King Arthur was real, and so was Merlin, but the details are scant and centuries later the interpretations are just wild, romantic and varying, and we still love them. Interesting what we choose, time and again to recreate and retell in our stories. Patterns re-emerge like the cycles of waves rolling in and out or the gold thread woven throughout the castle tapestry. I imagine King Arthur here again, his enchanted sword named Caliburn, (also called Excalibur) raised and ready, and Merlin the Enchanter by his side in full glorious costumes. They sit now in my imagination as described by another writer, on powerful draft horses, black for Merlin, white for the king —timeless reflections of our own hopes, strengths and dreams.

Dear Arthur,

You are on my mind lately because I just finished reading all four of Mary Stewart’s books on your life and times. We call it legend because historians or scribes do not have a lot of details recorded, and so our imaginations fly like birds, well sometimes bats, but we still love and honor the stories.

You were one of the earth’s most celebrated leaders. You met the consequences of your decisions honorably. So I want your advice on our present times, which are still conflicted 1100 centuries later. In your times and up until recently, we the people were kept ignorant, purposefully not taught to read, and certainly not allowed to vote. Not so now. Everyone is free to know,…almost everything, and may speak freely. Remember how communication was in your day? A message to Merlin, or to Queen Guinevere back home at Camelot, or to neighboring kings took a trusted King’s Courier (a soldier on the best horse,) at the very least a full day of hard riding to reach the recipient. Sometimes they got ambushed by robbers or traitors. Well, now we have gizmos that….. lets just say information is instant, like when Merlin appeared in your mind or in dreams with critical warnings. That fast we can get it now. It seems like magic.

But the world, Arthur, certainly Middle America, is up in arms, so divided. Everyone’s hair is on fire, as we say, meaning differences of opinion get heated and spark fiery debate, and bloody battles, still. “Been there done that” you say, Arthur? I nod. You might be disappointed that we haven’t come very far where it matters—towards harmony and respect among all people—but the Round Table somewhat caught on thanks to you. We have something similar called United Nations, but, just as you experienced, when you succeed in gathering a diverse group of powerful men in a room, there are no guarantees, because man is man, full of want and need and greed.

The battlefield is no longer filled with volleys of arrows or smoking fireballs catapulting into castle walls; no more armor and swords clanking, but we still battle much the same in motive and sadly, with far more devastating death counts at times. We have developed very powerful weapons of destruction. We have gangs of rebels, and mercenaries called terrorists. I wonder what you would do in this age with all the wisdom and experience you gained in the 5th century—if you were King again. You wanted peace, though you were the greatest warrior. With Respect, Always, , jj the scribe. P.S.Wish you were here.

Dear Merlin,

We still love our magicians and sorcerers. Our legends and stories are still about bad guys, good guys, and sometimes evil creatures from the dark side of life. And yet I feel that underneath it all is still and always just the good guys wanting to protect the land and people from plundering intruders or feuding neighbors. Could it be that simple? In any case, presently, in the month of March in the year 2016 A.D, the news is that the present high tide of strife in our world is a historic precedent. But I hear you I think say it is as old and full of drama, betrayal, and mischief as Mankind, and I nod and know it’s older than you can imagine. Our ancient ancestors even before your time, fought over who got the girl, or in your case, which witch got the magician—no offense —and we have never stopped fighting over who gets to be leader. I sense you nod solemnly. You’d be amazed at our fireside stories and magical moving visions we make. Most of them are not so different than your times, and sometimes we tell the old stories from the 5th century for love of their bravery and adventure, and the excellent and imaginative costumes.

You sometimes wished that you didn’t get the visions, which were usually pretty scary. You used to escape from human conflict whenever you could, hide in your crystal cave, and play your harp. You said it calmed your heart, reconnected you to spirit, and strengthened your soul. I relate. My mind goes on vacation when I cannot escape places. I envision in my mind the nearby forest with a nice walk to a great water fall, where I can feel the powerful misty magic as you would say—we call them ions now. Or I go in memory to the sun lit seaside and watch the big waves break. I stand in the wet sand (which is made of millions of years of ground up crystals and minerals, by the way.) When the sparkly tide rushes up with choirs of singing and popping bubbles around my feet I feel the magic there too. Time stands still for a second, as the living water stops and retreats, rushing back to it’s Source, the great sea, to go through it over again and again yet in different forms and places and times. Cycles and seasons are the steadfast patterns of life, right Merlin? [Did you just say “pretty good visions for a simple village scribe?” Thanks.]

…and Merlin added… “Be Light of Heart and daily walk in peace. It is strength, and draws the flow of truth and right decision. Sing poems and play the harp around the campfire. It keeps you and those around you in harmony with the gods.”

(published in Park County Community Journal April 1, 2016)

Image Credit: King-Arthur-Excalibur-Movie- Warner-Bros.-2014

castle cropped

Princess in search of hero: inquire within.

Soft snowflakes fell on a lonely castle high on a hill, somewhere far far away…but still in our galaxy. The lovely princess Anna Thea looked at the gray daylight from the narrow slit in the thick wall of the dark tower in which she was locked. Fireflies twinkled in her fair hair, or more likely diamonds reflecting the fire in the hearth. She wore a long flowing pale green satin gown under a lush white, gem-dotted fur lined-robe that trailed around her as she paced.

Anna Thea had just bribed the handsome, helmeted (and well built) tower guard, Gerod, to find and bring the old witch in the forest to her. Because the old crone had a reputation with the villagers for healing and wise counsel and because Anna Thea, despite a pretty appearance was confused and afraid. Gerod found a temporary replacement and did the princess’s bidding.

Some hours later, the heavy iron tower door creaked slowly open at last and a small, bent over hooded figure with a cane hobbled in. Gerod looked nervously behind him and slammed the heavy iron door closed again with a loud clank making the old woman jump and swear, but she squared her narrow old shoulders, and pushed back the hood of her dark old cloak to reveal an ancient lined face with dark sparkling eyes. Little feathers tied to her thin white tresses lifted up in invisible waves of energy. The Crone smiled big displaying only a few teeth but with great warmth and affection.

Anna Thea caught her breath at this stunning sight, and ran to embrace her. “Oh Corinda!” sobbed the princess and she spilled her story without any commas and then cried, “What is happening to me?! Why am I here?!”  The crone was silent for a long moment, then took the princess’s hand and held it to her cool wrinkled cheek. The princess looked into the ageless depth of those dark eyes, and then the Crone spoke in a surprisingly soft and motherly tone:

“In the dark corners of doubt you hide from who you really are inside,
you sabotage, ignore and resist who you are.
Outer circumstances reflect this conflict,
so real the stone prison tower and the physical plane,
but compared to who you are inside, it’s walls are light as rain.
The invisible One let manifest this hard and lonely state;
to teach you that this prison you yourself did create!”

Tears of release crept down the princesses alabaster cheeks, but she cleared her throat and said, “Excuse me? Maybe I wasn’t making myself clear. I woke up and found myself here! Everything is so dark and cold and drear! I cry for help and nobody hears but the wolves in the forest, who howl and mock my fears. Oh but I could squeeze out that window!,…alas made only wide enough for arrows,…and I would jump.” Then the princess fell into a slump.

Corinda the Forest Crone rolled her eyes and sighed and slapped the princess (not very hard…) and took out a wand and waved it. With a tinkling sound like shattering wine glasses, the princess’s posh clothes turned into those of a peasant girl. Anna Thea gasped and curled her lip and said, “why did you do that?” and the Crone took her by the hand, led her to sit near the fireplace and said, “lets have a little chat.”

Continued next issue.

Los Angeles City College, Political Science class, front row, center.   I am 18, in a tailored dress, self conscious and feeling out of place.   I stared into the dark dynamic eyes of Dr. Kalionzes, the popular Political Science teacher, and concentrated hard on his lectures. But I barely understood the concepts and I did not get any “ah hahs,” certainly no mental pictures came to me from “Political Science,”… a contradiction in terms isn’t it? But then, I was a Secretarial Science major, which was just as incongruous.  In a private session with Dr. K, I said I was having trouble understanding the subject. He looked at me quietly for a few seconds and replied,“Why don’t you just get married and have kids?” (Ow!) I was stunned. The Psych prof did something similar when he told us that if we did not have a Stanford I.Q. score above 115 we did not belong in school.

Dr. K gave me some study tools and in the end, a “D” because he was kind. I look back now and appreciate his candor—I was a sensitive young woman unsure of herself and probably looked like I needed a husband. It’s not an insult, more simply an honest observation.  I did not comprehend things quickly, and then not like other kids did. Maybe he read that in me too. But the following is the gem of great worth I took away from his class:  One day the “old” student,…around 40.., raised her hand for the first time. She had some gray in her shoulder length black hair, and a calm knowing about her. After listening to the young students argue around an issue, she raised her hand and spoke softly; the class got still:

“Not everything is so black and white. There is a great deal of importance in the shades of gray that lies in between.”

And I got the ah hahs.  I saw black and white squares in my mind, with soft stokes of grays and color dancing between. Balance. I could paint that concept!   But alas I tumbled out of City college after a meltdown from academic stress.  I ran crying out of my shorthand class in the middle of fast dictation. I confess too, a broken heart—my boyfriend skipped a Marine Corp reserve meeting and was sent into active duty overseas (there’s another “ow” for you). Not wanting to be left home alone, sulking over my losses, I got a job in a friendly bakery and iced cakes which was fun, and earned passage on a Cruise ship to Australia where I had one life adventure after another. Twenty years later, around 40…, I was literally corralled back to college in San Jose by my step daughter.  I took a painting class or two, and  sculpture classes, and art history. One day I got a letter that said I was on the Dean’s list and I still grin when I think of it today, 20 years later.

Those spooky kids who gazed out the public schoolroom windows, miles away in imagination, who got Ds, or couldn’t spell or were delinquent, or shy, who we teased or who became rebels, or who ended up in dumbo English class like me, but could draw good or could just smell a 57 Chevy and know how to fix it?  We all know them. You might even be one. We all have that in us some place.  In our culture, that “something different”  is the yeast in the bread.  Just as I refine my writing over and over, and sometimes submit to the editor what might not be with mainstream thought,..I go with that something inside me anyway, and fan the flame when I find it out there, specially in kids. That little “ah ha!” thing, playful but really indescribable, hugely valuable, somewhere in between.


Yellowstone River Paradise Valley, Montana

Ron and I and dogs went down to the river to play the other day. It was so good to be outside finally, without gloves, temps around 40, a little wind. It did not make me think spring, I just enjoyed the welcome contrast, the reprieve from the blowzy-freezy stuff we have dealt with so much lately.  Just being outside without ski mask, boots, etc.

The coat I have on in the photo is rose red, soft wool with a great hood, and long enough arms for once, which I quickly grabbed off a rack at the Community Closet. If any of our dear readers recognizes it—I love it! Already broken in, feels like a hug, and it holds a lot of stuff in the pockets—I get lots of compliments and it’s a wonder that you surrendered it at all. but that is the fun of second hand stores, a great circle of giving and a kick when you find just what you need or simply want, for only a few bucks.

My red arms “hold the history of the earth” to quote a comment on this photo by a friend. And there is nothing so authentic and “made in Montana” as river rocks. I collected the ones that I am holding because I saw faces or scenes in them while my husband Ron, a true rock hound, picks up rocks because they have unusual geological significance but we appreciate each others finds. I have already sketched those faces on a couple and plan to paint some. Next rock hunt, and for those of you who want to, you’ll be glad you remembered to take a bucket.

Someone commented that the ice slabs in this photo are called  “floes.” I Googled ice floes and found a long list of terms for ice formation variations. I looked for the right one so that I could impress readers with facts, and I liked this one…“Icefoot,” which has 2 meanings: A narrow fringe of ice attached to the coast, unmoved by tides and remaining after the fast ice has moved away. Or, and I favor this one— Sasquatch competing in Olympic figure skating, [snort, giggle…] Close but no cigar? Okay! An ice slab is still an ice slab by any other name, and all this will be null and void anyway because by the time this issue comes out there will probably…not be any i.c.e. left on the river?

I enjoy my photo blog for the interesting and always positive input from commenters who have become as friends, all over the world, and I enjoy reciprocating the praise, which is another circle of giving. I credit my British blog friend Ronnie for the cool comment about this photo: “I am holding the history of the world in my arms,” as well as another who informed me about the “floe” bit.  If you want to take a casual photo stroll around Paradise Valley, here is the blog:

These past few weeks we have been laying around near the wood burner—Ron and me and dogs and parrots—reading a lot, sometimes listening to classical music and dozing, getting up to go swimming at Chico, or walking when the wind occasionally forgets to challenge us. Like bears we have gone within for some needed hibernation. But I feel like I am dreaming while I hibernate when I walked around the beach looking for faces in million year old river rocks. It put me in an ageless right-brained frame of mind like where little kids naturally live — in the Now— a very nice place to hang out.


Where would I be without a notebook to write the sometimes grumbling, often exciting,  nagging or inspired ideas that will not leave me alone.  I  have written my way from depression to well-being in pages of my journals over the years, and some good ideas have been born in them.  How fortunate I am to have this drive so strong that it has not gone away since the shoe box of pen palls I kept organized at eight years old.   That is enough to call myself a writer.

I also write as newspaper correspondent covering human interest events in the eclectic place where I live in south central Montana.  Here traditional ranchers rub elbows with modern city transplants,  actors and artists,  Natives, new-agers, and just plain rural folk.  Montana draws the unusual, the creative, certainly the rebellious and freedom seekers, so the material for interviews  and essays about life and relationships is endless.  From it all I hope to stimulate community spirit, which is on the rise everywhere.

Why else write?   It is such a huge responsibility.  Here it is, my opinion   about attention, which is a tangible energy:  When the reader is absorbing your words (spoken is potent too) they are giving your message their energy, which is attention, and your words have the power to inspire, amuse, teach, inform, alter and influence.   We give our energy willingly to TV, which is a good example of your energy going willingly into — lets be truthful — a dumb place, a drain hole mostly.

We need more integrity in all media, all genres.  I cannot will not ask for the attention of the reader/listener in good conscience otherwise. Why else write?  Art of all mediums should inspire, uplift, teach, raise consciousness.   Writers in history have been the ones who stimulated change.  Tell the truth. Weave clever costumes of truth into fiction.  Be true to yourself and you will feel it in your heart.

I was born a creative with a right brain list.   If you are too, step forward into the most important influence on earth right now.  There is so much negative art and downward spiraling media in our world. Our creative imagination is, for lack of a better word, God in us.   If you don’t do “godspeak” then call it magic which can be directed towards the positive,  your unique brilliance expressed and used for the love of all life on earth.  We are creators of tomorrow. Why else write?

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5th Generation Montana Rancher

I have this vision of Lorna Marchington out in front of her ranch, with roots growing right out of her boots and into the ground with the living walls of the great Absaroke Mountains towering high behind her. She is five generation Montana Rancher, (7 after her Grandkids) inseparable from the land and the voices of the ancestors.    Harold, Lorna’s dad, who she firmly pointed out is “still my hero,” lives near by; the two of them are a strongly rooted, much loved presence in Paradise Valley.    Lorna says it poetically in one her typical, poker-faced one-liners: “People who are not strongly connected here, are like top soil: The Valley wind gets to them and they just blow off.”  

Paradise Valley, Montana, beneath the Absaroke Mountains
I drove up to her place in Pray and parked. Frank, her Guardian dog, a Great Pyrenees puppy —   and a contradiction in terms! – stuck his head in the car window and smiled in my face.  When I was finally able to get out, the gentle, white giant started pushing me firmly away from the house.   Hey, you big oaf! I said, and laughed. In the photo, Lorna suspects Frank is responsible for the chicken that had expired nearby, and was having a talk with him in front of the hay stack. The wind kicked up just as I clicked the camera, which adds a fluffed-up goofiness to the young dog, but he takes his natural guardianship serious already. He protects the sheep from predators — skunks the other night. He had the sheep all crowded up together on one side of the big corral with the skunks at bay on the other. The noise brought Lorna and Bill out, and the skunks were “taken care of.”   I didn’t ask her just how that was done…
Frank the Sheep Guardian

Frank finally let me approach the front porch.  I knocked, hollered “lo!” and walked in.    But you don’t go in Lorna’s place quickly or unconsciously.  The big log cabin is full of art, artifact and the presence of Lorna’s ancestors.  Yet the place is not a museum, it’s just a real cool home.  She is the family record keeper, holder and creator of heirlooms.   I floated slowly in, past plants, furnishings, and antiques;  parrots were talking and chirping somewhere, and I saw her blending in with it all at her kitchen counter preparing formula for the lambs.  I sat down on a stool there. She told me stories in answers to my questions and I will share some of them here.

But first a short tour of the house, past Great Granddad’s really beautifully detailed saddle, the one with the interesting woven leather detail, and beadwork that Lorna made for it, with an American Flag-design and hand-carved, elk horn beads for stars.  I have seen her in this stunning getup with the white wool chaps, in the 4th of July parade in Livingston in.    Sterling, her Appaloosa-type horse, a Nokota, which is from a lineage bred for stamina and speed by Sitting Bull,  is one very big beauty. 
 Lorna pointed out the antique, mahogany pump organ against the north wall that seemed to watch us serenely from its eye-shaped mirror.  It rode into the valley by rail in the early 1900s and then on a clapboard wagon to the family homestead in Tom Minor Basin.     One of two beaded, heirloom cradle boards hangs high on the wall next to it, and another one above the stairs to the loft.  Both, designed by Lorna’s son, took countless hours to bead, but time is irrelevant except to fill creatively, in this house.   She beaded a beautiful doe skin purse that opens like petals unfolding.  Unfinished Moccasins lay on a table to await her return, probably during her bead class on Thursdays.   
Great Great Grandfather’s beaded saddle
Bead work and Lorna’s affinity with Natives, especially her Oglala friends, is a key touchstone and inspiration in her life.  She told me this story:  “28 years ago while   traveling with my “Ex” near the poverty-stricken Pine Ridge Reservation, near White Clay, S. Dakota, I was compelled to approach a native woman and ask right out, “do you do bead work?”  She replied, “Why do all you white women think all Indians do bead work?”  And Lorna said, “Why do all you Indians think all us white women just sit around sewing on buttons?”  There was a moment of pause and then the Indian woman grinned.  Lorna asked her if she knew where she could get some beads.  The woman said “as a matter of fact I do.” Later that day, Lorna says, “She gave me some beads and a beaded barrette that inspired me to do similar fine bead work.  It happened that the beaded art sales that came from this encounter,  and that barrette, saved my family during a very hard time,…and with my three little kids to feed.”
 A couple of years ago, wanting to reconnect, she was unable to locate the native woman, whose name, interestingly, is Darlene Helper.  Lorna’s daughter, Alandra, convinced her to try to find the woman on Face Book, and it worked. Lorna and Darlene rediscovered each other.  Lorna felt that inner calling again, and gathered up a big load of practical living items; then drove all the way to the reservation in South Dakota.  She wanted to give back, in gratitude for Darlene’s inspiration, to the still impoverished people there.   She has since been adopted into the Oglala family and is in contact regularly, if not daily on FB.  Darlene named her “Cowgirl &  1/2,” because she does so much more than ranch. Lorna’s affection for her Native friend is very apparent when she said, almost to herself, and with shining eyes,“…Listen to the voice of the ancestors.”  
We talked about friendship and she said her close friends call her Lorna Doone, or LD for short.  I suggested she had a bunch of them, and she nodded, but said, “Close ones are few — but I need only need six.”  Huh?  This time I waited for the one-liner and was rewarded.  She said, “Just need six to carry my casket.” (Gulp)  Off the cuff, I asked how she thought the valley fared with the historical land purchase and influx of the Church Universal folks.  Lorna said after a moment,   “At one time I had more Church friends than local.” And then made me laugh out loud when she said in all seriousness, “The Church balanced out the redneck element in the valley.”
I remember my only other visit to Lorna’s place some years ago and for some reason the giant, leafy, green, purple and white cabbages that grew free-like, and not forced into rows, around the back of the cabin. Very Lorna.  That day, one of her friends sat on the edge of the porch talking to a duck, and three or four others hunched over their bead work at a picnic table under the warm (windless) sun.
Here’s a sample of her daily schedule:   Up at 5:00 for sheep care these days. Afterwards, she’s off to Livingston to clean the Forest Service building.  Back at 8:30 or so, for housework and more sheep chores, and then she’s on a four-hour route around the valley as, what I call,  U. S. Mail “Deliveress.”  She shuddered though, and said, “By the way, mail delivery on 89 with tourist traffic is like running a gauntlet.”     She has a pottery room in the basement and teaches, open studio style, one afternoon a week.   Rumor has it she’s the best country western dancer around, too, and teaches it now and then to friends.  She said to me before I left, “I must keep my feet movin’!”  (Ya think?)  I tried to best her in one-liners: “A rollin’ stone gathers no moss.”  Lorna quipped back, “Better to wear out than rust out.”  
“Better to wear out than rust out!”


Back to Family:  “Great Grandmother Addie June Goudy was married three, and possibly… four times.”  Lorna raised an eyebrow.  I did too, and said, “not necessarily by widowhood huh?”  Intrigue wafted in the air as she went on: “We know she married a cattle Baron in White Sulfur Springs, and then a Montana Keogh, and then Sam T. Marchington, in Bozeman, in 1891. We think there was another somewhere,… but Sam T. owned a mining claim for an artesian seltzer water well, named Montanaopolis, located right here in Paradise Valley, up Mill Creek. It’s still there.  Haven’t you heard of it?”  I shook my head feeling like a dope again.   She said, “Sam T. died in a train collision, and is buried in Chico Cemetery.”   (R.I.P. Sam, and know that your effervescent progeny rides on.)
Unlike Great Grandma Addie, Lorna was married only once, and for 19 years.  From it came her three children, Amos, Robert and Landy, whom she home-schooled.  They    were curious and “questioning just everything,” she said, “including authority.”  (Are we surprised?)   She said the rest of the experience with her “Ex” was a great teacher:  “I learned what I did not want.”  She was pulled all over the country on his misadventures, and it took nearly losing her life to break free.
 “A horse fell on me when I was 30; I thought I had died.  When I woke from the coma, I knew that the mountains, the ancestors and the land would give me the strength to break free.  When I was back in Montana, and he was finally on the other side of the cattle guard, I hit the ground running. I’m a hopeless romantic, really, but don’t even try and get a ring through my nose.” Does she mean on the finger? No, Lorna says what she means, and means what she says:  “I do have a good man in my life now:  Bill Newsome.  He was the boy next door; he moved down on Mill Creek Flat from Jardine and came looking for me after so many years being gone. His hands built my house; he helps me with the sheep.  He never tries to fence me in… hazes me a bit… but never tries to control.”  (Say it Lorna… He’s no topsoil — ya love him.) 
Any mention of the Marchington family must include Lorna’s mom, Margaret, who was apparently loved by all who knew her.  “She came from Joliet and met Harold in Gardener.”  I asked Lorna what she remembers most.  She smiled and said, “Her laugh!”  Margaret was an artist, too, a good landscape painter, from whom Lorna believes she inherited her creativity.  Margaret worked at Chico for many years. A blossoming tree grows in memory of her next to the Main Lodge.

“I didn’t know you had sheep, Lorna,” I mumbled as we walked to the corrals.  (Doesn’t she have enough to do without a herd of critters out front?) “Sheep have been in the family for over 300 years,” she said, “We traced sheep ranching back to our ancestors in England.” Later, while feeding a triplet of hungry newborns from the bottle, Lorna pointed to an impressive ewe nearby, and said, “she’s a Columbian, but a bad mom; these lambs are bums.”   I wanted to look smart so I just nodded.   She explained anyway: “They have to be bummed-off onto other moms,”   I watched the  three day old lambs dance around their two-legged new mom.   Lorna’s sheep are Lincoln buck crossed with Columbia ewes, which creates a long stipple of wool, she said. She uses a woman shearer, one of only three in Montana. Lorna washes, spins and dyes some of the wool, and now and then trades it for things she needs around the house. I found out that for reasons of a long tradition of cattle ranching, and the attending patriarchal culture, sheep ranching is mostly done by women here.  I wondered if a gentle, nurturing creature is perhaps best tended by same?   But all the sheep ranchers in the valley look after one another well; no matter what the problem, nor the hour, they are there when you need help.

I asked her if she lately has gone out to see the stars at night.  “Yes! I took my 6-year old granddaughter, Nevaeh, out one night.   We told star stories, and listened to the ewes; they sing a guttural song when the lambs are still in their belly, and it tells us they are going to give birth soon.” 
What is your thought about our kids, and how to prepare them for the world? She said, “Someone is always watching you, and what you say and do.  My grandkids are watching me.”  I have heard this said before and liked it’s simple but profound wisdom. 
What else Lorna? “Don’t try to change or save the locals.  We’re doing okay.”   
What is it that we revere? Is it the tenacious roots of the Montanans who work the land and animals? Or is it their carrying our robust history in their very presence?  Whatever the answer is, it seems like here in Paradise Valley, Montana, underneath the human “topsoil,” there is firm ground, albeit rocky.   A pretty steady current of tolerance and caring flows among the ranchers and their eclectic neighbors.  Strong from the tempering of time and survival, a certain quality of heart prevails here, that I think I love, and for which I am grateful. 


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  “Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated 9 to 11,000 thousand years ago in Mesopotamia.   Their wild relatives have several characteristics—such as a relative lack of aggression, a manageable size, early sexual maturity, a social nature, and high reproduction rates—which made them particularly suitable for domestication.”  Wiki 
   Harlow and her sheep were first on my list of interesting and talented valley characters to highlight here in Paradise Valley.   She and her parents Vaughn and Naomi Johnson live on the Pinto Ranch, just north of Mill Creek road, on Hwy 89.  Things I had mistakenly assumed about her got cleared up right away in this interview.   For instance I had told people  played the fiddle for our choir now and then, an error in terms, on my part, and not the last.  She kindly corrected me that she plays violin, and mostly classical. Fiddlers…play fiddle apparently, so there it is.
Goats and sheep get confusing too, as I will prove and not just for me. Some people swear they see mountain goats in the cliffs on that ascent to Mammoth in Yellowstone Park.  They are big horned sheep!  I keep telling them you have to go to Glacier Park to see Rocky Mountain Goats. Correct? [I was corrected by a local rancher who said that mountain goats live high on Emigrant Peak; both the peak and goats look down upon our valley.]
Kindra said she raises Rams, too. I said, “Rams are goats, right?”  And by the subtle squint in her eye, I knew I’d stepped in it again.  She showed me her 3 Rams, correction:  The One Ram, the “lamb daddy,” I called him, from Oklahoma.  There were 2 young males with him that are wannabes, that she will watch mature with hopes they will …you know.   They looked sweet, nothing like the macho Dodge Ram with show-off big horns, which is about what you might expect me to say by now. 
I said, “what a nice long curly beard!” (goat-like I thought). “Manes we call them,” she replied.  I asked her about the shearing part of it all which I had googled before I arrived so I would have informed questions to ask.  She…was that a sigh?…explained that this breed does not grow a long coat;  that these sheep looked shorn because they actually shed.  Katahdin is a registered brood stock, relatively new, named  after the tallest mountain in Maine where the breed was developed in the mid 50’s.  “No shearing needed!; friendly, very maternal instincts in the ewes, hearty, and easy birthing,” she said.
Kindra is smart, and sparkly, has a unique and bright singing voice and has played violin since she was five.  She played in the Bozeman symphony and studied music on a scholarship at MSU.  She’s has a diverse and colorful palette of talent and passions for life.  Born in Billings but raised in Bozeman since five years old, like many native youth took off for other territories either to work, go to college or just adventuring.  She graduated from MSU with a B.A. in Science, Physiology of Exercise.  Done with school she went to Portland to study dance, and on to Arizona, and Minnesota before she returned finally in 1994. So what it boils down to is this:  Kindra is a Music and dance decorated Native Montana Shepherdess.
She stands before me, almost five feet tall including hair, dressed tidy but sensibly ranch-correct, her jacket matching the sky, her dark curly hair free and hatless, and feet firmly planted in the earth, in case, I assume, there’s a rogue gust of wind? She is tolerant and patient with this dyed-in-the-wool, city slicker who has been here 25 years and still doesn’t know what’s what, and worse, who wears the wrong shoes to a corral.  I did not ask how many head of sheep she had because I learned years ago at the Winter Fair in Bozeman that local cattlemen squint at you funny when you ask about that and acres;  I assume it’s the same for sheep. Kindra said the original ranch was “so vast,” and she spread her arms out and pivoted to suggest half of the valley, and that “the ranch ran cattle and sheep, as most did in the old days–their “bread & butter.”  For a moment I envisioned the brave, hard, colorful past of ranch life here in the valley.  Those memories are still and forever the essence of Montana.    

I can safely say in the present, that Kindra has just finished lambing; has 3 adorable little bottle baby lambs around two weeks old in the images.   Her last pregnant ewe, an 11-year old that has never needed any help, who this year wears a pink heart sprayed on her side for a hopeful Valentine’s day birth, had her lamb a couple days later;  a bouncing little male which I shall name for her: Valentino. She has one great Ram, who I thought was a goat, two intern rams, and dozens of ewes and lambs here in these images enjoying a sunny windless day in Paradise Valley.

Her Parents, the Pinto Ranch owners, Vaughn and Naomi, originally bought a dozen sheep for the purpose of training border collies.  Vaughn organized a formal performance Dog Trial on the ranch first in 2001, and Kindra did much of the work for four years in a row.  It was well known and attended; a judge was flown in from Scotland every year.  Proceeds, after generous prize money, went to local Valley charities.  There were various contests, and an art show. I remember attending a trial, and loved watching the dogs running the sheep low to the ground, so sharp and focused, fast and smarter than most of us can imagine.  When asked why they were discontinued she said, “unfortunately, it was so much work, and finding enough year round help was hard.”  When I asked hopefully whether they might happen again, she smiled and said, “You know it’s just possible.” One of Kindra’s five border collies, named Squeeze, came up to greet me. I got a rather goofy picture, not shown, as he was too busy keeping an eye on his charges to stay still in the frame as I requested.
I asked, “What do you love about your life here? And she simply pointed to her sheep.  I asked, “What are the challenges?” and she said “It is that I basically do it all alone, although my mother helps with the bottle babies. I don’t have the muscle that is sometimes needed.  My good friend, and also a Shepherdess, Barbara Gunness, who owns and operates an Icelandic Sheep ranch across the valley in Pray, comes over to help when she can.” Kindra’s recent big challenge, and victory over cancer, has left her with a wanting to give back.  “I received so much help then,” she said, and help came on many levels.
An interview with a Montana rancher is not well-rounded with out mention of predator issues.  I asked about wolves, and also Guardian dogs, those big breeds that are trained to protect sheep 24/7.  She had one of those at one time, and smiled affectionately regarding their effectiveness; a different training altogether from border collies.  “To have several would be very good,” she said.  But the valley is more developed now, and neighbors are more and closer. Pets stray or gang up at night. Wolves normally stay up at the timber line.   Coyotes have been a problem. Regarding killed ewes, “I have lost some sheep over the years with some question whether it was wolves.”  What is the answer to the wolf issue?  I asked.  And she answered without hesitation:   “The solution to the problem of predators is to let the ranchers protect their own land and livestock.”
On a tour of Scotland, I heard a bus driver yell “mint sauce!” out the window to get a flock of sheep off the road, and it worked!  I asked Kindra about that part in ranching that must include sending a sheep, whom she has nurtured, “down the road,” as she called it. She reminded me that she is a rancher; as well, she hunts.  Then she got quiet a second or two, and spoke of the cycle of life, birth and death, and with compassion, and reverence.    
She said there are many references to sheep in the bible.  One she liked:  “They will hear my voice and know it is me.” I looked around the flock and felt that peace that the gentle creatures emanate, and a certain savvy of heart in this Shepherdess, that no words can express. What special, giving animals sheep are to have among us, wool to keep us warm, meat to sustain us, for all these thousands of years.  The sound of a sheep’s “baaaa” is as comforting a universal sound as birds tweeting or the smell of bread baking, and the sight of lambs gamboling in the sun.   
And at last I thought of my favorite mantra and sheep quote; The 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”
A Peaceful and Happy Easter to Everyone!