11 July 2010


I spent my formative years in the dryland farming country of the northern Great Plains. The western third of Montana is occupied by the ranges of the Rocky Mountains -- the eastern two thirds is prairie, a land so wide-open that it is called Big Sky Country. The only places on earth where the sky so dominates one's view are the open ocean, and perhaps the Pampas of Argentina and the Eurasian steppe.

In such places, the eye naturally seeks out landmarks to define the sprawling scale of things. Scattered farms and networked country roads form the topology of travel, highlighted by small rural towns with populations ranging from a few dozen to several thousand. And since the local economy is centered on raising, harvesting and shipping grains (especially wheat), it is only natural that those towns are situated along railroad lines which service the grain elevators where the harvest is stored, awaiting shipment.

The elevators tower over their single- and double-story communities, monuments to the labor of farmers and the ingenuity of commerce. They are visible for miles, an essential feature of the architecture of the West.

I was reminded of those times last night while watching a Montana PBS show called Back Roads of Montana. Each half-hour episode features two to three vignettes exploring the communities, culture, and colorful characters of the Treasure State. The pace is laid-back, the narration informative, the subjects engaging. One of last night's vignettes focused on photographer Bruce Selyem, who has devoted his life to visually documenting the prairie grain elevators of Canada and the US. His images are nothing short of art -- carefully composed, dramatically lit, capturing the sweep and the silence of the plains, where the predominant sounds are birdsong and the wind. The earth breathing.

Selyem has published two books of photographs and stories, both out of print but available online. He has also formed a historical society devoted to the preservation of these vanishing icons to a way of life. I'm pleased to have discovered his work, so evocative of my own childhood. (Click on any image to enlarge.) Here is a link to the Backroads of Montana episode, which includes three vignettes -- one on polka, one on Selyem's grain elevator photography, and one on the legendary 1949 Mann Gulch wildfire which claimed the lives of twelve smokejumpers, and became the subject of Norman MacLean's seminal book Young Men and Fire.

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