The Warmest Winter

  • February 18, 2019
  • Posted by Stefan Nickells

“Men and women are hard ore, we do not go to slag in a mere few seasons of forge.” - Ivan Doig

On the eastern edge of the Blackfeet Reservation, with the Front Range close enough to leave the imagination and settle into its domicile in the heart, sits the coldest town in the Lower 48, Cut Bank, MT. A plains town on a “cut-bank” gorge just south of 3,000 people, this a place in transition. Built as an outpost on the Empire Builder line of the Great Northern Railway Company, the town reflects the woes of many on the front range in this both bitterly cold and sweltering hot region of the north: falling farm commodity prices, water diversion conflicts, a decline in resource extraction jobs, and a diminution of those rural lifeways and ethics that sustained since the first railroad spike was driven on this land decades ago. Visiting this historic place for the first time, our crew met a few residents of this sleepy town with the charge of providing low-tech, winter-warming services for folks awaiting more intensive weatherization assistance from the state. We worked quickly, fast at least for a two-person team, dispensing the latest in conservation education and installing weather stripping on the doors and plastic sheeting on the windows. When the presentation closed, the conversation rolled with greater folds from house plants and Halloween plans to the rationale for a messy house to the dregs of living alone, on a social security check, and regret for not having moved out years ago. The paint chipping outside on the siding had long ago done the same on the social facade that kept many people inside, insulated from all those impersonal forces creating weathers they couldn’t control. Our job was not to resolve anything, for we possessed neither training in the manual trades or tools for repairing the heart. This moment, a slow realization distilled from the many homes and faces of appreciation and resignation during our Warm Hearts, Warm Homes campaign, is the crux of our impact: the warming we provide fires the furnace of our own social empathy, our own unyielding compassion, and our own political commitments. The silos in town don’t reflect that same glint on the corrugated metal anymore, and those mental systems of separation that divide the world into ordered categories and discrete, self-enclosed streams of influence, we must also let these transition into something more composition, more holistic and comprehensive. It is obvious now that our political choices and social behaviors, in the aggregate and in the subtle ways that time obscures, manufacture the contextual circumstances that support people and their aspirations and address their concerns and anxieties.

In this town of transition, with wind farms stippling the grassy hills and buildings undergoing their retrofit for future cafes and co-working spaces, the prospects for Cut Bank are as strong as the social fabric holding it all together. Visiting folks where they live, in all their variegated moods and feelings, enforced the idea that the any transition occurring economically will also need to happen in all the other categorical ways that lift people, and ultimately this place.


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