After over 24 years of living in Alaska, western Montana’s abundance and variety of trees did not go unnoticed. During the early days of our family’s move to Dunrovin, I would jokingly tell my two sons to creep out in the night to go and dig up the many attractive trees that we spotted as we drove to our appointed rounds. “Wow, look at that gorgeous tree! Be sure to get out there and dig it up for me tonight.”
In spring, of course, the flowering trees captured our eyes and interest. In summer, large evergreens casting dark and cool shadows lured us under their boughs. Bright orange, yellow, and red leaves enticed us in autumn. But the arboreal crème de la crème is seeing tree limbs hanging low, heavy with ripe fruit. Johnny Appleseed had it right: fruit trees are magic.
Our first years at Dunrovin were dominated by our reshaping the property to fit our dreams. We built fences, barns, and storage sheds. We installed a big irrigation system to grow a pasture for our horses, and we planted an orchard. Now, nearly 20 years after arriving here, our tree planting is at last—pun intended—bearing some fruit. Well, not just some fruit, but lots and lots of fruit. This year we have had apricots, pears, apples, cherries, and plums aplenty, as well as some fruits of the bine (hops) and the vine (grapes).
Libby’s Plum Trees
The growth of our fruit trees surely marks our years here at Dunrovin. Our plum trees mark much more than time; they reflect friendship and history. You see, our plum trees were given to us by a neighbor rancher, Libby.
Libby represents all that is special about Montana and its people. Her multi-generational ranch is south of Dunrovin. Her ancestors were among the first European settlers in the Bitterroot Valley. They came to raise their families, produce livestock, plant their gardens, and start their orchards. Their hard work through unbelievably harsh conditions paid off. They prospered and grew. The family name appears on landmarks across the valley.
Arriving in the Bitterroot Valley, I was anxious to get to know the riding trails and learn from the expert horsewomen in the area. I started by taking riding lessons from a local instructor, who got me in touch with a farrier. He in turn told me about Libby and suggested that I contact her. Remember, I was a newcomer looking to connect with locals to help show me the ropes. Libby was a hard-working rancher with deep, deep family roots and a vast network of friends. She had no need to gather a new person into her circle, and yet, she did.
At the time, Libby lived in a remote valley, down a long dirt road in a log house, and not just any log house. Libby purchased a pioneer house from Phillipsburg, MT, about 100 miles east of her property. She deconstructed it, numbered all the logs, loaded up a truck, transported all the logs to her property, and reconstructed it following the numbering system she had devised.
Libby was raising goats in addition to running cattle on the family ranch when I met her. She gathered the goats’ cashmere to spin or sent off for commercial cleaning and spinning. She plowed her own road, maintained her log home, barn, and animals without connections to the local power grids, and was totally self-sufficient. Her home is charming, full of old furniture and family heirlooms. She used a satellite phone for emergency calls or waited until she went into town to make calls. To supplement her income, Libby worked as a nurse in one of Missoula’s hospitals.
While now retired from nursing, Libby still lives in that incredible and remote property, which is still completely off the grid. Nothing fazes her. Several years ago she decided she wanted an adventure with her grown son, so she trained in the mountains of Montana in order to climb Mount Rainier in Washington state. They summited together.
Libby and I ended up sharing miles of trails and more than one or two adventures. I broke the axle to my trailer after somehow managing to jam a “boulder” between the two trailer axles while turning around after a ride on her ranch. She endured the antics of her Arabian mare as we covered the miles while training for endurance racing. We often met at the local café where all the old timers held their coffee clutches and where we tried to give them something to talk about. Their annual family winter picnics along the frozen creek running through their ranch introduced me and my children to Scandinavian kick sleds. When I became very ill and was home bound for months, she showed up every so often just to check in, often with food in hand.
Early in our friendship, Libby brought over two little plum-tree starts that she had dug up from the orchard on her ranch. I frankly doubted the vitality of those little trees and half expected them to die within the year. But they hung on for several years with little obvious growth. I didn’t understand that their energy was going deep into the soil to establish a foundational root system.
Neither did I understand that their heritage was deeper than the roots they were growing. Libby’s grandfather brought the seeds for their orchard’s plum trees with him from Pennsylvania when he headed west in the early 1880’s. My orchard’s plum trees are decedents from those seeds. Her grandfather did not bring just any sort of plum seeds with him. He knew that these particular plums were hardy and produced trees that “grow true” to their seeds – that is, the seeds are easily parted from the fruits and, if given a cold period, they would sprout to form another tree. It’s the perfect way to start an plum orchard. Our trees are the result of exactly that process. They started out as “volunteer” sprouts rising out of plums that had naturally fallen form Libby’s trees and taken root nearby. It seems that Libby’s grandfather could easily have been give the title of Mr. Bitterroot Valley Plumseed.
Today those two little starts are the largest trees in our orchard and routinely produce baskets of bright, small plums that fill your mouth with delicious sweet juice and firm pulp. They delight me and they give Sterling hours of pleasure in preparing all manner of plum concoctions. This year’s harvest went into plum jam, plum liqueur, and dried plum fruit leather.
Libby's trees grace our orchard as well as fill our hearts and our kitchen. Their fruit appears on our table throughout the year to be shared with friends and family. These trees also fill me with gratitude for the memories of adventurous days spent riding with Libby, the tangible link with the Bitterroot Valley's pioneer past, and the blessing of Libby's friendship.
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