Tell us a little bit about yourself.
It was spring when my mom and dad drove me home from the hospital in a 1976 CJ-5 Jeep. My carseat likely wasn’t buckled in and I am sure that first rough Jeep ride rocked me fast asleep! Not long after that, a few weeks is all, my mom and dad ventured to their favorite camp spot near the mountain horse coral with their new infant daughter. To say I was destined to be a nature girl is maybe a leap, but I credit my love of the wildness to my parents, whom both in their own ways, taught me what really mattered in life. In my early days they surrounded me with animals, domesticated and wild. I spent my summers and evenings as a child gathering firewood, hiking, collecting wildflowers and Huckleberries, hunting and camping.
My name is Brandi and I am 34. I am a native, third generation Montanan. I was born and raised in Missoula. I attended The University of Montana where I earned a degree in Zoological Sciences. I had always dreamed of being a wildlife photographer and nature writer for National Geographic. Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee biologist and wildlife advocate, is my mentor, the person I always wanted to be like. I dreamed about purposefully traveling the wild world. Where I would live in wall tents and shanti shacks. I would live with and stake out rare wildlife and write flawlessly engaging essays on what I encountered and the adventures I was having. And I would get paid for it!
I am currently living in Helena, where I am a stay-at-home mom to my two wild monkeys— Addison, 9 and Landon, 5. My husband of 10 years, Dylan, is a physician’s assistant at a family practice clinic. We live on the outskirts of town on a two acres. We currently (these numbers may increase with little notice) share our home and our yard with three dogs, 3 chickens, 3 geese, 2 ducks, 2 pygmy goats and 2 tree frogs! Life is busy, dirty, often covered in mud and poo and very, very noisy. National Geographic will call, its just taking them a little longer than I had planned!
I am currently homeschooling both kids. Addi is in 3rd grade and Landon preschool. Addi went to public school in kindergarten and first grade and when we moved from Choteau to Helena we decided to homeschool. I often get asked, ‘Well, why? What changed that made you decide to homeschool?” No significant event happened. Addi had always asked to be homeschooled and with our new transition to Helena we decided to give it a try. Addi and I entered this new realm with no expectations. We both knew that we may learn very quickly homeschooling wasn’t for us. We went into this adventure with an open mind, knowing that failure was an option and a very real possibility. So far we are loving it. Our days are not without challenges. It is difficult for myself to stay focused and not just leave the books at home for a carefree adventure outside. For the most part (!), I love being at home with my kids. We are enjoying learning together, playing and exploring. Most minutes of every day are shared, the three of us. Everyday we practice a new technique in patience and conflict resolution. Somedays can be very isolating and very frustrating, however I make a point to treasure each day and this time with them. Every day goes by a little faster and I am thankful I get so much of them to myself.
In my own way I am Jane Goodall camped out in a remote African jungle. The chimps I live with are loud, dirty and at times aggressive. Everyday I learn something new about them and about myself. I never really know where tomorrow will take me, but I do write (about my kids) and I do take a lot of photos (of my kids and of my farm animals). The scenery around here doesn’t change too often, but this adventure called life is as exciting as I had always hoped.
As we can see from this photo, you love animals. Have you always been this way since you were a child? Describe your connection to these beautiful creatures.
My connection with animals—domesticated and wild—is hard to explain. Like a flower needs a rain shower, I need animals in my life. My heart was formed to love animals. With the risk of sounding like a wacka-doodle, they soothe and comfort me and provide calmness to my existence.
From the time I can remember animals have always accompanied me. I remember escaping my room at a very young age, two maybe, ‘breaking’ into a small dog enclosure and falling back asleep with the new litter of puppies our family dog had just had. I just needed to be with them. My favorite book as a child was an old copy of a wildlife encyclopedia my father gave to me. I took it everywhere with me. I studied it carefully. Memorizing unique behaviors and wildlife population maps. I longed to travel the world and see wildlife in their natural habitats. Snapping a photo with my prehistoric ‘wheel-cam’ was always a bonus. It was a sense of honor to preserve them on film. I have gobs and gobs of old photos I have taken with teeny tiny images of blurry wildlife, usually with my thumbprint blocking the corner of the image!
Whether it was a half-feral kitten I dug out from under a barn, a pet store parakeet or stray dog wandering the neighborhood, I just had to save them, to keep and love them. And most of the time my dad eventually agreed, with some objection. My granny once whispered in my ear, “Don’t let him fool you honey. He was the same way about animals when he was little.”
Now a grown adult with tiny human children to nurture, my love of animals remains. A life-long dream of owning a farm came true for me. Chickens, geese, rabbits, cats, dogs and goats are apart of our family. Hubby groans when he comes home to a baby goat or chicken in the house. Baby chicks live in boxes in Landon’s room and baby goats have pawed at the front door for their bottle. An old, old mare kept young by our love will reside in our hearts forever. I was found on my farm and, thank God, I will never be the same. I love every single moment. Every single dirty, poop-covered, messy, bitterly cold moment.
From the words of a dear friend, “We are just little girls turned adults who never outgrew the ‘I want a pony stage’.” Animals will always be apart of who I am. I would not be me without them —riding, wrangling, herding, photographing, raising, hatching, feeding, observing, bathing, studying and cuddling.
How would your friends describe you?
I am blessed with a small group of the greatest friends in the world. Through the highest of highs and the very lowest of lows I can truly count on my friends to walk with me through it all. I would hope my friends would describe me as loyal, real, selfless, dependable, and honest. I want them to feel that they can come to me with anything and I would be there for them. I can carry heavy loads and whatever I can do to carry a burden for them, I will.
What is one of your favorite quotes?
I have two.
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.’ -Dolly Pardon
“If you ever find yourself empty from something you cannot know or name. Find a stretch of ocean, or field or mountainside or clouds or trees. Because there are a 1,000 simple ways to fill your tired soul so you can remember how to be, how to see and most importantly how to breathe.” -Victoria Elizabeth
Where do you most want to travel, but have never been?
Belize. In the fifth grade I was assigned Belize as my research country. Since then I have been drawn to the blue water, pristine beaches and thick jungles. The immense wildlife diversity is a zoologist’s dream come true. I just know a new species of bug or bird is waiting for me to discover.
Do you have a favorite author or book that you keep going back to?
Not a favorite author, but a favorite subject. I love reading and watching crime mysteries. Especially the really creepy ones about the worst of the worst situations. Secret government spies, detectives, trace evidence. If I cannot shut off my light at bedtime after reading a few chapters then I am into a good one. My husband is sure I am planning the perfect crime. I like being prepared. No one is going to jump out and surprise at me in dark alley, mostly because I avoid all alleys, dark or otherwise.
What about music? Do you have a favorite song or musician?
I am a country girl and Miranda, Carrie, Reba and Patsy and are my best pals.
Since we are on your favorites – do you have a favorite home cooked meal?
Apple pie and strong coffee. Need I say more. Unless my best friend Dave is cooking, then yes, I need say more. He is a self-taught gourmet and when he whips up his asparagus soup as an appetizer, elk tenderloin steak and crab legs as the main, with a side salad and buttery french bread. Halleluiah. That is melt-in-your- mouth heaven.
When do you feel the most yourself and why?
I finally know me, the real me, and for that fact I am grateful. It takes time to develop into our true selves. If I accomplish nothing else in life I can say wholeheartedly that I am living the real me and I am proud of who I am. Living in my log cabin-house in the middle of 20 acres outside the tiny ranching town of Choteau is where I found that women I spent my lifetime searching for. She wears broken-in leather boots, Carhart bibs, big gloves, a warm hand-crocheted hat and dangling, over-sized earrings… She faithfully feeds her ‘herd’ even when the wind rips off the Rockies at negative 30 degrees. She has her tiny brood of children and animals and a dedicated, hard- working husband who has grown to love her many crazy ideas and quirks! It is in wide-open Montana pasture-land, with the bright blue sky overhead that I feel most like me. There are children, chickens, goats and horses nudging my pockets for treats and cuddles.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning, tea before bed or on stormy, snowy afternoon in front of the fire.
Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate. Unless I am serving homemade apple pie, then vanilla!
Introvert or extrovert?
Introvert. I am the type that shutters when the door bell rings unexpectedly! I am quiet, shy and have been told that I am hard to get-to- know. I try to be nonjudgmental and I try to see the good in everybody, but I am not quick to hand over my heart or my trust. I approach with a loving-cautious hand. With that in mind, my house and my heart is always open, please call first, and over coffee or wine we will get to know each other.
Rural or urban?
Rural. The only time I consider subjecting myself to an urban mass is if I need my eyebrows waxed or if said urban mass is in-between myself and the beach. The more trees, green space, wheat fields and cows the better.
Dress up or dress down?
“Mom, you really have to dress up. You have to wear a bra and eye-liner! And if you really loved me you would wear noisy shoes.” She scolds in her serious voice. Every year since my daughter Addi was three, her and I ‘get fancy’ and go to the Nutcracker Ballet. Her idea of dressing up and my idea of dressing up is very different. On these special occasions I take her fashion counseling, put on a bra and eye liner and take her out on the town! On every other day of the year, if I cannot wear jeans or leggings and my nice cowgirl boots or Chaco’s then I don’t want to go. Anything more than that causes me anxiety. I like to be and feel comfortable.
Cats or dogs?
Both! And horses and goats and ducks and tree frogs and chickens and geese and someday a mini donkey!
Sunrise or sunset?
Sunset. We are not guaranteed the next sunrise, so I always stop to really soak in the last rays of the day, for it may be the last.
Detailed or abstract?
Classic or modern?
Call or text?
Text. Always text. Unless you are Dad or Sara. Then we talk, often and for long periods of time. Without my Dad or my sister, Sara, being an adult would be impossible.
Fiction or non-fiction?
Both. I love a great story and I love to learn.
Salty or Sweet?
It always depends on my mood, on the moon, on the current behavior of my children! Sweet when I am celebrating or sad. Salty for all the in- between times.
What do you love most about Montana?
Oh, Montana. How truly lucky we are to be your daughters. The fresh clarifying air you provide, the profound scenery that surrounds us, the wildlife that fills you. What I love most about Montana is the open space, the freedom. The open invitation she provides us to come as you are and just be.
What’s something hard you’ve been through, but still came out of the fire strong?
My life has contained many little fires that have flared up and the scars that remained have shaped who I am today. There have been two devastating blazes that could have easily consumed me and left me in a dusty pile of ash. My 15 year old brother committed suicide and my son, Landon was born 10 weeks premature. These heart stopping events changed me in ways I still cannot recognize. Death and loss, immense anger and suffocating despair. A life without the experience of these raw emotions is a life to envy. My heart has broken and shattered twice and was magically, gracefully redesigned, despite the epically large missing pieces.
Eleven years ago my phone ran and someone had told me, I don’t remember who, one of the many details I have blocked out, to get to my mom’s house as soon as possible. I do remember my baby sister Jaci had had a doctor’s appointment regarding her tonsils earlier that day. I feared the worst. That something involving Jaci’s health had come up. I would later wish that it was only her tonsils causing that chain of events that afternoon. I left work immediately and drove across town, the eight plus miles in five-clock traffic, not knowing why, or who, just knowing that something was very, very wrong. In the yard my mother met me without out-stretched arms. Her face swollen. Her eyes red. As she hugged me she muttered, “Danny is dead.” She caught me as I collapsed onto the grass. I don’t remember when or how she told me that he had taken his own life, I could only feel the hollow, dark emptiness. I would later embrace that empty feeling as my new normal. I would live with that darkness for many, many months. All the anger and questions its faithful companion. WHY? How dare you? You always call, why didn’t you call? How could you be so selfish? What about me? But you were so happy? Everyone loved you.
The very last time I was with my younger brother he, our younger brother Jake and myself went folfing (that is Montana for disc golfing!) up Pattee Canyon, a popular recreation site in our hometown. The early spring day was warm and the boys enjoyed teasing me throughout the course. We laughed, and Danny gave me relationship advice!! You never anticipated the last time you will see or talk to someone you cherish. Our last time together was perfect. The sun warmed us, we were in the woods and we were together. I knew he loved me and he knew I loved him. You can’t ask for more than that. Only a few days later he would be dead.
Danny was tall and at times awkwardly gangly. Every single time after a huge bear hug, his sweaty hands always greeted me by rubbing the whole of my face. Because he knew how much it bothered me. Danny was the light in any room. His smile alone could light the dark. And he was funny, oh how he made us laugh. He cherished time spent with his family. After he died, Danny’s friends came in droves to say goodbye and pay their respects. For his funeral people packed to the brim. In his short fifteen years he had loved and touched so many people. However short and abrupt, his life did have purpose. His life mattered.
But he died. He died suddenly. He died gruesomely and tragically. The whys no longer matter. The fierce anger and sharp, sharp pain has gradually subsided. I am now left with a just a dull feeling, that like the fuzzy edge of a dark nightmare.
I see him vividly when rays of morning sun shine through dark storm clouds and when snow sparkles. He is alive in my heart where I cradle him close.
It was eventually a happy ending, but the climax was utterly terrifying. I was only 20 weeks into my second pregnancy. Giddy and joyful, the three of us went to see our baby on the ultrasound screen. His big sister had named him Fairy and she was so excited to see his face. A few hours later, after our seemingly normal ultrasound, I was back at work and I got the call that no mother thinks they’ll ever receive. They found complications. My baby was sick. They needed to see me back in the office as soon as possible.
Our baby had developed Hydrops Fetalis. Funny words that mean there was fluid where fluid should not be. His brain, his belly and his liver were surrounded by fluid. They didn’t know why or how. All the testing gave us no answers as to what caused it. That didn’t matter anyway.
At 21 weeks pregnant we were given options. How does a person decide the fate of their unborn child. It is an impossible circumstance that I was in no way prepared to handle. My husband, being the medical professional that he is, understood things before my brain even heard them. My heart shattered when our doctor recommended we deliver him right away and just see what happens. We knew, and our doctor knew, that taking him from my body so soon was almost certainly a death sentence. He was sick and small and so vulnerable to the outside world. I was in no danger, so we felt that if his death was to be his outcome we would wait, let nature take its course inside of me. Our only basis for our decision was love and faith. We decided that his best chance was to stay in his mama. To keep fighting for him the only way I knew how, to carry him, pray for him and keep him close. For several weeks his tiny, fragile body remained under constant distress. Twice a week we traveled 50 miles to our doctor’s office to monitor our baby. Our game plan was to take it one day at a time. We monitored his heart very, very closely. For a couple weeks we actually saw improvement. Cautiously we cheered that his heart was remaining strong and was handling the extra strain from the fluid. We knew that eventually the stress would be too much for his heart to handle. Any day he could go into heart failure. When that day presented itself we agreed to deliver him. In pregnancy every week, every day matters for baby’s development. I was given steroids to boost his lung development, but that was all we could really do for him. Every week we just hoped he would hang on for one more week.
After nine weeks, that day came. Without being told I knew something was different. I couldn’t mutter the words, not even to my husband. But my baby had stopped moving. Something was wrong. On the way to our doctor’s office I feared the worse and felt completely helpless. My husband and I didn’t talk the whole drive. All we could do was hold hands and cry.
My baby hadn’t died, but his heart was failing. If he was to live he would have to be delivered. My body could no longer care for him and his life was to be put in the hands of his doctors and nurses.
Two and 1/2 months early, our Landon Wayne was delivered by c-section. Before they intubated him he made the faintest squeak. I’ll forever remember that sound. He was born and he was still alive. As they wheeled him to the NICU I caught a brief glimpse of my son. He was small. He was on his back. He wasn’t moving or crying. His head and belly was so swollen with fluid he didn’t look human. Once they took all the extra fluid from his body his weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces.
Our neonatologist made clear to us before I was taken to the operating room that he wasn’t likely to survive his first hours. She had given him a 3% chance of survival, a mere consolation prize for showing up. For six and 1/2 weeks we watched our baby grow in the NICU. His liver and brain function almost immediately improved. Against all possible odds, he got better. He was nursing, he was growing, he was fighting. It was an impossibly long six weeks. Addi just wanted her baby brother home. I just wanted to care for my baby, to hold, feed and change him without asking the nurses permission. My husband wanted to hug his family on all the days, not just his days off. The tubes, the audience, the constant beeping of the machines. It is so unnatural and everyday was so hard.
The NICU saved him. They saved him. They cared for our baby. They loved him. They fought for him. Without that place and the people who show up everyday to keep babies alive, my son would be dead.
Three weeks before his due date and at 5 pounds big, we took our baby boy home.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I am most grateful that we were given a miracle and our baby boy lived. Against all medical odds he is alive. He is a noisy, messy, brilliant, silly five year old. He is wild and thriving. He is such a gift and everyday I pause to breathe him in and give thanks that I get to be his mama.