You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.
—Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry Land,”
* * *
Beauty in the Flathead is—more or less—taken for granted. It’s obvious: the Swan Crest rises up from the valley floor 4,000 feet or more. Glacier National Park—a mere forty minutes from the central valley—is replete with peaks so dramatic and so proliferate as to become mundane. Northwest Montana suffers from the æsthetic of the obvious. It takes no effort whatsoever to find vistas that would define a lifetime were they not so frequent.
So, I must admit, that I was rather unenthusiastic when a friend proposed a weekend of fishing out on the prairie. To be fair, I have been spoiled by the lush, overly-green climate west of the Divide. Yes—we get less sun than those beyond the Rocky Mountain Front, but we also have rich groves of pine and cedar, and with the early arrival of spring this year, our maples and aspens in town have begun to bud, promising a swift change in color. If anything, why not taste the last of the winter up high in Glacier’s innumerable basins and cirques? Surely the high sub-alpine country, buried beneath several feet of snow, would be æsthetically preferable to the Great Plains. But, the promise of learning to fish again after a few years off prevailed.
The beauty of the prairie is less obvious. The lands swells and undulates like an ocean, browned in the mountains’ shadow. Yet, there is a subtle beauty to the waters between the cut banks and among low lakes east of the front. I ought not be surprised by this, given that I spent four years of my life on the edge of the Great Plains in college. But as one who grew up in the midst of a pine forest, low hills and windswept grass have rarely felt inviting. They are an acquired taste.
THE DARKLING THRUSH
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.