Monday, May 10, 2004


She did it! Daughter Jessica presented her dissertation results this past Friday afternoon, to a packed classroom at the University of Montana, Missoula. One disinterested observer estimated a crowd of 50-60 people at the presentation. Among them, of course, were the proud parents, Tom and Mary Montag. Jessica's presentation was artfully done - "flawless," I would say but you wouldn't believe me, I'm her father. Afterwards Jessica went into private session with her committee for two hours and emerged as "Dr. Jessica." We celebrated the news for a few hours then, at MacKenzie River Pizza Co. in downtown Missoula, with several pitchers of beer, bread sticks, and platters of nachos for the twenty-some people who stopped by to congratulate the new doctor. Then mom and dad took daughter and son-in-law for a late lovely supper at Sushi Hana on North Reserve Street in Missoula. Jessica fell to sleep almost immediately upon arriving home. It had been an exhausting day for her.

Last December Jessica and her husband Tait bought a house on a couple acres in Stephensville, about half an hour south of Missoula in the Bitteroot Valley; during our visit, we got to stay at the new house for the first time, and to enjoy its amenities, which included a terrific Sunday brunch with several of Jess and Tait's friends the morning after we arrived. Can you say Caramel French Toast?

There will be fires in western Montana this summer, that much is obvious. While the irrigation ditches run heavy with water right now, the snow pack in the mountains is a lot less than is typical. So the drought continues. We will soon be reading of more scorched acres in Montana, unfortunately.


APRIL 18, 2004, cont'd

All day I have been driving from Hampton, Iowa, where I'd spent the night with my parents, towards Emmetsburg, where I will spend a week. I have just finished a side trip through Havelock, Iowa, which I hadn't seen in some forty years, and now I resume the drive north, working my way towards Emmetsburg.

I drive the mile back towards Highway 4 from Havelock and see that the fields along the way have come right out to the power poles in the ditches. Is that what it has come to: we have to farm every inch of it?

Now as I head north again towards Mallard, I see that the wind has shifted slightly and is coming somewhat from the southwest rather than directly from the south. Debris angles across the highway in front of me.

Mallard. Mallard holds on the best it can. The wind would blow it away, except these are tenacious and hardy people, good people, the stuff of the earth, the salt. The grain elevator remains. The library. Community center. Tavern. Tavern. Funeral home. Oil company. Schools. Churches. St. Mary's Church, where I took First Communion. The emptiness of the parking lot where once a school had stood. All the wind blows your memories away.

As I leave town, there's a friendly wave from a fellow out working in his yard. The sign as you come into town says "We're friendly ducks," and he proves they are.

Just out of the northwest corner of town, I peer farther to the northwest and see the sentinel pines at St. Mary's Cemetery.

You'd think a cemetery would be a peaceful place, all those souls laid to rest, but No, the wind wants to lift the graves right out of the dirt, that's how hard it's blowing. The grave stones have to hunker down and hold on with their fingernails.

When I get out of the car, the wind is coming high and hard. I stand at my brother's grave, and at the stone marking where my parents will be buried. I am so sad. I want to lie down here and die, let the wind blow my stink away. So much has been lost.

Someone has put silk tulips, yellow and white ones, on Bryan Wilson's grave, and on Joe Wilson's. Joe was Bryan's dad. Bryan was a best friend from childhood, killed in the Vietnam War. I am sad and can't even muster a curse at the goddampoliticians who think they know how the world should be and they don't know squat. This wind has more substance than anything a politician could say.

I do not know yet that when I return home there will be an e-mail waiting for me, with a photograph of The Wall. My brother Henry and his wife Sue had gone to Washington, D.C. The photograph shows the portion of The Wall that says: "Bryan L. Wilson." I do not know yet that the sight of it will be like a kick in the solar plexus, that I will go to my knees, that I won't be able to catch my breath.


I stopped at Curlew to see Uncle Larry and Aunt Pat. Larry is my mom's youngest brother. He was our hired man for a while when I was growing up. In the 1950s, my dad helped him to get a start farming on the other half of the section we farmed half of. Of all my mother's family I probably know Larry the best.

I've always liked my Aunt Pat, too, and my cousin Robin who had been a nurse but now is teaching high school English in Lake Mills, Iowa. She'd had Sunday dinner with her parents and was still there when I arrived. She and Pat had been looking at an old plat map of Curlew, trying to remember where people lived and who owned what.

Pat said she always wanted to get some of the old women from Curlew together for a coffee, so she could sit and listen to them talk about the history of the community. But now it's too late for that - one of the women has gone into a nursing home, another has moved away to be closer to her sons, and so on. The beat goes on. The big wheel keeps turning. What's gone is gone.

I spent nearly three hours sitting with coffee, visiting. The television was on in the other room, telling about severe weather across the middle west, severe weather that was headed this way, high winds, thunderstorms, tornadoes.

Now I am parked in the driveway of the old home place a mile south and a quarter mile west of Curlew. When I said before that the wind was blowing hard, I didn't know how hard it could blow. It was just a gentle zephyr then compared to this 60 m.p.h. straight wind coming at us mostly out of the south, slightly southwest. The wind is blowing that hard; they'll say so later on TV. It whips the windbreak of trees on the old place, all that remains of the farmstead, about one-hundred-twenty-five trees in the shape of an L. The farm buildings are gone; the house is gone; the old cottonwoods we used to play beneath, gone. Where the house had stood, where there used to be a bright green ghost of a house in the grass, that has been plowed up and planted. Where soybeans grew last year, that's where I grew up half a century ago. The hard wind is erasing the notion that I was ever here.

I sit in the car making notes and the car is rocking like a boat on wild open waters. The side of the car is to the wind; the car is getting sand-blasted. I'm watching Iowa's farmland blow away. It is an awful loneliness, to be here with so much gone already, with the wind coming so hard to blow the rest away.

As I'm headed north again on Highway 4 towards Emmetsburg, the dust blowing across the road is like a blizzard, but black, so thick you cannot see oncoming cars three hundred yards away. The wind sweeps a dust pile across the road like a cleaning woman with an angry broom. It's a terrible fierceness, this Iowa wind.



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29 and April 30, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor says: "The truth is that nature and death have always been intimately intertwined in the Canadian imagination." Says: "... there is a shadow wilderness lurking behind the real wilderness which cannot be 'managed' by the simple rituals of human interaction...."

I think many of those who settled the middle west came here with the simple faith that a man with horse and plow could tame a wild land. The only thing to fear was despair; the only sin, surrender. Wilderness was bounty to be taken. Some of the families who settled Wisconsin and Iowa, I know, had come here after a generation in Quebec or Ontario. Certainly, if these folks brought any sense of "a shadow wilderness" with them, it soon disappeared from their thinking. They very quickly set to making the wilderness into farmland.

Middle westerners didn't mix nature and death in their imagination, so much as they entwined work and death, I believe. First, the work was often dangerous and a misstep could quickly be fatal; walk through any old cemetery, you'll see that. Second, the work went on and on and on; it ground a man down in the field, ground down the woman in her kitchen or at the wash tub. That ceaseless tromp, tromp of work continued into the 1940s and 1950s, when tractors and combines and other farm equipment became more common, when kitchen appliances and gadgets and washers and dryers entered the home.

Perhaps some sense that nature and death are entwined would be found among those who settled the American west, the land west of the 100th Meridian; yet I'm not even sure of that, for a man on horseback thought he could do just about whatever he had to.

Those who came here had enough faith and confidence to eradicate any "shadow wilderness." Farming was the simple human ritual that would manage their world.


APRIL 30, 1998

As I walked last night, I noted how much progress farmers have been making in their fields. The tractors roared toward darkness, the land is tamed once again.

It is a foggy morning. The sun is a wet coin. The dome of grey reduces visibility to less than half a mile. The blades of grass are bent with the weight of the morning's moisture.

The hawk is in its tree, hungry I presume.

At the low spot where we saw the Bonaparte gulls, the water has receded further. Now every cornstalk is revealed.

For the first time this year, the old farmer is out to work his flower beds at Five Corners. He has been there in years past, spending a lot of time caring for his flowers. He walks there now, cigar clenched in his teeth, watering can in his hands.

On Watson Street in Ripon, a middle school student crosses in front of me. She dribbles a basketball and ambles towards school with her parts all askew. The way she has her baseball cap pulled down, you know she's serious about her basketball, you know she doesn't want any guff. Her timing, crossing the street, is good - I don't have to slow even the least bit for her. In my rearview mirror, I see her dribble her way onto the cross street, still she's serious, still her parts are askew, as if unsure of how everything is meant to fit together.


MAY 1, 1998
May Day - wet, dripping, grey. The month comes in much like the winter was, like a sponge with water, waiting for someone to squeeze. Warm water, I might add, for it is a warm morning. The grey sky belies the mildness of the day.

Out in the country the greyness rolls away in waves. The black soil is a strong contrast to the grey sky. Two large seagulls swim through the air. There is water back where water had been.

Seven cars at Five Corners - a traffic jam!

A crow pecks at the remains of the deer carcass in the ditch along Highway E between Union Street and Ripon. Perhaps the rain has softened the leathery toughness.

At several places along Watson Street in Ripon, tulips stand at attention. If they could, they'd march in their own May Day Parade. They are the day's only color.



My thanks goes out to the following for her recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:

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