I posted a different version of this blog in winter of 2017. Now in the midst of spring, I’m revising my kingfisher manuscript and learned more about the origin of Bugbee Nature Preserve (Missoula, Montana) after a call to Bruce Bugbee, of American Public Land Exchange. Rather than bury the update, I thought I would re-post and add some relevance to springtime. You might like to read a little scene with snow even in the first week of May.
My fingers traced the faint lettering etched on the squared off memorial boulder set back from Rattlesnake Creek. As the powdery snow fell away, the words emerged: “In attending to this wilderness I have been instructed for life.” -Henry Bugbee.
The nearby creek murmured below a cloak of ice. The kingfishers had left. In their absence, I listened to the hushing rush of stream flow and leaned against the red-gold trunks of ponderosa pines bearing bundles of long needles glistening with silvery rime.
Even when I could not see or hear the halcyon birds, I knew the kingfishers had traced every bend of the creek, patrolling fishing territories and chasing away competitors of their own species. In winter, most of the females had migrated south and the remaining males stayed close by to seek ice-free fishing on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers. In spring, one secretive pair would enliven Rattlesnake Creek with courtship and nesting upstream from the preserve.
I often wandered the Bugbee Nature Preserve and always savored the words of the philosopher who once fly-fished the waters and hiked the mountains of this Rattlesnake Creek watershed. Almost daily, Henry Bugbee had climbed up Mt Jumbo’s steeply canted flanks on the east side. In later years, he switched to Waterworks Hill, a milder, yet still challenging trek on the west side of the valley. Each walk was a meditation and every step a grounded connection, while Henry examined the realms of the mind.
I still miss meeting Henry striding up the mountain with his trekking poles, his silvery white hair flowing in the wind. Never did I feel intimidated by his prodigious knowledge. He was an inspiring professor at University of Montana, where he taught philosophy until retiring in 1978, and before that a professor at Harvard University.
My brother Dave, an English major, once vanished for hours in the North Hills on what I’d thought would be a casual run during his brief visit in Missoula from his Colorado Rockies home. When he returned, breathless and animated, Dave recounted meeting a man of great brilliance high on the crest of Waterworks Hill above the peace sign. They had stood on the summit where ravens converge on gusty days, discussing Homer’s Odyssey and time slipped away. Henry reveled in chance encounters with kindred thinkers.
In the 1960s, Henry was instrumental in saving what today is the Bugbee Nature Preserve. When learning of a housing development that would entail cutting down the life-giving cottonwoods and pines across the creek from his home, he did everything he could to buy the land, even borrowing money to make payments. A few years later, his son Bruce facilitated a conservation land deal with The Nature Conservancy and Missoula County that tapped into The Land and Water Conservation Fund. Henry donated his financial contributions to meet the required 50:50 private/public match. The trees would stand until their time came to fall and wildness would prevail. Each protected wild place has a backstory, often of foresight, courage, generosity, and skillful negotiations.
The preserve is eight acres of cottonwood, ponderosa, mock orange, wild rose, red osier dogwood, alder, and a lattice of creek bottom plants. Only an eight-acre sliver of public wilds between Tom Green Park (to the north) and Greenough Park (to the south) and pinned in by houses upstream and downstream, the preserve is hardly wild in that grand way of Montana Wilderness areas with the capital “W,” like the Selway-Bitterroot, the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, and the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
Yet, here I’ve watched a belted kingfisher streak past in a dizzying river-blue and white blur, the bell-like staccato call a clarion awakening. Here, dippers dip and swim underwater on stubby dusk-gray wings. Mergansers raft the rapids and bull trout nose upstream to ancestral spawning beds. This time in May, the forest thrums with bees, quivers with feathery wings, and rings with woodpecker drumming.
Henry’s presence resides for all who listen. Attend to the wilds. Hear the words in the crack of a branch, in muffled clear waters, and on wilderness gusts bearing news of mayfly hatch, snow melt, and wildflower bloom.
Gratitude to the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed Group. Over the past four years, volunteers have pulled two acres of tansy, a weed that once was overtaking the Bugbee Preserve, and planted over 200 native riparian plants, including wild rose, serviceberry, currants, dogwood, chokecherry, and willow.