It’s impossible to sit in a cabin for a long time, musing in essay form upon the woods around you, without thinking occasionally of that most American of thinkers and spirits, Thoreau, and his own somewhat isolated residency at Walden Pond. Whether it’s true or not, I find it wonderful that Thoreau’s last words were reported to have been “Moose. Indians.” More economical than even a haiku, the two words twine perfectly the occasionally but not always harmonious relationship between landscape and humanity. The moose requires the deep summer shade of the far north, exists on deciduous browse and meadow marsh grass, but also wanders up into the deep blue-green comfort of high-altitude spruce forests; and it stands stalwart too, with its strange and fantastic body, its incredible bulk, bearing testimony as well to the natural history of snow, deep snow, and long winters.
From that one word, moose, an imaginer could write a thousand pages describing the natural history of the landscape that a moose inhabits, and the way that landscape has shaped the moose; and likewise, and even more so, from the next word, Indians, a thousand pages would not begin to hint at the complexity and drama and steady challenges of the human experience upon a landscape — the attempts at the daily and seasonal integration of that most curious and complicated and often confused of species, humans, with any landscape of singular force and integrity. A snowy landscape sculpts, across the millennia, a species well suited to deep snow and long winters; a landscape wreathed in fire sculpts species well fitted to that dynamic force.
And a wild landscape, then, will elicit from the humans who inhabit it a certain wildness, a certain dynamism of spirit that, though ragged, strives for an eventual elegance of fit. We have not been in the world nearly as long as moose or so many other fitted species and citizens of the world, but we are trying, and wild landscapes of integrity — while we still possess them — urge us along.
The thing about Walden, though, is that it’s an eastern treatise, beautifully written, deeply considered, and fully felt, but of-a- place, the East, even if the East in the 1850s was a hugely different kind of East from the one we know today. Reading Walden, I’ve always wondered what Thoreau would have thought of the West — a landscape he never inhabited though always wished to. How would the West have shaped those essays, and those values? Would there have been more tempering and refining, or more raggedness — or perhaps both? It’s an unfair reading of Walden, to be sure, but every time I read it or look at it, I find myself wondering, Can this be lifted and applied to a western landscape? The answer for some parts is yes, for other parts maybe, and for still others, no.
But I think the idea of holing up and hunkering down against the larger forces of the world has not lost its allure since Thoreau’s time. If anything that instinct, or impulse, continues to reside in almost all of us, sometimes activated or bestirred and other times dormant but always present. I’m not talking about out-and- out government-loathing misanthropy, not the survivalist’s manifesto kind of hunkering down, but something more peaceable and searching. And from my home in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to attempt to negotiate such a fit with the world, inhabiting an old homestead quarter-section that I went into debt to buy some twenty years ago, just before another individual sought to purchase it and clear cut it. I wasn’t looking for a full homestead, but it found me; and the first thing I did was unearth the old falling-down cabin from the turn of the previous century, 1903, and scrub the logs with hot water and soap before dragging them down to the broad marsh on the property — a perfect clearing in the forest, reminding me of the eye of a hawk or eagle or raven — and reconstructing the old cabin there, like a child’s toy, and putting a new roof on it.
And I went out to the cabin each morning, then — regardless of the weather — and sat at my desk and looked out the window at the marsh, perched so close to its edge that the swaying marsh grasses came right up to the window. The marsh grass seemed like a sea, and the cabin, a barge or ship, anchored. I stared out the window and daydreamed often, rather than writing.
The old cabin had been fitted between trees and bushes in such a way as to be almost invisible, even from the beginning, and subsequent years have enclosed it even further.
Butt-planted for four, five, even six hours at a time, laboring to make a few pages but often simply staring out that window and dreaming and listening to the sounds and silences of the forest all around me, and the marsh in its center, I have seen every creature imaginable up here, over the many years. They come and go, passing sometimes right by that window, eyeball to eyeball with me: marten, bear, wolf, mountain lion. Eagles have struck and felled geese right in front of that window, owls perch on the chimney, ruffed grouse drum and fan on the picnic table I have set outside, for those rare days that are neither too cold nor too hot, and when the marsh’s — and the valley’s — ravenous insects are temporarily dormant. Elk, innumerable deer in all seasons, coyotes, herons, cranes, and, yes, particularly moose, are drawn to the marsh’s fecundity.
The Yaak’s Indians are the Kootenai, a tribe from the Columbia River basin, who are now confederated with the Salish. Largely a fish culture residing along the Kootenai and lower Yaak rivers, the Kootenai people, I am told, came up into the Yaak’s mountains to hunt mountain goats and woodland caribou in the summer and fall, though they did not — I am told — inhabit the upper Yaak all year long. If this is true, then the Yaak is a remarkably young place, with whites moving in year-round only around the beginning of the last century. The 1900s were possibly the first century of full-time human habitation. I find this astonishing, and redolent, in some way I cannot explain, with mysteries, and lessons for the future.
In other regards, however, the Yaak is ancient. There are outcrops of mountain here that have etched in their strata wind-lapped ripple marks from the great inland Cambrian Belt Sea of roughly a billion years ago — and then yet again, the valley is new, for as recently as only seven or eight thousand years ago, the Yaak lay sleeping beneath more than a mile of blue ice, even as higher peaks in this corner of the world were emerging from that ice, being carved and shredded rather than compressed and sculpted. To my eye, at least, the Yaak possesses an elegance, and a calm, for this compression.
It’s gloriously remote, snugged right up against the Canadian border. It was one of the last inhabited valleys in the United States to get electricity, and even today, in twenty-first- century America, there are many parts of the valley that are not electrified, and others that do not even have phone service. (Needless to say, there’s no cell service here.) Whereas Thoreau lived famously only a few minutes away from his mother, able to join her for midday tea after only a mild saunter, folks up here live miles apart. Sometimes a path through the woods on foot, or on horse, gets one to where one desires to be more quickly than a roundabout trip in a car, and other times, of course, quickness is not the desired out...