I’m Giving Yellowstone Another Chance

It isn’t the first time I’ve come across this term — flyover country — but I have to pause and really think about its meaning. When I do that, I realize that it’s not a very flattering descriptor; in fact, it can be seen as dismissive, even disrespectful, as if the spaces labeled as such are somehow insignificant, not worthy of visiting.

And that’s what its meaning suggests. Here’s the surprising thing, though — when the term was first used, in 1980 (according to the Oxford Dictionary), it was in the context of self-identification. The writer Thomas McGuane, a native Michigander, portrayed his adopted state of Montana as “flyover country” in an Esquire article about landscape artist Russell Chatham, fellow Montanan.

It is unlikely that McGuane foresaw how durable his expression would become, but he was earnest in his desire to convey a particular sentiment representative of people living in the heartland. And he should know. He grew up in Michigan, was educated there, and despite regular sojourns to each coast’s urban centers, has made Montana his home for several decades. He has spent a lifetime observing not just people, but nature. I’m not prepared to say that McGuane’s cynicism developed after he turned from writing novels to writing screenplays for Hollywood, but it can be said that his reverence for nature’s gifts has been a constant. That it would be McGuane whose name will be forever tethered to a pejorative seems unfortunate.

Approaching the Cascades (I think)

For ten years I’ve regularly done the loooong coast-to-coast flight in order to visit my younger daughter, who lives in Portland, Oregon. On most occasions I take the window seat; it allows me to periodically break up the monotony by studying the landscape below. The middle areas of the country that seem particularly devoid of concentrated activity always excite a sense of wonder — what would it be like to live in this part of the country? When I observe a land surface that has the appearance of an enormous, fleecy blanket draped over a mysterious jumble of objects of varying sizes, I’m curious, how close is the nearest home? The nearest farmers’ market? When I finally do catch movement — a car or truck, likely, traveling along a slim thread of lonely road — it reinforces that initial wonder.

I’m not what you would call well-traveled. I’ve been to Europe, Central America, a couple of places in the eastern provinces of Canada, several places up and down the East Coast, and — of course — the Pacific Northwest. It would seem that I’ve only ever picked away at the edges, never experienced the wide open spaces of our country’s interior. Part of it has to do with my supposed need to be within striking distance of an ocean. When you fly from the east coast to the west, it takes a while before the distances between urban areas grow so great that you sense a real shift, as if you should fully expect to have your passport handy were you to land somewhere below. As the plane passes over North Dakota, then Montana, it’s impossible to ignore the physical contrast between what is rolling out beneath you and the tightly arranged communities on either coast. I find it humbling. It’s also a reminder of the foreignness — to me — of so much of our country.

All of this current reflection would not have come to pass if not for a decision I made a couple weeks ago. I’m going to give Yellowstone another chance, I vowed. I watched Season 1 a year ago, and then promptly pitched the remote across the room and thought, what a horrible bunch of creatures. Even the ones who seem decent or innocent become poisoned by their association with the Duttons. There may be one exception — Walker, who, soon after being condemned to servitude at the Yellowstone, remarks about the aura of evil that pervades the ranch. (As I begin Season 2, I hold out the slimmest of hopes that he’s incorruptible.)

I plowed through Season 1 again, and felt that same urge to sling the remote across the room. I want to understand, however, why Yellowstone persists as one of TV’s most popular drama series. I’m filled with questions: Do viewers hang on the desperate hope that, sooner or later, these vile characters will reveal traces of humanity? Is it instead our need for validation that there are depraved people out there (maybe even entire communities), but we are not like that? Does it instead have something to do — at least marginally — with the derisive attitude that people in the heartland have toward the “coastal elites”? (The unfavorable portrayal of them is unmistakable.) Or is it the yearning to experience — even if indirectly — the majesty and breathtaking beauty of Big Sky country? Maybe it’s the wish to make sense of the cowboy lifestyle, unveil the mystique? (I do love the idea that the show employs authentic cowboy actors.)

Because I want to be proven wrong — I want Walker to resist the evil that he knows surrounds the ranch, and I want Jimmy not to be so needy (to the point that he loses all remaining vestiges of innocence) — I’m giving Yellowstone this second chance. . . even if it means subjecting myself to Beth Dutton, a specimen of pure evil if ever there was one.

Am I wrong?

Sources (for background on origin of “flyover country”, and Thomas McGuane):

One Less Bird Outside My Window

As a homeowner who maintains several bird feeders, I have to be okay with the divine concept that we call the circle of life. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ascribe my own pecking order based on my own preferences. Regardless of nature’s order of assignments on the food chain, if one animal depends for survival on another animal as food source, it doesn’t engender my sense of fondness for the predator. More than once on a walk around my neighborhood, I’ve spotted a Cooper’s hawk ambush one of the more popular feeding stations. I automatically “feel bad” for the small birds and deem the hawk a “bully”. I know it’s illogical, and frequent reminders to myself that it’s all the natural order of things makes no bit of difference.

All of the turbulence in my life these days seems to erupt when I step outside my front door. The other night, just as dusk was settling in, I opened my front door to take Mona and Bowie out for a potty break. I’m overly twitchy, I admit, since Mona’s escape earlier in the week. I had both on a taut leash and was looking down at them and the three stairs that we were to descend somehow as a body of one and in one fluid motion. It was in that paused interval that a little bird swooped around us and aimed for the barberry bush two feet away. Literally hot on its tail was a hawk. Before the small bird was able to reach safety deep in the barberry, the hawk plunged into the bush, and grabbed him with his lethal talons. Within the bush, a ferocious flapping of wings (both birds?) ensued for a brief five seconds or so, and the hawk flew off with his prize.

The disturbing melee rendered the three of us immobile as we tried to make sense of it. Mona and Bowie, of course, were then ready to explore the barberry bush. In fact, their curiosity was so great that I failed to redirect them for our particular visit outside. While I tugged on their leashes and issued pathetic verbal pleas, my own anguish only increased. I convinced myself that had I not stepped outside at the very moment the little bird was hoping to fly a direct path to the barberry, he would have managed to elude the hawk. In flight, generally speaking, the little bird has the advantage over the hawk, who cannot pivot mid-air quite as well. I had sent him into the direct flight path of the hawk. Such was my reasoning.

I cannot swear that the hawk was a Cooper’s hawk — perhaps it was a sharp-shinned hawk or a northern goshawk — but judging by his reckless diving into a barberry bush, it’s evident that it was some type of accipiter.* These are not the hawks that you see gliding in lazy circular trajectories high above. Instead, their stealth involves well-camouflaged perches and lightning quick ambush. In our case, the direction of flight for both prey and predator suggested that the small bird — likely a sparrow — was startled at our feeder station, and attempted to reach the safety of the spiny network of branches that the barberry provided.

I consider one final note of irony in this circle of life story. One day, just a couple months ago, I got out my pruners and determined to scale back the overgrown and unruly barberry. I can only describe my relationship with it as one of deep animosity. If you’ve ever gotten one of its barbs as a splinter, you’ll understand. As I raised my arms to part the branches and assess which ones should be culled, I surprised three or four birds who had been sitting quietly deep inside it. I instantly withdrew, but they flew off, anyway. From that time, I’ve found it impossible to clip any of those branches despite my displeasure over a landscape element that is too prickly for my liking. I’ve been much more conscious of its tenants these days; depending on the time of day, if you stand quietly and peer through it, you can see — and occasionally hear — the birds hopping around within. It’s a sight that makes me happy. At the same time, it does present me with a quandary, one that I’ll have to sort out, probably in a couple months.

You have 5 seconds to spot two little birds in the barberry bush.

It’s difficult to accept that hawks are not the villains in this story. I make the mistake, however, of equating it with something that resembles a David and Goliath clash, where the bigger adversary is naturally corrupt or bad, and the innate goodness of the small contestant evokes sympathy. We therefore pull for the lil’ guy. Whether my timing was simply unfortunate — one second earlier or later making all the difference — in the end, it’s all part of the natural order of that thing we call Life. I have no choice but to accept it.


*It was a remarkable spectacle. The (presumed) sparrow dove into the barberry with practiced skill — he, no doubt, had done that many times before. The hawk pitched into it with complete abandon. It occurred to me that a split-second calculation of risk had taken place. Later investigation online brought me to an oft-quoted 2002 study conducted by the Raptor Research Foundation: “Incidence of Naturally Healed Fractures in the Pectoral Bones of North American Accipiters“. A couple of interesting take-aways for me were that (1) woodland hawks — such as the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Northern Goshawk — are famously impervious to risk, and (2) just under 70% die not from natural causes, but from encounters with man-made objects. In that same 2002 study (cited also here), scientific examination of Cooper’s Hawk skeletons indicated that 23% of them had evidence of healed-over fractures of the pectoral bones. I’d say they’re some kind of crazy.