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.

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