Photography And Half-Thoughts By Mitchell Hegman

...because some of it is pretty and some of it is not.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tinkering With Extinction

I am known as ‘the weed man’ or ‘the bug man’ due to my near-obsession with noxious weeds and my purchases of insects (often at the cost of a dollar per insect) to release as a controlling agent in my battle against exotics. I often write letters to the county and to adjacent landowners to either chide them or inform them of an infestation. People sometimes bring weed specimens to me so I can identify them. Everywhere I go during the warm months I leave behind a trail of uprooted invaders.
The insects are the latest and probably most hopeful agent in our now constant war one invading species. More and more, scientists are coming to understand that our burgeoning problems with weeds may only be controlled with biological mechanisms, by importing into this country some of the insects and bacteria and fungi that are natural enemies where the exotic originated. I have, in recent years, purchased moths that subsist by eating only the roots of certain knapweeds, beetles that eat knapweed flowerheads, beetles that attack only the flowerheads of dalmatian toadflax. Most all the species of insects available are host specific. Furthermore, some weeds—toadflax, knapweed, and leafy spurge—have so overtaken the landscapes out West they are considered the greatest threat to both the lanscape and the agrarian economy.
I am not simply being alarmist on this. At present, Montana has somewhere between four and six million acres infested with knapweed. Leafy spurge and toadflax are running up along the flanks. Throughout history we have seen, once they are somehow introduced, exotic and invasive species crashing through our paradise time and time again—plants, animals, and disease alike. Consider the impact of smallpox on the Native American populations. Whole tribes were ravaged once the Old World settlers introduced the disease into the “biologically naive” New World population. The Algonquin population plummeted from 30,000 to 300. Some estimates put the loss of Mexico’s natives due to the smallpox epidemic at nearly seventy-five percent. Closer to home, the Mandan population fell to a mere thirty-one survivors following a three-year epidemic that ended in 1840. A startling ninety-eight percent of infected Plains Indians perished.
Consider, also, how the accidentally introduced brown tree snake is currently liquidating the bird and rodent populations of several islands where no natural predator exists to hold the serpent numbers in check. Even the kindly frog and rabbit have devastated lands when they abruptly appeared without natural enemies to hold their numbers down. Here in Montana, the introduction of fresh water shrimp into Flathead Lake (from stock gathered in the Great Lakes) virtually wiped-out the entire salmon fishery. The shrimp, ironically enough, were meant to be a food supplement for the fish. Instead, they began competing with them. Montana has recently seen whirling disease run rampant through our legendary river and stream trout populations. And now a tiny snail from New Zealand is infesting some waters, out-competing the food species required by our fish. The fish will starve to death eating the plentiful snails because their shell is indigestible and protects the soft lout inside. Like Jonah in the Bible, most snails survive being swallowed by the fish.
A glance outside your window as you drive just about anywhere through our state will reveal how severe our noxious weed problem has become. The weeds have altered the handsome face of our state, promoted erosion, replaced our blonde fall grasses with grotesque brown tangles, usurped the forage desired by both domestic and game species.Some scientists fear we are on the verge of mass, worldwide extinctions of unprecedented rapidity—one that is now taking hold of an alarming range of species, all brought about by us, by our altering of critical habitats, by our ever increasing injection of exotic species (plant, animal, insect, fungus, bacteria) into permissive environments were they thrive and over-produce without check at the expense native species. This would be the sixth “great extinction” to beset Earth, something along the lines of the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, which occurred sixty-three million years ago and left mammals walking while all the dinosaurs perished. Some earlier events are thought to have killed off over ninety percent of all life forms. I am just nutty enough to worry. The logic of all this is clear to me. You can’t take up half the space and expect all the test of the critters to maintain their numbers. A parking lot, after all, is not a forest.

--Mitchell Hegman

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Single Thought

People who require a “good reason” to take action make excellent paper weights.

--Mitchell Hegman

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sorrow and Bird

In sharp flames, like knives gnashing
he burned the stiffened bluebird
he’d found crumpled at the lilac’s toe.
In life and in death
he’d always imagined more possibilities,
a prettier aster under the dulling cellophane,
love not a vine, but a wick running deep.

Why shouldn’t men flap their arms and fly?
Why not birds riding red bikes
or moo-cows raking the fallen leaves?
And the world, he assumed,
would do as well flat as round,
given that you must travel so far removed
to make any sense of the shape.
What use a circle, a globe, a whole planet
when you can stand only on a single flat place
at any given time?

Of what use death
if you cannot be alive as well?

Basketed in weaves of quackgrass and knapweed,
fuming, smoldering,
the bird’s wings pulled into tinseled fists—
closing, closing,
just before erupting brightly,
a new thing, ephemeral.
A new thing.

--Mitchell Hegman

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Here, The Landscape Screams

Wallace Stegner, writing about how Easterners visiting the West often fail to appreciate the drama and stark beauty of our desertic West, noted that, to appreciate the West, you must first “get over green.” This is certainly true to some measure. But you do not have to do entirely without. Often the green is on a smaller scale. Sometimes, you have to seek. Here, for much of the year, the landscape might only be daubed with the occasional green: there in a catchment among the rocks, again, along the shaded base of the mountain, stumbling alongside the fidgeting river and stream.
The beauty here is often more in the rockslide splashed in pinks, or maybe whaleblue across the flank of a mountain kicking almost straight up from a serpentine road you have no choice but to follow. Perhaps the most lovely thing is in how the clouds pour right through a notch between high powderhorn peaks. A single hawk hurled like a dusky flower and then caught by unremitting blue sky might be enough to give you pause. Here, the landscape erupts, screams, dives, gallops, crashes against you, then, at once, makes you halt in reverence, in what might almost be fear, when you discover yourself a dot, a spec, pressed against the leisurely rolls and sage-scented horizon to horizon expanse of the Northern Plains, the whole sky funneling clouds in overtop you. Nothing in this world gives me more reason for reflection than those moments when I drive up over a rise and see before me a narrow and empty road looping—vanishing here and appearing there—ten or fifteen miles through hills and rockface scarps before it draws tight and small as a thread and connects to the base of a new range of mountains.
But we are not without our green. In Montana, while our springtime days might be brief and bookended by snowstorms, they are often spectacularly green and ludicrously rich in wildflowers. I have twice in my life driven up upon meadows so blue with flowers I mistook them for lakes at first glance. I have seen hillsides so yellow with balsamroot heads you have to study to find the green of grass underneath them. I have come upon springtime places where the diversity and concentration of wildflowers is such that you might, from a single position sitting on the grass, pluck the flower off a shootingstar, a lupine, a fairy slipper, a balsamroot, a mountain dandelion, a paintbrush, a penstemon, an arnica, and a northern bedstraw—that, while ignoring altogether the wild strawberries, huckleberries, and half-dozen less tasty berry plants there. Some places in our mountains remain green from the end of April until the end of September—the green there held fast by snow at each end. And today, massaged by spring rain, our valley, the high and the low, all of the fastidious in-betweens, all has come green. Bluebirds dance the brief symmetry of low clouds, and all the whizzing things whiz, and the buzzing buzz.

--Mitchell Hegman

Spring Squall

Will you look at us now—battered as we stand rigid in our valley by squalls tumbling black over tourmaline, tourmaline over what might have once been a kind of white. The high, snow-gilded mountains have crawled away from around us, surely they have, and rain drives hard into last years ginger grasses. The once open and rolling expanse closing. But the reward, the reward to this sparsely peopled land, once the storm recedes, will be the prancing green of freshened spring, the new bird chanting, the snow and stone mountains gathering us up once again.

--Mitchell Hegman