MTPR

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.

Reflections West podcast

Ways to Connect

"The man I fall for can be hard to reach," writes author and creative writing professor, Rachel Toor. "When he goes out, he goes far. He fills his bottles, stows food he’s prepared, some of which he’s killed and cured, makes sure his skis are waxed, bike tires filled, boat leaks plugged. He brings extra batteries, toilet paper, and some weed. Some of his clothes and gear, worn but trusted, have outlasted his dogs. He always has a dog, named Rio, or Bridger, or Finn, usually a Lab.

"The year before I started middle school, my parents made me watch a videotape of a professor talking about problem students who engaged in “'negative attention-seeking,'” writes Melissa Stephenson.  "I didn’t understand why my teacher had sent this video home. Mrs. Dolk had short blonde hair like Princess Diana, and sometimes I imagined what life would be like if she adopted me. I tried to impress her with jokes and high test scores. But as we watched the video, I realized my favorite teacher didn’t much like me.

David Allan Cates

"Sixty years old and riding my bike no-handed across the Higgins Street bridge into downtown Missoula, feeling my stomach churn with the anger and fear that has choked our civic air — but also the with the miracles of hot wind and flowing water," writes poet, novelist and teacher, David Allan Cates. "Despite my spread-arm victory pose, I carry a feeling of lost-ness—of emptiness that’s also a kind of balance—a wound, that’s also, somehow, a spring.

"I grew up in Tacoma, a port city on Puget Sound," writes poet, essayist and co-owner of Missoula's Montgomery Distillery, Jenny Montgomery. "We lived on Puyallup Indian reservation land, but there were few signs that this was so. Our neighborhood overlooked ancient salmon fishing waters but was completely inhabited by whites.  There were no Native kids among us at school yet our mascot was the Warrior—a childlike, cartoon brave who wore a single feather on his head and a floppy loincloth.

Martin Klimek (CC-BY-4.0). Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

"One of the central tenets of collaborative comedy writing is the rule of 'Yes, and,'" writes freelance writer and occasional standup comedian, Sarah Aswell. "The concept is simple: when someone has an idea, you should not only validate that idea no matter its absurdity (by saying 'Yes') but you also add something new to the scene (by saying 'and').

Mariana Cook

"When I meet strangers deep in rural white settings, perfect and polite English rolls easily from my face and I watch their eyes and brains appraise me," writes Alex Alviar, who teaches at Salish Kootenai College and with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. "Where is he from? Indian? Tourist? Mexican? Their eyes are like fish in the murk considering the fake fly tied and cast through the ripple before them. What is he? Can we trust him?

"Like many today, my troubled inheritance is the great wave of settler colonialism that washed from Europe over the Americas for the last five centuries.  I carry its invisible weight when I walk these Rocky Mountains and when I drive America’s freeways—all on stolen Indian land," writes "Reflections West" co-host, David Moore.

Larry Miller (CC-BY-2.0)

"A decade ago I packed everything I owned into my little car and drove across the country to Montana, in part because of a few poems," writes essayist, poet and two-time winner of the Obsidian Prize for Poetry, Melissa Mylchreest.

Jennifer Savage moved to Montana from South Carolina fifteen years ago for what was to be a one-year job.  She has never left.  "An old friend recently told me, “I suppose you are as much Western as you are Southern, since you’ve lived so long in Montana.”

"Some days I’m the little girl I was 15 years ago: leather boots in tall grass, stroking the black silk neck of my horse," writes Chelsea Drake, assistant editor and writer at Missoula Valley Lifestyle Magazine. "She and I are like limbs of the same tree, growing up and into ourselves, finding a way through fire and ice.

National Park Service. (CC-BY-2.0)

"I fish with my children, the paddle knocking the canoe in an easy rhythm," writes Caroline Patterson, writer, teacher, and director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative.  "Phoebe is five, her taffy hair in braids; Tobin three, his round face expectant as he scans the pocked water. I take up the spinning rod, for we are trolling, the dreamer's way of fishing. Phoebe and I let out line, and I show her how to reel it in. I lie back to wait, studying the tamaracks, capped by the Swan Mountains.

"I have been thinking about consciousness, who has it and who doesn’t," writes poet, essayist and editor, Melissa Kwasny. "'Consciousness: to have a sense of oneself as apart from others.'  Science has discovered that even plants can distinguish between a self and a not-self, halting their growing roots in contact with the foreign. Carl Sapina, in a recent book called Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, says we share basically the same nervous system—wolf, coyote, even the worm. To grant them consciousness is to wake, not to a dream world, but a greater reality that requires a different navigation and a far different morality. 

Flickr user, Bradley Gordon. (CC-BY-2.0)

"In my youth, I was restless enough to have spent four years on the road searching for the Great American Bar," writes Livingston, MT teacher and author, Toby Thompson.  "I often visited thirty a day, learning in my travels that the mountain West– specifically Montana–held more saloons than any other region.

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.

P.D.

"Ten years ago, my dad told me I would be inheriting his 30.06," writes Erika Fredrickson, arts editor at the Missoula Independent. "I nearly choked on my coffee. My grandfather, who died before I could meet him, had passed the gun to my dad, and my dad wanted to do the same. But I was a writer, not a hunter.

"Montana first told me a secret on the banks of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula," writes photographer and writer, Jessica Lowry Vizzutti. "I was visiting in summer with my boyfriend as we made a cross-country road trip from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Montana and ultimately Los Angeles.  It was July, the perfect month for a Southern woman to fall in love with a snowy state.

Len Jenshel

Stephanie Land knew in fourth grade that she wanted to become a professional writer. She's written for the New York Times and the Washington Post about the obstacles thrown in her path by the challenges of single parenthood.

"For two decades I wrote horrible poems," Land writes. "I believed in soul mates. I devoured books. I drank too many jugs of wine. I sowed my wild oats.

Toni Truesdale works with people suffering from dementia. In "Behind The Locked Door," her book of essays and poems about Alzheimer's, she writes about "sundowning," the symptoms of restlessness and confusion when, at around sunset each day, patients begin searching for home and bygone family.

"My sweet, eighty-two-year–old friend repeats a sentence for the third time: “Well, I guess it’s time to go home; Mother will be waiting” I look at the clock. It's 4:30 p.m. and the shadows outside are lengthening; the sun is going down. Her mother has been gone for over twenty-five years.

Illustration by Jesse Wells

"My wife and daughter left Montana for our new home in Ontario while I stayed to pack our things," writes journalist, editor and recent University of Montana MFA graduate, Brendan Fitzgerald. "I was glad they’d gone ahead. It was fire season, and smoke had lowered the ceiling of the world, dissolved the mountains and filtered color from the sunlight. On the radio, someone said that spending more than an hour outside was hazardous. I spent two in the parking lot of the post office, hauling books from my car and packing them into boxes.

"Some of my most illuminating experiences of the West have occurred behind the wheel of a car," writes writer, teacher, and director of the Montana Book Festival, Rachel Mindell. "This is not especially romantic. Having lived in Arizona, Colorado and Montana and as a woman who loves to hike, to sit on rocks and to feel insignificant, I have continually averted the expression of a direct commune with nature. As a writer, I need expansive solitude to produce, a metal cage with windows and relative silence. To produce, I need to drive.

"This last fall, I was teaching a poetry class in Arlee, a small Montana town on the Flathead Reservation, just after the first snow fell on the mountains," writes musician-poet-teacher, Caroline Keys. "A junior high student in my poetry class, one in a set of identical twin brothers, turned in a poetry exercise in which he was asked to replicate one of the most famous and enigmatic poems titled "This is Just to Say" by the Modernist poet, William Carlos Williams. The assignment asked him to rewrite Williams's mysteriously potent form with something from his own life.  The student's poem began like this:

This is just to say
yes we have switched classes
you thought I was the other twin
and you have finally figured it out...

Mark Gorseth

"My father, and many fathers and their fathers before them in the last century, especially those working in the American West, were forced to travel away from home to provide for their families," writes poet Mark Gibbons. "They were sometimes gone for days, weeks at a time. My dad worked as a trainman for the Milwaukee Railroad, available to hop a freight around the clock every day of the year.

Flickr user, Don DeBold (CC BY 2.0)

"The draft haunted me during the Vietnam War, and for us college kids standing naked that morning, awaiting our pre-induction physicals, it was a vulnerable moment," writes Toby Thompson, author and writing teacher.  "We’d boarded an Army bus for the ride to a nearby fort, where medics and physicians waited to decide our fitness for duty. A few boys were gung-ho, but our majority hung our heads in resignation or prayer, hoped for 1-Y or 4-F status.  Either meant you wouldn’t have to serve.

Flickr user, Neal Sanche (CC BY 2.0)

"My close friend from high school died recently as the result of a car crash from three years ago. He had been driving to Missoula," writes Erik Kappelman, a student at the University of Montana.

"A short time ago I drove that same road with my pregnant wife and four-year-old daughter. We went to our family's ranch outside of Big Timber; the place is falling apart after my parent’s divorce, after years of disability and alcohol. I think to myself: when that homestead collapses after one hundred years, it will finally be over.

Crissie McMullan, the executive director of Mountain Home Montana, considers the connection between homelessness and the environment. The absence of a warm bed and warm meal can trump the healing potential of time spent in wildness, writes McMullan:

"I first started caring about the natural world in my late teens, a time where I felt confused about who I was and who I wanted to be. Sometimes I was so tangled up inside that I couldn’t breathe. I sought air in the most literal way: outside, among trees, between mountains, beneath a big sky.

"The trouble with giving away a place name is that then we can guarantee someone else will go there," points out poet, Damon Falke. "No matter how remote the dirt road that winds its way to the overlook where the sunsets are eloquently perfect, someone else will seek and find the same road.  When we expedite this process of finding, we (or someone) will begin to advertise our places through a precise network of signs and signals.

"I have no deep physical roots to a particular place, nor did my parents before me," writes anthropologist Sally Thompson in her manuscript, True North at the Third Pole: Exploring the Indian Himalayas. "The graves of my ancestors lie unremembered in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Connecticut.

"Years ago I served as an expert witness for archaeology in the Taos Pueblo water rights case. After I presented a status report of my research, the governor of the Pueblo stood up and said he wanted to note a significant difference between my culture and his: curiosity. Euro-Americans want to dig things up, dissect them and verify everything. Indian people already know who they are and they don’t need the physical evidence of the past to prove it.

Cornelius Marion Battey (PD)

“For seven days in June 2015, Rachel Dolezal captured the news cycle,” writes University of Montana professor, Tobin Shearer, for "Reflections West."

 

“Dolezal had led Spokane's NAACP and taught Africana studies, but lost those positions after her parents outed her as a white person. Dolezal had presented herself as black for years.

 

Large ponderosa pine tree.
(PD)

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.

Tess Fahlgren & Richard Hugo: Montana's Other Face

Jun 26, 2015
Richard Hugo
Poetry Dispatch

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.

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