Go Greens, Smash State. As a rule we don’t sign petitions because most of them are ignored by the decision makers they’re designed to influence. But we recently signed a petition directing election officials to put the Green Party on the November ballot in Montana. The law requires that at least 5000 registered voters in the Treasure State endorse this petition by August 17. Oh, we know what you liberals are thinking--Ralph Nader and the Green Party put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000 by taking less than three percent of the vote. This is bullshit, of course, since the election was fixed by a partisan Supreme Court, and the people who voted for Nader wouldn’t otherwise have voted for either of these jokers. And yeah, we understand why Bernie Sanders is now supporting Hillary Clinton--because the alternative is Donald Trump. But we’re not liberals or “progressives” or European-style “social democrats.” Without Sanders on the ballot we are supporting the Greens because their platform is similar to his (our platform is more radical than either but you can’t always get what you want). And failing to get the Green candidate on the ballot—Jill Stein—we plan to vote for Gary Johnson and the Libertarians. Trump is insane and his supporters are bigots. Clinton is a war-mongering lackey of big corporations who believes she’s entitled. And if we have to see one more of her human cozy outfits we fear we’ll choke on our own vomit. (8 August 2016)
Send them your dirt. The vast majority of animals on earth are too small to see without a microscope. They’re the oldest beings among us, beginning their domination of what was then a toxic world 3.5 billion years ago, over time transforming it--by inhaling methane and exhaling oxygen--into a place where humans could evolve. And their biomass outweighs ours by a factor of a hundred-million. Yet, as a piece in the New Yorker points out, science knows almost nothing about the secret lives of microbes because only a small fraction of these species have been grown in a laboratory. “From just the one percent of bacterial life that scientists had been able to cultivate,” the New Yorker writes, “researchers had derived virtually every antibiotic used in modern medicine.” Now that some bacteria are developing a resistance to the drugs others supply, the medical establishment is bracing for an epidemic of infection. (On a personal note, I declined to have surgery performed on my ruptured Achilles tendon because of this risk.)
But in recent years a Cambridge, Massachusetts company called NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals developed a device that encourages the growth of microbial colonies that won’t grow in a petri dish, the standard culture medium. The company tries to cultivate exotic soil bacteria, which are readily available because dirt is plentiful and easy to get. One of these newly discovered bugs secretes a substance that’s deadly to the bacterium that causes staph infections. In response to the legal implications of taking soil samples from public land NovoBiotics uses social media to solicit donations from private land owners. That’s where Dark Acres comes in. We went to a spot on the left bank of Mabel, one of our sloughs, where the world’s largest Douglas hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) has been growing for at least one-hundred and twenty years. We named this behemoth Maeva, after a legendary Irish warrior queen. Very little grows on the ground under Maeva’s dense and thorny branches because she allows very little sunlight to reach the ground. Due to the strange history and taxonomy of hawthorns (see my book, Hawthorn), and because this land has never been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, we shipped Amy Spoering at NovoBiotics a gallon of Maeva’s dirt. How cool would it be, we thought, if it turned out to be harboring a life-saving microbe. (5 August 2016)
Making book. Here's a review of Making Bones published July 8 at bargainbookreviews.com: "I loved this book. The plot had a bunch of twists (the last line made me laugh out loud at two in the morning), a great group of characters, often humorous dialog, but what really sealed it for me was the author’s descriptions of the setting. I’ve never been to the Breaks, but after reading this book, I feel like I’ve lived there." (12 July 2016)
Just when you thought it was saffe to go back in the water. According to CNN Missoula County is the site of one of more than 5300 communities in the U.S. whose water system is in violation of Federal laws intended to regulate levels of lead and copper. (28 June 2016)
Please, local calls only.The caller had an accent that says English isn’t my first language, but neither is Spanish, Hindi or Urdu. “I see you once subscribed to home delivery of the Missoulian,” she said. “Would you be interested in subscribing again?” Because our Border collies and the neighborhood’s free-roaming mongrels think ripping apart newsprint ranks in the top five best things to do at Dark Acres, along with rolling in horse shit, we declined. She called again the next day, as well, using a toll-free number (877) whose point of origin is untraceable. Like everyone in America except the senile and the desperately lonely, we dislike telemarketers. But we believe the local daily ought to spend its promotion budget on local companies. . . . It couldn’t happen to nicer people. The economic turdstorm about to savage England after the UK’s vote to secede from the European Union, based largely on Limey xenophobia, is a poetic reward for centuries of sometimes brutal, sometimes indifferent subjugation of the natives of India, Australia and Ireland. . . . New life for old bricks. When Missoula’s decrepit Mercantile building is finally demolished we will be the first to get in line to buy some of those old, friable red bricks. Like stones we brought back from France, Ireland, Borneo and the Sweet Grass Hills, the bricks will be mortared into our garden wall, where they will soak up the sun all day and keep our poppies, roses and tomatoes warm at night. (24 June 2016)
Missoula plants trees that pollute. On any hot day in the Garden City the 100,000 “hybrid” poplars planted by the City of Missoula near the frenetic intersection of Reserve Street with Mullan Road emit several tons of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These include isoprene, methanol and terpene, substances that combine with atmospheric elements to create an aerosol cloud the plants use to reflect sunlight, thus cooling themselves. It’s thought that this form of air conditioning evolved when the earth was considerably warmer than it is now. The best example of the phenomenon is the blue haze that shrouds the spruce and fir forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.
VOCs are natural emissions generated by many plants, and are also produced by the evaporation of petroleum products. When they react in sunshine with airborne pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, which is produced by gas and diesel engines and thermonuclear explosions, they accelerate the accumulation of ozone, the major ingredient of smog. Different species of trees emit various levels of VOCs. The highest floral discharges come from eucalyptus, the genus Populus, which also includes cottonwoods, and oak. Hawthorns emit no VOCs at all. Some researchers advise urban foresters to think twice before they plant poplars in large numbers.
The poplars on Missoula’s 130-acre poplar plantation are fed more than a million gallons of sanitized sewage effluent per day from the nearby Wastewater Treatment Plant. Officials claim that the nitrogen and phosphorous in this effluent that would have been poured into the Clark Fork (because the city can’t afford better pollution control equipment) is processed by the poplars instead. The trees apparently like their diet, having grown almost twenty feet high in only a couple of years. (Hybrid poplars are basically giant, messy weeds—the surface-spreading, tentacle-like roots of the fifty-foot specimen we cut down at Dark Acres this spring throw up a small forest of suckers that we must mow once a week until we can find the time to excavate the roots.
City officials plan to harvest their poplar plantation in 2027 and sell the wood, which is too soft for use as anything but ceiling molding and painted furniture (as firewood, it produces more ash than heat). Documents claim the project will cost $1.375 million but will recoup its expenses when the lumber is sold.
Maybe. Removing the stumps and restoring the land, which is leased from a family, will be considerably more difficult than the city has estimated.
Officials also claim that the plantation will “sequester” at least 8,000 tons of the carbon in the carbon dioxide that trees inhale.
However, what has not been figured into this apparently happy win+win=win equation is the amount of ozone being produced by the reaction of the VOCs emitted by the city’s plantation with huge volume of nitrogen dioxide emitted by vehicles idling at and finally crossing the busiest intersection in Montana. So far there hasn’t been a word from the Missoula County Health Department regarding ozone levels in this smelly, noisy neighborhood, which includes an asphalt plant and a Walmart.
Welfare rancher. Like the whackos who vandalized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last winter, the Goper candidate for Montana Lieutenant Governor doesn’t like our national government and its most visible presence in the Treasure State, the Bureau of Land Management. She has routinely advocated for the transfer of Federal lands to state and local control, a deeply unpopular idea in Montana. Yet for two decades Lesley Robinson, a Phillips County Commissioner and a cattle rancher, has taken welfare checks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to public documents, her ranch, the Lazy JD Cattle Company, applied for and accepted $67,581 in conservation, disaster and commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2014. (21 April 2016)
Vote for Sanders. By the time Democrats in Montana vote in the June 7 presidential primary—the last in the nation—it might appear that the race is over and Hillary Clinton will be the party’s nominee. But even if she has more delegates than Bernie Sanders—which at this point in the race is more speculation than fact—delegates to the July convention in Philly may get cold feet about Madame Secretary’s ability to whip the Gopers. Here are four reasons why we will vote for Sanders:
1. As a Senator from New York Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War, which was based on White House lies about mass quantities of destruction. The war destabilized the entire Middle East and gave rise to ISIS. Sanders consistently voted against funding this colossal foreign policy error.
2. Clinton was a constant supporter of the Border Fence between the U.S. and Mexico. At a Town Hall event in New Hampshire on Nov. 9, 2015 she told the crowd that “I voted numerous times when I was a Senator to spend money to build a barrier to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.” The Secure Fence Act of 2006" divided Native American lands and allowed the Department of Homeland Security to waive more than 30 environmental and cultural laws to speed construction of the barrier including blocking the migration corridor of two wild cats—the ocelot and the jaguarondi. Sanders consistently voted against funding for the Fence.
3. Clinton voted for bills written by Wall Street, including the bank bailout measures and the tightening of restrictions on the filing of bankruptcy by private individuals. Sanders has consistently voted against measures that would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.
4. As Secretary of State Clinton worked to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, which plunged Libya into chaos and produced a failed state that’s become a breeding ground for anti-Western terrorists. "We came, we saw, he died," she joked when told about Qaddafi's death. She accused Sanders of voting for regime change, but that was a lie. Sanders, in fact, co-sponsored a unanimous Senate resolution "strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya." (31 March 2016)
Old buildings. Of the three major issues inflaming the denizens of Missoula County, the looming deconstruction of the old Missoula Mercantile building on Higgins Avenue is the most emotional. Neither the fiscal freefall brought on by the incompetence of the University of Montana’s enrollment recruitment “program,” nor the expensive and possibly doomed effort on the part of the city to wrest control of its water system from a foreign corporation has caused as much widespread teeth-gnashing. That’s because of the fond memories people have of their happy hours inside the old store. (Mine included making out with a girlfriend in the photo booth on the mezzanine, and pretending to look at books in the bookstore when all I really wanted was a chance to ingratiate myself with the gorgeous red-headed clerk).
Even many of those who want see this crumbling, abandoned old eyesore torn down don’t want it replaced with the prospective owner’s cookie-cutter hotel, which could pass as any dull box in Tampa or Omaha. But there’s no reason that the façade of a new structure could not be built to echo the late nineteenth-century feel of the Merc and other smaller buildings downtown. This façade, of course, would have to be built from reinforced, earthquake-resistant, high-quality brick (the Merc’s brick is more like Play-Doh than it is masonry). Examples of the look of this new/old building might be the 1996 Johnston building designed by James Hoffmann on S. 3rd St. W., or the Gleim Building on Front St., a whorehouse built in 1893. (25 March 2016)The Johnston Building
The Gleim Building
Endless winter. One sparkling May afternoon in 1979 I answered a knock at the front door of our house in Missoula to discover a large, angry man. “Bill Finnegan and I vowed that the first one back in America would kick your ass,” he said.
My wife had some nice pieces of antique furniture I wanted to spare so I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. “Who are you?” So began a confrontation that would end peacefully but leave me bewildered.
I had taken a job the year before working for Outside, a slick new magazine targeting the burgeoning outdoor adventure crowd. My credentials for this hire had nothing to do with any wilderness skills(although I’ve taken some risks on the backs of horses, I’m only comfortable with sports played in safe, artificial venues, such as tennis.) In fact, I got the job because I had designed and edited a fishing book that made a New York publisher some money (I don’t even fish). There were those who apparently believed that because of my title, Contributing Editor, I was in a position of power. Although I had commissioned my girlfriend at the time to draw some illustrations for my section of the magazine—the equipment reviews in the back—I was not authorized to make feature assignments.
Finnegan and the man on my porch, Bryan Di Salvatore, had been told otherwise by a respected author who led them to believe I would be their contact. So off they went, sailing west across the globe on their surfboards, and sending me pitches for articles they assumed I was sharing with my fellow editors (most of whom had no idea who I was, since they worked in San Francisco and I worked in Montana.) [read more]
They’ve got a wall in China
It’s a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners
They made it strong
The Joy of Walls. The only thing I have in common with Donald Trump is a love of walls. I like building them. I like what they look like when I’m finished. Most of all, I like what they accomplish. I suspect that this affinity for structures that keep others out is now innate, since it began festering in the human psyche ten-thousand years ago as nomadic humans settled down in villages because that’s where grain and the alcohol made from grain were stored. In order to protect these resources the first town people built palisades of timber and earth. Later, as settlements grew across the planet stone replaced earthwork. Although the Neolithic Revolution and its walls made possible a reliable source of food and drink it introduced a host of unpleasant side effects: new diseases, decreased vigor, reduced life expectancy, and an increase in the violence we resort to when we want things others have.
A section of the garden wall.
The different sorts of walls at Dark Acres each have a purpose. The stone walls are intended to keep dogs, deer and horses away from the garden, and to absorb heat during the day so it can warm the plants at night. The wooden walls keep our dogs and horses in, the animals of our neighbors out, and serve as a visual aid to help outsiders understand our borders. A variation of these plank structures is the pallet fence I built on the bank of a slough at Dark Acres where it was impossible to dig post holes into the dense root system of the willows, water birch and dogwood that flourish here. I pounded steel fence posts into this tangle, and attached pallets to them in a line that snakes through the thickets.
To protect out fruit trees I’m planning to plant Douglas hawthorns around them, then work these into a living wall—a process called hedge-laying that produces in time a spiky, impenetrable barrier (see illustrations and a description of the process in my book, Hawthorn). These hawthorn and blackthorn hedges were used across Europe for centuries to keep farm animals and wild foragers away from the crops. They were also used as weapons against invading armies.
The question of whether The Donald’s proposed wall separating Mexico from the U.S. will work or not is moot. This is campaign rhetoric that plays on an old cultural or perhaps genetic compulsion. Hundreds of miles long and assaulting the natural world, this wall would simply be too expensive. The Donald promises that the Mexicans will pay for it. But in fact the Code of the West stipulates that it’s your job to keep them out, not the other guy’s job to keep them in. (31 January 2016)
Recycled planks keep out one neighbor's vicious dogs.
The Pallet Wall prevents our dogs from roaming in the forest.
An excerpt from Making Bones.By Bill Vaughn, Arrow Graphics, November 2015. ("An absolute winner . . .The True West shines through in this one, with a truly admirable character at the center." —Nate Briggs, The Kindle Book Review
Izzy sprawled in her lawn chair, holding hands with Mark and trading gossip about the latest acquisition of the local polygamist, while they waited for the sheriff. Rolex, Izzy’s bay-and-white paint, and Sally, Mark’s long, tall buckskin mare, were saddled up and tied to Mark’s trailer.
At ten a streamer of dust on the horizon announced the arrival of the local constabulary. Smudge Iverson was already red-faced and out of breath as he lowered his considerable heft from the county’s old stock truck to the ground. He’d brought along one of his three deputies, a scarred and wiry Cree named Fenton Welch. Their horses stomped in the rack, eager to get out and get on with it.
“Porta,” the sheriff rasped, apparently unwilling to waste any additional effort to shake hands. Mark had told Izzy that Iverson informed him in their most recent professional conversation that he was no different than his constituents in the matter of their position on Washington D.C. and its most visible presence in the Breaks, the Bureau of Land Management.
“What did he really say?”
Mark shrugged “The BLM can just suck on it."
Izzy watched Smudge examine her in a guy way, chest first, then crotch. Then he looked again, in reverse order. “Hey, Smudge . . . .” She resisted the temptation to ask him if he’d like her to turn around so he could check out her ass.
“Izzy,” Iverson rasped, ignoring her to deal with Mark. “What’s this, Porta? You bringin a date to a body search?”
Despite herself, Izzy laughed. Everyone in Hilger County knew that she and Mark were doing more than sniffing around each other. After all, they were high-profile individuals—Izzy resented because she inherited a big spread in a part of the world where there wasn’t enough ranch to go around for even the male heirs of these old families, Mark reviled because he worked for the land-grabbing socialist government that was trying to confiscate their property so rich liberals on the Coasts could have even more playground in the Big Empty.
“She’s here in an official capacity,” Mark told the sheriff.
“Welch will take all the pictures we need,” Iverson rasped. “You know we cain’t take no civilians along.”
She went to her saddle bag and came back with her badge. The BLM office in Lewistown had issued the shield to her after Mark convinced his bosses that her knowledge of the Upper Breaks qualified her to be sworn in on the Castel case as a special deputy ranger.
“Ain’t no civilians round here,” she said. Iverson took the badge and poked it with what seemed to her an unwholesome gesture.
“Well, fuck me and the horse I rode in on.”
Izzy tapped her index finger on her lips. “Tempting. But how about just the horse?”
An excerpt from Hawthorn. By Bill Vaughn, Yale University Press, May 2015. (A Missoula Independent notable book of the year, and named one of four 2015 honor books by the Montana Book Award committee.)
“There’s no sense in getting killed by a plant.” —Day of the Triffids
During our first spring at Dark Acres I filled my chain saw with fuel and oil and lugged it across a pasture to a tangle of twenty-foot trees in full white bloom. The morning was moody and overcast, glowing with that gauzy, shadowless May light photographers love. Overhead, a chevron of Canada geese passed so low I could hear the hiss of their wings. The air was perfumed with pennyroyal, and the languid fragrance of cottonwood buds. A breeze blowing up the Clark Fork pushed hypnotic waves through the fresh green grass, lush after a week of warm rain, making our river valley look more like Ireland than the normally parched terrain of western Montana.
Now that we were living in the country again, in the same sort of redneck backwater where I spent my motherless, feral boyhood, the only thing that could have made me happier on this perfect day was finding a hundred-dollar bill blowing in the wind.
On closer inspection I saw that these bushy trees were actually one tree, which had shot out eight trunks in all directions. The trunk causing our recent problem had grown parallel to the ground for fifteen feet and a yard above it, building a thorny wall of zig-zaggy branches that embraced a confusion of vines and a length of web fencing that had been strung between pine posts, now rotted. Woven from steel wire into two-inch squares bound at the intersections with tight twists of a thinner gauge, the fence was the sort used decades ago to confine dogs, or pigs. It had been rusted and pitted by the weather, and warped and folded by the force of the growing tree.
Male shrike with his prey impaled on the thorns of a hawthorn. A well-stocked pantry attracts females.
I wondered why the ranch family whose cattle once wandered across this floodplain had used webbing here instead of the odious barbed wire snaking everywhere else through the forest. But recalling that my sister raises a few pigs on her cattle ranch in central Montana, I decided that pork must indeed be the explanation. Whatever, like the barbed wire, which I was beginning to replace with more horse-friendly post-and-rail fences made from treated pine, this nightmare union of briar and metal would have to go, as well. And right away.
The day before, when I had gone out to bring in our quarter horses from the pasture, I was horrified to find Timer, our old brood mare, standing by this tree, head down, her left front hoof raised. Walking closer I could see that it was caught in the webbing. While concentrating on her work, which was the grazing she and the others were allowed four or five hours a day, Timer had somehow managed to step through a gap in the fence.
I ordered Radish, our noisy red heeler, to back off. But he’d already launched himself at the task, and couldn’t be recalled. When Timer saw him charging, his yap turned to full volume, she pulled back from the fence in alarm. I stopped yelling at him, expecting the worst. [read more]
WHO? In response to the World Health Organization’s warning Oct. 26 that red and processed meat can cause cancer, American carnivores rushed to feed their bacon to the dogs and, holding their noses, scurried to stock up on kale.
Don't like your town? Then nuke it. Every couple weeks I drive twelve miles down the Mullan Road to get food and gin. I always see a building that wasn’t there on my last visit, a box store, say, or a house.
Bad launch.The Missoulian rolled out its new website to a chorus of boos.
Action. The latest project by filmmaker Andy Smetanka is an homage to Missoula called A Place, Sort Of.
Getting what you pay for.Lee Newspapers announced September 15 that the corporation has hired two reporters to cover Montana state government.
Trojan.On September 4 one of the computers at Dark Acres received an email notification that a fax was waiting for us from a Montana auto dealership from which we bought a pick-up a few years ago.
Were the Celts real or imagined?The ten-thousand people who attended the Celtic Festival in Missoula July 24 and 25 watched young women dance Irish dances, listened to bagpipe bands and applauded as a scowling seven-year-old won the red-hair contest.
Missoula plants trees that pollute. On any hot day in the Garden City the 100,000 “hybrid” poplars planted by the City of Missoula near the frenetic intersection of Reserve Street with Mullan Road emit several tons of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Earthquake relief. How can you be sure the money you donate to help the victims of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal actually does anyone any good?
Is a journalism degree worth the expense? According to a new study from Georgetown University the job market for college graduates has improved for everyone except those with degrees in journalism and communications.