Monday, July 26, 2010

Eudaemonia and me

Eudaemonia to you too!
Eudaemonia and me

Eudaemonia: the state of happily following our daemons. A friend sent me this word, knowing it would intrigue me. I like words. I like this word. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it feels on my tongue. For several months I have had this word thumb-tacked above my computer. I studied it from time to time. I mused about my own state of eudaemonia. I wondered just what specific daemons I was following.

With our spate of beautiful weather, such a long time in arriving, I finally identified one of my daemons. No matter how diligently and with what determination I begin a task in my house, I frequently find myself standing in my yard, not knowing how I got there, watering hose in hand, or uprooting yet another insidious patch of toadflax, or just aimlessly wandering, admiring my petunias, lilies, and hollyhocks, glorious in purples, pinks, reds, yellows, salmons and whites. I stand bemused. I started in the bedroom by stripping my bed and ended in the garden watering flowers. I examine my fingernails embedded with gumbo. I reflect on my still unmade bed. I smile. I’ve been following my garden daemon.

On a day when guilt wins out over pleasure, I shake my head at the lilac that is begging me to move her from the front to the back yard, stand my shovel against the door and go back into the house, a return to duty. On another day I will obey my daemon, flee my shop, move the lilac, weed the strawberry patch, harvest mint and lounge in the shade of the Canadian poplar reading a novel.

This morning I found myself wandering outdoors, with a dust rag in my hand. I chortled to myself, “Umm, humm. Eudaemonia strikes again.”

Curiosity led me to my Oxford English Dictionary to look up a formal definition of eudaemonia. There I affirmed that, indeed, I had contracted a chronic case, no doubt fatal, of “happiness or well-being consisting in the full realization of human potential, in rational activity exhibiting excellence”. This is a definition of me in my garden. In fact, I am an artist, “pursuing life with happiness as the ultimate goal”. Guilt, be thou gone.

Through further research I learned that eudaemonia is the basis of an entire philosophy constructed on the theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well being. Having a happy spirit (daemon is defined as spirit) is the result of “right living”. I like this.

So it turns out that my personal daemon spirits me outdoors, overriding my industrious intentions. Eventually, beds do get made. Bookshelves get dusted. Projects in my shop get finished. And I do these things with a happy spirit, having first indulged in “right living”.

Last night, like the good shoemaker who cut the leather for a pair of shoes in the evening and went to bed, I rolled out material for two couches. I cut fabrics for six cushions, six inside backs, four inside and outside arms, strips for cording, and the boxing and zippers for the cushions. I often make my preparations at night, hoping the elves will have my project finished by morning. When I jumped out of bed, I made coffee and peeked into my shop. No, the elves had not come and finished the couches. My fabric piles lay exactly as I had left them.

But I drank my coffee and bounded out to the yard, watered flowers, dead-headed petunias, pulled a few weeds, harvested chives to chop and dry, picked a gallon of currants for jelly and a bowl of raspberries to eat with cream. I assured the rhubarb, which wanted to be picked today, that I would get to it soon.

The day is young. Already I have stitched the zipper strips, sewed up miles of welt cord, and assembled the cushions. I could do another hour of work in the shop, but I hear my daemon call me. The sun is warm and inviting. We’re already on the short end of July. Basil is ripe to be snipped. Fledgling robins flit from limb to limb. I will gather a bouquet of baby’s breath. There will be plenty of time for long work days in my shop when winter returns.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 22, 2010

Camel Sweat and Cow Dung

For intro: Ah, the sweet smells of home.
Camel sweat and cow dung

“I fell in love with him because he smelled like horses and leather,” I told Karen. “He swung me up on his rope horse and taught me to ride. Well, the horse taught me to ride. My husband taught me to notice things along the trail. I had a tendency to ride with my head down, looking for rattlesnakes. He taught me instead to pay attention to my horse’s ears, which would twitch and point if he saw a snake along the way. When I didn’t have to worry about snakes, I learned to look out over the land. We rode for fun every evening, often after a work-day in the saddle. That horsey-leather smell still makes me wistful.”

“I grew up on horses,” Karen said. “My favorite smell is a sweaty horse, one that I’ve been running hard and he’s warm and stomping and blowing and full of energy. When I rub him down, I flick the sweat off his rump with my hand. I love that smell.”

We were driving up and down the streets of Harlem at about three miles per hour. It was Friday evening, the day before the school reunion. We were reminiscing, trying to remember just who used to live in the house on the corner, or in the house that is no longer there. We got to talking about how over the years our values have changed. And somehow that led us to talking about good smells.

“Horses,” I said. “That’s probably why I like camel-sweat tea.”

Karen raised her eyebrows. I told her the story. “In ancient times, merchants from China and India carried tea and spices to the Mediterranean countries across the mountains along the Silk Road . The tea leaves became soaked with the camels’ sweat. Every few nights the men had to dry the tea over their campfires, giving it a strong smoky flavor. My friends call it my “stinky tea”. Lapsang Souchong. It’s my favorite.”

“I like the smell of cow dung,” Karen confessed with a side-long look. “Especially when it is fresh and steamy on a cold winter day.”

“Me too. But my favorite is pig. It reminds me of raw brown sugar.”

We burst out laughing. We had both had grown up surrounded by animals. A whiff of scent triggers a host of memories.

This time of year the wild rose and milkweed blossoms and wet dirt drop me back in time to our farm on the Milk River . Once again I’m walking along the irrigation ditch, watching the dirt crumble off the bank into the swift brown water. I’m carrying a jar of iced tea and a fresh cinnamon roll to my Dad. The smells of cut grass and new-mown hay, scooped into windrows in the fields, make me feel rich, though it is neither my grass nor my fields.

When summertime heat has settled in, dust and sagebrush will have me back riding Sputnik again, moving cows to pasture, scanning the sky any the hint of a cloud, praying for rain. Although too many years have passed, memory is vivid.

On return trips to Harlem when my Dad was alive, rolling down the east slope of the mountains into Ellensburg, I could smell the feed lots, the dust and the sage. I was instantly transported to Montana , though I had hundreds of miles to go. The lure of dust and sagebrush eventually reeled me back home for good.

Whiffs from back yard barbeques reminded Karen and I that we had not yet had dinner. We headed home, still puttering along at about three or four miles per hour, remembering, forgetting, laughing and talking, reliving events from forty and fifty years ago. We heard shouts. There were nearly thirty people sitting on a front patio. I recognized a friend waving his arms. He shouted for us to join them for dinner, the barbeque was ready to put on the table. I looked around, the way one does when one is not sure who is really being motioned to. “Yes, you. Come eat with us and meet some of my friends.” We parked along the crowded street and joined the celebrants.

It was nearly dark when we left. Rain hung heavy in the air, along with another familiar night scent. “Now that’s another smell I really like,” I told Karen. “Eau de skunk.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 15, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Field of Day Dreams or Build It and hope they come

Field of Day Dreams
or Build it and hope they come

This morning, while I was bent over in my garden pulling weeds, the phone rang. I finished dead-heading the petunias and went indoors to listen to the message on voice mail. It was a woman with ideas. She didn’t leave her name. She must have noticed that periodically, in this column, I express concern for the financial future of the dwindling town of Harlem . She had answers. I liked her suggestions. She thinks like me.

Thank you, whoever you are. I have taken your ideas and run with them. In fact, I talked with my business partner about bringing you on board. She runs the coast office and I head the inland office. So far, all our business is in our heads. You, too, could have a head office—the field office.

Like you, I can picture an outlet mall nestled on the prairie, built with a railroad theme-parky style. What if we move the train station from Havre to Harlem where it always should have been in the first place. We’ll remodel it to be the mall entrance. We have lots of room on the sidings in Harlem for the historic steam locomotive.

I suggest Cabellas, Eddie Bauer, LL Bean and the Big R for the anchor stores. We will include such home-grown businesses as Herberger’s, the Harlem Clothing Company, Leon ’s Pawn Shop and Ken’s Guns. The usual Montana compliment of bars and casinos will circle the perimeter of the mall, all designed to resemble an old-timey railroad town.

Neither mall sprawl nor parking should present a problem. In Harlem a business can expand in any direction, err, except for the flood plain, which might be a problem. But, no problem is insurmountable, right. We’ll build extra runways at Harlem International Airport to accommodate commercial jet traffic. With the new terminal and control tower, our airport will rival Denver ’s. Amtrak will run four trains a day, hook on more cars and beef up its ad campaign. North Central Montana Transit will acquire a fleet of posh tour busses.

And, as you suggested, my unknown friend, nobody could resist an outlet mall built around an indoor pool and waterslide. The retractable roof will allow our customers to recline poolside under the summer sun.

We will top the high rise hotel with a penthouse suite and an observation deck with a revolving restaurant. What do you think? The restaurant, called The Dining Car, will attract the finest chefs in the entire region. Every Friday night they will feature the pitchfork steak fondue special, all you can eat.

Nashville ’s finest will flock to the Opry House. Who knows, we might grow to rival Branson , Missouri or even Las Vegas . Let’s mix Montana talent right in with the Big Stars. I wonder if the Singing Sons of Beaches would be willing to drive up from Ringling to headline the grand opening.

We’ll call the indoor sports complex The Round House. My incognito friend, you suggested that we “build it and they will come”. Shoeless Joe might even show up and hit one out of the park. We’ll have everything--baseball, football, basketball, hockey and curling. Year ‘round rodeo. Monster trucks. Mud wrestling. You name it.

I agree with you that folks would drive hundreds of miles for a mall with a waterslide, from Spokane , Phoenix , Saskatoon and Fargo . Think big, I say.

Before your timely phone call today ignited our imaginations, we in Harlem would have gone begging for a twelve unit motel and a full-time restaurant. And a pawn shop.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 8, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harlem High's All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

This came out in today's Blaine County Journal. This is a real coup, by the way. And I got a nice compliment from the editor.
Harlem High’s All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

The voices and memories are those of Mary O’Bryan, Mary Belle Liese, Elsie Hanson, Phyllis Rasmussen, Karolee Cronk , Kay Brekke, and Irene Stout. The mistakes are all mine. I take credit for historical errors. You may blame us all for lack of a coherent time line and the rambling nature of this piece. I have tried to keep the sense of many people talking at once, which was often the way it was that day at the Senior Center , when these women shared their stories with me.
Sondra Ashton
Harlem High Class of ‘63

Every community has a unique identity, a spirit about it which reflects the life of its citizens. Never is this spirit felt more strongly than when graduates return home. In Montana ’s small towns the high school is the hub of the community. Each student, each teacher, cook, janitor, bus driver and class aide leaves his or her mark. Wherever one goes, throughout his life, the graduate carries the influence of his home-town school experiences.

With this in mind, I recently met with a group of women to talk about the up-coming All Class Reunion in Harlem . These seven women created a patchwork quilt of memories. And as in any patchwork, one story-piece led to another. My job was to listen to the stories these women told and share them with you.

The first thing they talked about was what the town looked like, where everything was. They began naming the stores on the north side of the tracks, across from the train station, where Harlem had its beginnings--the elevators, hotels, groceries, a mercantile, blacksmith, the post office, warehouses, and restaurants including Quong Louie’s, which they agreed, did not serve Chinese food.

You could buy lumber, flour, furniture, canned goods, tools, seeds—everything the town and the homesteaders needed. There were many fine homes on the north side. When the elementary school was built on the south side of the tracks, kids had to cross a huge ditch on a bridge and then cross the railroad tracks. This waterway runs under the school and through the town. It was all built over with concrete as the town grew. Why the transition from north to south, I asked. Fires and floods. And the school was on the south side. It just seemed natural. The town followed the school.

What began on the north quickly jumped the tracks to the south side. Andrew Nelson’s Confectionery, next to Kennedy’s, served hand-packed ice cream and had booths with high walls where you could have a coke with your boy friend and not be seen if your parents peeked in the door. One woman told a story about the night there was a shivaree. We all were banging cans and making all kinds of noise. The young groom bribed us to go away by giving us money to go get ice cream at Nelson’s. We left the couple alone then. This talk led to Merle’s Confectionery, built in the ‘50’s, where everyone enjoyed black-and-whites.

I could not keep up with the lively conversation. Imagine a mosaic of voices: JC Penney’s was a large store with a downstairs. The stairs were very wide. That was before the Brekke Block was built. Gambles had a downstairs too. That was on the east side of Main Street . There was dancing in the New England Hotel bar during the war (WWI). It was downstairs. There was a barber shop in the hotel. There was another barbershop where Kennedy’s Bar stands now. Oh, that barber like to scared me to death. My father took me into that barber shop for a haircut. I was scared stiff I would come out looking like a boy. It was a barber shop, you know, for men. I was five years old.

Remember Halsey’s Drug Store. Oh, and the Post Office was in there. It was real small. Then there was the Smith and Kissell Grocery. And the hospital and mortuary once stood where the Senior Center is now. People hardly ever left Harlem to buy anything. They rarely went to Havre.

The Grand opened in 1920. Several of the girls agreed that Mack Miller was a great guy to work for. One woman reported: I was raised out north. When we came to town to go to the Saturday matinee, I was surprised to see so many people. People everywhere. Dad took us kids to the show so it was always a cowboy movie. We girls got up and left because it scared us when the Indians rode in shooting.

They gave dishes away at the shows. They had nights they gave away dishes, real pretty ones with a Phoenix bird or some kind of bird on the plates. And we used to get silverware out of flour.

The Indians from Fort Belknap drove horses and buggies into town. They tied up behind Fred Sturges’ Saddlery. I loved the smells back then, one woman said. He tanned leathery there, where Frip’s CafĂ© was. And the old greasy smell from the John Deere shop. That was where Albertson’s is now. The John Deere and the tannery. I loved those smells.

The streets were either mud or dust. The cemetery was all sagebrush. It looks so pretty today with the grass and hedges and pine trees. The FFA helped plant those trees. One time our class took an unscheduled sneak day. As punishment we planted grass and pine trees at the grade school. When the addition was built, all our hard work was plowed up.

Speaking of playing hookey, Scrud Brekke could get away with anything. He told the principal that he was picking potatoes. High school kids were excused from school to pick potatoes or harvest sugar beets. Even the girls were let out of school to harvest beets. It was hard work. We had to pick them up and throw them into the truck.

The women’s school memories included head lice, tuberculosis patches, mean kids, and how hard it was to go from a one-room country school to the big school in Harlem . One girl boarded in town for eighth grade, so she could get used to it before high school. The outlying boys often boarded in town so they could play basketball.

Everyone recalled the “pit” at the old grade school. This was a sunken gym, about four feet below floor level, with a rail built around, a stage at one end and with wide hallways all around. The older girls set up tables for school lunches in the pit. Fort Belknap sent in hot lunches for the Indian kids and their tables were up in the hallway. The white kids ate sack-lunch sandwiches down in the pit. We all wished we were up there with them eating hot soup while the Indian kids wished they were down in the pit eating sandwiches. The pit was used for everything--roller skating, basketball, parties, dances, Christmas programs and proms. And if you were bad in class, that is where you were sent. So if you saw some kid sitting by himself in the pit, you knew he’d been bad.

In 1925 the notable basketball team comprised of Hurley Wilson, Harold Hoyt, Emmett Buckley, Waldo Ekegren, Quentin Ekegren, Ed LaRock and Kermit Ekegren was called The Terrible Swedes. Why, I asked. Because they were Swedes was their laughing answer. In 1951 Harlem won the State Class C Football Championship. The game was played on Watkin’s Field, on Thanksgiving Day. This was a real field planted with blue joint hay. In 1977 Harlem placed second in Class B Basketball.

Music played a large part in school. One woman recalled that she played trombone in band and also was a majorette in the drum and bugle corps. At one past reunion she was reminded by Superintendent Langbell that she wasn’t as good a trombone player as she was a majorette. He also remembered that a different woman of the group had tried to play fiddle and could not learn.

In 1933 Leo Brockie, Sr. was the first Fort Belknap graduate of Harlem High. Herman Liese graduated twice. Well, his picture is hanging on the wall at the high school in two different classes. One woman said there was one year when every boy in her class was in the service. The seniors were issued diplomas even though they were gone. Several young men finished their credits at Ft. Lewis . Many didn’t come back. At the dances, girls danced together. The dances all started with girls on one side and boys on the other until the boys got up the nerve to ask the girls to dance.

Two of the women recalled the time when the older Native people spoke little English. They signed for what they wanted, and wrote a mark signifying their name. They were always able to make you understand what they wanted. The Hutterite people, not that many years ago, spoke broken English with a heavy German accent. During WWII, Harlem had a German POW camp. At night we could hear the prisoners singing in harmony. It was beautiful. They had a bus driver who dropped the men off to work at sugar beet farms. Japanese people were also brought into this area. These were American citizens. They were lodged in bunk houses on farms. They liked to hang out at the theatre. Some of them liked this area so well they wanted to stay. But when the camps were formed, they shipped them all out. One woman still has a perfume bottle given to her by a young Japanese man. Then the Mexican laborers were brought in to hoe sugar beets. The Mexican men planted another crop alongside the ditch banks. Some of these men found a way to stay and are now a part of the community.

We wrote a lot of letters during the war. And got letters—Dear John letters. Those went both directions. One woman got five hundred letters from her sweet heart when he was thirty-three months in the Pacific. Then he came home and she married him. Another woman, a nurse during the war, helped with the returning Prisoners of War. She described how helpless she felt that there was so little they could do to treat the men. Bud Campbell from Lodgepole was one who returned to us. Then Korean POW’s, George Blackbird and Charles Brekke, were released in 1953.

There used to be nice big houses in town until the Snake Butte project got started. The street from downtown to the high school was called “ Silk Stocking Avenue ” because of those beautiful old homes. Then those homes were chopped up into apartments and they never recovered. Anything was used for housing, shacks, shanties, tents. All were rented. The population tripled. A lot of Harlem girls got married. There were so many kids in school that several classes were held in church basements.

It was not the only time kids were farmed out to church basements. 1968 was the year of the fires. In January the civic enter burned down completely. It had housed the library, the basketball court, stage, jail, police office, a shooting range, the city office, and the Legion meeting rooms. All the basketball games, the school carnival, and the Seed Show were held there. Then a month later the older part of the grade school burned. It felt like the entire city disappeared. One of the Frey girls didn’t get out of the school. The teachers didn’t have a good count. Jim Thompson went back into the building, feeling his way, the smoke was too thick to see. Suddenly her little arms wrapped around his legs. He was so happy to get her out of there.

What do you remember most, I asked. They answered: We were a community. We were a village looking out for one another. We had a commitment, whether it was to school, to a job, or to our community. We were involved and became a part of everything. Young people today, well, both are working. They don’t have time for civic duties. Everyone knew who you were and where you were supposed to be. As young people we never got away with anything. Somebody would see us and that would be that. They would scold us and then tell our parents and then we would get it good when we got home. But we knew they cared. They cared what we did and wanted us to do good. If we could, this is what we would bring back. That strong sense of community.

Blaine County Journal
June 30, 2010

After You, My Dear Alphonse

If the title confuses you, look up "Alphonse and Gaston"
After you, my dear Alphonse

Recently, in my local county newspaper, an elected official was quoted as saying that his constituents never want to be first, never want to be trailblazers. They want someone else to get the ball rolling and then join in.

I was stunned. Confused. Disillusioned. What about people like Christopher Columbus? Lewis and Clark? Liver-eating Johnson? I grew up believing the myth of the rugged individual. I was proud of the pioneer spirit running through so much of Montana history. I thought these traits were shared by all my friends and neighbors. Where did I go wrong? I was afraid I would have to re-think my entire belief system.

Then I remembered Sunday dinner at Aunt Mary’s. Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul had ten children, five boys and five girls, so twelve crowded the trestle table every meal. Often, they welcomed me, my sister, Dad, Grandma and Father Todd to share dinner after Mass. That made seventeen. Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul farmed. They grew everything they ate. So the platters my cousin Shirley and I carried to the table were heaped with chickens that Aunt Mary had killed and plucked early that Sunday morning.

Everybody reached for their favorite pieces. The practical boys dived for the drumsticks, then heaped their plates with mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, and huge ears of corn. But Shirley and I were good Catholics. She had introduced me to “The Lives of the Saints.” I had listened in awe and admiration to stories about martyrs, hair shirts, torture, burnings at the stake--proofs of holiness. While conscientiously racking up points in Heaven, Shirley and I piously waited to take the last pieces of chicken--the backs and the necks. At an early age I learned to pretend that the bony chicken back was my favorite piece, to suck every strand of stringy meat from a chicken neck. It was the saintly thing to do.

Dinner at Aunt Mary’s was the perfect training to prepare me to live where “nobody wants to go first”. Now I know why I feel right at home here. I decided to see if I could learn about some famous people who, like us in this county, were reluctant to take the lead.

First, I found the patriotic Irish saint, Patrick Henry, who said, “I’d rather die than fight for liberty.”

I was startled to read that Davy Crockett said, “Make sure some one else is right and then follow them.”

Or how about that Daniel Boone, not one to foolishly blaze a trail, who said, “Will somebody please show me the way west.”

I had hardly scratched the surface. Remember George Washington’s immortal words, “Well, I’m willing to be vice-president.”

My heart swelled with affirmation that I was on the right track. We all loved to hear John Wayne say, “Saddle up. Move ‘em out. After you.” Then there was Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, eager to go “where many men have gone before.” Or Gilligan, who said, “This boat looks too crowded. I’ll catch the next one.”

Everybody knows how Teddy Roosevelt ordered a hapless private up San Juan Hill to make sure the way was safe. He then ensured his political career with these famous words, “Speak softly and carry a big justification.”

The Wright brothers waited and waited at Kitty Hawk until they heard about the heroic efforts of Jacques Fondue, who sailed up, up, up into the blue horizon. Then they swallowed hard and took to the air. (By the way, Jacques Fondue is better known as the inventor of the pitchfork steak fry.)

The intrepid Admiral Farragut, standing on the bridge in the face of grave danger, shouted, “Damn! The torpedoes! Full speed astern!”

And every school child can quote Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I waited.”

Let’s not forget the women who, of course, followed their men. Rosa Parks always went to the back of the bus. Our own Jeanette Rankin trailed the herd and voted to go to war. Betsy Ross shrugged and turned down the commission to design Old Glory, “If somebody else will sew the first one, I’ll make copies.”

In Blaine County we follow in the well-worn footsteps of heroes. Here’s my favorite quote for those who drag their feet, never wanting to be first, never wanting to be trailblazers: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”--God.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
July1, 2010

Stalking the Wild

Stalking the Wild

Ah, the thrill of the chase. The anticipation of pursuit. Stalking the quarry, sneaking through the brush, the grasses, the thistles, the wild rose, warily parting the fronds and peering with expectation. My delight at spotting my prey.

Something of the pioneer courses through my blood when I venture forth to bring home the bacon, so to speak. It is hard to describe my satisfaction upon my return with larder for the pantry. I feel like a mighty hunter who evaded the wooly mammoth, outwitted the saber-toothed tiger and brought home the wild asparagus.

A couple weeks ago, while sipping a cup of coffee at the bakery in Chinook, I eavesdropped on men at the next table. They were telling tales of gathering asparagus along the river. I had had every intention of going for asparagus this year, but each day that I was available to go, the weather conspired to defeat me. It was getting late in the season. I was glad to hear that there might be some left.

When I was a child, I discovered a small stand of asparagus that grew on the bank of the Milk River near our house. I sat in the sand and ate the tender spears. Not one stalk made it to the kitchen. I was hooked.

Fresh out of high school and newly married, I moved to Dodson. Mary Tribby took me under wing. She lived in a small cottage across the road from the creek. To me, she was a wise woman, a crone of inestimable knowledge. She initiated me into the esoteric rites of asparagus stalking. She taught me how to see the above-ground clues to the close-to-the-ground bounty. While the dew still sparkled on the grass, Mary and I gathered a basket full of spears, blanched them, and bagged them for my freezer.

So I told my guests from out of state, “Today is the last possible day we might pick wild asparagus. I know a special place. Would you like to go on a hunt? But there is no guarantee we’ll find fresh game.” Within minutes we were on the road to Dodson. We parked along a side street. I led my guests to the wide banks of Dodson Creek.

“Here’s what we look for,” I said. I showed them the dried fronds from last years crop, parted the grasses beneath the old stalks, and noted where others before us had snapped off fresh spears. One dark green stalk, about two feet high, stood guard. It was much too woody to eat. It would scatter good seed for the future. I continued to rake through the grasses with my fingers and uncovered one lovely stalk, about five inches above ground, barely visible above the duff, light green in color with tight, scale-like leaves.

Once we had snapped off the first three asparagus, we ate them. My friends had never tasted fresh asparagus in the field. That was all the motivation these greenhorns needed. We separated and each of us combed a different section of creek bank. I know many fresh stalks were munched and never made it into the bag. Yet our end-of-the-season hunt yielded two huge messes of this lily-like vegetable. We left, satisfied with our haul. As a bonus, I took home two wool socks studded with cockleburs.

Back at the house we enjoyed a simple meal of steamed asparagus, lightly buttered with salt and pepper. My friends began planning next year’s hunt while I plucked cockleburs from my socks. They intend to return for opening day and bring appropriate field gear.

We who live in north central Montana have missed a vital commercial opportunity. Think about it. Annually outlanders come to hike our trails, shoot our elk, photograph our wolves, and toss dry flies at trout. So why not institute a designated “season” to stalk the wild asparagus. I can see it now. An entire new industry is born. The state issues licenses. Guides take the innocent hunters to the second best sites (saving favored stream banks for family). Towns vie to be named “Wild Asparagus Capital of the World”. Tournaments. Trophies. Hunting gear. Clothing. Caps. Tools. Art. Kitsch. Souvenirs. Toys. Recipe books. Maps. Brochures. Museums. Parades. Celebrations. Roadside stands. The possibilities are endless.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 24, 2010