When Daniel Boone goes by at night/The phantom deer arise/And all lost wild America is shining in their eyes.
--Stephen Vincent Benet, 1898-1943
Mineral County, Montana, the third smallest county in that state, yet larger than Rhode Island. Population 3500, with 1500 of those in the county seat of Superior, which is 60 miles west of Missoula and 47 miles east of the Idaho state line. Where I lived in the '80s.
They tell me there were once tens of thousands of inhabitants, up those canyons, mining silver. And that the first Gideon Bible was placed in a local hotel, no longer extant but with a plaque on the building where that hotel once stood. What need here for this major dual-lane highway, I-90, to carry traffic east to west between the mountain ridges, which a traffic counter recorded as 6000 plus a few hundred, one busy day in June? But it had to be built, so people could get quickly from St Paul to Seattle, even though local residents could have continued to get along just fine with the old country road.
While I was exclaiming over the beauty of the terrain through which passed the highway, a local rancher pointed out to me how the highway cut through and divided farms and ranches, and he explained that when a civil engineer saw that same terrain, he saw highways and clover leafs. To him, that would be beauty.
Just so would I, looking at property to buy for retirement in the country, immediately envision a given site for a garden. If it wasn’t there, I moved on. When I visited this place where I ultimately settled, I envisioned that garden, right there, on that level site above a gentle rise from the pond and creek and field, big enough to accommodate several thousand square feet of enclosed garden, good drainage and no frost pockets. Sunny exposure, just the right distance from the house, beside the driveway so that it would be easy to access with tractors and loads of manure. I could just see it—the fence, the corn and tomatoes and beans and apple trees, yes. To me, that would be beauty.
Just so would a large scale farmer or rancher look at a piece of land and picture pastures filled with cattle, fields rolling with grain, corn, and soybeans, barns and sheds for equipment and hay. To him, that would be beauty.
Just so would a timber industry owner look at a huge virgin forest and imagine it a landscape of tree stumps. To him, that would be beauty.
Just so would a coal mining engineer look at a mountain and imagine it with the top 1500 feet removed. To him, that would be beauty.
Just so would a gas industry engineer look over flat fields underlain by Marcellus shale and imagine wells and pipes and containment tanks and holding ponds, with roads adequate for an endless stream of trucks. To him, that would be beauty.
So what are we, Luddites? That we protest all this? My electricity is provided by a coal-fired plant; I have a gas range in my kitchen to cook my food; and today a representative from a gas company is coming to give me an estimate on installing a propane gas wall heater to help heat my home, ‘cause my feet are cold.
What makes us think, anyway, that there is anything we can do or say to slay this monster?
Wendell Berry, now 76 years old, yesterday risked arrest in Frankfurt, Kentucky, to join demonstrators against mountaintop removal mining. How many square miles of mountain tops have already been removed? Soon our state will be “Wild and Wonderful” no more. Gov Manchin was prescient when he wanted to replace those signs with “Open for Business.”
Are we like Don Quixote tilting at windmills? Why are we agitating when we could be enjoying our elder years in peace and tranquility on our own little place in the sun?
But Berry says, “To accept that there is nothing to do is to despair. It is to become in some fundamental way less than human. Those of us who are protesting are protesting in part for our own sake to keep ourselves whole as human beings.”