Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Divides & Watersheds

Three indistinct, slightly blurred figures on inner tubes, lounging their way down a stretch of river. A photograph portraying an alien image, bright green water broken by brownish-red patches. Another photograph of water close-up, barely recognizable, scattering light so diffusely that it could be a painting done by the water itself. A 3-D mountain of reds and yellows, like something out of a sun-baked cartoon. A bulbous writhing mass entitled “It Came from the Berkeley Pit…” A painting of a “cosmic grayling” in many colors and a sort of northwest native style, against a backdrop of red fading to blue.

Those are just some of the nearly 30 art pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts Butte, 405 W Park St, until early November. The show is part of the 1st Annual (we hope) Divides & Watersheds Art Exhibition & Symposium, a public event jointly produced by CFWEP and the Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation designed to raise public awareness of regional restoration and watershed issues through art and education. The art exhibition opening reception on Friday, October 5th attracted a few hundred attendees throughout the evening, and the symposium on Saturday the 6th drew about 75 people over the course of the day.

Friday was all about celebrating regional art, and those artists’ perceptions of this last best place, both the untouched landscapes of Montana wilderness and the scarred vistas that provide a visible reminder that our actions have consequences, even those carried out under the good old names of civilization and progress. There was music, too, courtesy of local singer-songwriters Mike Tierney, Tim Mason, David Hobbs and Chad Okrusch. Okrusch and Hobbs’ original tune “The Great Divide” provided the perfect musical introduction for Divides & Watersheds, with the last line of its chorus trailing off into the distance, “…both sides of divide.”

Saturday shifted to a slightly more scientific gear, but a wide variety of film showings and readings gave the day a balanced rhythm. Too much went on to go into detail on every presentation, but some of the highlights included Jen Titus’ presentation on basic stream assessment, which used “streams in a box” to demonstrate differences between healthy and unhealthy river ecosystems; Montana Tech Professor Pat Munday’s (read Pat's ecorover blog here) thorough overview of the environmental and cultural history of the Upper Clark Fork Basin; and lively panel discussions on outdoor and environmental education and watershed and development issues.

The day’s poetry and prose readings ran the gamut, from Sean Eamon’s visceral and rhythmic takes on life in the shadow of smelting, to Phil Atkins’ quiet meditations on wilderness and civilization, to Dean McElwain’s story of winding through life’s divides and stumbling upon insight in the form of “watershed moments” (hear poems read by Sean and Phil here). Prolific Montana writer and activist George Ochenski also dropped in to recount two snorkeling expeditions on the Clark Fork, first with nature writer David Quammen over twenty years ago, and more recently with CFWEP’s own Matt Vincent. Ochenski painted, with usual humor and wit, a picture of a recovering river that should serve as a reminder that we Montanans can effect our environment in constructive and respectful ways. You can read Ochenski’s own account of his expedition with Matt, originally published in the Missoula Independent, by clicking here.

And if that wasn’t enough, Saturday was also full of watershed films. A local contribution from Butte artist Glenn Bodish, “The Wise River”, gave audiences a new way to look at an unspoiled local river by focusing close-up on the details of the river water itself, its sounds and textures as it interacts with the landscape around it. “The Wise River” has little to do with the science or hydrology of the Wise River, but in other, perhaps more important ways, it paints a more complete picture of the river by letting it simply present itself, rather than boxing it in with quantified chemical data or obtuse formulas for things like the total maximum daily load. Not that water chemistry and TMDL aren’t important, they are, but they don’t tell the whole story of the river.

Neither does the film “The Legendary Mountain” tell the whole story of copper mining in Butte, but, by reading between the frames of this Anaconda Mining Company production from 1974, you can get a sense of it. A classic piece of propaganda, “The Legendary Mountain” glorifies copper mining to almost humorous levels. It does accurately reflect some local history, noting the risks and hazards of underground mining, and documenting the change from underground to open-pit mining in Butte in the 1950s. And it also accurately describes just how important copper was to the industrial revolution, to the development of the modern age, and to 20th century war efforts. What “The Legendary Mountain” doesn’t do is discuss the consequences of all that copper and modernization. The Anaconda Company’s dedication to environmental health and preservation is intoned seriously over footage of glorious snowcapped peaks and pristine lakes that bear no resemblance to and are located nowhere near the company’s mining operations. Of course, the datedness of the piece glosses over some of propagandizing, but perhaps “The Legendary Mountain” is best summarized in a particularly hilarious sequence in which the narrator waxes on about the goodness of the Company and its employees over stock footage of people in offices, ending with a shot of two serious old men in suits entering an elevator while a young woman in more casual attire exits, flashing the two executives a smile. The implicit message, and I’m putting words in the filmmakers mouths here, seems to be: “The Anaconda Company… not only are we awesome at mining, but we also love women!” On the other hand, the film offers some exquisite cinematography, particularly in scenes of the smelting process. Some of the results of smelting might not be much to look at, but the filmmakers here make the smelting process itself look downright sublime.

As I wandered about the old Museum of Fine Arts Butte building near the end of the day, watching the last few artists, scientists, and regular folks processing some of what they had experienced, I was struck by the uniqueness of our situation, environmental and cultural, here in western Montana. How often, particularly in these parts of Big Sky country, can you walk into a historic building in an old mining camp, check out a wide variety of fine art and hear some poetry on the first floor, then take a walk upstairs to listen to a presentation on the science of environmental restoration or take in a film portraying the intricate beauties of the Wise River? This merger of science and education with art and entertainment could be possible only in an environment, physical and historical, as rich as the Clark Fork Basin. And what better location for such an amalgamated event than Butte, the mining city, a patchwork itself of high and low culture, wilderness and industry?

The truest success of Divides & Watersheds can be measured by the diversity of those in attendance, and the depth and richness of their experiences living and working in western Montana as active artists and scientists. The contributors to Divides & Watersheds, in their variety, character, and willingness to share their knowledge and creativity, speak to how deeply dug in is that sense of community here near the top of the continental divide. Tally-up all the paintings, photos, sculptures, films, poems, stories, science, history, and experience on display, all coming from the fine folks in and around the Clark Fork, and you would be hard pressed to find a community with more cultural pay dirt to share.

Former congressman and Butte-native Pat Williams’ keynote speech provided a great capstone to the event. Mr. Williams, in a voice that was warm with a subtle riverly rumble, began as a storyteller, recalling old Butte and comparing the energy and culture of those times with the artwork on display. He segued into a discussion of issues important to his Western Progress organization, focusing particularly on the idea of a restoration economy, challenging the old notion that development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive concepts, and pointing the way toward a future Montana that is dependent on neither natural resource extraction or tourism, but a Montana that takes care of itself and its rich landscape. The speech was received with a standing ovation.

I don’t know that any conclusions can be drawn from the response to Divides & Watersheds, but I don’t think that any need to be. The main goal of the event was to get people talking and thinking about what is going on down around that next bend in the river. That’s the first step. The next is between them and the river.