Montana Headwall » The Crux

Learning by heart

The necessity of spring on the stark plains of eastern Montana



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.

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




white-faced ibis

black-necked stilt



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.

I was offered a pizza one spring night in Malta—peanut butter, jalapeños, pepperoni and cheese, no tomato sauce. Would I eat that in summer or winter? No. But one thing I have learned is that during spring on the Hi-Line, you don’t pass up a thing. Bar Olympics in Winifred? You learn to play. Branding cattle? You make yourself useful, somehow.

You don’t pass things up because the next days may bring snow, then melt, then floods washing out roads. Storms stalk the land. You can look north and south and watch 100 miles of slow-moving storm front. Rain falls from cells in fibrous, prismatic skeins, lit from within and blown into curves. The entirety of the sky fills with action.

But it’s not enough to pass through, looking around. Outside of Harlowton one sunny spring day, I ran on a dirt road through hay fields and the occasional dusty humps of sheep herds. The wind was a staggering hip in my thigh, then a sharp shoulder in my chest. I thought I was working, breathing hard—struggling, really, because I’m a terrible runner. Then I came upon a rock quarry and watched rock pickers work, tendons in their hands thickened and scaled, their days a flexless arpeggio of grasping.

These were people with splintered fingernails, fingertips so sore and worn they no longer felt everything they touched. All for stones—beautiful and valued, true, in fireplaces or patios, but stones that are simply a piece of this earth until someone comes looking for them.

They could have been cowboys calving on a 10-degree night, farmers seeding 18 hours a day between rains, sheepherders shearing like madmen—people who pretend not to notice the alkali in the water, or the windblown grit between their molars. People busting knuckles, busting sod, busting humps, just busting ass. I was only a runner on this road. You can’t understand what spring on the prairies means just by showing up. There’s always far too much you’ve already missed.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Until a generation or so ago, many of the people who occupy eastern Montana’s landscape didn’t have running water or electricity. Winter meant frozen up and drifted in, days on end of chilled solitude with just a fire and your family to talk to and intermittent forays into the stunning cold to feed animals.

Then, spring: release.

My forays into spring on the plains are fleeting, whimsical. I rarely know what came before those warm, breezy days. I think of someone like Maureen Curtiss—in her 60s now—as a young girl in the 1940s, hunkered down on a sheep ranch 30 miles west of Circle in the middle of winter’s bitter winds. Maureen’s father liked to draw. Her mother was blind.

“My mother used to love to talk about colors,” Maureen, who now paints Western scenes on lichen-stained rocks, told me one day on the ranch. “I used to take her finger and put it on the painting and tell her, ‘Here’s where the trees are, and here’s a barn, and I put a horse there.’ And I’d tell her about all the colors.”

I imagine a young Maureen Curtiss and her blind mother sitting outside on one of those eastern Montana spring days, when the grass was lush and the gumbo lilies and plains evening stars bloomed and fields were showered with pointillistic prairie flowers, and the birds in mating colors flashed and swirled through the sky and busily twittered and tweeted in the trees and brush. I imagine a mother and a daughter so far from anywhere, immersed together in the colors of the land and sound.

Living in such a broad, hard place, those people needed spring, and they occupied its every moment, just as it filled them with anticipation of warming softness. They learned spring by heart.

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