Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Beauty eludes the beast.
Close to the Canadian border, Washington's Methow Valley startles visitors with its wild 8,000-foot peaks and lively weather: sunshine one minute, boiling clouds the next. What words could do justice to its stark beauty, seen by visitors during an hour and a half drive through the Cascades and on past the tiny town of Pateros, where the Methow River joins the mighty Columbia?
Only the words of a poet, decided Forest Service staffers in the Winthrop Ranger District; they wrote to one of the Northwest's most famous writers, William Stafford, in 1992. To their surprise and delight, Stafford said yes, agreeing to write poems to be reproduced at scenic turnouts along the Methow River and one of its tributaries, Early Winters Creek. It was his last major project. He died at age 79, in August 1993.
To recreation planners Sheela McLean and Curtis Edwards and district ranger Laurie Thorpe, the poems - reproduced on porcelain signs off the North Cascades National Scenic Highway - represent a new way for a federal agency to communicate with its public.
"We wanted a way to make people feel," says McLean. "We were tired of our natural history approach." It is a first for an agency known more for its obscurantist way with words.
Winter has closed the road, but during her last trip along the state highway, McLean stopped to read the poems. All but one have been erected next to traditional interpretive signs (pictured here) about bull trout, the way a river carves a valley, the pattern of life in a wetlands.
"I almost cried," she recalls. "The poems have the power to yank something out of my chest."
The Forest Service found others to help pay for the poetry signs, including the Stafford family, the Methow Institute Foundation in Winthrop, Wash., Jan and John Straley, and the Confluence Gallery in Twisp, Wash. For more information, contact the Winthrop Ranger District, Box 579, Winthrop, WA 98862 (509/996-2266.
A Valley Like This
Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this,
and suddenly the air is filled with snow.
That is the way the whole world happened --
there was nothing, and then ...
But maybe some time you will look out and even
the mountains are gone, the world become nothing
again. What can a person do to help
bring back the world?
We have to watch it and then look at each other.
Together we hold it close and carefully
save it, like a bubble that can disappear
if we don't watch out.
Please think about this as you go on. Breathe on the world.
Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings
roll along, watch how they open and close, how they
invite you to the long party that your life is.
Time for Serenity, Anyone?
I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I'm part of it. Even my breathing
enters into this elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still - this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
From the Wild People
Time used to live here.
It likes to find places like this
and then leave so quietly
that nothing wakes up.
Whenever a rock finds what it likes
it hardly ever changes. Oh, rain
can persuade it, or maybe a river
out looking around. But that's the exception.
They say there was a time when
rocks liked to dance. You can see
where that happened - great piles
of old partners that got tired of each other.
Now and then one stirs when nobody
is looking; then it stops and looks away
humming a little tune. In the mountains
you can see those nonchalant rocks.
Some of them sould have stopped sooner --
they're haggard old wrecks, friendless,
and often just slumped around
wherever they fell.
Where We Are
Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that's gone.
Far over the valley there is an island
for everything left; and our own island
will drift there too, unless we hold on,
unless we tap like this: "Friend,
are you there? Will you touch when
you pass, like the rain?"
Is This Feeling About the West Real?
All their lives out here some people know
they live in a hemisphere beyond what Columbus discovered.
These people look out and wonder: Is it magic? Is it
the oceans of air off the Pacific? You can't
walk through it without wrapping a new
piece of time around you, a readiness for a meadowlark,
that brinkmanship a dawn can carry for lucky people
all through the day.
But if you don't get it, this bonus, you can
go home full of denial, and live out your years.
Great waves can pass unnoticed outside your door;
stars can pound silently on the roof; your teakettle
and cosy life inside can deny everything outside "
whole mountain ranges, history, the holocaust,
sainthood, Crazy Horse.
Listen - something else hovers out here, not
color, not outlines or depth when air
relieves distance by hazing far mountains,
but some total feeling or other world
almost coming forward, like when a bell sounds
and then leaves a whole countryside waiting.
To be a mountain you have to climb alone
and accept all that rain and snow. You have to look
far away when evening comes. If a forest
grows, you care; you stand there leaning against
the wind, waiting for someone with faith enough
to ask you to move. Great stones will tumble
against each other and gouge your sides. A storm
will live somewhere in your canyons hoarding its lightning.
If you are lucky, people will give you a dignified
name and bring crowds to admire how sturdy you are,
how long you can hold still for the camera. And some time,
they say, if you last long enough you will hear God;
a voice will roll down from the sky and all your patience
will be rewarded. The whole world will hear it: "Well done."