Tag Archives: Montana

“Down from the Mountain – The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear” by Bryce Andrews

One reviewer described this book as “feral”. No. Far from it. It’s thoughtful and highly nuanced. Andrews describes his interactions with nature very carefully. His relationship to nature is based both on study and practical personal experience.

Mission Valley, Montana, is a place where mountainous wilderness and farmland intersect. Andrews works for People and Carnivores, a conservation organization with the goal “keep people safe and carnivores wild”.

“Millie” is a mature female grizzly bear with two female cubs. Andrews writes about one summer, when he begins a project to try to keep bears out of a cornfield. Grizzlies aren’t really carnivores – they are decidedly omnivorous and opportunistic. When human change the landscape, they take full advantage of new food sources. Grizzlies spend a third of each year in hibernation, so their drive to EAT is strong, especially during the Fall.

Millie came to Andrews attention because she was illegally shot and did not die. Her injuries became infected. She became weak and unable to care for her immature cubs. Captured by authorities and judged to be untreatable, she was euthanized. Her cubs, doing poorly on their own, were captured. After long and complicated negotiations, they were finally moved to a distant zoo which was willing to accept responsibility for their long-term welfare.

What’s the point here? This is a book about human responsibility. It’s also a book about wilderness. What was here before humans arrived? What has changed as humans migrated and our numbers skyrocketed?

This was Andrews’ second book. Click here to read my review of his earlier book, Badluck Way, in which he describes his earlier ranching experience. Both these books are wonderful, and will be enjoyed by anyone who values wilderness.


“English Creek” by Ivan Doig

English Creek (Montana Trilogy)

This is the novel I’ve been waiting for! I mean during this pandemic. I’ve wanted something to get lost in, something not too fraught, something to entertain and distract me. My Library had two of Doig’s many books, so I got this early work of fiction from 1984 and his final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom from 2015, the year Doig died.

English Creek is a coming-of-age story, unfolding in Montana at the end of the Great Depression. The first person narrator is Jick McCaskill, 14 years old, the younger of two boys whose father works for the US Forest Service, ranger and manager of a section of National Forest. Their mother, though cushioned from poverty by her husband’s steady employment, leads the hard and often anxious life of a prairie woman.

As summer unfolds, Jick recognizes that his family of four is changing. His brother rebels against a long-held, carefully laid plan that he should go to college and leaves to work at a nearby ranch for the season. Jick is unsettled. Events cause him to take on increasing responsibilities.

This “set up” of the plot took time, but I enjoyed it because the descriptions of people, land, animals and events were so vivid and meticulous. Two thirds of the way through the book, I realized SOMETHING big was going to happen, but I couldn’t imagine what.

Spoiler alert! I can’t resist sharing the nature of the emergency that slammed the McCaskill family. After weeks of dry heat, lightening started a wildfire that endangered Jick and his father and scores of firefighters.

The parallels with the current situation NOW in the American west are many. Doig writes in detail about fighting a forest fire with the limited resources available in 1939. I couldn’t stop reading.

At the same time, Jick struggles to learn about this family and the people around them. Some situations are clarified. Others remain secret. Just like real life. The narrative ends as World War II breaks out in Europe.

This would make a GREAT book club choice! The parallels to our present situation are many. What is the meaning of community? How does a family navigate change? What pieces of the past should be shared with a child, and when? How do humans live in an ecosystem?

This book reminds me of Badluck Way,. reviewed here., another coming-of-age story.


“The Log of a Cowboy – A Narrative of the Old Trail Days” by Andy Adams

Reading “Badluck Way” (see April 17) reminded me of this wonderful memoir of cowboy life in 1882. Like Bryce Andrews, Andy Adams worked with cattle. Unlike Andrews, he didn’t get to stay in one place. Adams drove cattle from Texas to Montana as part of a crew of about a dozen men. The work was so hard that each cowboy used a string of 10 or more horses. The cattle herd being driven numbered several thousand. The possibilities for things going wrong were numerous and complex. A stampede was one of the most dreaded types of mischance.

This book is old fashioned and straightforward. The teenaged Adams sought out the adventure of a cattle drive and he recounts it (after the fact – the book was originally published in 1903) with energy and precision. Much of it is charming. Consider his discussion of how to determine who got the ONE extra egg available on the unusual occasion when a nest of turkey eggs had been found. Adams having found the eggs, he said “I felt that the odd egg, by rights, ought to fall to me, but… I yielded. A number of ways were suggested to allot the odd egg, but the gambling fever in us being rabid, raffling or playing cards for it seemed to be the proper caper. Raffling had few advocates.” Said one of his co-workers, “Poker is a science…What have I spent 20 years learning the game for?” There follows ten pages of description of card playing, tale telling and singing… I felt like I knew each man on the crew.

If you enjoy Western literature, don’t miss this first class book! In addition to telling a gripping tale, it provides extensive information about geography, ecology, climate, agriculture and sociology.

“Badluck Way – A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West” by Bryce Andrews

This book is so good I don’t know where to begin. Andrews recounts his year (2006 – 2007) as a cowboy on a ranch next to Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s. “Conservation ranching” was intended to permit the coexistence of wolves and cattle. Andrews got caught up in the harsh battles that this experiment precipitated.

One literary device that Andrews has totally mastered is foreshadowing. I could feel the violence gathering, but didn’t know what was going to happen. The climax of the book carries tidal wave force. 

Andrews’ descriptions of land, animals and plants are detailed and vivid. He also discusses ranch work extensively. I can’t imagine how three men carried so much responsibility. Andrews slept out many nights, on the ground or in a truck bed, to protect the cattle herds.

I’m glad I read this book in hard copy (thank you, public Library) because I frequently needed to refer to the map of the ranch.

I’m going to nominate this book as a future “common reading” at my College. It’s engaging. It could lead to productive discussion in a wide range of classes – ecology, political science, sociology, public policy, business, geography and more. Psychologically, it’s an account of personal growth and reaction to challenges. It deals with an important conundrum which is unresolved.

It’s hard to think of another book that presents both sides of a difficult situation with so much depth. This could be one of the new “environmental classics” I’ve been seeking.