Musings on the Big Sky


From several hundred miles away, Montana is a place of contradictions: occupied by people who deeply love the land and the rivers that run through it, except when they are voting by a lop-sided majority to turn those rivers into toxic, metal-laden sewers.

Now comes John B. Wright with 10 essays to explain Montana - and when he can't explain it, to admit frankly that he also is puzzled. Wright follows the advice of historian Walter Prescott Webb, who said that "the West should not be looked at from the outside, but from the inside, from the center." That has often been a prescription for parochialism, or its first cousin, xenophobia, but in the hands of Wright, who has lived in Montana for about 25 years, it is the right approach.

He loves the state, but he also embraces its critics, especially when they're clever, as Esquire magazine was when it branded Montana "the most dubious state in the nation."

He spends one essay disabusing us of our notions about Montana by taking apart its myths of low-cost living, a pristine landscape, and an economy based on timber and mining. But the heart of the book is his essay on the Bitterroot Valley: its theft from the Native Americans, the curse they may have put on the valley and on those who stole it from them, the manufactured boom in fruit-growing in the early 20th century, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed inn the land-developers built to impress upscale suckers, the bust that wiped out the short-lived industry, and finally today's boom, which is based on an even thinner promotional line than the one the would-be orchardists swallowed.

While Wright doesn't look away from the fraudulent selling and scraping of the Treasure State, he is hopeful. He describes most Montanans as "eventual conservationists," however much they may waffle today, and he writes that the painstaking job of putting water back into rivers and placing conservation easements on the land are the only sensible, decent, long-term steps available to the state. What choice is there, he asks, when all of Montana is up for grabs?

* Ed Marston
High Country News Classifieds