“Frontier Nerd: Going it alone in Western Montana”

“Massage hot corn oil into the mountain lion tail to soften it,” said Mattie Booth the first Nerdnite speaker of the evening.   As part of her lecture “Frontier Nerd: Going it alone in Western Montana,” she has been outlining the steps involved in the process of skinning and tanning a Mountain lion tail for the audience.   The whole process took about two weeks, she explains, and the steps she followed came out of a book her brother had lent her called Back to Basics, which is published by Readers Digest, and includes a range of survival skills from tanning a hide to planting your first garden.  Many of the items she used in the process, were things you might already have in your kitchen, like corn oil.

Standing in the crowd, I couldn’t help but start to think about all the times I’ve used corn oil, and never once have I considered using it to soften a hide.  But, of course, living in Cambridge, it’s never really come up.

Currently a student at Massart, and a self-described, “collector of curmudgeons and all things old timey.”  Mattie is modest in her appearance and she doesn’t look all that rugged.  She is warm, soft-spoken, her light brown hair is pulled back, flat against her head and she is wearing a white button down shirt that puffs out from beneath a dark vest.   She seems a little nervous standing in front of the crowd at Monday night’s Nerdnite, but with her first slide already on the screen, she begins.

Skinning and tanning a mountain lion tail was just part of her experience, “exploring hermitude in the Bob Marshall Wilderness next to the Mission Mountain range in Montana” she said.  When she decided to head out to the families ranch for a few months, she was on a mission to refresh herself from city life, and possibly learn a set of skills that might help, “reinforce that she can survive the apocalyptic event, where we all knife fight for water and antibiotics.” she said.

For Mattie, living at her grandparents cabin last summer was also part of a family tradition.  Her parents lived there in the 70’s and 80’s, along with her and her siblings, and it was also where her grandmother taught her mother how to butcher a chicken.  Which is also one of the things she set out to learn.  As it turns out, “There are a lot of ways to kill a chicken,” Mattie said, so, she asked her mother for some pointers as she started the process.   The crowd was quiet in anticipation.  I felt a little nervous about the crowds reaction to her killing a rooster.   But, after explaining several of the options, A shot of a rooster hanging by its feet from a small noose on her porch,  filled the screen.  Mattie was standing next to it.   From there the chicken was decapitated and dipped in boiling water to facilitate plucking.  Removing the gizzard was essential to access the innards and gut the chicken.  Finally it was soaked in water and cooked it in a pressure cooker to make the meat edible.  The festive rooster stew, she made for dinner, “was good,” she said, as she ended her lecture.

The question and answer portion was short, but covered a few key points.  “Why would people want a Mountain Lion skull?” one woman asked. She was referring to the headless mountain lion carcass Mattie had reported finding in the forest.  “because they’re a cool object or trophy to display in their trophy room,” Mattie said.   “Did it affect your meat-eating?” another woman asked.  “It makes me want to raise and eat things because it tastes so much more delicious,” said Mattie.

Although I’m pretty sure it would take an apocalyptic event for me to pluck a chicken or tan a mountain lion hide I can’t say, that I didn’t find her presentation totally fascinating.   For people in the northeast, myself included, the idea of life away from the coast or outside a major metropolitan area can be intangible at times.   What I really enjoyed about the lecture was not just the foreignness of the idea but the fact that she was then willing to share the experience with the rest of the class.