Fred Haefele – “Extremophilia”

The brief essay “Slime and Transfiguration” offers a perfect metaphor for the 16 other slices of Montana life that Fred Haefele offers up in “Extremophilia.”

The focus of “Slime…” is the now highly toxic Lake Berkeley.

“On its best day,” writes Haefele, “Lake Berkeley looks more like an impact crater on the back side of Uranus. The steep walls that encircle it are a chthonic, sulfurous hue. Its waters are implacable, calm and dark.”

(Before we continue: how much do you like that word ‘chthonic’?  I had to look it up. From the Greek. “Pertaining to the Earth; earthy subterranean. Designates or pertains to deities or spirits of the underworld.”)

Lake Berkeley is “a kind of Mojito of heavy metals,” writes Haefele. “A monument to the towering indifference of the mining industry.”

It’s here that Haefele finds biochemist Andrea Stierle and organic chemist (and husband) Don Stierle. They have studied the vile substance that industry has left behind in the “lake.” In the water samples, they have discovered nearly fifty “odds-defying organisms” that are thriving in the slime.  “Some are fungal, some bacterial.”

They are extremophiles.

The Stierles find beneficial elements in the stew of organisms. (I’m going to encourage you to read this tight little series of essays to find out what they are.)  And it’s here that Haefele finds a telling contradiction. He asks: “What are the odds that the very place that nearly drowned in its own poisons would generate the source of its own redemption?”

“Extremophilia” is a series of love letters, in a way, to the Montana landscape that offers up the kind of rugged landscape and fewer-rules-than-most society that allow Haefele and the others he writes about to carve their own identities and mark their own territory with a rich flair for non-conformity.

“Extremophilia” is brilliant. It’s tight, bright, frequently hilarious and treats readers as if time is precious.  The book measures 145 pages (including introduction) and leaves a trail of dust. You want more.

By the way, one of the longer accounts here is “The Lost Tribe of Indian” about Haefele’s affection for the products of the Indian Motorcycle Company. If you are hungry for more about this particular breed of motorcyles, there is Haefele’s earlier “Rebuilding The Indian” to explore.

Aall the other pieces are brisk snapshots and Haefele interweaves his own life and his own career, if that’s the right word. You get to know Haefele and his family but this is hardly a memoir. They are other characters in the landscape.

A kiss in a dangerous swimming hole. Felling timber. Fighting fires. Montana’s role as a Petri dish for writers. Paddling whitewater. Deer hunting. Evel Knieval’s curious funeral. And a flashback to Ken Kesey and a memorable moment in time that takes Haefele back to Stanford University in 1964.

It all connects, it all works.

The writing is razor-sharp, the scenes are relentlessly colorful.

“Extremeophilia” finds Haefele discovering the creatures that thrive in Montana—against all odds.

(By the way, if you want to have some fun, do a Google Image search for “extremophilia” and then stand back.)

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