Do you hear the wind moving through the cottonwood leaves and the red winged blackbirds singing to each other? It’s hard because the ground is now covered with snow and the blackbirds have left for the winter. Try anyway. Close your eyes for a moment and listen. He is crouched in our garden planting sweet corn in an old, thin t-shirt, underwear, and leather moccasins.

His rows are perfectly straight.

Do you hear gravel crunching underneath tires? He is driving down the road to our farm in his Ford pickup he calls “old Blue.” I am sitting on his lap, gripping the steering wheel which is worn smooth from use, like a deer antler after a season of being rubbed against the trunks of trees. The ruts in the road are deep and keep the tires exactly where they need to be.

He lets me think I am driving us home.

Do you hear the hot, dry eastern Montana summer? I promise it has a sound. He is driving fast in old Blue down a gravel road in the hills south of town. Billows of dust follow us. The windows are down. “North Dakota air conditioning,” he says, a Budweiser in his hand. We are on our way home from changing a tractor tire. I hold my first camera in my lap. He turns and smiles. I press the shutter button.

The photo reminds me of the beauty there was in him.

Do you hear the thud of metal on wood? He swings his maul and the wood cracks down the center. His red beard is covered in icicles. He presses a finger to one nostril and blows snot out the other. “Farmer’s blow,” he says.

I have taught my niece this trick.

Do you hear the creak of a chain link gate opening? He walks into the yard and eight dogs jump up to greet him. They wiggle and lick and whine and bark almost knocking me over on their way to greet him.

A stranger told me I pet dogs like him. If nothing else, I know now that I have accomplished something important in my life.

Do you hear a shovel digging into hard packed dirt? He kneels next to his hunting dog, not stiff yet. He picks him up and lays him gently into the ground. I watch out of the corner of my eye as I gather stones for the grave.

Do you see how beauty is woven through our days, sometimes so fine that we don’t even notice?

The calendar is 8.5 x 11 in full-color with thirteen of my favorite photographs of eastern Montana.

2019 Cover

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There is (well I guess now I need to say was) an open field near my farm. Since I was a kid it has looked the same - a ten-acre grass field below an older housing development. I liked it. It wasn't being farmed but sometimes you'd see horses grazing the land. When it went up for sale I worried. Who would buy it and what they would do with it? I fantasized about buying it and just letting it be but then I remembered, oh yeah, I don’t have any money to do that sort of thing.

After awhile, someone or a group of someones bought it, as someone always does.

I watched the bulldozers remove and contour the dirt. I watched them pour the concrete. I watched them frame out large buildings. I watched them plant trees in the perfectly manicured landscaping and put in turf grass that will need to be watered all summer to keep it bright green. I watched the open field be transformed into a field of storage units.

People tell me that storage units are money makers and it seems like they are right. One day the developers put up signs advertising some of the units they were selling. The 24 x 60 sized heated units for people's RVs are being advertised for $122,000. For me, that was shocking. Those big RVs can cost $100,000 or more and then to pay $122,000 to store it seems completely insane, but then again, what do I know? When I'm on the road sometimes I sleep in the back of my Subaru.

As I write this I can look out my east window and see the metal sheds that will hold people’s stuff because apparently we Americans have so much stuff that we need to rent and buy places to hold our stuff just in case we end up needing the stuff at some point. As of 2014, the self storage industry has 48,500 locations across the country, more than triple the number of McDonald's (14,350). The trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Forgive me if I don’t understand what is happening in America anymore.

It seems like such a little thing to be sad over doesn’t it? A ten acre field on the outskirts of Billings, that wasn’t doing anything besides sitting there, is now making money for someone or someones and providing property taxes to the county.

I’ve thought about this field more than you could probably imagine. You, the person that didn’t grow up across from it, wouldn’t even notice it as you drove by because visually there was nothing remarkable about it.

Here is why it means so much to me.

My farm is along the Yellowstone River. Over the years, many people have lamented that we don’t have “development” along the river like Missoula does. I guess that means restaurants and trails and hotels and little parks. I understand that those things are nice for people and I enjoy the trails when I’m in Missoula but personally, I don’t want that. My preference is to leave the river corridor as open as possible for wildlife without them having to navigate people and our dogs and our concrete.

I know that not many people agree with me. In the last 20 years, what has happened along the river corridor in Billings has been discouraging. There hasn't been any notable effort to keep it open for wildlife and farms or even to develop the area for the enjoyment of people like in Missoula.

Instead, I've seen housing developments and trucking companies and warehouses get built. I've seen the river property where the old coal fired power plant used to be just sit there looking like a junk pile because the company that owns it, Talen Energy, doesn't seem to think they need to contribute to our community and get it cleaned up.

The thing about living in the place I grew up is that I remember. I remember where there used to be open spaces. I remember where we used to go hunt pheasants. I remember where there used to be farms. I remember the farmers.

One of these farms that will soon be eaten up by growth and progress is on the other side of the river from me and owned by a man who is in his 90s. He was born on that place and he still farms it.

Sometime in the near future I’ll see a for sale sign on his property. I’ll drive by it every day and I'll wonder how I could get the money together to buy it but I won’t be able to because it is worth more as land to be developed than land to farm or graze or leave for wildlife.

I’ll watch bulldozers tear down his house and his outbuildings. I’ll watch them pour the concrete. I’ll watch them frame out the buildings. I’ll watch them plant trees in perfectly manicured landscaping and put in turf grass that needs to be watered all summer. I’ll watch his fields be subdivided. I’ll watch more critters get hit on the highway because there will be more traffic.

Oh, the casual violence of driving. I see the dead animals every day along the highway to my farm. I see a little whitetail buck laying motionless on the side of the road, his stomach distended with bloat, and I wonder if he was the one I watched eat apples from the tree in my garden. I see a dead doe with a full udder and I wonder if she was the doe with the twins that I saw grazing in our sainfoin field. I see the orphans and hope they make it through the winter.

I also see the wounded deer that make it to my farm after being hit. I remember the fawn with the broken leg, her mom waiting with her in the tall grass but the little one not being able to walk very far without having to take a break.

Just a side note, if you are ever driving out to the Blue Creek area and some asshole in front of you is driving slower than the speed limit, that asshole is me.

Here’s the thing. The ten acre open field that is now a ten acre storage unit facility for people to keep their extra stuff in wasn't providing amazing wildlife habitat. It wasn't a field full of diverse plants. It wasn't remarkable in any way. However, what happened to that field reminds me of the fact that one day soon almost all the farms and open spaces along the river will be gone and replaced with houses and warehouses and box stores and more storage units facilities because farming and wildlife don't make anyone any money.

We are losing something valuable when we lose our open spaces and farms. When I look at those storage units all I see is, what Wendell Berry calls, a defeated landscape.

I wonder if this is the best we can do. I wonder if one day my small farm will be an oasis in a sea of metal buildings and concrete and people will look at it and wonder who the hold-outs were.

Matt Rosendale says he is a rancher. He also says he is a straight shooter. I think, however, he might be a little confused as to what a rancher is and also the definition of a straight shooter. But do not fret folks. I have created this short quiz to help him, his staff and anyone else who is uncertain of their cattle ranching status. Floundering around in the confusing world of agricultural identities is a scary place to be.

Taking my own quiz I learned I am not a cattle rancher.

Let's begin. Answer each question to the best of your abilities.

AM I A CATTLE RANCHER?

1. Do I own, or have I ever owned, cattle?

Yes or No

[If you said no, please skip to the end of the quiz.]

2. When I wake up at 3:00 a.m. during calving season I have to:

a. check the heifers

b. when is calving season?

[if you chose b, please skip to the end of the quiz]

3.The thing that keeps me up at night is:

a. cattle markets

b. drought

c. if my kids will want to take over the ranch

d. the future of family farms and ranches in Montana

e. other things/cattle are not a primary source of income for my family

[if you chose e, please skip to the end of the quiz]

4.When you are not serving the people of Montana in Helena you are:

a. traveling back to the ranch (the ranch where you keep the cattle you own) as often as possible to help your wife and kids manage the ranch.

b. traveling back to the ranch to bird hunt

[if you chose b, please skip to the end of the quiz]

5.When you need to prove to the media you really are a rancher you:

a. show them your sales tickets from the auction yard

b. you take them out to see the cattle that you own

c. challenge your political opponent to a fence fixing contest

[if you chose c, please skip to the end of the quiz]

6.A typical day on the ranch involves:

a. bird hunting

b. helping out the neighbors and/or the people (i.e. ranchers) that lease your land for their cattle

c. fixing fence, checking water and mineral, feeding, fixing equipment, moving cattle, branding, castrating, fixing water pipes, replacing pumps, driving to town for parts, swearing

[If you chose a, please skip to the end of the quiz. If you chose, b, good for you, that is a very nice gesture of community support and friendship but if that is a typical day you should probably still skip to the end of the quiz]

If you were sent to the end of the quiz at any point, you are not a cattle rancher.

Obviously, I'm not the final say on who is a rancher and who isn't. Someone like Wally McRae might be though.

I'll give Rosendale this. He seems to own some land.

You can stop telling me now.

Although, I am going to miss it when you list out the reasons for your dislike and then openly wonder how anyone could possibly choose to live in or in the vicinity of Billings. I’m also going to miss it when you tell me about the refineries and the sugar beet factory as if I’ve never seen them before.

I did like our chats though. I’ll fondly remember the times you used anecdotal evidence to make broad generalizations about the town and the people who live here. And I was very flattered when you told me that I don’t seem like I’m from Billings.

It’s been fun.

*

Montanans can be a judgmental bunch it seems. The Montanans who came from settlers, which I am one, judge you by how many generations your family has been here, while generally excluding Native Americans from their consideration. After that, we seem entitled to judge people based on which part of the state they live in - east or west - and then we judge the town people live in.

Never once have I asked someone, “so what do you think about Billings?” And yet, over the years, I have listened while people offer me their opinions about the town I grew up in.

When I was just out of graduate school, I began working for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado. We had meetings with folks from our Washington D.C. office and then went out to dinner that evening. I sat down next to a woman who I had just met for the first time that day.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Billings,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said and laughed.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked.

Then her apology started. She had assumed I would agree with her and that we’d laugh and then I’d explain to her how I had escaped from a shitty town.

It’s a American tradition after all. We give our opinions all the time, about everything, and many times without much thought behind them.

Years later when I was talking with my friend Wally McRae about the "where you from?" conversation that inevitably happens in Montana, he told me, "Never be ashamed about where you're from. Everybody has to be from somewhere."

Damn right.

*

I could go on and on and list out the different experiences I’ve had with people telling me what they think about Billings. Occasionally in Bozeman and Missoula I've been shocked at the disdain some people express. If you don't think this sort of attitude has long-term political consequences, think again. However, that is a conversation for another day.

When I was hemming and hawing about this topic, the question in front of me was, do I write a blog called In Defense of Billings where I list out all the great people, restaurants, galleries, and events that happen here? If I had taken that route I would also feel compelled to acknowledge the significant problems in our community. I’ve written about some of them before and I think it’s important to air them out in a public manner. Should I list the them so that you know I know they exist?

But I’m not going to try to convince you that Billings is worthy of a deeper consideration because I’m actually quite tired at this point of feeling defensive about it. Maybe one day I will. To be clear, I welcome actual conversations about Billings with people who either live here, have lived here, or at least have a tiny bit of affection for the place.

If I could, I would let you borrow my memories for a day. You could walk the alleyways and streets and see what I see. You could see the past, the present and the future swirling around in my brain. You could see what Billings was, what it is now, and what it could become.

*

What I’m asking is pretty simple; try to respect other people and their places and work to make your community better. If we all agree that it means something to be a Montanan, that it is an identity we are proud of, I hope we can spend more time trying to lift each other up and support all of our towns and communities instead of tearing each other down and making judgements that keep us divided.

The questions I’ll pose to all of us, myself included, is how does complaining and judging the places other people live help or lift anyone up? How does it contribute to solving the issues in our communities? How does it make the world a better place? To paraphrase a brilliant passage from an essay by Wendell Berry, it costs you nothing to be a critic.

I’ve always felt that the entire state of Montana was my home. I love every part of it. Every town and community is unique and has great qualities and also huge problems.

Many of us, in all parts of the state, from east to west, from north to south, in all different communities are trying to make things better.

We are all in this together so my suggestion, which you can take or leave, is we start acting like it.

A young mule deer buck walks westward in the open prairie. There is no cover for either of us. He had seen me earlier and wasn’t alarmed by my presence.

Him and I, we walk together for almost an hour, hundreds of yards apart, occasionally stopping to take stock of each other. At this moment he accepts me as part of his world and it feels good. We come to a small hill that splits us up. I arrive at the other side first and sit behind a large sagebrush plant.

A few moments later I see him, walking slowly and sometimes putting his head down to eat. He stops and sees me. He doesn’t look away.

Hello friend.

I bring the gun to my shoulder and put my eye to my scope. I take the safety off and put my finger on the trigger.

I think.

Run.

I think.

Run.

I think.

Run.

I think.

I won’t shoot if you run.

He watches me.

A tear rolls down my check. My heart is beating fast. My hands are shaky.

I aim just behind his shoulder. He never looks away from me. I take a breath and when the air is almost gone, there is stillness.

I pull the trigger.

*

It is morning. My goat Hazel is laying on her side. Her abdomen is contracting. She is screaming. This the only way I can put it. She sounds almost human. She is not pregnant although she is pushing like she’s in labor.

The year before she had delivered triplets, and a intrauterine tumor. At 2:00 a.m. on a Monday morning we loaded her up in the back of my Subaru, left her babies in the barn, and took her to a vet. The mass was huge. The vet sliced the tumor off her uterine wall, replaced the part of her uterus that had come out, and sent us on our way. Hazel raised all three of her babies.

There is no fixing it this time. I walk up to my house and grab my .22. My hands are shaking as I load the bullets into the gun. Shells are clinking to the floor because I can’t keep my hands steady. My dogs slink into the corners of the room.

Hazel is my favorite. We are friends. Sometimes we sit together and watch the sun set.

I think.

I can’t do this.

I think.

I have to do this.

I think.

Who can I call?

I think.

She doesn’t have time. I don’t have time.

I walk into the pen. My friend looks up at me and our eyes meet.

Somehow, she stands up and walks toward me.

I kneel down and my friend presses her head against my chest. She looks into my eyes. I tell her it’s going to be ok.

Hazel lays back down.

Tears are streaming down my face. My heart is racing. My hands are shaking.

I aim for her brainstem. When she looks away from me, I take a breath and when the air is almost gone, there is stillness.

I pull the trigger.

A friend of mine who ranches in eastern Montana asked me if I had seen a political commercial from Troy Downing attacking Senator Tester. I hadn’t.

I looked it up and watched Downing, who recently moved to Montana from California, strut around like a cock in front of some fighter jets (if you saw my roosters you would know what I say is true). Then you see a Jon Tester impersonator sitting on a small tractor playing a trumpet getting buzzed by a jet. He makes fun of Tester for being an elementary music school teacher and a farmer.

Wow.

It is a tempting position to take that politics is so out of control now that political ads aren’t worth reacting to. Some might argue I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But today, right now, I can’t ignore this one. I am so blown away by the arrogance and ego of Downing that it is hard for me to articulate, in a thoughtful, calm way, how angry it made me.

Last month, I went to North Dakota to visit my 94-year-old great uncle who fought in World War II. He is a farmer. His dad was a farmer. His grandpa was a farmer. His mother was a teacher. His sister, my grandmother, was a teacher. You get the point.

Oh, and he also plays the violin. He taught himself during the Great Depression to pass the time and so he could play music for the community after harvest and planting. He told me they would roll up the rugs in their two story white farm house and dance the night away. He also brought the violin to Osaka, Japan and played for the men he was stationed with. He said when he played, the men would dance with each other since there weren't any women around.

I'll stop. The unmanliness of that is probably making Downing super uncomfortable.

The other side of my family homesteaded in Conrad, Montana. They were farmers. My partner’s family homesteaded near Williston, North Dakota. His grandmother was a school teacher, his grandfather and great-grandfathers were farmers. They all played instruments, lots of instruments, as many as they could get their hands on because they understood the value of music and community.

My sister and I play the piano. My dad played the trombone. He even received a music scholarship to attend Rocky Mountain College.

Somehow Downing wants us agree with him that people who play music are what? Effeminate? Weak? What? I can’t even wrap my head around this. If Downing believes this and thinks it is a valid criticism then he needs to use his words and say it instead of using innuendo and a pathetic attempt at humor.

I believe Montana still has a shot at overcoming the toxicity of national partisan politics but people like Downing aren’t helping us, instead he’s trying to drag us down into the muck with him.

To Downing, the people who grow food for us, educate our children, and create music that help make life beautiful, aren't worthy of respect. It is astonishing really, that someone who wants to represent Montanans would denigrate who we are and where we came from.

If he is so concerned about being accepted as a “real” Montanan, a good first step would be to show some respect to our history and the people whose professions are integral to our democracy.

Here is what the commercial told me about Troy Downing. He is small-minded. He is mean. He doesn’t understand what governing entails. He is incapable of speaking about policies and issues so instead he calls people names. He doesn’t understand Montana or Montanans.

However, I’m not going to give up on this guy quite yet. I’ll send him an invitation to my next “Don’t Be A Dick” training. I doubt he’ll come to it but if he did, I promise he’d learn a couple things that would help him in his political career.

For instance, I would tell him that even when you feel like telling someone to go fuck themselves, it is better if you take a deep breath, think about what you are going to say, use your words, and then write a calm, thoughtful blog about it.