The Myriad Lives Of People And Water


Jacob Baynham is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and a former T. Anthony Pollner distinguished professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism.

All photographs by Lauren Grabelle, an award-winning photographer based in Bigfork, Montana.

A week before Christmas, my wife and I adopted a two-month-old blue heeler, 12 pounds of face-licking, tail-wagging, sock-eating fur and energy with a bladder the size of a walnut. Early on the rapid filling of that bladder would wake her in the night and rouse me from our creaking bed to carry her outside to paint another yellow dot on our snow-scaped front yard. 

Once outside, it was the stillness I noticed first. The traffic had evaporated and the shunting locomotives in the railyard at the foot of the valley slumbered like hulking beasts. Overhead, Orion was mid-stride, railing against the darkness. I’d rub my eyes and watch whitetail deer amble the sidewalks, and once, I heard a great horned owl. Sometimes, most thrilling of all, I could just make out the faint whisper of Rattlesnake Creek through the quivering limbs of cottonwood and ponderosa and Norway maple. 

As the crow flies, our house is a quarter mile from the creek, far enough for the hammering of humanity to drown its sound during the daytime. But in the middle of the night, quiet enough to take your breath, there it was: a swishing, hushing murmur of a story being told, a promise of continuity. On those nights I would stand on the porch, the dog at my feet, and both of us would listen. 

“Wild at Heart,” 2020, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

It was more than half a lifetime ago now that I first encountered Rattlesnake Creek. I drove out of town and up the valley to a trailhead with two college friends. We hiked to a collapsed cabin, whose age and history we could not determine, and I took their photograph in the snow with my old Nikon. 

I had come to Missoula for college, an idealistic 19-year-old with unruly hair, jewelry and Birkenstocks, fresh off a gap year teaching English in Laos and backpacking around Southeast Asia. It was my first time in Montana. 

You can’t choose where you come from, the geographical contours that shape your personality, and this is as true for a river as it is for a person. My parents found each other in New Delhi in the 1970s, as likely a place as any for a woman from South Dakota to fall in love with an Englishman, and for a decade they hopscotched around Asia, hippies searching for meaning. For a time, they lived in Laos, where my father would curl his body into the shape of an egg and float down the Nam Khan River, a tributary of the Mekong. With his head underwater, he said, he could hear the pebbles tumbling over each other. It sounded like singing. 

In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, they had a daughter; two years later, by then back in the States, they had me. But when I was nine, we returned to India to the town where my sister had been born. There was an international school where my parents worked and my sister and I studied. The town had changed, of course, as had my parents, but we were a family, aloft on a current together. 

The move was formative to my sense of self. In Denver, I was a freckled boy obsessed with fishing. In India, I was a white foreigner, a spectacle. When we returned to Colorado three years later, I was an American who had lived in India. Indiana? people would ask. 

“You can’t choose where you come from, the geographical contours that shape your personality, and this is as true for a river as it is for a person.”

By adolescence, I understood myself as a person apart. In India, it had felt easier to fit in among students from all around the world. At 16, I went back, finishing high school as a boarding student at the same school. But returning to a place does not turn back time. I was still awkward, still looking for myself, dislocated. After graduating, I went to live with my parents in Laos, in a bamboo house. I couldn’t say where home was. 

By the time I arrived in Montana, a third of my life had been spent overseas. Internationalism seeped into my college essays and was how I introduced myself. Half-British, half-American, grew up in India. I had even picked up a British accent along the way, its origins a mystery even to me. 

I was in the middle of what psychologists call my “reminiscence bump,” the tendency to remember more from late adolescence and early adulthood than any other time. The reasons for this are debated, but some argue this is when our brains develop “narrative perspective,” the ability to tell ourselves who we are. 

Who was I? I was, as young people can be, melodramatic, self-absorbed, inflated with potential, all the doors of life’s long corridor as yet unopened. I would bike up Rattlesnake Creek with my guitar and a hunk of bread to sit on a boulder in the sun, enamored by the idea of myself. 

My life, as I saw it, was a voyage; I had come to this little mountain town to learn, and then to embark. Life was happening elsewhere. Subconsciously, I felt superior to Missoula and the seams of my self-confidence were too tight to foster much self-reflection. I wanted to live like someone was writing a book about me. Though I blush at that vanity now, we must be kind to our previous selves. There is little point for a meandering river to turn on its tumultuous past. 

“Animal Trail,” 2021, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

How do you measure a river? By its length and breadth and volume? Its temperature and the creatures that make within it a home? By its generative value to humans for irrigation, sustenance, electricity or recreation? By its beauty? Its history? 

Rattlesnake Creek on the map is a minor bronchial tributary that flows 26 miles into the Clark Fork and then the Columbia and then into the heaving breast of the Pacific. On this scale, it is tiny, short and insignificant — which is what classifies it as a creek, but also makes it, to my mind, somewhat comprehensible. 

Rattlesnake Creek begins in the titrated snowmelt from nameless cirque lakes at the southern edge of the Flathead Indian Reservation. It drops a vertical mile southward through timbered draws and into an old glacial valley, through a wilderness area, then a recreation area, then residential neighborhoods.

The stretch I can occasionally hear from our porch is the creek’s final mile. Here it rolls through a wooded park and under a pigeon-infested underpass, above which Amazon Prime semis whiz along Interstate 90. It sweeps under the graffitied piers of a railroad built by mostly Chinese laborers, on which trains now ferry coal bound for China, past homeless camps and the urban grime of road gravel and mashed litter and plastic bottles of cheap vodka, where adolescent cottonwoods finger their roots between the river rocks, grasping for purchase. On it goes, under what used to be a 24-hour restaurant called Finnegans that straddled the creek and fed college students breakfast after the bars had closed, and finally into the Clark Fork River just across from the University of Montana campus, where I went to college. Here it carves an arc of cold, clear water into a deep pool where anglers cast their lines like questions into the current. 

Since time immemorial, the Missoula Valley has been part of the ancestral homeland of the Séliš and Ql̓ispé peoples, and there used to be a major camp here that the Séliš called Nɫʔaycčstm, or Place of the Small Bull Trout. They would fish with hook and line or traps. In spring, they dug sp̓eƛ̓m, bitterroot, on the valley floor that is now mostly paved over, and also on the bald, blond slopes of Nmq̓͏ʷe, the elephantine mountain above our house, where they still bloom bubble-gum pink in June. 

“Autumn Sun,” 2017, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

Rattlesnake Creek is what’s called an “underfit” stream, which means it is too small to have carved the valley in which it flows. For that we can thank the glaciers plowing a furrow through mountains lifted here millions of years before. 

Andrew Wilcox, a hydrologist at the University of Montana, said Rattlesnake Creek would have first formed around 15,000-18,000 years ago at the last draining of Glacial Lake Missoula, a 3,000-square-mile lake that covered Missoula and much of the surrounding area. Wilcox likes to ride up the Rattlesnake on his mountain bike. There aren’t many places, he told me, where you can see such a wide gradient of river forms in a single ride. The lower Rattlesnake is alluvial, full of sediment, with gravel bars, deep pools and erodible banks. As you cycle up into the wilderness, it becomes a classic bedrock stream. Here the rocks are bigger, with flutes and crenellations created by the flow of water. 

“The more you try to shore up your world, the more you transfer destruction elsewhere.”

The creek is a vehicle, dismantling and ferrying the mountains to the sea, grain by grain. Several years ago, when spring snowmelt turned the creek into a hungry, petulant torrent, Wilcox watched as it steadily gouged out a bank in the park near our home. I remember seeing it too, concerned that the river was devouring the trail where my sons were learning to bike. Wilcox said that erosion event was the consequence of a footbridge, 100 yards downstream, that was anchored to the banks with cement. 

“A flood moving down a creek has energy that it is exerting against the banks and the bed,” he said. “The energy is not created or destroyed, it’s just transferring form. When you harden parts of the bank, it’s going to transfer energy somewhere else.” 

The more you try to shore up your world, the more you transfer destruction elsewhere. Two hundred years ago, Rattlesnake Creek would jump its banks in high water, free to writhe across the valley floor. Today, city planners have dug and diverted and wrestled it into a single, predictable channel. But each spring, it bucks and gnashes like a wild horse. 

“Meandering”, 2020, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

The creek was the source of Missoula’s drinking water from the beginning. In the late 1860s, a young man in a plug hat named “One-Eyed Riley” drove a cart and donkey through town, selling buckets of creek water to Missoula’s first households. By 1871, two of the town’s founders, Christopher Higgins and Frances Worden, dug a ditch a few miles up the creek and diverted the water to a reservoir to be piped into town on a gravity feed.  

The railroad reached Missoula in 1883, bringing more people to the valley. Demand for irrigation and drinking water grew. In 1902, the town built a dam on the creek three miles from its mouth. The creek remained Missoula’s primary water source until 1983 when it was the suspected source of an epidemic of giardia. After that, Missoula turned to an underground aquifer. Three years ago, the town demolished the dam and Rattlesnake Creek became a freestone stream again for the first time in around 120 years. 

Beginning in 1872, homesteaders staked out land along Rattlesnake Creek, built cabins and tilled the soil with horses. They hunted and trapped, picked huckleberries, fished in the creek, felled trees and cut cord after cord of firewood. They dug mines and made moonshine. Eventually, they built a schoolhouse in a meadow near the creek. They shoveled snow together and shared meat. It was a hard life. Kids died of scarlet fever and diphtheria. There were accidents with axes and gunfights between neighbors. There was adultery and murder, flood and fire. There was a whole world in this narrow valley and something that probably felt a lot like freedom. 

They were people like Gillette Van Buren, who moved out here from the Midwest in 1892. He married a woman named Katherine and they raised nine children in a small cabin on the creek with a fireplace but no cookstove. He baked bread and sewed dresses for his daughters and in the summer, he tended a garden of strawberries, potatoes, peas, corn, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots that he protected from the deer with handmade fenceposts and irrigated with creek water via a ditch he cut into the earth. He lived like this for 11 years before one day, in the dead of winter in 1903, he killed himself. He was 51 years old.

By 1910, 154 people lived in the higher reaches of Rattlesnake Creek. A century later, their stories are all but erased. They left behind the footprints of their cabins and the depressions of their latrines, some lilac bushes, if you know where to look, and a few feral apple trees that today feed the bears. On weekends now, people park their Subarus at the trailhead and walk their dogs past the ghosts. 

“Skin,” 2022, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)
“Nest Constellation,” 2020, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

Rattlesnake Creek was the site of my first kiss, atop a rock at a bend in the stream, one spring afternoon my freshman year of college. She was my first love, and I had much to learn. A year and a half later I broke up with her in a drawn-out, self-centered way. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I was constantly trying to peer around the corner to get a glimpse of who I would become. 

Later, I made a habit of backpacking into the wilderness area alone. I’d go up for a weekend, intending to ponder the direction of my life, but instead, I’d get too absorbed with the quotidian chores to think about the abstract. I’d go to sleep not with feelings of ruggedness and adventure, as I had imagined, but with loneliness and longing. 

By happenstance, I had a class the last semester of my senior year with a girl from Montana who I had admired throughout college. Our second date was up the Rattlesnake. We cycled to the trailhead on a Sunday in February, past the house in which we would eventually live, where our second son would be born. At the trailhead, we left our bikes and walked along the creek. The trail had occasional hills, the leftover moraines of ancient glaciers. We shared a thermos of chai. The trail was icy, so we held hands to keep each other upright, but mostly just to hold them. 

“Biologically speaking, our bodies are as dynamic as a creek.”

After graduation, our lives diverged — she left to do human rights work in Guatemala, and I went to Asia to be a journalist — but we made our way back to each other. Seven years ago, we found a house here in the Rattlesnake Valley, between the mountain and the creek. 

By now, the creek is a backdrop we scarcely pause to notice. It is constantly flowing through our days. We cross it every time we go to the library or the post office. We picnic on its banks; we watch our boys play battleship with driftwood. I take their photographs with my old film camera, feeling equal measures of love and pride and luck.

I have lived in proximity of Rattlesnake Creek for almost a third of my life now, although I feel like a different person than I was when I first stepped into it. I now see my life less as a voyage and more as a camp. I used to miss the tremor of travel, the feeling you get when you don’t want to arrive — because it’s the getting there, the anticipation of the approach, that is the most exciting. But looking at these old photographs of my wife and our two boys at the water’s edge in the fresh warmth of spring, I can see that I arrived some years ago, that all I want is here beside this creek, and it is more than I ever expected.

“Frozen,” 2020, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

Biologically speaking, our bodies are as dynamic as a creek. At a cellular level, we are construction sites, constantly renovating, overhauling, patching, mending, sorting and shedding. We lose maybe 100 hairs in 24 hours. The cells of our digestive tract are replenished every few days. Every few weeks, our body manufactures fresh skin. Over four months, we refurbish our fleet of red blood cells. In six months, we have new fingernails. In a decade, a new skeleton; in 15 years, new muscles. 

The brain — once considered a fixed quantity — can add neurons and the connections between them are constantly in flux. Our memories aren’t sacrosanct, either; every act of remembering erodes other memories. Even our DNA denatures over time. Among the few biological components that endure from birth to death is a small cluster of transparent proteins in the lens of our eye. As in a car on a long road trip, the scenery changes and so does our understanding of it. But the window remains. 

You know the famous line about rivers and change: “No man ever steps into the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and it’s not the same man.” The words are credited to Heraclitus, but they’re a crude approximation of what he wrote. Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in the late 6th century B.C.E. A melancholic thinker ridiculed by his successors, Heraclitus wrote a single papyrus roll of ideas that was burned in the great fire of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 

From the fragments of Heraclitus’ ideas that trickled down through his disciples, it seems what he actually said about rivers was something more like this: “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and ever different waters flow down.” Modern philosophers interpret this to mean that some things, like a river, can only stay the same if they constantly change. If new water didn’t flow down a creek bed, it would be a lake, or a pond. 

The same could be said for people. If we are not moving, shifting, evolving — are we really living? 

“Some things, like a river, can only stay the same if they constantly change.”

Another idea credited to Heraclitus is the “unity of opposites.” Sleep can only be defined by wakefulness, just as health is meaningless without sickness. “The same thing in us is living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old,” he wrote.

Heraclitus has been called the philosopher of flux. He found his peace with change and shows us that opposites don’t have to contradict. A sunset, for example, is simultaneously a sunrise when viewed from another point on Earth. When I look through the diary I kept from my college years, I cringe at the bombast and conceit in its pages. In some cases, I now believe the opposite of what I wrote. Heraclitus consoles me with the idea that in time and space, most things can be true.  

Jonathan Moreno, a philosopher and historian who teaches bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the study of human identity goes back at least to the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who searched in vain for an inherent idea of selfhood. If we are not born with a sense of self, then how do we acquire it? This question captivated one of the founders of modern psychology, William James, who explained the inner workings of the mind by comparing them to water — the stream of consciousness. 

“We talk to ourselves, preconsciously or unconsciously, all the time, making sense of what we’re going through,” Moreno told me. “We do have an impulse to create this autobiography, this narrative, so that when we say ‘I,’ in normal conversation, we feel like it’s continuous. We like to think we know who we are, but do we really?” 

Moreno is 70 now and said he often thinks about how he relates to his younger self. He doesn’t feel he has changed much in the last 20 years — which he said he doesn’t remember distinctly, certainly not like his teenage years. He faced this reality recently when he met an old friend for lunch. 

“In time and space, most things can be true.”

“The stuff we talk about is almost 50 years old,” Moreno said. “There is a weird way in which you travel back when you’re relating with someone who has not been part of your life in a great way for decades. You’re confronted again with your young self.”

I asked him if he ever feels anguish in the realization that almost nothing, biologically or psychologically, endures — that our lives slip by like water under a bridge. “You could see it as anguish,” he said. “Or you could see it as freeing. We’re not trapped. We can come to see ourselves differently. To some degree, we can be who we want to be.”

He went on: “We’re not discrete. We’re part of the ecology. We are attached to the stuff around us and it to us.” 

Years ago I tried to find that bend in the river where I had my first kiss, but it had disappeared. Perhaps a bank eroded and shifted the course of the creek. The rock may have moved. Things are always moving. Perhaps that place, as I knew it, exists only in the neural pathways of my brain. 

“This is the kind of conversation that leads people to some notion of pantheism, that everything is alive,” Moreno says. “We are far more engaged with everything — and it with us — than we tend to think. We all do come from the same stardust, ultimately.” 

“Birch Patch,” 2022, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)

Even great works of literature, it’s been said, are just a reorganization of the dictionary. Setting aside our own cellular upheaval, is the difference between the creek and me and all other matter just the arbitrary shuffling of a finite quantity of atoms from the dawn of time? 

After we adopted our puppy (her name is Agatha), someone told me blue heelers have long lifespans. I did the math and realized, if all goes well, she may still be alive when our boys are grown and leaving the house. Dogs are useful that way. Just like you can measure a river’s length with some string and a map, dogs offer narrative scale by allowing us to comprehend our own lives against their shorter ones. They expose once again how fleeting this life and its chapters are, that our existence is an ephemeral, tumbling stream.

An eddy of my life’s voyage landed me in this town at the feet of the mountains, an eddy that has by now become an ecosystem all its own. Life is a thousand decisions, the permutations of which could have carried me almost anywhere. There are other places. There are other creeks. But this place is now mine, and this is the water I know best. Familiarity is the bedrock of belonging. 

“The sound of a creek is a concert of friction between water and stone, the ever-flowing against the immutable.”

It’s difficult to describe the sound of water, the sound I sometimes can hear from our porch on the stillest nights. The creek murmurs, hisses and shushes, it gurgles and seethes. Some hear voices in it. It is the amniotic din of a train station. It is a tearing of paper. However you describe it, the sound of a creek is a concert of friction between water and stone, the ever-flowing against the immutable. The sound of water is the tension of opposites. 

Each night, when my wife and I put our boys to bed, we turn on a white noise machine that sounds like water. Sleep researchers say the sound of a stream is calming because it is non-threatening. It’s whispering to our subconscious: “Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.” Perhaps it is calming because it represents the ever-present duality within which we all must carve our lives. 

When our sons grow and leave to become the iterations of whoever they’re going to be, my hope is that they find their own water, somewhere, to guide them, to reflect back to them what is good and right and important, what lasts and what fades. I can only hope that they find some comfort in the multiplicity of all things, even themselves.

“The Universe,” 2017, Montana. (Lauren Grabelle)