Rosie Smith: A Sense of Place


Perched on a cliff, overlooking the Missouri River and surrounding plains, I was confronted by the expansiveness of this place. The vast open space was overwhelming and made me feel small, much like the towering North Woods and Great Lakes do back home in Wisconsin. From up there, at the top of Hole-in-the-Wall, I felt humbled, catching a glimpse of myself as being inseparable from my surroundings, embedded in the landscape. This connection, this sense of place, has been an overarching theme and topic of discussion during my time here in Montana.

For the past month and a half I have been traveling through the state, afoot and afloat, on an academic and expeditionary course, with a group from the Wild Rockies Field Institute. When the course comes to an end in just a few short weeks, we will each be tasked with formulating a personal land ethic. So far, through readings, class discussions, time in the field, and meetings with Montana locals and Native tribes, I have become increasingly familiar with the landscape, and have been exposed to many different opinions regarding our human place in and with the natural, nonhuman world. Most striking to me has been the idea that in our modern culture, connecting with nature is a choice.

Dominant Western culture views us, humans, as separate from nature. The nonhuman world, above all else, is seen as a resource, something from which we seek value. Nature is approached with an attitude of domination rather than cooperation. We establish boundaries by designating certain areas as economically valuable, to be used for resource extraction and tourism, others as socially valuable, to be used for recreation and solitude, and others as waste, to become, among other things, landfills. On the whole, nature is valued in terms of what can be gained from it not for being just what it is. By fragmenting bioregions and assigning specific uses to different areas we further divide ourselves from the natural world, making our inherent connection increasingly indecipherable.

In an article we discussed in class, The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character, Wendell Berry explains that in the past few hundred years, individuals have become less and less directly dependent on the natural world for survival; cultural connection to nature has diminished in correlation with the specialization of jobs and roles in society.  Berry identifies that loss of connection as a, “crisis of character.” Because individuals no longer have to understand their surroundings in order to meet their basic needs, establishing and maintaining any sort of relationship to nature has become a choice, and unfortunately, not a popular one. There was, however, a time when humans lived with the land rather than off of the land. One Native Blackfeet, Power Buffalo, who spoke to our group back in September, shared it was the belief of his elders that, “We (humans) are part of the land, and the land is part of us.” However out of favor in our modern culture, that view of human and land connection has not been lost entirely. Many recognize that, as author Karen Warren concisely stated in a piece on ecofeminism, “difference does not breed domination”; we are different than nonhuman nature, but those differences do not make us better, and certainly should not allow us to feel dominant.

From what I’ve gathered, seeking out a relationship with the nonhuman world is important because it allows individuals to not only feel connected to nature, but to feel increasingly connected to each other;  it fosters attentiveness and curiosity, which, in time, results in understanding and an ensuing love and reverence for the natural world around us. My experiences here in Montana have allowed me to explore and expand my connection to the nonhuman world. From the top of Hole in the Wall, from the peak of a mountain pass, from the center of an expansive prairie, or from a tiny campsite under the big starry sky, it’s impossible, at least for me, to feel greater than this place.


Ariana Matthews-Salzman: A Matter of Perspective


“Land is many things to many people,” writes Richard Manning in his book, Rewilding the West. What land means to one individual is a matter of perspective. It is very hard to find a single person in the world with the exact same perspective as you about much of anything – including the meaning and value of land.

I believe that a person’s perspective of land is influenced by many things: their childhood, upbringing, family, role models, peers, education, and travel. The meaning of a specific plot of land, the earth in general, or just spectacular tourist attractions will vary for everyone. Each new life experience a person has could somehow, if only in a minor way, affect how they value land.

So this means that different people with different upbringings, life experiences, feelings, concerns, and emotions will have very different perspectives of the land. The struggle is, how does a person step out of their own perspective to at least recognize, if not agree with, another’s perspective?

I think there will always be conflict over land, but awareness of this idea of perspective may bring cooperation between people with different perspectives of what land means to them. My thoughts on how and why perspective influences what land means to a person and how land is used have resonated clear and strong on our WRFI

course as we have listened to a number of people speak to us about their passion for the Montana landscape. Each speaker spoke clearly of their personal perspective on the land that they work, manage, and/or simply just love.

Lou Bruno, a member of the Glacier-Two-Medicine-Alliance (a local grass-roots preservation alliance), was very passionate about what land means to him. Land (wilderness in his case) is his “safe-haven” from the brutalities of the world – from the pain (from other humans) in his past. He was clear that he will do everything in his power to radically preserve as much wilderness as possible. When he shared his life history, his childhood, his upbringing – it was clear that his radical passion to preserve wilderness stems from the fact that, in a sense, the land had preserved him. It seems Lou’s perspective on the land comes from a space of struggle and gratitude, deeply rooted in his life experiences.

We also met with Sheldon – The Blackfoot Buffalo herd manager. Sheldon’s relationship with the land seemed much more lighthearted than Lou’s. His perspective was not as clearly shaped by personal pain, but was informed by his culture. In Blackfoot culture the land is sacred – it is their belief that humans live with the land, not off of it. Sheldon expressed that he and his family still live with many of the traditional views of land that his ancestors did. But he also lives in the modern world and manages the Buffalo herd for his tribe living in today’s culture. Sheldon seemed to have the perspective of a 21st century Blackfoot: balancing and valuing his traditional culture with current needs and the realities of the land.

And lastly, we visited the Lane Yeager, a lifelong worker of the land that had supported his family for generations. The Yeager Ranch was located on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Lane definitely conveyed his love of the beautiful land, the ranching lifestyle and his beautiful home state. He seemed to be as proud of the Montana land as the two other speakers I described above. However, Lane’s perspective of the land is much more informed by economics. He told us, “It’s all about turning grass into cash,” just ten minutes into our meander through his grazing land. At first I was taken aback by his blunt statement, but after listening to Lane talk more in depth about his life and his ranching practices, after hearing to him talk about maintaining his family’s ranching legacy, I gained insight into where his perspective came from. The land is foremost his livelihood – how he supports his family – but it is also a beautiful place with wild landscapes.

Differences in perspective are often the origin of land conflicts. Is it possible to broaden our lens and truly understand a competing vision of the land? I think we can! It starts with a personal challenge to internalize the concept of perspective. And maybe, even if this understanding doesn’t immediately change interactions on a political or economic level, it will at least teach you how to be a good neighbor.