Every year, despite the endless quandaries with which our state and nation seem perpetually beset, Thanksgiving rolls around and reminds us all to look past the problems and give thanks for what we have. Here in Montana, surrounded by some of the kindest people and most stunning natural beauty in the world, that’s not hard to do.
Right out of the chute, we should be thankful for simply living where we do. While other Americans have their holidays marred by fears of terrorist attacks, few in our far-flung state will find their minds so burdened as they sit down to their meals. Sure, Mother Nature may give us a run with her howling winds, frigid blizzards and ice-glazed roads, but when it comes to being a target, Montana is unlikely to be at the top of anyone’s list.
Just looking out the window gives us yet another reason for giving thanks. From almost anywhere in Montana, the horizon is defined by snow-capped mountains reaching up through pure air to tickle the bellies of passing clouds. Covered in verdant forests, these rocky redoubts continue to provide homes for a stunning array of fish and wildlife that have vanished from most of the nation. But here, in Montana, you can still find the grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat. For those who hunt, healthy deer and elk populations offer the opportunity to fill the larder for the long winter ahead, much as they did for early settlers and the eons of Indian peoples who called Montana home long before the first whites set foot on the eastern seaboard.
From our mountains pour clear streams, filled with abundant wild fisheries. Montana has the last remaining fluvial grayling population in the Lower 48 states, and here is where the mighty bull trout and colorful cutthroat make their last stand. As the tiny streams join to become the mighty, world-famous rivers flowing through our valleys, their bounty of rainbow and brown trout provide endless enjoyment for those who stalk these wily denizens. While not native to the state, by and large our river-dwelling populations of these fish are now naturally-reproducing. That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you consider that, in most other states, trout fishing means following around the hatchery truck and catching pale, weak “planters” that must be replenished every year.
And then, of course, there are our people. Visitors from other places often remark on the friendliness of Montana’s citizens, and it’s true. Perhaps it comes in part from our reliance on each other. Given the harsh natural conditions that can suddenly arise, Montanans think nothing of stopping to pull our fellow citizens out of a snowbank or fix a flat tire. We all know that, on any given day, it could just as easily be one of us stuck on the side of the road with a flat or buried in the snow. We take such common kindness for granted here, but in other places, if you need a tire changed or a push out of the snow, you call a wrecker because everyone else, it seems, is just too busy, or too scared, or too uncaring to stop.
A word of thanks should also be offered to those who have dedicated themselves to maintaining the natural abundance of this great state. Every year thousands of Montanans spend millions of hours in defense of clean water, clean air, healthy, diverse ecosystems and the magnificent wild lands we all cherish and need. Sure, our Constitution guarantees us the right to a clean and healthy environment, but don’t kid yourself—it wouldn’t happen without a tremendous amount of effort. Just look back at our history and it is all too clear that our state has more often than not been used as a resource colony for rapacious interests. Because of those interests, and the damages they left behind, thousands more of our fellow citizens are spending significant portions of their lives reclaiming the lands, cleaning the waters, and restoring the rivers. To them and their efforts, we owe our deep gratitude, for they hold the promise of a better life for future generations.
Just as thousands of Montanans from every walk of life are stewards of our lands and waters, so too do many lend their knowledge, energy and love to their fellow citizens. The old, the infirm, the children, and those who are simply down on their luck can find help and healing here. From volunteering time visiting those in nursing homes to defending our human services and educational infrastructures before the legislature, the thousands of Montanans who give their energies and resources to benefit their fellow men and women have earned and richly deserve our thanks. Without them, despite our state’s great natural beauty, we would be poorer indeed. And finally, because this is, after all, a political column, let’s not forget to lift a toast of thanks to the Montanans who have taken on the most thankless job in the state—those we elect to represent us in the political arena. In the coming months of the legislative session, there will be plenty to fault in the formulation of the public policies that govern our lives. But there will also be plenty to praise.
Sure, there will be some who seek to enrich themselves and their interests at the expense of the general populace—and some who simply march in lockstep with their political party. But there will also be those who will fight selflessly to protect Montana’s blessings and enhance the future for the generations to follow. Some will shrink from the fray, but others will rise to the occasion, becoming, in their dedication to Montana, more than anyone ever thought they could be.
So eat, drink, and be merry with friends and family on this wonderful holiday! But remember, just for a moment or two, all we have, all we are, and all we can become—and give thanks.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.