a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Floating down the Clark Fork one hot July day last summer, an extraordinary creature day, I wrote the following on the lid of my boat cooler in red permanent marker:
2 osprey, one hovering, one diving
nighthawks sawing ozone
fox, seen before he saw us
2 goldens, one perched
sandhills heard but not seen
By September the sun had faded most of the season’s cooler notes, but I can still parse out several others—whole canyon wall of swallows peering down at me from mud nests; seven sapsuckers tumbling through the squall; the air cooling suddenly below a high cut-bank, springs falling off the ledge—images, trout-quick, which I attempted to net with words.
Jotted on my makeshift field journal, these notes—usually dashed off with the oars shipped underneath my knees as the boat glides down a straightaway before plunging into another riffle—are my winter stores, sealed cellar-jars to which I turn when February begins its stare-down contest with my sanity. Does it mark me mad if a simple reading of, Mule deer crossing sure-footed, then bobbing, then swimming across deep bend, assuages some of my homesickness for summer, for the months when creature encounters abound? Then mark me mad.
Last winter, deep in the northwoods of Michigan and longing for Montana, our son began to construct a diorama of our valley near Missoula. In the basement Luca found a cardboard moving box and, with scissors, dispatched the box’s top and front wall. Into the remaining walls, he poked a sheet of chicken wire, which he rounded into miniature-mountains, to which he glued pages of gray and white felt. To the floor he stapled slices of blue foam (creek, river), along whose banks he stuck pebbles (boulders), chunks of moss (cliffs), and the tips of spruce boughs (bankside pines).
If you bent an ear close you could almost hear the waters, those beasts, rolling over rocks.
Since Christmas, Luca had been hoarding a bag of plastic animal figurines. He situated these appropriately (mountain lion near snowline, otter at confluence, moose in bankside thicket, etc.) and proceeded to beam over his creation—then after a week returned to his Legos, resigned to scrap the diorama.
I rescued it, though, placing it upstairs under a south-facing window, the make-believe-mountains aligned to the approximate aspect of the thousands-of-miles-away-mountains they mimicked. Evenings, at the right hour, sunlight angles through the window and spreads across the saddle of the mountain named Jumbo for its resemblance to the famous pachyderm. Light falls across the backs of the statuesque animals, too, and, in an act of acknowledged lunacy, I often lean toward the diorama to listen. Since nearly every animal I’ve “spoken” to in the wild has instantly quit my company, it’s nice to have these would-be counselors cloistered. They are mute, of course, but I imagine they advise:
Work for the love of the work, the beaver tells me through a mouthful of sticks; scream louder says the elk; stalk with more stealth says the cougar; the bear grunts, lumber, go where you wish, at your pace; frolic, tumble, chirps the otter chewing on a trout, be glimpsed by few.
Rilke wrote that one’s youthful conversations with dolls prepared one for conversations with the Great Silence—we posit, project, but ultimately do our own talking, hearing largely what we want to hear—and this makes a great deal of rational sense.
One winter, though, feeling anything but rational, I sat at dusk in a coulee overlooking a round butte and heard the wind blowing chaff across the bare ground. I had hiked to the end of a canyon desperate for some sign of consolation, and finally lay down on my back looking up at the clouds, until, sweat gone cold, I began to shiver violently.
Suddenly, a snowshoe hare, whitened after early snows but now conspicuous against the bare ground, rushed over the rise and, sensing me, froze in its tracks not ten feet from my face. For a long moment the hare regarded me, then flashed away over the next rise. That the hare recognized me as a fellow four-legged gave me a brief flutter of wonder, and I could only think to thank it: one of those creatures on whose constant intercession I depend.
Chris Dombrowski is a poet and a fly-fishing guide. He earned his MFA from the University of Montana, and his publications include two collections of poems, By Cold Water and Earth Again. His poetry and nonfiction have been published in leading journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Orion, Poetry, The Sun, and Colorado Review. His first book of nonfiction, Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish, will be published in fall 2016 by Milkweed.