Rachel Bowanko: Common Ground

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

When I was young I lived over the hill from a bustling creek. On days when the sun was shining, I would run downstairs and put on big black rain boots, ten sizes too big, grab a few black garbage bags, and race over the hill to that creek that I loved so dearly. The trees blew in, the wind and birds chirping above welcomed me back. I would find a large stick for balance and walk along the creek among the rocks, picking up trash along the way. Sometimes my mom would join, and other days I would make my friends come with me, pretending that we were grown-ups and that it was our job to clean the creek.

I spent a majority of my time by this creek, watching the fish, frogs, and birds among the trees, rocks, and mosses. I watched the seasons change around me and noticed patterns in nature such as the way the current flows and where the frogs find their homes at the end of the day. When I had a long day, I would walk down to the creek to think. Sitting on the rocks I could hear the wind through the trees somehow answering all my questions. The time I spent outside growing up taught me about the power of nature and my place within the world around me. It helped instill a desire and need to protect this world around me. Thinking back to the time I spent by this creek, I recognize just how instrumental it was in shaping who I am today. This creek taught me what it means to find your place within the world around you, and it taught me how to live among nature in a respectful and kind manner. With each change for the season, I became more grounded in my spot by the creek and my love for it grew deeper. From this love stemmed an obligation to protect it.

We spent one week in mid-October floating the Tongue River, and as we floated I remembered the time I spent near the creek by my house. Compared to the creek near my house, the Tongue River is a much more complex ecosystem with a larger community connected to it. The creek near my house supported fish and frogs, several insects, some mosses and vines, and some deciduous trees growing nearby. The Tongue River out here supports fish, insects, Cottonwoods and wildlife such as deer and coyotes. While the creek in my yard crossed through one habitat, the Tongue River spans riparian habitats, Ponderosa Pine forests, native grasslands, and rocky cliff banks lined with red strips from burned coal. The creek near my house was a place for fun and play for the neighborhood kids; out here the Tongue River supported several communities. Native Tribes relied on this sacred land for generations and homesteaders chose the Tongue River Valley to begin new lives in the late 1800’s. Intertwined with the river are all the stories of those who were here before and their connection to the land. Today the Tongue River continues to support agriculture through irrigation and in turn it supports our food supply. The creek was visited primarily by the neighborhood, often simply driven by in passing. The Tongue River, on the other hand is a home-utilized and revered by many different communities.

Despite these differences, there were also enormous parallels. The rush of the current near the storm drain at the end of the creek reminds me of the strainers we navigated around on the Tongue River. The abundance of minnows in the creek and frogs on the banks were reflections of how well the creek was doing, just as the fish and beavers in the Tongue River reflect that ecosystem’s health. Both bodies of water change with the seasons, as leaves turned bright yellow and fell before us during the float.

Beyond the environmental parallels, both bodies of water connect people to the land. The Tongue River Valley was the proposed site of a coal mine and a railroad to transport the coal. Recognizing the travesty this could lead to, members from all different communities came together to fight against the development of coal in this area, especially around the watershed. We’ve been lucky enough to meet several people from different groups who have organized the community around stopping the railroad. Most of those who we spoke to grew up by this river and had ancestors who did the same. Over the years they had formed a deep connection to the river and relied on it greatly. Although they come from different backgrounds, every person we spoke to had one thing in common: a connection and respect and love for the land. By finding this common ground and working together, they were able to create a meaningful difference as the railroad has finally, after thirty years, been stopped.

As we spoke to those in the Tongue River Valley and heard about their love for the river and land, I was reminded of myself as a child and the love I developed for the creek by my house. I believe that lasting change begins with a deep seated love for a place and a personally felt obligation to protect it. As Turner wrote in The Abstract Wild, “We value only what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild.” The value I placed on the creek growing up stems from the time I spent sitting with the frogs and watching the leaves change. Those who fought against the Tongue River Railroad grew up on this land and know it better than anyone else – they have seen the seasons change and recognize its value. With each passing day I am grateful of my childhood by the creek, a childhood that grounded me in nature and taught me the values of knowing and loving the land.

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Shannon Quinn: Silent Warriors

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine.  These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic.  They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark.  The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves.  As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit.  If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say?  Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence.  Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival.  Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.

We must be the voice for these silent warriors.  We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself.  In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land.  The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades.  The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests.  The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere.  If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever.  Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self.  Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life.  The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines.  It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland.  Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate.  The people took on the task of defending the environment and community.  They said no to the railroad and the mine.  They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice.  This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne.  When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.

If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence.  They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles.  They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm.  The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime.  I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.