Friday, October 28, 2011

ArtTrail #4 - Montana Bale Trail

If you were to stick a pin in the very center of the state of Montana it would land in the Judith Basin. This is a landscape as unforgettable as any in the West, with endless blue sky, wide green plains, and distant purple mountains.

The Judith River, a tributary of the Missouri River, flows through the basin. Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, named the Judith for Julia Hancock, whom he later married in 1808.

The little community of Utica began here in the 1880s, as headquarters for cowboys working the basin's huge herds of open-range cattle. Prospectors arrived a bit later when a sapphire mine was discovered, but there wasn't enough money in the mining for everyone who came, so some settled on the land.

During this time, a teenage boy left his schooling and well-off family in St. Louis for a Western adventure. He wintered for two years with a mountain man, worked wrangling cattle near Utica, and became one of the greatest artists of the American West - Charlie Russell. This magnificent landscape inspired many of his watercolors, sculptures, sketches, and illustrated letters. They depicted the Native American tribes who were the prairies' original inhabitants, explorers and fur trappers, and, most memorably, the cowboys of the open-range ranches.

Today Utica stands slap-dab in the middle of Montana wheat country. It is a place where, more than any other in Montana, the romantic vision of the Old West still survives in cowboy sagas and tales. AND, the local ranchers are not above having a little fun with it all...

Back in the '80s - 1980s, that is - a couple of neighbors began joking around with each other one fall. It seems that they got into a bit of personal one-upsmanship between themselves. Oh yea, and since it was readily available and lay in every direction as far as one could see, their competition involved bales of hay. Their friendly little competition involved such humor that others wanted to get involved. Soon their neighbors joined the fun and What the Hay! was born.

Things have changed only a little since then. Now in its 22nd consecutive year, this is now the Montana Bale Trail and is held on the first Sunday after Labor Day. Thousands of people now drive the country road to view these artistic creations. The hay bale sculptures are displayed in fields between Hobson and Windham, with Utica being the halfway point. Titles of the bales are mounted next to each entry. Although local farmers and ranchers make up the majority of the sculptures, there have been entrants from all parts of Montana as well as California, New York, and Arizona.

There are two categories: adults and children aged 12 and under. The only rules are it must be made out of hay. Anyone from anywhere is welcome to enter the contest; hay and a location can be provided. Entrees are free. Ten entries are chosen as winners by a panel of judges and those driving through can vote for a "People's Choice" winner.

If you're ever in that neck of the woods in September, your long drive will not have been in vain. There is the Utica Day Fair and Chokecherry Festival in nearby Lewistown to add to the festivities. It might seem like a bit of a drive just to see a bunch of hay bales, but what the hay, it's Montana, after all!

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sky in my Soul

The morning was unusual in several ways: I was up before sunrise and the sky was clear. Walking down the driveway and across the road to get the paper, I could not help but notice the bright glitter of stars above. Orion, the Big Dipper, and other constellations were still clearly visible, as was the brilliant "Goat Star", Capella, to the west. Where we live, in western Washington State, this is a bit unusual as our skies are so often overcast, day or night. In late October, they nearly always are.

Once again, the sky stole my heart. Born and raised in Montana, perhaps that is to be expected, for in that vast land of the "Big Sky", it is impossible to ignore. My earliest memories include sky events - gazing up into the endless blue of summer to find myriad shapes among the huge, white, puffy clouds; staring in awe at the raw power of jagged strikes of lightening against a the ominous blue-black; mindfully watching for an approaching storm as wind-blown shreds of umber scudded across a darkening sky. Whenever we traveled, driving out of town on infrequent trips across miles of uncluttered country, the sky - huge, brilliant, and domineering - formed the backdrop to 360 degrees of spectacular landscape. How could one not be influenced?

I have always been a sensitive, perceptive person who feels close to the natural world. Certainly the time and place of my growing-up years was a large influence, but I've found this to be true wherever I've been in this life. I've always known of my affinity for the sky, but it has only been in recent years that I considered the reasons.

How, for example, would one describe the sky to someone who had never seen it? This is when I, yet again, am reminded of just how important words and language are, for we rely on them so much to convey our thoughts, feelings, observations, and experiences. Although there truly is no substitution for experiencing something, pictures and words are the next best thing. Sometimes we are left with only words.

The sky is like a gigantic bowl turned upside-down and placed over your head. Wherever you turn, and look, above a certain level, there it is. It is always there - timeless, endless, expanding out in every direction as far as you can see, farther than you can ever imagine. It forms an immense backdrop against everything else you see and affects your perception of those things.

The sky is never static, but changes constantly - with the hour, the day, the season. It has a light and a dark time, from dazzling, warm colors, to cold, frigid black. Although we might think we merely see it, it can be heard, smelled, and sensed in myriad ways. It has its moods and modes and influences us in ways we can barely comprehend. Love it, hate it, or ignore it - it is always there and has been since the dawn of time. Imagine life without it...

My soul - that immeasurable essence surrounding, flowing through me - is also expansive, endless, ever-changing, arousing my emotions and sentiments. It has a dark and light side, is breath-taking, ominous, and forms the backdrop of all else in my life. It is the spiritual or moral force that guides me and can be difficult to describe. To put it simply - I have Sky in my Soul.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


I have many sisters. Two were born into our family long before I was. They, each in their turn, left home while I was still quite young for college, work, and marriage. They returned home for visits when they could, which for one was more frequently than the other. And so I grew up in a strange in-between type of situation, sort of like an only child with three mothers, although this is not really accurate. Time, maturity, and maintaining meaningful connections resulted in the three of us becoming quite close, as we remain today, in spite of differences in age, experience, interests, and distance.

Many of my sisters are simply friends, although friendship is far from a simple thing. Younger, older, or near my age, each has something to offer and does so willingly, generously, and often quite unknowingly. In any case, we have a connection of some kind and have formed a bond, an invisible thread that binds us together as "sisters".

My younger sisters are a constant source of inspiration with their abilities to adapt to this ever-changing world. Their enthusiasm propels me forward and enables me to glimpse a future that I may never fully experience. They invigorate me with their energy and activity, keeping me from growing stale and living in the past. Because of them, I remain optimistic and hopeful about the future.

My older sisters have become role models for me, showing me the positive sides of a well-aged life. They have learned the art of graceful living, paring life down to what is truly important and adapting well to their changing life situations. Like fine wine, they warm and sustain me. Because of them, I know that I, too, can make it through this life - one small step at a time.

There are sisters of a certain age - closer to my own - who hold a special place in my heart. For we have, after all, shared a very particular space in time, which others have not. Every generation and each era within it, is quite unique in some ways. To be born female in the same place and time creates a connection which is automatic and intrinsic. Although living in some nine different states, some of these sisters and I now meet every three years or so to maintain that connection.

As a group, our paths first crossed in the early 1960s at a small-town Montana cow college.

By happenstance, we all pledged the same sorority and began a journey none of us could have predicted.

Living together, in rather close quarters, for three years cemented a bond for most of us that has never been broken.

During those years, "the house" was truly our home away from home.

The '60s were years of turmoil and change. Emerging from the cold war with a quickly progressing space program and ever-accelerating associated technologies, Americans were plunged into dealing with the war in Viet Nam, unrest at home with the anti-war demonstrations, the advancing civil rights movement, women's liberation issues, and a whole plethora of illegal mind-altering substances. Then - BANG! BANG! BANG! - came the assassinations...

To those of us who'd experienced a simpler, quieter life before television, stepping out from our newly-shed adolescence into a world ripe with never-before offered opportunities (with equally unknown pitfalls) was an exhilarating experience! Stirring equal rights, birth control, and changing gender roles into the mix created a heady concoction for those of us raised in the smaller communities and rural areas of the West. But we were young, energetic, motivated, and somewhat innocent, so we did more than just wade through. We plunged in with both feet - and most of us survived...

Because that particular place and time can never be duplicated, and because we shared it all and have remained in contact through the years, marriages, births, divorces, deaths and moves, the bond we share is still strong. And so we gather: to remember, share, laugh, cry, and contemplate those now-distant times.

But that alone, I don't believe, would be enough to keep us returning to each other time after time. For although we now have a clearer understanding of where we all came from, we are progressing towards a place we know nothing about. In fact, NO one does.

To age, adjust, and adapt in this millennium will be quite the challenge. But communication in this new age is quicker and easier than ever. If we've been committed and able to stay in touch since the days of those messy, blue-copy ditto machines (if you're younger than that "certain age", this is probably Greek to you...) and snail-mail packets of letters, then keeping track of each other via email and Facebook is a lead-pipe cinch.

We do not gather simply because we share the past, but because we are still stepping boldly forth to meet the future, whatever it may be.

We have loved and supported each other through all this time - you don't suppose we're about to stop now, do you?

What is it about memory that hangs on,
seizes the heart and won't let go,
tranports us to another place and time?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Last Leaf

"October is a symphony
of permanence and change."
~ Bonaro W. Overstreet

As fall is quietly, nearly imperceptibly, ushered in, leaves on various trees and shrubs begin their slow decline. Their work of producing food for the plants is done and preparations are in order for the resting season. The angle of the sun's rays and shorter hours of daylight cause chemical changes to occur within leaves, revealing the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns that have been hidden there all along.

Watching this color show of autumn emerge, it is interesting to note the differences in the trees. Some shed their leaves quickly, seemingly dropping everything overnight. Others drop them gradually, one by one, often until only one leaf is left.

The year my father lay in the hospital, dying, my son and I took a train  to Montana to join my sisters in the bedside vigil. Our vacation that year had been planned for months and was to be several weeks later. Some things cannot wait, so we went early. Over the course of the week Dad hung on, clinging to life long after the doctor predicted. He was surprisingly lucid most of the time and although his strength was sapped to the point where he could barely speak, his eyes, and the squeeze of his hand, told us he knew we were there and took comfort in our all being together. We gave him a small notepad, where he would scratch out the few things he wanted to say. Our family has never been one that does much talking on deeply-felt emotions, but we all knew and understood: life is precious, had been lived fully, shared selflessly, and was coming to an end. We had loved each other well.

As I watched my energetic, robust father slowly ebb away, I was torn. I did not want to lose my Dad, for I loved him dearly and could not imagine life without him. But he was a mere shadow of his former self, was in pain, suffering, and I knew he did not relish this life as he once had, before Mom died and his health declined. I wanted him healthy and happy again, but I could do nothing to bring that back, so simply prayed for a quiet, peaceful ending. It did not come that week, so we packed up and went home, having other responsibilities and no idea how long the dying process would take. It took longer than any of us expected, but several weeks later we returned for his funeral. By then, reality had sunk in and I knew life without my mom and dad would never be the same.

Things changed, and indeed life never has been quite the same, but I cannot say that it is worse. There is always a gradual shifting between generations and when it is your turn to be one of the senior members of the clan you begin to see things differently. This is the time in life when one begins to sift through life memories and sort out the things that really matter - and to throw out the things that don't. When you realize that your time on earth really is limited and you begin to measure how to use what's left of it. It is a time for the sweet savoring of what is dear to you and ignoring of petty differences and irritations. It is a time to LIVE quite intentionally.

As I watch the leaves fall one by one, I am aware that beneath each spot where they were attached to the twig a new bud is beginning to form. Throughout the winter those buds will slowly develop and swell, until they burst open next spring. Where there is now death, there will be new life. Where the last leaf falls, the last bud forms and you might think that it will not emerge at all, but do not give up on it. Life may change with the seasons, getting old and passing away or arriving fresh and new, but it will always be here in one form or another. Rejoice in it!

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
Ecclesiastes 1:4

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge