Monday, June 21, 2010

Nature Boy and (part-time) Nature Girl

Sunday, June 13, 2010.

A walk across the prairie and up the lower slopes of Porcupine Butte. The shorebirds—long-billed curlew, marbled godwit, upland sandpiper—seem to be many fewer this year. Or are they just later? Other birds are still arriving, the latest being eastern kingbirds and nighthawks, both of which have just shown up in the last couple of days.

Flowers were many:

Cerastium arvense: field chickweed
Zigadenus venenosus: death-camas
Allium textile: textile onion
Phlox sp.
Linum perenne: flax
Delphinium bicolor: low larkspur
Astragalus drummondii: Drummond’s sweetvetch
Helianthella uniflora: little sunflower
Tetraneura acaulis a.k.a. Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless sunflower
Antennaria neglecta: field pussytoes
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower (not really quite blooming yet)
Penstemon eriantherus: hairy penstemon
Lupinus (sericeus?): some damn lupine, you tell me
Phacelia franklinii: Franklin’s phacelia
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless sunflower
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening-primrose
Draba sp.: cushion draba
Draba sp.: taller
Leucocrinum montanum: sand lily
Erysimum asperum: wallflower
Cryptantha interrupta: bristly cryptantha
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Prunus virginiana: chokecherry
Balsamorhiza sagittata: arrowleaf balsamroot
Erigeron speciosus: showy fleabane
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Lomatium cous: cous biscuitroot
Lithospermum ruderale: western gromwell
Geranium viscosissimum: sticky geranium
Ribes sp.: some gooseberry
Viola nuttallii: Nuttall’s violet

I made it to what I considered the last reasonably achievable rimrock, getting on top of which involved a very steep stairstep cowpath defile between cliff faces (behind Elizabeth, I should add)—and worth the effort, for the sensational view of the Absarokas, the Beartooths, the Belts, the Snowies, the prairie; and, to me most rewarding, just underfoot, the young and vigorous limber pines amid the many old ones killed by blister rust, as well as a few just-starting Douglas-firs.

Elizabeth wanted to climb around the next bend, scouting for a possible way to the top for our next venture up this way (a route I consider, on the basis of the topo map, impossible), and she came upon a…bear! A dark one, possibly one of the two we saw on the grassy, open, easy northern slope of the butte last year (the right and only way to the top, in my opinion).

Porcupine Butte does not seem like proper habitat for Ursus americanus. There’s not enough forest, and black bears are forest bears. Well, aren’t they? And what about connectivity? If they’re going to reproduce, they’ve got to be in touch with the larger population—which would mean, at a minimum, the Crazies, which I imagine support not very many bears. It probably also means some genetic linkage to the Cayuse Hills to the south and beyond them the Beartooths and the Absarokas and therefore the whole Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And it’s possible that there’s a link to the north as well: If they can make it across the grasslands to the Belts, then there’s a reasonable chance that there’s gene flow all the way up, to the northern limit of black bears in Alaska. And the ranchland north of here is mighty lonesome country.

So: proper habitat? What makes this possible is not so much forest as peace and quiet. The amazingly low human density around here allows Porcupine Butte’s few (two?) bears to stroll across ranches by night, maybe even to travel up and down stream corridors at dawn and dusk, and thereby to remain part of the metapopulation of the northern Rockies. Wow.

And of course the butte itself offers an abundance of bear food—grass, forbs, roots, bugs, rodents, carrion—that is available to them only because of the nearly total lack of disturbance by humans. They walk around in the open in the middle of the day, as Elizabeth’s encounter shows. That bear, by the way, was not in the least freaked out. It had a look at her and just ambled off. No panicky run for the trees.

As we came back across the prairie, where the grass thanks to the rains seems to have grown a good foot in the last week, we saw a brown something moving in the green, and then a pair of little muley ears: It was an infant mule deer fawn, commanded by its mother to lie down flat but too new at the game to know that when hiding it is best to include the ears. She herself was entirely invisible—ears flattened—though certainly nearby.

I then proceeded to ruin a perfectly good organic and local pork shoulder steak. I thought, Well, shoulder, it needs some cooking, so first I tried to braise it in some weird organic barbecue sauce I’d bought at the Bozeman Co-op, with vinegar, but it smelled so bad once heated that I threw it out, rinsed off the pork, and began again with white wine; and the longer I cooked it, the stiffer it got. After an hour and half, starving, we (“we”) gave up. I threw it on the grill, as I had always planned to do at the end, and though this hardly seemed possible, it got stiffer and drier yet. I also had cooked collard greens, and overdosed them with both garlic and vinegar to such an extent that they were downright repulsive.

Elizabeth had gathered many morels, however, the day before, and, richly buttered, they saved our dinner from utter uneatableness.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010.

And Elizabeth is already gone, back to venture capital and software. I'm quiet, I'm lonely.

One of my least favorite painters, at his worst, painted clouds like these, ranks of edgeless gray smudges across the azure night sky, El Greco. For once an evidence in nature of whatever it was he saw in his lost-in-labyrinths out-in-the-out-there-too-long San-Geronimo mind.

Thursday, June 17, 2010.

O a blessing, a benison! At what I call in my mind now Antelope Pass, not a pass at all but just an up-wedged shale-bed and its companion moraine over which one comes for the last mile to this place and where there are nearly always a particularly imperial pronghorn buck and his varying harem of does and now fawns: Not thirty feet up, white wings beating, long necks outstretched, unimaginable in these parts anymore but unmistakable, and magnificent, a pair of trumpeter swans! The biggest birds, by weight, in North America, and not long ago nearly lost to toxins and slaughter. They must be nesting on one of the glacial pothole lakes up towards Two Dot.

This, this is why we come here, and stay, and watch, and are so deeply grateful.

Sunday, June 20, 2010.

Imagine my delight at finding one of these in the kitchen sink this morning:

Very tiny:

And moving very slowly. Naturally I took it to be one of Satan's favorite tick species.

In fact it is a pseudoscorpion. Which is not an insect, not a tick, not a spider. It is an arachnid, but not a spider. It is a member of an order all its own, the Pseudoscorpiones. There are more than 400 genera of pseudscorpions, comprising some 3300-odd species, with more being discovered all the time. They live all over the world, and all of them are entirely harmless.

That fact is by now moot, of course, because I killed the little motherfucker on sight.

Evening: a slow-rolling storm in the deep-bass timbre of Hendrick Hudson and his crew bowling ninepins in Rip van Winkle’s Catskills sky: Wouldn’t you think it would be hard for bats to fly in such a steady dense rain, with those leathern wings? Well, they do it

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Delight, but in context

Friday, June 11, 2010.

Elizabeth is here, and Montana spring has returned to do its stuff—house-shaking thunder-slams followed by an afternoon and night of cold, soaking rain. She said she could hear the grass growing. She also always manages to see the birds I’ve missed, in this case yellow warbler, vesper sparrow, great horned owl. I did have the delight of a few seconds of rocketing bluebird.

Speaking of delight: the wines of Pierre Sparr, of Sigolsheim. More soon to come on Alsace, as I will be retro-blogging my recent travels there. Sigolsheim was a nice enough town, the nicest thing about it (besides Sparr’s vineyards and winery) being its position between Kaysersberg and Zellenberg, my two favorite towns in that fate-favored region. Um…I guess I should say that fate favored it for a long time a long time ago, and has favored it again since World War II. Alsace has known some ugly times in the last couple of hundred years, jerked violently back and forth by France and Germany. The Third Reich’s cruelty to Alsace was unspeakable, as the heartbreaking war memorials and empty synagogues today attest.

Bucatini last night with chicken livers, morels, and cream; accompanied by Pierre Sparr’s 2007 reserve pinot blanc. “Since 1680,” the label says, and all I can think is, God, what must the Sparr family have endured? The wine tastes different, perhaps better, I believe, when you know its history.

It rained all afternoon. As I sat at the dining room table interviewing Gael Greene on the phone—she was the restaurant critic for New York magazine from 1968 to 2008, and she loved Craig Claiborne—I was also looking out the window into the cottonwoods, and just when she paused to check an incoming Tweet, I saw a fawn so newly born it could barely walk, wobbling behind its mom. Within an hour I had seen another, and perhaps a third (or the first a second time). By dusk, a deep gray one in that rain, the fawns were not just steady on their feet but bopping along, jumping over downed limbs with ease.

(Above: The Americans arrive in Colmar, 1945.)

There’s fresh snow on the Crazies this morning, all the way down into the forested slopes. And here, at 11:45 a.m., it’s all of forty-six degrees. Spring!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Montana Xenophobia?

Saturday, June 5, 2010.

My dear neighbor Farwell Smith invited me for lunch at his place a few miles down the road, but it was my turn and I still had much remaining from the magnificent roast chicken. Plain old chicken sandwiches—with mayonnaise out of the jar on crumbly, not so good local multigrain bread—were just dandy. And then the last of my lovely California fruit: cherries and apricots, the ripeness of the latter finally at the drool stage.

Apropos of my Craig Claiborne project, Farwell and I talked about the first great wave of American travel to Europe, which he was on the front edge of: As a member of the rollicking Harvard College class of '48 he and a couple of hundred of his classmates crammed into some slow-chugging liner for the voyage of a lifetime, destination Le Havre and la liberté. They played a drinking game of which the loser had his face plunged into a cream pie.

Under the head of Never a dull moment among the dull moments: As I headed home this evening from my first walk out onto the just-greening prairie I saw something moving on the meadow in front of the house that just damn it looked like…binocs, please, and, yes, it was: a big fat male wild turkey, and then in case you had an ounce of doubt he spread his tail in full display. I tried an Indian sneak, and did get a photograph, though not a good one, and no great display, but unmistakably a tom turkey, a big new addition to the Langston yard list.

As always—it still seems odd—the earliest best flowers come in the bleakest habitat. I climbed the rubbly deserty little butte that once was mined for gravel and has remained nearly barren, and there found the following (obviously, I need help at the species level):

field chickweed, Cerastium arvense
fennel-leaved lomatium? Lomatium foeniculaceum
[but might be cous]
cliff anemone? Anemone multifida
Parry’s townsendia, Townsendia parryi
sand lily, Leucocrinum montanum
textile onion, Allium textile
field pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta
obscure bluebells? Mertensia viridis?
low larkspur, Delphinium bicolor
bristly cryptantha, Cryptantha interrupta
silvery groundsel, Senecio canus
shorter yellow composite, big center, sagelike lvs, petals sq at tip
tiny yellow multiple, lotuslike?
cutleaf daisy, Erigeron compositus
bent-flowered milkvetch? Astragulus vexilliflexus?
tiny yellow clover, Trifolium sp.
silky crazyweed, Oxytropis sericea
wallflower, Erysimum asperum
death-camas, Zigadenus venenosus
orange globemallow, Sphaeralcea coccinea

long-billed curlews
marbled godwits
upland sandpiper (a species elsewhere in steep decline)
—All very quiet: not nesting yet?

The morels have been visited by several neighbors and plucked in large volume. One person left with twenty pounds. They did seem infinite. So, of course, once upon a time, did passenger pigeons and the buffalo. This afternoon the morels remaining are rusty or worse. Rain is expected—maybe there will be another crop then.

For dinner, more of the chicken that keeps on giving, simply cold. I flavored some mayonnaise with toasted cumin seeds pounded in the mortar with sea salt and black pepper; saffron soaked in cream; and a tiny bit of cayenne. My avocado was shot, having gone straight from hard to rotten. My potato salad was, well, it was a disaster--my bugaboo, too damn much vinegar, which a dose of sugar couldn't fix. Arugula was fine, especially with this terrific St. Pierre California olive oil. Dr. Loosen's basic riesling, 8.5 percent alcohol, sweet and sting in viola-violin harmony, was just right.

In the late dusk a herd of deer—mixed, both mule and whitetail—passed through the cottonwoods, at least twenty, almost in file, more than half of them very small yearlings.

Monday, June 7, 2010.

To “downtown” Melville for the first time. It consists of one building, known as the Big Sky Corner, which comprises post office (with postmaster Rick), store (not much there, lots of open space on the shelves, intermittently overseen by Glen), and lunch counter (under the aegis of one or both Lindas).

The men gave me hearty handshakes, the women hugs. We were all glad to see one another. I asked them each how they’d wintered, and they all wanted to know about my new book project.

There’s always talk there, and it was natural, with the writer being welcomed back into “the country,” that today the subject was books. Glen was recommending one by a guy who had reconstructed the Battle of the Big Horn in main part by using his metal detector and his knowledge of bullet forensics; he had determined that Custer was shot in the head at the beginning of the battle by his own scout, a Crow (fellow tribesman, that is, of the Indians Custer was there to attack), and that the scout was then shot multiple times in the back by Custer’s troops. My pal Howard, a highly intellectual mechanic who is often to be seen at the B.S. Corner, told me about a rare book of which he owns two copies, a fictional memoir of a nineteenth century British trader in West Africa. He offered to lend me one of his copies, and I’m going to take him up on it.

I thought back to a gas station I’d stopped at in Idaho on the way up here, where a fellow with a Montana-licensed van took a look at my California plates and asked, “You wouldn’t be headed to Montana, would you?

I said I was.

“Well, you better be careful.”

Why was that?

“They all hate Californians. They’re all rednecks. They’ve got guns, too.”

I told him I had lived here for years and come back every summer since—with California plates—and had never experienced even a hint of hostility. I allowed there might have been some behind my back.

“Well, you better watch out. I’m leaving. I been in Livingston three years and had nothing but trouble. I’m going back to California. Livingston’s nothing but rednecks.”

I said that Livingston had been our nearest town when we lived on the West Boulder River. We shopped there, we had many friends there, I tried to do a large New Urbanist development there and so had come to know the politicians, the bankers, the whole business community—and I had never experienced anything worse than political opposition; and even that had been polite.

“I was homeless half the time. Lived in my van.”

Oh. Well. Hm. Nowhere much to go with our conversation at that point. No doubt he had in fact known a different Montana.
Friday, June 4, 2010.

Those morels: I just sautéed them in butter, and then salted them. I try not to use the word sublime too often, but in this case it is the mot juste. And with them a roast chicken truly worthy. I had brought it in the cooler all the way from the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco because I have yet to find in Montana any chicken to compare to these raised by Norman and Aimee Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organics. The only comparable chicken I have ever tasted is the legendary blue-legged poulet de Bresse. Both walk around outside from an early age, eating what they find in the fields, both grow at least twice as slowly as supermarket chickens, and both develop a dense, chewy, sensationally flavorful flesh. And somehow the meat on a three-and-a-half-pound bird just keeps coming—maybe because a small serving seems like a big one, it’s so satisfying. Next to those sublime morels and a little potato gratin, all it wanted was a spoonful of pan juices. And a couple of glasses of '07 Bourgogne rouge.

Fact of the day from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America: “Common Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula…Uncommon.” Well, not uncommon at Langston House. They're pockety-pocking for bugs all over the meadows, long tails bobbing, yellow eyes sharp: Unlike the robins, they dislike being watched, take to the trees when I raise my binoculars. The males have an iridescent blue mantle.

Yesterday—and despite camera in hand, and because Joe Stern, my only neighbor, and his dog were out for a walk on the other side of the flood, and this would be our first greeting of the year—I failed to take a photograph of Sweet Grass Creek sheeting across my driveway, at least a hundred yards’ width of it and moving fast. I have never seen the water this high. Every kind of limb and twig and grodu was strewn through the woods in intricate fractals, which showed that scary though it was, the creek was already falling. In fact, my friend and landlord Paul Hawks, on the phone, confirmed that after he had left in his tall four-wheel-drive pickup earlier in the afternoon, he had neglected to call to tell me that I was flooded in. At that time, he said, the water pouring over the little road was a good six inches deep. No fool, not even Tom Fool, would dare to try to swim a low-slung M3 Beamer across that.

Last evening’s crop of morels was beyond anything I could have imagined—so freshly emerged they all but glowed, literally hundreds within sight as I stood in one place under the burned cottonwoods. I gathered perhaps a pound. But they weren’t as good as they were last night, mushy, the taste imprecise; I think I didn’t let them dry long enough.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Back in Montana, back to serious posting, I mean it this time

Langston House, Greater Metropolitan Melville, Montana, June 2, 2010.

How do they have robins anywhere else when it seems that all the robins in the world are gathered here? And all hollering. Starting at five in the morning. Welcome to Montana.

There are many other birds as well. Sandhill cranes, for example, are much louder than robins. Eagles are better-looking. Warblers warble. But the robins—suburban and human-tolerant though they are—run the joint.

Never mind the hours of phone hell trying to get the internet connection up and going.

Look at the blazing white snow on the Crazies, the broken tree limbs bobbing down Sweet Grass Creek and slamming into the new log jams, the first flowers in the woods, so much blacker and deader than I had thought they were going to be by now: violets violet and white; crazyweed; strawberry; phacelia in the creekbed gravel; bluebells amid the leggy new cottonwoods in the burn.

And: morels. Their feet in the burn. Pale blond. I research them online, I soak them in cold salt water so the tiny bugs will depart, and finally, just to be (as it were) dead certain, I take them to my dear neighbor Elli Hawks for approval, who assures me that they are unmistakably fine. Ah. I believe there will be more tomorrow. I believe there will be a great many, because the habitat in which I found them—blackened, moist, sandy soil—is widespread. Voilà:

And the water in the house, from the new well, is exquisitely clear.

Thunderstorms yesterday, curtains of blinding downpour as I drove north from Big Timber. More gathering over the mountains this afternoon, and the sky purple-black to the east, at the prairie horizon.

It has been three and a half years since that savage November fire, and recovery (vegetative, I mean) is everywhere; yet so are weeds—houndstongue, thistle, mustard—and the unhappy smell of wet charcoal. Young tender browse is abundant, but there seem, at least at first glance, or sniff, to be a lot of dead deer. I must ask about this, someone who knows.