State Report MT 4: Living in Montana
Living in Montana means taking responsibility for yourself
by Susan Duncan, Country lifestyles
A popular perception among newcomers to Montana is that we have no rules here. No county building permits. No hassles. Ahh, and all that open space. No limits. No boundaries.
When you come from a place with so many people who don't talk to each other, I guess regulations for everything are necessary. Montana is different. We assume people have common sense and respect their neighbors. So, not every detail has to be codified in law. As a result: You have to accept responsibility if you live in Montana.
Unfortunately, American culture is going in the opposite direction. Lawsuits show that more and more Americans are refusing to take responsibility for their own actions. No wonder newcomers are in culture shock and need a copy of Gallatin County's "Code of the West" to adjust. Despite what newcomers think, we do have rules here, but they are not written down. The rules are in the climate, in the open space and in the culture.
Climate rules here. It's more arid than it looks and prone to serious wildfires. Growing seasons are 60 to 90 days. Frost can occur anytime. Microclimates challenge even the best gardeners.
Newcomers find this out the hard way. "All I want is a ripe tomato!" "Why don't I get any corn?"
A visitor from back east contributed his back-east wisdom: "Put wood ashes on your garden," he said. (My garden soil is already alkaline. Wood ashes would make it more alkaline.) That's good advice back east where heavy rainfall leaches out the bases and makes the soil more acidic. It's bad advice in rainfall-short Montana.
"Why do they burn the grain fields? All that pollution!" Because it's not wet enough, warm enough, long enough for stubble to rot over winter.
A man from Maryland moved into his dream home a log house in a dense pine forest with a frosting of dry pine needles on the shake roof. Ahh paradise. The fires of 2000 made him realize his paradise was a firetrap and he set to work fireproofing it.
Everybody loves open space, but open space means you are on your own. You have to take responsibility for your own welfare if you live in Montana. If you are on a well and septic tank, you are your own sewer and water company. You need to learn to fix things for yourself. If the clothes washer breaks, the nearest repairman is at least five miles away and probably 15 to 20. Service calls will break your budget.
Who grades the road? Who plows the snow? Who controls the weeds? Chances are you do, or you and your neighbors, through a homeowner's association.
Don't expect the fire department, police or EMTs to arrive at your door in five minutes. They have a lot of territory to cover. What can you do in the meantime with first-aid training or a garden hose?
You may want to be left alone, but in Montana, neighbors are still important to fill the gaps in all that open space. You can't afford to threaten to sue your neighbors for trespassing on your property. Who will help you if you have a medical emergency, if your car is stuck in your driveway or your well goes dry? One former resident passed on this bit of advice to a new homeowner: "One thing I can say: The neighbors will help you even if they don't like you." Montana law doesn't require you to be a considerate neighbor. But you have to accept responsibility for the welfare of your neighbors if you live in Montana. Call it enlightened self-interest.
The rules are in the culture. Newcomers choose to move to this scenic area for its low population density, its rural lifestyle, its rural culture. The reality of a rural lifestyle is dusty roads, machinery and animal noise, pesticide and fertilizer application, and odors like manure and fermented ag-bagged hay. The rule is: Accept the reality of rural life rather than trying to force others to conform to your vision of rural Eden.
Never rat on your neighbor to the cops. If the neighbors do something that offends you (ATVs going up and down the road or an underfed horse), give them the courtesy of talking to them privately about it first.
Never pretend to be someone you are not. Montana was settled right after the Civil War. Northerners and southerners traveled west in the same wagon trains to become neighbors. For the sake of harmony, no one asked about a person's past. Then and now, we accept people at face value. We give you the chance to be who you say you are. You will be judged only on how you treat each individual since they have known you. Even today, those who try to transfer former accomplishments (done elsewhere) into prestige in the present time (here) are unsuccessful. Often, they give up and return to the site of their former glory.
Those with a past do have a chance to start over in Montana, but they have to leave their past behind. If they represent themselves as honest and it comes to light that they did not settle their past debts, did not serve their time, or continue to take advantage of their neighbors for personal gain, they will find no sympathy and no second chance. You have to accept responsibility for your behavior if you live in Montana.
Montana still has a rural culture. The rules come from internal controls imposed by adaptations to climate and open spaces and by social controls (neighborliness and honesty). You have to accept responsibility if you want to live in Montana with fewer government controls.