Mountains, Elk, and Sprawl

An hour spent crouching behind a fallen log on a Montana mountainside left me realizing I live a life of great privilege. The house I built with my own hands sat a twenty-minute scramble down a slope almost too steep to walk. Sixty or so feet away, a couple of cow elk stepped from behind a screen of small trees. Further back in the trees an unseen bull elk bugled the fluty fall mating cry that says nothing so much as "wild."

That call was my reason for crouching. The bull was legal game, and I intended to kill him. This is the deal I’ve cut with my place. I will care for, fight for, and benignly neglect this pocket of habitat in trade for annually filling my protein budget. Similar pacts have been negotiated with the forest that provided the timbers that built my house and the desk I write on. All depends on preserving the wild.

Yet some days it seems the deals won’t hold. From my logside vantage, I can also swing my rifle 90 degrees, leveling the crosshairs on a brand new house atop a ridge a mile away. At such moments -- and they are increasingly frequent -- I usually begin a difficult exercise of sorting sheep from goats.

It begins by cursing the sprawl of houses in the valley below. I live, after all, only 20 minutes from Missoula, a hip Rocky Mountain town with decent restaurants, a university, theaters, ski lifts, and a double digit growth rate. Could I reasonably expect anything but sprawl when I built my own house 10 years ago?

The history of western civilization can be sorted by opposing approaches to nature; one of surrender or one of mastery. But the question gets much more interesting when we realize each of us to varying degrees straddles the dividing line.

On the one hand, some of us consider all of nature a blank slate on which to write our idea of the world, which is to conquer and civilize. In these postmodern days, this is the instinct that sprawls a cookie-cutter version of consumption heaven onto what were once unique places.

The opposite view considers a wild place to be a teacher. It says the proper scheme of events occurs when nature imposes its order on us. Simply, this view is an attitude: Humility.

I realize this is of no help whatever to the planners and zoning administrators. As a practical point, I am suggesting we deal with suburbia’s despoliation of nature by enforcing an attitude, to wit, humility. But I am not a planner; I am a writer and more interested in story. And story has a lot to do with this.

When we impose our will on nature, that is, redesign nature in our own safe, bluegrass version of the world, then we limit our story to the puny confines of our own imaginations. As a result, the constructed world, human habitat, becomes narrow and sterile. This is precisely why every town in America is coming to look like every other.

This exercise, however, must go beyond sprawl rage. It involves rationalizations, ethical contortions, and personal sophistry all aimed at exempting my own little house and all it represents from the blanket condemnation of the West’s burgeoning rustic suburbia.

I can make something of a physical case for my exemption -- smaller house, more ecologically friendly, passive solar, energy efficient, that sort of thing. As a bonus, mine is a cottage industry, so I don’t commute. I get points for that, don’t I?

The proper respondents to that question are the elk before me. Is there any hope that the presence of compact fluorescents and absence of an SUV at my house matters the slightest to them?

What about the grass? Ponderosa pine spire a ridge lush in some of the best native bunch grass habitat I have ever seen. I’ve disturbed only enough of my 70 acres to hold a house. All of my neighbors, though, have lawns. They wiped out habitat and pumped a tiny little aquifer dry to irrigate palatial bluegrass carpets, i.e. biological deserts. I echo historian Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto, who asked: "What wilderness wants to be coated with this bourgeois shellac?"

That day on the mountainside, my story did not get the end I would have written. The bull elk never obliged my designs by stepping out of his cover to be killed. Still, I watched elk for an hour from a heart-thumpingly close range. One cow spotted me and barked. The place told me some of its story, my freezer unfilled, but leaving a bit of understanding and fulfillment nonetheless.

Richard Manning, a former newspaper reporter and the author of Inside Passage and five other books, is an award-winning environmental writer from Lolo, Montana. He wrote this piece for Elm Street Writers Group, a project of theMichigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at manning@montana.com.

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