For lovers of nonfiction with an interest in Montana, here are a couple offerings well worth your time checking out.
Somewhere in the last couple years I realized I had become addicted to water. If not the ocean, which still freaks me out, then streams, rivers, and lakes. It’s not hard to imagine how it happened. Six Mile Creek runs right through my parents’ backyard and is the source of their water; that’s the water I grew up drinking. I’ve talked about my relationship to Frenchtown Pond. And in the last ten years, as I’ve taken on the hobbies of canoeing and fly fishing — with flirtations with kayaking and SUPing that only await the funds to bring more gear into the rotation — that much more of my free time has been spent on moving water.
Missoula is perfect for these interests, with three rivers coming together in town: the Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, and the Clark Fork. Tyer’s book is, at its core, about how saving the Clark Fork, particularly for the benefits of Missoulians, spelled doom for the town of Opportunity, which lies just a few score miles upstream of the Garden City. The synopsis, from Amazon:
In 2002, Texas journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America’s imagination as an unspoiled landscape. The son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century’s worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of twentieth-century America and building some of the nation’s most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes—what didn’t spill into the river—was dumped in Opportunity.
In the twenty-first century, Montana’s draw is no longer metal but landscape: the blue-ribbon trout streams and unspoiled wilderness of the nation’s “last best place.” To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its “natural state.” In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped—once again—in Opportunity. As Tyer investigates Opportunity’s history, he wrestles with questions of environmental justice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region’s waste.
Stalled at the intersection of a fading extractive economy and a fledgling restoration boom, Opportunity’s story is a secret history of the American Dream and a key to understanding the country’s—and increasingly the globe’s—demand for modern convenience.
As Tyer explores the degradations of the landscape, he also probes the parallel emotional geography of familial estrangement. Part personal history and part reportorial narrative, Opportunity, Montana is a story of progress and its price: of copper and water, of father and son, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.
I found this book a fascinating read, particularly the historical reporting centering on Butte and the city’s infamous Copper Kings. I also attended a great reading at Shakespeare and Co. Books in Missoula, where Brad’s discussion included much input from other knowledgeable folks in the Missoula area, about the project the book details and what has happened since. I realized how little I knew about something so important that was happening right under my nose; Tyer’s effort certainly inspired me to pay closer attention.
In a weird way I feel I should know Brad. I didn’t speak to him at all at the reading, but, given his former role as Editor at the Independent, we know many of the same people. All of my work writing for that paper has been since he handed over the reins, but I’m sure our paths will cross in town again sometime.
For a large state with a small population, an inordinate amount of fascinating stuff has gone down in my home state. We also have an excellent crop of regional publications, and Clayton seems to have put his brand on most of them. What I like about this collection of essays is that it doesn’t dwell on the guns-blazing stuff that most people associate with Montana and history; this is stuff generally a little closer to the modern era, and certainly more obscure. Here’s the copy from Amazon:
At the turn of the twentieth century, Montana started emerging from its rugged past. Permanent towns and cities, powered by mining, tourism, and trade, replaced ramshackle outposts. Yet Montana’s frontier endured, both in remote pockets and in the wider cultural imagination. The frontier thus played a continuing role in Montanans’ lives, often in fascinating ways. Author John Clayton has written extensively on these shifts in Montana history, chronicling the breadth of the frontier’s legacy with this diverse collection of stories. Explore the remnants of Montana’s frontier through stories of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Beartooth Highway, and the lost mining camp of Swift Current–and through legendary characters such as Charlie Russell, Haydie Yates, and “Liver-eating” Johnston.
There are all kinds of little towns around this state, and I’ve often wondered why they exist, what started them. I mean, how the hell did people ever get there in the first place? People from other states think I’m joking when I refer to something four hours away as being a neighbor; I’m not. You can go looooong stretches out here between towns, so there better be something special keeping you here. As I read books like this, or poke around in other dusty corners, I start to learn all kinds of weird little facts of how these communities came to be. Mostly mining towns, or towns sprung up around other extractive industries that don’t really have traction anymore, they remain because they are still beautiful and quiet places to live, and people work hard to make lives happen. The stories of the people who started these communities, and those who remain, and the weird things that happened there . . . these are the stories that Clayton tells. This is important stuff to me, particularly as more and more parts of Montana start to look like everywhere else with big box stores and suburban bullshit. I’m looking forward to more of this. . . .