Living in the sprawl,
dead shopping malls rise
like mountains beyond mountains
and there's no end in sight
I need the darkness,
someone please cut the lights.
An image has been circulating around the Facebook timelines of my Montana friends. It’s a satellite photograph of North America at night, a deep navy blue blanketed with a spiderweb of pale yellow lights. The east coast is almost completely lit up — science fiction author William Gibson named this “The Sprawl, ” a densely populated mass of human suburban development stretching from Boston to Atlanta. Moving west from the coast, the plains states are an orderly grid of lights, cities and highways dividing squares of uniform, industrial farmland.
There are no labels or legends on this map, except one: a red outline drawn on the image, the borders of our state. Montana is the darkest piece of land on the map. Missoula, Billings and Great Falls are small bright spots, and if you look closely you can see the dim specks of Havre and a few other small cities, but the rest of the state looks dark and wild. Immediately to the east of Montana is a large, chaotic blob of light: The 24-hour activity of oil and gas extraction in the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota.
At the bottom of the image, in white, sans serif capital letters, are the words “Montana — enough said. ”
The image does speak for itself — Montanans take pride in their state’s darkness, the undeveloped mountains and prairies, the vast distances populated only by cattle, wildlife and a handful of homesteads.
But for as long as we’ve called this place Montana, there’s been a tension between the wilderness and civilization. We love nature, but we’re at war with it.
This week saw approval for the sale of the Milk River Ranch north of Havre to the state to become protected wilderness. This wasn’t a popular move for many in the area.
And this is far from the first time Montanans have fought over whether our state is too wild, or not wild enough. This spring, the big controversy was over bison at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Last year it was the Missouri River Breaks, and whether or not the national monument land there would be expanded. In the ’90s, the reintroduction of wolves was seen as the big threat.
To be fair, there are very real problems when bison and wolves come into contact with civilization. Brucellosis infections have crossed from bison to cattle in the past, and wolves do sometimes prey on calves and sheep. But I have the feeling that if a vaccine for brucellosis were invented tomorrow — or if wolves spontaneously became vegetarians — they would still be unwelcome.
When white settlers first came west to our region, they killed millions of bison to clear the way for cattle and farmland — and to deprive Native Americans of their primary food source. Wolves were almost exterminated, and pushed from the lower 48 completely. Mountains of buffalo skulls and wolf pelts, grisly monuments to manifest destiny.
Montanans today can’t be blamed for the sins of our ancestors, but it sometimes feels like we’re still fighting that centuries-old war with nature. We want nature, but we want to push out the wildlife. We hate and ridicule The Sprawl, but we fiercely resist any suggestion that we protect our wilderness from development. We’re proud of our dark night skies, but we’re scared of what might be out there, beyond the light of civilization.
(Caleb Hutchins is design editor for the Havre Daily News.)