In Earshot of Water
Notes from the Columbia Plateau
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Iowa Press
Sounds were the stuff of imagination for me as a child, the textures of a life that might be well or poorly lived depending on one’s aural fortune. And so I have always found my breathing space within earshot of water, whether in the Seattle suburb where I came of age, on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, or in the arid inland Northwest where I live now. There was a pond, its water muddy and calm. No surface water fed it. No stream bled it into Walker Creek or drained it to salt water...
Outside the town of Salmon, the Idaho high country stunts most growth. Buds of lupine and paintbrush, penstemon and pines, even the paddling mallard ducks grow tiny. Late one day in May, songbirds had yet to lay their eggs, and winds still agitated Williams Lake — harsh habitat for creatures that adapt somehow and even thrive. Fat rainbow trout spawned or lunged for flies. Mule deer, their coats the color of basalt rock, clambered the sides of scab-rock canyons...
At the airport outside Seattle my family greets me—dogs and sisters, kids and Mom—everyone except our father, who has died of cancer two months before. My mother now looks shorter, my sister more brittle and thin, and the gaggle of nephews too timid and shy to meet my eye. We adults trade compliments and hugs. Just moments and we’re home, as the sisters and I still call it, a low ranch house surrounded by flowers and grasses and trees. We are in a suburb of Seattle, where ranchettes of several acres slop...
Black Bear on Gold Hill
Along the Little Naches River in the Washington Cascades, my little boys and I were fishing for the cutthroat trout that dimpled the surface. It was early June, the wasps and mosquitoes few, summer’s cauldron not yet scalding. Beside that river a driver had gotten his big truck stuck. His spinning tires left a gouge where water collected. In the truck-tire puddle, a salamander larva floated, a “mud puppy” as I had heard my father term it, a creature that resembled an...
In the Shadow of the Government’s Blind Eye
Hiking between the towns of Tukwila and Kent, not far from Seattle, I came upon a place where no grass grew, a scorched plat of land in Washington, the Evergreen State. Industrial rubbish lay in heaps there, and colossal tanks on stilt legs towered. Pheasants cackled from patches of blackberry briars. Pintail ducks drove wedges overhead, and dairy cattle lowed from flood-lush fields. That scar upon the landscape rattled me for days. Its blacks and grays collided with clusters of native bunchgrass on its perimeter and...
Sometime prior to 1830, Pacific Northwest tribes created the Chinook jargon, a trading language to help them skirt the intricacies of their dialects and barter for goods with one another. White fur traders adopted the jargon as well, inspiring even greater use of that bastard vernacular. A trading frenzy ensued. Indians began to forget their Coast Salish dialects. In turn they began to lose touch with the folkways and cultures embedded in those words. The Chinook jargon — as traveler Theodore Winthrop typified it, with what passed in his era for wit — “was an attempt on a small scale to nullify Babel by...
The Way to Open
Off Lopez Island, two otters rolled and dove for abalone. They pried those muscles of suction from boulders beneath the waves of Puget Sound. Earthbound on shore, I lifted up an empty abalone shell. Pearly mother light inside its hollow cast back my shadow, and the sky behind me gathered hue. All whiskers and dog-jowls, the otters watched me over their shoulders and swam farther out to sea. I yearned to slide beside them and recover something I’d mislaid. There is this shell inside us no one knows the way to open...
Magpie in the Window
On a kitchen floor spread with newspapers, I am gutting a pumpkin. Buried to the elbow in bright flesh, stripping its innards, I scrape the hollowing carcass to make a lantern or a lamp, as so many parents before me have done. If I gut the pumpkin well, the outcome will prove spooky, the way my toddler Reed hopes it will be. He does his part by picking out the seeds. The juicy flesh and pulp have made my fingers too slippery for such work. I hunch over, grunt as I cut, getting into it. Once Halloween has passed, we will eat this pumpkin, even though we could easily get...
The abiding spirits of ponderosa forests take the form of humble nuthatches. If the wind isn’t sifting too loudly through the pine needles, if the local ravens aren’t being raucous, you may hear them. Their call will float, a nasal horning, neither peep nor squawk nor squeak. It is a tone most like the tedious beep of a work truck backing up. Red-breasted, white-breasted, pygmy nuthatches—these are genius loci. One may lay hands on them all, though making captives of wild birds always risks some harm. To grasp a one-ounce...
Subliming the System
To shovel is to shove when it comes to snow. We try to heap snow until it melts. We want to keep from packing it hard with our shoes or tires. We try to keep from turning it to ice. One night last winter, heavy snow began falling at dusk and no one in our household had the spunk to get outside and shove it. All our best intentions went to bed and the snow fell in heaps—on the steps, on the driveway, in the yard, and on the street. I set an alarm to rise before dawn and set about the job of grunting down the driveway with a deep snow...
On the shore near Copalis, Washington, we seated ourselves one sunset late in August. Five of us gathered on that Pacific beach to watch the sun slide below the horizon. On the tailgate of Darryl’s pickup we found shelter from the wind. It was a crush there. We held our breath and crowded one another. Beneath my shorts I felt the F in Ford. The springs on the pickup squeaked...
Under the Sign of Aries
Orting, Washington, is rehearsing for calamity. People in this town northwest of Mount Rainier will have an estimated thirty minutes to vacate if the mountain melts its glaciers to a slurry or blows its snowy dome. The second tallest in the forty-eight states, and the highest of the glaciated peaks, Rainier worries scientists. It shoulders more ice and snow than all the other Cascade crags combined. The town lies smack in the path of a likely lahar, a big flood of heavy mud that volcanoes typically trigger. Worse yet, bridges over the Carbon and Puyallup rivers congest the only car routes out of Orting. The...
The Silver Valley
The worst are the racing thoughts.” That’s how Cass Davis describes his health problems since he was “leaded” in the early 1970s by smelter fallout from northern Idaho’s Bunker Hill silver mine. I am visiting his family home in Pinehurst, Idaho, where the EPA is replacing the contaminated lawn in his mother’s yard. First the agency workers scrape the landscape bare and then they truck in loads of clean fill...
Wrangling with Rodeo
In the northern Rockies of Washington State, Ice Age floods carved channeled scablands some fifteen thousand years ago, right at the spot where I sit with my son and wait for the Cheney Rodeo to start. The show’s sponsor—U. S. Smokeless Tobacco, the owner of Copenhagen and Skoal—has emblazoned its name on all the glossy programs and the arena banners...
Technologies of Doubt
This story of Pacific Northwest salmon can be told the economic way: how some farmers and paper workers, jet-boat operators and port commissioners, reliant on Snake River waters stilled by dames, fear their livelihoods are being ravaged by rising beliefs that some dams must be breached...
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of these journals for first publishing the following essays: “Genius Loci” in Sewanee Review; “High Country” in Brevity; “In the Shadow of the Government’s Blind Eye” in Organization and Environment, published by Sage/Society Publications, http://online.sagepub.com; “Magpie in the Window” inMemoir (and); “Under the Sign of Aries” in North Dakota Quarterly; and “Walker Creek” (originally published as “Living the Land”) in Weber Studies...
Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2011
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