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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.