Starting in 2020, I began writing and publishing personal essays and creative nonfiction–something I’m continuing to explore along with my traditional history writing. Some of these are quite personal, but the themes that animate my historical work remain evident through these pages, too.
If you found these pieces meaningful in any way, I’m glad and hope to
hear from you.
The stones of my memory, and in my life, cannot be avoided any more than rain can avoid rivers. They take up space. They force action. No, they demand reaction. They do not interact, they impose. They do not relate, they occupy. If they breathed, I’d have no oxygen left.
But I realize that time isn’t a refuge any more than the wilderness is an escape from people. You cannot go into it or out of it. You cannot choose to participate in or avoid time. Time beats on in a constant, connected continuum. Standing in Cliff Creek, the collapsing of divisions tells me this is so. I’ve escaped nothing, because I’m participating fully in the wild times that swirl here, now, then and always.
All places contain ghost landscapes when you see them as a historian does, which is to say, how I do. Buried beneath today’s scenic vista lies all of the yesterdays, layered one upon another, accreting with passing memories and moments. I obsess over this interplay of place and time. It is where I live, where I think; it is how I chart the world. And I wonder how anyone could plot their universe otherwise. Even if it does mean being constantly confronted by loss.
My students sit next to me and Big Creek, on cut logs, because they believe Thoreau remains correct a century and a half later. The universe is the classroom; schoolrooms constrain; more can be learned outside. My students take their place in a long procession of naturalists dissatisfied with education as practiced.
But the flowers I remember most were Sweet Williams. In my memory, as vivid as today’s sun even though it happened nearly four decades ago, Granddaddy cut them near the ground and handed me the bunch. Following his careful instruction, I stuffed the brown stems into a paper bag and shook. Just weeks before, the flowers spoke in reds and purples and whites. Now desiccated, they released their tiny black seeds with a portentous rattling as they fell into the tan bag that normally would have held my sack lunch.
Cut / shake, cut / shake, cut / shake. We repeated this rhythm until the rows were gone and we were ready for spring planting. It is the only time I have collected seeds, but Granddaddy sowed and gathered them throughout his life.
“Floating through the Parks,”
. Montana Mouthful, Volume 3, Issue 2, , “The Great Outdoors,” 9-11
With the ridge rising beyond and the lake pooling below, I thought myself standing in a classic scene, part of a park diorama. I felt the requisite awe and humility while breathing in America’s best idea™.