Norman Maclean was born in western Montana in 1902. There landscapes are elemental: earth, air, water and sometimes fire are distinct and imposing presences. It's mainly open country, with high mountains but also wide valleys, and the sky seems as immense as it does in deserts, although the valleys of western Montana are not desert but upland plain. Its great sweeps of space are made palpable by winds coming down off the highlands. The forms of earth are clear to see because the flanks of the hills and mountains are not so overgrown that their shapes and textures are concealed; their underlying geology shows in their contours and outcroppings of rock. In less open country, with less broad valleys and less immense skies, such rugged earth would be looming and claustrophobic. Cutting into the slopes of the mountains, pouring down gullies and gulches into the valleys, are creeks that become Montana's great rivers: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork, the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Gallatin, the Madison, the Missouri - the very essence of what running water should be. And sometimes, in summer, fire - occasionally started by human carelessness but more commonly by Montana's ferocious lightning storms - devastates the slopes, and you can see smoke from blazes far back in the wilderness.
LRB 10 March 1994 | PDF Download