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Do It Yourself In Basin, Montana

A New Yorker Discovers the State That Will Make You Tough--Or Make You Leave

February 18, 2001|LLOYD VAN BRUNT | Lloyd Van Brunt has recently finished a novel set in Montana and is working on a book of nonfiction that will include this essay

My friend Earl and I are sawing down dead-standing trees, cutting them up and loading and stacking the logs in Earl's pickup truck. I should say the Earl of Basin, as he's known in town, is doing the sawing. I am not to be trusted with a tool that might cost $1,400 to replace.

So I do the grunt work, hauling 40- and 50-pound sections of tree trunks up a snowy slope that gets more slippery with each trip. I have stumbled, slipped, cursed and prayed for the power of teleportation. To no avail. Until I put my arms around them, the tree sections will lie there, as inert and cold as forgotten lovers.

We are working in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, high in the northern Rockies, above Basin, a place so small it's not on most state maps, and the place I'd chosen to write a novel set in a mythical Montana. During the late 19th century, when miners around Basin were taking prodigious amounts of gold and silver out of the mountainsides, the town flourished. When the gold played out and then the silver, the population shrank from around 5,000 to 180. Today Basin, with its jumble of trailers, old houses and cannibalized cars, might be described as architecturally insignificant--although there are still some fine old buildings in town, some relics, some restored.

Life here, essential life, is still much as it was during frontier times. For instance, there are people up the mountain from town who still get their water from a stream, use candles and oil lamps and wood-burning cooking stoves, and generally live much as the pioneers did. My own duties first thing in the morning include building up the fire, making coffee and feeding the animals. That sounds simple enough, but it can require some tricky footwork, especially if you're a slow starter and kindling wasn't laid in the day before. If you don't want the last coals in your stove to turn dark before you freeze, go out and chop wood in a hurry. No slipping on a coat and schlepping two blocks to Lenny's Bagels at 98th and Broadway in Manhattan for four large coffees and some bagels. It's all do-it-yourself here in the mountains. Montana will make you tough or it will make you leave. Speaking of toughness, the New York kind I acquired during 40 years in the city is useless in a society that prides itself on affable good manners. When I tried breaking into a supermarket checkout line during my first month here, I was told sternly by the young man standing over me, "Now you behave yourself, old fella."

Earl thinks I look "peaked." Although badly wounded in Vietnam, he works harder than anyone I've ever met. He hands me a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and we take a break. If peaked is a synonym for exhausted, it's certainly the way I feel. But this expedition is for my benefit. After southwestern Montana was nearly enveloped by wildfires last August, the Forest Service closed millions of acres of national forest for several weeks, including the acreage we're now dead-tree hawking. As a result, not much firewood is for sale and when it is, it's way above the $60 a cord I paid last year. So it's up to me--with a little help from my friend--to harvest my own wood. By the way, we're not in any way clear-cutting a forest. By culling dead trees, we're actually helping it to resist and survive wildfires. Live green trees won't burn nearly as readily as dry, dead ones.

I have to stop every 10 minutes or so for a breather. Earl has stopped, too, perhaps to examine the teeth on his prized saw. The chain itself, he's told me, is called a blade and, since it's 32 inches long, he doesn't have to kneel down to work a tree, which is a strain for anyone.

Breath back to normal, I enjoy the silence, or, rather, stillness. Silence is an interruption of noise. Stillness has always been here. Montana has only six people per square mile, but the stillness is everywhere. The mountains stretch out for hundreds of miles, ridge after ridge and peak after peak, populated mostly by lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Deer, elk, mountain lions, coyotes, a few wolves, black bears and even a grizzly or two are the natural citizens of this country, not as plentiful as they were, but still surviving.


IT IS 4:30 AND DARK NOW. THE FRESHLY CUT CORD OF firewood is stacked and safely covered with a tarp beside my house. After the break, I got a second wind and finished well. It wasn't a matter of holding up my end or competing with Earl. When one is competing to stay alive, any other competition is silly and irrelevant. My girls, Emily the cat and Fox the dog, sleep in front of tall crayon-orange flames, the glass panel of the big cast-iron stove illuminated by my own labor. A perfect exchange of energy and matter.

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