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When Mountains Tower As Metaphor For Hubris
October 2, 2022
When Mountains Tower As Metaphor For Hubris
In Elise Atchison's novel, Crazy Mountain, developers descend, newcomers live behind gates, and locals surrender their heritage. But at what cost?
A rural road leading into the real Crazy Mountains, also the backdrop for Elise Atchison's new novel which dives into the clash between newcomers, old timers and transformation of place. Photo: Shutterstock ID 538283356/Justin Ridgeway
by Todd Wilkinson
Situated as a northern geographic reach of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (a counterpoint to how the Wind River Range and Wyoming’s Red Desert stretch along the bioregion’s southern flank), the Crazy Mountains in Montana possess their own mystique.
Jaggedly rugged with how they jut from the high plains as an island of uplift, the Crazies are the place where Crow Chief Plenty Coups had a vision following days of fasting in which bison flooded out of a hole in the ground and then disappeared, replaced on the western prairie by exotic creatures—domestic cattle. Elders, with whom Plenty Coups shared the imagery, interpreted the vision as a harbinger of the coming invasion of white settlers.
Today, there’s a new invasion happening around the feet of the Crazies and it’s taking the form of cattle ranches and agrarian lands being replaced by recreation retreats for wealthy landowners and well-to-do folk seeking exclusive getaways. In Elise Atchison’s new novel, Crazy Mountain, the mountains are both a backdrop and a metaphor for how some humans are taunting Mother Nature, believing we can defy the force of her power.
With that hint, I won’t reveal the climax to Atchison’s novel, but let’s just say it doesn’t end well for fictional developers and homeowners possessing the same kind of hubris that has led others to erect mansions in flood plains or along coastal areas prone to tidal surges brought with hurricanes.
In many ways, the arrival of Crazy Mountain couldn’t be timelier in the wake of the Covid pandemic’s transformative impact on Greater Yellowstone, where an inundation of people with means, trying to escape lockdown in cities, has set off an unprecedented tidal wave of land development and real estate speculation. Pick your Greater Yellowstone valley now dealing with traumatic growth issues, including the conversion of wildlife-rich and pastoral landscapes into contortions of exurban sprawl, the characters in Atchison’s novel—a mix of locals and newcomers— could exist in any of those dells.
Atchison is a writer and editor who has lived most of her life in an off-the-grid home, outside of Livingston, Montana, on the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. There, she is witnessing how leapfrog development sweeping up Paradise Valley and across Bozeman Pass from Bozeman is beginning to pepper the Shields River Valley enwrapping the southwestern corner of the Crazies.
As Atchison describes her own focus, much of it centers on the changing western landscape and how those changes affect the land and the people who live there. She is interested, she says, in exploring the many ways we relate to the natural world, the many ways we relate to each other, and how the two are fundamentally intertwined.
"Gritty and tough and gut wrenching...Crazy Mountain ignites a firestorm," praises novelist Debra Magpie Earling, who also teaches fiction and Native American Studies at the University of Montana in Missoula. "With great insight, intelligence, and intimacy, Elise Atchison explores a singular dilemma: How do we live in paradise without destroying the very thing we love?" adds Kim Barnes.
For Crazy Mountain (Sowilo Press, 2022), she received the Eludia Book Award, Barbara Deming Award, and a Montana Arts Council Artist’s Grant. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, radio, and elsewhere. Not long ago, I engaged her with a few questions.
Todd Wilkinson: What brought you to Livingston and what's on the minds of people there, in Paradise Valley, and around the foothills of the Crazy Mountains where the drama is set?
ELISE ATCHISON: The wilderness is what drew me here; the people are what kept me here. One thing I loved about this spot is that it is an ecotone of both landscapes and cultures, a place where the mountains meet the plains and where two disparate cultures, western Montana and eastern Montana, meet and mix like eddies in a river. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. There’s been mixed reactions to those changes, with some embracing the ideology of perpetual growth, and others recognizing what is forever lost in such an ideology.
One of the biggest concerns of long-term residents is the skyrocketing housing costs. Gentrification, where wealthy people move in and local working-class people are pushed out, is happening all across Montana and the rural West. Another issue that concerns many people is the speed with which residential development is happening. Rapid growth is never good for a community or for the land. When a subdivision is developed, it involves clearing off all the native flora and fauna and plopping down homes and lawns and concrete driveways. A rich, biodiverse ecosystem is replaced with a monoculture of humans and domestic animals. Development has been going on for a long time, but the speed at which it is happening is reaching a tipping point. All of these themes are explored from many different perspectives in Crazy Mountain.
TW: While Crazy Mountain is a book of fiction, its narrative could not be more poignant and real. It's about change, including that of local bliss and small-town values vs. newcomers who treat Montana (and similar corners of the West) as a place to exploit out of greed and personal enrichment. Just curious: How have you been fairing during these Covid years and dealing with the tensions that have accompanied them?
ATCHISON: Covid has changed everyone’s lives, and it has also brought a mass influx of people wanting to leave more populated areas. This has led to rapid development not only in our area but in rural areas all across the West. Covid has only magnified the fact that people want to spread out, they want to live in less populated areas, which results in less populated areas becoming more populated. And some argue that Covid itself is the result of this encroachment on unpopulated areas.
We can complain about how these changes affect us—traffic is increasing, dark skies are disappearing, a mountain lake we used to have to ourselves is now crowded (what people might call NIMBY complaints)—but the real injured parties in that equation are all the wildlife who are losing their habitats—their homes—to this nonstop growth. During the Covid influx a local bear became food-conditioned. That bear has since disappeared. More recently, one of grizzly 399’s cubs was killed in Jackson Hole because of human behavior within its territory. Curlews are losing their nesting grounds, elk and pronghorn are losing their ancient migration routes, and fragile alpine environments are stressed by increased usage. There is no room for mountain lions and wolves and bison in subdivisions. These are the real-world effects of development and shrinking habitat for wildlife, which Covid has only exacerbated.
"We Homo sapiens have a huge task ahead of us. I think we need a major shift in the way we view our place in the larger world. It boils down to respect for the intrinsic value and rights of those outside ourselves, including vulnerable people in our community as well as other species and the natural world. The opposite viewpoint is seeing ourselves as the center of everything, which leads to transactional relationships with the world around us—a 'what do I get out it?'" —Author Elise Atchison
TW: How is fiction able to illuminate "the truth" in a deeper way than non-fiction?
ATCHISON: I write and read both fiction and nonfiction, but I feel I can get closer to the emotional truth in fiction. People have always written about the overarching issues of their times, such as writing about war during war time, and the overarching issues of our time are the ecological challenges we face, including climate change and loss of habitats and biodiversity. Crazy Mountain is essentially an exploration of what it is to be human in these times.
Stories are powerful things. There’s a reason authoritarians always jail or kill writers. Stories can change us They have changed me many times. Studies have shown that when people read literary fiction, it increases their empathy because they experience the lives of others in a very real and visceral way. Richard Powers has said, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Perhaps fiction will help us extend our empathy not only to other people but also to the natural world.
TW: Some claim that because “change” is constant and inevitable that it cannot be directed, that our only option is to adapt to negative things we see happening to our communities, to the private land pastoral landscapes and to our wildlands. At Mountain Journal we fundamentally reject the premise that destruction is inevitable. In fact, the only way to save what we love about our region is to be consciously aware and enlightened about what’s at stake and then be willing to make hard decisions. Indeed, Crazy Mountain through its characters dives deep into this terrain. Was writing the book cathartic for you?
ATCHISON: For me, writing is not cathartic. I tend to agree with Flannery O’Connor that “writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay … It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
As for “change,” we not only should take a hard look at the negative effects of our actions, but we must. We Homo sapiens have a huge task ahead of us. I think we need a major shift in the way we view our place in the larger world. It boils down to respect for the intrinsic value and rights of those outside ourselves, including vulnerable people in our community as well as other species and the natural world. The opposite viewpoint is seeing ourselves as the center of everything, which leads to transactional relationships with the world around us—a “what do I get out it?” attitude. Do we care that gentrification leads to homelessness? Do we care that the resort we want to build will wipe out wolverine habitat? The only way forward is to see ourselves as responsible parts of a larger community and act accordingly. Perhaps stories will help us get there.