Headwaters

“where we choose to look”

Illustration by Morgan Krieg

 

BY JONATHAN FETTER-VORM

B efore she would start a painting, my mother used to take two corners of matte board, two white L-shapes, and hold them up to the landscape, making a sort of frame. She would search around with her frame until she settled on a scene that struck her eye. Then she would take the measure of the scene with her pencil, sketching the outline of a mountain, say, or a riverbend. As she explained it, the frame helped her constrain the wild expanse of the world into something more workable.

Despite this trick of the trade, I could sense that sometimes the land was too much for her to take in. I could see it in the paintings that she abandoned, when she would set her brush aside and let her gaze drift, as if to ask: “what’s the use in painting something so boundless?” Often, when I reach for my sketchbook, I hesitate with a similar doubt. What are we supposed to do here, with all this land and everything in it?

This question has no shortage of answers. Some are basic and ancient: hunt the animals; carve a home out of the wilderness. And other answers are more modern: turn the land to profit; seek among the farther reaches some kind of escape. Every soul who’s ever passed through this valley has had to wrestle with the problem of how best to face this land.

In 1890 a wealthy man vacationed with his family on the edge of Flathead Lake. Apparently the landscape made quite an impression, as it does to so many visitors. This man, Charles Conrad, then spent the next few years engaged in the kind of project that is by now all too familiar in this valley: he bought up as much land as he could and he started building a mansion.

That same year, the newly formed Great Northern Railway laid the first track through Marias Pass, at the southern edge of what is now Glacier National Park. From here, trains would snake their way westward to the broad plain of the Flathead Valley and, eventually, the tract of land purchased by Charles Conrad.

By the time the railroad converged on Conrad’s property, he and his associates had parceled off the open prairie into the lots and avenues that would become Kalispell. The first map of the townsite shows a small grid surrounded by wide margins of white, a tidy workable space set off from the empty expanse. If you stepped off the train with this map in hand, you might have been surprised to see just how much was already going on in the margins. Native hunting grounds, trading posts, homesteads, villages—all of it cropped out of the frame.

1890 was also the year that the U.S. Census determined, given the extent to which American settlers had populated the west, that it no longer made sense to speak of a frontier. The margins of the map had been filled in. Though of course they were never really empty. Nevertheless, the frontier lived large in the decades to come, in the imaginations of newcomers, on the pages of railroad brochures, and in the paintings of artists like Frederick Remington and Charlie Russell.

White men on horseback, Indians roaming the open prairie, wildlife skirting the treeline, a high range in the distance—these are the corner posts of western painting. Some variation on these themes greets me wherever I go, on the walls of a local gallery or doctor’s office or restaurant or hotel. In their ubiquity, these portraits of a bygone and, at best, half-true past have a way of blending into the background of our daily lives, making it harder to see them for what they are: artifacts of an enduring project to divvy up the land into little rectangles, erasing whatever won’t easily scale to the dimension of myth.

The west, painted as a wild frontier, is make-believe masquerading as history. It is the fantasy of a life less hemmed-in, of a land unbound by rules or property lines, unbent by the burden of memory, where each lone figure making his way through hardship is an unspoken statement of purpose: here there is only basic need and private ambition; here is no place for culture or common good.

As prairie gives way to farmland, and farmland to subdivisions, as lights creep higher into the foothills and traces of the old ways crumble, it’s getting harder to pretend that the poetic emptiness of the margins is anything but a sales pitch. The true story of this land has always been the story of the people in it—those who were here and those who’ve just arrived. To tell that story, we must reconsider not simply what we paint, but where we choose to look.

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