FEAR AS PLACE, HOME AS REFUGE
Originally published on The Montana Post, January 11th, 2021
Written January 4th, 2021
Yesterday, on the eve of Montana’s transition to a Gianforte administration and a state legislature whose majority has recklessly opposed any coronavirus safety measures, my partner and I drove down the Bitterroot to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge just outside of Stevensville. And as we rumbled the washboarded road towards the refuge, surrounded by pastures and swaybacked barns and the sculpted white peaks to the west, I saw two trucks parked ahead on the dirt road, the dull blue of a Trump flag waving from the flatbed.
It was the way the trucks were parked, to the side of the road but not touching the grass hemming the ditch, less than a mile from a national refuge, that made my stomach drop. I thought about the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge exactly five years ago, about the whimsical National Forest stickers on my city-dwelling Subaru, about how in my later years of working for the Forest Service in Missoula I’d been warned about Bundy family-backed anti-government groups in the Bitterroot and told to memorize militia insignia, just in case. I thought about Trump’s own calls for right-wing and white supremacist groups to gather in D.C. later this week.
As we got closer, I saw that no one was in the pickups, that a handful of people were standing in the adjacent pasture tending to some horses. And so we drove past, my heart still rattling away with the washboards.
The refuge was more crowded than I’d wanted it to be. As a higher-risk individual, I was tired of seeing public lands become spaces where people acted as if there wasn’t a pandemic, where I was usually the only one covering my face and putting safe distance between myself and others. My partner and I put on our masks, aimed for a loop through the cottonwoods and shushing reeds with the fewest people. But the first people we passed put masks on as well. The second and third group stepped off the trail before we had a chance to. A man recommended we look out for porcupines in the cottonwoods and ponderosas, “like blurry basketballs” among the branches.
My anxiety dropped away. We looped through muddy paths as the gray spitting clouds ebbed to blue sky, hard as cobalt in the Bitterroot River. We squinted for porcupines, watched downy woodpeckers and nuthatches disregard gravity, mistook the iridescent shine of a magpie for a blue jay.
When we left the refuge, the hollowness crept back into my stomach. I tried to think about woodpeckers and dogwoods, about human kindness. But the trucks by the side of the road were gone, only horses napping in the yellow grass and a hawk crowning a lone shrub in the field.
I thought about that moment of fear, which wasn’t even a moment but a place of fear. And that place, this whole state, is now controlled by elected officials whose anger and violence are one in the same, who sue for public land access to be removed, who openly undermine elections, who dismiss a virus responsible for the death of 350,000 Americans yet are first in line to sign up for vaccine trials. Who are set to gather in Helena today with equally no regard for those lost and damaged lives, who show no intention of preventing more. I thought about what edged me to keep driving past those trucks, which was some paralysis and even more privilege.
The kindness of the people in the wildlife refuge felt like home. The sun and wind at my back, partner by my side, and dog ahead of us felt like home. Even the men looking over their horses in the field felt like home, just not the vessels that carried them there. Driving that dirt road back, I realized that at some point in the past few years of living in Montana, I’ve become homesick even while being home. Fear has become as place, and home a refuge bound by barbwire.
Montanans, and those of you elsewhere, watch what’s happening here in these coming months. Really pay attention. Dig deeper than papers owned by for-profit companies. The incoming gubernatorial administration and state legislators are going to be loud on some issues, and they will also quietly subvert rights and spin damaging narratives behind the scenes. Prepare for them to further enable extremist groups. Prepare to be gaslit. Listen to voices that they are trying to silence, especially Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, and LGBTQ2S+ folks. Believe them. Believe us. That dull blue flag was a statement, and a claim. There are too many people in this state, in this country, who don’t have the privilege to just drive past.
I’m scared for what comes next. Truly scared, for myself, and for others far more marginalized and shut out. There are already pickups lining windy backroads guarding, blocking, denying refuge. This time, the men stood in a field, their flags a warning. This time, we watched a pair of ducks navigate ice and open water of an oxbow, their feathers glossed as jade. This time, fear was a place I could leave. Today, as I look east toward my hometown and find only gray and wind on the horizon, I’m not so sure.