The road is empty, and the country is still empty. Immediately to the west tower the castles and crags of the Rocky Mountains, while the Great Plains sprawl to the east. Along this seam, there is no middle ground; you are either in the mountains or on the plains. In April I like to travel along the edge of these mountains up to Freezeout Lake, the vast marsh just north of Choteau, Montana, that is to migrating waterfowl in the Rockies what Atlanta or Dallas– Fort Worth airports are to human travelers: the hub. Not every duck and goose flying north in the spring pauses at Freezeout Lake—it is shallow and it freezes solid before any other large body of water in Montana, though it also thaws out first. But when the many who do are there, resting for a few days before continuing on up to the prairie potholes of northern Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, it seems as though all the waterfowl in the world have converged there for those few hours in that one place in the world that they most need, at this one certain time.
When you get out of the car, the first thing that strikes you is the sound. Through the windshield of your car you have already seen the spectacle, tens or even hundreds of thousands of snow geese rising and falling to and from the lake, cyclones ascending and descending as if it is here that the secret sorcery of the world to come is being performed. And it is a phenomenon, all right; it stills your heart, mesmerizes you to see so many birds in the sky.
But the sound is what floors you. Even from a thousand yards away, you feel it as much as hear it. It comes in waves and pulses, like magnificent applause: a quarter of a million geese braying joyfully at the tops of their lungs. The marshy soil vibrates with it. You vibrate with it. It doesn’t matter how long or hard a winter it’s been for you, when you see and hear that many geese singing, calling so enthusiastically, with all of their struggles behind them, there is no way you can any longer hold onto your own.
Something else may be passing this way in the not-too-distant future, a different sort of migration: great machines nosing out the scent of money. Hundreds of pieces of mining equipment on tractor trailers, cylinders 30 feet high and 200 feet long, creeping up a winding, windswept icy road toward Canada, moving inexorably toward the nesting grounds of these same geese. The equipment comes from South Korea and is used to extract the tar sands in the largest industrial project in the world, operated by Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil. There’s a desire by some to build a pipeline through the center of the United States—the Keystone XL pipeline—in order to send the tar sands oil to ports in the Gulf of Mexico, where it could then be shipped to China.
I’m alarmed. Tar sands oil is dirty oil—it takes four barrels of water to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, and four barrels of regular oil have to be burned to extract ten barrels of tar sand oil. Some call it “conflict-free” oil since we are not currently at war with Canada, but buying this oil raises our deficit just as surely as if we were buying it from Tripoli, and the native people who live around the giant mine would not call it conflict-free. They are getting ill and even dying at rates far in excess of those recorded anywhere else in the country, and they believe the chemicals used to extract the tar sands are the reason.
I go back to town and walk into the old stone courthouse, to visit with two of the three commissioners of Teton County. The afternoon sun shining through the dusty upstairs windows casts a lull on all three of us. The commissioners support the heavy haul and I don’t, but we’re civil, we don’t even spar. They say some Exxon folks were already out here and promised they wouldn’t tear up the county roads or do any harm. They show me a report from Exxon that says as much. They say that folks in the rest home will probably enjoy watching the big trucks creep through town.
There’s said to be oil and gas beneath Choteau as well: not just in Canada’s tar, beneath the leafy green lungs of Alberta’s boreal forest. Leases are being taken all over Teton County, as acid-fracking drillers chase the ever-deepening Bakken shale; out here on the prairie, at the base of the mountains, there is a new stirring, after so long a time of silence, of no movement besides wind and birds and the cycles of the seasons. As best as I can tell, a lot of folks in Choteau are bored, here at the end of winter, and eager to join the brotherhood of oil. They are not yet concerned about what the deep toxic acid-fracturing might do to their water supplies and their farming and irrigating livelihoods.
I bid the commissioners a wan good day, having done all I could, and stop off at the lake on my way out of town. The geese, sated from their time in the farmers’ fields, are coming back to the shallow lake as if pulled by a magnet. As if this might be their source and they must vanish back into it as if drawn down into a vortex, back to some deeper, hidden place in the world where such natural phenomena originate: where they are stored, and where they come from. As they come back from feeding in the fields, their cries seem more jubilant. Surely they have no idea what is transpiring below.
I watch the bounty. The sky is filled with sentences of hundreds of thousands of geese, entire white words in the blue sky, forming and re-forming, the birds’ wings tipped as if into vials of the blackest of ink, the words streaming away as if on unseen currents.
I stand in the middle of perfection. There is no one else around me. The cries of the geese are beautiful. They hold only joy, not a trace of fear.
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