This is the first part of a longer essay that I thought I’d share. This essay embodies my ‘beef’ with many European place names for North American landscape features.
A Mountain Speaks
I’m musing again over the name for the impressive mountain that looms above my cabin. “It has no formal name, but we all call it Mt. Herman,” a neighbor told me when I moved here. ‘Mt. Herman’ is a placeholder only, a bookmark in contemporary time, a way to name a mountain in conversation. From old records about this valley, Herman Ellsbury was the first white baby born here. He also happened to be the original homesteader of this property and the man who was commissioned to build the cabin I now live in.
Although I feel Mt. Herman deserves a moniker that acknowledges its dominance and, in my opinion, spiritual significance in this landscape, others take the more traditional route. One of my neighbors, native Wyomingite, Park employee, and scientist, feels history is imbued in the name, a visible fossil of the past and it’s deeds. Yellowstone Park history is communicated in the names of mountains and rivers—Norris, Lewis, Washburn, Haynes, Lamar. Names must be consistent, he tells me, so that they can be found on maps and agreed upon by the general public, or even First Responders. Of course, now we have GPS for communicating an actual location he reminds me.
Another neighbor tells me, in jest, that she is renaming Mt. Herman after her deceased husband. I imagine petroglyph graffiti by white people who scrawl their initials with a date next to ancient images of sacred animals. And if she were serious, she could name officially any unnamed mountain, gap, or other feature formally through a legal procedure that goes into the public record and soon onto maps.
The ritual of naming requires more than a nod to someone we loved or considered influential. Places themselves have power and in a name that power is concentrated and expressed.
“A place must be properly named”, says Laurens van der Post in his novel A Story Like the Wind. In van der Post’s book, all the different tribes in an area in the African bush agree: in order to be protected “against all the negative aspects of the forces of magic” in the surrounding landscape, a place name is necessary.
Samyama is a term described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It was an expression used extensively by my former teacher. Samyama involves active listening, studying, contemplation, and intuitive awareness. My teacher also referred to this process as a ‘consideration’. I understood it to mean deep, open awareness, contemplation of an issue or a thing or a person or anything, until you beheld its essence. In other words, you’ve ‘considered’ the object of your attention from every possible angle and have now come to understand it through direct knowledge. Robert Heinlein, in his book Stranger in a Strange Land used the word ‘grok’ –an expression of understanding a thing completely through intuition and empathy. Samyama or consideration is the means by which you come to grok something.
Today’s forces of magic in my little valley might be described as many human disturbances encroaching upon the landscape. With the coming of a finished paved road over the mountain in 1992, traffic has increased. And with the increased traffic have come more powerful machinery such as off-road vehicles in the summer demanding more access through new roads deeper into the mountain terrain; hunting no longer done much on horseback, but on ATV’s that drive up and down the dirt roads; trapping all winter long for pelts sold overseas to Russian and Chinese buyers; incessant noise from snowmobiles using the paved road to head into the Beartooth mountains; January helicopter darting of wolves for collaring and counting; fly-over elk counts in winter; logging trucks followed by individuals who buy the slash-piles for firewood sale; summer cattle trucked up to graze on surrounding forest lands. A year round onslaught of noise and landscape disturbance that, taken together, describes a whole host of negative forces that wildlife must contend with year-round. So maybe the real and true name of this stalwart mountain that guards my valley entrance is necessary to discover.
Shaped like a wedding cake melting off to one side, the mountain rises up in deeply wooded layers. As the soil gives way to pure scree, massive boulders scatter the division between tree and rock high above. The mountain’s uplift is so steep no life can take hold. There, a multi-colored prominence, like the hull of a great ship, leans eastward, framing the rising moon. Colored layers of biscuit, cream, deep reds and grays adorn the treeless buttresses of rock one thousand feet above.
A mountain made of limestone allows water to carve fissures and crevices. Snowmelt seeps into the mountain’s soil. I’ve dug by hand into this earth. Making even a small hole unearths dozens of limestone rock. This is not a mountain made of earth, but of stones. Millions of tonnage of rock creates passageways and dark tunnels where water flows change, move, travel. Near the mountain’s base is where all this water emerges, and not coincidentally, is where wildlife moves through. “From the rock, the mountain weeps” my neighbor tells me. So true.
In that way I began my consideration of my mountain’s name. I’ve admired this mountain for over eight years, but this is the first time I asked it to reveal its true name to me.
Today I remembered a phrase from Aldo Leopold –‘Thinking like a Mountain”. Leopold coined the phrase to mean the interconnectedness of all things. When no wolves live on the mountain, the deer overgraze and overrun it, eventually starving them to death.
How do you ‘think like a mountain’? I pondered this yet I am not sure of the answer. My mountain, like the mountain Leopold might have been referring to, is home to almost all the wildlife in these parts, with the possible exception of mink (who live in the river below that this mountain streams feed), the eradicated beaver, lynx (although they’ve occasionally been spotted here) and fisher. There are badgers in the sagebrush at its feet, and red squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice in the spruce-fir forests. Long-tailed weasels hunt the meadow/forest edges, while martens prefer to mingle amongst the thick terraced slopes. Bobcats watch for snowshoe hares, cottontails, and jackrabbits. Mountain lions stalk the numerous deer. Grizzly come and go spring through fall, digging for roots, eating berries and rose hips, tearing apart rotten logs for grubs. Moose browse the willows and dogwood where riparian areas hold the mountain’s run-off, and wolves travel through, making the resident coyotes nervous and watchful. I have yet to see a lynx but the snowshoe hares are plentiful enough to feed them, and I’ve caught on camera a wolverine once. Great Horned, Boreal and Great Gray owls are my neighbors, along with Bald and Golden eagles. Chickadees and nuthatches are among the few small birds that brave the winter cold. Many other hawks, warblers, and small birds spend their spring and summer in the shadow of my mountain.
This mountain is a cradle of Life containing all the necessary pieces to make the whole, a complex and complete recipe to feed all the parts. Thinking like a mountain, like this mountain, must have that as a main component—holistic thinking. And yet, a mountain, by its sheer immobility, its impressive features and toughness, implies no thought, only the present moment. It will take an open, clear-eyed, receptive, intuitive approach—a reverent approach—to receive my mountain’s name. This is not just a mountain, but also a life support system.
Herman Ellsbury built my cabin for Doc Firor. Ellsbury owned a sawmill farther up the Clark’s Fork Canyon. In 1957 Firor, the new owner of the property wanted a summer home. Ellsbury, whose father originally homesteaded this parcel, which was much larger at the time, knew the area well. He knew where the winds blew from and when. He’d studied the arc of the sun during all the seasons. He could map out the path of the game, where the snows drifted into impenetrable mounds, or follow with a pointed finger where shadows would cast during the winter solstice. These secrets of the Land, and many more, were as comfortable for him as a favorite coat might be for a city dweller. Many people come to my property and comment, “Why don’t you build on the ridge above? That’s the best view.” But Ellsbury had the natural smarts that I always advocate to my clients when I tell them “Live in your house for a few years before you create a garden”. He had that wisdom which comes with living close to the land, observing nature’s rhythms year after year. So he built Doc Firor’s log cabin at the base of a bank, not on the ridge above. He faced it east, what people today might call perfect Feng Shui though this idea probably came from ancient tipi rings in the area, whose doorways always faced the rising sun. By this perfect placement, the cabin avoids our fifty-mile per hour winds that blow frequently in winter. The wooded hillside behind provides just the perfect buffer since the trees create a natural snow fence, and an old irrigation ditch testifies to how he used my creek to gravity-feed the cabin. Because Herman Ellsbury was the first white child born here, the locals saw fit to give this mountain his name as a way of honoring their own settlement, the habitation of what they saw as empty country.
Of course these lands were only empty because the native peoples had been driven out before the homesteaders arrived in the early 1900s. The Crows, who once claimed this area as part of their territory, are now living on a reservation northeast of here; and although in the late 1800s it was part of their reservation, the discovery of gold, the creation of Yellowstone Park and the influx of new settlers shrunk the reservation drastically. Sheep Eater Shoshone Indians, who also called these mountains home for thousands of years, lived a nomadic life, traveling between the Absaroka Mountains and today’s Yellowstone Park. The Park removed them, their way of life shattered by the hoards of miners who diminished their food sources and gave them diseases, the few who remained were moved to the Shoshone and Bannock reservations south and west of here.
Clearly, my valley was inhabited for over 10,000 years. Evidence still surfaces, from native dwellings to the occasional arrowhead. The entire spring outflow, and the swamp created by its emerging waters, was a favorite bison wallow as well as a butchering site for native peoples. In my mind, an injustice was being done with place names that told only a white man’s story, barely a hundred years old.
There is a lesson in the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area that sits between Glacier National Park, the Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wilderness Areas, and the high plains of the Blackfeet Nation in northwest Montana. This wild area is sacred to the Blackfeet, and unlike the rest of the Bob Marshall country, the Badger retains its traditional Indian place names. Why? All the country surrounding the Badger has white man contemporary names, but the Blackfeet fought this tradition and, in 1915, sent a group of Blackfeet chiefs to Washington D.C. asking to retain their spiritual names. The names retain the magic of the area, and it’s long history.
There is one other element to naming that might be peculiar to me. As long as I can remember, I’d had trouble recalling the names of people that I do not know intimately or personally. So, for instance, when I try to remember a valley next to mine named Russell (obviously named after Osborne Russell, one of the few trappers who could write, kept a diary, and trapped the Yellowstone in the 1830s), my mind needs to search for a while. The name Russell does not describe landscape features, but sits like a dangling participle, a reference to nothing that is being observed, nor remembered, as the features of the place. Naming a creek or a mountain after a person signifies a complete disconnect from the Earth and its features.
Between this land’s rich human history, and the nourishment my mountain provided for the abundant wildlife, I was certain my mountain had a name of its own. But what was it?