Eat the best food in Central Maine this THURSDAY NIGHT | November 6th | 5:30PM | First Universalist Church of Pittsfield on Easy Street

Suggested donation: $9 adults | $4 children 12 and under. Tickets available through me, Bev, and Jane, or at the door!

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Shannon Hayes – self-identified “Radical Homemaker” and author of an intriguing book by the same name – recently posted a story about her West Fulton, NY, harvest supper. In her “dying rural community” that continues to lose population, a local supper was being held for the first time in two decades. In the post, she both laments the many years in between suppers and expresses joy over their revival.

Because the comment period on her blog had ended, I was unable to post a response about my town’s own harvest supper held every year for a century and still going strong. But I would have told her this:

I moved to this town of 4,200 just over five years ago in 2009. Pittsfield, Maine is my husband’s hometown and his mom’s hometown, and we settled into his late grandparents’ house. As you might imagine, I felt a need to find my own space within the town and its circles that can feel a little insular, especially for a new member of such an established family. So I went to church alone in hopes of finding that space.

My arrival at the Pittsfield UU church coincided relatively closely with the departure of a very active member of the church and president of the Ladies Aid Society Marsha Caveny, whose death left a void in many hearts, not least of which was the church community of women who more often than not find themselves helping people and preparing food. But before we lost Marsha, I was able to enjoy my first ever “turkey supper” with her and a crew of hard-working women (and men).

At that first supper, I wanted to establish my strong work ethic and to provide an alternative idea of what I imagined the ladies assumed was my urban side (yes, Bozeman, Montana is urban compared to Pittsfield). So I made an apple pie, and I arrived early the day of the scheduled supper to help. I found my way to my least favorite job – dishes – thinking this would show my grit. I stayed there for hours and was one of the last women to leave the hall that night, sweaty and sporting a soaked apron. Before I left, the matriarch of the affair – Barbara Jones – patted me on the butt. I was ecstatic.

I walked home in a misty light autumn rain, it was dark, and I felt safe. More than that, I felt as if I had finally arrived home.

It was strange to me, though. Here I was, among women mostly a generation or two older than me, none of which were anything like my well-read, hip, organic, and emotionally-effusive girlfriends from Montana. None of these women felt compelled to read Borges or cared what new fiction in the New Yorker might evoke, nor would they regard such an activity as worthy of one’s time on this planet. Most of these women would never, as a matter of principle, spend $200 on a pair of shoes; nor would they discuss the processing of their emotions.

I was getting a crash course in understanding the superficiality of social identifiers. Surrounding oneself with people of like-mind wasn’t actually all it was cracked up to be.

What difference did matter, though, and what did begin to bother me over the next few months as the glow from that first turkey supper subsided was Betty Crocker Potato Buds. Yes. Betty Crocker Potato Buds: “100% Real Potatoes* [plus] Mono And Diglycerides (To Improve Texture). Freshness Protected By Sodium Bisulfite And BHT. *Dried.” [sic]

Here we were in the most productive potato-growin’ state in New England, and we were eating Dried Potatoes, Mono And Diglycerides (To Improve Texture). Freshness Protected By Sodium Bisulfite And BHT. I don’t know where the turkeys came from apart from Bud’s Shop ‘N Save, but in all likelihood, they contained more hormones and/or antibiotics, to say nothing of those pumped with arsenic to speed breast growth, than I was comfortable with. Cranberries – native to the swamps and bogs of northeastern North America – came not from a farmer or Maine distributor of Maine farmers’ products, but instead from the cans found on the grocery store shelves – the same cans that would appear on the shelves in a Montana supermarket or a California supermarket.

Clearly, the culture had changed between Montana and Maine. Why hadn’t the food?

As we all know, this is the way we’ve learned to eat. Somewhere along the industrial revolution’s superhighway, we industrialized our food and began believing it was supposed to be cheap and labor-free. From what I could garner, the only local ingredient in my first encounter with a turkey supper was winter squash.

I get it. To feed as many people as possible for the least cost makes cents, right? And frugality – now this is a Yankee character trait. But industrial food?

Not soon after the 2009 supper, Marsha suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. The remaining members of the Ladies Aid sensed fresh, probably naive, and eager blood in me. So I took over where Marsha left off as the moderator of the Ladies Aid Society. I was shy about asking the group to consider doing the supper in a different way, but after some initial misgivings about the expense of farm-raised, chemical-free, local turkeys, and the increased workload of peeling potatoes, I gained some traction. We could feed people an almost exclusively Maine-grown Thanksgiving supper right down to the butter, sage, and salt.

The women began to like the idea, and it helped that I offered to get donations and organize the volunteers.

Now, as I look back, it might have been an easier ask had I not been such an outsider’s outsider. And the lesson I learned could be applied to many a circumstance any outsider in a small rural town full of taciturn Mainers might find herself in.

For one thing, I wouldn’t use “foodie” language. I wouldn’t mention the “local food movement” or utter the phrase “vibrant local economy.” I wouldn’t bring up the triple bottom line. I wouldn’t talk about the multiplier effect of one dollar spent locally as compared with a dollar spent at a Wal-Mart.

What I would talk about is the past. Because really, this whole idea of a local harvest turkey supper is nothing new. The way we’ve been eating for the last half century is new. But despite these new habits that we’re slowly beginning to break, most of us know what real food is, and we all enjoy the fruits of culinary labor. Tradition is in our blood.

You see, there’s nothing new to see here, folks. We’re just doing the supper the way things have always been done.

Eat the best food in Central Maine this THURSDAY NIGHT | November 6th | 5:30PM | First Universalist Church of Pittsfield on Easy Street

Suggested donation: $9 adults | $4 children 12 and under. Tickets available through me, Bev, and Jane, or at the door!

When not on a rooftop installation or in a classroom teaching, my steadfast partner has been in Augusta (among a few other hardy souls sacrificing free time that could be spent far more pleasurably languishing at home). He’s trying to reach our legislators with the rural economics of local energy production and conservation. Meanwhile, his heart aches for his little boy who sings “Do Re Mi” a little too loudly for the echoing halls of the capital building and who needs more sleep than his warrior father. This partner of mine whose time I relish because it’s just plain fun to be with him continues to wear away the belief that some outside, mega-industrial corporation will finally save us – even though he’d prefer a sex life unstarved by the work required of such insulting legislation as has besieged Maine. He’s trying to remind people that the values his grandfather taught him – namely hard work and labor, integrity, frugality, and helping one another – are indeed the way out of the messes we find ourselves in whether that be some kind of partisan stalemate, obesity, or climate change. He’s doing it all because it matters and that’s what he’s been taught to do. Some might call him a martyr, but that is too simple. This man does what he does because it’s the right thing to do.

What I really want to say is that I’m proud of him; I think he’s neat. I love him with all my heart.

From almost every angle, the efforts to convert our energy economy into a clean one are being attacked, and my tired husband stays right there on the front lines. If it’s not Exxon (this week’s report from the most profiteering corporation in the history of money finally acknowledges climate change, while maintaining its plan to keep burning the reserves the UN/climate scientists have warned need to remain underground), it’s the Koch Brothers or ALEC or the utilities companies or our Tea Party governor or any number of outside “investors” who want to steal resources while impoverishing people and the landscape. And if that isn’t enough, the Supreme Court just showed its true colors as Capitalism’s lapdog with their decision to strike down limits on election spending.

It might be easier to admit we’re “f**ked” the way pink-haired, complex-systems-researcher Brad Werner did in 2012 at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. But even Werner hasn’t thrown in the towel. In fact, his conclusion was that what really mattered now was action outside the confines of the spoiled conventions within which we currently operate (for more on this, see Naomi Klein’s article “How science is telling us all to revolt”). Werner means direct action like blockades and protests. Though you’d rarely find my husband blockading a tar sands train or protesting legislation with a sign, his quiet recalcitrance is there… in the Maine-grown and made tofu he eats instead of animals, in his refusal to toe a party line, when he listens to the people with whom he most disagrees meanwhile engaging them in a different point of view through humor and anecdote, when he busts the mythology of reluctant Mainers by saving even more money than they did through solar power and heating or running a car on waste vegetable oil, in his totally fossil fuel free investment portfolio that doesn’t include a portfolio, but a bunch of solar collectors and donations to organizations that are investing in the future of our planet. I could go on…

I learned very early on in my relationship with my dear partner that it’s the difficult stuff that matters. My husband is having a hard time with all of this work. He’s tired. He needs free time. But he keeps at it despite what he needs because he knows what our children need and what our community needs.

I hate to sound like such a sap, but he’s my hero.

I love you, Vaughan.

 

Unnecessary Preamble

The “Part II – or – What Does the US’s Largest Superfund Site Have To Do with Maine?” should have been posted long before last month’s deadline for comments to the Department of Environmental Protection about Maine’s new mining laws which are being relaxed to make open pit acid leach mining – like that we Montanans are familiar with at the Berkeley Pit in Butte – even easier. Essentially, the new rules allow for water clean-up from Maine mines to last forever. Viewed in another way, the laws could allow Irving Oil of Canada, the biggest private landholder in Maine, to poison our water forever in order to extract gold, silver, or whatever else it finds profitable in Bald Mountain, a densely forested part of Maine in the heart of our country’s largest carbon sink. Home to moose, deer, songbirds, and those rascally protectors of the wilderness – black flies, Bald Mountain and everything downstream of it will suffer in order for Irving to turn a profit. Forever.

There is a German word for this, raubwirtschaft, that translates as ‘plunder economy.’ It’s a fitting description of our bought-congress/corporate-controlled economy we forgivingly call capitalist. Even Pope Francis has some words of wisdom about this. In his Evangelii Gaudium, this rather popular new leader of the Catholic Church wrote,

The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

But honestly, all of this writing so far is mere preamble, some attempt to bring congruity to an otherwise scrambled blog with no unifying theme. The preamble – the apology for not getting back on topic about open pit acid leach mining for precious metals and the water problem it inevitably creates (as Brad Tyer so clearly articulates in his book about my home by the same name Opportunity Montana) – is to say I can’t write about that today. And I couldn’t write about it a month ago.

I let things get in the way.

I got sidetracked with more work on fossil fuel divestment campaigns in Maine; loved ones visiting for the holidays; work on this old house; continuous feeding of the wood boiler, an act I still find rather life-affirming and about which I’d like to write, soon…

But that which most distracted me from writing was our pregnancy. I watched teary-eyed and interminably the Coca Cola Life Terrific commercial from Argentina while the baby building made me very sleepy and rather cranky. I reordered my already unorganized life. I looked forward, then made plans, then the plans became dreams. Those dreams were really hope or faith or some kind of human expectation of loveliness to come that renders other activities – like writing a  blog about open pit acid leach mining – kind of inconsequential somehow despite the arguments I can make in my head for why it might be even more important to address mining waste when another human being is about to be added to the planet.

And so… the point of writing… ever the attempt to write out what’s happening in my mind and seemingly forever lost in the intellect as I unintentionally circumnavigate the heart…

…we lost our baby.

I had a miscarriage at about ten and a half weeks along. This is when the baby is about the size of a kumquat, morning sickness is at its apex, and expectation is continually on the rise. As the maternal pain passes about which I’m not so able to write, what’s left behind days later is this: a lingering sense of the competing sensibilities such a loss engenders and the recognition of how my own sadness brings me closer to others’ sufferings and to my own humanness in general.

What do I mean by competing sensibilities?

Natural selection had its way with us as it let go of a pregnancy not meant for this world. Meanwhile,  my instinct was to double over and protect the child in my womb. For days my body mimicked the fetal form of our little developing child. I pulled my knees upward toward my forehead, only to relax this position while this ‘who-are-you?-I-know-you’ washed away in holy clots of blood profanely drained in circles down the toilet.

From moment to moment, I ached to reach out to others only to find myself retreating within as soon as I did. I wanted to be in the presence of my community of caring people who simply ask “how are you?” like they do everyday. But that question made me weep and pull my hat lower over my eyes as I tried to hide and turn inside. Being in their presence made me want to shield them from witnessing my experience so somehow I, myself, might not acknowledge it.

My husband asked what he could do for me, and I would say,”Nothing,” until he turned away… when suddenly I wanted everything directly from him, everything that no one could do for me: make this better, stop this from happening, make it never possible to begin with. As suddenly as he was the unintended target of all of my disappointment, grief, and loss, he was just as much my possibility, my redemption, my love, and my future. My pain magnified this confounding love I have for him in all of its difficulty and joy.

My sixteen-year-old brought Oreos; a neighbor brought corn chowder. One part of me wanted nothing but infusions of uterine-toning raspberry leaf while the other could have drown in vats of corn-syrupy hydrogenated oils dipped in vodka. Moralistic oaths to make me somehow healthier or more worthy or better disciplined came in equal share with giving over to an unordered universe where expectation flies in the face of some hazy direction we don’t choose.

Wavering between belief that we choose how our life will unfold and recognition that life bends around surprise gifts as equally as it does surprise loss, I keep wondering, Am I really in control? Did I make the choices that led me here, today? Or is my life as dependent upon chance as the seed of a milkweed drifting? Am I fooling myself to believe I chose this path? Did my body choose the right course for this child of unorganized cells or damaged DNA? Did the Uranium-zapped iodine that zipped through my body like a smart bomb destroying thyroid cancer six years ago sit too long in my bladder too close to my ovaries? And how is it, then, that this other perfect, willful two-and-half-year-old boy came so easily and miraculously to us? And how that healthy, enthusiastic, gentle ten-year-old brother? And first, of course, the surprise of a lifetime in his arrogant and curious and rebellious and sensitive teen-age brother? Did Ari come to us because the universe needed him on the planet? Was River my true companion when seemingly all else failed for me in my twenties?

And yet, through all of it, there is that wondrous redemptive feeling that follows loss, that feeling of renewal that comes when you hear the first song of a robin or see the crocus push through ravaged grey-brown earth after a long, harsh winter.

Profound pain brings connection to others’ sufferings. I know the pain that other women suffering miscarriage feel or have felt. I ache for the depth of loss my dear friend felt when her first child died in the last month of her pregnancy. Though I know not the scale of pain, I have felt the whispers of grief of countless parents who’ve lost their children in the first year or the eighteenth or the thirtieth in such an unnatural sequence of events. My own physical pain helps me to better relate to those with ongoing pain; my own sadness is a well from which empathy springs; it brings me softness. And it really is an expression of love. I love that child now departed. I love the dreams folded into that little body.

To share with one another the joys of love, marriage, achievement, and creation is necessary in a world that often seems overwhelmingly harsh. But in this moment, I’m convinced that acknowledgement of shared pain brings us closer to one another. It allows us to empathize. It forces us to acknowledge our fallibility. And it also brings back the human sense of wonder where things have actually succeeded and flourished – like my three previous pregnancies and those healthy, willful, sometimes arrogant, sometimes floundering, unanticipated joy-machines. When I disclosed my miscarriage over the phone to a woman I’ve had countless conversations with about local food, sustainable agriculture, our buying club, how to initiate  more community engagement, etc.,  I heard her voice break and she cried with me. I don’t know whether she’s had the same experience or not. What I do know is that singular moment brought me closer to her than three years of intellectual conversation.

And this oddest of pains in my heart – literal pain – lingers over my breast. While I likely pulled a muscle carrying wood to the boiler and slipping on ice, I like to think that something else happened there this week. Has my heart, like the Grinch’s, grown a little bigger in its new sadness?

Langston Hughes came to mind this morning.

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I write this blog today and share these perhaps too too personal feelings so that the dream that came and inhabited my body for two and half months doesn’t dry up or fester or become rotten, but perhaps transmogrifies into something I can’t quite predict. Maybe that has already happened. Maybe something else entirely is in store.

PART I: Opportunity Breaks Open My Heart

For more than a century and a half, the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River have held the promise of riches for men. Indeed, Butte copper electrified the United States and up to a third of the world, it is said. Some of the plumbing in this central Maine house is composed of copper pipes stamped by the Anaconda Company.

While eating pizza today in Waterville, Maine, an Irish-American band, Solas, provided further narrative background (and that uncanny, but sentimental feeling that the universe is conspiring to focus my attention). Through the stereo system, we heard “Michael Conway,” the mournful tale of an Irish miner who traveled to Montana for gold, silver, and copper:

We were destined for the rich land fate owes us all from birth/We were bound for Butte, Montana, the richest hill on earth/Where their pockets they bulge heavy when copper’s running high/Where the hill rewards her brave sons, it’s fortune or die…Where we trade the hours of daylight for the smell of copper ore/Where it’s whiskey and it’s cow pats to cure our copper sores.

Along with the promise of riches came mine tailings – untold of tons of arsenic, zinc, lead, copper, cadmium, and the chemicals that make open-pit mining, smelting, and refining possible. The tailings flowed with ease down the Clark Fork River to the Columbia and to the ocean until Copper King William A. Clark built the Milltown Dam to power his operations upstream. At that point, not all the toxic tailings were served to the fish and plankton downstream: over the course of a century, about 6.6 million cubic yards of the poison piled up in the dam and began poisoning surrounding wells.

This spring, my mom read, then my sister emailed news of, Brad Tyer’s debut book of non-fiction, Opportunity, Montana.

Opportunity was our original home – the place my mother’s grandparents settled after leaving the old country, Croatia, with room enough for a cow or two to graze, chickens, a field of alfalfa, two houses, a barn for hay and the animals, and a toolshed. It is also the place where those 6.6 million cubic yards of poison are now being deposited in the “clean-up”: the combined efforts of Missoulian environmentalists, the EPA, ARCO, contemporary Copper King Dennis Washington’s environmental remediation company, Envirocon, and his railroad, Montana Rail Link.

Up until the mid-1980′s, we spent holidays and summertimes in Opportunity. According to Tyer, the land there was cheap for working immigrants: the Anaconda Company sold parcels in Opportunity to the men smelting copper ore mined by other men in the Butte mines just upstream about 20 miles. Tyer found evidence of a late 1800s long-forgotten suit filed against the Anaconda Company for poisoning the ranch lands as evidenced in the dead and dying horses. But, as plunderers do, the Anaconda Company bought out the ranchers and then sold the parcels at a discount to its smelter men. Tyer found deeds dating back to the early 1900s that grant title to the new owners with one caveat: the Anaconda Company maintained the right to deposit “slimes, tailings, chemicals or other debris” into the river that runs through “Oppor.” The deed also purged the company of its liability for any injuries or damage the poisoned water created. As Tyer put it, “One of the biggest, dirtiest industrial concerns of the twentieth century retained the right to shit your yard.”

My yard. Our yard. The soil from which our family grew.

To this day, the world’s largest free-standing masonry structure – The Stack – looms over both Anaconda and Opportunity, one more way in which the company could disperse its toxic by-products: in addition to by land and by water, the Anaconda Company polluted by air.

As children, we wondered what on earth were the monumental piles of black sand in which nothing grew and which adorned the southern flank of the highway as we approached Anaconda.

“Slag from the smelter.”

“Oh,” we replied.

On occasion, the lower portions of these piles revealed footprints and announced a name or love interest in stick graffiti courtesy of necessarily ambivalent teenagers. I never wondered if they got sick doing that.

But we did wonder why nothing grew on the miles of flat land surrounding Anaconda. In the miles between Anaconda and Opportunity, there was literally one stunted tree standing. Its sway back bent over four or five forgotten grave stones whose engravings had likely worn quickly as a result of the acid soils and the mercury and arsenic falling from the sky.

The lifeless land? “That’s from the smoke stack.”

“Oh,” we replied.

But back to the book.

My introduction to Tyer’s book was a blurb my sister sent in an otherwise innocuous email. Two sentences hijacked that day’s momentum for me.

To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its “natural state.” In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped – once again – in Opportunity.

I began to cry, to ache-cry, the kind of cry that isn’t accompanied with weeping, the kind that doesn’t exactly come from sadness – though it does – but more from some deep and hard truth whose magnitude is just beginning to be fully acknowledged and about which there is nothing I can do.

You see, I knew this was happening in Opportunity. I had read the news about dredging the Milltown Dam and debated the benefits and risks of “clean-up” (perhaps more accurately “move-up”) with science minds and environmentalists alike. I had seen the mounds growing around Opportunity. I had even intellectually acknowledged the ironic, poetic injustice of returning those heavy metal mine tailings to within 20-some miles of their birthplace. I second-guessed my understanding of water and gravity that questioned the poison’s relocation at the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia. After all, the EPA was involved. And so I tucked that knowing away to some emotional back pocket and just carried on.

And yet, all the while, pastoral images of my grandmother’s home in Oppor backdropped these heady thoughts. Like a slideshow of memories, I flipped from the houses, to the barn, to the chicken coop, to the toolshed my Croatian great-grandfather built on their U.S. landing spot… to the flowers Cousin Tommy painted on darkening boards of the shady side of the barn, to the arching cottonwoods we climbed to look past the alfalfa field, past the neighboring trailer court, over Dixon Ave, to the fields where we flew kites bought for a dollar from the day-old bread store in town, Andaconda, we’d say… to the burn barrel, to the replica wishing well full of petunias, to the way the light shone from the kitchen windows onto the dirt driveway as we’d pull in after a three-hour drive from where we lived in Great Falls where the paternal side of my mom’s lineage traveled also from Croatia to a “better” life (to be precise, the smelter and stack in Great Falls were in Black Eagle). 

Until the early part of my twenties, I never made any connection between that warm light of my grandmother’s kitchen in Opportunity and the copper that made it possible.

But all of this sad nostalgia slipped away as nostalgia does in any busy present, as I hurried to do all the things I hurry to do everyday. Children, meals, messes, laundry, library day. Work, email, tech support. Ceiling repair. Vacuuming. Diapers. Civic duties. Family time. Soccer games and community forums. The yard, the garden…

…Until my sister mailed Tyer’s book to me.

I opened the envelope in which the book arrived and mindlessly put the envelope back into the mailbox. I peered at the book in my hands. On the cover, a landscape and sky unmistakably, irrevocably familiar, so familiar, I call it mine even though we sold our homestead there thirty years ago for just over $20,000. I drive past it when I can. The houses, once yellow and white with green trim, are now all painted a flat industrial gray and the alfalfa field is littered with rusty metal machinery. 

Sold or not, a place like this looms grandly in one’s memories of childhood. I thought the place was pure maybe because I was – more or less, or because grandma was, or maybe because their intent was pure – more or less.

As I took the book in hand, anguish joined me again. This time, there were a few more tears as I pushed my unknowing two-year-old son ahead of me in his jogger toward the library.

Brad Tyer's book cover

I knew what the book was going to tell me. But I read it anyway, with that macabre desire to know more, like I was craning my neck at an automobile accident to see what I know I don’t want to see.

Further, I didn’t want Brad Tyer telling it. This wasn’t his story to tell. He’s a Texan, and this was our land. These were our heavy metals and arsenic, not his. He never rode a three-wheel bicycle to Solan’s grocery or ate a pancake breakfast at the volunteer fire department. He didn’t know Josie’s flowerbeds, or learn to drive on the old Country Club road. He didn’t know Uncle Stevie and his accordion, or Kay, for that matter, or Violet. He never wondered whatever happened to Joey.

Brad Tyer would get it wrong, I was sure.

But within 17 pages, Tyer’s book broke open my own necessary ambivalence that characterizes the people that can’t afford to or refuse to move away from the toxic community. Tyer describes a conference of do-gooder environmentalists and the proposed Clark Fork clean-up at Milltown Dam in which the dumping grounds – Opportunity – were hardly acknowledged save for being the butt end of a bad joke. As Tyer put it, “It was as if a lecture on human shit had failed to acknowledge toilets.”

By the time Tyer wrote about the acid Berkeley Pit at the tip-top of the watershed in Butte – the now mythic waters in which hundreds of snow geese landed one day and died the next of burns to their digestive systems – he had me, as they say: to keep wildlife from landing in the open pit mine full of acid, heavy-metal laden mining soup, workers shoot bottle rockets over the water. Of this practice Tyer wrote, “If you think shooting fireworks at birds is an odd environmental protection strategy, you misunderstand Montana.”

I’ve never known the Montana most people who aren’t from there imagine Montana to be. I know the mountains that make great post cards and that dwarf the mine shafts riddling the hills. I know Superfund sites that will never be super in the good sense. I know a superficial aesthetic pleasure through which poisoned rivers run. I know a hard-drinking populace. I know ambivalence and conundrum and hypocrisy and the argument about jobs. I also know a lot about cancer and dwarfed trees. I know the heavy truth that you can’t “clean” up open-pit mine waste or what’s left after the smelting and refining process. There is no getting around it. And I know as I sit here writing, copper makes this post, my hot coffee, and the light above me possible.

And I know one more thing: this is just as much Brad Tyer’s story as it is mine. In fact, it’s his to tell precisely because he tells it so well and because he just might reach one more necessarily ambivalent person, one more person who might question whatever it is we think we need to mine and how we go about doing that.

Thank you, Brad Tyer. You’re family now.

***

Mom: Corrections?

Stay tuned for Part II: What the Hell Does the Largest Superfund Site Have To Do with Maine?

Last week, as I drove away from work, NPR’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra was about to begin. Though not high on my list of favorite programs, this segment was unforgettable.

British composer, teacher, writer, and sweet talker Gerard McBurney commented on the forthcoming Symphony #6 in A Major (circa 1880) by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner was a name unfamiliar to me, so I listened carefully and learned the composer was often overshadowed by the older, more popular German composer Richard Wagner. Symphony #6, though popular in the 1970s and 80s, had fallen out of favor amongst contemporary conductors and musicians.

The sweet talker McBurney commented on the repetition and transformation within the piece that he found delightful. McBurney said there is a repeating sequence – a theme repeated something like 92 times throughout the symphony. He described it as “plangent.”

Plangent.

Say it with a British accent. It’s a beautiful word. The symphony could have been a cacophony, but I would have never known it. As the violins came in, the music in my ears was but this singular, singing word: plangent.

Plangent.

The British “g” in the word is much softer than when a Montanan says it. The “n” rolls off the tongue, and that first syllable is so subtly stressed and stretched that its emphasis doesn’t outdo the quieter second syllable. And that final benevolent “t” is merely brushed with sound.

When plangent comes out of my mouth in Montana-ese, it sounds more like a growth on your eyelid that requires lancing.

But when the word came from McBurney’s British lips, it was music to my ears. I needn’t even hear the symphony; I was already in love… with McBurney, maybe. With McBurney’s inflection as he uttered the word plangent, most certainly.

Plangent. Plangent. Plangent.

I savored it. I said it aloud in my best British accent. It was gentle, respectful. Plaintive.

I tried it out in Montana-ese again: annoying and achey.

Plangent. The “pl” burps out. The “an” is so nasally it’s a near snort. And the “gent” just adds more work to an already laborious word.

But give it a British accent and plangent sings the way the symphony might have had I been listening.

Which led me, of course, to introspection and self-doubt, as words do, you know.

When you’ve been raised Catholic.

I began to self-criticize that my acute passion for the word was some kind of perverted fetish: because the arousal doesn’t end with plangent. I also love the more familiar word plaintive. I thought of my friend Ixtzla using the word hirsute and how the only other person I recall using the word is the now deceased David Foster Wallace, though I bet it’s one that Faulkner would have used. I thought of Kristen saying jihad, Sherri saying junta, Aaron’s hegemony, Jerry’s erudition and relish those utterances. I love the German words schaudenfreude and weltschmertz. Quagmire and nebulous are two quite good ones.

I do love just the right word used in just the right context, even if the Catholic in me seeks self-flagellation as a result.

Rife. Propinquity. Languor. Ephemeral. Lugubrious. Anima.

I’ll have to ask forgiveness.

Even words that I mis-think are wrong or are being used in the wrong context stick with me: Jessica used the word anthroposophic, a word that turned out to be an entire world view. To my delight, she used the word effusive this morning.

But just as some words titillate, there are repugnant ones, too. When identified, they serve to balance all my sinful pleasure in words like licentiousness.

Like…

Pulchritudinous. It means beautiful. Say it. Pulchritudinous. It should mean vomit-like.

Then there’s purdle. This was the Newmack family’s word for “fart.” It’s a word that wants to be polite, but it’s still just a fart.

Wenis. According to my sixteen-year-old son, this is the skin on your elbow – that piece of flesh that can be pulled around and down and over when your arm is outstretched. I guess it’s appropriate that he introduced the word to me: as a toddler, he used to find comfort in rubbing other peoples’ wenises while sucking his thumb.

And with that, I’m sure we’ve all had enough of this loquacious diatribe.

My confession is complete.

Today, as two of my sons and I sped northward on I-95, we began passing a septic service truck/tank (FYI: this is not a story about spilled sewage for all you lovers of poop humor). The autumn afternoon was warm, and the driver of the truck had his arm hanging out the window casually, palm facing us as we approached in the passing lane.

I imagined his hand was probably actually cleaner than mine.

I thought of septic systems and of that clean palm grasping the blue hoses that pump sewage. I imagined being that person with that job. I wondered if the driver was paid enough, if he liked his job.

I thought of the smell of liquid cow manure now blowing into our town from the west.

I thought of my grandmother’s septic system and how I never knew what it was, technically, only that it had to do with the toilet and the four squares maximum of toilet paper per flush grandma warned us about.

I thought of our own toilets now and recalled the wet heat of July and the condensation that puddled, then found its way through the floor, through the beams, to the dining room ceiling. I thought of my husband replacing those toilets with new efficient, insulated ones, the gooey sealant ring he put down first, how I have no idea how to install a toilet, and how I have to figure out how to replace a ceiling still as unfinished as it was in July when we pulled it apart to discover the moisture problem. I thought of cash flow.

As our truck pulled alongside the septic service truck and I pondered the deep meaning in septics, sewage, toilets, and shitty jobs, my sixteen-year-old took hold of the “Oh, shit” handle, launched his upper body out the window of our truck, and swung his arm its full length in a failed attempt to plant a high-five on the driver’s palm still hanging languidly out the window of the septic service truck as we passed.

Bouncing back into his seat, he was exuberant, though disappointed.

“Oh, man! If only we were two feet closer!”

I smiled, filled inside with sudden illumination. Proximal witness to such active, physical spontaneity pushed me out of the introverted headspace I didn’t even realize I’d been occupying.

To the sixteen-year-old, human connection within this momentary, 70 mile-per-hour passing comes naturally.

This, from one of those Millennials so (dis)connected to his i-Devices.

!

For almost three years now, I believed I couldn’t write. I believed my muse had forsaken me, left me for dead, or worse, insignificance. She said, enough is enough. If you can’t be satisfied with what I give, then screw yourself. Plus, you have a husband, children, and a garden to tend. You don’t need me milling about encouraging you to drink wine late into the evening stirring up old memories of mothers and lost love, or shrouding you in another persona that only heightens your already annoying commitment to radical causes.

One part of me believed my muse had vanished because I wasn’t good enough, hadn’t been responsive enough, or had for too long made too many mistakes. Then I decided she was merely jealous and decidedly annoyed by the underlying competition that had begun between us. For a moment, I believed I had offended her by naming her “muse” instead of something more enlightened or less self-serving. Worst of all was believing she had simply found me not worthy of her effort, not even worth a Dear John letter.

No, she just vanished.

I didn’t chase her.

Well, there were a few laborious attempts at poetry and many unsent letters. There was a voicemail and one letter sent with checkboxes for all the possibilities I could think of for why she had gone. There were the sorry attempts at fiction that wasn’t fiction. And dreams. I dreamt a lot about meeting her in a New York City that isn’t really New York City but some kind of sub-conscious amalgamation of the old Copper King Hotel in Anaconda, Montana and a walk-through pictorial encyclopedia the pages through which one meanders on old stained wooden flooring to find thrift shops and expensive food or prom dresses and the math classes I always forget to attend until finals are upon me.

Then finally, I just sent her a postcard and asked her to meet me some time between wherever she was and here. I left the ball in her court.

* * *

I’m still waiting for my friend, but it turns out my muse never left. She was just testing me.

Maybe someday I’ll say the same of my friend.

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