Five things you should know about Fred Montague: He’s 4.5 billion years old, and he’s a large animal, a heterotroph, a flux structure, and a killer. That’s the résumé Montague wants you to keep in mind, not just about him but also about you. It’s the backdrop, he says, for every other assumption you should have about the world—we are part of, not separate from, nature and our environment. If for no other reason than this, we should not be making such a mess of things.
Montague’s résumé also includes these entries: University of Utah professor (lecturer) emeritus of biology, wildlife biologist, author, artist, and gardener. Among his legacies at the U are two organic gardens that students plant and tend each year, one just east of Pioneer Memorial Theatre and one west of the Sterling Sill Center.
He remembers meeting, 16 years ago, with the committee that had to approve this addition to the U’s Service Learning Program. Other Service Learning initiatives had obvious beneficiaries: refugees, adults who can’t read, at-risk youths. And who would be the recipients of your project, the committee wanted to know. “I thought for a moment in a cold sweat and panic,” Montague remembers. “And then I blurted out: ‘They haven’t been born yet.’ ”
The simple answer would have been “the community food banks that will receive the produce grown in the gardens.” But Montague always takes the long view. What he had in mind was the next generation that would benefit if he taught the current generation how to grow food without resorting to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and patented seeds. Agribusiness, he argues, takes the short view, which is why its practices tolerate erosion, groundwater contamination, toxins in the food chain, and excessive use of fossil fuels, he says.
“I dispense guilt and despair,” says Montague. But gardens are the flip side of this jeremiad; in the garden, he finds joy and peace—and answers.
In 2009, Montague’s own publishing imprint, Mountain Bear Ink, released the limited-edition Gardening: An Ecological Approach, a book that took him 13 years to create. The book begins with a polemic about the unsustainable practices of industrial agriculture, moves on to textbook discussions of botany, and ends with every detail you’d ever need to plant any edible thing.
Montague painstakingly hand-lettered the 400 pages himself, and the book is liberally illustrated with his own pen-and-ink drawings. Each book is signed and numbered.
It was this same down-to-earth intensity that made him a popular teacher during his 17-year career at the U. When the Biology Department announced that it was eliminating his untenured position a decade ago, remembers U cell biologist David Gard, “the students raised an uproar,” and the position was reinstated.
James Ruff, a biology graduate student who took classes from Montague and was his teaching assistant, says Montague enlivened the academic subjects he taught. “He bridged the gap between data, theories, and what those mean to you and me,” Ruff says. “And he still left room for wonder and inspiration from the natural world.”
Before retiring in 2010, Montague taught environmental science and wildlife ecology, was a recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award, and was academic advisor to the Biology Department’s 1,000 students. On the first day of class, he would typically ask his students to write down five things about themselves. Answers usually included academic major, religious affiliation, gender. But what he wanted them to recognize was that each student could also be described in other ways: as old as the universe, primate, killer. Although vegans might balk at this last descriptor, Montague delights in pointing out that carrots are no less an integral part of nature than a cow. And what’s a bean, he adds, but a plant embryo.
“Every atom in your body was not created the day you were born,” he reminded his students. “You are made up of the environment. So don’t you want it to be clean?… If everyone realized they are environment with a spirit, everyone would be an environmentalist, including Newt Gingrich.”
When he served as academic advisor, first at Purdue University and then at the University of Utah, Montague also liked to challenge students to think hard about why they were pursuing their major. Write your obituary as if you had died at a ripe old age, he would tell them, and figure out what you would have wanted your life to add up to.
Montague’s own epiphany about the future came as a sophomore at Purdue in the mid-1960s. He was majoring in engineering, just as his father had done. But one fateful day, his English professor introduced the class to Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” with its last stanza that includes the lines, “My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight.”
Montague had grown up in Indiana, and what had captivated him was the outdoors—how things lived, not how things were put together. He liked to hike, fish, and roam the fields around Lafayette, and even in high school he began to notice with dismay as wildlife habitats and small farms were converted into industrial farms. So, not long after reading that Robert Frost poem, he changed his major to wildlife sciences.
After college and a three-year stint in the Navy, he returned to Purdue for a doctorate in wildlife ecology, supplementing his grad-student income by selling his nature drawings and woodcuts at Midwestern art fairs. His art can now be found in public and private collections in all 50 states and in 30 countries.
He and his wife Patricia (they met in a geology class in college; he calls her “the smartest person I’ve ever met”) moved to Utah in 1993 to escape the Midwest mold she was sensitive to. Once here, they began searching for the cleanest air they could find within driving distance of the U, settling on 20 acres of sagebrush and scrub oak in Summit County. What sold them was the lichen they found on the rocks there, because lichens only grow where the air is clean.
They built their dream, green homestead, and Montague built most of their furniture by hand. There is a greenhouse and what he calls a “modest vegetable garden” covering 900 square feet.
“Environmentalists make lousy neighbors”—they’re always hectoring people to recycle—“but great ancestors,” Montague says. “Ecology emphasizes relationships more than individual entities.” And that makes it subversive, because “the dominant world view reveres the supremacy of the individual,” fostering the exploitation of nature, he says.
Montague is fond of testing our assumptions about the world, starting with the notion that “humans are No. 1,” and moving on through 129 other things we take for granted, including “nature equals resources,” “time is linear,” and “science and technology can solve all our problems.” Phrases like endangered species and extinction are “mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy,” he says. The words he prefers: condemned species and eviction, which acknowledge humanity’s role in the process, he says. Not one to hold his tongue, he argues that universities (including his own) are often “research arms of industries” and that most students are learning how to “cash in” rather than be part of a sustainable larger community.
“Politicians say ‘as soon as the economy is fixed, we’ll take care of the environment,’ ” Montague complains. “The assumption is that nature occurs inside a chain-link fence.” But people and their economies “exist with the permission of nature.” What really makes the world work, he notes, are not humans but bacteria, fungi, plants. “Without bacteria, ecosystems would collapse in a matter of months.”
So the trick to saving (insert your words of choice here: coral reefs, forests, biodiversity) and preventing (radioactive waste, dead zones, oil spills) is “responsible restraint,” he says, not “sustainable development.” Yes, “sustainable” is crucial, but “development” assumes we shouldn’t take a hard look at our dependence on economic growth.
Of course, creating an economy not based on growth, exploitation, and convenience isn’t easy. Even a professor of ecology might be known to drive 26 miles each way to teach his classes, he notes with a wry nod to his own inconsistencies.
These days, Montague occasionally gives guest lectures but mostly tends to his land. The U’s Edible Gardens, meanwhile, continue to flourish. Although there was concern that this prime University real estate might be turned into building sites or parking lots, says garden coordinator Alexandra Parvaz BA’06 BS’06 MS’11, the gardens have been put under the auspices of the U’s Office of Sustainability, and there is an effort afoot to write them into the U’s master plan.
A coalition of students and faculty launched a garden preservation campaign, and the result is not only four-season produce (more than 2,000 pounds in 2011) that is sold to the campus cafeteria and broader community, but also an integration of the gardens into the curricula of disciplines ranging from entomology to civil engineering.
So, yes, we should be filled with guilt and despair. But we should also celebrate Earth and the life on it, Montague says. Or, as he puts it, “Many organisms—from carrots to chickens—die so that we may live. Say grace.”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based writer and playwright, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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