Brothers and Sisters, We danced in the sunlight all summer and stood in stunned awe by the autumn brilliance. But now, It’s Coming. Soon all the leaves will fly away. The season of the Gloaming, when the Irish black dog of depression can come shit on your doorstep, when the duskiness at 4PM can lead one to contemplating single malts or Baja beaches, when facing another long winter challenges our fiction of being High Altitude Heros. But just at this juncture of seasons, of our lives, we pull down from a top shelf David Hinton’s Mountain Home, The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.
Many to most of the poems, as was the aesthetic of that form, deal with this time of autumnal change and the reflection it offers to those who choose to wander in wilderness. A deep gasho to sensi Jerry Roberts for offering up a selection of these ancient poems as this time of The Gloaming ensues.
Pale Winter Moonrise by Russell Chatham In Jackson Hole, the immutable muse for generations of visual artists has been the Tetons. In Big Sky, that landmark is Lone Peak and in Bozeman, the Bridgers. Just to the east, painter, writer, restaurateur, and incorrigibly-addicted angler Russell Chatham became legend for his association with a different topographical feature, Paradise Valley. We all know of Paradise Valley for the Yellowstone River that runs through it from Yellowstone National Park to Livingston and then angles to an eventual rendezvous with the Missouri.
A lot of folks also have treated themselves to a sojourn at Chico Hot Springs before moseying into Livingston where Chatham for decades was a social fixture and held court at his signature restaurant. Scores of residents throughout Greater Yellowstone own original Chatham oils and high-end lithographs, displaying them next to priceless works by French Impressionists and treasured western artists like Bierstadt, Moran, Rungius and Catlin. Some of the notable private collectors in the region and beyond include Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Ted Turner, Jessica Lange, Margot Kidder, Jack Nicholson, Tom Brokaw, Jeff Bridges and Harrison Ford. Chatham’s artistic life force was his grandfather, the great California muralist Gottardo Piazzoni (1872-1945). A few years ago, Chatham moved back to his childhood homeland in northern California and recommenced painting where his extraordinary career with fishing and standing behind the easel began. I once asked one of Chatham’s closest friends William Randolph Hearst III to interpret Chatham. “You must understand that ‘Russell The Personality’ is a wholly separate character from the life of Russell Chatham the painter, though at the same time they are inseparable. No matter what he does, his adventure with it becomes larger than life,” Hearst said. “As good a painter as he is,” Hearst added, “Russell’s an equally wonderful storyteller and devoted friend, an absolutely superb fisherman who might be among the best on the planet, an intrepid restaurant owner, gourmet cook, wine aficionado, writer, boutique book publisher and general roustabout.” If any contemporary landscape painter qualified as a genuine rock star in the northern Rockies, it was Chatham, now a late septuagenarian. Starting in the 1960s, he was among a group of artists who went to Paradise Valley to escape the rat race, to fish, and go about their own media adventures without being hassled. Those figures included Chatham, writers Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, the late William Hjortsberg, Richard Brautigan, actors Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Kidder, Warren Oates, Nicholson, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Sam Waterston, singer Jimmy Buffett, director Sam Peckinpah and others. Chatham’s style of painting landscapes, known for its fleeting, muted, tonal bands of horizontal color, summons up moods of introspection rather than blushes of superficial sanguine cheeriness. They evoke the feeling you get when you realize you are getting older and the sensation hits home when you take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror, thinking about the kind of life you’ve lead. When I asked Chatham to ponder that feeling, he shared this thought: “Early on, I was never concerned about having a career, so I didn’t have one. And now nothing could interest me less. But I think we all have a programmed tape running inside us, and most of mine is now stored on the right hand side of the cassette. I finally feel I know enough to paint what I could only dream about in my twenties. People say it’s time to slow down, relax, go fishing. Well, I took the first forty years of my life off and went fishing, and now my tape is telling me to finish what I was put on earth to do. Before, time didn’t matter. Now it does.” Given the times, he still feels compelled to act upon a conviction he stated earlier in his life about the role of artist: “The artist does not simply hold a mirror to society. If the world now is greedy, the artist must be generous. If there is war and hate, he must be peaceful and loving. If the world is insane, he must offer sanity, and if the world is becoming a void, he must fill it with his soul.” Chatham didn’t say it, but one could add that the artist’s challenge is really no different from the obligation of the viewer. If painting represents a near-religious experience for some, perhaps it’s not a bad thing to act on those kindly impulses. EDITOR’S NOTE: If it isn’t obvious, Chatham loves water. Here are a few of his interpretations of some classic Western rivers.
Winter On The South Fork Of Deep Creek, lithograph, by Russell Chatham
Summer Twilight, Colorado River, lithograph, by Russell Chatham
Winter Dawn On The South Platte River, lithograph, by Russell Chatham ~~~
‘You’re an Artist. That’s What You Do.’
PAIGE GREEN Russell Chatham at his studio in Marin County, California. ”I paint everything from memory,” he says. In what would be his final interview, the famed Marin County–based landscape painter Russell Chatham tells Alta publisher Will Hearst where he finds inspiration, what it’s like to work on commission, and why Gauguin brought him to tears.
Landscapes are notoriously easy to paint but exceedingly difficult to paint well. For Russell Chatham, the challenge was impossible to resist. There was no other way. Chatham is the grandson of San Francisco muralist Gottardo Piazzoni, and before he turned 20, he had found his calling in painting nature.
In a career that has spanned half a century, Chatham became famous for capturing Montana’s rugged vistas and California’s golden hillsides through an approach that seems to combine a muted, idealized reality and the stuff of dreams. His collectors include Hollywood names like Jessica Lange, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Redford. Along the way, he was married three times, and made a fortune from his paintings, book publishing, and running a restaurant—only to lose it all. Chatham steadfastly believed in following one’s heart.
In what would be the artist’s final interview, Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst sat down with Chatham as he reflected on the difficulties he endured as a young painter and how he’s depended on the love and support of the women in his life. (Disclosure: Hearst is a collector of Chatham’s paintings.)
WILL HEARST:As a little boy, did you think, “I like painting” or “This is what I want to do with my life”?
RUSSELL CHATHAM:When I was eight or nine, it was clear painting was a big deal to me, and so I did it on my own, and all through school I stayed at it relentlessly…through my teen years and through my 20s.
Happy (belated) Water Wonk New Year! Okay, maybe water wonks don’t get all tipsy and start reciting Western water law at midnight on Oct. 1, but it does mark the beginning of the new water year. That means we can all dump out those precipitation gauges and reset the snowpack statistics and hopefully put the past year behind us. But before we do, let’s take a look back at Water Year 2021 and the good, the bad, and the oh so ugly.
Pretty much everyone west of the Continental Divide—as well as some to the east—will be happy to bid the past water year adieu. Streamflows across the region shrunk; fish died off; reservoir levels declined, taking hydropower generation down with them; irrigators watched their ditches run dry long before harvest time; the bathtub ring around Lake Powell grew to 160 feet high; wildfires raged with unprecedented intensity in northern California, Oregon, and Montana; and a Tier 1 shortage was called on the Colorado River for the first time ever, meaning some users will see cuts next year.
What strikes me most is that seven months ago, as winter turned to spring, the snowpack levels—i.e. the giant reservoir that feeds those depleted streams—did not foretell the dryness to come. Sure, the snow water equivalent was below average at most San Juan Mountain SNOTEL sites, but not disastrously so. The skiing was decent as long as you didn’t get hit by an avalanche and the high country remained blanketed in white into the spring—at least in Colorado.
Columbus Basin is in Southwest Colorado’s La Plata Mountains, which seemed to repel storms last winter, making it one of the driest areas of the state. Other sites further north in the San Juans recorded snow levels as high as 85 percent of average and the Rio Grande headwaters to the east even saw above average snow levels.¹ One might have expected the rivers fed by that snowpack to run at 85 percent of average, as well. For the most part, they did not.
It was as if the snow, instead of melting and running off down mountainsides and into reservoirs, just evaporated or soaked into the ground. And that’s pretty much what happened. “It didn’t feel like a low winter to me,” Darrin Parmenter, La Plata County director for the Colorado State University Extension Office, told me this spring. “It just didn’t run off. You have to recharge soil moisture. It has to go through that sponge before it gets to the water table. The Animas didn’t come up until we had our only rain.”
What didn’t soak into the ground, which was parched due to the lack of a 2020 monsoon and two decades of aridification, wafted into the air via evapotranspiration and snow sublimation, phenomena enhanced by dry air, incessant spring winds, warming temperatures, and dust on the snow, which reduces albedo. That left less snowmelt to feed the rivers and reservoirs and left many farmers high and dry early in the growing season.
As you can see from the above graph, the Animas River was unusually low through the spring and early summer. It wasn’t until the monsoon arrived in full force in late July that it showed some signs of recovery. But even that wasn’t enough to replenish reservoirs, especially since the monsoon was not distributed equally across the West.
And even though the rains were plentiful in some areas, so too were the above average temperatures, thus offsetting some of the rain gains.
The result? Widespread drought conditions across most of the Western U.S., with a few exceptions. Over the last year, drought has intensified dramatically in California and the Northwest, while subsiding slightly in Colorado and Arizona. Nevertheless, only a few patches of land remain that aren’t in some stage of drought.
The good news is we are going into the new water year with some new water: A storm just blanketed the San Juan Mountains with white, pushing the snow water equivalent up to two inches at the Molas Pass SNOTEL site. The bad news is, we are in a deep, dry hole left by 22 years of aridification. It will take a lot of big storms, all winter long, to get us out of it.
“In a battle for facts, in a battle for truth, journalism is activism,” Ressa said in 2020. Disinformation, she said, “is how you transform a democracy. This is death by a thousand cuts. The same thing is happening in the United States. I think the goal of influence operations or information operations is to seed it, repeat it, incite hate and…change the way real people think, and that impacts the real world. This is happening all around the world. That’s what the research has shown us, that’s what the data shows us.”
Maria Angelita Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and author, the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, and the first Filipino Nobel Prize laureate. She previously spent nearly two decades working as a lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia for CNN.
Cary was out of likely places to cross. The five-strand ranch fence was on the county line, ran south, and would guide him to the canyon and the wild grasslands beyond. He could go all the way to Coal Mine Rim and a view dropping into the Boulder Valley. Due south he could see the national forest, the bare stones and burned tree stubs from the last big forest fire. After the fire, a priest who loved to hike had found nineteenth-century wolf traps chained to trees. The flames and smoke had towered forty thousand feet into the air, a firestorm containing its own weather, lightning aloft, smoke that could be seen on satellite in Wisconsin. The foreground was grassland but it had been heavily grazed. In the middle of this expanse, a stockade, where sheep were gathered at night to protect them from bears and coyotes, had collapsed. The homestead where Cary’s dad had grown up and where Cary himself had spent his earliest years was in a narrow canyon perpendicular to the prevailing winds, barely far enough below the snow line to be habitable. Around his waist, in a hastily purchased Walmart fanny pack, he carried his father’s ashes in the plastic urn issued by the funeral home, along with the cremation certificate that the airline required.
Once, these prairies had been full of life and hope. The signs were everywhere: abandoned homes, disused windmills, straggling remnants of apple orchards, the dry ditches of hand-dug irrigation projects, a cracked school bell, the piston from an old sheep-shearing engine. Where had everyone gone? It was a melancholy picture, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Perhaps everyone had gone on to better things. Cary knew enough of the local families to know that things weren’t so bad; some had got decidedly more comfortable, while claiming glory from the struggles of their forebears. Where the first foothills broke toward the Yellowstone, a big new house had gone up. It had the quality of being in motion, as though it were headed somewhere. It had displaced a hired man’s shack, a windmill, a cattle scale, and had substituted hydrangeas and lawn.
After his father died, Cary had flown to Tampa and then driven north to the retirement community where his dad had ended his days in a condominium that had grown lonely in his widowhood. Cary sped through the Bible Belt, where “we the people” were urged to impeach Barack Obama. The billboards along this troubling highway offered a peculiar array of enticements: needlepoint prayers, alligator skulls, gravity deer feeders, pecan rolls, toffee. “All-nude bar with showers.” “Vasectomy reversal.” “Sinkhole remediation.” “Laser Lipo: Say goodbye to muffin tops and love handles!” “It’s a Small World. I know. I made it.—The Lord.” A car displayed a sign that said “I work to cruise” and a cartoon ocean liner running the full length of the rear window, with an out-of-scale sea captain waving from its bridge.
We the people.
Cary thought that his old man had had a pretty great American life. He’d lived on the homestead through grade school, attended a small Lutheran college in the Dakotas, flown a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk named Tumblin’ Dice in Vietnam, worked as an oil geologist all over the world, outlived his wife and their mostly happy marriage by less than a year, spent only ten days in hospice care, watching his songbird feeders and reading the Wall Street Journal while metastatic prostate cancer destroyed his bones. “Can’t rip and run like I used to,” he’d warned Cary on the phone. He’d died with his old cat, Faith, in his lap. He’d once said to Cary, “In real psychological terms, your life is half over at ten.” For him, ten had meant those homestead years, wolf traps in the barn, his dog, Chink, a .22 rifle, bum lambs to nurture, his uneducated parents, who spoke to him in a rural English he remembered with wry wonder: as an adult, he’d still sometimes referred to business disputes as “defugalties” or spoken of people being “in Dutch.” The old pilot had observed himself in his hospice bed, chuckled, and said, “First a rooster, then a feather duster.” His doctor had given him a self-administered morphine pump and shown him how to use it sparingly or on another setting: “If you put it there, you’ll go to sleep and you won’t wake up.” His warrior buddies at the retirement community had held a small service, with tequila shots and music on a homemade CD that finished with a loop of “The Letter,” which played until a carrier mechanic who’d serviced Tumblin’ Dice replaced it with “Taps.”
Cary didn’t spend long at the condo—long enough to meet the Realtor, long enough to pick up a few things, including photographs of himself up to sixteen. What an unattractive child I was, he thought. The rest were shots of aircraft, pilots, crews, flight decks. Judging by the framed pictures, his mother was forever twenty-two. He took his father’s Air Medal, which was missing the ribbon but had fascinated him as a child, with its angry eagle clasping lightning bolts. “That bird,” he’d called it. He put it in his pocket and patted the pocket. He took the black-and-white photograph of his great-grandfather’s corral, with the loading chute and the calf shed, and the distant log house. “We lived in the corral,” his father had joked. He’d told Cary plainly that he had grown up poor. He remembered his grandfather, who’d started the ranch, prying the dimes off his spurs to buy tobacco, sticking cotton in the screens to keep the flies out. The old fellow had spanked him only once, and it was for deliberately running over a chicken with a wheelbarrow. Cary’s great-grandfather was a cowboy, who moved through cattle like smoke, who could sew up a prolapsed cow in the dark with shoelaces and hog rings. His only child, Cary’s grandfather, had detested the place, had done almost no work, and had lost everything but the homestead to an insurance company. A tinkerer and a handyman, a tiny man with a red nose in a tilted ball cap, he ran the projector at the movie theatre in town. When Cary’s father was home from the war, he took him to see his grandfather up in the booth; Cary remembered the old man pulling the carbon rods out of the projector to light his cigarettes. An unpleasant geezer, he’d peered at Cary as though he couldn’t quite put his finger on the connection between them, and said, “Well, well, well.” Years later, his father said, as though shooing something away, “Dad was a failure, always flying off the handle. My mother ran away during the war to build ships. Never seen again, never in touch, had me and vamoosed. Dad used to look at me and talk to himself: ‘Can’t figger out why the little sumbitch is swarthy.’ Went broke trying to sell pressure cookers. Once left a town in Idaho in disguise. He told me it was plumb hard to be born on unlucky land.” In the projection booth, Cary’s grandfather said that he was busy and told Cary to get lost. Cary’s father stayed behind, and Cary heard him say, “Lord have mercy, Daddy. You’d give shit a bad name.”
Cary’s other grandfather, the glowing parent of Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas—or a runner-up, depending on who was telling the story—was a lunatic entrepreneur named J. Lonn Griggs, who’d made a fortune selling swamp coolers, reconditioned tractors, and vitamins. Grandpa Griggs had long white hair like a preacher’s, and, according to Cary’s father, was as crooked as the back leg of a dog. He adored Cary and Cary adored him back.
In your story “Not Here You Don’t,” a man, Cary, takes his father’s ashes back to the ruins of the family’s old homestead in Montana and reflects on his family’s past: the original rancher was his great-grandfather; his grandfather lost the ranch and became an embittered small-town projectionist and salesman; his father got out by enlisting as a pilot in the Vietnam War. You live in Montana most of the time. Were you drawing on details from local history?
Yes. The scenario is quite commonplace, I think. There’s always someone around with war experience. I used to have brothers-in-law who’d served in Vietnam. In the valley where I live, I recall there being veterans from at least three wars, maybe four, in a very small population, at the same time. This seems odd for a country that is almost always at war but hasn’t won one in seventy years.
The title of the story, which doesn’t actually appear in the story, is an idiom that indicates not belonging or not being allowed entrance. How does it tie into this story?
It’s a cipher for our dystopia, our detachment. The Carole King line often rings in my head: “Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?” It’s nobody’s fault; it’s impossible.
Cary encounters a local landowner who doesn’t want to allow him access to the land where his family used to live and then has his car towed. Why is it so important to the man to keep Cary out?
This is one type of landowner in a changing pattern. It is unlikely that he pays local taxes, votes, or raises children in Montana. Some of the state’s largest landowners are Texans. I’ve had a long romance with Montana, but it’s one I find harder to grasp every year. It used to be a state with a moderate government, where it was possible to wander around in a socially temperate atmosphere. Mike Mansfield exemplified those times. The place is now ruled by a far-right, intolerant state government, absentee owners, and anti-wildlife resource management. There’s an obsession with trespassing, though it’s not quite up to the standards of Texas, whose ideas about private property would look like mental illness anywhere else. Each Montanan may now kill ten wolves a year. Little attention is paid by state agencies to a steeply declining fish population. The reintroduction of buffalo is fought with irrational fears and hypocrisy. Summers are smoke filled. Guess why.
Cary doesn’t express a lot of emotion while carrying out his errand, but he is exhausted and paralyzed afterward, has trouble restarting his normal life. What causes that reaction?
I think he is stoic and habitually defers painful matters until he finds a better time to respond. His father is dead, his love life is uncertain, and he can’t quite figure out how he ended up working in a corporation, three jumps from an old agrarian world. He’s not nostalgic; he’s bewildered.
You trace the trajectory of several generations of this family: from the cowboy rancher, to the disaffected son, to the military pilot who becomes an oil geologist, to Cary, who works a corporate job, sees a therapist, and has a favorite breakfast spot. An all-American story?
It’s getting to be! Unfamiliar forces dislodge us, and we resort to defensive perimeters. Here in Montana, it might be four friends, two bars, the Carnegie library, and a place to fish. It’s the self-imposed isolation of people who no longer feel they understand their fellow-citizens.
Cary’s grandmother gave birth to his father and then “vamoosed,” never to be heard from again; Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas, is prone to alcoholic despair; Cary has divorced his wife, and uses a bottle of vodka to get the hostess of his small-town B. and B. into bed. Why are the connections between women and the men of Cary’s family so fraught?
I grew up not far from a military base, where a world of rock-star fighter pilots, hot wives, and booze challenged the stability of many marriages. The vodka/hostess/bed episode is so gruesome it’s hard to think that either party got anything out of it that they wanted. More likely, they got something they’ll make sure they never get again. It’s what Ezra Pound called the eternal failure to achieve a lasting nirvana through “the twitching of three abdominal nerves.” A common discovery of the hookup generation is that loveless sex isn’t even fun. It’s desperate and looks funny.
There are the seeds here for an epic novel. Why compact it into just over three thousand words?
I hope that those words can do what a novel might have done. Maybe readers interested in my stories will remember them as they would remember a novel, with their own concordance of characters and unifying themes. The short story is a cruel little metier and a poor choice for anyone hoping to conceal his or her faults as a writer. Reading stories can make reading novels harder, when you encounter the wind blowing through their longueurs like a cold day in the Great Basin. Randall Jarrell’s reported definition of the novel as a “prose narrative of some length with something wrong with it” points to a capacity of the novel but not of the short story. In this, the short story is more like a play: a play with five dead minutes is a dead play.