Nature Writing in the U.S. Part Two: out writing horses

I’m  having trouble writing in Montana; I have been in class in the mornings and all those mountains call to be climbed rather than described in the afternoons. As a result, I’ve uploaded more pictures and memories than words.

I’m in Missoula for a writing workshop run by the Environmental Writing Institute (EWI), and led by one of my favourite writers, Rick Bass (The Lives of Rocks, Why I Came West, The Book of Yaak…). If Missoula doesn’t ring any bells, you may have seen  A River Runs Through it, or read Norman Maclean’s novella on which the movie is based, which is a delight for nature writers:

On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.

With images like this floating in my expectations basket, I arrived in Missoula a few days early to settle in and explore the area. Flying in low over snow-covered mountains, my face up against my little oval window, it finally dawned on me that I was entering real mountain country. I could see the detail of fir trees against the white, and felt the winds buffeting the aircraft. The pilot had to come about, like a ship into the wind, to enter the Missoula Valley. At 7pm local time, there was plenty of northern hemisphere light left in the day. And a chill in the air that only comes off snow.

I was picked up by the lovely Lauren, a grad student in the University of Montana Environmental Studies program, and one of my EWI workshop classmates. Lauren headed into town past estate housing and a light industrial area, and we have our first cross-cultural discussion, pondering the universal truth that the very part of the city you would least like a visitor to see is always between the airport and their accommodation.

Missoula sprawls out over the valley, once a glacial lake, and mountains shoulder up all round. It s the largest city in Montana, and the most liberal: “the bluest city in a red state”.
My Missoula home away from home is Blossoms Bed and Breakfast, right at the foot of Mt Jumbo and just across the Clark Fork river from the University Campus. It’s a lovely welcoming house, spacious and warm, with dark  timber, soft lighting and a kitchen to die for.

My room’s picture windows frame the feet of Mt Jumbo and more snow-topped mountains beyond, lit up by the last of the low-angled sun that holds for longer than seems possible. I need to get back downstairs for the glass of wine Blossom has offered, but I’m stuck at the window, trying to take in the scale, the steepness, and detail of pine and fir and morainey slopes, that I have only read about in books. I’m tired, having spent half the day getting here – sitting in a plane or in an airport – but I know I have to get up into those mountains.

Breakfasts are fantastic as Blossom’s: two or three times what I would normally eat. There’s home made granola, berries, yoghurt and then the ‘main course’, which might be scrambled eggs or French toast or quiche. Plenty of coffee and juice. Everything is good; organic and local and fresh.

The other guests are from all over – all over the United States, that is. A couple of rangers patiently answer my questions about bears and deer and hunting and so on. A woman from Philadelphia is here visiting here brother, and I start to notice, through comparrison, the regional differences in speech. While I understand what I hear, stumbling only over acronyms and packaged foods, my ‘accent’ leads to plenty of misunderstandings. When I explain I’m here for a writing course, on two separate occasions I end up in a conversation about horses and grazing land before I realise my American counterpart has heard riding for writing and is struggling with ‘what the heck is environmental riding?!’

I’m trying hard to enunciate all my words as clearly as I can and I’m sure my tongue touched the roof of my mouth right behind my front teeth with a good hard “Tt” but something in my delivery of the word – the length of the vowel or syllable emphasis – conjured up some other version of me on horseback.

As it happens, I’m allergic to horses. I won’t swell up and die but I will sneeze and itch for days, perhaps have an asthma attack. I’d like to be a tough mountain woman here in the west, tall in the saddle. And to be able to tell every Montanan who asks that I can ride. But I can’t. I’m sure I’d cover more ground, and enjoy a new perspective from horseback, but I won’t be doing any environmental riding. Or writing about horses.

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