Tag Archives: land use

Long Ago: Community Entry #7

Benign fences in the wilderness of writing...

I took a break from my winter writing retreat to join the living and it was scary how quickly those buttons called and how quickly I heeded that call.  I’m back for a week and then will retreat again.  I’m beginning to think I could live off-the-grid forever.

Submissions for my Long Ago:  Community series/contest close tomorrrow.  Thank you to all who have entered.  I have loved reading your stories.  I will announce the winner in mid-February…but the truth is…we’re all winners when we share community.  Thank you.  yrs. Laura

Please enjoy this journey of mindfullness, land, food, and deep connection…with writer, Emma KateTsai.

Common Ground, by Emma Kate Tsai

Context clues couldn’t prepare me for what I found when I arrived at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House, those five words more than just the name of a facility, a place of worship, a center for congregation.  Each word lent its own definition to a place—the space, the land, the built structures, the air that moved between all three elements—that was nature and humanity and togetherness and home.  I felt the grass and dirt beneath my feet, the common ground we stand on, the common ground we share.  And that’s why I was there.  For the Common Ground Festival, a gathering a local farmer had organized to raise money for a community garden.

David, the farmer, introduced himself to all of us. But he didn’t tell us what college he went to, or where he was from. Instead he told us about his relationship with land. That he spent summers on his grandfather’s farm.  That he wanted to grow bamboo.  That his men knew the land intimately, they spoke its language, and he demonstrated how they showed height by a simple stroke upwards and laid down seeds with a kind of balletic arm. I fell into a kind of trance as I watched the graceful movements of hands that have worked the land, but never stopped being gentle with it.  David would close his eyes sometimes, thinking about what he wanted to say next, letting his mind catch up with him, maybe.  “Friends, music, food, and silence,” he went on. Together, they would contribute in some way to common ground, that ground being the garden he was helping to erect.

A teacher named Kimberly Alexander spoke next.  She smiled without trying or needing any encouragement, she stood easy with herself and straight without straining. “We’re growing humanity together in my classroom,” she breathed, “where I teach ESL to such amazing students.  I’m in love with every single one of them.” A Chinese boy with a self-portrait of a face running with tears that had no mouth.  He had no voice, because he couldn’t speak English.  A boy who’d been rejected by the girl he loved, and said, “I feel like a lemon with the juice extracted.”

She told stories like a mother might. We were all each other’s children, each other’s mothers, in that room, that day.  As Kimberly talked, her paintings were passed around, each one inspired by one of her students, containing a line of their dialogue. She let the students be heard—through her words—and seen—through her art.  “See, we’re all displaced.  All of us don’t belong.”  Which means all of us do.

Then it was Darwin Nelson’s turn.  Bamboo brought he and David together. He grabbed a chair and sat down, explaining his behavior as he did so, “I’m gonna sit down because I’m a student, not a teacher, so I’m gonna sit with all o’ you.” Darwin spoke with a Texas drawl, which was encloaked in a deep, timbred voice.  His wasn’t a presentation, or a speech, but half a conversation.

“This is such a peaceful place, is it not?” Darwin asked, and our answer was merely assumed, not heard. “All the Nelsons,” he says, using that very Texan way to refer to his family, quickly taking us to places I’ve never heard of—Mount Home, Spring Creek—“we were married to North America.  The reason why I tell you this is to tell you we were in the minority view.  Doin’ sheep in cattle country.”  Darwin emphasized his words carefully, speaking some with full force and volume, never forgetting to help us along.  Like Larry McMurtry, this Texas-wise man spoke a language that was both Texan-colloquial and literary at the same time.

“I have a li’l bamboo farm, nothing like David’s, but I feel good bein’ there,” he says, almost scowling with intensity as he leads us toward the wisest of all plants.  “The key to happiness is relationships.  Happiness is love.  Hard to go wrong with that.  There’s interpersonal, right, an intrapersonal, our relationship with our self. And we’re rougher on ourselves. Remember, everything’s about connections.  There is no such thing as individual.”  He pauses. “Each person is a system.  We exist in an environment, just as a plant does, in the soil and the sun.  That’s the healthy way to exist, that means being human.” His big, almost childlike, hands move through the air.  They have lived.

A history of bamboo follows: its nativity to Texas, why it works in our climate, stories from China of how horses “kill for bamboo” and only the emperor’s horses could have it—it gave them a sheen.  He talks about the fertile river valley, and how the plant is really an ancient grass that’s older than the trees.  “I don’t disagree with the Dalai Lama on much, but I disagree with him on this.  He thinks plants don’t think, but I know bamboo does.  A mother bamboo plant cares about its children, squeezing moisture out so the children plants will live.”  Then, he seamlessly brings us—people—back into the world that bamboo lives in: “The Internet has helped us connect, and we’re all connected.” Darwin looks out the window again. “I don’t like to see houses and cars and stuff.  I like things perfectly quiet.”  Adjusting his glasses with both his hands, almost like a little boy, he continues weaving his tale, one of love and romance, really.  “I’ve been studying bamboo for thirty-seven years, and I’ve learned more from it than I have anything else. I was sixty-five and almost dead—yeah, I’m a slow learner—and I woke up on a stage in India, with a bouquet of flowers in my arms.  I found a sudden awareness.  I’d smoked, I weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, and I was arthritic.  You know?  You kill yourself off that way.”  Darwin leans over his arm towards us. “What do you need to live?”  We look at one another, kids in a classroom afraid to answer and disappoint this man we already look up to.  “You need to breathe, right? Drink water, eat, exercise, and sleep.  That’s it. Do you know less than three percent of people do that?”

Darwin moves further and further into my own psyche, my own philosophy, at a leisurely pace, until I barely know where I am.  I feel a bit suspended in mid-air, so thrilled to be in the presence of someone who knows more than I do about what I believe.  He puts his hand up as if to tell us to stop, but he doesn’t.  “China’s struggling.  All from bad habits.  I clicked on to it finally.  Gardening is the single most important thing in the world.  Look at Emerson and Thoreau.  Read books.  Take action. Stay close to nature.  It’s what people have forgotten.  We don’t know where our food comes from.  Think reflectively, naturally breathe.  Start and end every day.  Otherwise, they just never end.  People used to go to bed at sundown, they had a balance.  Bamboo illustrates all that.  It’s really a Chinese philosophy.  Humility, strength, flexibility. Bamboo bends, it won’t break, it has a quality of selflessness.  That’s the secret to long life.  Bamboo is resilient, it nurtures itself, it creates shade, it stops erosion, you can build with it.  But,” he teases, “it helps to be seventy.  Things make impressions.”  He pauses again.  “What we do we need to eat for?  Why? For energy.  At twenty-five, the brain stops growing.  I never thought of it.  So we need to regulate entropy.  What we need is balance.  Things, people, that give back more than they take.  Do what David’s talking about, and you can’t keep the people away. It’s all about friendship, and peace.”

I sat there, trying to catch my breath from all that he said, and I couldn’t help feeling like we were sitting around a campfire, and he was sitting in the middle. Walking around, symbols of humanity caught my eye: all the clothes, how different they all were, what they said about their wearers; the smiles on nearly everyone’s faces, people introducing themselves in every corner of the house and the open air that surrounded it.  I looked down at my wrinkled shirtsleeve stained red from the hibiscus.  It looked like a battle wound.  I almost hoped it wouldn’t wash out.  Then I walked out into the garden, or what was just a lawn but would soon become a garden. David’s men sat under a tree, one solo band member began setting up quietly and respectfully, making no eye contact with me or anyone but his instruments and the concrete floor.  I noticed a grown woman in a sweet jumper who made me smile.

We walked back in, took our seats—I moved to the other side—and we quieted down.  All voices went still, all footsteps softened, and people began shhhing one another, but in an affectionate way.  We were all friends here.


David’s farm is Utility Research Garden, and the URL is http://www.utilityresearchgarden.com

Darwin’s Bamboo Farm: http://bambootexas.com/

The Meeting House: http://friendshouston.org/



Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Dreaming Big.

A few years ago, there was a major threat to the open space around our town. It inspired me to get involved in a way I hadn’t before. People realized that the wandering rights we’d all enjoyed for so long– a vital part of why we live where we live, were not to be taken lightly. We had to get creative and we had to do it fast. I learned about a group which had a crazy little idea to build a forty mile trail connecting private and public land in our valley. They needed people to apply for positions on a steering committee and I decided to give it a whirl. I wrote the below piece as part of my application and was honored to serve on that board in the project’s genesis. People said it would never happen. Well it has. I am proud of all the people who have come together to be stewards of our wandering rights. Introducing The Whitefish Trail. May you dream big wherever you live.

Wandering Rights. October, 2005

I rode my horse along the highway the other day to see what it might be like if the 13,000 acres of State Land gets sold off to developers and our open lands become gated communities. I have lived in Whitefish, Montana for twelve years and I finally know my State Lands—where I ride my horse, my mountain bike, take walks, introduce the difference between pine trees and fir trees to my children. It’s in the State Lands that I run into friends walking their dogs and stop for a chat under the fall dapple of aspen shadows on the forest floor. This is our green belt. Our link to who has come before us and considered it sacred. This is where we wander. Get lost. Let a trail lead us to an unexpected way home.

I rode my horse on the side of the highway for six miles just to see what it would be like to let the cement and flung beer bottles, road kill and hidden culverts be my guides. Our valley is wide. The shoulder was small. Logging trucks careened down on us and sent frayed pieces of bark in our faces. My horse was brave; I only felt him shudder. But that’s because I have been training him for this, setting down crushed Coke cans and plastic bags in his paddock and leading him over them for months now, to get him ready, just in case.

My father used to come to Whitefish in the 40’s before it was a ski town. He was in the railroad business and he’d come to sell bolsters and brake beams to the then Great Northern. He’d take customers out for a beer at the Hanging Tree Saloon and listen to locals complain about the threat of a ski resort. Scarring the mountain with ski runs, building chair lifts and attracting “city folk.” He was city folk, but he recognized the love of place. When I moved to Whitefish he said, “Be careful. That town doesn’t know what it wants to be.” It sounded good to me since I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to be either.

The rural West has been kind to its denizens. Whitefish, specifically, has had some years to figure out the answer to that question. And I think I know what it is: It wants to be home for wanderers of all sorts. It wants to be the sort of place where people run into each other on a trail, or at a bar or at a school parking lot and look around and say, “God, it’s beautiful today.”

So when I was at the local farmer’s market and my friend, a State representative, told me that there is a plan in place to link forty-miles of State Land to private land—mostly in conservation easements—a trail system to last forever—for multi-non-motorized use—I took pause. “What can I do to help? Sign me up.”

A stakeholders group is being formed and I have submitted my application. We need a place to wander—all of us—even the people in the inevitable gated communities. We need links, not gates. And there are people brave enough to understand that it has to be us/us if we are to ever know what it is to be a co-denizen of the rural West.

Still, I walked the highway, just to see. I tried to keep my horse focused on the tall grass straight ahead. We must have crushed fifteen beer bottles, got tangled up in wire twice, tripped over two culverts, and at one point where the barrel ended, I had to get off and lead him down fifty yards of highway up against the guard rail, a three foot margin for error. We just missed a head-on between a Hummer and a fawn. The fawn lost.

People say we’ll be riding on the highway soon if the State Lands sell out. They say we have a twenty-four month window of opportunity to work with the State and private sectors before that happens to secure this forty-mile long trail. I hope Whitefish knows at least this much about what it is. A place for wanderers. If not, I won’t be riding on the road again. I’ll be the one trespassing in the night. Like the deer. And if I am jailed or shot at, I’ll say: I just wanted to wander in the woods. Don’t you?


Filed under City Hits, Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Empty Boat


Empty Boat by Laura A. Munson

I live for passion. But I oppose fanaticism, fanatically speaking. My mouth lashes against it with venom. Hot tears come catapult. My head swirls, tempestuous. It’s fight or flight. I usually flee, hot and wet, knowing that I have given yet another zealot power they don’t deserve, but require. From fools like me.
I live for passion, because without it, we denounce the gift of life. Some call it the gift from God. And bash you bloody with the singularity of their Almighty. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I don’t see all their no’s for all his yeses.
Those who call their god, The Universe, seem to have a broader way, but usually not one I can peg down too well. I get lost in their crystals and moons and stars having some hold over the was’s and will be’s of my life. Truly, what is there to say to someone who believes there is only one way, and they are there to prove it to you?
The Chinese poet and sage Chuang-tzu speaks of a man crossing a river on a boat. As he navigates the waters, he sees another boat coming toward him. “Steer aside!” he yells to the person he thinks he sees, swearing and gesticulating. But Chuang-tzu suggests that that same fellow could relate differently with his world. That rather than raging and fighting against the oncoming boat, he might consider imagining the boat empty.
“Even though he be a bad-tempered man, he will not become angry.”
If it is an empty boat, there is no one to fight. He is not threatened, nor is he angry. It’s merely an empty boat. As the boat approaches, he skillfully puts out his oar to steer the other boat aside without collision or damage to either vessel.
Chuang-tzu suggests that we relate to the world from that openhearted emptiness that allows us to let control of the world go by not opposing the flow of what is. Through this sort of surrender, he suggests that we will come fully into being.
There have been two times I have truly emptied my boat. When my first child was born and when I watched my father die.
There, the option of opposition seemed impossible. My daughter was being pushed through the waters of my womb with forces I could not have stopped for all my might. My father’s chest, full of poison, rose and fell through the wind of a machine; unplugged, it simply fell and stayed there, as dead as my daughter was alive. Water. Wind. Empty boat.
People fight a lot in the rural West, mostly about land.
The fight over land is an age-old battle. Just look at the Middle East. The quest for land is more than blood-sport; it’s what we can see of “god,” of “The Universe,” of the gift of life. Without land, we’re not fastened to our lives. We have no tangible roots. We have no place to do our loving. We have no place from which to gaze at our stars and feel as small as we know we are. No place for awe. No place for the awesome.
I don’t understand the Fundamentalist Christian Right who seem to forget that they were supposedly made from “the dust of the ground,” never mind “the breath of God,” and that in Genesis 2:15 the “Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” But I don’t understand the idea of praying for parking places, either.
I don’t understand the environmental activists who steal forth in the night with spikes and hammers to give trees the bite that will take out logger’s eyes, never mind the probable fact that that logger has a family and food to put on the table.
I’ve lived in Montana for twelve years now. I’ve sat at the bar with all sorts, listening to all fires, and not making much of an effort to put any of them out. Around here, it seems that one person’s fire is another person’s water. I have made it my work—my passion to understand “the dust” and “the breath” I was created by. To receive creation and my created self in it—that has been my journey. To be as open-boated as possible.
It has been a journey of open space. Of “wandering rights,” as Terry Tempest Williams puts it in her “Open Space of Democracy.” Of “stewardship,” as Wendell Berry puts it over and over again. It has been a journey of falling in love, with my “own back yard,” yes. But it must begin somewhere.
My backyard has been vast, surrounded by state lands on three sides. I’ve ridden my horse in the woods on trails blazed by the Flathead Indians hundreds of years ago, connecting their tobacco fields to their lodges down on the Flathead Lake—over a fifty mile trek, and galloped alongside of a migrating herd of elk along the way. I’ve roamed through Glacier National Park breathing in my lesser rank on the food chain deeply, with the very real chance of running into a grizzly bear, and I’ve returned home, my head screwed on as straight as it’s ever been. I’ve sat sequestered in my living room watching ash fall from the sky as forest fires rage ten miles to the west, and easterly winds blow thirty miles per hour straight toward us, missing us by a ridge. I’ve known people who have been trampled by avalanche, river rapids, rockslides, fallen trees. I’ve grown to understand these things—to empty my boat when they come.
But how am I to have an empty boat– a surrender between the brackets of birth and death– when the very thing that has taught me open-boatedness, is in full frontal attack?
Thirteen thousand acres of state-run school trust land—lands surrounding Whitefish, Montana which have become our green belt, our Commons as Gary Snyder puts it– the place where we take our walks, let our dogs run, cross-country ski, snow shoe, ride horses, mountain bikes, show our children their first spiderwebs covered in morning dew—it’s all up for grabs to private developers. I thought we lived in a state which prized open space. Turns out the almighty dollar reigns after all, even out here, in what the developers call: “God’s country.”
I have been to meetings. People scream at each other. “Not in my backyard!” or shake their heads and come away saying, “Development happens. We can’t win.” It’s been years of Us and Them and I know people on both sides. All of them like to wander. You’d be hard-pressed to find any one of them, on either side, who wouldn’t stop and gasp at the sight of a buck rising from a field at dawn.
I’ve been quiet, trying to empty my boat. I don’t know how to do this without fighting. And I’ve been told, you don’t have to fight to win.
But there are gates. At the end of every trail, there are gates now. My boat is getting fuller and fuller every time my horse puts his nose toward our old trails and I have to steer him somewhere else, where there isn’t a gate. Soon we’ll be riding along the highway, dodging logging trucks and ousted deer.
One day a man chases me down with a pack of dogs and a gun—tells me that he’s just bought this land from the timber company. I tell him that the private land owner is protected from law suits by a governmental statute—that horse people are excellent stewards of the land, can help protect trails, keep high school partiers away, report vandalism.
He shakes his head and tells me I am not to trespass again or else. I eye his shot gun and choose not to tell him about the mountain lion den just over the ridge, the two black bear cubs that like to hang out in the stand of Grand Fir, and the sow who patrols the area with fierce pride.
The time for fanaticism has come. My boat is full. And so is the one approaching. I am hollering at the people, raising my fists, wishing their bow to hit ground and split open to bits. I cannot surrender my wandering rights.
At the local Farmer’s Market I am approached by our representative in House District 4. “You ride your horse on the state land trails, don’t you, Laura?”
I stop in my tracks, practically run to his side, stare him far too close in the face.
“We have a twenty-four month window to create a hundred mile long recreation trail system that would put the private and public sectors into a partnership. This sort of precedent has national importance. If we can do it, it could serve as a model for other communities poised for massive development.”
The private and public sectors shaking hands to a hundred mile trail system that will last forever. Gates flung open. Open space re-made holy for generations to come. “What can I do? Sign me up.”
“You can apply to be on the stakeholders committee which will work with the city of Whitefish and the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation), representing as many user groups as possible. The user groups that don’t step up, won’t have a voice.”
I have stepped up. I have submitted my application and I am waiting. Trying not to imagine the opposing boat at all, but to believe that such an Us/Us partnership is possible.
In my deepest open-hearted-ness, open-boated-ness place, I believe there is one way when it comes to land: it must somehow be open to the creatures that love it. Somehow. We must preserve our right to make contact with our kindred “dust.”
I see the opposing boat now. I only hope that when we are upon each other, we can shake hands.


Filed under Stories