Dispatch from Montana

Kevin Canty


© Kevin Ebi/Living Wilderness



July, 2011


What happened was this: On the second of July, at the height of its runoff, the Yellowstone River scoured out a 12-inch crude oil pipeline that had been trenched beneath the river bottom. The pressure of the water ruptured the pipe, sending a gush of oil downriver. By the time somebody at ExxonMobil noticed the leak, an hour later, 42,000 gallons of oil had been carried downstream with the flooding waters.


Why this matters: Imagine that you are standing, say, in front of Matisse’s “Odalisque with Raised Arms,” in the National Gallery, or that you are waiting for a table at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, or that you’re passing a rainy afternoon at the Frick, and somebody comes in and takes a huge stinky dump in the middle of the floor. I’m asking you to imagine this, not as a metaphor, but as an event. Try to think what you might feel, the surprise, the confusion. I suspect it might fill you with the same deep creepy revulsion as when the crazy guy went after the Pieta with a ball-peen hammer—that same sense of worried wonder at what people are capable of. To pick out the beautiful thing and then to attack exactly that.


We don’t have Matisses or Michelin stars in Montana. What we do have is mountains and rivers in an inexhaustible supply, literally—it would take more than a single lifetime to see what there is to see here of natural beauty. It’s what we have and what we love. It’s why people come and, above all, why we stay.


So the Yellowstone means something great to the people who live here. It’s the last free-flowing major river in the lower 48, running nearly 700 miles undammed. In the river above the spill, it’s a famous trout stream; below Billings it flattens into a prairie river. An acquaintance of mine who canoed the whole length of it said he spent days with no reminders of human existence. The mountain stretches are spectacular, the prairie stretches are quiet, subtle beauty.


And now coated in oil. We’re having an odd year in Montana, deep snowpack, a cold spring and late rain. These have combined for a long and extraordinarily powerful runoff, cold water in a big hurry carrying a lot of debris. This fast water has pushed the oil far downstream; it’s also put the oil into brushy streambanks and flooded hayfields, where it’s likely to remain until it breaks down. We’ll be living with this oil for a long time.


© Alexis Bonogofsky/National Wildlife Federation


What’s infuriating is that ExxonMobil did actually shut the pipeline down at the start of runoff, then fired it back up again when they determined—somehow—that this riverbed scouring wouldn’t happen. This was not some random act of God. It was a calculation this company made about odds and consequences, in the course of which this lovely river was valued at nothing. Somehow we have rigged this game so that the wonders of the natural world are not honored as the manmade world is. Imagine, again, an oil pipeline running through the courtyard of MOMA. Now imagine that it burst somehow, and they didn’t get the thing shut off for an hour. Imagine with me a way for this to stop.



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Kevin Canty's seventh book, a novel called Everything, was published by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday in July, 2010. He is also the author of three collections of short stories (Where the Money Went, Honeymoon, and A Stranger In This World) and three previous novels (Nine Below Zero, Into the Great Wide Open, and Winslow in Love). His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Tin House, GQ, Glimmer Train, Story, the New England Review and elsewhere; essays and articles in Vogue, Details, Playboy, the New York Times and the Oxford American, among many others. His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Polish, Italian and English. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana.