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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tales of Community: Judy Blunt

Air Date: Week of December 31, 2004

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Judy Blunt grew up on a small ranch in rural Montana. Her family was one of a few dozen scattered across the hard-bitten farm-scape of South Phillips County. As Blunt writes, “Word from the outside, whether it arrived in a mail sack or a news report, seldom overshadowed the facts of our lives,” and stories were what kept this community together. Judy Blunt shares a story from her memoir, Breaking Clean and talks with host Steve Curwood about the moment when she was accepted into her community.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studies, this is the Living on Earth holiday storytelling special. I’m Steve Curwood.

It’s that time of year when many of us feel a need to reconnect with our communities. Whether it’s taking a stroll down Main Street or catching up with a neighbor over a warm mug of cocoa. Community isn’t just the place that surrounds us but what we make of that place. And stories handed down through the generations are what keep a community alive. So this week we’re taking some time away from the news to tell stories – stories of communities and the people who hold them together. So, pull up a chair, put up your feet, and for the next hour you’ll be part of our own little radio community as we hear from three writers with stories of three very different communities.

Lyall Watson is a writer based in West Cork, Ireland. He’s author of the book “Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant,” and will share a story about a boys club in South Africa that was a rite of passage for unruly lads. Hello Lyall.

WATSON: Steve, hi.

CURWOOD: Also joining me is Jake Halpern, author of the book “Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and other Extreme Locales.” He’ll be taking us to the remote outpost community of Whittier, Alaska where, despite unusually close proximity, its residents barely interact with each other – and like to keep it that way. Jake, hello.

HALPERN: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Finally, Judy Blunt teaches English at the University of Montana at Missoula. Her memoir about life on the open plains of Montana is called “Breaking Clean.” Judy, welcome.

BLUNT: Thanks. Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: I’m glad to have you here and I’d like to start with you, Judy. You write about how important the tradition of storytelling has been to your community in rural Montana. And before you tell us your story, I’m curious, how much did this storytelling culture shape your career?

Judy Blunt

BLUNT: I think it had everything to do with my decision to eventually write because that’s the next step of storytelling. I was raised in a very oral community. We did lots of storytelling, not very much television. Lots of card playing. Lots of just keeping track of one another by virtue of stories.

CURWOOD: Alright, well, I want you to help us keep track of that history of yours right now by telling us a story. Could you please tell your story for us now?

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

BLUNT: Sure.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

BLUNT: Where I grew up, no daily papers shifted our view of the world, and television didn’t intrude until the mid-sixties. Radio broadcasts from Havre, Montana, bounced off the Little Rockies and gave all we desired of the outside – market reports, weather forecasts and a little Patsy Cline.

When the roads were decent, come Saturday we had mail. Dry summer days I climbed the windbreak after noon to watch for a mare’s tail of dust snaking south along the county road, a gray stream that hung for miles on a quiet day and at the last possible second exploded and rose like a mushroom as the mailman slid to a stop.

Ours was one of twenty-some families scattered like islands on a hundred square miles of prairie; farm and ranch folks loosely connected by crank telephones and narrow ribbons of gumbo road. Most of the neighbors I knew were the sons and daughters of farmers, a second generation distilled from turn-of-the-century homesteaders who stuck it out. They say only one in ten made the first decade. Of those who stayed, some started out as Russians, Germans, Norwegians or Swedes – first-generation immigrants. Others came from some direction – up from the south, down from Canada, all of them bearing the sound and taste of other worlds.

The prairie they settled made marginal farmland, and with extended families left behind they were forced to depend on community. No one worked a homestead alone. To stay required common focus and collective effort, a sharing of labor, machinery and knowledge. By the time their children took over, expanding the original claims and jerking the plow line from a tractor seat instead of behind a team of horses, families could no longer be sorted by nationality, religion or expectation. Parents still spoke with accents, told stories of city life, of ocean crossings and foxhunts, of sleigh rides and homemade skis, of the way dumplings were made in the Old Country. But their children, my parents’ generation, were born on the land and born to the land, and they all told the same stories of schoolhouse dances and county fairs, or runaway teams and hoppers and dry wells. Theirs was an intimacy born of isolation, rather than blood relation.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY(Verve – 1997)]

BLUNT: Word from the outside, whether it arrived in a mail sack or a news report, seldom overshadowed the facts of our lives. We talked in facts – work and weather, the logistics of this fence and that field – but stories were how we spoke. A good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream, a thing to be savored and served artfully. Stored in dry wit, wrapped in dark humor, tied together with strings of anecdotes, these stories told the chronology of a family, the history of a piece of land, the hardships of a certain year or a span of years, a series of events that led without pause to the present. If the stories were recent, they filtered through the door of my room late at night, voices hushed around the kitchen table as they sorted out this day and held it against others, their laughter sharp and sad and slow to come.

Time was the key. Remember the time…and something in the air caught like a whisper. Back when. Back before a summer too fresh and real to talk about, a year’s work stripped in a twenty-minute hailstorm; a man’s right hand mangled in the belts of a combine, first day of harvest; an only son buried alive in a grain bin, suffocated in a red avalanche of wheat.

Only time softened these facts into stories. The boy’s death became a tragic lesson. The doors to the wheat bins by our shop were never chained shut, but in the years that followed my father never missed a chance to remind us how grain slopes up the sides, how just bumping the wall can cause wheat to shift and pour down around you, pinning your feet in seconds. My father’s mangled hand became a story of a wild ride to town and a doctor who administered morphine, but not until he identified the exposed nerves by twanging each one with forceps.

Stories are the lessons of a year or a decade or a life broken into chunks you can swallow. But the heart of a story lies in the act of telling; the passing on. Listening to stories, I learned what was worth saying and what need not be spoken aloud. I learned how we remember and whom we remembered and why; how facts are shaped and colored or forgotten.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny “Spiritual” BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY (Verve – 1997)]

BLUNT: Few facts of my childhood remain. No one recalls my first words or when I spoke them. The patter of my first steps is lost in a blur of siblings who ran before or crawled after. What survives are the milestones, my family’s oral history of near hits and close calls, stories of five children and our first steps into an adult landscape that made small allowance for age or ignorance.

The first story about me goes like this: The summer Judy was four she trotted into the kitchen, so full of importance you could have popped her with a pin. We had company but she was holding something and I looked over to see what she’d dragged in. She had one of those big round cockleburs. She stepped up to the table with it cupped in both hands. “A cactus just calved,” she says, and holds up the baby to show it off. “I saw the whole thing.”

It’s hard telling what I have actually seen that day, perhaps a simple trick of wind and weeds. But by day’s end I have seen the eyes around a table light up with genuine respect for wit, for the art of timing, the deadpan delivery. My parents look right at me and smile. That smile is not about innocence. By age four I had witnessed a wide range of barnyard conceptions and deliveries. Cats had cats and cows had cows, and I knew why. What do they see in my yarn about cactus calving a cocklebur that makes it worth keeping and telling over and over?

I believe the truth is this: the summer I was four I spoke my first good story and was born into my community, into the collective memory of my family, into a mythology that grew more real to me than fact. For the balance of my childhood I danced and waved on the fringe of a world defined by its miracles and natural disasters, observing and imitating, trying to amount to a good story – or barring that, to tell one.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

CURWOOD: Well, we see where you started in the image business, Judy, huh?

BLUNT: That’s what stories are all about.

CURWOOD: So, I gather you moved away when you went off to the university, but your parents are still on the original ranch there.

BLUNT: Yeah, I married into that community, actually. I was there until I was 33 years old. And my children went to the same one-room country school I did for a few years before I left.

CURWOOD: Now, has the close-knit nature of this community changed since you moved away?

BLUNT: The area itself – of course, it’s taken almost a hundred years to undo the Homestead Act – and the land is reclaiming its boundaries a little more each year. It’s very marginal land and so, at this point, it’s depopulated. Fewer than about a third to a half of the number of people who lived there when I was growing up remain, and they tend to be older. It’s a land in transition.

CURWOOD: Well, we’re here listening to your story, Jake and Lyall and I. And Jake, you travel around for the stories of the communities that you’ve been into. Does this fit into the pattern that you see?

HALPERN: Yeah, I think it does. In my book I visit some very kind of hard-living places – an erupting volcano, a flood plain, a fire corridor. And one of the things that struck me that Judy was saying, you know, that this area has kind of been depopulated, and there’s only a hand-full of people that remain. I think the decision to stay, the singular decision – for better of for worse, this is where I’m from and this is where I’m going to stay – is itself something that brings people together. Because if they have nothing else in common, they at least have in common that decision, rooted in stubbornness or whatever it is, that this is my home and I’m staying here. And there’s kind of a sense of brotherhood or community that forms out of that stubbornness.

BLUNT: Almost a common defensiveness, in a sense. They have to defend their own choice to stay sometimes, because people will point out the absence of common sense occasionally. [LAUGHTER]

CURWOOD: And Lyall?

WATSON: It reminded me very much of Africa storytelling and a tribal association, almost. It’s a place, obviously, with long memories, with deep roots. It’s the kind of place that you can’t recreate, you can’t make up in just a generation or two. I loved the way that Judy’s voice changed at the moment she talked about her own story. It was a quite different tone, and it was sweet.

CURWOOD: Now, that was your mother – recalls a story, I’m guessing.

BLUNT: Yeah, that would be probably my mother’s voice. In my head, anyway.

CURWOOD: Judy Blunt, thanks for sharing your story with us today.

BLUNT: Thank you.

CURWOOD: We’ll be back with a story from the frozen North in just a moment. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “OK, All Right” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

 

 

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