Reflections West

Wednesday 4:54 PM

Reflections West is a weekly radio program that presents the thoughts of writers and scholars on the American West. These thinkers pair their own thoughts with a passage from literature and history.

Large ponderosa pine tree.

Historian Ellen Baumler recalls a stark piece of Montana’s haunted history, Helena’s Hangman’s Tree.

John Keene was the first recorded victim who breathed his last on Helena’s infamous Hangman’s Tree. The Murderer’s Tree, as it was first known, stood at the head of Dry Gulch. Those who knew it well recalled that the ancient ponderosa pine had massive lower branches that tangled in weird contortions. The branches, bleak and devoid of foliage, protruded some twenty feet from its gnarled, moss-covered trunk. Miners, needing to cut smaller logs for cabins, let it stand.

Murray Hotel in Livingston Montana
Flickr user Carol Vinzant (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

To Toby Thompson, the Christmas spirit is really just the warmth of community, something we can find any time of year.

Tess Fahlgren & Richard Hugo: Montana's Other Face

Jun 26, 2015

Tess Fahlgren knows that art can thrive in the isolated prairie towns of Eastern Montana. "Driving Montana," by Richard Hugo, is a poet's tribute to Montana's small towns and open vistas, and the creativity that connects them.

Hannah Bissell & Victor Charlo: Days Worked And Reworked

Jun 16, 2015

As Hannah Bissell watches her neighbors tinker with a tractor engine late into the evening, she wonders about the connection between shared memories and hard work:

Damon Falke Unwraps Memory's Gifts From The Past

Jun 9, 2015

Poet Damon Falke remembers the day when a mentor handed him a sack and said, "Read these, man. They'll change your life."

Marjorie Snipes & Flannery O'Connor: Immersion

Jun 2, 2015

Marjorie Snipes and her family live in Georgia but spend vacation time near Seeley Lake, Montana:

"It is amazing that while the world around us turns spring, the lake in front of our rented cabin remains frozen with snowpack. It is a diorama where foreground is spring and background winter, and some mornings I can’t decide which stage to occupy or how to be properly shod.

Tasha LeClair & Beth Loffreda: The Invisible West

May 26, 2015
Nick Romanenko

After a lifetime of hearing about the American West's preferred myths, Tasha LeClair, who grew up in Wyoming, tends to feel invisible:

 “When I write about the West I feel as though I'm poking around the perimeter of a vast blank place where words don't live.

Joseph Grady & James Welch: Building A Face

May 19, 2015

Joseph Grady, who is Blackfeet, was adopted and raised by a non-Indian family near Seattle:

"I went to school to learn that I was brown, because skin color was not a concept nurtured by my adoptive parents. I wasn’t confronted by race as a child, not directly at least until I started school.

Milkweed Editions

Archaeologist Sara Scott is fascinated by the petroglyphs of the West:

"The crunch of limestone under my boots echoes up the canyon as I walk through its narrow passage in the Big Belt Mountains near Helena.

Megan Calvert, an undergraduate at the University of Montana-Missoula, grew up in the shadow of Montana's Mission Mountains. The gothic influence of 19th century American poet Edgar Allan Poe underlies this reflection on mountains, solitude, and comfort:

Karli Larsen & Paul Zarzyski: Duped By The Earth's Edge

Apr 29, 2015

Karli Larsen is no stranger to U.S. Highway 2  between college in Missoula and home in northeastern Montana: 

"Over one thousand miles of radical backdrop, several weather systems and small intermittent towns make the round trip from the University of Montana to my home town of Culbertson, Montana more a voyage than a trip.

Naomi Kimbell & Willa Cather: Shedding Walls And Windows

Apr 22, 2015

Naomi Kimbell has always been fascinated by the view of the Rattlesnake Mountains, north of Missoula:

"As a child, I used to walk home backward so I could keep my eyes fixed on my section of the Rockies called the Rattlesnake.  I don’t know what it was I thought I wouldn’t see if I turned away but I knew I wanted the shape of the ridgelines in my eyes, though looking and seeing were never enough.  I wanted more than looking could give me and to be a part of what I saw.

Cassandra Falke & John Keats: One Sublime Moment

Apr 8, 2015
William Hilton the Younger. (British National Portrait Gallery)

Cassandra Falke recounts a sunlit moment shared with a coyote, above Santa Fe:

Micah Fields & Richard Hugo: Taking Stock

Apr 1, 2015

In the poetry of Richard Hugo, Micah Fields recognizes his own fascination with the ways that suffering is portrayed in art:

Clare Menahan & Annie Dillard: Startled Into Enchantment

Mar 25, 2015

Clare Menahan recalls a vivid encounter with a great horned owl:

Carson Becker & Stephen Dobyns: Shades Of The Past

Mar 18, 2015
courtesy of NMSU

Playwright Carson Becker reflects on the legendary packs of wild dogs that used to roam Butte, Montana:

"Sometimes, before I fall asleep, I’m reminded: packs of wild dogs once roamed Butte. Itinerant and prodigal, without manners, culture or restraint. Shadowing this hill I slumber on with their restlessness, hunger and complaint. Somehow I miss them, though we’ve never met. For years they were ignored. Then an urgent injunction was decreed. Funds were found, resources wrangled, fears overcome. A local dog catcher was crowned, and feral canines were quickly put to rope, to cage, to sleep.

David & Richard Moore: The Unknown

Mar 11, 2015
Philip Greene

Co-host David Moore remembers "driving the river road toward Duncan's Mills in the hills of the Coast Range of the Bay Area of California. My older brother would shriek and call it the "weee!" road for all its curves and plummets rising and falling. I remember standing on the back bench seat as a very small child while the grownups drove and smoked and talked in the front. (This was the Fifties.) The curl of cigarette smoke still looks and smells like comfort to me.

Ellen Baumler & Will James: Tales Plowed Under

Mar 10, 2015
Amon Carter Museum

Historian Ellen Baumler tells how Western artist Charlie Russell got his beloved horse, Monte, the bay pinto known originally as Paint:

Lowell Jaeger & David Ray: Dislocation And Endurance

Mar 4, 2015
Flickr user, Michael Lusk

Lowell Jaeger - poet, teacher and former co-host of "Big Sky Radio" and "Storylines Northwest" on MTPR - writes about migration: "Since the beginning, humans have migrated from place to place, crossing borders, sometimes legally, often not. Our ancestors had one thing in common: they were looking to better their lives...Each new arrival in the West was part of this larger human flow, hundreds of thousands of homesteaders and gold-seekers who braved the hardships of traversing mountain passes and great expanses of desolation."

Anticipating a "third wave" of American Indian writers, journalist and fiction author Adrian Jawort considers one of the rewards awaiting ambitious young Indian writers who make the leap from Montana to the outside world: "While living at home, they didn't believe that their own observations, insights, or even hardships counted to an indifferent world. But away from it, they experienced revelations about how unique their homeland is. Other people were truly fascinated and yearned to hear more about the area they came from."

Karin Schalm & Matthew Hansen: Building A Home

Feb 11, 2015
courtesy of the Wilderness Institute, University of Montana

Karin Schalm recalls: "I moved to Montana when I was 25, fleeing my grief. I was searching for a new sense of home. In the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain Front, I felt a familiar sense of belonging among the rocks, icy creeks and wind-bent trees.

Jordan Konkol got a summer job helping geologists explore for platinum in Alaska. He recalls a moment from that remote place, standing on a high ridge in summer daylight at 11:00 p.m., "...feeling silence extend in every direction. I recalled a line of Joseph Conrad: "this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.""

Regan deVictoria & Ed Lahey: Leaving Butte

Jan 28, 2015
courtesy of the Lahey family

"You come to Butte, Montana direct from seven exhausting years in the city, seeking solace, expecting blight, and finding home."  Missoula native Regan deVictoria fell for Butte "as you do a man with a harelip despite deformities, and later, because of them."

Stephen Behrendt: Early Morning Animal Tracking

Jan 21, 2015
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Visits to poet Stephen Behrendt's favorite places in the West linger in his memory and imagination as "places of mind," where blue skies and the fragrance of sun-baked evergreen needles connect him more intensely to his surroundings than the "whitish Great Plains summer sky, heavy with humidity" of his home in Nebraska.

Montana Historical Society

Thoroughbred horses are Catherine Melin Moser's passion, but moving to Montana, she discovered something she hadn't know: winners of several of America's preeminent horse races in the 1880s and 1890s were raised on Montana bunch grass. Racers Spokane, Ben Holladay, Tammany, and Scottish Chieftain were raised by Montanans Noah Armstrong, Samuel Larabie, and Marcus Daly, and were winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and other races.

Ken Egan & Granville Stuart: Manifest Destiny, 1864

Jan 7, 2015
A Brief History of Butte, Montana

"In 1864, men in a hurry journeyed to the region known as the headwaters of the Missouri. Called by gold, they were in a rush to acquire and ascend, whether through gold-mining, freighting and selling goods to the miners, raising wheat and cattle, organizing and leading a new government, or other, less reputable means."  Ken Egan describes the collision between native cultures, with their traditions of gift-giving, oral history, and piety, and a burgeoning population of American opportunists. 

Lindsey Appell

"We were told coal would save us, the same year we learned about boom-and-bust economics in our social studies textbooks." College-bound Lindsey Appell couldn't wait to leave Roundup, Montana for Missoula, but soon she began to feel "the pull back to the prairie. The scent of wet sagebrush sends a shiver of longing through me now...There are no true sunsets in a bowl of mountains. No blood-orange autumn skies, casting harsh shadows across grizzled ponderosa hills and sandstone crags."

Annick Smith's dog Bruno "rode shotgun" as Smith drove from Montana to the Midwest, visiting her ninety-seven-year-old mother in Chicago. That trip inspired a memoir featuring Bruno as a central character. Smith cites poet Mark Doty's thoughts on writing about animals: doing so is an attempt to "bring something of the inchoate into the world of the represented." The Pima chant, "Dog Song," begins at nightfall with a dog watching butterfly wings fall from the sky:

"Our songs begin at nightfall

"My grandmother has no fingerprints. Her hands are lean, soft on the back, and wrinkled.

Mark Gorseth

Mark Gibbons began his "relationship with booze" at "watering holes, western bars, those dens of iniquity, as integral a part of the western landscape as horses or teepees...Fueled by alcohol late into the night, bars surely held unpredictable wildness, danger and vice; but in small western towns, the bar was the social center of the community." Poet Ed Lahey recalls a working-class Butte bar in "The Ballad of the Board of Trade Bar:"