Bill and I have just come back from an intensely wonderful holiday in Montana and Wyoming that ended with two days in the north end of Yellowstone Park. Thanks to Google Maps, we took one route down and another one back. The direct route to Bozeman Montana took us along what we kept calling the "ghost road," because although it was excellent two-lane blacktop, we met almost no other cars until we got close to the small rural centres that the road threads together. The landscape was endlessly interesting on this route (not so much when we took the expressway back), looking a lot like the Qu'Appelle Valley, except there was no "valley" and no "table land" that marked its edges. It went on for miles and miles. It was as if some enormous hand had reached down and wrinkled and scrunched and crunched paper or linen into crags and slopes and hills. Then at other points, there were miles of surreal round hills that looked like a pot on full boil. Once we came on a literal forest of slowly twirling wind turbines perched on top of hills--I counted at least seventy--serenely aiming north and each turning at its own speed.
I didn't know how to read this landscape, which was often fenced in but shouldered no crops or cattle. I realized that "readable" landscapes have a purpose that is clear to humans--which is a little anthropocentric. That use might be to provide examples of the sublime in all its glorious denial of our puny human purposes--but it's still use. As for fencing in the sublime....
Every small town in Wyoming has its brick heritage buildings, and after we had been thoroughly charmed by Bozeman's Main Street, with an artists' cooperate named "Cello," a yarn store called "Stix," and a co-op restaurant, we went to Three Forks State Park searching for the beginnings of the Missouri River--you know the one called "The wide Missouri." The river begins with three shallow creeks coming together. It originally flowed north until an ice age turned its route south. You can see in the photograph above how modest its beginnings are and how it is hemmed in by the gentle hills Gallatin Mountains. Yet when we crossed it on the eastern side of the state on our return home, it is indeed "the wide Missouri." By the time it joins the Mississippi River, it has become the longest river in North America.
It made me think of patience, of the quiet, humble determination that flows on in so many of us, suddenly coming to full fruition in a painting, a poem, a photograph, a letter or a garden. What we wanted to capture--that elusive element of our experience or thought that seemed so far from reach or expression, just at the edge of our imagination, or in the corner of our eye--after drafts and sketches suddenly arises, surprising us with its graciousness, its willingness. Too often we don't see that it is the creation of our own dogged patience.
I saw patience as well in the stones. As anyone who has been in my workroom will tell you, I've brought back stones from a lot of vacations. I can't do this any longer, not only because I am running out of room (or things would get so crowded that my room wouldn't be serene any more) but because I now see that if everyone took a stone it would bugger up the landscape. So my answer was to take photographs of stones. These too make me think of patience. Each of these was doubtless part of the mountains that cover Montana. In fact, Montana is so crazy with mountain ranges that they finally called one of them The Crazy Mountains. Lava explosions; uplift. Then something violently tears, pounds, or knocks a small piece away from the mountain and gives it to water. Who knows how much later it is brought back to shore, rounded and smoothed?
After our time in Three Forks State Park, we tried to find the beginning to a circular route I'd planned through the Pioneer, Highland, and Tobacco mountains, but we couldn't find the minor road that was its beginning. Instead, we found the Lewis and Clark Caverns. Bill loves caves, so in spite of the fact that it was a two mile hike, the first three-quarters of a mile outside up a treeless mountain nearly a mile above sea level and at 32 degrees, the second 1 1/4 miles underground involving over 600 steps up or down, some of them through narrow passages that forced you to walk up or down stairs bent over, we took it on. (I was clearly the oldest person on the trek, but not the last one up the first 3/4 mile. I did just fine on the Beaver Slide, a passage so narrow that you have to slide through it on your bum, turning half way down.) I don't know what initially creates these underground spaces--more uplift, I'm guessing--but once the space is there it takes time for the minerals in the soil above the cave to dissolve in water and come slowly dripping down, creating stalagmites, stalactites, remarkable columns where the two meet, flows of stone that look like waterfalls. It takes about a hundred years for a stalagmite or stalactite to grow in inch.
Here, I thought about layers. How, at its best, our experience of people and the world is layered, how we manage sometimes to carefully peel away peoples' public personas or our own preconceptions about how the world works to see the crystal underneath. And how we imagine the layers under that, the complexity that has its own order. How art is layered: how we build up those layers as we draft or paint or compose an image or a tune, and how the audience or reader takes delight in the complexity we have created.
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