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."

The American West

We are stronger, wiser for having read James Welch
     Re-reading "Fools Crow"

Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.

Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.

At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.

The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.

Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people--its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”

The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.

We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.

The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.

Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides--not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis--to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.

Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.

Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.

Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one’s lodge at night lies another realm--which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.

I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The stories that really matter
     Percy Wollaston's "Homesteading: A Montana family album"

At one point during a conversation I had with an eighth-grader over the summer, she cited from memory Sam’s words at the conclusion of the movie The Two Towers. I quote the words at some length because Sarah quoted them at some length. The fact that she had cared enough to get those words into her head and to hang onto them is important:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. . .There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Sam says these words as he and Frodo proceed onward at great effort and despite great peril. As any teacher would, I thrilled a bit at Sarah’s demonstration that young people are still idealistic and still respond to stories more wholesome than hip-hop and more troubling than Harry Potter.

This is important because we live, like Sam and Frodo, by being caught up in the stories that are loose in the world. Since some of them are not very good, hampering rather than bolstering our efforts, we need to be literary critics of a sort to find our way. When we get caught in the wrong stories, our efforts are vexed and our dreams turn vain.

Thinking along such lines, I was troubled when I heard several people at an education conference succumbing to pessimism about Montana’s future. A teacher said our small towns were dying. A historian lamented the bleakness of the places she passed. And a writer suggested that those who could get out had gotten out and that those who remained were isolated in despair and distrust.

That’s not the Montana I experience. It’s true enough that judging our towns by the standards of, say, a strip mall, can make them seem somewhat incomplete. But it seems just as likely that any people that builds more than a half mile of strip mall may not have a very compelling vision of what the world is for or what is worth doing or wanting.

When I think of Montana places I think mostly of families and landscapes and the way the two interact here. Having truly seen the moon rise over the Snowy Mountains or the sun set over the Missouri Breaks or the storm clouds pile up over the Sweetgrass Hills, one is unlikely to be unduly dazzled by the marquee on Times Square. And having eaten fresh-caught trout with one’s children on the rocky shores of Mollman Lakes, one would have to be ungrateful to hanker after a gourmet meal prepared for profit.

This is not to minimize the economic difficulties some of us are facing. It is only to remember that the surest way out of a bad story is into another story and that there are always other stories. The way the same set of facts and events can be woven into different stories is illustrated by Percy Wollaston’s memoir, Homesteading, set in Montana during the homestead boom that got into high gear around 1910. The memoir tells one story while the introduction by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban tells a different one.

Raban places Wollaston’s work amid the preoccupations of many mainstream historians. In doing so, he finds Homesteading “a story of a colossal failure” (xvi). He sees Montana’s homesteaders as the victims of a dastardly fraud perpetrated by the forces of darkness--corporate marketers. Though he admires the courage and endurance of the Montanans, his big story is the way they were tricked into catastrophe. His introduction is a brief version of the script that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, An American Romance.

But that’s not the story Percy Wollaston wanted to tell or did tell. To be sure, he is an astute and thoughtful man, aware of the issues that capture Raban’s passions. He noted, for example, that the 1912 sinking of the Titanic “marked some sort of turning point in the attitude of people all over the country” (56-57). He observed that “trusted and supposedly competent authority” didn’t make good decisions. “The great and the humble, the dolt and the wise, all seem to have been living in some sort of play world where everything would turn out for the best” (58), he said.

Wollaston wasn’t living in a play world. He didn’t fancy himself an important man whose voice would change the big things, so he was not very interested in railing against the chicaneries perpetrated by the big players, though such chicaneries may be as real as Raban tells them.

Success in the world Wollaston cares about is measured by the sort of character one becomes. Adversity, including failure, is often the occasion for developing and displaying that character. When Jim Morrow lost his cow just before his first blizzard on the prairie, he tracked her till darkness then led her home, where he tied her to the foot of his bed before stoking up the fire and falling into an exhausted sleep. Wollaston noted that the storm “changed Jim from a boy to a man who ever afterward faced poverty, hardship, or any other adversity with a calm optimism” (115).

Wollaston’s story is mainly about calmness and optimism, about people coming together and finding a way. In the Montana he describes, newcomers are welcomed and scrutinized for talents that might enhance life. People sacrifice to organize a school, buying windows, digging wells, and hiring teachers. They form a community club to discuss their problems and share their solutions. When they go to town, they leave their houses unlocked, so traveling strangers can stop and fix themselves a meal.

Such stories may be more useful for kids today than yet more tales of corporate malfeasance. Many of our youth are already as distrustful of large corporations as they are cynical about official pronouncements. But they are hungry for stories that reveal the sources of goodness in the world.

The society the homesteaders built turned out not to be sustainable--though, for that matter, neither was Rome--but it was a society that had its goodnesses. The building of that society--as well as what became of it--is a story worth carrying around in our heads.

Wollaston offers quiet wisdom, noting that people today suffer from “some lack of looking forward” (112). The homesteaders did not build a good society by focusing on what was wrong with the world. “The next meal might be potatoes and water gravy but you didn’t hear anything about hardship unless somebody burned out or broke a leg” (112).

Though their prospects were surely not brighter than our own, those hardy pioneers could build a good society because they stayed committed to a better future. “There were people from almost every walk of life and status of education, but they learned little of each other beyond what each planned to make of his place and plans for the future of the community” (112).

Though the closing pages of Raban’s book are taken up with an ironic meditation on the meaning of the Unabomber--another writer passing through Montana preoccupied with our betrayal by the world’s princes--on the penultimate page of Percy’s story we are offered more hopeful fare: he told of the time he heard Jim Morrow’s father upstairs alone, dancing a jig to music from a phonograph, “just serene and happy to be at home” (129).

In the story Raban emphasizes, we may learn such things as the importance of truth in advertising laws and such--useful, and important in a way. But one gets the feeling that he wants us to be angry. The story Wollaston tells is quite different. We learn how some of our fellows dealt with trouble, including injury, sickness, economic misfortune, bad weather, and death--troubles to which we are not strangers. Wollaston’s theme is human character as it emerged amid the whips and scorns of a particular place and time, and one gets the feeling that he wants us to be wise and strong.

At one point, Jim Morrow dug two dry holes by hand, trying to build a well. On his third try he ran into bedrock at about twelve feet. Things seemed hopeless. He prayed, and then he chiseled and hammered through about a foot of sandstone. Below it, he found good water.

A useful story, that.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Montana and North Dakota heading into oil boom?
     The Saudi Arabia of America?

click to enlarge

The much awaited US Geological Survey (USGS) report has been released. The agency increased by 25 times its estimates of how much recoverable oil exists beneath the Northern Plains. The report stated that the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota contains 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, instead of the 151 million barrels the agency estimated in 1995. The crude oil is locked away in rocks that are buried miles underground, but recent technological advances have made it easier to get at. “Technically recoverable” oil resources are estimates of products that can be recovered using the technology and procedures that are currently available.

The estimate is larger than any other estimate for the lower 48 states and ranks as the largest oil discovery in the past 50 years.  A new black gold rush has already begun. So far Marathon Oil has acquired about 200,000 acres in the area and expects to spend $1.5 billion drilling about 300 oil wells within five years. According to Next Energy News, Marathon sees this as “one of the greatest booms in Oil discovery since Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938.

The Kiplinger Report states we are still a few years away from a large increase in drilling:

Figure on at least five years before the oil starts flowing in large volumes. A lot of work will need to be done first. In addition to installing drilling gear, firms must build supporting infrastructure, including roads, pipelines as well as new water, sewage and sanitation systems to meet the needs of workers and other area residents.

Still, the activity already underway is transforming the windy gold and slate landscape of MonDak, the area along the Montana and Dakota border. Zach Dundas sketched the story in an article for Good Magazine:

Sidney and its hinterlands are a hive of activity. Oil-tanker trucks patrol the narrow highways and gravel farm roads day and night. The cafs, casinos, and bars are full of guys wearing coveralls emblazoned with oil-company logos, most prominently those of “Team” Halliburton and that notorious company’s rival Schlumberger, the outfit BusinessWeek calls “the stealth oil giant.” Ubiquitous “help wanted” signs testify to the most open job market anyone around here can remember--if you can work, you’re working in oil. A genuine boom is in full swing.

I will be interested to see what people make of these sudden changes. Montana, of course, has long experience with boom and bust economics, which is a way of saying it’s always had a marginal economy. Modern economies are all boom and bust, but fortunate places mitigate the busts in one sector with new booms in other sectors.

In any case, boom and bust is better than bust and bust.


Bloomberg posts an article giving an overview of how various players in the oil industry make money along with some detailed information about Bakken in particular.

Here’s a technical discussion of what is publicly known about the Bakken Field so far.

And here‘s Alexandra Fuller’s contrarian take on oil booms, based on her Wyoming observations.

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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Life in the Enchanted West
     Cowboy manners: smile when you call me that

Though I owned a horse when I was a kid, I didn’t have a saddle and we didn’t have any cows. My dad was a logger. Nonetheless, he taught me the Code of the West, in his intermittent and distracted way. He loved cowboys and he hated jerks and bad manners.

Though Montana now has its share of folks who look to Europe for their sense of how people ought to live—the ones who call the President a cowboy and feel they are being very mean when they do—some of us just can’t feel that it’s much of an insult to call someone a cowboy.

I’m talking about mythic cowboys, of course. The ones who can’t be destroyed by the debunkers, who live two or three paradigms south. Mythic cowboys live in in the narrative space of stories that should be true. They emerged when their creators felt that the ideals they embodied were threatened by all the usual things: urbanization, industrialization, corruption and modernity. Some way was needed to jazz up the ideals of civilization when the forces of barbarity seemed ascendant.

In other words, mythic cowboys were created to meet actual problems. It worked well enough, barely. All those GIs in World War II thought they knew a thing or two about how they were supposed to act when faced with the likes of Hitler. The details—50 caliber heavy machine gun in the waist of a B-17 instead of Colt .45 from the back of a gelding—mattered little.

Cowboys inhabit a timeless narrative space, along with the troubles and villains they face. Who hasn’t from time to time found himself in Hadleyville, that hapless town located in High Noon where the ordinary, fearful folks feel things might just be good enough if Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) will just ride away. That Miller gang is pretty scary. Think how unpleasant a fight would be.

But of course, the good cowboy doesn’t ride away if that means injustice triumphs. That would be against type. So Kane stays and things get unpleasant but then, after a hard trial, the good order is restored. Historian Victor Davis Hanson believes that when Europeans call George Bush a cowboy, their typological thinking is mainly correct:

The truth is that we live in a global Hadleyville suffering from the delusion that international communications, cell-phones, and the Internet--like the railroad and telegraph before them--equate to civilization. In fact, they are only a thin and flashy veneer atop a wild and savage world where outlaw regimes like North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran push until pushed back. The United Nations can keep the peace and dispense justice about as well as the territorial marshal who is a three-day ride away or the bought sheriff of a cattle baron’s town. And a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mullah Omar, or Saddam Hussein listens to international warnings about as much as Liberty Valance pays heed to the bumbling coward of a sheriff Link Appleyard.

That is why so many people privately appreciate an American Tom Doniphon, Shane, or Will Kane who from time to time appears out of nowhere to stand up to a Saddam, Taliban, or Kim Jong Il--or to the recent crop of bullies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

How now, cowboy? The uses and abuses of a national icon.

A crucial part of the charm of the cowboy type is the requirement for being a reluctant warrior. The good warrior doesn’t want war. Cowboys are primarily gentlemen—practitioners of the code of chivalry. They have manners, which also bespeak the timeless.

Manners, they know, are the little ways we practice the big virtues:

* “Always tip your hat to a lady and they’re all ladies.”

* “Actin’ like you’re big is probably going to have the opposite effect.”

* “A man taking a stand on high moral ground just might be standing on a bluff.”

* “One sign of good manners is being able to put up with bad ones.”

* “Sooner or later we all wind up sitting next to someone at dinner who is about as strange as a duck in Death Valley. Good etiquette requires that you waddle across the desert with ‘em until dessert is over.”

* “If a woman spills her drink, hand her a napkin and let her do the patting.”

* “Don’t answer the doorbell in your undershorts.”

* “If the guests outnumber the chairs, it’s called a buffet.”

* “If you’ve got nothing much to say, don’t take an hour to prove it.”

* “Don’t interrupt unless somebody’s hair is on fire.”

* “Never go anywhere without your head in your hat.”

* “Aftershave is not a marinade.”

* “Never interfere with another man’s dog unless the dog is about to attach himself to your leg.”

* “When served escargot, pour a little salt on it and forget it. It will melt while you wait for the next course.”

from Texas Bix Bender’s Cowboy Etiquette, with art by Larry Bute

I’ve spent a bit of time over the weekend reading some far left websites. Not many cowboys there.

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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Summer medic on wildland fires
     A change is as good as good as a rest

Lunch break: A member of the Zuni hotshots during lunch on the patio of the Shepp Ranch. The ranch is accessible only by air or jetboat. It’s a wonderful place to clear one’s mind of distractions.

I’m spending much of my summer working as an Incident Medical Specialist on wildland fires in the West—a medic on forest fires. It’s a great change of pace. I just got back from 16 days on the Rattlesnake Fire in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. I was “spiked out” at the Shepp Ranch on the Salmon River and, for three of the days, at a remote “ranch” up Indian Creek.

No cell phones. No roads. On smoky days, no helicopters. Most transportation was by jet boat and nearly the only communication was hand-held radios, which allowed us to talk to others on the fire.

In some ways it’s the opposite of classrooms, which are overconnected sytems if ever there were such things. There’s so much communication going on that it’s hard to think.

The crew I spent the most time with was a Zuni Hotshot crew from New Mexico. A very respectful and hard-working bunch. Up at 5:30 every morning and then working until dark, which in the north country this time of year is after 9:00. The fire is more or less uncontrollable, so the work is mostly point protection: clearing brush and timber near buildings, lighting backfires, setting up pumps and sprinklers. The fire will burn until rain or snow puts it out. The country is too steep and too remote to be contained through any practical efforts.

It’s refreshing to be outside all the time, without news, internet, meetings, phone calls, bills and a thousand household chores. Just a book or two.

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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Winter and cabin fever in Red Lodge
     Gary Ferguson in the LA Times

Gary Ferguson has an essay in today’s LA Times (free registration required) about winter in the Rockies and the persistent Montana drought.

What I once knew in theory I now know in my bones: that the overpowering weight of a Rocky Mountain winter, the snowbound days that drive us to the edge of madness, are the price paid in one season for the flush of life in another. What can at first seem a terrifying silence in the winter wilderness is in truth the sound of possibility.

Ferguson’s latest book is The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind, a book which I just read (after hearing his eloquence at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula). The Great Divide tells what sort of people have been attracted to this place in the past, and of the changing role of the Rockies in the American psyche. In Missoula he was the only writer on a panel of environmental writers who offered much hope for the future. He said one solution to immigration into this state was to create a literature that attracted the sort of people we want.

Of course, he was assuming most people in the audience would agree with him about what sort of people those were. In American politics, things tend to go together in a way that it’s hard to support environmental causes without also supporting a lot of other causes. I would like to see a reshuffling of which issues the two parties claim as theirs, in the hope that one of them might put together a better hand than either seems content to hold at present.

In any case, his is the best kind of thinking about what placemaking means.  Ferguson lives in Red Lodge.

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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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America’s future depends on us
     Feeling young in eastern Montana

Ed Marston makes a point I’ve talked about before. The Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states are related to the eastern states in somewhat the way the American colonies were related to England in, say, 1770. Those who feel they are at the center of power feel we are rustic provincials. Marston suggests that nonetheless it might be up to us to decide America’s future:

. . .in the end, of course, the scorned, cultureless colonies triumphed and came to dominate the English-speaking world. They succeeded because the colonists had, in addition to several million square miles of land at their backs, aggression, pride and a genius for politics.

A couple summers ago I put on an institute for teachers, and all our speakers from out of state commented on the sense of desolation they got driving through the eastern part of the state. If you judge Harlowton or Chester by the standards of a Portland strip mall, it might seem to be lacking. But when I’m out there, my overwhelming sense is of a young world, full of possibililty.

When I visit Portland or Seattle, my overwhelming sense is, “My goodness. It’s too late.”

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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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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

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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. 

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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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The Great Divide: Season of the Freaks
     One story of the sixties was the migration of hippies to the Rocky Mountains

The “Great Divide” that Red Lodge writer Gary Ferguson refers to in his book of that title is the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, his book has the same title as a new release by John Sperling. Sperling’s The Great Divide is a treatise on the backwardness of many people who live in the Rockies, the South, and the Midwest (as compared to the forwardness of the urban residents of the east and west coasts). The divide he contemplates is between the traditional “retros” and the urban “metros.”

Sperling seeks to intensify contention between people who apparently inhabit different realities by establishing “the great divide” as a metaphor that explains political and economic life in America today. Ferguson examines the way the actual “great divide” running north and south through the western half of the country--the Rockies--has long served as a refuge for people who want to get away from the bickering.

From the mountain men of the nineteenth century to the hippies of the sixties, the Rockies have held the promise that there might be life beyond the vast machinery of progress being assembled ever more noisily on both coasts.

The happenstance of the two books having the same title is thought-provoking. There are obvious parallels between the ‘retros” and the “metros” that Sperling talks about and the division between the “Old West” and the “New West” that many observers of life in today’s West have commented on. Were the antecedents for that division established by an influx of newcomers in the 1960s?

A chapter of Ferguson’s book that might be of particular interest to teachers contemplating joining the Expedition to the Sixties is Chapter 9: The Season of the Freaks. Ferguson points out that during the sixties and seventies, people who were disillusioned by the “system” often headed west, more often than not to the Rocky Mountains. Many of these people are still here. Indeed, they are more or less everywhere. They are easy to find and good candidates for oral interviews.

Many who headed for the Rockies in the 1960s and early 1970s came looking for a life without the corrupting influences of the “system,” but with a good supply of like-minded friends within arm’s reach. . . These newcomers were peaceniks and flower children and freaks.” [p. 232-233]

I imagine every town has stories of newcomers and old timers meeting each other. “While [Aspen police magistrate] Guioo was railing against the longhairs in Aspen, on any given summer afternoon in Crested Butte you could find hippie girls skinny-dipping at Nicholson Lake, waving and smiling at the contented old miners watching from their pickup trucks along the east side of the reservoir.”

Colorado newspaperman George Sibley wasn’t amused by the newcomers. Ferguson quotes at length from a 1968 editorial:

The problem children. . .are no more flower children than were all the howling children of the past decade children of Howl. What they are in fact are the basically dull and unoriginal sons and daughters of basically dull and unoriginal mothers and fathers; they are the ones who tack onto any and every movement without understanding in the least what the movement is about. They are bored because they are too unimaginative to creatively amuse themselves, restless because they have energy they do not want to waste on work, stoned on drugs because they are tired of being stoned on the tube. They are not hip, they are not beat. They fight their nothingness by letting somebody else do the work of giving them their identity.

For their part, the young newcomers often shared with Sperling a sense that they knew better than the old-timers they found in place. Though they often wanted what they viewed as the naturalness of rural life, they didn’t always want the traditions of the natives they found.

But it wasn’t just flower children who came. Vietnam vets also came, looking for quiet and for space. The West in the sixties was, as it had been earlier, a place of possibilities. “A place where young girls of privilege could savor the smell of sagebrush and sweat. Where some fortunate black men managed to tumble through a rabbit hole and find themselves a million miles from slavery. Where sickly white men jumped into creeks and sucked at mountain air and sometimes grew strong again.”

An interesting strand in the Sixties Expedition would be to interview people who moved here in the 1960s and 1970s. We could ask them why they came, what they left, what they were looking for, and what they found.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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