The valley around us is deep

by Betsy Marston

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).


*Betsy Marston © High Country News