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

"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.

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