Monday, July 13, 2009

Last Summer, Part 3 - Montana

When we left our intrepid explorer last, I was in Montana's Bitterroot Valley wandering, looking for what my life was going to look like. Hoping it was going to be outside work, making the world a better place, but dreading that somehow I'd end up behind a desk in an air-conditioned corporate cubicle world.

I'd spent two weeks working on an organic farm in Grants Pass, Oregon, moseyed through the California redwoods and back up through Sand Point, Idaho. All the way I was working the WWOOF-USA book and the USDA's ATTRA internships web pages ( ), looking at options as diverse as working on a horse farm in MT to helping construct buildings in Utah. Some people never answered my inquiries, some were full and some not taking interns any more.

Finally I found it, and when I read the description on the ATTRA website, I felt something shift inside me.

General Description: We use a large herd of goats to contract graze weeds and brush in the Greater Yellowstone Area of MT and WY. We also raise meat goats with this herd. We use border collie dogs and mesh electric fence to guide the herd. We believe in managing to optimize the health of the land, animals, environment, and community (humans).

I contacted them and we agreed to a one-week trial period starting the next day in Red Lodge, Montana. I spent the night in Missoula, and met them the next day. Now, that country, immediately east and north of Yellowstone Park is just about the most beautiful place in America. (Not the world though. The most beautiful place in the world, in my opinion, is Wadi Rum, Jordan.)

Terra Vita has two herds of 650 goats each, and during the week I spent with them I learned how they use goats to manage land. It's a hard sell in this part of the country though, and very, very hard work. I flamed out, falling face first in mud, trying to roll up the portable fence on a steep, muddy hill; struggling to drag a 40-lb battery to charge a new pen every few hours. Goats prefer weeds to grass, so you move the goats right after they've finished the weeds and before they start eating grass. For the site in this picture, it means build a new 2-acre pen and move the goats every few hours. I couldn't hack it.

Here is where I slept though, in my hammock. It was stunning. The nearest house was about 1/4 mile away on the next hill over. Notably, it wasn't quiet here at night. Noise carried from the next house, so I fell asleep listening to the neighbors and marveling that if you try to run away from noise, it follows you. I bet if I had internal silence, no noise would have bothered me.

Even though I had failed at interning here, something inside me had changed. I knew that this was the thing I wanted to do. The engineer in me says it meets all the criteria. It's outside work, helping the environment, away from the corporate cubicle grind. The pragmatist in me isn't so sure - can I survive doing this?
I spent the rest of the summer working that out and I'll take you there too. Later.

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