While other men spend their power decades harvesting money for their golden years, I've devoted the prime of my life to a swamp. And not even a real swamp, not some righteous nightmare of cottonmouths and feral pigs, but a mere back- water, a slough, really, that meanders through our place in western Montana, rising and falling with the Clark Fork River
nearby. In the summer the main channel of this marsh oozes sweet and fragrant between its walls of red dogwood and offers an array of refreshing temperatures as you plunge deeper to flee horseflies and the heat. Around Halloween it freezes. Then, with the vigilance of a patriarch whose family business is on the verge of going public, I stand guard over this ice till it melts in April, plowing off the snow, sealing the cracks, polishing its surface in the quest for a kind of perfection that's just not possible anywhere else, at least not for me. And when it is perfect and my skates sigh across its water-coloredsheen, I can almost convince myself that everything's going to be all right.
When my wife Kitty and I moved into Dark Acres, our slough lay concealed under a midden of agricultural squalor. The ranch family that sold us a slice of its empire, huddled in the shadows of Black Mountain, had used this wetland for three generations as its own private dump. When you looked at its main channel you expected water; what you saw was junk and decay. But since we had the river to play in and didn't need no redneck swimmin' pool, we figured to bury this eyesore with fill. Maybe even install a nice tennis court on top.
But one morning during our first spring, I was drawn from the house by the hysterical barking of Radish, our red heeler. I supposed the racket was about an insubordinate magpie or a treed cat. But the thing making the dog insane turned out to be a western painted turtle. The size of Atlas Shrugged, she'd withdrawn into her shell to wait for all the gnashing to go away. Behind her in a sandy depression glistened four leathery white eggs. The turtle must have wandered away from the river, I guessed, or one of our mosquito havens, and lost her bearings. After a while four clawed feet emerged from the shell, then an ancient head in yellow and green and red. Radish growled and the hair on the ridge of his spine stood up like a mohawk. I put my arm around him. There and so and well, I said, reciting the mantra that always calms him down. The turtle waddled down the bank of the slough, out onto a rotten railroad tie through an obstacle course of brambles and beer cans, and, to my surprise, vanished with a wet slap, proving that this water was still alive. I pulled sand over her eggs with the toe of my boot.
It took me three years to clean the slough. I went after the lightest stuff first, standing on the banks to wrestle things from the tangle with a rake. Then, surrendering to the inevitable, I waded chest-deep across an uncertain bed to extract what I couldn't reach from shore. What refused to come to hand I fished out with a chain hooked to my old pickup. Each month more water opened to the sun. This progress, satisfying in ways I wouldn't understand until later, had no immediate reward beyond the fact that it was progress.
When this first stage was finished, I took inventory: 289 tires, a tractor, two riding plows, a ton of farm implement parts and horse tack and barbed wire and rotten hay, a heap of dolls, a medley of overstuffed furniture, the carcass of a Hereford, the skeleton of a beaver, and much festive plastic jetsam. Then there were endless chunks of timber washed from the forest floor into the slough when the river flooded once a decade. As it dried I reduced it with a chainsaw and stacked it into pyres. The night the Blue Jays beat the Phillies in the World Series I went around with a can of gasoline. The neighbors must have thought I was some kind of Canuck. The fires were still smoldering three days later.
Soon, some of the slough's former tenants began to return. A mated pair of mallards came first, winging around till they finally landed in the skinny stretch of water I'd opened. Then came a school of tiny black fish, a spotted frog, and a muskrat, only his nose breaking the surface to leave a hallucinogenic wake. Once I surprised a great blue heron standing on a log, one leg tucked as it eyeballed the place for snacks. It issued an indignant squawk so loud it made my heart flutter.
I was close to being finished with the restoration. Only a half-dozen cottonwood trunks were still floating around in the slough, and they were so massive the pickup couldn't pull them ashore. Standing in the water, working like a tug, I maneuvered these hundred-foot behemoths against the banks and anchored them to the brush with yellow rope while Radish took rides on their backs. The next day I rose from bed creaking as if I'd been gang-tackled by the Oakland Raiders and made my way down to the slough with coffee and a lawn chair. For the first time since I'd discovered it, I intended to sit by this water without feeling the neurotic obsession to make it better. And, in fact, it could no longer be made better. There wasn't even a stray leaf to mar its seamless length. The hideous reek of rotten hay that had greeted us when we moved in had been replaced with a perfume of pennyroyal and wild roses. I counted 29 turtles that had climbed onto my cottonwood trunks to take the morning sun.
Since the act of cleaning the swamp had also restored its health, I named it the Mabel, after my mother's mother. When she worked as a public health nurse in the fifties, one of Mabel's stops was a squatter's camp on Hill 57 above the outskirts of Great Falls, Montana, my hometown. Her patients were Blackfeet and Cree who weren't welcome on the reservations or wouldn't live there. Sometimes when I drift around in my rowboat or sit in the broadgrass to absorb the Mabel's serenity, I'm reminded of my grandmother. I remember the photographs she loved to take, hanging on the walls of the house my grandfather built. Most of these pictures, which won blue ribbons at the state fair, were portraits of the denizens of Hill 57. One was of a woman so old she could recount scenes from the Indian wars. I used to get mesmerized by that face, by the depth of the wrinkles and their number, an infinite crisscrossing of lines that mimicked the pattern of game paths after a rain. And next to this picture was one of a landscape that captured a creek in a cold snap radiating mist as it cut its way through fresh snow. It was the purity of this scene that appealed to me then—and that still appeals to me, a summation of my earliest Montana memories, a place sweetly indifferent to the camera, innocent and absent of malice.