Wednesday, January 25, 2017


April 3, 2005

By now almost everyone knows that the Rocky Mountains are the result of huge plates under the continent pushing the land together until it rumples up like a tablecloth. Few know that the Rocky Mountains we see today are the third mountain range raised by this rumpling -- the others are underneath, worn down by erosion over the millenia. I have no idea how the scientists figured out they were there.

Some have observed but don’t reflect on the differences along the present cordillera, so that the slabbed mountains up at Banff look different from the sharp peaks of the Grand Tetons. (And how come no one objects to female anatomy being so frankly used? Or is it time to get over the sexist implications of metaphor? Yesterday I drove past a new road sign, pointing the way to a locally notorious butte: “Molly’s Nipple.” You have to be an old-timer to know which Molly. She was white, I think.)

The mountains I’m looking at don’t really look like a rumpled tablecloth so much as they looked like a buckled sheet cake, especially if you can imagine the cake batter having been poured in layers of different colors. Because the other key aspect of this part of the high prairie is that the ground is deeply sedimentary, the result of millenia as seabed, millenial recipient of the valcanic dust from the volcanic uproar in the northwest Cascades, and more millenia as dried-up seabed with high winds sweeping it, just as they spent last night sweeping (ha -- pounding is more like it) my little shell of a house. These sedimentary strata broke and slid over each other so that we look at the edges, striped and corrogated and they are not in the right order. Precambrian layers may be on top of relatively new layers.

Some of those sedimentary strata were very slippery, which allowed the strata to separate and slide on top of adjacent layers. The resulting ramparts are huge and rugged, parts of them given names like “the Chinese Wall,” a place in the Bob Marshall Wilderness where the big game hunters go. The slippery strata are nothing more nor less than what we call “gumbo.” It’s the same stuff that made it possible for the Egyptian pyramids to be built because it almost eliminates friction, so those huge blocks of stone could be slid up ramps. Paradoxically it’s also sticky.

Probably it’s gumbo that helped keep the wheel from being invented by early people around here because wheeled vehicles driving on gumbo roads that have gotten wet will go noplace. The stuff sticks to wheels, and even feet, in huge clinging wads that will not keep you connected to enough friction to make progress.

For places to investigate further, try:
Google “David Baker” geology (He often organizes tours.)
Montana geology

If you Google “gumbo,” you will get recipes and the names of music bands. Neither is a bad thing, but neither will help you with geology. There are commercial uses for gumbo (caleche) if it’s pure enough and there is enough of the stuff around here that at least one person has looked into starting a “gumbo mine,” but there was some reason why it wouldn’t work. Maybe shipping.

One of my pleasures is hunting among the books about Montana that are floating through the world in all directions now that libraries are about computers and people are as likely to self-publish as not and such amentities as and make “real world” bookstores almost obsolete (if it weren’t for the coffeeshop attached). Abner M. Wagner wrote and probably self-published a book called “El Rancho Gumbo, Five Thousand Days in Montana’s Piegan Country.” The publisher is listed as “The Sagebrush Press,” PO Box 87, Morongo Valley, CA, 92256. Copyright 1983. ISBN 0-930704-15-0 If Abner is living, he’ll be pretty old by now.

The story begins in 1921 when Abner’s family bought 320 acres of government land which had previously belonged to “No Bear.” That was the owner’s name, not his attribute. The patent deed was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. The poles for the corrals were hauled from Heart Butte, which I can see from here. I taught there for a few years. The family stuck from 1923 to 1936, lasting such a long time because Abner’s father was the Watermaster on the Badger-Fisher Division of the Blackfeet Project, an irrigation deal that incurred a million dollar debt to pay for digging canals. The debt was not assumed by Calvin Coolidge, but rather by the Blackft Tribe, of which No Bear was a member. Abner says that when he left, it was not because of the money and hardship, but because he was in need of a wife. (It didn’t seem to occur to him to check out the women of the Blackft, but maybe he was just makiing an excuse or maybe they wouldn’t have him.)

(I am not misspelling Blackft. The word, being English, has to be either plural or singular but the Blackft word, “Siksika,” is neither and in its Siksika context has no rule for converting it. You can pick a pretty good fight about when to say Blackfeet and when to say Blackfoot. I’ll deal with the issues some other time, but my solution for the moment is just to leave out the last two vowels. I’m betting you can handle it.)

The Blackft reservation is bounded on the west by the Rockies, on the south by Birch Creek (I’m just south of Birch Creek.), on the north by the Canadian border, and on the east by Cut Bank Creek. These are general boundaries and there are small exceptions. The reservation is roughly the same size as the African Serengeti and, we all know, was once inhabited by bison and antelope in very much the manner of the Serengeti (which is an ancient and very big volcano crater -- about fifty miles on a side). The Blackft tribe keeps a herd of bison and tries to suggest to them that they ought to stay near the highway for the sake of the tourists, but bison do what they want to do. Watch for them between Browning and East Glacier. Especially if they are on the road.


April 2, 2005

This is the Place

Why Prairie Mary? Well, once I was married to Bob Scriver, who is a famous sculptor in some circles, and though I kept his name, I don’t think I should trade on it, so I picked up this nickname which is easy to remember. (My precedent was the former wife of a much-loved Unitarian minister, a man named Raible. His first wife took the name DeeDee Rainbow. She was an art teacher and rather outrageous, so she wore rainbow-motif everything even before Jesse Jackson and all that.)

The prairie is my favorite metaphor and my conscious choice for a context. “My” prairie stretches from Edmonton to Yellowstone and from the Rockies to the Dakotas. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and earned my college degrees (one bachelor’s and two master’s) in Chicago, but I spent the Sixties here, anchored in Browning, Montana, capital of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When I retired in 1999, I came back.

To the uninitiated and those in too much of a hurry to really look, the prairie is just a blank. Cruise control. Sunglasses. Don’t worry about traffic. But traffic will begin soon, when the tourists come looking for some kind of connection with Lewis and Clark, or at least the locals who make their money from tourists are hoping they’ll come. For a while there, it looked like it was going to be one of those fire storm summers and we’d all have empty pockets. Tourists hate smoke, much less fire. (The governor notified President Bush that Montana wanted its National Guard and big helicopters back, so they can fight fire the way they do most years. They are a Montana entity. Bush stonewalled.) But now that we’ve had some weeks of rain, the calculations are confused. Calculations on the prairie are always complex, always a little more complex than you thought they were. Maybe on the wrong scale or not taking into account one of the dimensions, like time.

The Blackfeet who roved here for hundreds of years, on foot before they had horses, survived because they studied and remembered every small complexity of the terrain, both the coulees and, on the horizon, the peaks of the Rocky Mountain East Front. The area called “Glacier National Park” is called that because it was carved from the cordillera of upthrusts by glaciers -- not because it was full of glaciers, which are all melting anyway. The Park is a section of the cordillera that was bought from the Blackfeet in 1910 when they were starving. Originally the price proposed was three million dollars -- the white men said, “Oh, no.” So then the Blackfeet were pressed down and down and they got hungrier and hungrier (people were starving to death) until they finally agreed to halve that. When tourists come today, they get excited about Glacier National Park and want to know all about it, but they drive through the Blackfeet Reservation quickly, saying “oh-how-depressing.”

When I taught in the reservation high schools, I would draw the profile of the Rockies as seen from Browning. I drew it over and over again -- just a line with the proper peaks in it. Early, I drew it on the blackboards with chalk and then, after decades, I drew it on the whiteboards with erasable fibertips. The kids looked, recognized it, and said, “How did you do that?” They had lost the habit of attention that saved their ancestors, and not very long ago either. But a few said, “I can do that,” and they could. Maybe they’ll teach the others.

When there were still one-room scattered-site schools, another earlier teacher of Blackfeet was Jack Holterman, who wrote several history books. One of the most useful is “Place Names of Glacier/Waterton National Parks.” Published in 1985 by Glacier Natural History Association, copyright 1895. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 85-70523. ISBN 0-916792 Holterman says, “To someone standiing out on the prairie, the Rockies appear to form a great concave bow between Chief Mountain (Ninaistuki) in the north and Heart Butte (Moxkizippahp-istuki) to the south. Lewis and Clark marked on their maps, “The King” and “The Heart.” That “great bow” was Glacier Park. They also carefully described the place where they killed two Blackfeet -- with enough detail for people to find it in the Sixties. It’s only a few miles from me.

Where I live, I can see Ear Mountain which is by Choteau, where A.B. Guthrie, Jr., lived and wrote stories that refer to that mountain many times. He had a ranch not far from Ear Mountain. The farthest north peak of the Rockies I can see is Ninaistuki. Did you remember that means Chief Mountain? (Istuki is mountain.) Chief Mountain is on the Canadian border.

North of me along the Canadian border are the Sweetgrass Hills, once the only earth sticking up above the glaciers that repeatedly scraped their way down the continent and halfway into Montana. They are “refugia” where some plants and animals survived the glacier. Like great pale worms over a foot long that live three feet deep in the ground. They were also sacred places -- really properly called “the sweet PINE hills” since that’s where the balsam pine grows. There are sweet grass, sweet pine, and even sweet poplar, or balsam poplar. They say that the poplar trees smelled so good that rural ladies would gather the buds, soak them in water, and then dip their hankies in it to get the smell.

The Sweetgrass Hills are three separate buttes, one called “Gold Butte” for obvious reasons. It has a hard rock mine in it, which is said to be played out, but there are -- of course -- people who would love to grind up the whole butte and soak it in cyanide to get the last traces of gold out. Since the Sweetgrass Hills put water into the aquifer for many miles around, the idea of cyanide heap leach mining enraged the local ranchers. But a Canadian company had already started digging up the Canadian side. If this drought continues long enough, there won’t be any ranchers.

When gold was struck, the Sweetgrass Hills were simply overrun, though they were still on reservation land. I forget how much money the tribe finally got when they sued for compensation not too many years ago. Not enough.