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Lightly on the land

Portrait of the naturalist as exterminator

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Kathleen Meyer and her life-mate, Patrick McCarron, live in a barn near Victor, Montana, not far from the former town site of Bitter Root, where the Bitter Root Inn—an upscale hotel designed in 1910 by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright—once stood. The Hotel was a showpiece, part of a plan by a Chicago-based concern to build a canal from Como Lake down the Bitterroot valley supplying water to what real estate developers claimed would be an orchard empire. Production in the Bitter Root apple orchards peaked after ten years and declined as the soil’s nitrogen content petered out. Then a series of harsh winters wiped out a considerable number of trees, and much of the land reverted to the county in lieu of unpaid taxes. The hotel burned down in 1924. The town died shortly thereafter, though some of the original houses have survived. The “Eastside Canal” still runs along the front of the Sapphires, though today it sports the moniker “the big ditch.”

Today, chauffeured Bitter Root Irrigation District company “Locomobiles” no longer drive prospective settlers from the train station to the hotel, nor are prospective residents wined and dined by developers hoping to sell irrigated acreage at premium prices. Yet the romantic ideal of “the good life” in a pristine Rocky Mountain home, even without water rights, is a much-touted selling point, and is pitched with the same vigor as ever by today’s booming real estate developers.

Meyer and McCarron, a farrier by trade, moved to Victor in 1989. Together they bought and rebuilt a 100-year-old covered wagon from the Bitterroot Carriage Company. They trained a team of black draft geldings, dubbed Pancho and Lefty, and promptly set off as part of the Montana Centennial Wagon Train. Upon returning from a one-year odyssey, reaching as far south as Steamboat Springs, Colorado and east across Wyoming, they were given the opportunity to purchase the very same barn that had housed the carriage company where they bought their wagon. After some quick soul searching and a round of phone calls to borrow money, they surrendered their wandering dispositions, following the call of the pastoral life. As a reminder of the gypsy ways they left behind they named McCarron’s horse-shoeing business the Romany Forge and settled into the barn, on a four-acre piece of land bordered by the Bitterroot River on the east side and fronting onto highway 93.

Such is the setting of Meyer’s new book, Barefoot Hearted: A Wild Life Among Wildlife, a quirky and often astonishingly candid autobiographical account of learning to live in contradistinction to the previous settlement patterns in the Bitterroot Valley—on the fringe where the human-made world meets wild communities. Meyer’s story is not a simple chronological memoir. She ponders deeply the subject of living lightly. Told in Meyer’s exuberant prose, a heartfelt weave of autobiography, personal anecdotes and scientific descriptions of insects and animals bears witness to the author’s growing awareness of her place in the biotic, Bitterroot community.

Meyer makes a fine protagonist. Teamed with her egalitarian, idiosyncratic sweetie, whom she alternately calls “my gypsy” and “the Pastaman,” Meyer creates scenes here worthy of comparison with the best modern comic fiction. Meyer’s uninhibited sense of irony on almost any topic from bat penises to concern for the health of the natural world can be aptly compared with the work of Edward Abbey. Often, though, Meyer is sincere where Abbey was snide, and her willingness to expose herself personally was not even dreamed of in Abbey’s philosophy.

Meyer’s narrative drives with sincerity and an irrepressible sense of humor that often reads like a personal letter. She steers a wayward course at times, addressing the reader on various levels and juggling scientific discussions, personal anecdotes, introspective musings and comic gaffes with deceptive ease. Among the cast of characters we meet a colony of pest-eating skunks beneath the floor, a chattering roost of brown bats in the roof, orphaned bear cubs, swarming cluster flies, various wildlife experts, animal rehabilitation specialists, and a rancher with a good heart for wolves.

Along the way, Meyer portrays herself as a perfectionist who has not always acted with clear motives or foresight, as when she is faced with sweeping up innumerable thousands of bug-bombed flies (which she has killed against her own better judgement), or when she unwillingly contributes to the extermination of deer mice infesting the barn (eventually they got cats). Meyer seems to delight in gory details and I often found myself simultaneously chuckling and groaning in disgust. By the same mea-sure, though, Meyer does not flinch at sharing her own misgivings when confronting disturbing sides of herself that she has not faced before.

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