Learning the trick of quiet

  • Pastel landscape

    Diane Sylvain

Some 50 years ago a bachelor farmer paid tribute to his mother by giving land to Idaho in her name. The park, named for her - Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park - is only 4,400 acres balanced on a narrow ridge called Skyline Drive. No one would ever mistake it for wilderness. Logging clear-cuts border the park; towns and wheat fields are plainly visible in the distance over the rolling Palouse hills that dip and surge like ocean waves.

You need to look harder and stay longer here than you would on the banks of Montana's Yellowstone River or Glacier National Park. But it's easy to love wilderness; I want to love the scars in my own backyard.

These landmarks of forest and field are local anchors. And we would be wise in these times of rapid development and sprawl in the inland West to return often to these places for regular doses of humility and reassembling.

In Tony Hiss' book, The Experience of Place, he quotes a letter from novelist Sherwood Anderson written sometime in the 1920s: "I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet."

For a decade I have taken my shrillness to the forests and fields of the Palouse. I have argued my case to cedar and camas; complained of my failures to fairy slippers and white pine. Every time I have sought counsel I have found wisdom and sustenance. As poet Dixie Partridge writes, "Certain places make a difference/become the wick/that draws out grief/through skin/not diminished/but leavened/into the landscape ..."

What do we lose each time another tract of land out West falls to a housing development or a super store? In my hometown of Moscow, Idaho, an old barn and house at Sixth Street was once in the country; now it is completely surrounded by swaths of cutouts for the next collection of six-figure-priced homes: "Rolling Meadows Estates." We've seen what comes next: more houses tossed across the landscape like giant, clumsy dice. Congestion. Roadside trash. Noise and lights. More strain on city resources, more isolation from neighborhood and community, more of everything except "rolling meadows."

In the midst of our current growth spurt of around 3 percent annually, I see more and more farmland and open areas developed as housing. It seemed to happen overnight: wheat fields turned into cul-de-sacs.

Despite the disruption, we will no doubt absorb the new houses and new residents. We've always been too adaptive for our own good. But will we be able to absorb the loss of trust in the stability of landscape? A new vocabulary is needed, words that go beyond terms like planning and zoning, in-fill, areas of city impact, annexation and land partitions. We need a way to express a sense of displacement unlike any we have known before. And we need to say what it is we are afraid of.

As we hurtle toward change in the West, as the open spaces fill in with new arrivals, we should remind our elected officials and committee members to take into account that there exists among us a vocabulary of the heart - words that perhaps spoke to Virgil McCroskey when he paused during his labor of love up on Skyline Drive to look south down the valley to acknowledge that the Palouse hills are "inhabited by silent and benevolent spirits."

And that on certain perfect Palouse evenings, when the cool air is ripe from the tawny quilt of grain that binds us to this land, we can still hear the forests and fields cautioning us to move slowly, with grace and respect, as if our very lives depend on it.

Stephen Lyons writes frequently about the West from Moscow, Idaho.