Last night, just moments before the sun went behind the ridge, I stopped along Prickly Pear Creek just a little south of East Helena. There, the creek runs between two ridges and has been used and abused for years, by locals who toss beer cans and garbage in the gulch,and by hunters who discard elk and deer carcasses after taking what meat and trophy parts they want to keep.
I had driven by this creek numerous times, though I hadn’t stopped until now. I had Sam with me and we both wanted to get out someplace new. So, this is where we ended up. I had to keep Sam on a leash for this walk – if I hadn’t, he would have availed himself of the opportunity to douse with that special fragrance loved by dogs — “Eau de Carcasse.” There were at least 30 carcasses along the stretch of water we walked. Eeeuwww!
I had my camera with me, of course. The light was fading fast and I knew I had to hurry to catch it before nightfall. As I looked around for something that appealed to me — a scene or detail I might want to shoot, I thought about what many people have told me when they see my photographs of Montana — that I must live in Paradise, that Montana is so beautiful, pristine, that they want tovisit here, to see what (I) see.
Yet here I was, scanning this trashed-out, dumping place for some little detail to photograph. It was worse than a garbage dump. This creek with its sad parking spots, its lovers’ lane, its game carcasses strewn in the bushes … this damaged wetland was a stark testimonial of how little we humans care for the earth.
In anger, I almost turned right around to leave. But something in the water caught my eye. A beaver dam, breached in the middle, icy willow branches bravely stacked against the winter, against the beavers’ predators. The little dam was something I needed to see last night – it was a glimmer of optimism, of hope, in this trashed out riverbottom.
I sat for a few minutes, just feet from the large ribcage of an elk. I scolded Sam for being too interested in the bones. He put his head on his paws and watched me shoot — quickly — as the light changed and the water shape-shifted.
I wanted to redeem my species somehow, to reach back in time, find the memory of who this little dancing creek had once been, before the cement plant started polluting the waters, before people started using the valley as an unofficial dump and drinking place … I wanted to catch the narrow slice of sky reflected in Prickly Pear Creek. I wanted to remember, with my mind’s eye and my camera, the way graceful branches danced with the current.
I tossed a stone just upstream of the beaver dam. I clicked and clicked the camera shutter until I could see only the beauty of water, of evening, of a beaver’s industry and natural design …
until I could see
only the deep
blue sky and black
branches and golden
light swimming in
This is how to see the place where you belong.
This is how to love
the places you spend your days and nights.
Look under the surface
love the beauty you find there
no matter where you are.