Year of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Department or School/College
Greg Martin, Chris Dombrowski
Environmental Writing, Family, Paradise Valley
University of Montana
The Biome Within is an essay collection that meditates on change. Born and raised in the Paradise Valley of southwest Montana, Austin recounts stories from her childhood, painting a picture of rural life in the Valley that contrasts with its modern-day incarnation as a luxury get-away and millionaire’s playground. Even as Austin pines for a time and a place that no longer exists, embodying the nostalgia that she identifies in the Valley’s transplants, the reader comes to understand that the author – and her family’s way of making a living – are culpable in creating the changes that she now laments. The tourism industry is painted as a double-edged sword: it’s the lifeblood of the Valley, propping up an ecosystem of dude ranches, rafting companies, and Airbnb owners; but it also sucks the life out of the Valley, pricing out working families, bankrupting local schools, and enabling a make-believe-cowboy lifestyle.
Alongside meditations on the outside world, Austin reveals her first pregnancy and ties the changes happening within her own body to the changes in the Paradise Valley. Embracing motherhood is complicated by the aftermath of the Dobbs decision and the once-in-500-year flood of the Yellowstone River – disasters of different natures. On the one hand, Austin struggles with what it means to become an ecosystem to the child she carries when so many women are stripped of the right to chart the course of their reproductive lives. Meanwhile, climate change manifests near and far and begs the author to wrestle with the moral decision of bringing a child into the world.
Inspired by the echoing truths in Jim Harrison’s poetry and the weaving, unharried pace of Eula Biss’s prose, Austin endeavors to capture the turning points of her life and the Valley she loves. She hopes to add her own voice to a group of writers and creators who are thinking critically about Montana’s character and their role in shaping it.
Kirchhoff, Austin, "The Biome Within: Conception and Change in the Paradise Valley" (2023). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 12043.
© Copyright 2023 Austin Kirchhoff