Betsy Marston: Heard Around the West |

Betsy Marston: Heard Around the West


It’s a Tea Party world in Montana’s Legislature these days, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, sometimes can’t believe his ears as newly elected representatives talk blithely of creating armed citizen militias and “nullifying” a slew of federal laws, reports The Associated Press. Schweitzer calls many of the proposals from the new Republican majority “kooky,” noting that they include “a plan to make it legal to hunt big game with a spear.” But because some of these laws are bound to land on his desk, Schweitzer has ordered a new cattle-branding iron that reads “VETO.” Says the governor, “Ain’t nobody in the history of Montana has had so many danged ornery critters that needed branding.”


It was understandable that District Court Judge Marvin D. Bagley was getting fed up: William Beck never showed up in court to answer charges of passing bad checks, reports the Southern Utah News. Beck always had good excuses: First, his lawyer explained, his mother died. Then, at the second attempt at a trial, the lawyer said that Beck’s grandmother had just died. This led the judge to comment dryly: “If this continues, he’s going to run out of family.”


We’ve always loved those before-and-after photos of couples about to celebrate a half-century of wedded bliss. In pictures from 50 years ago, the bride usually looks like a teenager with a bad haircut, while the groom strikes a serious air and looks almost gaunt. Fifty years later, each has usually completely filled out, and chances are good that both wear eyeglasses. Yet because they’ve come through so much of life together, they tend to look equally buoyant as they invite friends and family to join their celebration. What’s never admitted, of course, is that there might have been a bumpy decade or two along the way, which is why we liked how one couple in Dixie, Utah, spoofed their own 50-year hoo-hah in The Spectrum: “FIFTY YEARS OF ENDURANCE,” was the headline. And because “Lael Hilton of Delta has endured living with Mert Lovell of Oak City for 50 long years, condolences and expressions of heartfelt sympathy would be appreciated.”


The black bears that call Yosemite National Park home are legendary for their smarts. They’ve honed efficient methods of ripping the doors off minivans, and they can skillfully yank open refrigerators. That’s why campers at the park must remove all food and other bear attractants and put them in “bear-proof” lockers that are so failsafe they routinely frustrate some campers. But last summer, after years of trial and error, an old male bear finally figured out how to open the lockers. A reliable source describes how, as the bear noisily cracked open an allegedly bear-proof locker one night, a woman jumped out of her tent and started hollering at the animal to back off. When the unwelcome visitor failed to move or even flinch, the woman then picked up her shoes and fired one of them at the bear, beaning it. What happened next is hard to believe but true: “The bear rushed up to the woman and grabbed the other shoe out of her hand, then returned to his meal. Hearing the commotion, a neighboring camper arrived with a canister of bear spray, but he only managed to expose everybody to the choking fumes.” The bear, of course, had already left the scene after chowing down on all the food stored in the locker.


“Plants can’t run and hide” in the world, so over time, some have evolved the ability to alter their structure when they perceive a threat. That’s the mechanism now being exploited by Colorado State University biologist Jane Medford, as she and some 30 undergraduate and graduate students genetically engineer plants to signal the presence of pollutants or explosives like TNT by turning from green to white. Medford says the altered “detector plants” should be able eventually to act as guardians at airports and other public places. And thanks to a $7.9 million grant from the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Medford’s team can speed along its research. Speed, not surprisingly, is important: In the presence of a chemical threat, the first-generation plants are still taking hours to drain their leaves of color.


The Earth Island Journal recently profiled a cohort of 10,000 baby boomers who, incredibly, remain on the federal dole even though they haven’t done a lick of work during the last six decades. Writer Gar Smith reports that this privileged group does nothing “but sit around, radiating the serenity that goes with being part of a select and pampered minority.” What’s perhaps most galling about the members of this group, who are all employed by the Department of Defense, is their cushy living arrangements: They receive about $650 million each, live in a gated community in New Mexico and have 20,000 government specialists assigned just to serve their needs. Just who are the members of this seldom-talked-about elite? “Oh, forgive me. I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Mark-61. I’m a nuclear weapon.”

Betsy Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, an op-ed service of High Country News ( Tips of Western weirdness are always appreciated.

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