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Navigating Worry to Find Wonder: A Journey Through Montana's Landscape of Hope

Navigating Worry to Find Wonder:  A Journey Through Montana's Landscape of Hope

Opinion Editorial by Chris Johns

There is a place I go when I am overwhelmed by worry. I often go solo, but today, on the eve of winter, I follow the howl of coyotes and climb the hill behind our home with my grandson, Freeman, bundled in a backpack for kids. We enter the tawny hills of Missoula, Montana’s Northern Conservation Lands. The parched landscape looks like an abstract watercolor painting viewed through orange gauze. Wildfire smoke is rolling in and casts an eerie glow that obscures Stuart Peak and the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area before us. The air smells like a wet-wood campfire.

A red-tailed hawk, its broad, rounded wings extended in benediction, glides to our left. Above, a rumbling air tanker carries 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. It passes to the right of us – headed east to a blaze in the Blackfoot River Valley. A Firehawk helicopter joins the chorus and cruises directly above us. Freeman leans back and waves at the aircraft.

He waves. I worry. I worry about the health of the planet that gives us so much. I worry about rampant misinformation and attacks on well-intentioned, well-informed authorities. I worry about political and cultural polarization.

To navigate worry, I do what I have been doing for more than 50-years: I tell a story. This morning, I have an audience of one, Freeman, who is 18-months-old and cannot talk. Perfect. I regale him with tales from my first National Geographic photo assignment. For more than four months I documented the lives of 20 Hot Shot wildland fire fighters, as they drifted from blaze to blaze across the American West.

I tell Freeman the story for worry relief, but instead it makes me worry about the fate of storytelling. Is there still a news organization that will support a photojournalist in the field for four months? How do I guide and support my journalism students as they traverse a changing and challenging media landscape?

I seek answers as we hike along a stream called “Kie’oo-leh”, the local Salish name for rattlesnake. It’s an old trail the Salish people traveled enroute to hunting bison in eastern Montana. The dense forest is the fragrance of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir trees. Eventually, we emerge on a small open flood plain. I relax. Freeman stops fussing.

We are at a destination I visit when I need a dose of optimism. Two years ago, it was a construction zone with the metallic clamoring and clacking sound of earth movers and backhoes bouncing off a steep rock face to our left. They were removing a concrete dam and 3-million-gallon settling pond built in the early 1900s. The complex stretched across lower Rattlesnake Creek and supplied Missoula with water until 1983. After the needless dam was demolished, a 1,000 feet of natural stream channel was built. Roughly 16,000 native plants and 10,000 willows were planted throughout the five-acre wetland. Now, native cutthroat and bull trout have an opportunity to spawn in the clear, clean water that flows from the 60,000 acre Rattlesnake water shed.

I find wonder here, not just because it is magnificent landscape, but also because more than 25 organizations and individuals bridged partisan divides and childish political one-upmanship, raised $1.5 million and worked together so a creek could run free again.

That spirit of collaboration is nurtured in the neighboring Blackfoot River Valley. Following an early 1990s American Rivers report that listed the Blackfoot as one of the most endangered rivers in the United States, concerned citizens came together to address the threats and restore the health of their rural landscape. They realized they could accomplish far more by respecting one another and working together. In that spirit, they founded the Blackfoot Challenge and are learning how to build a sustainable economy, how to bring back native trout, how to deal with a warming planet and how to live alongside grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines and elk.

In classrooms at the University on Montana and Oregon State University, I share stories seldom told from places such as Rattlesnake Creek and the Blackfoot River. I encourage aspiring journalists to search for relevant untold stories and tell them with depth, accuracy and empathy. I emphasize the importance of eschewing shallow narratives that perpetuate partisan divides and unduly amplify extreme ideology. I share with them the richness that comes from being curious and open to diverse points of view.

My students are listening. One is writing a story about two young international students: Russian and Ukrainian. The women choose to rise above politics and war and be roommates and friends at Oregon State. Another student is writing about the intricate relationship between moss and salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Fall semester, at the University of Montana, I team-taught a class that produced a poignant 56-page magazine on Montana’s mental health crisis.

The journalism students I work with are motivated, bright and care deeply, but the path to making a living is difficult and uncertain. According to the Associated Press, the United States has lost one-third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its journalists in the past 18 years. That fact is ironic because there has never been a greater need for accurate, in-depth, unbiased journalism. I tell my students that to survive and thrive in today’s media environment, they must be entrepreneurial in seeking funding to tell the stories they care about and feel must be told. Keep in mind, however, that it is in all our best interest to support emerging and seasoned journalists who bravely and conscientiously help us understand the challenges we face, yet also lift us by celebrating the wonder that surrounds us.

Supporting credible media, particularly local media, that is committed to the highest standards of journalism is an investment that pays dividends for everyone. When we feel journalists are not subscribing to those lofty standards, we need to have a civil a conversation with them and let them know what we think and listen to their response. If we believe they are doing great work, we should tell them and share our story ideas.

When we travel that path together, I worry less about the world our grandchildren are inheriting and can more embrace the wonder of the world.

Chris Johns is a photojournalist and former Editor in Chief of National Geographic magazine. His work and career are the subjects of the new feature documentary The Wonder and the Worry produced by Oregon State University, from where he received his undergraduate degree in journalism. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

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