MONTANA TECH'S MOST IMPRESSIVE NO.1 RANKING IS SOCIAL MOBILITY

(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY April 5, 2017)

Of all the good things that my beloved alma mater does to positively affect the lives of so many students from every corner of the planet, my favorite Montana Tech accolade was given in 2014. According to CollegeNET, Montana Tech was the highest ranked school in the nation according to a research instrument called the Social Mobility Index (SMI).

What on earth is a Social Mobility Index? It is a data-based measure of how effectively colleges and universities graduate students from low-income backgrounds into promising careers. The SMI ranked 539 US Colleges and Universities. Just as it sits perched atop our town, Montana Tech sits atop this ranking, which to me is the most important and impressive no.1 ranking we’ve earned.

...That’s what so cool about social mobility, when one person breaks through they usually bring their children and their grandchildren with them.

When you combine Montana Tech’s ability to positively redirect the lives of so many with the fact that we are also ranked the no.1 institution for Return on Investment (ROI), it is easy to see why so many for so long have emphasized the importance of Harvard on the Hill to this community.

Every single person in this community knows somebody who came from humble circumstances, who enrolled at Montana Tech, worked hard and earned their degree, and went on to change the general drift and direction of their family for generations. That’s what so cool about social mobility, when one person breaks through they usually bring their children and their grandchildren with them.

How many of us live lives we couldn’t have otherwise lived were it not for the opportunities we were provided to study at Montana Tech? I can think of dozens, if not hundreds.

Though we are highly respected globally recognized institution, Montana Tech has always also served those who grew up within a short drive to campus. Few institutions of higher education have served their communities better than Montana Tech has served us.

It is fun for a sports crazy town to have an excellent college football team, and Coach Morrell has our guys dominating one of the toughest NAIA conferences in the country. But Chuck Morrell is here in part because he knows he’s a part of something bigger than college football. He’s part of an institution that changes lives for generations.

We’re no.1 ranked in all the right ways today. In many ways, these are the good old days. Go Diggers


A GOOD WEEK FOR (ST. JAMES) HEALTHCARE

(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY March 29, 2017)

Sun rays filter into the Summit Valley, St. James Healthcare in the foreground
(photo: Chad Okrusch)

When it’s cloudy a few bright streams of sunlight piercing the ash gray skies is reason enough to take stock in things, count blessings, and regroup for the inevitable dark days ahead. I learned this living in Eugene, Oregon and Seattle for 13 years of my life. And, on an unforgettable episode of Portlandia (WINTER IN PORTLANDIA) in which Portlandians, eager for summer days and ever-hopeful in the face of the dark and damp Pacific Northwest spring, carry their folding chairs, portable grills, and hacky sacks around the city waiting for sun rays to breach the clouds and reach the earth. Each sun spot becomes a spontaneous party. If you live where it’s cloudy, being bathed by a few rays of sunshine, even if only for a moment, is an ecstatic experience.

According to my values, interests, and beliefs, we are living through a gray and cloudy time, but last week the sun shone through and many of us regained some perspective. The sky, though dark, is not falling.

Our system is imperfect, expensive, and by many global measures for developed countries, mediocre at best. But, there are bright spots, sun rays shining through the dark skies. Congratulations to St. James and all the good people who take care of us in their name. You folks are a ray of sunshine.

Without going into the policy details, I am thankful that my children and family will continue to have access to essential health services including basic medical care and reasonably priced prescription medication. Without going into family health and wellness details, my family and I need these things. In the short term, we can continue to receive decent healthcare, and at a basic biological and human level, that matters.

The red carpet treatment at the Kentucky Derby-inspired St. James Gala. 

The system is broken, but not dismantled. The harm that may have occurred if RyanCare passed, would have been catastrophic for many, by all accounts. In this case, the system worked, albeit in strange ways.

The Sisters of Charity and St. James Healthcare also had a good week. They were recognized for excellence in rural healthcare and included on a short list of the country’s best. The contributions of St. James to our community are long-lived, many, and immense. St. James Healthcare’s big week was capped off with a perfectly timed Kentucky Derby themed gala at Montana Tech. Beautiful women in audacious spring Derby hats, and good men often awkwardly wearing pastels and bow ties, gathered together to raise funds to help continue their healthcare and charitable works into the future.

Our system is imperfect, expensive, and by many global measures for developed countries, mediocre at best. But, there are bright spots, sun rays shining through the dark skies. Congratulations to St. James and all the good people who take care of us in their name. You folks are a ray of sunshine.


IN APPRECIATION OF GOVERNMENT PEANUT BUTTER & CHEESE

(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY March 22, 2017)

I had hoped to return to the US from Thailand much rested and purged of those things that were ailing me, namely all things related to the last election. And to some degree, an international cleansing happened. But there’s only so much  a steady diet of Thai food can do for your health.

While abroad I kept an ear to the tracks back home. Each day I would wake up with the same question in mind: What chaos have President Trump and his surrogates created today?

As a young person who relied on government peanut butter and cheese, and food stamps, and feeding programs of every form, I am thankful that funding for my nourishment was not dependent upon my grades.

My question was not born of idle curiosity, but from my genuine concern over the potential global consequences of the President’s inevitable future missteps while my daughters and I were in southeast Asia. The conversations I’ve had with people from across the globe suggest that we all wake wondering: What next from the leader of the most powerful country on the planet?

During a 9-hour layover in Tokyo I happened upon American TV playing in an empty corner of the airport. A town hall style meeting on CNN with Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price. My initial visceral response to the man himself was immediate. To me he seemed some kind of whitewalker serving as harbinger of a long cold winter to come.

Benjamin Franklin believed there was an art to condescension. One must humbly step down and empathetically share space with someone who may be at a different place in personal growth. But nobody told this to Price. He was condescending in the worst way. Through a thinly veiled and transparent smile, he feigned common cause and understanding. He sneered as he looked down his nose, speaking slowly and repetitively so as not to confuse our simple minds about how the loss of health insurance for up to 24 million Americans over the next 6 years is really what the American people want and need.

Winter is coming.

A few hours later the next of the harbingers visits:  Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. He casually explained the logic behind cutting block programs that are often used to fund after-school care and feeding programs. By their logic it’s easy to justify cutting funds that support such programs because there’s NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE that suggests they work.

Mulvaney said, “So, let’s talk about after-school programs generally. They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? And that’s what they’re supposed to do, they’re supposed to help kids who can’t — who don’t get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no DEMONSTRABLE EVIDENCE they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better at school.”

(NOW the Trump administration is making appeals to EVIDENCE? But to suggest that humans might have contributed to the unstable climatological changes afoot, and the mountains of international science that back the interpretation, well, we don’t need THAT evidence.)

As a young person who relied on government peanut butter and cheese, and food stamps, and feeding programs of every form, I am thankful that funding for my nourishment was not dependent upon my grades.

And as a young person I ran a Summer Food Service Program for the Human Resources, District XII. We used these kinds of funds to feed children in the Silver Bow Homes and the Legion Oasis during the summer months when school was out. If we had not fed them, many of those little humans would not have eaten. We didn’t check their report cards before we fed them.

Isn’t it good and right to help feed those who struggle to feed themselves because we are humans sharing common cause, not because they earned it by this or that measure?

I was a late bloomer. Things didn’t start clicking for me until I was about 15. If access to nourishment was cut-off because I struggled in grades 1-8, I would’ve never been given the opportunity to achieve in grade 9. My Silver Bow History teacher, Jim Street, will attest to this, as he was told I was a punk with little chance in life as I transitioned from 8th to 9th grade. He’s expressed to me over the years that those who warned him about me were wrong. For this kind of mentorship and lifelong support, I’m forever grateful.

And thank you to my community--national, state, and local--for funding support services for vulnerable populations like the Summer Food Service Program and Meals on Wheels. Thank you community for not tying my family’s access to food to our academic performance, or physical wellness, or mental health. Between my brothers and I, we would’ve starved for sure.

Unfortunately, those funds, of all the cuts they could make, are proposed in the President’s budget.

The value systems of those who lead us now frighten me for they are so far from my own as to seem alien. If they don’t represent you either, it’s time to prepare to do what’s necessary to create the world we want to live in, one that takes care of those who need a hand up instead of simply cutting the vulnerable loose and letting them struggle to their bitter ends.

Winter has passed. Spring is coming. Plant something that will take root and be flowering soon, and flourishing come 2018.

BULL TROUT: BOTH PRECIOUS & RARE

(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY March 15, 2017)

Bull trout haiku:
fresh water, bull trout
cold, clear, complex, connected
both precious and rare

When Ed Abbey said we needed more predators, he wasn't talking about bull trout. He was talking about charismatic mega-fauna—grizzlies, wolves, cougars, and such. But I like to think that if Abbey had ever watched a 30-inch bull trout devour a wounded spring run Chinook salmon, or a runt-gosling, he'd have included this voracious predator on his list of species we need more of.

Montana Tech Professor, Nick Hawthorne, shows off a rare beauty, a Montana bull trout. For more Nick Hawthorne photography, see https://www.facebook.com/slapartist2/ 

Montana Tech Professor, Nick Hawthorne, shows off a rare beauty, a Montana bull trout. For more Nick Hawthorne photography, see https://www.facebook.com/slapartist2/ 

The now familiar story goes that the Salish people fished for spawniing bull trout with bows and arrows along Silver Bow Creek. They called Silver Bow Creek “Sin-tahp-kay-Sntapqey” which translates to “Place Where Something is Shot in the Head”. But today bull trout on the brink.

We simply do not value them as we do other species.

In terms of aesthetics, many fish are more handsome than the big-headed bull trout. They were not blessed with visual beauty like rainbow or Yellowstone cutthroat.

Bull trout are of no use to us in terms of economics. They mature slowly, live long, maintain small predator-sized populations, and require complex habitat. In short, humans have little regard for bull trout because they can't be mass produced in the machinery of industrial hatcheries.

Many anglers trained in utility still consider bull trout a trash fish because they are piscavores—they eat other, valuable fish—like exotic summer runs of salmon.

Once upon a time, fishing guides on the McKenzie River  in Oregon caught and killed bull trout—for the good of the river. They hung them from bridges and barbed wire fences—like coyotes—and encouraged others to do the same.

But bull trout have value beyond human notions of aesthetics, economics, or utility. They have what Aldo Leopold called intrinsic value—value in-and-of-themselves. They have value just because they are.

Ecology has provided us yet another way to value bull trout—as an indicator of a healthy system. Of all salmonids, bull trout may require the most pristine environment. Those who know refer to the bull trouts' habitat needs as the 4Cs: cold, clear, complex, and connected.

They are thermally sensitive and live in streams that run clear and cold. Bull trout require complex habitat—lots of cover, large woody debris, boulders, undercut banks, and gravel spawning beds; they need riffles, runs, and pools. And, in order to continue existing, bull trout populations must be connected. Sadly, most are not.

One ten-thousandth of all water on earth moves over land as rivers. Of all the river systems in the world, few are cold, clear, complex, and connected enough to support populations of wild bull trout. Fewer still exist in the bull trout's native range. We ought to value these places and these fish for no other reason than they continue to exist—in spite of us.

Rivers sustain us—humans and bull trout—regardless of the how beautiful we are or how much we contribute to the economy or how useful we may be. In the grand scheme of things, our value is derived not from these things, but from our very existence and from the sacred roles we play in natural systems.

LIVINGSTON, A MONTANA SHANGRI LA

(Published in The Butte Weekly)

I sometimes joke that I sing for free, and folks pay me to lug my equipment around, set it up, and tune my guitars. Such is the life of a wandering minstrel. I’ll know I’ve made it when I can hire people to help me with all that. Until then, I pack up my gear, take the scenic route to gigs, set it all up, perform, break it all down, pack up, drive home, and wait for a call to come back and do it all again. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a couple hundred bucks in my pockets at the end of the day, and some new friends and memories.  

But, there are places in this amazing state of ours where the labor is less than necessary drudgery. Sometimes I get a call to drive to what I consider to be a kind of Montana Shangri La at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, fittingly known as the Gateway to the Paradise Valley--Livingston, Montana.

In earlier writings, I’ve described Butte and the surrounding area as a vortex, that is, a place where energies meet and mix and result in novel creations and experiences. Livingston, Montana has long been such a place.

In Livingston, the mighty Yellowstone River sweeps around and through the town, it’s fluid-energy is audible as it mixes and mingles with the infamous katabatics that move like so many windy rivers down the steep faces of Montana’s highest Mountains. Livingston is a strange attractor of interesting people who sometimes find themselves caught in the vortexual eddies formed of wind and water. And so they stay and make life and love in this place in space and time.

In Livingston, the mighty Yellowstone River sweeps around and through the town, it’s fluid-energy is audible as it mixes and mingles with the infamous katabatics that move like so many windy rivers down the steep faces of Montana’s highest Mountains.

One of my best friends, Kelly John Dick, has called Livingston home for nearly 20 years. Lovingly known as Mr. Dick to a generation of former students, he’s taught a talented cadre of Park County youth poetry, literature, English, and Psychology. Mr. Dick is a gentle soul, known to his fun-loving and tough-as-nails family as “the human” because of his curious outlook and humane engagement of the world. He student taught in Ireland, was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to live and teach in Bulgaria, spent time perfecting his art and science at Ivy League schools, and always brought his experiences back to Livingston, Montana. He is a poet who looks like Kimbo Slice and walks gently upon the earth like Thich Nat Han. I’m proud to call him friend. It is with the human that I stay while in Livingston trying to catch ride on the winds and waters.

The list of celebrities who call Livingston home is long. They choose this place because they can slip into the scene without a lot of stargazing adoration. The people of Livingston are solid, like us. They are working class folks who, by virtue of the strange experiences that occur here, are oddly cultured and open to newness and novelty. This is what I seek in small towns--open minds. It’s not always the case.

11336936_10152947982023348_2809783834389361940_o.jpg

In Livingston, I’ve danced with my love on the banks of the Yellowstone listening to Holly Williams, whispering every lyric, eyes wide open and ecstatic. Here, too, I’ve danced with my baby girl, walked the river trails, and played in Sacajawea Park as gentler winds washed our cares away. I’ve listened to Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. John Mayer even stopped into the Murray Bar while Chad Ball, Logan Dudding, and I made noise as the afterparty band during the Livingston Hoot.

Montana is a small city with long roads. If you get a chance, stop the next time you’re passing through, grab a craft beer and some sushi at Neptune’s, or snag a table and watch the world pass by down the main street at the Katabatic Brewing Company and take in the sounds of Ashly Holland or Hawthorne Roots. When the breweries close, walk a block to The Murray Bar, a place where every good Butte and Anacondan will feel right at home. Eat dinner at Gills, next door. Listen to Kalyn Beasley or Ian Thomas or our own Heather Lingle as they sing heartfelt songs to sophisticated and appreciative crowds. Breathe in the spirit of this Montana Shangri La, and exhale and contribute your words and breath to this drinky little town with a wind problem.   

Livingston by Ben Bullington captures some of the spirit of this town. Give a listen.

 

CAN WE LEARN TO SEEK TRUTH TOGETHER?

If you’re anything like me, you lost a few friends between the election and today.

For the role I’ve played in the dissolution of long-term relationships, I am sorry. To every person I have made to feel threatened or uncomfortable because of my stance and my self-righteous and indignant attitude, I apologize. To every person who has punched (or wanted to punch) me because of the way I condescended or belittled in word and deed, mea culpa. To those who I've loudly propped up my positions with alternative facts and half-truths, I ask for your forgiveness.

I know better than this. I just wanted to be right and to win the argument regardless of the cost. Turns out, the cost of this kind of misguided communication is high. While we're arguing this way, we are not solving the problems we care so much about. In fact, we tend to move further and further away from making intelligent decisions together when we behave the way I sometimes do.

...the cost of this kind of misguided communication is high. While we’re arguing this way, we are not solving the problems we care so much about.

I don’t always walk my talk. That is to say, what I know to be right and good has not always guided my actions. Humans, while capable of reason and logic, more often than not act according to habit, instinct, intuition, and emotion.

Homo sapien means “man the wise” but if that were true, we would all be wise because we are Homo sapien sapien, doubly wise even. Most of us are not wise. To be wise means to be able to exercise consistent good judgment over time, to engage in the kind of decision making that leads to health and wellbeing for ourselves and the communities we participate in.

Again, if you’re anything like me, you fumble through the world doing the best you can, from one moment to the next. Most of us try to live out our highest values and beliefs but sometimes fall short.

When you swim in Catholic waters as we do here, this all makes perfect sense; human beings were born imperfect. We are fallible, that is, we often make mistakes. We don’t always get it right.

We do not, because we cannot possibly, know everything about everything. Our perspectives are limited by our experience, our circumstance, the capacity of our mind-bodies. Our language and culture are the tools we use to understand and describe the world. We see it all only from our individual perspective--from the place in earthly space and time that we’ve lived and learned within.

Sad, but true. Often, we aren’t making decisions based on facts, and truth, and logic or reason. We generally tend to make most decisions unconsciously with little or no critical thinking at all. 

If we can't know it all alone, doesn't it make sense to seek the perspectives of trusted others? “Please friend, help shed light on this event? I see it this way, tell me how do you see it?”

What would happen if:

  • we did not reduce the person presenting an alternative perspective to a caricature who speaks in bumper sticker slogans?
  • we genuinely asked each other to shed light on an issue, instead of assuming the other sees only from the shadows?
  • we admitted that we all operate with limited information and uncertainty, and that there are probably many positions we hold that are misguided or mistaken?
  • we changed the goal from winning an argument and being right toward coming to some better understanding for everybody that might lead to long-term and sustainable wellness?
  • we clearly communicated why the issue is important to us from the start?
  • we identified the nature of the harm we see in the issue, as well as those who are affected?
  • we started by identifying those values, interests, and beliefs that we hold in common?
  • we held each other and ourselves to a high standard of credibility for the evidence we present to prop up our beliefs?

In this brave new world, the Post-Truth era as some have called it, a world where we make emotional decisions based on fake-news and alternative facts, it becomes more important than ever to take a breath before we share that post on facebook that stirred us, check the sources and the facts, and also, check our self-righteousness too.

The greatest conversations I’ve had are with people who are thoughtful and see the world in a different way than I do. If we try to inform each other instead of persuade or dissuade or win or shame, we are more likely to make wise choices together.

The thing about facts is that facts are true regardless of what we believe.

The thing about facts is that facts are true regardless of what we believe. According to the American Pragmatist philosophers, truth happens to ideas. Truth can be thought of as the conclusion that thoughtful people would come to if they had access to all the facts and could communicate with each other openly about them.

Conversely, if we can’t discern fact from fiction, and we can’t communicate thoughtfully and humanely with others, what is the likelihood that we will ever make wise decisions together?

Let’s try and find truth together and stop flaming and shaming each other. Let’s seek facts, share facts, debunk compassionately, and help each other see strengths and weaknesses in our understanding. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t know everything and might have something to learn from others.

If we can’t, we will live in a world that cannot sustain our republic and democracy. If the common people cannot make wise judgments together, then dictators and oligarchs will fill the void. Misinformation is a deliberate strategy for usurping power, dividing, and conquering. The true shame of it all is that we are capable of doing this better, we just haven’t made it a priority yet.

Chad Okrusch earned a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. His academic research and writing focuses on democracy, public participation, and environmental justice.

GOTTA LOVE THOSE NASTY WOMEN FROM BUTTE!

(Published in MEANDERINGS in the BUTTE WEEKLY January 25, 2017)

(Photo by Julie Hippler)

(Photo by Julie Hippler)

I probably should preface this. I was raised by a single mother. I have three daughters. My maternal grandmother is still alive, as are all my aunts, and female cousins and nieces too. My family network has a few Y chromosomes, but a whole lotta double-Xs. And these women, every one of them, matter to me.

One of my facebook friends posted this in his status on Saturday: “Can someone inform me why all this woman marching shit is going on? Has any right been taken away? What is the deal?”

It’s incredible to me to think that somebody might believe more than 3 million Americans would participate in the Women’s March this weekend without good reasons. The standard right-wing trope is that all the bleeding heart liberals and their sissy-pants supporters are brainwashed by the liberal media and the march is simply sour grapes because Hillary lost.

President Trump even tweeted: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?” Oh, they voted. I believe Hillary won the popular vote by just about 3 million votes. Most people, not just women, who end up marching to make their voices heard are not the same folks who bow out on election day.

But this was more than sour grapes. Women in the USA organized these marches to remind us to stand up for each other, and to pay heed to the spectre of what seems to be on the horizon in the Trump Administration. Women of every class and station, along with other groups who’ve been fighting for and making strides toward gaining equal rights, stand to suffer the most in the days to come.

When your leader shows little to no real regard for the well-being of over half the population, indeed, when he has a history of doing and saying things that are harmful to women, then it becomes time for fathers, brothers, husbands, and friends stand in solidarity ready to do whatever is required to ensure our people are protected and safe.

While women have made positive strides during the last 30 years, even standing on the brink of occupying the Whitehouse, the conditions my mother and daughters face are still alarming, especially for a fiercely protective son and father.

Inequalities in the workplace in terms of opportunity and pay; underrepresentation in government at all levels (especially in Congress); threats to basic reproductive rights and basic healthcare; alarming rates of sexual assault and partner violence; and, once more, the spectre of dramatic reversals on the small gains made over the last 30 years; these are a few of the reasons they marched.

It’s funny. When the protests were organized under the Tea Party banner, it was patriotic. But if you protest wearing a pink hat, you’re a nasty woman. I love that Butte sent 2 busses to Helena full of nasty women to speak and stand up for the rights of all Montanans, especially our mothers, sisters, and daughters.

The Women's March was not simply a march for women. The march was women leading us and reminding us to stand up for each other. Sure, there were idiots--aren't there always idiots? Most of the people I know who marched were salt-of-the-earth, hardworking, caring, strong, intelligent, and good human beings. Look at the faces in these pictures, for goodness sake. These people aren't whackos. They are mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters, and I see a few brothers in the picture too. 

(Photo by Pat Ryan)

(Photo by Pat Ryan)

To my Facebook friend, who I know is also a father to a beautiful young daughter: they marched because they’re frightened and they’re pissed off. When your leader shows little to no real regard for the well-being of over half the population, indeed, when he has a history of doing and saying things that are harmful to women, then it becomes time for fathers, brothers, husbands, and friends stand in solidarity ready to do whatever is required to ensure our people are protected and safe.

To the Nasty Women of Butte: I'm proud of your action, not dismayed by it. I stand with you, for you, and next to you. And if you need me too, I'll stand in front of you to protect. If you need me to fall back and follow, I’ll be right behind you. I’ll be standing next to Pat Ryan so it’ll be hard to miss us.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN AMERICANA

(Published in MEANDERINGS for the Butte Weekly January 18, 2017)

Photo by Kelley Mattingly

Photo by Kelley Mattingly

When people see me carrying a guitar around they often ask, “What kind of music do you play?” While the question is straight-forward enough, my answer is not. I say, “Rocky Mountain Americana.” This is generally followed by the kind of pregnant pause that begs further explanation.

Americana, broadly defined, refers to anything associated with American culture and history. The first things that come to my mind are: old coke bottles, weather vanes in the shape of roosters, a tattered and faded American flag, and front porches, to name a few. When we’re talking about music, Americana is something a bit different.

Americana has another distinctive quality. It is soulful, heartfelt, and driven by lyrical storytelling. There are no songs about pickup truck tailgate keggers, Daisy Dukes, nor tanktops and country badonkadonks. It is not tractor rap.

Aaron Parrett, a professor in Great Falls with deep Butte roots, recently authored a book titled Montana Americana Music: Boot Stomping in the Big Sky. Parrett is a talented musician in his own right. “If I had to nutshell it,” he informed me, “I would say that Americana is roots music originating in America that derives from the country, rather than the city, in sensibility at least, if not actuality.” He went on to explain to me that Americana is considered a radio format, like easy listening or hard rock, and not necessarily a genre of music.

The Americana Music Association (AMA) defines Americana as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

It is roots music born in the places generally disconnected or isolated from mainstream music production--Music Row in Nashville, for example. Again, according to Parrett, “Whatever Americana is, it connects to the rural part of the country more than the city. Hence, Montana is an excellent place to look for it.” I agree.

Americana has another distinctive quality. It is soulful, heartfelt, and driven by lyrical storytelling. There are no songs about pickup truck tailgate keggers, Daisy Dukes, nor tanktops and country badonkadonks. It is not tractor rap. Think of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash. As my late friend Ben Bullington wrote in his song Country Music I’m Talkin’ to You, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down, wouldn’t be on your radio now. It’s more about havin’ rum drinks by the pool. You treat us like we’re all a bunch of fools. Country Music, I’m talkin’ to you.” Americana radio distinguishes itself from country music radio by selecting and emphasizing music that is timeless in sound and story.

Poster from a local Americana event in 2015. 

Poster from a local Americana event in 2015. 

If you’re looking for new music, but stuff that is rooted in the music you already love, you should explore this format on Spotify, Pandora, or internet radio. I’ve also noticed that Paul Panisko at KBOW is an Americana fan and slips Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Holly Williams, and Sturgill Simpson in between classic country in his radio programming each morning. KBMF 102.5 sprinkles Americana music throughout as well, especially the Audio Therapy show on Saturdays from noon-2pm with Lindsey Gordon and Ana Shaw.

Rocky Mountain Americana, then, is obviously the heartfelt and story-driven roots music that we write and perform in these parts. And we have some of the best festivals in the country to highlight it. Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs, Montana and the Braun Brothers Reunion Festival in Challis, Idaho are two worth checking out if you’ve a notion.

As I write this, I am preparing a setlist for an opening performance for one of the oft-regarded fathers of Americana music: Robert Earl Keen. The show is sold out at the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman. With luck, someday folks might add my name to the long list of Americana artists. And maybe songs like Big Hole River, Opportunity Blues, and St. Patrick’s Day at the M&M might someday be part of the Americana song book. I guess we’d call these songs Butte Americana.


WE MUST DO THIS RIGHT, FOREVER

(Published in MEANDERINGS for the Butte Weekly January 2017)

Southern China is lovely and temperate in December. The temperature hovered around 70ºF while I was there, with low humidity. It was pleasant. The palm trees in Zhaoqing were flourishing, and the redbud trees were losing their petals, the second flowering of the year. Compared to the -48ºF wind-chilled world we confront now, China’s Pearl River Delta region seems a dream from a far-off place and time.

Seven Story Lakes Park in Zhaoqing, China December 2016.  

Yet here we are. Why?

Because Butte, Montana USA is a vortex, a singularity, a whirling network created where  centripetal and centrifugal forces overlap and merge. Like other places I’ve been, our home is a strange combination of attractive and repulsive--it creates a disturbing tension and allows for the realization of novel things, some good and some not-so-good. Portland, Oregon and New Orleans comes to mind as similarly weird and wonderful places.

Who we are and how we create the world together is unique. Our weirdness draws interesting people like a camp lantern attracts moths. When I meet them I say, “Welcome to the vortex.” Sincere people who are mindful and creative understand immediately. They’re here because of our strange combination of salt-of-the-earth character and environmental spectacle. Artists seek novelty, and God knows we’re novel.

We’re sleepwalking. We’ve become blind to the reality of the world we’ve created because we created it slowly, over decades. Mountains become pits and overburden piles become mountains, and we hardly realize it.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read the unfolding international environmental drama back home while I was in China last month. Ten-thousand (10,000) snow geese experienced the misfortune of landing in Lake Berkeley. We love superlatives in the Richest Hill on Earth, so the headline reading, “Die-off of Snow Geese in Butte Possibly the Largest in History” reads easy. We're sleepwalking. We've become blind to the reality of the world we've created because we created it slowly, over decades. Mountains become pits and overburden piles become mountains, and we hardly realize it.  

A young Butte citizen contemplating the Berkeley Pit on a Clark Fork Watershed Education Program field trip. 

A young Butte citizen contemplating the Berkeley Pit on a Clark Fork Watershed Education Program field trip. 

These geese are a reminder of the truth about the world we inhabit. We all live in (or very near) a world that is capable of killing thousands of perfectly healthy geese. That is demonstrably so, incontrovertible, a warranted assertion, in other words, actually and factually true.

Yes, we’ve spent much more than $1 billion on environmental remedy and restoration across the vast interlocking complex of Superfund sites from here to Milltown. To clean it all we would need perhaps 10 times that amount. The demon here lies in the details. EPA, for example, didn’t see fit to include the many large obvious waste dumps in the middle of town in their remedy plan--a $30 million detail. They appear to view Butte as a project that is taking too long and costing too much. Time to wrap it up and close the file.

Except, our particular problems are forever problems. In the convoluted language of the bureaucratic experts running the remedy/restoration projects by remote control from Helena, Denver, and Washington D.C., Butte will confront these environmental problems “in perpetuity.” As Fritz Daily will tell you, that’s a long time.

The geese, by a series of unfortunate events, were drawn to the vortex. They paid. My hope is that the recent spate of attention doesn’t stifle the generally positive drift and direction our community has taken. We will be fine if we wake-up and stay vigilant. Superfund unfolds over generations of time. That means that we need intergenerational communication and education in order to fight the good fight. Our grandchildren will struggle with the world we’ve left them unless we do this right, forever.

Chad Okrusch is a tenured assistant professor of ethics and communication in Montana Tech’s Professional & Technical Communication department. He was appointed to the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council (BNRC) in 2009.

Bamboo

In Guangdong Province, bamboo is life...

Bamboo forest near Aozi Town, Guangdong Province, China (February 2015)

Bamboo forest near Aozi Town, Guangdong Province, China (February 2015)

It is a grass, not a tree, though it grows in forests throughout the entire country side. Everywhere you look, bamboo. The newly washed clothes hang from bamboo poles, the scaffolding they use to build all the new construction is bamboo, and they even burn it for cooking. It is split and woven into baskets to carry chickens home from market. And it nourishes our bodies as well as we have eaten bamboo shoots with nearly every home meal we've had at the Cai house. 

I am working on several longer form stories about bamboo and the bamboo economy. Until their complete, enjoy the photographs. Check back soon. 

Lao Cai Finally Casts a Bamboo Fly Rod

Lao Cai, the bamboo merchant and patriarch of our host family, has been supplying bamboo to some of the world's best fly rod makers for decades. Until today, he never cast a rod made of his own bamboo. Even more impressive, he built the rod he's casting, perhaps a decade ago. With the help of Glenn Brackett, he took to the art of fly casting quickly. We are sure nobody's cast a fly rod in this area before so it was a real honor to have witnessed it. 

Lao Cai practicing the art of bamboo rod fly casting in the middle school playground across from his home. 

Smartphone Photography

Our days continue to be filled with fellowship and celebration; the Chinese New Year has come and it seems the whole nation is eager to start anew together. My traveling companions and I have been welcomed warmly everywhere we've gone. Today, we rode the Cai family motorcycles and scooters into a remote village. The families there were so surprised and happy to see us--they've never had foreigners in their village before. We were treated to firecrackers, drumming, and the lion dance. I've included a few of my favorite smartphone photos from the last couple of days below.

It has become apparent to me that my more detailed blog postings will have to be written stateside. Our dancecard, so to speak, is always full in China. I have chosen to experience this place while here and write about it when I have the luxury of time and some distance. 

Until then, check back for more pictures until I return home. 

Big Hole River (in Mandarin)

Once more, my new friend Hannah has honored me. She has translated my poem/song, Big Hole RIver, into Mandarin. It is beautiful in written form. I hope to have her record her singing it on the first day of the Chinese New Year. 


Mariah's Challenge in China

Many of you know that I am a loud and proud supporter and founding member of Mariah's Challenge, a Montana-based organization dedicated to helping eliminate underage drinking and drinking and driving from the planet. You might snicker at the thought, and we know that our goal is an impossible one, but recall that Leo McCarthy was recognized as a top-10 CNN Hero in 2012. He stood along side amazing human beings from all over the world when he and the organization were honored that year. Well, this picture is dedicated to our dear departed Mariah McCarthy, to my daughter Kaitlyn Okrusch, and to Valerie Kilmer. It is dedicated to Leo and Janice, Margi Henderson, and Peggy and Jimm Kilmer. It is dedicated to Mariah's Challenge executive director, Jon Wick, and to the Board of Directors. It is dedicated to all those who have taken the challenge to do the right thing when tough choices confront you. These young folks in Huaiji City are shuffle dancers in the town square. I danced with them in my Mariah's Challenge shirt and they laughed as young people dancing do. I hope they all grow old and live long and healthy lives. 

FMI: http://www.mariahschallenge.com 

Guangdong College of Business & Technology

The world is small, indeed. It turns out one of my graduate students, Shihua Brazill, was born and raised in Guangdong Province. She received an excellent education at Guangdong College of Business and Technology, an impressive institution founded in 1996. The beautiful campus is home to 22,000 students, all  of whom had returned home for the Spring Festival. Shihua arranged a tour of the University for me when she realized I was close. For this I am thankful. 

Guangdong College of Business & Technology boasts a placement rate comparable to that of Montana Tech, the college I teach at in Butte, Montana. Among the disciplines we teach there is much overlap. I hope someday I might get a chance to teach here. 

Shihua's former teacher, Dr. Wei, is an administrator at the University. He went out of his way to honor and greet me and my traveling companions on a Saturday during the Festival season--no small gesture. He was accompanied by the Vice President of the University and another professor. They greeted us at the campus gate and led us to a great room that had fresh fruits (the star fruit was new to me and particularly delicious) and green tea. To my surprise and delight, they presented me with gifts including a wonderful black Chinese tea, a cup of which I'm sipping on as I write this. I presented him a Montana Tech pin (visible in a couple of the photos).

As I was the honored guest, I could not shoot photos that did the beautiful campus justice. Suffice it to say it is an impressive place. I have been invited back, next time to stay in the ultra-modern hotel that sits on campus. I hope we can form a lasting partnership between our schools. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is the speed with which Shihua was able to assess my  situation, communicate with her former teacher, and arrange my visit. I am astonished at the efficiency, timeliness, and care that the Chinese people employ in every aspect of their daily lives. 

Many thanks to my hosts at Guangdong College of Business & Technology, especially Dr. Wei. I hope it is the first of many exchanges between our very similar schools. And thank you to Shihua Brazill for caring enough to coordinate the visit on such short notice. For a poor kid from Butte, Montana, the treatment and respect I received from these good people was humbling and I am forever grateful. 

FMI: http://t.sina.com.cn/zqgsxy

Smiling Faces

The people I've met in Aozi Town seem to be genuinely kind, curious, hardworking, and happy. Everywhere I go I am met with smiling faces. Those children that are not frightened by the "gweilo" (ghost) walking through town are eager to make contact with me, and more often than not, their parents encourage the interaction. For many of these people, we are the first foreigners they have ever seen. 

When I first arrived I walked the streets without my camera out of respect. On the second day, I brought it along. It turns out, the camera opens more doors than it closes here. The happy people of Aozi Town usually come out of their shops and homes to see what all the fuss is about as my partners and I stroll. Everywhere we walk the sound of giggles and laughter follows. Their happy faces will forever be seared into my memory. I am sure I am regarded by the locals as some sort of smiling idiot, but this is a small price to pay for the joyful interactions I've had in the short time I've been here. 

As I collect more smiles in the days to follow, I will update this photo gallery. Do check back.