My blog post yesterday entitled The Code of the West, and its reference to the book I never wrote about our time living in Montana, generated some contact from folks who liked what they read. Thanks to all y’all for that.
Now I need to say something here about my friend Kay Lyn Paine. She (and her sweetie Lauran) are both good writers with the special ability to connect their words directly to your heart. Kay Lyn told me she thought she’d enjoy the rest of whatever Montana tales I could scrape up. She actually said: “So get to it!” It’s a good thing she lives so far away, otherwise I’d be way more productive.
So, because Kay Lyn said so, here is newly revised version of chapter one from “Trying Montana,” the phantom book I never did write. And I’ll keep looking for more.
I always wanted a house with a name. Over the years, whenever I saw a house that had a name it somehow represented stability and responsibility, tempered with a poetic nature on the part of its owners.
When we moved here to northwest Montana, to those acres miles from town, all that stood was the shell of a house. The wood stove was in, there was some basic electrical wiring and an outhouse.
I promptly named the place Harrow’s Rest — representing, in my mind, an end to work as I had previously known it.
The outhouse is long gone. A year later, copper-plumbed, the house has running water, hot and cold, and one of the two bathrooms is finished. The house itself is almost sheet-rocked and I have built a barn. The fabric of the structures, cursory fencing and a garden plot are begun, suggesting a reality behind months of dreaming.
The name of the house, however, has become a personal joke. The harrow has not stopped and the work has been harder than any I have ever attempted. Learning to carpenter, to pull wire, to plow snow, keep the tractor running and even to run a shovel — on the finances I have saddled myself with — has been humbling, and has uncovered one of the themes that makes Montana the place that it is:
If it needs doing, do it yourself. If you don’t know how, and I rarely have, enter the arcane series of relationships involved in asking advice.
If advice is not enough, and it rarely has been, enter the even more arcane world of seeking actual physical assistance in the task. That usually involves trading someone some thing, or your time, for their expertise, real or imagined. That has often brought the realization that little of what I have done outside of Montana is worth much in trade. I have often joked about running an ad in the weekly shopper newspaper offering to swap my suits and ties, once so necessary and now useless, for a cord of firewood, a chainsaw or a rifle. But no one would call.
If the task still needs doing, and advice or seeking help has failed, you can hire someone to do it for you, but that is a last resort indeed. First, because you’re supposed to be self-sufficient, and second, because you probably, now being a Montanan, can’t afford it.
Our front acreage is pasture; hay and some patches of clover. It is bounded by sagging, still-to-be-attended-to barbed wire along the highway out front. There is a 1,000-foot long rutted and pit-run patched driveway that separates us from our neighbors, the Shinings, to the south, more sagging wire to the west and a shaplier run of barbed wire that keeps someone’s cows to the north from grazing in our front yard. Here in the mountain west, you fence things out, not in.
We have not yet imagined our own cows or horses, although those are on the dreaming board.
It was the end of August. The front pasture had the look of an old man needing to see a barber. Chest high, the hay had become home to tens of thousands of grasshoppers, hundreds of various bird whose names I didn’t know and countless small, whistling mammals that the local, long-time residents of the area refer to interchangeably as marmots, field mice or gophers.
I decided that the pasture had to be cut down. It began with the idea of having someone come and cut, rake and bale the hay. I saw neat green bales checkering the field. Then I realized I could make money: I’d trade half the bales to the person I would find to do the job. Hay sells for $50 or more a ton. I’d get half the bales, which I could sell, money being of more use to me than hay.
Most of the area’s farmers had by this time already cut and baled their fields twice and some planned to harvest a third time before winter. I began asking around, even lured two separate, taciturn and weather-beaten farmers out to our place to examine my pasture.
No luck. It seemed that half my field’s yield, even all of it, was not worth their while. I had to face it. My pasture, unfertilized and not watered all summer, didn’t contain enough hay.
The pasture grew more unkempt. Cutting it down became a matter of freedom: freedom of movement. Why own all this land if the chest-high hay, and hidden under it the giant dirt mounds thrown up by the marmots (or whatever they were) made walking in the fields impossible?
I wanted to be able to walk across the field, lean on the fence and watch the sunset. I wanted to be able to walk out at night and listen to the coyotes sing. I wanted to be able to get to the center of the field and lie on a blanket to watch the Aurora Borealis paint the star-studded and black sky with its eerie, diaphanous green.
I wanted to take 10 steps without falling down.
I had (left over from an abortive attempt to build fences to earn money earlier in the summer) something called a Shaver HD-8 Hydraulic Post Pounder. The device, attached to the three-point hitch and hydraulic system of my 1955 Ford tractor, is designed to pound posts (up to 8-inches in diameter, hence the HD-8) into the ground. Since the fence-building business failed as a result of my inability to pound posts that stood straight using such antiques, the post-pounder was surplus. I traded it for a seven-foot back blade and a four-foot bush hog.
The very successful trade, as it came to be recognized hereabouts, redeemed me for the fence-business failure and has made me come out about even in the local world of opinion for the field fence I installed several weeks ago, upside down, around the garden and what was to become the chicken pen.
How was I supposed to know that the little holes in field fence go at the bottom to keep critters out?
The rolled fence has one wire painted red, which I thought should be installed against the ground. It seemed reasonable that the red paint was to keep the wire from corroding, not, as it turned out, nothing but a color-coding for the length of a roll. Live, and learn, and learn about laughter — your own and others.
With the new back-blade, bush-hog and the trusty tractor I wrested victory from the pasture. The back-blade neatly destroyed the marmot mounds, which were a hazard to the navigation of the bush hog, whose rotary blades are expensive to sharpen and costlier to replace.
Wearing my straw, summer cowboy hat I drove up and down the field cutting swathes four-feet wide at a pass. Several passers-by (tourists, no doubt) stopped on the highway, and to my delight, took my photograph.
Riding the tractor, knees-flexed and standing to better keep lookout for stray chunks of blade-destroying rocks or chunks of wood, I was surrounded by clouds of grasshoppers. I startled, and was startled, by the ground-nesting birds fleeing my machine. I breathed the smell of fresh-cut grasses.
The task took the entire day. That evening, sunlight beginning to leach from the sky in faded pinks and violets as a full moon loomed, I shut the tractor down.
The pasture seemed to breathe silence. I walked the field, vibrating still from riding on the tractor, and all I heard was the ticking of the cooling engine behind me. The grasshoppers had left for some other place, temporarily. No marmots, gophers or ground squirrels dared show themselves.
Hungry, I headed across the pasture for the house and dinner, finally able see my feet as I walked, as the coyotes started up in the distance.
Copyright 2011, David Hipschman
Author’s Note: Grateful thanks are made to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Toronto Globe and to Kinesis Magazine, which have published various forms of this essay.