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Empty Boat

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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.
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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?
Land.
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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.”
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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.

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Break Me In, Montana

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Break Me in, Montana by Laura A. Munson
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I begged for this. This house. This land. This time. This husband and these children. I begged to know a place season for season. To use last summer’s spent perennials as winter mulch. To rake it off when the Lenten roses poke through. To know, finally, which one is the North Star, and use it to find my way home. I begged to feel my heart sink with the leaving V’s of geese. And become buoyant again with their return.
I did not know I was begging. All those years in cities. Chicago, New York, Boston, Florence, London, Seattle. I would catch myself in storefront windows and say yes, I am alive. I see myself here in the crowd. In that great outfit. Those fantastic shoes. And return to the apartment with the cockroaches and the blinking answering machine, ready to make my home in some glittering concert hall, some stark white art opening, some hushed mocha-toned new restaurant. I did not know I was begging for this when I dropped to my knees one night at the side of my bed like my grandmother used to, and said, please, please, bring me home.
Three weeks later my husband walked into our brand new Seattle house and said, “I just got a job in Montana. You would be able to write full time. We could have our kids there, and you wouldn’t have to work outside the home.”
So we left.
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I watched the Cascades until they were little harmless divots in the horizon, and
I cried all through the dry nothing of Eastern Washington and over the pass that brought me, for the first time, to the Flathead Valley.
Over a hill, and there it was: Flathead Lake to the south, the ski mountain in Whitefish to the North, the Jewel Basin in front of us drifting off into the Swan and the Mission ranges. The canyon leading to Glacier National Park off to the east. Twin bald eagles riding a thermal over us.
“It feels like a set up,” I said.
I could not receive this place at first. It felt like it had power over me like one of those guru types posing to know you better than you know yourself. More so, it felt like my enemy. The answer to a prayer I never meant to pray. Like it would break me in half if I slacked off for one second. Grizzly bears. Forest fires. Avalanches. Mountain lions. Angry loggers. Angry environmentalists. People dying for and from what I could only perceive as folly—kayaking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, back country skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing, river rafting…and on and on.
“Let go of the city,” the lovers of this country would say. “Stay. Sit a spell.”
No, I secretly schemed. Letting go would mean a betrayal. Of that girl in the shop window.
Instead, I spent many years letting go of Montana. Taking hits off the city in drug-dose proportions. Looking down from my returning flight into our little valley, seeing the outline of the mountains, the five or six farm lights still on, landing, thinking I can do it this time. I can stay. Three months later, I would be up in the sky again, panting over the grid of lights below and the skyscrapers on the horizon beckoning me back.
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Until I had my first child. And the subway so suddenly went villain. The honking cars and heaving bus exhaust and hissing sewers…like land mines. I clung to my baby. I ended up in parks. Grant Park. The Presidio. The Boston Garden. Central Park. The Arboretum. Leaving the city windows to another girl’s self-fascination. Then I would hover over our little valley with the landing gear descending, see the half-dozen little lights below, the moonlit ranges, and begin to find thanks.
It occurred to me then, that letting go was not a leaving. But a climbing in. A yes.
I proclaimed that yes. At first quietly. Ashamed. Then louder. Then so I didn’t know the difference between yes, and living.
Fifteen years. Dog sled racers, endurance riders, snowcat operators, medicine women, stunt pilots. Grizzly trackers, loggers, bowhunters. Helicopter nurses, heart surgeons, brewers and preschool teachers. Electric company cherry pickers, and Flathead cherry growers. Pizza parlor proprietors and organic farmers. Cowboys. Rodeo queens. Horse whisperers. Blacksmiths. Piano tuners. Cross dressers. Quilters. DJ’s, hot dog vendors, mule packers. Vietnam Vets. Ski bums. Fly-fishing guides, bartenders, computer programmers, train conductors. Double Phds that live in their car and grift at the pool hall for food money. Wives who live to hunt. Husbands who live to cook their wives’ kill.
I still have not been mauled by a grizzly bear. Still have not even seen a mountain lion. Have only come upon the aftermath of forest fire…and found a bounty of mushrooms there. Montana never broke me in– like a cowboy who thinks it needs to break the mare’s spirit to gain respect. I was never that mare. It was never that cowboy.
Instead, it was there all that time– in purple Alpine glow and sparkling wide rivers, in the sight of my child’s fingers on a trout belly, the safe back of an old horse lakeside in August, dipping its neck down and drinking slow sips of glacial run-off, in soft rains and misting meadows, anthills and golden Larch, in the little white farm lights and moonlit snowy peaks– it was there, all that long sweet time…welcoming me home.northern lights

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