By David Cronenwett
Late one recent evening, the wind blew in hard and suddenly from the north, rattling me from sleep. It was one of those disorienting moments when I really wasn’t sure where I was; wind had been a major feature of life in the place I’d called home for many years so I was used to abrupt, violent events like this. But now, something wasn’t quite as it should be. For the rest of the night, I lay there in a state of sleepy confusion. By morning, a local family of magpies squawking and traipsing on the metal roof pulled everything back into focus. It was still breezy on that cold, gray morning and looking through the window with bleary eyes, I quickly realized that I was no longer in Choteau. After thirteen years living in rural Montana, moving to a larger and more urban community like Helena has been an ongoing adjustment, a fact which this episode drove home.
My recent, 100-mile southward move to the city has given me an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between people and the landscapes I am familiar with. On the Rocky Mountain Front, a place so vast, elemental and totally overpowering at times, one finds it difficult to feel anything but insignificance. Amidst the huge scale of mountain and prairie, it is easy to feel small, especially when you realize that big predators like lions, wolves and grizzly bears also live there in relative abundance. Events like the awe-inspiring snow goose migration at Freezout Lake can likewise invoke humility and a visceral sense of connectedness to nature’s power.
From a hill overlooking town, where I’d often visit to look for raptors, Choteau appears as a tiny outpost of humanity while the multimillion-acre Bob Marshall-Crown of the Continent ecosystem looms to the west. No secrets here; the Front is a big, wild country sparsely settled by people. In Helena, things are understandably a bit different. Besides the obvious presence of more people and works of man, the landscape itself, like the gentle, forested mountains of the south side, is more intimate and approachable which is refreshing. Leaving a beloved place is never easy, but I’ve found that delving into my favorite pastimes of birding, botany, tracking and the like, has made the transition easier.
While I likely won’t see Sprague’s Pipits or grizzly tracks in my new neighborhood anytime soon, the appearance of a Northern Goshawk hunting in broad daylight on Mount Helena recently was like seeing an old friend. Even downtown, I’ve had the pleasure of watching local Merlins hunting rock doves amidst century-old buildings along the Gulch. That wildness, like these birds of prey doing their thing in an urban setting, while not exactly the kind of wildlife viewing I’m used to, does instill a direct connection to Montana’s greater wildness beyond the confines of this town and valley.
I have no doubt the surrounding forest and grasslands will offer more surprises and unfamiliar species for me before long. While I’m not working as much outside these days, my new role at Montana Audubon allows me the privilege of helping to conserve our state’s incomparable native birds, other wildlife and natural ecosystems, and for that I’m grateful. I remember the last time I stood and looked at the wall-like, 300 million-year-old mountains of the Front on my way out of town; I left it knowing I’d be back. That country, which I’ll always consider home, will still be up there for a long time to come.