On college campuses across the country, Spring Break has long been a euphemism for “beer-fueled orgy and mayhem.” But there is another side to Spring Break, not as well-attended or well-publicized, but just as meaty as the MTV version. This side is composed of students broadening their educational horizons beyond the classroom, exploring the inward spin, and restoring order to the universe. What follows are profiles of three groups of students who are making it happen beyond the keg stands and wet T-shirt contests. Which isn’t to say that these students don’t know how to have a good time. Let’s just say they mix their work and fun in different ratios and know that life’s best rewards are those that are earned.
It’s Sunday, March 17. Cold air rolls west off the Continental Divide, down the Blackfoot and Clark Fork valleys, ripping through Hellgate Canyon and howling down West Third Street. It’s a classic Hellgate gale, the kind of overwhelming agony that makes you clench your fists, grit your teeth, and yell “CRAP!” as loud as you can. Anyone within earshot shivers and nods in commiseration.
Meanwhile, in front of Bernice’s Bakery, seven students huddle around a fresh mound of bulging backpacks. Steam rises from a circle of new mugs, each bearing the logo of the “Wild Rockies Field Institute.” This is the opening ceremony for the Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) Winter Ecology Class, a week-long winter camping trip about to head high in the Sapphire Mountains.
WRFI was founded by several instructors at the University of Montana (UM) who felt that education about ecological processes and relationships, as well as land management policy and human relationships with the land, could be more deeply and honestly explored in the field. Since its inception in 1993, the Wild Rockies Field Institute has instructed more than 500 students in places as diverse as Alaska and Mexico, many of whom go on to become full-time environmental activists.
Sitting in the van, this year’s crop of winter ecology students begin sharing bits and pieces of their personal stories. Coming from as far away as New York and New Orleans, their majors range from Biology to Native American Studies; some have never been out west, many have never worn snowshoes. The sole UM student in the group, Robert Funk, is also the only male student in the group. He’s a forestry major who is scheduled to do an internship with the Plum Creek Timber Company this summer outside of Libby. I wonder about Robert’s upcoming experience in close quarters with a group of budding eco-babes. Will they eat him alive?
As the van pulls onto the highway, trip leader Matt Thomas wastes no time in getting down to the business of ecology. His first topic is the poison puddle behind Milltown Dam, a discussion that includes ice floes in the Blackfoot River, non-native pike chewing up native bull trout in the reservoir, and contamination of local drinking water. Soon he is talking about the Superfund site upstream, and then the general history of Superfund in America.
Further up the Clark Fork Valley, the conversation turns to the distribution of trees visible along the hillsides: juniper, Douglas fur, ponderosa pine, spruce, black cottonwood. One of the students poses an obvious question: Why are some hillsides covered in trees while others are bare? Demere suggests that “aspect” is the answer.
“Aspect,” confirms co-leader Dave Glaser, “is indeed the answer. Aspect means the direction that the slope faces. Northern aspects get less sun, and therefore have higher moisture content in the soil, which is better for trees. Southern aspects are drier, more meadow-like.” A host of other aspect-influenced ecological phenomena are discussed, including the importance of aspect on snow quality—especially in the context of stalking the powder so coveted by skiers and snowboarders alike. On the related topic of avalanche danger, Matt cautions, “That’s why we always send the snowboarder first.”
Dave passes around a U.S. Forest Service map, drawing attention to the checkerboard of squares superimposed on the landscape, and discusses the meanings of the various color of square: BLM, Forest Service, private timber. Matt explains how railroad land became corporate timber land, after the “single biggest transfer of public land in U.S. history” turned over huge tracts of public land to the railroads. As we pass the spot on I-90 where the 2000 fires almost jumped the highway, Matt explains the difference between various types of forest fires.
Past Phillipsburg and into the Rock Creek drainage, the van only makes it so far before its progress is halted by the ever-deepening snow. At this point, it is time to get out and start walking. As the snowflakes began falling fast and fat, the crew spills from the van and begins final preparations. Group foods are distributed, straps are cinched tight, snowshoes are donned, and packs are shouldered. As the hint of a storm morphs into an increasingly darkening sky, I ask the group how they feel about tromping off into a gathering blizzard. The answers range from “nervous” to “bonus!” Then, in single file, the group marches off into the mountain lion of March.
Those who stayed comfy in town that week will remember how it kept snowing and blowing furious for three days straight. How many times did you shiver on your way from the house to car that week? On your way across the frozen lawn to the hot tub? Every time I did, I thought of the intrepid ecologists high in the Sapphires, huddled in stormy shipwrecked tents, melting snow for drinking water on their Whisperlight stoves.
On a road trip within
Our next stop was supposed to be Havre, where representatives of Queer Action, including many UM students, were scheduled to address the Montana Board of Regents meeting on the board’s denial of partner benefits to same-sex partners. But the same storm that is hammering our intrepid ecologists in the high Sapphires forces the closure of Roger’s Pass, and the protest to the Board of Regents is postponed, sending us back to Missoula.
Back in town, we peddle a few slushy blocks to the UM campus and descend into the bowels of the Art Building and the theater of the abstract, where a cluster of graduate art studios are humming like a bee-hive pinata. For these artists, Spring Break is the time when the honey really gets dripping. Art is not like some crossword puzzle that you pick up, write a few words, and then put down and go on to some other mundane task. You have to give yourself over to art, let it consume you, and then study what comes out the other side. During the semester, these UM graduate students take course loads and teach undergraduate classes, and their lives are ruled by the clock. During Spring Break, however, they unwind and dive into the blossoming vortex of their passion.
Cornered in their studios, many of the artists seem shy at first. I quickly realize the extent to which I am occupying their personal space. I am not just beside them, but inside them, poking around. That I happen to be holding a tape recorder in their faces and asking them “What does this all mean?” causes a few to freeze for a moment.
But once they get talking, they don’t want to stop.
And they don’t just talk about their own work. They talk about the abstract collaborative meltdown that goes on in this artistic incubator. These artists, while each steering a distinct course, are also watching each other. And listening. It’s a community of audience, feedback, and cannibalistic tendencies, with more chemistry than the periodic table. “The absurd notion to even make crivmatic material is...its ontological evidence of the will producing new life,” says Ben Bloch, whose overalls, thick with paint, are heavier than most pairs of insulated Carharts. Heavier still is his concept of “crivmatic material,” an artistic medium he’s created of self-replicating geometric forms. Shaped like a cross between a square and a triangle, this parallel universe of Day Glo pond scum has found a fertile breeding ground in Bloch’s studio.
In addition to his Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art, Bloch is also an MFA student in Creative Writing. I ask him what he wrote about. “Oh, I guess I write a lot about, you know...” He jerks his head toward the neon infection creeping across his floor, “about this stuff, and the whole crivmatic universe.” Ben’s upcoming show at Shakespeare and Company focuses on the effect of refrigeration on crivmatic material.
When not in progress or on display, Kaya Wielopolski’s monoprints are scrolled up like ancient texts. As Kaya unrolls her work, earth tones and burn marks reveal the juxtaposition of different components of landscape. When she mentions that she was an Environmental Studies major as an undergraduate, I ask her how she has been able to study her environment through her art.
“Well” she says, “a lot of my stuff when I started off was very representational of landscapes. And there was always a water element. My last few representational pieces were specifically of wetlands. This is interesting to me because these are transition zones between land and water, where many ecological processes occur. I think a lot about ecological processes in the landscape, how processes work in the landscape, and how these processes change.” Kaya has an upcoming MFA show, along with Ben, opening May 3rd in the Gallery of Visual Arts, Social Sciences Building. Kerry Rosenstein wanders around the studio, carrying a book with a picture of a hurricane on the cover, a storm with a perfect eye. “This is a place where we are all of ourselves,” she says. “When we are in our studios working, everything comes out: the good, the bad, the emotional. We know each other really well.”
Some writers might feel threatened by Kerry’s work, as it is a full frontal assault on the disconnect between words and meaning. What are those strange paint marks on the canvas? They look like something between the footprints of a bird on snow and a note scribbled on a crumpled napkin. “All humans are compulsive mark makers,” Kerry says. “And we have this need to communicate, even though we don’t always have something to say.
Communication is not perfectly reflective of what we think. When I’m working, I try and record the constant background hum in my head, whispers that are fluttering all the time.”
Theodore Waddell was not the first prominent artist to think Rosenstein’s work is so deep that he wanted to buy a piece for his personal collection. And master printmaker Tony Fitzpatrick traded a very expensive print for one her pieces too.
Caroline Peters scrutinizes the watercolor drawings that cover the north wall of her studio, searching for the picture of the sound of “twang” that she is going to donate to the art auction. Her work explores the form and color of sensation. As she puts it, “I’m out to capture that sudden shift of weight that allows you to keep your balance when your bike does a fishtail on the ice.”
Caroline uses her abstract paintings as a probe into her sensations, a non-linear process of exploration that avoids a polished, finished feel. She paints on bare canvas, in pursuit of an “in-progress” feeling to her work, citing Michelangelo’s unfinished anatomical studies as major inspirations. “The way that I want the viewer to participate requires that it has this immediacy, this idea of an exploration of something happening. It has this un-embalmed, in-motion quality that a photograph can’t have.”
Two of the other artists of the basement cluster meltdown are not in the studio for comment, rumored (or so I’m told) to be attending a wet jockstrap contest that day on South Padre Island.
Showdown at Horse Butte
The front porch at the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) headquarters looks like a ski shop, with well-organized rows of skis, poles, snowshoes, wax, and tools. Boots are lined up inside where it’s warm, along with jackets, mittens, and everything else you need to keep warm near West Yellowstone, a town that routinely records some of the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states.
More than 40 college students cross that porch during Spring Break 2002, including a group of 15 students from Ft. Collins, Colo. They came to ski and snowshoe in the backcountry, but not for shits and giggles. These students came to the BFC Spring Break “Week of Action” with purposeful hearts and fire in their bellies. They joined others—from high school dropouts to professional wildlife biologists—who are dedicating a portion of their free time to saving the buffalo.
“It’s incredibly educational being around people who have been monitoring the buffalo, sunrise to sunset, for years,” says Katherine Romano, a UM graduate student in Environmental Studies. “They know so much...and it’s amazing to see how 60 people can eat, sleep, and get along in such a small place. Your whole concept of privacy changes.”
Indeed, when you join the Buffalo Field Campaign, you are joining a revolution of sorts. For however short or long their stay, these folks dedicate their lives to the cause of saving as many buffalo from destruction as possible. They surrender their previous life and lifestyle, and in return, are taken in and taken care of, provided with food, supplies, shelter, logistical support, camaraderie, and purpose, riding a swell of momentum that has been growing stronger every year. This is a conflict in which people don’t die, but is just as heart-wrenching as any cowboys and Indians story. In fact, it is cowboys and Indians, all over again. After hundreds of years, the story of the cattle versus buffalo rages on.
In the harsh winter of 1996-97, 1,083 buffalo were killed by agents of the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL), as the buffalo left Yellowstone Park for lower ground in search of food. The blood from this slaughter fertilized the ground on which Buffalo Nations—now known as BFC—was born. Ever since, more than 1,000 activists and thousands more supporters have rallied for the buffalo, with a large share of their support coming from Missoula. Meanwhile, the DOL has built a “bison capture facility,” recruited and deputized reinforcements, and chased buffalo with snowmobiles, helicopters and shotgun-fired “cracker rounds.” Thankfully, however, they haven’t had a winter nearly as bloody as 1996-97. This is largely due to the tireless work of BFC volunteers, who shepherd the buffalo back into the park before the DOL can get to them, and document the actions of the DOL so that the world can see what is happening to the last wild herd of buffalo on earth.
The official justification for this slaughter is that the Yellowstone bison herd contains animals that carry brucellosis, a bacteria that infects cattle, buffalo, elk, and humans. The DOL, as well as certain local ranchers, allege that the buffalo threaten to transmit brucellosis to local cattle.
Dan Brister, another UM Environmental Studies grad student, points out that “To date, there are no documented cases of buffalo naturally transmitting brucellosis to cows. And an estimated 100,000 of Yellowstone’s elk herd carry brucellosis as well. Elk are much more likely to intermingle with cattle than buffalo, and elk are all over Montana. Yet the DOL does not persecute elk. Why? Because elk bring in hunting dollars.”
Surrounded by a scattering of tipis and yurts, the log cabin BFC headquarters is retrofitted into a bunker and filled with a Tolkein-esque corps of hardened recruits. Resembling hobbits, elves, goddesses, wizards, and the occasional human, these grungy warriors appear and vanish into the labyrinth of ladders and sleeping chambers, amid the laughter and chatter of a tight-knit group that is single-minded in its collective purpose. But instead of the military hierarchy that rules traditional armies, this troop is governed by the principle of consensus, a sometimes grueling process whereby everyone has the right to speak, and nothing gets decided until everyone agrees. Ultimately, every decision comes down to what is best for the buffalo.
Even during Spring Break, no alcohol may be consumed in the cabin. This is probably a good thing, considering that wake-up is at 4:15 a.m., with five patrols leaving each morning. By 5:30 a.m., a man whom DOL agents have dubbed “Johnny 2Knives” leads the North Madison patrol over the crusty snow to the observation point. Knappy-haired, soft spoken, and wearing a thin shirt open at the neck, 2Knives possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the scientific, legal, and political issues of Yellowstone’s bison. Not long after we arrive at the observation point, 2Knives has a fire going.
The patrol includes Brian Huntington of Missoula, a recent UM graduate. Brian decided to rally a flock of Spring Breakers to West Yellowstone because, as he puts it, “We are close to a momentum shift. If enough people turn out to protest and help, then the DOL won’t have enough manpower to arrest us all, and nowhere to put us. They will need to erect a ‘BFC Capture Facility,’ and recruit and deputize more agents, and that would raise the profile of their whole operation to the point where the public won’t tolerate this persecution of a national symbol.”
BFC has never been better poised to capitalize on a momentum shift. Over the years, their base of support has widened like a groundwater plume. With this added support, they are now able to widen their focus beyond keeping the buffalo out of immediate harm’s way. BFC is pursuing legal, political, and scientific channels for their work. All along, BFC has cultivated close ties to Native American groups.
A message cackles on the radio: Help is needed with three buffalo grazing outside the park on the south side of the Madison River. The buffalo soldiers pack up and move to a bluff overlooking the animals, eyes peeled for DOL agents. Below, BFC skiers coax the animals back into the park. Next to the humans, the buffalo are enormous creatures; the sound of their breathing and movement is sublime. They finally turn around, cross the road, and head back into the park. It is a textbook BFC operation, beneath the caw of ravens, the graceful wings of a trumpeter swan, and a group of three blue herons flying east.
Later that day Katherine Romano is dressed as a dead buffalo when the “All-Species March” stops in front of a Day-Glo orange line spray-painted in the snow. The parade features costumed members of the Yellowstone ecosystem, as well as larger-than-life puppets of a DOL agent and Judy Martz.
Behind the line, four DOL agents and one security guard for the DOL’s Horse Butte bison capture facility stand with wide stances, prepared to arrest any trespassers. One DOL agent has a wire coming from his ear. They all have cameras. DOL agent Shane Grube sits atop his snowmobile, revving the two-stroke engine.
The march breaks into performance, part comedy and part tragedy, that conveys their feelings toward the DOL about their actions against the buffalo and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The show includes a scene in which the governor puppet, carried by Dan Brister, makes a romantic pass at Grube, who remains stoic-faced behind the line, although the security guard doesn’t stifle his amusement. Bowling pins are set up on the snowy forest service road, each pin marked “DOL.” The species of Yellowstone take turns bowling, amid festive cheers, a reminder, as someone points out, that nature bowls last.
The DOL agents watch from behind the line, spectators at a sporting event of the absurd, as the ball rolls toward the pins. The way their attentive eyes follow the rolling ball, it seems that, despite their antagonism, the DOL agents want their turn to bowl too. And when one woman dressed as a trumpeter swan closes the ceremony by leading the group in a sweetly mournful rendition of “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam…” everyone within earshot on both sides of the Day-Glo line is haunted by his or her own personal reason why they are there at Horse Butte.
Although the Spring Break events in West Yellowstone are called “Week of Action,” every week at the Buffalo Field Campaign can be considered a “Week of Action.” And the same can be said for the other Spring Break activities. Art, ecology, and education aren’t bound by time and space, and we would all do well to remember that. As for the intrepid ecologists in the high Sapphires, they got dumped on by more than two feet of snow. And then the skies cleared, the mountains appeared in all their glory, and it was not a problem.