Montana is my homeland, or more specifically a small chunk of that State, a place I’ve known since before I could walk. To give an idea of what my homelands hold for me, I’m sharing excerpts from a book manuscript that started as a thesis and a memoir; it became something much more.
The manuscript came about as described below in the Preface to the original thesis, a creative non-fiction work entitled In The Light Beyond Dreaming: Crossing Boundaries in Yellowstone’s Borderlands. It’s a story of connection and of home, a narrative of wildlands and belonging and all that encompasses. The chapters wrap themselves around ecology, history, and family, focused on that small section of the earth that’s been part of me throughout my life.
Below the Preface is a bit about the small cabin I’m currently living in: The Bunkhouse.
I may move, I may live elsewhere — but there will never be a Place that holds my spirit like this one.
Preface: Journal – Jan. 2: As I write, an ermine hunts outside the window, white on white, predator on prey. My fingers tap tracks on the page. The ermine leaves words in the snow. We are connected for a moment, hunting for sustenance.
It wasn’t choice that brought me to this place; it was a gift of family, passed down by the decisions of my ancestors. Their choice became mine. And it grew into something more.
The place is a small ranch – not a working ranch, more a family gathering ground. It lies in south-central Montana in the Gallatin Canyon along the border of Yellowstone Park, south of the bustling town of Bozeman.
I have known the area since birth, watched it cycle through the seasons, witnessed changes that contrast the seeming stability of the land. I watch and I wonder – and I know there are deeper currents flowing beneath the land. I want to understand the place: the rocks and trees and living creatures and how they combine into the whole that I have experienced. I want to understand the people: the first steps and the modern footprints and how they coalesce into the broader landscape of this time. I want to put the pieces of life and living, great movements and gentle flows, together into a story of home.
The opportunity came, in a round-about way that was part choice but more fate. Through a wandering path of heart and endeavor, I ended up a forty-something graduate student in Missoula, Montana, in an Environmental Writing program. It was a chance to write this story, a narrative of home, a myth of place that has drawn me in and enveloped my life in its intricacies.
Excerpt From In the Light Beyond Dreaming
NOTE: In the Light Beyond Dreaming is my working title; the source lies embedded in this excerpt. As humans, we have a long history of tying various meanings and myths to the natural world — but that wild world is real, holding wonder and spirit that might be witnessed in a dream, only to be discovered later as tangible tracks in the dust.
Amidst the cluster of ranch buildings, tucked away down by the barn, is a small cabin built from logs crusted with peeling bits of varnish and decorated with elk antlers in various stages of decay. For a time the cabin was the shoeing-shed where a blacksmith could pound shoes onto horses with a bit of protection from the elements. It was renovated into a one-room bunkhouse so my Uncle Jon – the youngest of the siblings – could live there in the summer during the years he went to prep school. Hired summer-help used it after that.
Later, when Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t get by with just summer help, a bigger caretaker’s cabin was built by the river to house year-round help; the old bunkhouse sat empty, gathering dust and mice and memories.
Sometime in the early 1990s, the building became my place to stay, one of the benefits of being the only unmarried single solo pensive member of the third generation who are “the grandchildren.” The bunkhouse, tucked along Monument Creek, is where I sit in quiet with book and pen, sleep and wake to the creek that talks in bright tones, watch ermine out the window in winter and geese on the pond in fall. The usually dusty windowsill holds pure white feathers of unknown origin gathered from Tepee Creek, a chunk of obsidian from Sink Creek Meadow, a bit of crystal from Imp Peak, a coiled marine fossil from the wild ridges beyond. There is a half-burnt candle and a dusty jar where one of Grandma’s pencils leans next to paintbrushes and pens. A faded card from my mother stands propped against the window, holding a message of hope and the knowing of a bond.
The bunkhouse in its smallness seems almost part of the land, blurring the boundaries between dwelling and wild. There I can live a bit closer to the non-human community. Animals walk across the doorstep and grasses thread through cracks in the logs. I dreamed one night of wolves, of a phantom pack in darkness with bright intelligent eyes. I heard the soft treading of their passing. I woke, restless, and sat up – to see a gray form pass the window. In the morning, in the light beyond dreaming, I found great paw prints pressed in the moist dust of dawn.
The boundaries are a bit blurred at the ranch as well. It is just a small place in an intricate world: an ephemeral clustering of buildings that houses family and visitors and comforts searching souls. The logs will rot, the antlers finally succumb to the gnawing elements. I will have had my time there, and come to know more than if I had not.