Image: Photograph by Ron Kube
Image: Photograph by Ron Kube

I was in Hawaii, working on a story about whales—a big story, about big animals and the people who are drawn to them, a story that’s going to take months to write—and while out on the boat one windless day, heat-struck amid the shimmering blue, with whales singing and groaning far below, I was seized with an image of the Dalai Lama riding in the bow of a drift boat belonging to my friend Tim (an Orvis Endorsed Guide Conservationist of the Year) down the mighty Kootenai River of northwest Montana, my home.

I don’t know if His Holiness fishes or not. It takes a lot of time, so I would think perhaps not, but then again its essence is focus and patience, so perhaps he does; or if not, perhaps he might like it.

Is it compassionate to hook a fish in its bony fierce jaw with a tiny barbless hook, and pull the fish briefly closer, to marvel at the metallic palette of iridescent spots, the glory of an ancient and ongoing creation, before releasing it, unharmed, back to the river? I think I know the answer to that: Probably not, though of course we do far worse things to the planet and the animals on it, with less consideration, every hour of our lives.

But if the hook was problematic, he could just ride in the driftboat. He wouldn’t have to wave a fly rod. He could just pass over the big silver trout sculling beneath him in the deep blue waters of the Kootenai. Along the banks of the Kootenai—named for the First Nations people who lived here, who were a fish culture. In such a drift, he would know the river’s peace, for an hour or two, and rest. In the autumn, the larch trees on the steep mountains on either side of the river would blaze yellow and orange.

He’s coming very near the Kootenai. He’s coming to the Clark Fork River, to consecrate the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas, a long-held vision conceived by Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, and, hopefully, to bless the Clark Fork River. But it’s the secret, hidden river—the Kootenai, which is the bigger, deeper river, just over on the other side of the mountains—that I want him to see.

While the water in the Kootenai is clean and blue, the air in the valley has a troubled legacy. A lone mountain above the valley had its top sawed off to create what was once the world’s largest asbestos mine. Millions of tons of ore were extracted, and for decades, toxic dust, with its invisible fibers, swirled everywhere. Nearby Libby, Montana (pop. 2,900), has seen hundreds die of asbestosis over the years, and mesothelioma occurs at rates greater than thirty times what would statistically be expected. The mill closed in 1990, but the psychic wound lingers. It’s the most expensive Superfund site in the country—hidden far back in the beautiful mountains, with an economically challenged population— small and politically insignificant— tucked quietly beneath the damaged mountain.

This is supposed to be a column about animals, or at least the animal realm, not political activism, and so far all I have described is a spiritual leader drifting on a blue river in a green boat wearing a bright saffron robe in the fall. The leaves of aspen and cottonwood pasting themselves against the shoreline.

He’d see eagles, on his brief journey. He’d see deer and, who knows, maybe a black bear. A beaver, slapping its tail in the shallows. I’d like him to see and know the animals of my home. I know the demands on his time are unimaginable— everyone wants his time, his help, his compassion—but I like to think that my home, the most beautiful place in Montana, has something to give him, for once. That for once there could be some reciprocity, some balance.

Whether he’s a fisherman or not, I’d really like to see him with a fish on the line. I can see him laughing now. I can see the boat rowing down the river—the Kootenai, largest tributary to the mighty Columbia, on its way to the Pacific—and I can see my state, and country, remembering Oh yes, we have need for healing here, too. And I can imagine the scent of the clean mountain river water healing, if but for a little while, the spirit of one who has carried the spirits of so many others for so long.

Some of this desire of mine is about compassion. A little bit of it is the sense of a good story. But most of it is about the idea of taking versus giving. The mountains above the Kootenai have given—too much has been taken—and from that, lives were cut short, in beautiful country. It’s a place no one really goes to or knows about, the place just over the hill. We all know places and histories like that. A pustulous abyss sits where once a forested mountaintop was. You can’t see that from the river. To be honest, there’s a selfish part of me that imagines the political help that could continue to come to this region, by having not just the Clark Fork, but its neighbor, the Kootenai, blessed. But really, I just want to see those colors in the autumn, in Montana, and that broad smile.

A column on animals? I guess in this column, we are the animals. I think he would like fly fishing—the playfulness of it, and the mystery of what lies below, being occasionally and briefly manifested. But I know for a fact that he would enjoy the boat ride. Consider it an invitation from my friend Tim, then—an invitation for a few moments of rest in the busy life and exhausting demands of ceaseless compassion, and with the whole world a wound that is sometimes on its slow way to healing.

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