Since my recent move to Missoula from the sunny state of Florida, I had experienced many unfamiliar weather conditions. Montana residents might be well accustomed to snow, black ice, negative temperatures, and the season known as winter, but these were still novelties to me.
The ides of November, a time of limbo between autumn and winter. It is my birthday. I take a walk in celebration of existence. The atmosphere is cool and gray, and the first layers of high-elevation snow have cast a renewed sense of dimension and personality upon the massive peaks above, their tips immersed in soft November clouds. I walk on tribal lands in the Mission Mountains, and cut off trail to saunter along the stream.
A cheetah crouches in the tall grass. Pronghorn graze warily in the cool summer breeze. After minutes of quiet patience the cheetah erupts into a burst of muscle and speed. A small herd of pronghorn sprint into action, their nimble legs churning ground. A race for life ensues as the cheetah and pronghorn tear across the prairie. But bad luck this time for the cheetah; it retires to the shade for another hungry morning as the pronghorn dance away into the grass.
Glaciers: they are sculptors, carvers and artists. When the Bitterroot Mountains, the Missions and the Rockies were raised from the floor of the ocean it was the glaciers that came behind, crawling over the surface, grinding and eroding the face of the land.
I had been sitting in the observation blind for a couple of hours when I heard a commotion outside. Looking through the one-way glass, I saw an enormous bird with a golden crown and talons that were built for serious damage. Another landed nearby. I knew immediately that they were golden eagles, which are one of the largest predatory birds in North America.
One recent summer a group of friends and I floated the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho. On this eight day trip we rafted 100 miles through some of the wildest country in North America: a 2.5 million-acre wildland officially called the Frank-Church-River-of-No-Return Wilderness Area, a wilderness whose name is as out-sized as the area itself.
As I split and stacked my winter firewood this fall in preparation for the long nights to come, trees in the surrounding forest were also preparing for winter. While I watched their leaves turning yellow along the flank of the Bitterroot Mountains, I found myself considering the confusing terms people use to describe those trees. In particular, folks tend to mix up perfectly good words in ways that leave me more befuddled than enlightened.
August had just begun when a friend delivered my first hand-me-down squash of the summer: a round, green variegated giant that had reached the size of a jack-o-lantern seemingly overnight, just the way squash like to do. Later in the kitchen, I eyed down the squash and started my perennial should-I-grill-it-or-make-zucchini-bread debate. I suspect some version of this dilemma could be ages old.
The hot summer sun beats down on my back as I climb the trail to the ridge. Looking for a place to wait for my hiking companion, I find a grove of quaking aspen. Their distinctive white bark is beautiful and their leaves rustle at the hint of a breeze.
In August, 2010, my family and I watched from our backyard an unbelievable phenomenon: a single species of dragonfly, individually numbering in the thousands, flew steadily westward across our property on the edge of town for ten magical days. Occasionally they would perch briefly – each one facing west – on the neighbor’s wire fence before continuing on.
July of 2015 was the warmest month on record in the history of our planet, 2015 is on trend to be our warmest recorded year, and in much of the American west that warmth has been coupled with moderate to extreme drought conditions. With emissions of greenhouse gases showing no sign of decreasing, these records will probably not last long. For Montana, it means that our overall climate is likely to get warmer and drier. As that happens, wildfires are likely to grow in both frequency and scale.
Out on a run on a spring day only a stone’s throw from the Flathead River on the watery outskirts of the town of Hungry Horse, I have stopped for a moment and listen to the river. With its rustling it seems to applaud my efforts. And as I go back and forth between stretching and sauntering, my glance roves over the landscape. A sudden fluttering at my feet catches my eye. Alerted to something, now not my legs but my curious eyes give chase and follow a meandering path through the air. Is it...
While recently visiting the Rock Creek area to simply go fishing, I became distracted as I cast my red skwala into the clear, frigid stream. I was not distracted by the surrounding beauty of grasslands and different flora, or my ongoing love/hate relationship with fly-fishing, but rather the immense variety of sound echoing off the rock outcroppings surrounding the area.
How devastating are wildfires to deer and elk? Can most of them outrun or outflank a rapidly spreading fire? And what about the survivors when they return to a burned forest? Isn’t their habitat destroyed?
Walking through the woods recently, I saw a red squirrel digging in the litter of the forest floor. I assumed it was burying a pine cone, but on closer inspection I found a piece of mushroom. Little did I know I was witnessing a process critical to the survival of a forest.
Lying on my stomach on the fringes of the forest, my view is perfect of a colony of tiny lichens. They are perched on top of a rock outcrop, beyond which lies a majestic view eastward across the cold, choppy waters of Flathead Lake and on to the Mission Mountains looming on the opposite shore. The lichens resemble pale green miniature goblets, and look as though carefully set on a table of bright green moss.
On a sunny June day, I was standing among a group of budding naturalists, sketching the bark of a cottonwood tree. Suddenly, I heard a series of quiet gasps and more than a few titters ripple through our small crowd. Someone had spotted a cow moose and her calf crossing the path just a few feet away from us. We all turned to watch them on their route to the Bitterroot River.
Most of you have probably seen or heard woodpeckers. Whether attracting them to your backyard with suet feeders, or hearing them drill on the side of your house, you have probably noticed their large pointed beak and ability to climb tree trunks. But besides downy and hairy woodpeckers, which are seen often in Montana, we also have some types of woodpeckers that live in some of the most unique habitats and do some of the most peculiar things of any animal in the Rocky Mountains.
Have you ever walked around in a recently burned forest? One of those areas where perhaps last summer you saw flames leaping out or smoke billowing? If not, I urge you to go out and take a look at this unique environment. I had never spent any time in a burned forest until a few years ago. I was immediately impressed with the beauty and abundant life I found in this transformed forest.