Choteau Notes | June 2013

Within minutes of our arrival, I heard my favorite bird song. A Swainson's thrush. Liquid and up-rising; a strange, DNA-shaped sound, like two water-flute strands, twisting up and away. I didn't know if I'd find them here in the wind-blown, dry, mostly treeless plains. Around Missoula, I associate them with Rattlesnake Creek and the Bitterroot canyons. Wet, woodsy places. But here it was, singing to me from the trees in our yard. It stopped me, held me still for a moment. Even with two pick-up trucks and one U-Haul waiting for disembarking. I heard it a few more times that first week, but not since.

Birds are happy in Choteau, and happy to let everyone know it. Especially at dawn. Mourning doves. Robins. Gulls. (Gulls? Yes, gulls.) Ravens, crows, magpies, flickers, and many other chatterers whose names I don't yet know. On an early-evening run at Freezeout Lake, I set off a cacophony of alarm calls that reminded me of traffic jams in Latin American cities, where each car horn is rigged to make a different kind of impatient, insistent sound. Long-beaked stilts, avocets and curlews buzzed startlingly close to me, while yellow-headed blackbirds cheered them on from the cattails. "Sorry! Sorry!" I kept saying under my breath, but I couldn't make myself leave their brackish, magical world, even though they clearly wanted me out.

Strong, silent types abound here, too. Pelicans and cormorants, golden and bald eagles. Great Blue Herons occasionally flap lazily over the town, and just outside of it, raptors of all kinds wait on fence posts and hover over fields.

The plains on this high plateau may be mostly un-treed, but Choteau itself is an oasis of cottonwood, aspen, willow, spruce, lilac, chokecherry and a host of other branched beings. From the air it must look like an island in a sea of grass and stone. Maybe because trees are so rare here, I can't help but feel that these are extra-happy to be alive. Like a mob of kids at a rock concert, they raise their arms to sway and swoon. Tough, wild and lovely. They sing along with the wind, a million miniscule leaf-voices blending into one breathy hum. It's oceanic; crests and troughs of a low, almost-constant chant. The bird-song layers on top of it, flutes and oboes fluttering over the cellos.

And then there are the lawn-mowers. People here really get into their lawns. It's hard to be outside and not hear one somewhere. Cars and trucks, too of course, but in surprise fits and starts -- not the sad, constant musack of a major highway. In our road-littered country, it's rare to not have to edit an interstate out of the soundscape. My ears are grateful daily. Sometimes there's a train, and every once in a while, an airplane, but mostly they're so distant that only contrails announce their presence.

I think my favorite human-made sound here is the noon whistle. Every weekday, reliably, sweetly, it howls out to the village. I think of medieval church bells, Muslim calls to prayer, and my Iowa hometown -- the only other place I've lived that sent out a community-wide edict with that shrill little shout. "This is what we do now," it says. "We were all working, and we need to stop and eat now, and then we'll get to work again." So much geniality and common ground in the noon whistle! It assumes we are all in this together. Or reminds us that we are.

I don't know if anyone actually abides by the whistle, or even notices it much. But I love it, and feel welcomed into the fold by its impersonal, all-encompassing holler. Often, it marks the end of my morning writing session, or at least prompts me to stand up and stretch, maybe get another cup of tea. I want to use it for some other kind of ritual, too. Time to step outside and look at the sky, maybe, or think of one thing for which I am grateful. Or bust out a hot dance move.

Another relic from my small-town past: church bells announcing the hour, and sometimes launching into entire hymns. Like magic, there they go now, as I write this. I guess that means 6 p.m. is the full onslaught. Noon whistle to remind us to eat. Evening bells to send us home singing. I recognize this one...."Rock of Ages, cleft for me." Comforting, communal sounds, the church bells, the dawn chorus. Even if you're not religious, not a bird.

Other, wilder communities encircle us. Bryn heard them the other night -- the passionate, emphatic yipping of coyotes in the darkness. I woke up when their domesticated cousins rose up in response. From inside warm kitchens, behind wire fences, and from the ends of chains in the chilly black, the town dogs awoke, braced themselves, threw back their heads and opened their throats. I could see them all in my mind's eye, drinking in the fierceness from just beyond the village edge, as thirsty for that wildness as they were threatened by it. The coyotes yipped and called, proud hold-outs against our domination. Persecuted for over a century, they persist. "We are still here!" they shout and sing. And the town-dogs stand up and say, "Yes! Yes! Yes!