Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Sense of Place

Wild gardens reveal the only world
     Waking up in an alpine place

In the Montana where I grew up, I never visited elaborate gardens. The gardens I knew were not grand creations, but humble efforts made with little more than shovels and hoes, aimed more at food than design. A neighbor, Mrs. Dunn, was a marvel because she actually built raised beds out of recycled planks and filled them with black soil dug by hand at Mission Dam in late fall when the reservoir was nearly empty and the rich deposits of top soil could be easily loaded into a truck. She talked beets and rutabagas more than peonies and thyme.

Lots of people grew potatoes, cabbage and corn in long rows, along with beds of cucumbers and tomatoes, but gardening for beauty was quite limited. An occasional line of marigolds beside the beets and radishes, a few petunias along the sidewalk, a small bed of snapdragons, an heirloom yellow rose bush by the front gate. There was one house in town that, for a couple of years, had a lush display of flowers I had no names for then but now know included lupines and irises and and lilies. I stopped in wonder that such things could actually grow in Montana. It was like something from a movie or magazine.

But I hardly thought about gardens. The strongest influence on my gardening aesthetic has probably been the wildflower displays I saw in rocky meadows around alpine lakes in the Mission Mountains. Waking in wilderness mountains beside meadows brimming with morning light, I felt a sense of pure grace. For a gardener, awakening comes before planting. Sometimes I inarticulately felt I could see more deeply into the heart of creation and sense there not the unintended accidents of a world of chance so much as gardens within gardens. Awakening there was being young in a way that does not wane with mere passage of years.

What moved me about those wild alpine gardens probably had as much to do with my attention as with what was “out there"--because I since have had the same sense in many other places, including urban parks. Much, maybe most, of what I like about camping is the absence of noise and distractions which makes it easier to pay attention to the moment, to the light which both reveals and feeds the world, to the endlessly varying mosaic beautiful in each of its details and sublime in its depth and breadth. A dew-sparkled world of flowers and shrubs and rocks and water seen in the slant light of morning is a world that, once seen, is always there, everywhere.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Speaking of beauty
     And the mission of schools

I helped the adjudicators at the District Music Festival held in Polson this past weekend. It was like climbing out of a slummy little village into an alpine meadow.

After each performance, the adjudicators talked with students about their music. One older gentleman told the high school kids that that they would not really understand the intensity of love that a person could feel toward grandchildren until they had grandchildren of their own, but that it was that sort of intensity that he felt during their performance.

He went on to discuss technical aspects of their work, and they stood in their gowns listening respectfully and attentively. Awakened by his forthright talk about beauty, my own mind wandered. I began to think of a backcountry trip I had made a few years ago. I was helping with the search for a small plane that had vanished into the Mission Mountain Wilderness in western Montana. We were days past the time where we believed any of the passengers might still be alive, so our mission was recovery rather than rescue. The plane had been carrying three children besides the pilot and his fiancee. I had been in the mountains for several days, bushwhacking through rugged terrain, wearily and somewhat grimly doing what I believed needed to be done.

And then, descending the foothills at the base of Mount Harding, we came around a bend on an overgrown logging road and into utter astonishment.

Western Meadowlark

The air was sweet with the perfume of late May blossoms?so sweet that without speaking all three of us slowed, then stopped. Awakened by the aroma, we suddenly saw that all around us the dense greenery of underbrush was graced by white of service berry blossoms, violet-blue of clematis flowers, and red of honeysuckle blooms all set ablaze by the afternoon sun. Even stranger, the entire scene vibrated with the fluttering of thousands and thousands of butterflies. Above us in mixed conifers the sky thrilled with the pulsing twitter of grosbeaks and rock wrens, the calls of nuthatches, and the piercing throb and receding echoes of waxwings and thrushes.

I have never experienced a moment in nature when all the senses combined in such profound beauty. The three of us without speaking each apprehended in an instant the sublime reality into which we had stumbled, and we stood still and silent, taking it in. What to make of it was hard to think, let alone to say.

Intelligence flowed into us directly, without words, letting us know beyond argument that life and the earth were good.

This didn’t contradict the sad event that had drawn us to this place at this moment. It included it, unifying it in our minds with a reality we could only glimpse that was nonetheless vivid around us. Life was sorrow and tragedy, and the sorrow was suffused with something deeper and higher which was a joy through all our being.

Though we all experience such moments, they are hard to talk about--either we repeat cliches, or we find ourselves wrestling with large and formidable abstractions. And so, profound beauty tends to have no official reality. In the public realm, where decisions affecting our common life are made, beauty is rarely mentioned.

It’s hard to get far at a school board meeting by talking about rock wrens and clematis blossoms when we are up against earnest guys with charts. We can be sure they are safe. They’ll never make anything happen.

Beauty, on the other hand, is dangerous. It moves us to the depths of our beings. It changes us. It changes the world.

It occurred to me watching the program how much students learn from an insistence that performances be beautifully done. I’ve spent time in schools where the unofficial motto for everything was “that’s good enough,” and where everything tended toward shabbiness.

Leaving the festival, I felt that strange combination of hope and sadness that beauty often triggers hope because we glimpse the realm from which sublimity emerges and to which it is native, so we know that the better world we dream of really does exist. And sadness because for now it is momentary, the beauty unforming as it is formed.

Beauty, after all, is not a value. It’s an intuition. It’s a perception of a higher reality. It’s a message that our truest hopes are not false.

The best scientists know that beauty and elegance are crucial to developing sound scientific theory. They are important enough that beauty sometimes serves as a guide when things get too complex for the intellect. Some scientists believe that it’s better to achieve elegance even if the theory then doesn’t quite fit all the known facts. It’s more probably that the “facts” may contain measurement errors or other abnormalities than it is that an inelegant solution is true. Beautiful and elegant theories can be wrong, but ugly and complicated ones are almost certainly so.

I would like to hear teachers talking more about the role of beauty in teaching. We have too many ugly and klutzy solutions in schools and too little striving for breathtaking beauty. It is beauty that inspires longing for the ideal, and it is in attention to the ideal that critical thought and wisdom become important.  (And they do become important. Very important. Lousy people long ago learned the power of art of to make lousy things seem good. I think of the Third Reich’s preoccupation with music, painting, and architecture, or of much of today’s music created by commercial and cultural spin masters. As I said, beauty is dangerous.)

High schools have the potential to play the central role in the lives of American communities. Because concern for our young is the strongest value that might bind us together, they are the places with the most power to bring us together, out of our various churches and anti-churches, into a common culture.

For them to do the work that perhaps only they can now do, teachers and principals need to live among young people in ways more profound than the purveyors of tests are likely to imagine. They need to ponder beauty. They need to accept Adam’s curse and labor to create beauty. This labor includes the study of ideals

At this time in history we are awash in floods of material goods but often confused by our inability to form strong purposes as to what our lives are for. If we don’t engage high schools students in creating cultural artifacts of enduring beauty, we may be miseducating them. It is in beauty that they may understand their purpose, without which time and money too often become a curse.

Beauty gives them hope, which is the lifeblood of purpose.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

     A between time

Yesterday’s morning snow melted quickly except where there was shade, so it’s spring in sunshine but winter a few inches away in the shade. 

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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Beyond the last best place (Part 2)
     The Literary West

Lincoln in Dalivision

I admit I liked it better when I thought “the last best place” was an intentional play on Lincoln’s words to Congress. Just before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in December, 1862, he observed, speaking of human freedom, that “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

They weren’t idle words. Lincoln could see that Western civilization was at a crisis. He knew that, as Michael Knox Beran describes in City Journal, “the fate of liberty hung in the balance in three great nations: Russia, where Alexander II sought to promote liberal reform; Germany, where Otto von Bismarck applied his dark genius to the destruction of the Rechtsstaat (rule-of-law state); and America itself.” His rhetoric sounded lofty, but it was neither hollow nor overly grandiose. Those were real words, forged in a fiery candor. Could any nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created, long endure?

Knox suggests the way history might have gone if Lincoln’s vision had not won:

Had Lincoln not forced his revolution in 1861, American slavery might have survived into the twentieth century, deriving fresh strength from new weapons in the coercive arsenal—scientific racism, social Darwinism, jingoistic imperialism, the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. The coercive party in America, unbroken in spirit, might have realized its dream of a Caribbean slave empire. Cuba and the Philippines, after their conquest by the United States, might have become permanent slave colonies. Such a nation would have had little reason to resist Bismarck;s Second Reich, Hitler’s third one, or Russia’s Bolshevik empire.

At times I get the sense that something huge is happening and I suspect that issues of similar import are being decided in the hearts and minds of people here today, so when I first heard “the last best place” I turned the phrase around in my mind, thinking of what might be at stake here. Alas, according to William Kittredge, the man who coined the slogan, thoughts of Lincoln didn’t enter his mind at the time:

Back in 1988, the writers Kittredge and Smith had nearly completed a massive anthology of Montana prose and poetry and were desperate for a title, Kittredge said.

That year, the anthology’s editorial committee went to Chico Hot Springs in the Paradise Valley for some heavy duty literary brainstorming, he said.

At Chico, Kittredge was pouring a drink and musing about a line from a Richard Hugo poem called “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” The line includes the phrase, “the last good kiss.” He was also thinking about the name of a western Montana mine called the Last Best Hope.

It all came together as the “Last Best Place.”

“I’m the one who thought it up. I know exactly when I did it,” Kittredge said.

Robert Struckman, the Missoulian

I was in the University of Montana’s MFA program at the time, and sometimes wondered whether every story written in Montana had to involve an epiphany in a bar. Thoreau had said that the government of the world he lived in was not framed in after-dinner conversations over the wine, but I don’t think he was angling for a grant or an award.

In any case, learning the true provenance of “the last best place” felt like a diminishment, a let down similar to hearing a rock anthem associated with my youth’s pure longing for freedom “re-purposed” as a jingle to peddle some pharmaceutical potion or a new pickup truck.

Sometimes—walking a high plateau east of the Crazy Mountains one afternoon in a chill autumn wind or putting a raft into the Missouri downstream from Fort Benton one brilliant July morning—I’ve felt I belonged to the same tribe the New Westers belong to. It’s a wonder, living in a place poised at that pastoral stage of development, where we have access to the abundance of modernity but aren’t yet assailed by a hundred miles of strip mall, noisy with solicitations to lay waste our powers.

But other times, it seems we live so far this side of paradise that I think it’s been a long time since I’ve heard words sufficient to the evil of our day.

By invoking Lincoln, even unintentionally, the slogan invokes the timeless question of freedom or slavery. The present age, after all, is far from exempt from that question. “The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination,” said Czeslaw Milosz (winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature) in his masterpiece, The Captive Mind. The great dispute was between the totalitarian regimes of modernity and the political theology that, from Christianity, had developed such concepts as the essential equality and dignity of every person ("in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them"), the separation of church and state ("Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"), and the consent of the governed as basis for the legitimacy of political authority ("On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram").

Since Milosz wrote that, the Soviet Union has collapsed and, under Putin, begun to take form again, but the USSR was only a local manifestation of a principle that’s never been absent from history. The details vary but always someone is trying to build an evil empire, and its foundation is always a lie: the divine right of kings; the supremacy of the white race; the triumph of the master race; the great leap forward. Lies are tricky and even the well-intentioned are deceived by them. The early guru of modernity, Ezra Pound, saw that it was through corruption of words that the bad guys got and held power and he said he was committed to purifying the language of the tribe. But he ended up shilling for Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Nonetheless, one would think that purifying the language of the tribe should be part of the calling of the literary crowd. Sometimes it is, of course, but more often literary types fit the description offered by Mark Lilla in his latest book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (which he offers as “a modest companion” to Milosz’s work). He said they “consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.”

Kittredge himself occasionally sounds that way to me. He can write achingly evocative lines, and then suddenly lurch into politically correct incantations that pop up like applause lines in a political stump speech. In Owning it All, he does some memorable storytelling about his grandfather, who, he said, set large cage-traps for magpies each summer, so he could drive down to the traps with his 12-gauge in his Cadillac. Then, in a slow and inevitable ritual the old man would step out of the sedan, the pockets of his gray gabardine suit-coat bulging with shells. The old man would kill the magpies one by one, taking his time. When asked for a reason, he simply said, “Because they’re mine.”

Kittredge introduces that strange story with these observations:

The West is a pastoral story of agricultural ownership. The story begins with a vast innocent continent, natural and almost magically alive, capable of inspiring us to reverence and awe, and yet savage, a wilderness. A good rural people come from the East, and they take the land from its native inhabitants, and tame it for agricultural purposes, bringing civilization: a notion of how to live embodied in law. The story is as old as invading armies, and at heart it is a racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest; a rationale for violence—against other people and against nature.

Racist, sexist, and imperialist. Of course. People like to hear their opinions confirmed, and that little passage gets quoted often. After his story, Kittredge drives home the big point:

And our mythology tells us we own the West, absolutely and morally—we own it because of our history. Our people brought law to this difficult place, they suffered and they shed blood and they survived, and they earned this land for us. Our efforts have surely earned us the right to absolute control over the thing we created. The myth tells us this place is ours, and will always be ours, to do with as we see fit.

That’s a most troubling and enduring message, because we want to believe it, and we do believe it, so many of us, despite its implicit ironies and wrongheadedness, despite the fact that we took the land from someone else. We try to ignore the genocidal history of violence against the Native Americans.

In the American West we are struggling to revise our dominant mythology, and to find a new story to inhabit. Laws control our lives, and they are designed to preserve a model of society based on values learned from mythology. Only after re-imagining our myths can we coherently remodel our laws, and hope to keep our society in a realistic relationship to what is actual.

Whoa! That’s a pretty big statement to hitch up to one little story about an unhappy old man.

I think of my own grandfather, who also farmed in the West but who I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have blamed private property for the way Kittredge’s grandfather acted. Maybe he was blessed by failure and hardship. He didn’t conquer the entire valley where he lived and he never killed anything for sport. He lost his farm in the Great Depression and moved to what he called the “dry farm.” He struggled with hauling enough water for stock, and he trusted rain for the crops. He didn’t think of ownership as some sort of absolute right, but as a precarious blessing (he imagined “blessings” rather than “privileges” since he didn’t think the state and its entitlements constituted the main force in life) and as an achievement that brought some measure of independence and prosperity.

After he retired from farming he bought a house in town but kept a couple hundred chickens in a well-made coop in his back yard, so he would have some chores caring for living creatures. He showed me how to candle eggs.

I’m pretty sure that if he had witnessed Kittredge’s grandfather blasting birds to bloody bits, he would have blamed it on bad character rather than on mythologies. I’m not sure exactly what he would have said, but “son of a bitch” comes to mind. He also knew other words: “arrogant,” “greedy,” “heartless” and “bastard.” His “mythology” didn’t lack resources for disapproving of such conduct.

His son—my father—once caught me, when I was about ten years old, throwing rocks at a stray cat. Though my father often disapproved of things I did, I rarely felt he was disapproving of me—my essential identity—but at that moment that is what I did feel, which is why I’ve remembered it. “It’s bad enough that he doesn’t have a home,” he said, shaking his head. “You don’t need to throw rocks at him.” His voice was quiet but the disgust was plain.

I wonder how deeply Kittredge really believes the moral he fastened onto his story. My hunch is that at least part of the reason he said what he said is because such ideas are fashionable among the tribe where he made his career.  I’ve heard that tale often enough: Americans are racist, sexist and imperialist thieves who also have genocidal tendencies, along with a superstitious belief in private property. Talk about a mythology.

Kittredge is explicit about saying over and over that he wants us to inhabit a different literature, a different mythology than the one of our fathers and grandfathers. Those hankering to shape the future have always told us tales, which is why people who want to be free have always had to be literary critics, in a sense. In Kittredge’s telling, his family’s ranch was a destructive mistake. “It all went dead, over the years,” he said. “We had reinvented our valley according to the most persuasive ideal given us by our culture, and we ended with . . . a dreamland gone wrong.”

My first question is simply, is this true? Not is it true that his family made mistakes, but is it true that they had lived by “the most persuasive ideal given to us by our culture”? Our culture has been around for centuries, and we’ve had some mighty storytellers. If Kittredge’s family truly did live by the most persuasive ideals that were available, and things went so wrong, I would imagine that things are quite hopeless. I don’t see today’s crop of storytellers as having wisdom or craft superior to the standard set by storytellers of the past.

Fortunately, hardly anyone I know is likely to believe that Kittredge’s grandfather was living by the most persuasive ideal available in western culture. For me, Kittredge’s story is the cultural trope of a tribe I’ve visited from time to time but among whom I’ve never really felt at home. So when he talks about “we” and “our” I don’t often feel that he means me and mine.

Part 1

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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Beyond the last best place (Part 1)
     Welcome to the Pleasure State

You may have heard Montana referred to as “the last best place.” It seems a fitting slogan, in the New West I hear is coming (version 1.0 of the New West was described by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1906 book, The Rise of the New West—in it, Turner noted that “every period of [American] life is a transitional period").

In our current transitional period, maybe Dan Kemmis will get his way, and we’ll be ruled by appointed commissions of stakeholders—i.e. those who matter—and we can forget all that trouble about consent of the governed.

Maybe Rick Bass will get his way, and the loggers will leave the Yaak to him and the wolverines so he can expound more fully on what he intends by making a home in the wild.

Maybe David James Duncan will get his, and all the world will attend his churchless sermons and all religion will be disorganized.

Less likely, maybe I will get mine and people will be careful what goods they jettison on their overloaded journey to the promised land.

If you Google “the last best place” one of the first articles that pops up is about a nursing home in Florida. Florida, the writer says, is “the place where [the elderly] hope to live out, with as much verve, comfort and security as they can find and afford, the extra decade of life that advances in health care have given them.” At a “life care facility” called Canterbury, you can contract with an institution “to care for you for the rest of life. It is like a small well-managed village, or a very adult camp, and that is as good as it gets.”

The article caught my attention because I’ve always thought Montana’s unofficial slogan sounded like the sort of thing a person might say about somewhere he was going to die. It has, as Jedediah Purdy pointed out, a “slightly alarmed” quality, as when progressives, having debunked everything in sight, come to the gut-wrenching realization that they really are going to die anyway, and turn their attention to really enjoying that latte.

For me, listening to New Westers activates those parts of my mind that get me thinking about jasmine-smelling boutiques with shoppers gliding around the pyramids and mirrors, sampling metaphysical potions and charms, unable to get to the dream at the core of existence. Not that I mind the smell of jasmine or the quirks of my mystical friends.

Still, they aren’t the sort of people you want to count on when things get real hard. They tend to be hedonists, and hedonists, even mild hedonists of the sort who long for steamed broccoli, have difficulty comprehending soul-deep love and the meaning of sacrifice. Pleasure is subjective, which is to say private, and when it comes right down to it, they figure, they’re alone.

So we are never in it together, though we may experience our private thrills side by side and mistake it, in the short run, for something more important.

In any case, I tend to take talk of a “New West” as a wispy byproduct of the season, wafting like morning mist through the canyon, or the clatter of conversation half heard in the distance, mingling with the rattle of pebbles dislodged from an ancient trail to a remembered place that I intend to see again. Death is an illusion we use to learn what to let go. There is no last place. There is no best place.

But there is Montana. In some ways, the slogan may be as indicative of the sentimental state of some Montanans today as “The Treasure State” was of the Montanans of 1895, when that slogan first appeared on the cover of a guidebook published by the state government. At that time, Montana led the nation in the production of copper, gold and silver, and turning earthly resources into marketable goods felt right. It seemed to people then a reasonable way of heading toward Eden. Though the mines themselves could be hellish, people could also see the beauty of promise, which they called progress, in freight trains billowing coal smoke over the landscape.

Today, decades along in an environmental crusade full of Epicurean sermons that endlessly rehearse the idea that “the system” is evil—organized on principles of exploitation, oppression, capitalism, consumerism and commercialism—it’s become second nature to feel alienated, truly at home only among those who have the same feelings.

We have an entire class of oddly detached people who have a lifelong habit of frowning and shaking their heads about the economic system that fills their pantry and finances their vacations. They keep their jobs and manage their retirement portfolios, all the while holding themselves aloof from it all. To soothe their desire for coherence, they adopt public policy positions in favor of rain forests and whales and against Wal-Mart and pharmaceutical companies. This lets them feel a sense of moral purpose without interfering too greatly with their cherished freedom of personal choice. They may have to use less styrofoam but they can still find nice clothes at Patagonia, and if they really want something from a big box discounter they need only make a little self-mocking joke by giving “Target” a French pronunciation. To satisfy their hunger for real commitment to transcendent affairs, they can save the polar bears by turning off the porch light when they’re not using it.

Deviously, though the system is unquestionably evil it creates tons of stuff nobody wants to do without. The wealth that it generates is real enough to liberate lots of people from all sorts of commitments and duties that once formed the framework of many American lives—religion, civic organizations and family. They soon find other things to occupy them, so the detachment heightens rather than interferes with the pursuit of pleasure. As with the ancient Epicureans, their detachment creates space for the pursuit of pleasure—though with considerable care. After spending the day looking for the perfect restaurant, it’s important to eat sparingly, thus avoiding such trouble as gaining too much weight or getting diabetes. People who are no longer harangued by Sunday morning sermons or the threat of hunger see fewer and fewer reasons not to experience the world as a playground where it feels good to believe it’s one’s birthright to choose among pleasures. What is life other than a spectacle to be enjoyed?

Screenshot from Ameya Preserve website. Ameya is a
proposed development near Livingston, Montana.

The exclusive housing developments springing up throughout the West would seem to fit perfectly into this world view. David Nolt notes that “the cultural features” at Ameya Preserve, a proposed housing development near Livingston for the super rich, will include, along with open vistas of the Rocky Mountains, “restaurant and cooking classes, courtesy of Alice Waters, the reknowned Berkeley-based chef.” Those with time can explore “the dinosaur digs with Jack Horner.” Life can be planned around “readings, lectures, and . . . the largest observatory telescope in the state.” Ameya is only one of many housing enclaves dedicated to enjoying the Montana spectacle: Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin, Saddlehorn, Iron Horse Ranch and Rock Creek Cattle Company.

Of course, lots of New Westers find it pretty hard to like these gated communities such as Ameya—not because there’s anything wrong with a life dedicated to self-fulfillment and aesthetic gratification in whatever last best place can be found—but for other reasons. It’s so darn inegalitarian. It locks up natural resources for private use. It develops previously undeveloped habitat. Wade Dokken, the financial industry CEO who’s trying to develop Ameya, really ticked them off by saying that the opposition to his plan was mostly due to “class envy.”

I would bet on the guy with money and a plan. He’s got some elements of that deep dream at the center of life in Montana figured out: wilderness is our garden. We plan it and cultivate it just so. It pleases us.

We are past the point where wilderness is possible, except as a style of gardening. The language of Genesis was the language of commandment but also of prophecy, and the part about dominion has largely been fulfilled: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The earth is largely subdued and the extent of human dominion is, by historical standards, amazing. If grizzlies still wander McDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains, it is because bureaucratic committees have met and decided that it should be so.

Tranquility Ranch, Swan Valley

The good news is that grizzlies do still wander McDonald Peak, because the committees, reflecting the wishes of the people, echo the Creator somewhat in concluding that the earth, including the bears, is good. If the ideas of people such as Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold still seem a little odd, at least the lifestyle seems cool. We’ve been converted. No one wants a porch on main street. Everyone wants a Walden Pond or a weekend house on the Wisconsin River.

Rather than dreaming of seeing new factories built, we admire the beauty of all the showy houses the wealthy are building beside small lakes and along ridge tops everywhere in the West. Wouldn’t it be fine to build a house with a nice view of some special little piece of Montana and then to lock things down, so it too doesn’t get ruined? As much as possible we would keep the infrastructure decently hidden—the interstate trucks laden with Italian olives and and Mexican apples for our table would be kept too distant to hear. We may connect to the Internet every day, but the massive server farms running Google are low profile and down river along the Columbia, and we’ll insist that the power lines from the grid to our breaker box are tastefully buried. There will be no visible wires in this fantasy.

The last best place, I imagine, becomes a simulacrum of a wild world, tenuously holding the wild world at bay.

Welcome to Montana, the Pleasure State.

Part 2

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

     Late night notes toward a sense of place

“I have always been here,” I was tempted to say to the journalist, a young Indian woman who had just told me that “Whites are mobile. They don’t care where they live.” She seemed angry that people of my race lived on what she thought of as her reservation. We were in Pablo, Montana, at the offices of the newspaper I edited that was published by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of western Montana.

The Flathead Reservation was opened to nontribal homesteaders in 1910. My family arrived fifty years ago. Nowhere else has ever been home to me. I was surprised by her outburst, which she seemed to have been waiting for some right moment to make. I was struck by how little she knew my heart, and so I thought it probable that I knew hers no better. I held my peace and said nothing and got back to my work.

In truth, I have never been here, though I was something of an early adopter of Thoreau’s ethic:

Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nearer and nearer here. Here are all the friends I ever had or shall have, and as friendly as ever. . . Here, of course, is all that you love, all that you expect, all that you are. Here is your bride elect, as close to you as she can be got. Here is all the best and all the worst you can imagine. What more do you want ? Bear hereaway then! Foolish people imagine that what they imagine is somewhere else. . . .

Henry David Thoreau, Journal, November 1, 1858

I had made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond one summer when the air was fragrant with sweet pepper bush, looking for whatever wisdom I might find traipsing the paths once walked by a man whose writings and reputation made his world more real than mine. I stood at the replica of his cabin built up the hill from the lake and looked back toward the waters, as though I might see as he saw. I dove into the lake and gathered five small stones from the bottom—one for each of my small children—the only souvenirs I collected on that trip. I did not want something purchased, probably from a workshop in a distant country, but something authentically of that place. Quite hopeless.

I’ve been asked several times by editors to write this or that about my “sense of place.” Once, as I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my two-year-old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me. “Campin?” he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmallow. He had associated the “camping” he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him. “Campin” had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The place we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson was now. His mother had gone there with my wife and me when she was his age. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass it by without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road. It was only a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place he missed so much as what had happened there. It is the memory of a lived story that matters.

I logged off the computer and picked up my child.

We know something is wrong with our lives because we remember our childhoods, when the world was full of hugs and we lived under clouds, seeing the pure blue of sky and smelling grass as we rolled down hills. We knew time then by changes in place—the swelling of willow buds or the waning of the moon or the return of geese. Time was a local matter of sunrise and sunset, of the coming home of cows, of the pink warmth at dawn, of wood smoke in the cooling, shortening days. The world was inexhaustibly present so we didn’t think much about loss and never about death.

We no longer live there, most of the time. We are displaced. We feel the places we live as being less the intersection of nature and history and culture, less a storied context that allows us to think and feel together.

For centuries the Salish who lived here had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of Ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass, and, as the air became cold, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

Most of that is gone, and my young journalist senses the loss, and in her personal story I am implicated through my race into the blame. The rhythms and movements of the old Salish were aspects of mind, as transient as the seasons. When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was changed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes. They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo, the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility. In changing the way they related to space, they changed their minds.

Places are places in part because they are haunted. There is a two-mile stretch of road along a canal that I used to walk with a friend who has been gone from here for years. I no longer walk there and I can’t pass by without a dual feeling of remembered good times and sorrow that they are past, never to return.

We don’t become or stay human by ourselves. Place is mostly mind, a level of narrative perception somewhere between molecules and stars. When today’s Salish gaze at the uninhabited mountains, they are gazing into the past, and so the wilderness that enchants with its beauty in the same instant saddens by evoking an awareness of loss. This is the nearest I can come to a definition of “sense of place.” It seems to me that it resonates from loss, intensifying our need for joy. It is part memory, part longing.

We know that we cannot stay more than we know where we really are. We are, as Walker Percy put it, “lost in the cosmos.” A sense of place grows out of a longing for family, for a place in the vastness of time and space at a scale and in a key where we might be understood and loved.

A few weeks after my grandson came into my study, I was there again reading a work of popular physics, something about the illusoriness of time. I went to my window and looked out at the winter night into the thick swirl of snowflakes. In the near distance I saw two cars moving slowly, as it seemed to me, through whatever night they encountered. Matter was, I had been told, vastly different than it seemed. The empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times bigger than the particles themselves. The apparent solidity of things was an illusion created in part by the poor resolution of my eyes but more by the force fields within which the particles existed. Nobody knows what such force fields really are. The electrons and protons themselves were made of smaller particles which emerged from waves of something more original than energy flooding into the universe and pulsing throughout being.

My grandson appeared beside me tugging at my pant leg and looking up, his two-year-old eyes pure with pleading. “I want to see.” So I lifted him to the window where he could gaze at the swirl of flakes and the mystery of light.

A sense of place is a sense of orientation. It is the beginning and end of knowing.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

The world becomes what we want
     A sense of place with a side of longing

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc.—aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.”

This provides a “sense of place,” the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through a total administrative state of loudspeakers and smokeless fast food joints, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts promote a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere to which we have consigned ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the stylized charm of a retail environment complete with the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not a sense of a real place, but a sense of it like the image of a candle just blown out. A sense of London haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century England.

To my way of thinking, the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money isn’t a problem. Really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who don’t care what makes us happy.

It’s only a small example of a large trend: the world is being redesigned toward what we want. Increasingly, the world is what we collectively want it to be.

Almost a century ago John Dewey observed that the highest outcome of a good education was intelligent desire. This would be a good time to talk about what desires are intelligent and how they might be taught.

This would be a good time.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Montana Blogs
     Developing regional culture

Who knows where blogging will lead. My own hopes are that it will support a flourishing of regional culture, as more people realize they can write for families and local communities about things unlikely to draw audiences of the size needed for traditional publishing.

Right now there’s a lot of experimentation and learning going on. The technology is new and often strange, and many readers haven’t migrated from the morning paper or other forms of old media.

But it’s a form worth thinking about, and maybe taking a stab at yourself. My favorite website in the world is a family photo blog that our family does. Several of us post photos with brief captions. Recently, my seven-year-old grandson posted a poem he wrote about his great-grandmother a couple days after she died. It’s a place where we express (and in the expression develop) our notions of what our family is about. It’s important to us now, and I imagine it will be priceless a generation or two down the line.

My view is that every family needs its writers, photographers--its own literature and art--and we now have the tools to do this.

And not just families. Neighborhoods, towns, clubs and organizations. As I said, we are just at the beginning. Who knows what might be coming. It’s worth watching. Here are some of the blogs from Montana that made me feel good, for various reasons.

A Montana cattle rancher’s opinions and facts: I sometimes wonder if my cattle can read my mind. The cows were still out in the hills scrounging for feed and later in the week I was going to let them come down towards home. You will note the “were? in the statement. They decided to break the fence down and come home without any help. Luckily the next fence held long enough to move some other cattle around to let them the rest of the way down. I hate when I have to do things unplanned and in a hurry but we managed. We spent a while fixing everything and I am back under control for now. “If? there are any cattle left in the hills I will let them work in if they want. The ones that came home will start getting a cake supplement now and I will hold off haying them. The hired man wanted to know if I was rewarding them for breaking the fence down and coming home. I told him “we? were rewarding them for not breaking any more fence down than they did and patiently waiting while we moved some other cattle around before they came down. Got to look on the bright side.

Thoughts from the Middle of Nowhere

An anonymous blog about life in Montana, from the Livingston area: I love the hard-working, honest and friendly people of Montana. In gas stations here in the morning, you’ll find men standing around sipping coffee and talking. I love that when you sit and chat with the boys here in Montana, you don’t speak of geeky subjects like routers and USB cables and Perl code, we speak of manly things like cattle and fences and horses and hunting. And I love it that no matter who you talk to - you end up finding a link - it will turn out you know someone they know either through family, work, or school. I love being able to walk into a bar and know everyone in there and be greeted as a friend and a neighbor. Montanans have accepted me and my family here - they know that I’m “not from around here? but they accept me as a local and as a friend and I’ve been made to feel welcome here. I’ve lived in other states where you’re made to feel if you’re not a native, you’re trespassing - not so here, I’m made to feel welcome here.

Big Sky Blog

A Billings blog about politics, school board, and general topics: Once again the voters of Billings have shown that they want little (if anything) to do with funding SD2’s projects!
All of the funding requests were voted down and probably for good reason. The real reason? MISTRUST I’d say. That said, it is a sad day for the children who are going to suffer in the long run.
I am not against funding education but last night I had the opportunity to attend a focus group conducted by MSUB. Not only was it educational, but after two hours of round table discussion it is clear that the members of the SD2 could well learn a few things that would help them in actually getting peoples input rather than the shotgun approach that they have used in the past.
The Dean of the College of Technology (COT) along with the staff at MSUB are studying the “Community College? idea to expand the education process that more closely fits the NEEDS of both our young children coming out of High School as well as the non-traditional students who are either trying to make career changes or move up the economic ladder in a state the now ranks 44th in the nation…up from 45.
Until the School Board can come up with VALID and concrete PLANS I doubt whether they will ever be successful in getting any requests for money approved by the voters of Billings.

Views from the Rim

A photo blog of weekend outings around Great Falls: About three miles from the top I came on a car pulled off to the side of the road and the driver looking over the side into a steep ravine. I looked down and there was one of the trucks that had passed me dangerously on a curve. It was on its top. Luckily, none of the four guys in the car were hurt and they were able to climb out through one of the windows.

Out There with Tom

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Getting to know place
     The cosmos at the scale of home

I turn off the lights, open the window in my study, lean on the sill a little into the night, gazing for a long moment out at snow falling through cottonwoods along Mission Creek, and snow falling on my winter garden, now gone. Snowflakes on my cheek feel like pricks of life.

A knowledge has been handed down to me through American culture from Puritans who saw the material world related to the spiritual world in such a way that any moment correctly observed and understood contains all moments.

When, as Puritans, they encountered the New England coast, they did not see stones shaped by geologic forces over millions of years or waves rising and falling according to laws of physics that stretched backward and forward through infinity without change. They saw a stage upon which a cosmic drama of sin and redemption was enacted in every moment. They saw in all of it a provident God whose Plan of Salvation included the story of time from beginning to end, moment by moment, in unimaginably vast reaches of self-similarity.

In learning to see their own lives as types of the unfolding plan, they became skilled metaphorical thinkers, adept at seeing different points in history as revelatory of the underlying truth from which existence unfolded, so their own grand errand to the wilderness was also the Israelites’ journey through wilderness toward freedom. Every event and aspect of nature was at once itself and a remembrancer of more. History was not chronology but an intelligible order in which prophets had discerned and described both past and future. We can see only what we can see, but all of it is before us.

Later, such ones as Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and Hawthorne separated the Puritan’s metaphorical facility from faith in the God of the Bible, but the transcendence lasted for a while. Every time and place remained an instance of every other time and place.

But then, in a moment, it vanished. The cosmos was empty and dead. In “The Snow Man? Wallace Stevens said that to face the meaningless arrangements and rearrangements of patterns that make up modernity, “one must have a mind of winter.” Only then can one behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

But few have minds of winter. Many would rather find sacred paths into dialogue with the universe as living mind. The covers of best sellers are graced with images of Egyptian pyramids or South American temples or Stonehenge. People look beyond cold nothing.

They associate a sense of nothing with the meaninglessness of the spaces they have come to. What does it matter which building in which edge city reached by which highway one goes to through morning gridlock to ride the same elevator to the same hallway to the same room filled with purplish gray fabric-covered cubicles, personalized with photocopied jokes?

I think that the longing for a sense of place we hear so much about has grown from a longing for meaning. A longing for family, as a way of being understood and loved, as a way of being together, among all our grandmothers and grandfathers and all our children and grandchildren, some not yet born. A longing for a sense that all we have been and seen and known does not melt and shatter into vibrating bits.

The longing for a sense of place is, I think, a longing for the cosmos at the scale of home.

Just before I opened the window to look out through silences of falling snow, I had been reading an argument by a theoretical physicist that time is an illusion, as I watched the night, a thick swirl of heavy snowflakes catching the yellow light of the streetlights across the creek, where in the near distance I saw two cars moving, slowly as it seemed to me, through whatever night they were to encounter.

I knew that the empty spaces between protons and electrons were a million billion times larger than the particles themselves, I knew that the solidity of the birch window sill was an illusion created in part by force fields within which electrons and protons danced, and I knew that nobody knew what the forces fields were, and that the electrons themselves were made of even smaller particles, emerging from waves of a not-nothing that was prior to energy and flooding the universe with being.

My grandson toddles to my knee and tugs on my trousers. “Can I see??

I lift him. Yes. Here a little and there a little. Yes.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Sense of place as an aspect of mind
     Changing geographies of possibility

When the old Salish got horses, their sense of place changed. Their minds were re-shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

For centuries the Salish who lived where I live now had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass. As the air became colder, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

These rhythms and movements were aspects of mind for the old Salish.

When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was transformed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors, able to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes.

They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo and the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

In changing the way they related to space, they changed their minds. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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