Two weeks ago, the One True Wife and I were watching the Sun come up in the Negev. This evening, we're fresh back from five days in Montana, visiting a family of three that knows how to have fun -- and taught us a thing or two.
The friends are unusual people, not only for their love and stewardship of the natural environment but their ability to have fun in it, too. The five days included hiking, fly-fishing, wake-boarding, target shooting, parade-watching, a festival celebrating a small Montana town's logging culture -- and shooting off a homemade potato cannon (hairspray and a flame introduced into one end of a PVC tube, with a potato jammed into the other end). While our friends felt the contradictions inherent in burning fossil fuels (and hairspray) in the pursuit of fun, they also devoted themselves to creating an environment where wildlife could pass freely across their property, with nothing more than the occasional sonic-booming potato to startle them.
In the process of this latest trip, the Wife was transformed from a Nervous Nellie into a sharp-shooter of Annie-Oakley-esque proportions, and Gabe wake-boarded behind a boat for almost a half-mile at a time. He clambered up steep granite rock faces, and did everything that an 11-year-old could dream of doing in an entire summer (including many things he's begged me to do, for which I had neither the time, the patience nor the aptitude).
The vacation was more than just an excursion with a beautiful backdrop. We got something of a feel for the battles that shape life in the West. The Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where we cavorted, is a culture at war with itself. Ranchers and loggers use a great deal of water from the local streams and rivers -- reducing their flows in summer by almost two thirds -- but they also provide work in one of the most impoverished states in the union. Fishermen and -women have almost no water to fish in -- and rapidly dwindling stocks of fish to catch. Non-native weeds and plants are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. All these problems are exacerbated by weather that has been remarkably hot: the sunsets and moonrises are blood-red, and the air was hazy every day from one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory.
The people of this valley want to preserve their way of life, a life that leans heavily on the land. They have and proclaim faith that the land has the ability to provide for human consumption and to rebound from heavy use. Depending upon what lens you look through, they are either right, or they're deluding themselves.
All we knew was that both white-tailed deer and mule deer came by our friends' house every morning and evening; that one morning, a herd of more than 100 elk moved slowly by, like some Lascaux cave painting come to life. The larger females stood on their hind legs to pluck juicy leaves from deciduous trees; and Nature seemed grand and omnipotent and unperturbed.
But we drove through valleys whose encircling hills were completely denuded by previous fires; we rafted and swam in a river we dared not drink from; and we attended Darby Logger Days, a festival that proclaimed the unending and unerring right of Western men and women to maintain a way of life whose economic and spiritual basis is the cutting of timber.
Many stretches of forest we drove or hiked through were strangely uncluttered; ominously pristine. This, our host told us, was the result of the Healthy Forests Initiative, which promises, among other things, to "reduce dense undergrowth that fuels catastrophic fires through thinning and prescribed burns." What we saw, however, were forest floors opened, because of this thinning, to the heat of the Sun; and where before thick undergrowth had retained moisture and allowed for undergrowth, now there were only swatches of tinder-like grass and enormous piles of chain-sawed pine and larch -- perfect kindling in the perfect setting for the next forest fire, or so it would seem.
Be that as it may, we forgot ourselves. We played in the open air, got burned in the sun and bitten by bugs, fired potatoes over the horizon, and fell exhausted and contented into our beds at night, knowing that the next day, we would still see, out our window, a seemingly endless world of beauty and harmony that soldiered on in spite of us, and would one day right itself, with or without our help.