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.

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