A Meeting of Great Minds in Missoula

Journalists hiking near Missoula, Montana

The wide sky stretches across the Earth—from parched canyons and amber hills to the craggy tips of the mountains that make the West. This West. Our West. A land that swaddles me in its hugeness.

That is what I saw and felt for the 2 1/2 days it took to drive from Boulder to Missoula and back. Sandwiched between was an animated week among hundreds of journalists gathered for the 20th anniversary Society of Environmental Journalists conference. Immediately preceding that: the Forum on Atlantic Media and the Environment (FAME). Several readers commented that I haven’t posted here in a while, and it’s true. It’s funny how little, at times, a blog reflects reality: I’ve been quiet online, yet my life has been anything but. Back-to-back panels and parties, mountain hikes and brown-bag lunches. No moment to rest.

I learned a ton last week. I learned about Diana Six and her research on bark beetles, fungi and the unfortunate deaths of so many Montana trees. I also learned that this extraordinary woman, when given the time, will brew her own beer using beetle yeast – how cool is that!

I learned that Montana is losing its trout, and experts estimate up to a 50-percent loss by the end of this century. Temperatures are rising, snowfall is diminishing, and the snowpack is melting earlier each spring. By late summer, the rivers run low and dry. “We already have a 30-50 year trend of slow warming here,” says UM’s Nobel laureate climate researcher Steve Running. “So we’re in the middle of climate change.” He says the Rockies are “slowly getting more arid as we go through time,” and the West faces the potential for “holocaust-level fire.”

This snowshoe hare is turning white before the winter snows begin to fall.

I admit I got a little teary-eyed when I learned that snowshoe hares, such as this cutie above, still turn white when daylight grows shorter. But the snow doesn’t come, and the animal’s natural camouflage defenses are defeated.

I learned from Laurie Mazur that the average Tanzanian emits 1/10 of a ton of carbon each year, while the average American emits 1/10 of a ton of carbon every 28 hours. “When we use the word overpopulation, we’re implying there’s simply too many people for the resources available,” she says. But we must consider the waste involved in resource use. If everyone on Earth at as Americans on average do, current food supplies would feed 2.5 billion people. That’s a fair bit short of the world’s population at 6.8 billion.

I learned, Sunday morning, that it’s pretty groovy to breakfast with the voices of William Kittredge, David James Duncan and Kathleen Dean Moore (even when it’s early and you are slightly hung over). Much of the conversation centered on the overarching theme of climate, society and the future. “Most privileged society in the history of the world. Us. Right here, sitting in this room, you know. What do we do?” Kittredge asked. Perhaps the morning’s most memorable quote came from Moore. “If the definition of insanity is the inability to distinguish right from wrong, then corporations are psychopathic.”

Beyond all that, I learned last week that Missoula is doing amazing things in food—way beyond anything I had conceived when I attended UM as an undergrad. The city has an elaborate system of community farms that help feed the underprivileged and homeless, and the UM Farm to College Program has students across campus eating local. Author Jeremy Smith has just published a book on Missoula’s food revolution. And that’s all I’m going to say—for now. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not done with Missoula. It’s the sort of place I’ll never get out of my heart.

The Oval, Main Hall and the M

10 thoughts on “A Meeting of Great Minds in Missoula

  1. That snowshoe hare example is so compelling. I’m so grateful that you’re learning these things through your fellowship and sharing them with us.

  2. Hi Genie – those hares certainly do change color! In the photo I think you can just make out that the hare’s ears are already white. And the ground most certainly is not!
    The timing is based on day length, so the hares start changing their coats at the same time every year. But, as I also learned on the trip, Montana now has 22 fewer snow cover days than compared to historical levels, leaving the hares white for three weeks while their surroundings are brown.

  3. Climate change effects on wildlife is herendous as they can’t just put on a different layer of cloths. Nature will take of itself as far populations go like the snowshoe hare and its dog and cat enemies, as you can well imagine, when the hares are plentiful so the health of the pups and kitten be strong and when it’s down the mortality rate will climb for pups and kittens alike. The snow shoe hare has been around for a long long time. I hope it can survive this man made heat wave.

  4. Wait – you’re Karen Coates?! I didn’t put two and two together till now! I love your blog – I’ve been following it on and off for two years. I just read Pacific Lady (the book caught my eye on Amazon) and just today checked on your blog and realized who you are. What a strange coincidence! I love all of your work!
    I just added you on Facebook 🙂

  5. Olive, thanks for reading. It’s always great to know a reader has learned from something I’ve written.

    Tracy, it’s true. The hares don’t know they stand out in the brown forest.

    Kruzon, I hear you. We’ll see how these animals adapt….

    Ruth, thank you! Happy to have you here. I’m glad you made the connection.

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