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  • David Morris

The World Moves Underneath You


My hosts last night live a life that fits the rural American ideal as well as anything I've seen. Generations of this family work together on a beautiful and rugged landscape to make a life with the land. They live in a tight community that pulls together through hard times as well as many celebrations. The grandkids were over when I arrived, making art and romping with Grampa. Then the kids headed home with their Dad to home just down the ranch road. Soon after that, my hosts left to install the floor for the Labor Day rodeo dance. Later that night they talked with a friend in wildlife management about relocating a stubborn bear on a killed calf up in the mountains. It's a modern Western in real life.


But the stresses in this life are intense and increasing. Talking with them, I heard about how COVID opened cracks in the community over masks and vaccinations. The water flows are fine here because of an upstream dam, but friends in other parts of the valley and state are desperate with drought and grasshopper plagues. Real estate has gone crazy with newcomers snapping up places for 2-week vacations and COVID retreats. Grizzly bears, while a welcome part of the mountains and plains here, have increased in number and/or activity to the point where stepping outside requires careful thought, ready bear spray, and a close eye on the kids. Community political divides over what counts as fact, and what counts as freedom, are growing more intense.


But the family holds to the hard work and good spirit it takes to make a living here. They innovate regenerative ranching practices and actively mentor the next generation of excellent land stewards. They work with neighbors regardless of opinions and maintain the resilience of their community however they can. It seems that the generational demands of ranch life have built a stolid and optimistic attitude that good things are possible even in the face of tough challenges.


Because I recently immersed myself in energy and climate issues to teach a field course biking across Montana, I was able to tell them about some recent ideas and strategies to address climate change. Electrifying everything is central, as long as that power is generated with incredibly cheap solar and wind. That power is not always on tap when it's needed, so storage is crucial. There are all manner of batteries in production and development, but other fascinating options are coming directly to this area. Heat pumps, inductive cooking, and electric pickups are also leaping in to replace fossil fuels with clean electricity. My hosts were avidly curious. I am sure they will be on the forefront of adopting practical innovations in this rural and conservative area.


In the morning, after more illuminating conversations, I packed up to leave. Echoes of recently leaving my Dad in Canada, and yesterday parting with my partner Amy in Missoula (and best dog-friend Moki) left me feeling raw and sad to go.


But as I pedaled down the road toward Helena I thought more about my Helmville ranch hosts. They are staying put and working hard to be there, but the world is moving under their feet - in terms of climate, technology, politics, and epidemics. It's true for all of us, really, and I'm hoping we can keep up.


Opal the sweet ranch dog.


Elk roadkill scavenged by a bear.


I'm guessing this was the result of a long winter storm and a well-stocked shop!


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