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... and looking good.
Sitting at my desk this morning I'm somewhat paralyzed in my effort to write something. Not because I don't have anything to say, it's where to start? There's just so much and it’s exhausting. I've faced this dilemma for about three weeks in thinking about what to write in this newsletter and the result is that I haven't written anything. I'm tired of complaining about the world and yet, when faced with outrage after outrage, how does one not? The stupid SCOTUS hearings. The stupid "town hall" stuff last night. Just the stupid runaway shitshow that is the United States playing out over a stupid global freaking pandemic. It can suck one's verve right out of living, can't it? And yet, we persist.
I've been taking a Master Naturalist course through the Montana Natural History Center. With the exception of one field weekend it has been all online due to COVID. That's not an optimal way to learn but in a weird way it's the only way my schedule will allow for it, so it is kind of a blessing in disguise. I really love all the different elements of what we are learning about: birds, bugs, plants, mushrooms, tracking ... pretty much everything. Knowledge comes fast and furious and I know I'm absorbing hardly any of it but that isn't the point. The magic is the exposure and the desire to go back and dig deeper when the class ends. When it comes to my writing life, this is the workshop. It—interacting with life outdoors—is where I get my creative energy renewed, my enthusiasm to work, all of it. I have no interest in sitting around a table with a bunch of people in cardigans who aren't keen on crawling around in the rain looking for things like owl pellets and wild onions.
One of the requirements for our graduation as Master Naturalists is volunteer work. An hour only, but maintaining certification going forward requires something like twenty hours every year. I met my obligation last weekend when I helped out up at Swan Valley Connections for their Community Firewood Day. SVC is a conservation/education organization in Condon, MT, between the towns of Seeley Lake and Bigfork. It's a gorgeous area; remote, wild, and home to damn near the full range of native wildlife you can expect to have in Montana. The firewood day is spent splitting, delivering, and stacking firewood for area folks who need the wood but because of age, health, or resources can't procure it on their own. So SVC rounds up volunteers to make it happen. There were 18 delivery locations this year, and we were at it from 9am until about 3pm when we wrapped things up with a delicious grilling experience that included homemade elk brats so delicious I may never enjoy eating anything else again.
I loved everything about it. I loved the sweat and the effort and the smells and the camaraderie of working shoulder to shoulder with people all focused toward a common purpose. At every moment there were several people among piles of stacked logs using chainsaws to cut them into roughly 15" rounds. Those were carried to people working gas-powered splitters cracking those rounds into stove-sized pieces. Those pieces were then carried—or, in the words of SVC Conservation & Education Associate (and resident beaver expert) Rob Rich, "shlepped"—to waiting trucks and trailers where they were loaded up and then delivered to be stacked in neighborhood woodsheds. Once we got started it was nonstop until the work was complete. People took breaks as needed, and I'll tell you that sitting alone on a log some distance from the mayhem eating a sad little squashed peanut butter sandwich after a couple hours of toil was one of the best meals I've had in a while. A wonderful memory from my pre-elk brat life.
Part of the reason I chose to do this particular work was in hopes of meeting some cool people, and I did. It also made me think about community, of people gathering like this to help others in need. Condon isn't exactly a liberal stronghold. My sense was that most of the folks gathered to do the work lean progressive, but there were a couple that I wouldn't be surprised if they identify as conservative. Certainly many of the folks being delivered to aren't people whose ballots I'd want to see, frankly. And yet there was no malice, or scorn, because this was a community doing what communities should do, and everyone was grateful. It brought to mind this quote from a wonderful piece by Sarah Smarsh that ran in the Guardian a couple weeks ago about how we are coexisting in the midst of these widening political divides:
“Are you still lecturing strangers on social media? Are you still shouting at a family member that they’re wrong? How is that working out?”
I think of all the ways we work against ourselves in making the world a better place. It's like we make more of an effort to belittle people we disagree with than we do in trying to find common ground. One example: the proliferation of political signs in yards right now. There are at least two ways I feel like they make the world shittier. First, there's theft. My mom had a Biden sign in her yard that was stolen. Others report the same. And both sides do it to each other. So clearly there are people in the neighborhood who are petty and suck and it is disheartening to be reminded of it.
But then I wonder about displaying signs in the first place, especially when you have neighbors dueling yard against yard. What purpose do they serve? Do we think anyone's mind was ever changed because of a sign in a yard? It seems almost a kind of an emotional violence we inflict on people we disagree with. Politics shouldn't be a contest like sports, where we have a "team" and favorite players. At best we need to keep a healthy case of side-eye on even the candidates we like, because the very waters they swim in don't seem to attract the best people in the first place, let alone what it does to them in the long term. I don't know. Hopefully someone can tell me why I'm wrong about signs. Maybe they serve a purpose I'm missing. Maybe at this point I'm tired of seeing them everywhere. Maybe I'm just pissed that some asshole invaded my mom's yard and stole from her and now I'm bitter and angry.
I'm inclined to think being visibly active as a neighbor and an engaged member of your community is a better way to advocate for a particular political philosophy. If all you're doing is ranting on social media (like me) and putting signs up, you're really not contributing anything of value. Less arguing, more living by example. It seems pretty simple but obviously it isn't. As ever, we do what we can. There is a place I pass on my drive into town every day that has some great flags and signage up and I won’t lie: I feel better knowing they are there, near where I live, in the midst of the pro-Trump bullshit and all the other republican eye garbage that sprouts up like swollen zits on the faces of the trophy homes occupying land out here that used to be farms. Maybe we need the solidarity of signs and bumper stickers to feel less alone. I think it makes my mom happy to do it and maybe that's all the reason we need. It makes me happy that my mom has the gumption to make the effort to get the signs and keep them there in the face of all the bullshit. Maybe that simple act of showing up is what we need to do whenever we can. Whatever we need to do to be happy. I'll be happy when this period is over, I know that much.
I hope you’re finding ways to be happy too.
Speaking of unhappy people hell bent on being jerks. I am on the board of the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area as the Little Shell Tribe's representative. You can learn all you want about the project HERE. Bottom line is opposition to the creation of this area is going all out to stop it, and they aren't above mobilizing folks through misinformation and falsehoods. In response, the board has created a petition where people can support the project. I know it is weird to support something in an area where you don't even live and may never visit, but that's kind of what the opposition is doing: packing town hall meanings with people who don't live in the area to be noisy about it. This is our response. If you are into history, into revitalizing small towns in far-flung areas, please consider signing on in support. This is about the best I can do to contribute toward the effort, not knowing anyone really who lives there myself. Here is THE LINK if you're into it.
An aside: One unanticipated benefit of the gathering for Community Firewood Day is that several folks there were familiar with my work. Seeley Lake has a bookclub through their library and read One-Sentence Journal last year, and a bunch of folks ended up buying it. I was asked, “So will there be poetry coming out of any of this?” and I responded, “Poetry comes out of everything.” So, in the spirit of OSJ, here’s what went into my notebook for the day:
For once the smell of fresh split lumber,
pitch, and sawdust isn't wafting from
a fancy candle but instead drifts from ingredients
collected in the matted pelt of my chest
after a long day trading sweat for firewood.
And finally, next week, THIS!
You … Me … and AHP!