Learning by heart

The necessity of spring on the stark plains of eastern Montana

| April 01, 2013

Spring in eastern Montana is a subtle marvel that traverses the space between needing and wanting. Like most necessities, it’s inevitable and unpredictable; like most desires, it comes and goes. I keep trying to belong to it, but the emerald green sea of prairie spring too soon crisps to brown. My visits are ephemeral, nothing compared to the experience of people here who earn spring.

The high plains and prairies are not beautiful unless you want to understand how a kind of beauty is inseparable from simplicity, how the absence of things can be as important as their presence. On foot, wandering in such vastness focuses you on elegant arrangements of pebbles and rocks at your feet, or the orange arabesques of golden willows, or a homestead-era barn in full-tilt lean, a portrait of desuetude. Your choice is always between something bundled very close or the grand sweep, a constant tension between figure and ground. I always feel like I’m searching for one and finding the other. Ultimately, it seems, spring in eastern Montana is not a thing you can learn by watching.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • CHAD HARDER

I try things like learning the grasses, or the birds. The Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, outside of Malta, is an oversized swampy prairie pothole surrounded by what seems like absolutely nothing. In the spring it becomes one of the most vibrant, living places on earth.

The morning air feels atomized with the earthen smell of new growth. Rising sunlight tangles in the Russian olive leaves. The water at Bowdoin, shallow blue and alkaline, is stippled with waterfowl as far as I can see, the larger white blotches of trumpeter swans and pelicans clotting the distance.

I write lists of the birds I see, but I always lose these lists. I’m not there to compile totals. I just want to understand, to name things as if naming is belonging. Listing them creates columns of found poetry:

Wilson’s phalarope

marbled godwit

willet

whimbrel

sora

white-faced ibis

black-necked stilt

yellowlegs

avocet

long-billed curlew

The chirps of yellow-headed blackbirds ring like metal chips falling on metal. Pintail ducks whinny-whistle. Each is a highlight rising from the unceasing background of frogs creaking like rocks rubbed together.

Heads and breasts blush rusty rose, avocets stalk around on twiggy, back-bent blue legs, sweeping the shallows with upward-curved bills. The little phalaropes paddle in fast, tight circles, whirling, then dipping their bills to pluck crustaceans and insects sucked into the mini vortex they’ve created. A prairie falcon totes a blue-winged teal in its talons, circling for height then lining out for somewhere to perch and tear strips of flesh from the duck’s breast in quick, head-shaking rips.

So much more goes on and on like this, little dramas driving life, every spring day. But it’s so far away; I’m lucky to catch a couple hours on an occasional morning.

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