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Wordsmithing by Nature: Poets go deep into the outdoors

Staff illustration by Molly Quinn
Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

For thousands of years, poets have written about the outdoors. Sometimes, they praise scenery and wildness; sometimes, they compare humanity to nature.

Poets from Hesiod and Homer to Basho and Chaucer have found inspiration in flowers and mountains, trees and rivers; in English language poetry, William Wordsworth’s writing about nature is important. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, industrialization started to put a squeeze on Wordsworth’s England and the hills and glens of his beloved Lake District.

The beautiful river Wye, along which he’d walked and mused, got more befouled every day from factories, mills, and denser population. Thus, when he wrote of the “tranquil restoration” that nature gave to him, he was doing so with anxiety that the “beauteous forms” he so loved might soon be gone.

He lamented this loss because his poems don’t just praise nature, they make a radical proposition: nature should be of value to us not only for its beauty and resources but for how it develops our “moral being.”

Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, and Robinson Jeffers are more recent voices that have explored our encounters with the out-of-doors. As have I. Like many readers of this page, I’ve hiked and ran through woods with the uninhibited joys of youth – for me, it was the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York, when I was young.

For my children, it was in our nearby mountains and forests – up at Skookum Lake, by the shores of Sullivan Lake, in the deep forests of Upper Priest River. We’d find mushrooms and see deer, occasionally stumble on big piles of bear scat, fish and paddle and collect wood for camp fires that we’d sit around, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to the crackle of flames and the sounds of a night among trees and stars.

I don’t know if our moral beings were made in those moments, but I do know that we talked to one another and we learned the names of some trees and flowers. We slowed down and settled toward a pace that on most days seems elusive, what with the cacophony and hurry-flurry of cars and emails and text, text, texting!

I asked several local writers to share a few poems with me – different works, different poets, different visions of nature. The poems included here, and several to follow in coming weeks, speak to our lives on this beautiful part of the planet.

Tod Marshal is Washington’s poet laureate.

Back to the Wye

Excerpt from “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”

By William Wordsworth

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration: – feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life,

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,

To them I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened: – that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on, –

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

English poet William Wordsworth lived 1770 to 1850.

Larger than life

Author’s title: “Because the Mountain Dwarfs the Grove, the Sky the Mountain”

By Robert Wrigley

Some botanists have proffered a theory

that a stand of aspens – what we call a grove –

is in fact a single organism, and that therefore

the largest living thing on the planet must be

just such a stand of trees, much like the grove

I am at this very moment lying in or on

or among the many ringed arboreal embodiments of,

each of which, because it is late October,

is ablaze inside its typical quaking, in the annual

gold of its slow descent into dormancy,

and many of which are even now letting such gold go,

so that reclined as I am upon it or among them,

I am, within no more than a few minutes myself

made golden, blanketed by their or its spade-like leaves

even as a million more quiver elegantly above me,

as though, though I know otherwise, it or they approve

of my presence and consent to cover me

as must be my wish, since I do not rise

but, rather, blow away the occasional one fallen on my eyes,

so that I might see them, each delicate hand

of them or it above me – although the leaves will not all fall

this afternoon, and already the autumn cold

has worked its way through my jacket and into my limbs

and bones, as I peer upward into the last light

of the setting sun and shiver, just as they do.

Robert Wrigley is a prolific and award-winning poet; he also likes to fly fish.

This Thin Road

By Polly Buckingham

The reflections of furled lily pads

fall across a black pond. Marmots

weave across the path and water

drops through basalt cracks.

I gather rods of light in a basket

of grass and sing along this thin road.

A chatter of geese and squirrels

joins the invisible choir. Coyotes

laugh across ponds and rocks,

and the moon cuts the sky

with its crooked smile.

Time is a little star

waiting for night.

Polly Buckingham lives in Medical Lake and is the author of “The Expense of a View” and “A Year of Silence.”

Ouzel

By Paul Lindholt

Among pebbles of the streambed

it dips and prods,

now underwater, feathers stretched

for balance against the flow,

turning over stones

where small insects hide,

darting there and there

after them, clutching the bottom

as though on a vertical slide,

swept back then climbing

forward again, a liquid shuttle

grooming the streambed,

loosening debris that swirls

into the current, still underwater,

still prying, a squat

gray genius of balance,

voiceless and single-minded,

perpetually hungry,

never stepping twice

on the same stone,

dipping to seize larva, always

bobbing and searching

for food in the flux

of its home, the current

sliding past thin and clear

and insistent, the beak probing

between toes, wings clinging,

now breaking the surface to light

on a trembling spruce branch

where it rests and drips the wings.

Paul Lindholdt is the author of “In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau;” he teaches at Eastern Washington University.

Political climate

Author’s title: “Executive Order to Ratify the Paris Agreement”

By John Eliason

What difference is 2 degrees,

When the fox is encased in a block of ice

Found by a farmer, pulled from a river

She had seen other animals frozen in time

The water will come again this spring, down from Silver Valley

Secrets in sediments: Super fund, super fun

When an ocean rises

How come I cannot see it closing in on me

I wring my hands for environmental protection

They are chafing, cracked, and wrinkled like a sun-struck mud

Smeared to form striations on the great basin of land

Remind me to keep watching those markers

Then again, when I notice frost settled, it has already been striking at night

In between the warmth, we feel cold

We shudder and shutter and wish

Away with coats of separation, away with it all

Fix a gaze on the stars and stand naked in that frost – just for a minute

Then hide. Go back inside (but remember vast and frigid places),

And, too, that globe of vulnerability

We do this over and over, always running out.

John Eliason lives and writes in Spokane and teaches in the English Department at Gonzaga University.

Lost in the moment

Author’s title: “In Blackfeet There’s No Word for ‘Wall’ But You Can Say ‘Climb Up’ ”

By Roger Dunsmore

We pick our way across eons of scree

mountain goats have traversed

toward a thread of water – molten silver

flowing to gray-orange rock

to green forest to Medicine Grizzly Lake,

far beyond the mooing cattle of Cut Bank Creek.

The night sky had been strangely luminous,

a trace of aurora?

Later, hours of solid rain

puddle inside our worn-out tent.

We had seen the storm move toward us,

late afternoon, boots off, sitting easy

in a large dish of warm grass,

out of the wind

beneath Triple Divide Peak.

We pass a flask of whiskey,

pour some into the ground,

blow the conch to each of the three oceans

(the flow of this mountain’s snow melt),

softly ring the temple bells,

say words to move the skin around our flesh

the flesh of this high place,

three glorious marmots

in hairy mop-coats astride the rock slides.

Walking out, the Peak at our backs,

waterfall sounds whisper canyon walls;

we sing any old song we can remember

“Jimmy Crack Corn and I don’t care…”

around blind corners, keep turning back

to slow, ocean-mother mountain

imprinting across the hairs of our necks.

We are not just dwarfed, bent, swallowed here

by great, acre-gasps of space

enclosed by even greater walls of rock,

we are disappeared.

Roger Dunsmore taught Humanities and Wilderness Studies at University of Montana from 1963-2013: his 5th volume of poetry, “Crew Boss: New and Selected Poems,” will be published in 2017.

The Passion of Pacific Salmon

By Laurie Klein

Neither salt nor squall can hold us.

Forsaking the sea, our bodies

bleach to the color of rapids,

an ancient quest, where time funnels:

magnetic pull, lip to tail, the headlong

breach. Submerse, surge –

virginal, hungry, let each brood over

particular stones, the rightness of silt,

the natal source, where we meet

our tattered match – encore as love

in the amber shallows,

finned to froth by glints of scale,

frenzy suspended for

grace, fanning its tender gills.

Laurie Klein’s debut poetry collection about the natural world is “Where the Sky Opens.”

Riverbed

By Nance Van Winckel

I could not resist it.

It could not endure me.

Had my treks along its edge

not hung so hard to the last

and best of its damp,

I might have slipped out

through a warm red mud –

same as I’d come in.

Nance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently “Our Foreigner,” winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series Prize.

Larch Needles Dancing

Author’s title: “Gold Larch Needles Are Dancing In A Cold October Wind”

By Terry Lawhead

Gold larch needles are dancing in a cold October wind.

The river runs low and clear over white boulders

Dropped by ice thousands of years past.

Everyone is hard at work elsewhere,

Ducks float on the water here.

I could walk to Yukon and be better off for the hardships

Than succeeding at any goal.

A window in a small room in the mansion of my heart has opened.

Terry Lawhead works in community and economic development for rural Washington; he was a logger, rancher, farmer and farrier.