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

"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.

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.

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
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.

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:

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