Bonita Pernot: Power and Place in the Big Snowy Mountains


Our group dispersed along the ridge of Great House Peak—the highest point in Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains, standing 8,681’ high—to find a spot to take in the expansive view. It is said to be “the best view in all of Montana,” but all I know is that it had me feeling a little wonder-struck. I looked out onto the plains and distant mountains, felt the wind’s constant rush, and thought about the beauty and power of this place.

I thought that this moment on the summit of Great House would be the highlight of the venture, but this was not the case; on our way down, we stumbled upon a dead bird. We hurried to gather around and see what kind it was and speculate on how it may have died. Initially, I was shocked to see that the bird was a Northern Flicker. What was it doing so far above the tree line? I was in awe over how intact this dead bird was. What caused this bird to die in such a way that it was able to maintain its form? The only sign of distress that the bird displayed was a neck that was weak and cranked to the side. Could it have been caught in an unfamiliar wind current, carried away, and then crashed into the mountainside? These kinds of questions were speeding through my head.

Soon after contemplating these mysteries, a new wonder began to captivate me; the Northern Flicker is a common bird, and while I had often marveled at its flash of orange from under the wings as it flies from tree to tree, I had thought that it was otherwise fairly simple. From afar, the flicker had always looked like a plain brown bird that displayed an occasional flash of orange, but seeing this bird so close, so still, offered an entirely new perspective. There was so much more intricacy to the Flicker than I could have ever conceived. The feathers that had appeared to be a flat brown were actually littered with black speckles, crescents, and spots. Just as I thought that I had observed the full extent of this bird’s intricacy, we flipped it over and opened its wings to reveal even more: the chest was covered with fluffy white feathers that were speckled with black, the tail feathers were sleek, black and long, with orange undertones, the wings revealed a lateral white streak with orange accents surrounding it and black stripes going horizontally near the tips, and a layer of white fluffy plumage created a line near the front of the wings.

Seeing this bird in such pristine condition and marveling at its intricacies was the most powerful moment of my hike on Great House Peak. I examined this bird with curiosity and reverence. I wondered how it had gotten there, but more than that I wondered what this individual had seen, done, and acted like through its lifetime. I longed to know more. Finding this Flicker had me feeling a greater amount of power than I had while looking out at the scenic view from the summit. It’s hard for me to tap into the exact emotions that I felt in this moment, but I know that it was something sacred. I felt the majesty and spirit of the Big Snowy Mountains in looking at this small, perfectly dead bird; a seemingly insignificant moment reminded me of the life and energy that had been surrounding me throughout our entire backpack. It was the dead flicker that filled me with joy, serenity, and reverence for the natural systems around me. My goal had been to reach the top of Great House Peak, but my true treasure was found on the downward slope of the mountain. There is no way of knowing what lies ahead and no way to tell where we will find our true connection with the wild world around us.

Power and place are found in unexpected moments.



Claire Anderson: Mad World

clairesblog“Effective protest is grounded in anger, and we are not consciously angry. Anger nourishes hope and fuels rebellion, it presumes a judgement, presumes how things ought to be and aren’t, presumes a caring. Emotions remain the best evidence of belief and value.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild: A Rant

Have you ever walked into a place and been immediately taken aback by its overwhelming power? I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have felt that often. These instances stand out clearly to me because of the uninhibited emotion they provoke so naturally.

My classmate, Shane, and I took a walk along the Yellowstone River after climbing out of the vans following our drive from White Sulphur Springs. We had just driven into a glowing golden valley with the Yellowstone River perfectly framing our campsite and it was all a bit overwhelming. At this particular moment I told Shane I was angry. She was confused, which is understandable because this place is unbelievably beautiful and instead of being in a classroom, I was galloping through Paradise Valley just a few hours after getting cinnamon rolls from some copper miners. I had no business being angry. After thinking about it I decided anger probably wasn’t the correct emotion, but I was feeling something strong for sure. I was angry (for lack of a better word) because this place is stupidly beautiful and there is no way my camera or my mind and memories will ever do it justice. I want this place to remain this unfairly beautiful, I want other places of the same caliber to retain their charm and stunning beauty and I want everyone to be able to see these places and feel this power I felt at that moment.

We’ve seen the extremes when it comes to water quality. The Missouri River has been polluted over and over by agricultural runoff and its waters are murky and dark, whereas in the Scapegoat or the Big Snowies, the waters are clear and clean. Mining threatens the coveted Smith River near White Sulphur Springs, and heavy cattle ranching threatens sensitive prairie ecosystems that only exist in large quantities in a few places in the world. Threats such as these could drastically alter the heart wrenching beauty of these natural places.

I’m very aware of my own emotions and generally have very strong, gut reactions to things that make me happy, and even more so to things I know are wrong. Stories of injustice towards what I care most deeply about, such as my mom, dad, or brother hit me the hardest. I don’t like negativity, it fires me up, and I’ve worked really hard in the past years to sit on my initial feelings for a bit and think about what is making me feel this way. From there I am able to more rationally attempt to see the other side of the story and decide a plan of action. My parents have pushed my brother and I to take what we felt were undeserved attacks from other people and try to see their side of the story and understand the other person’s motives. Because after all, anger is a strong and often hard-to-sort-out emotion.

Anger and other gut reaction emotions reveal what we believe deep down in our core. This anger that builds, and the feelings that quickly follow it, despair and some hopelessness, then an absolute burning need to do something about whatever ticked ya off, that’s how you determine your fiery passions. That’s when you know things are not the way they ought to be, your beliefs and values are blindingly apparent, and a call to action has laid itself out. Rebellion is the only option at this point and deep down there’s that hope that Turner mentions, that change is a possibility, although at first the situation appeared bleak.

This is how we get change. People who are so fired up about something are the ones that get things done and don’t settle for anything less than what they feel is right deep down in their gut. Anger is not a very pleasant emotion, which is why it works so well as a propellant. People generally want to stop being angry, I know I do. So when people become angry, they figure out what this anger is telling them and they go out and do something about it, and if they don’t go out and do something about it, they darn well should.

We have an obligation to be angry about the environmentally damaging behavior that happens today. As upsetting as this damage is, I also fully realize that my lifestyle contributes to the degradation and that I have the capability to make changes to mitigate that. By not actively trying to prevent mining and sensitive habitat destruction, we are indirectly giving our approval of these practices and letting precious places slip through our fingers. We are preventing future people from experiencing these places and learning their importance. This course has certainly solidified in me the understanding that the best way to fully comprehend these beautiful places is to experience them first hand. I want people in the future to be able to do that as well, instead of only being able to learn about them through a textbook.

I struggled with the term anger ecology when I first heard it. I don’t like to be fueled by anger, so you can see where my discomfort stems from. Jack Turner’s paper “The Abstract Wild: A Rant” helped ease me into the whole idea. Anger ecology does not encourage staying angry forever about something observed in the world that appears to be completely unfair. It’s about finding a driver that helps us determine what deeply matters to us, this driver that starts out as anger turns into an unwieldy passion and love for something that may not have been obvious from the beginning. Anger is just the little bit of fuel needed to get the real fire going.

Access into the Wild: Kelsey Mortensen and Nico Matallana

Halfmoon Pass. Big Snowy Mountains.  The sign said one mile, but it was definitely more than that.  Thinking like I’d never make it, I was surprised to reach the pass in the end.  Amazed, our group looked down upon a basin lined with snow-capped rocky peaks, but more impressively, the golden prairie shown at the end of the drainage.  Only a day and a half ago, we’d been on the other side of the island mountain range speaking with a local snowmobile enthusiast in Lewistown, Montana.  This leader in the snowmobile community expressed his deep love for these mountains and the joys of accessing them with his machine.  In the next few days we explored what it means to recreate in an access controversial area.

Photo by Ben Johnson

For a 24 hour period, each member of our small group set off on foot to spend a night alone.  Completely self-reliant, Continue reading