Sunflowers!”

IMG_7581But it wasn’t just the humans of my community. We were inundated with gold finches on a daily basis, and their polished vibrant bodies flitting among the flowers to harvest the seeds were far more enchanting than any holiday light display.

It brought me joy to bring others joy and sustenance with something that already brought me so much joy. That’s a lot of joy. And while I was trepidatious about leaving my Montana home, no doubt, I brought that joy with me to the northern city that shall remain nameless (because the point is not to bash that city that brought me many gifts).

The problem was, in that place, I couldn’t pay people to look me in the eye. As I walked on snowy trails with no other person around but the one I was passing, my smile and greeting would be met with silence and a gaze that fell as far away from me as possible. The yoga studio I came to love was packed with people, mats six inches apart, and trying to catch my neighbor’s eye to say “Hello” or share a smile, proved futile. The instructors actually had to encourage people to greet one another; like we were in kindergarten. I didn’t get it.

Sure, it’s more common in bigger cities for people not to make eye contact. I know that. I also know that one should not take it personally when another ignores them. I can certainly rationalize that some people are just having a bad day, or haven’t learned appropriate social skills, or are fearful (sometimes for very valid reasons) or are painfully shy. And of course, there are places in this world where looking someone in the eye is interpreted as disrespect or a challenge or an invitation to victimize. But, frankly, barring those circumstances, part of me thinks it’s absolute crap that you can be within touching distance of someone and they won’t acknowledge you.

Now that we have returned to Montana, I relish the chipper greetings from strangers. I am freshly surprised by the friendliness of most people here. But, I’ve also noticed more people avoiding the gaze of others. Sometimes they just purposely bow their head or look the other way, or act like they can’t see me through their shades. And of course, there are the phones. Talking, texting, whatever. The people are not where they are. The world is happening right in front of them and they are somewhere else.

Why is this such a big deal to me? Because when you look someone in the eye, you are telling them they matter. When someone doesn’t look you in the eye, you are not there or not worthy or not equal. Eye contact is about our commonality. Eye contact is about community. Eye contact is about support AND accountability.

As a culture, we continuously grapple with polarization. The world watches our children kill each other. We have more than enough to take care of our own, yet greed leaves a trail of destitution and suffering in its wake. Our environment and our wild neighbors fall victim to our short sightedness and more greed.

How can we ever surmount these forces if we can’t even make the effort to see each other?

Why is it so easy to see the beauty of a sunflower’s wide open face, but not the beauty in each human face around us?IMG_7463

For a while, in the north, I let myself be defeated and learned to avert my gaze in public places. But, all I saw was the ice and snow beneath my feet. Evidence of the world, but no interaction that brought it–and me–to life.

For a while, I thought about the sunflowers and how shoving a flower in someone’s face forces them into the present and usually, makes them smile. Yes, I contemplated taking flowers with me on my daily ambles and handing them to any passerby. I know, what a hippie.

But, instead, I’ve decided to always lift my face to the light–the flickers of it that I know live in the eyes of others, the flashes of it that come from a smile, or the color of it that is absorbed in cheeks and hair. It’s there, even if my gaze is not met. It’s there, even if others don’t see it in themselves.

I know that Montana isn’t like other places in the world, but it’s not so different, either. Sure, our little big town is growing, but its charm and community comes from that place where gaze meets gaze. I welcome strangers to my home, but I also believe that those of us who call this home need to show others how we do it here.

So, I ask my worldly neighbors: Even if you are on your phone, look up and smile. Even if your day is dark, look up and find the light. Even if you can’t seem to find beauty, remember the unapologetic vibrancy of sunflowers. In the warmth of that vibrancy, I can see you, and you can see me. In that space, we hold each other in the world; for good or bad. And maybe in this way, we are a little less lost.





They’re 13, 14 and 15!IMG_1270

They’re all gone.

It’s been two months and five days since we said goodbye to Charlie, our youngest of three dogs. Three weeks before, the oldest, Timber, passed, and nearly three months before that, the middle one, Ibn, left our world.

In less than four months, they were all gone.

I’d declared their ripe old ages with pride, almost daily, over the last few years. Now, sometimes I wonder if that was my way of trying to will them to live forever.

In the days that followed the losses,

water slowly evaporated from their water dish that sat in our kitchen.

Spots of blood on our cloth grocery bags darkened and faded; the grim reminder of Charlie’s coughing fits.

Fur balls and squeaky balls alike were permitted to remain under the furniture.

I wondered if paw prints frozen in the mud were some of the last steps taken by our beloved companions.

IMG_8144I did not know my husband without Ibn; he did not know me without Timber and Charlie. We didn’t know life together without our dogs. And our dogs were our nearly constant companions, traveling through early adulthood with us–through forests, relationships, relocations, career changes, other losses, over mountains, across streams, into and out of our arms, our vehicles . . . our good graces. The one place they always were, and will remain, is in our hearts.

I know that for some, a loss like this may not feel all that profound. I also know that there are others who suffer far more profound losses than I have. But I also wonder what the merit is in measuring loss. I don’t believe we need to compare losses as much as I believe that we need to understand the meaning of loss and grief.

Who are we without them?

We listen to music a lot more. We love music, but rarely played it in the last few years because it would inhibit our ability to hear the dogs; the old dogs who could have a seizure at any moment, who might not be able to get up, who could get confused and panic.

We pick up food when we drop it. There are no eager mouths waiting for a “Ground Squirrel!” (our command for cleaning up a ground score). There is no one really interested in the core of the apple or the butt of the carrot–or under foot and getting yelled at during dinner preparations.

I must find new places to bury my fears or anxieties–places that aren’t as impossibly soft as Timber’s ruff, or as ridiculous as Charlie’s ear tassels or as solid as Ibn’s chest. I must find other reasons to rise from bed that don’t include someone needing my help or attention. I must remember the joy in daily walks, even when the absence of dogs makes me feel lost in places we knew well.

I must find the gift in the grief. IMG_2696 (1)

Grief doesn’t ask if it can take from you. It demands from you that which you are not willing or ready to give. That in itself tests us–for we are not usually comfortable with circumstances we cannot control. But, of course, it’s more than that, because grief means we’ve lost someone or something we love–whether a person, an animal, a relationship, a circumstance . . . we are mourning the change, the space that is no longer filled, the person we were when we had that which we’ve lost.

I was stripped down, and felt nothing but raw edges.

For a time, everything stung–the world was louder, the sun too bright, words too harsh. Crystalline winter breath bit at me through layers of wool and armor, filled my lungs with echoes of suffering and sobs. But it also polished me clean, and gave me only three stones to hold; three stones that allowed me to worry only about what really matters.

Loss is no longer my constant companion, it simply sneaks up on me in a photo I forgot about, or a story about dogs and magpies, or when the waxwings trill and shine in the morning light.

I am not done grieving, but I can see the gift in this grief. It is in the new rhythms of each day that feed my creativity, it is in my deeper capacity for empathy, it is in my renewed ability to not squander my time. It is in the memory of three precious dogs who made life richer for a good, long time. It is in the patience they taught me and the wisdom of living our wild nature.

The gift in this grief cannot be measured, nor can the depth or breadth of anyone’s loss. But, in loss, the immeasurable makes room for growing. It allows us to see who we were and decide who we want to be. It reminds us to be extra gentle with those in chrysalis, to laugh as hard as we cry and to count our blessings. One, two, three . . .