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."

Mission Valley

Gardening the creek
     Planning paradise

A friend bought nearly 80 acres along a section of Mission Creek where I had spent a lot of time as a boy. I took several trips with him to look at the property and to listen to his plans for it. He had researched riparian zones and was intent on preserving the wildness of the place. He was going to fence the creek, so cattle from the bench pasture couldn’t get down in the trees. He showed me places where he was going to use a bulldozer to put the bank back to a more natural shape, and where he was going to plant willows to prevent the creek from eroding the bank further. He was planning a large-scale garden that had to look wild and unplanned.

I had loved that section of creek when I was a boy. I could get there from town on my bike, and once there I could lose myself in a ribbon of wilderness meandering through the valley. I went fishing there often, and like grownup fishermen sometimes I actually fished, but as often as not I just wandered the freedom of secret places. 

Farmers had allowed cows along the creek: the banks were pummeled to mud by their hooves, the new growth pine and fir was destroyed by browsing so the bottoms grew to thickets of buck weed, cockle burr and beggars lice. Because the land wasn’t useful for farming, except as a cheap source of stock water, it was ignored. No one cared who was there or what they did. It was a paradise. I could built shelters and dams, made forts, lashed together tree houses and built camp fires. There were no signs, no rules. It was a good place to be a poor kid. Or a poor man.

My friend was going to build his house at the edge of the woods, something tasteful that wouldn’t be too conspicuous. A couple from New Jersey had moved into the valley the year before and built a large house high on a hill overlooking us all. You could see it from everywhere. He wasn’t going to do anything so crass. The side of his house that faced the creek would have many windows that opened into the aspen and birch, the birds and deer. 

No more forts of fir boughs.

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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

A universal Walden
     Moving farther out

I overheard a conversation in a cafe in which a young woman was praising a friend’s house that she had just visited.  “It’s fantastic!” she said.  “You can’t see or hear any neighbors!”

Thoreau had his cabin at Walden Pond.  Aldo Leopold had his shack on the Wisconsin River. Both lived when most people thought the good life was to be found in town, among other people. The places they chose were valued by few, and most of the world was open space. 

If they lived today, maybe they would say that those who love wild places need to preserve them by building their houses someplace else.

Today everyone, it seems, wants a Walden Pond. When you find such places, they are ringed not with cabins and shacks but with landscaped mansions. We have come a long way from the time when people built their houses, by choice, on streets with front porches facing each other. They knew that neighbors could be as interesting as owls and foxes.

Today, even when we build our houses together in clusters, as in housing developments, it is done in a spirit of denial and without much joy--street after street of houses that present only facades to the the world, decorative patches of lawn made not to be sat in or worked in but to be glimpsed from the road. 

Real life goes on in the back yard, behind fences and privacy screens and hedges, or, more likely, in the entertainment room where people peep in on the lives of others through the safe medium of television talk shows and documentaries and reality programs. The popularity of these shows, with their gossipy emphasis on real people suggests a hunger for companionship, to see and hear from others, but muted through the prophylactics of digital distance that allows us to indulge without fear or hope of actual contact. 

In much of our lives, strangers congest the intersections we want through, they bottleneck the cash registers where we want to hurry, and each day a few of them make headlines by breaking free from any pretense of civility, killing or raping then scowling or grinning for the camera.

The ideal house now is a mansion on a mountain top where we can neither be observed by or inconvenienced by others but with a satellite dish that beams simulations of human life into a refuge, where no one can be seen or heard.

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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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Homesteading Ninepipe
     Refuge dreams

New homesites have popped up all around the Ninepipe refuge, south of Polson.  Building houses and planting trees changes this sensitive prairie ecosystem in ways that cause trouble for nesting waterfowl.

New homesites have popped up all around the Ninepipe refuge, south of Polson. The refuge is part of a prairie ecosystem that starts east of the Mission Mountain Wilderness buffer zone and extends west to the Moiese Hills. The area is visited by a diverse array of threatened or endangered species:  bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and trumpeter swans. As many as 136 species of neotropical birds use the area, including twelve that use the land as a breeding site.

Other birds and animals I’ve seen there include osprey, long-billed curlew, avocet, black-necked stilt, short-eared owl, burrowing owl, canvasback, mountain bluebird, and river otter. The place has high densities of breeding redheads and other waterfowl. In 1991, almost five breeding pairs per wetland acre were found. This makes the area a significant part of our continent’s wetlands heritage. 

Though the land where houses at Ninepipe are being built is privately owned, the complex ecosystem of water, plants, birds and animals is a shared resource, larger than the holdings of any one individual. It’s a checkerboard ownership pattern: federal refuge land, state land, tribal land and private lots.

Housing development threatens ground nesting birds in several ways. Once they select a nest site, the birds are committed for four weeks. Pets become a sizeable problem. While the refuge staff was banding ducks some years ago, dogs got into the traps two of the four days they were working.  One dog killed twenty-eight birds in a single incident, including a brood of canvasback, which was the only brood known to have nested at Ninepipe.

Other threats are less obvious. Home owners usually plant trees. In open areas like Ninepipe, shelter belts are popular. People are accustomed to thinking of trees as “good” for the environment, because they provide cover for many animals. But Ninepipe is a prairie ecosystem. With shelterbelts a predators not common on prairies becomes more plentiful. Some owls and hawks are nonprairie predators. All of them are destructive of nesting birds.

And as people build rock piles, sheds and culverts, another predator also thrives: skunks. Skunks are notorious nest raiders. Human changes to the environment have led to many more skunks than would be found in a natural setting, and this led to sharp declines in the rates of nest success.

Housing development also tends to reduce coyote populations, which would allows the numbers of red foxes to increase. Red foxes are nest stealers, who not only eat eggs, but cache them.  A refuge manager told me that he once watched an Arctic fox in Alaska cache 200 eggs in a single day. 

Another common human change that may seem inconsequential is the installation of fences. At least five varieties of birds found at Ninepipe characteristically fly four feet off the ground: blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green winged teal, short-eared owl, and northern harrier. As the number of fences increase, so do the number of birds tangled and killed in them.

I sometimes think that the constant building private ranchettes is related to a larger disillusionment with the world we’ve made.  More and more people seem to be fleeing, dreaming maybe of private refuge.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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The offending cabin
     A purification

Far up on west-facing slope of Mount Kakashe, Gilbert Holyoak had taken his boy scout troop to build a small crude cabin. He knew structures were banned, but he had enough boy in him to take some delight in creating a secret refuge in a secret place.

They picked a site off all trails, and lashed together upright lodgepole pine to form the walls. They stored sleeping bags and tents in the cabin, so that they could hike to it carrying only food, extending the range of their hikes. 

The cabin couldn’t be seen from a trail, and only a careful woodsman could have found it at all.  But word got to the Tribes that it existed, and tribal wardens climbed the mountain searching for it. Sometime after they found it, they got around to calling the scoutmaster. They gave him two weeks to remove it. 

But winter had settled and snow at the cabin site was chest-high. He said he would go in when spring came and remove the structure. He had the impression that this was agreeable, but a little later, a warden climbed in on snowshoes and set fire to the cabin, without removing the equipment. He left the melted and scorched sleeping bags, the cooking utensils, and the canned food scattered and smoldering in the wilderness, its purity restored according to policy. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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Tracks at Mollman Lakes
     Alone in the world

As soon as the snow melted enough for us to get in without skis or snowshoes, I hiked into an alpine lake with a friend I’d spent the winter taking long walks with.

He was giving me something of a gift, showing me a place that was special to him. He took me around the edge of the lake and followed a small inlet back into a deep canyon where small a marsh recorded the traffic there through footprints in the mud.  Deer, bear, rabbit, and bobcat had visited the springs. 

At one point, I slightly lost my balance and slipped off the clump of grass, stepping into the mud.  I was surprised at the sudden anger this provoked.  He glared at my footprint and swore.  “That’ll be there for weeks.”

He did not have the world to himself. The trace of human presence tainted the place. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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