Residents of Montana's High Plains are angry - but not at the real threats

  • Heath Korvola, Getty Images

I was born in eastern Montana, on a dusty stretch of nearly riverless high plains north of the Bull Mountains. I came of age there, in a country that has never not been true frontier, in the late '80s -- during the farm crisis, that notoriously bad old time in rural America. In much of the Great Plains, the economic and social crisis was coupled with a drought of biblical proportions: The seasonal creeks just never ran and the dry rain evaporated before it hit the ground. I remember the fields baking in the sun and grasshoppers making off with whatever sickly, sun-stunned alfalfa was left. But mostly I remember men with feedstore ballcaps high on their heads and women in sack-like house dresses hanging from their bony shoulders staring shock-eyed at the walls, taking one slow sip of coffee, and then another, trying to reckon with the whispered news of another bankruptcy or farm sale or suicide.

These, you see, are my people. They are the kind that make it a practice to clamber up some nameless knob of hill each morning just to take a look around, to sight again that great band of antelope grazing away the hours. They measure their days not by news cycles or traffic reports or clocks of any kind, but by sunrise and rainfall, the particular way the quaking leaves of a cottonwood, even in September, whisper winter, winter. They are a people intimate with dust -- sickle moons of it beneath their fingernails, a grit of it always on their tongues -- and suspicious of sharp corners. I have a friend who even as a young man couldn't stand to spend a day in Billings, Mont., which in many ways is really just a big cow town. He'd get nervous, claustrophobic -- claimed he couldn't see where he was going, hated the way everything was built against the land. He couldn't wait to turn his nose north and follow the sinuous brown roll of the Musselshell River home.

Home. Never mind that I long ago followed the river the other way out, that I went off to college and never came back, that now I teach and write my days away instead of bucking bales or walking ditch with a shovel slung over my shoulder. The distance has allowed me to speak in a way that, I hope, you might hear. Because I want you to understand something here about my people and my place: They are one and the same. The land is us. In grad school at the University of Idaho I once heard someone laugh and say that the interior Mountain West would be good country, if only you could eat scenery. And I thought, Yes, that's it. We eat it. And it fills us.

Or it did. Like I said, the '80s changed things. And now things look to change again. In the last 30 years, temperatures across the Great Plains have already increased an average of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In parts of Montana, the change is starker: some 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.S. Global Change Research Program predicts continued rising temperatures, more frequent droughts, depleted water supplies and an influx of invasive plant species across the High Plains. Couple this with the stress my people will no doubt put on the land trying to wring some kind of living out of it, and you've got trouble.

As the land suffers, the people suffer. They will hunger, sicken, grow furious. Tea Partiers, end-times Christians, secessionists, militiamen, the frenzied supporters of whichever Republican candidate happens to be the flavor of the week: Something real is already happening. Rightly or wrongly, people are already worried and scared, angry. Imagine for a moment all of them, and so many, many more, pushed right to the edge, where the one thing they have, their land, is worthless, or gone: the good dust of the fields lifting in a bad wind. I don't mean to scare you, I do mean to scare you, I mean to say: There are still people in the world, people right here in these United States, who live their lives timed to the transit of the sun. And climate change is going to ruin them.

Notice the pronoun shift in that last paragraph: That sun-timed life is no longer mine. Like most Americans, I will most likely find ways to insulate myself, at least to some extent, from the coming ravages -- but don't think for a moment that this excuses me, that this excuses us. No, it makes us all the more culpable. In fact, it is up to us, every one of us, to save the Holocene, to save so many breathing, hoping human beings -- to save them from hunger and sickness and a pure, sure anger we haven't even seen the likes of yet.

Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs.

Caroline Montgomery
Caroline Montgomery Subscriber
Jan 27, 2012 02:49 PM
beautifully written it managed to sicken me
Michael J Bartley
Michael J Bartley Subscriber
Jan 27, 2012 03:34 PM
Wow, thank you Joe this is a beautiful heartfelt essay. Nothing to add but I guess I wonder at how you convince your people, our people, that what is happening is real. The greatest frustration of my life has been the movement by much of the media from information with the possibility of knowledge to overt assertion that is nothing but propaganda. Other than pressing an issue of HCN into their worn hands, how do we reach the frustrated and scared? Too often it is like talking to the wind. It is as if we've become drought shrunken in our own souls.
Stan  Hooper
Stan Hooper
Jan 28, 2012 11:00 AM
Well written and captures the plight of people who I, though I am not one of them, can honor and identify with. Assuming climate change is the primary reason for their misfortune, it is ironic that Montana is 6th among states in oil consumption per capita and carbon use is proven to raise the temperature of our global climate. Let's support them through their anger and when they are ready, support them in problem solving.
Mark Hess
Mark Hess
Feb 04, 2012 08:14 AM
"the quaking leaves of a cottonwood, even in September, whisper winter, winter" They do! They do! I've heard it. Just beautiful.
Megan Drimal
Megan Drimal Subscriber
Feb 04, 2012 01:52 PM
Thank you, Joe, for writing this beautiful piece and turning/keeping your gaze home. Those driving the global market would do well to spend a full cycle of seasons in one place fully dependent on that place for all their needs...from water and food, to inspiration and entertainment...surely they would be more alive for it and, then, there might yet be promise for us. thank you.
Tony Bynum
Tony Bynum
Feb 07, 2012 12:54 PM
well written, and enjoyable read. If I'm not mistaken, the photograph that supports your essay is NOT from the high plains of montana. . . instead it's photograph from browning montana, on the eastern edge of glacier national park, not considered by most geographers as the "high plains" of Montana . . .
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Feb 07, 2012 04:04 PM
Thanks Tony. You are correct, the image is not from the high plains. Our art department chose that image, still from Montana but not the exact region the author is writing about, because it seemed to evoke the feeling of the essay more than other images that were from nearer the area discussed in the essay. Best, Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Tony Bynum
Tony Bynum
Feb 07, 2012 04:18 PM
Thank you for the clarification, i almost thought i was losing my mind and was about ready to make trip down the road to browining to see if the old burger treat building was still there. I'm surprised it did not blow down this winter, it's been one of the windiest I can remember! Thank you again. Tony
Robert Jacobson
Robert Jacobson Subscriber
Feb 21, 2012 06:23 PM
A lovely, heartfelt, forlorn essay about our common future. It's not just the people of Montana who will suffer, but people throughout the USA and indeed, the world. Montana, at least, doesn't have to worry about sea-level rise as do the West, East, and Gulf Coasts and the Great Lakes states or those on the downstream Missouri or Mississippi Rivers. Montana doesn't get hurricanes (yet). It has enough problems ahead, but so do we all. We all need essays written depicting our plights which, though they seem local, are indeed general and mutual. Maybe then there will be action taken. Late, but taken.
Tony Bynum
Tony Bynum
Feb 21, 2012 07:15 PM
Most of what has been talked about here will matter not if we in Montana allow our state to be over run by Texas and Alberta, Canada oil companies. If you want to see what I'm talking about just take a look at this interactive map of oil drilling along the rocky mountain front and the boundary of Glacier National Park. This map has video and still photos (at the icons) of what is happening in Montana. This is a story that HCN on numerous occasions declined to take interest in. It wont be long now, at this pace, before we might rather have a hurricane, an earth quake and even some water-front property . . . over a completely dissagregated landscape and dismantled culture . . .