Summer on the Sweet Grass

Notes from a Montana ranch

© 2019 Richard Neill
© 2019 Richard Neill

For eight summers, my wife Elizabeth and I rented a little white house in the middle of a 25,000-acre ranch in Sweet Grass County, Montana. The county comprises almost 1,900 square miles, one-and-a-half times the size of Rhode Island. Fewer than 4,000 people live there, of whom about 1,600 live in the county seat, Big Timber. Our house, 28 miles from town, sat in a chain of meadows ringed by cottonwood forest, with the Sweet Grass Creek running alongside. To the west rose the Crazy Mountains. To the east we could see across a hundred miles of prairie. At night, from horizon to horizon, not one electric light was visible.

Most of the time, Elizabeth remained in San Francisco working on her start-up company, and I was alone, albeit accompanied by our cat Isabel. During those eight summers I kept a journal, from which these passages are drawn.


Melville, Montana, June 5

After two summers of climatic cruelty—flood, drought, and a winter that threatened a dry forever—an ordinary Montana spring has set in: rain machine-gunning the metal roof all night; wind lashing the house like Paul Bunyan’s ox whip; low, gray days when the mercury struggles toward 50 and gives up; and mornings like today, when I wake to the Crazy Mountains resplendent white down to the timberline, under blue-defining-blue sky.

Our cat Isabel, not yet two years old—wherever that puts her in terms of maturity (youth, I can say that much)—after enduring, without complaint, confinement in her kennel in the thrumming M3 and two nights in motel rooms reeking of chemical solvents and artificial fabrics, is as happy as that sky is blue. We play “Race to the Face,” a game in which I place my chin on the corner post of the pole fence while she trots as fast as she can from the far corner to touch her cold nose to mine.

She charges up the cottonwoods to about 10 feet, for the feel of it in her claws, for the challenge of balancing on fragile little branches and finding her way down. She sproings across the lawn and into the high grass beyond in pursuit of phantom prey. She sits regally erect on the porch and surveys her demesne. When I return from the creek, she bounds toward me with front legs spread wide on each bound, in what looks like a gesture of embrace—much like the gesture she used to make when she was a kitten that meant, “Pick me up”—and when she arrives at my feet, she curls and curvets in her more mature way of asking the same. Then we walk in the driveway together, and she grovels in the gravel—graveling, I call it—rubbing herself till she’s dusty, grainy, her white feet tan, in what’s actually a dry bath.

On the prairie, the long-billed curlews and marbled godwits are nesting, and they dive-bomb me with shrieks of home defense. The curlews’ alarm call is a melodious frédérique, frédérique, and their warning flights are long, graceful circles that often end with the goofy-looking creature (what a schnoz!) not far away, giving me the stay-away eyeball. The godwits take everything more seriously. Sometimes they will fly straight at you, which can be quite unsettling until you know that they always veer away. Their call is a harsh, panicky screech. None of them ever gives a clue to the location of its nest, and I’ve never seen one.

I walked out as far as a flooding irrigation ditch and was still city-prissy enough that I didn’t want to get my feet wet. I was about to turn around when I heard an inconceivably loud buzzing. It must have been a hundred thousand bees, I thought, maybe a million, some sort of epochal swarm. “Turning around would be a good idea,” I said to myself. “Do I want to get stung to death?” Then, “This is once in a lifetime, the biggest bee-lek in the world.” I recalled that the bees in these besotted all-male riots aren’t interested in anything but themselves, so what the hell. I waded on across the ditch, and suddenly the immense sound was behind me. How could that be? It turned out that the umpty zillion bees were in fact about 200 very loud bees, and they were all zooming around at an altitude of one inch above a patch of half-drowned, crummy little mustard plants, the kind that grow in the beat-upest, stomped-onest dirt road beds. These were half underwater so that only their flowers were showing, and the little bees—sweat bees, we used to call them when I was growing up in Memphis—were going mad over the flowers. I waded right through them and they paid absolutely no attention to me.

The Night Sky

Melville, June 8

One of the best things about being here on the Sweet Grass is walking in starlight. The website delineates four successive deepenings of darkness:

• Ordinary sunset, which tonight will occur at 9:08. Under a sky this clear, it should still be bright enough to read a small-font King James Bible.

• Civil twilight, “when the sun is no more than six degrees below the horizon … and the brightest stars should be visible.” That will begin at 9:46 p.m.

• Nautical twilight, to come at 10:36 p.m., “when the sun is between six and 12 degrees below the horizon … and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light.”

• Astronomical twilight, what I call absolute darkness, which will last barely more than three hours tonight, from 11:45 p.m. to 2:53 a.m.

There is no moon. I anticipate a darkness in which I cannot see my feet on the gravel drive, nor my hand in front of my face.

Darkness this pure is an occasion for all kinds of seriousness—for fear, for gladness, for love, for gratitude, for ghosts and grief, for wishes and hope. As I walk in the starlit dark, such specificities fade into an interior stillness, which in turn effloresces into an opening of the physical senses. Then it seems time to stop walking, to sit down and just listen, smell, feel, breathe.

Soon enough, I find that the darkness is not dark, the stillness is not still, the quiet is not quiet. I get cold and begin to walk home. But something has happened, something good and deep.

By midnight, at the fourth degree of darkness, objects will be invisible. There will be a loss of horizon, a black dark. So says the forecast, but there is nothing of the kind. At 12 straight up, the sunset is still streaking the western sky with orange and purple. To the east, a brownish vapor dome hangs over Billings. That reflective effluvium may be nasty gases from the oil refineries there, or innocent Yellowstone River mist. Over this meadow there is natural vapor in the air. The stars do not shine at the horizon as they do on a perfectly clear night.

Then there are the airplanes, half a dozen of which are visible at any given moment, and the satellites, politely silent as they skim behind clouds so gossamer as to be invisible. I know that a lot of the satellites are dead, space-junk, and I know that others, when I’m looking at them so benignantly, are actually looking down at us not benignantly at all. I willfully employ them as reminders to force on myself a simulacrum of faith, in the same way that I pray aloud in church, repeating words I don’t believe, in order to occupy the shape of belief.

In our damaged world, in our imperfect starlight, in what we call wilderness, must we not walk in a certain degree of illusion? This may be the closest to perfect starlight I will ever see, and I had better love it while I have it.

Last Day

Melville, July 22

Melancholy so intense it shades to grief. The day is appropriate—dead-hot and still, the air alive only with fierce mosquitoes. The Sweet Grass is low, too low, robbed of more water than the irrigators upstream are entitled to. Nevertheless, this year, post-drought, the creek has scoured out a few long runs deep enough for good fish. They have had little botherment from me. Yesterday, I persuaded myself to go fishing and caught one brown trout about three inches long, then quit. This morning it was already too hot at 9.

The July nights have been cool, dry, and clear. Last night was the first time I’ve been sure that the great horned owls are back. After the fire six years ago, the pair that nested near this house disappeared. We loved those loud, deep hoots and the louder chirrups of the youngsters, who were always getting separated around the meadow and across the creek, and calling to each other:

—Where are you?


—But where are you now?

—I’m over here now!



Last night the moon was one crack short of full. Tonight it will reach its maximum glory, and not a cloud is expected.

Just off the driveway is a dead calf. I had smelled it for a while but hadn’t gone looking because it was in the unwalkable swamp. By last night, various critters had trampled the tall grass down enough to make a looking-path, and what a stench, what a sight. It looked as if the head was gone altogether, though more likely it was just folded under the body—nobody eats the head first. Much of the shoulder and neck, however, was thoroughly eaten away. I had heard coyotes singing a few nights before, far out on the prairie, but somehow this didn’t look like a coyote’s work, nor a bear’s. The hind leg was untouched. All of this gobbling had been done by the maggots seething in the meat. I have not seen or heard a single raven, which seems odd. A few years back, there was a dead cow not far from the same spot, and every day the leafless cottonwoods nearby were festooned with a whole funeral chorus of those solemn nonmourners. We have golden eagles here, too, and turkey vultures, and bald eagles—why haven’t I seen them in the sky above this feast of veal tartare? Every death has its mysteries.

My melancholy has been aided by a DVD of Truffaut’s The Last Métro, with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu at their best. The ending comes like a speeding but silent train. Has there ever been a woman more beautiful than Deneuve? Or an actor more powerful than Depardieu? Too bad he’s gone wacko over French taxes. He has fled to Russia and embraced Vladimir Putin, who has offered him the office of minister of culture of Mordovia, a Siberian region famous for its prison camps.

Elizabeth has come and all too quickly gone. When she was here, we climbed Porcupine Butte two different ways. It is a modest mountain in size, but majestic in its demeanor, rising alone from the prairie. Our first route was up its flank to a bench we had never known existed, a flat shelf of rocky ground covered with limber pines, nearly all dead, and one thriving Douglas-fir. I wondered if the living limber pines might be immune to both the mountain pine beetle and blister rust, and if they and their kin might therefore become founders of a new population.

We sidehilled south along the face of the butte, then hit a gorge, which we had never seen. It was unquestionably impassable for people. Across it, we saw two blond coyotes scrambling up the far wall, followed by fuzzy, stumbling cubs. One of them turned and looked at me for a long moment, one of the cutest, big-eyed, big-eared little puppies I’ve ever laid eyes on. I don’t think it had ever seen a person before.

A few days later, we took our regular way to the summit, up the long, grassy slope from the west—and oh, such flowers this year! We recorded 45 species in bloom. Porcupine Butte is “our” mountain, entirely on private land, and almost no one else ever goes there. It has black bears, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, even its own elk herd. Granted such beauty and tranquility, we try always to be grateful, knowing that no amount of gratitude is sufficient.

Since our hike, I have another source of gratitude: walking with Isabel. She and I have a regular route that I call the Special Walk, because at the turn-around point is an old, gnarled willow—the Special Tree—in whose branches she can climb, twist, and peek out at me. When I tell her it’s time to go home, she doesn’t want to come.

This morning Isabel made what I choose to see as a parting gesture. She came racing into the house with a tiny dark bird in her mouth, and deposited it next to her food bowl. When it skittered across the kitchen between my legs, she shot through the same wicket and bit that bird hard. I told her to take it outside, and—good kitty!—she did so directly, trotting right out the front door. She dumped the bird on the lawn, and it lay still. I thought it was a Western wood-pewee, of which there are many here, but the tiny body and long, pointy, turned-up tail said wren. Isabel gave the corpse a bop, and to the astonishment of both of us it took off flying, and landed on the M3’s windshield wiper. Isabel flew right behind it, chomped it, brought it back into the yard, dropped it, and walked away. No more flying.

Tomorrow Isabel gets locked in her box and I in mine, and off we go, to pastures new.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Thomas McNamee is the author of The Inner Life of Cats, The Killing of Wolf Number Ten, and other books.


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