Counting sheep in Doig country

A curious lamb examines some recording gear. Photo by Jeff Rice.

A curious lamb examines some recording gear. Photo by Jeff Rice.

The library celebrates the launch of the Ivan Doig Archive later this month and the Acoustic Atlas is pairing audio recordings with some of the collection’s digital content. This summer we have gathered everything from the sounds of birds and coyotes to haying equipment, all relating to the late author’s novels and other writings.

As the summer comes to a close, we have saved the best for last. Our collection wouldn’t be complete without a nod to that staple of Montana ranching, the sheep.

Sheep ranching was central to Doig’s life and stories. His father and his Scottish relatives herded sheep across the high meadows around White Sulphur Springs, and for a while at least, central Montana was wild and woolly.

“All the places I liked best had the sounds and smells and feels which came one way or another from the herds and flocks out on the leathered slope of grassland,” Doig wrote in his memoir This House of Sky.

When I visited White Sulphur Springs this summer, I assumed that finding sheep would be the least of my worries. I half expected the town to be overrun with them.

Surprisingly, there are actually few sheep left in the area. For years, cattle have been more profitable and far more popular. One small flock of sheep stood on the edge of town just off the highway, but I was told that if I wanted to find a larger herd I would need to go about 30 miles down the road. That meant the Bair Ranch near Martinsdale.

Luck was with me when I called there. “Sure,” they said. “We’re going to be driving about 3000 sheep up the road to a new pasture tomorrow.” A good sheep drive doesn’t happen every day, even in Montana, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I showed up at 5:30 AM just as the herders were arriving. Many of them were from Argentina and spoke mostly Spanish. Off-road vehicles took the place of horses, but other than that there seemed to be little difference between modern sheep herding and Doig’s era. The foreman was expecting my arrival and directed me to set up my microphone near a gate in the fence — and to stay out of the way.

There is little stopping a stampede of sheep. “In their best of times sheep go through life in a near panic,” Doig once wrote. But the herders and their dogs knew what they were doing. The sheep crossed onto the road in a surprisingly orderly fashion. You could hear their bleating from more than a mile away as they moved down the highway toward their new pasture. Take a listen and see if you can count the number of hooves and divide by four.

In search of English Creek

A sign for Dupuyer Creek in Dupuyer, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

A sign for Dupuyer Creek in Dupuyer, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Ivan Doig’s second novel English Creek introduces one of Doig’s best-known literary creations, the McCaskill family. Its main character, Jick McCaskill, is a 14-year-old boy negotiating small-town life in Depression-era Montana, and English Creek is his coming of age story. Jick and the McCaskill’s are loosely based on Doig’s memories of his own family and the people he knew while growing up along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front.

As much as the book is a work of fiction, the places and people in it ring true. English Creek itself winds through fictional composites of the small towns where Doig lived much of his life through high school. “Some of the geography is actual,” writes Doig in the book’s Acknowledgements. “I’m afraid, though, that anyone who attempts to sort the real from the imagined in this book is in for confusion.”

In a way, that has been my job this summer—sorting the real from the imagined in some of Doig’s work. I have been visiting several of the places that Doig wrote about, and trying to capture a feel for them. In the case of the eponymous English Creek, Doig would not necessarily say that it was a real place on the map, but if it were (he has implied), the nearest thing to it would be Dupuyer Creek. That creek runs right through the town of Dupuyer, where I visited earlier this month.

Bear spray is recommended for those traveling along the rocky Mountain front. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Bear spray is recommended for those hiking along the Rocky Mountain Front. Photo by Jeff Rice.

One thing about this creek, however, is very different from the one described in the novel, and from the place experienced by Doig as well. Over the past 20 or so years, some new residents have arrived. Grizzly bears have been expanding their range and now regularly show up in and around the town and other areas along the mountains and prairies. I was told by local residents that the bears like to follow the creek bottoms and will often nap in the heavy brush by the water during hot afternoons. I was advised to keep an eye out and carry bear spray, even when recording the creek in the center of town.

Take a listen to Dupuyer Creek (AKA English Creek) in the recording below. But don’t get too comfortable.

Meadowlark song

The writer Ivan Doig was a keen observer of the natural environment, especially the birds of the West. “None of us spoke while the songs of the birds poured undiluted,” remembers a character in Doig’s novel Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. It was a deference shared by the author, who was an avid birdwatcher.

This summer, the Acoustic Atlas is traveling to some of the places that influenced Doig, and we are capturing recordings of many of his favorite birds. The recordings will become part of the library’s collection of Doig’s papers, now being digitized for presentation online this fall.

“I suppose we were afraid the spate of loveliest sound would vanish if we broke it with so much as a whisper,” Doig wrote in the novel. “But after a bit came the realization that the music of birds formed a natural part of this place, constant as the glorious grass that made feathered life thrive.”

One such constant is the Western meadowlark. We hope you will enjoy this recording of a solitary bird near Ringling, Montana just outside of White Sulphur Springs where Doig spent his early childhood years. (Special thanks to BirdNote for inspiring this blog.)

Ear Mountain

Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

If a place ever beckoned to a nature recordist, it is Ear Mountain. I had never been there, but saw the name on a map and had to visit.

I happened to be in nearby Choteau, Montana for a project related to the writings of Ivan Doig. This summer, I am tracing some of the locations Doig wrote about in books like This House of Sky and English Creek. The project is supported by the library’s Acoustic Atlas, and over the past month it has taken me from White Sulphur Springs to the Rocky Mountain Front, with a few detours to the northernmost part of western Washington. Continue reading