On the Prairie

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.

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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.

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Here I am tempted to reference dark roast coffee—black, as always—or single malt Scotch—Islay, as preferred—as comparisons.  But coffee and whisky are poor correlations.  They are universally accepted as expressions of cultural cachet.  The western prairie is—how shall I say it?—less revered for its beauty or its æsthetic virtues.  There is a reason that the federal government freely gave the Blackfeet the plains while swindling them out of the front range that would become the east side of Glacier National Park.  Yet, it was to this rez that we drove, seeking big fish on prairie lakes.

The obvious virtues of the Blackfeet lake system are their trophy-size trout.  The prospect—and the realization—of catching the biggest fish I have ever caught was compelling.  But once we crossed the continental divide and pushed farther out onto the prairie, a certain awareness settled in.  We were no longer in the folds amidst the mountains.  Instead, the sky dwarfed the land it overlooked.  In every direction except the Rocky Mountain Front, which was draped in the cloud of spring snow, brown and blue opened before us as flowers in a garden.  The land reposed outleant under a big sky.

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Beneath that sky we layered our clothing and pulled on neoprene waders.  We stepped into the cold waters, casting into the wind.  I am tempted to tell you fishing stories—of the first day’s mistakes and how I spooked any and all trout along the shoreline, of lessons learned, of the big rainbow I landed in the morning and the monstrous one that got away.  I am tempted to write of inches (ever growing in my mind) and the minutiæ of fly, line, and leader.  But those were not the things that I brought home with me, crossing Marias Pass and down to the low, gray ceiling of the Flathead.

Now, a week hence, I remember foremost the light on the grass shifting violently in the wind.  This country—shaped by unencumbered gusts and billows, both by water and its lack—gives little to those accustomed to the easy observations of forest grove and piercing rock.  Seeing, we cannot perceive.  To borrow from Stegner, our eyes must settle on a “new palette” and a new sense of space, a process necessitating time and memory.

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So as we wait for the buds of the maple, elm, and aspen to explode with the new green of spring, I am training my lazy eye by enjoying browns and yellows that are so often overlooked in the vibrancy of the coming months.  Likewise, I remember the prairie.  Like the Old Man at rest, it angles obliquely along the horizon.

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