John Daniel: A good animal, too

  • Found items displayed on the walls outside John Daniel's studio.

    Amanda Smith
  • Daniel swinging in the trees at his remote Oregon home.

    Amanda Smith


When the throaty calls of sandhill cranes
echo across the valley, when the rimrock flares
incandescent red, and the junipers
are flames of green on the shortgrass hills,

in that moment of last clear light
when the world seems ready to speak its name,
meet me in the field alongside the pond.
Without careers for once, without things to do,

without dreams or anger or the rattle of fears,
we'll ask how it can be that we walk this ground
and know that we walk, alive in a world
that didn't have to be beautiful, alive

in a world that doesn't have to be.
With no answers, just ourselves and silence,
we'll listen for the song that waits to be learned,
the song that moves through the passing light.

--John Daniel

"Ourselves" from Common Ground by
John Daniel (Confluence Press, 1988).
Reprinted with permission.


The corkboard wall outside John Daniel's writing studio in western Oregon displays a collage of bizarre artifacts. A fur-and-rubber gorilla hand reaches for a blue wooden spoon near a Victoria's Secret camisole, and a beer-coaster depicting four bikini-clad women dangles from a Copenhagen tobacco can next to an empty package of jalapeno sunflower seeds.

“All items I've found on my daily bike ride," Daniel explains, indicating the road bike propped against his garage door.

The 60-year-old author and sometime college professor has crafted a career out of contemplating the Pacific Northwest through mementos both literal and intangible. The author of three memoirs, two books of poetry and two books of nature essays, he's twice won the Oregon Book Award. His works mingle memories of wandering through the '60s with a guitar and a taste for recreational drugs with advice for modern-day liberal tree-huggers, urging them to be more compassionate toward the denizens of the timber towns.

He writes frankly about his alcoholic, union-organizing father and his mother -- who lived with him in the late stages of Alzheimer's -- and then slides into ruminations on the wild turkey snacking on his garden and the madrone he split for firewood during a winter of solitude. Comparing its curls of peeling bark to oversized cinnamon sticks, he declares it “the only tree I ever wanted to eat."

On his porch under towering Douglas firs, flanked by pots of salmon-hued impatiens, Daniel considers his home state with its timber-town environmentalists and lumberjacks, its history of spotted owl battles and allegations of “eco-terrorism." As the Oregon flag snaps in the breeze on its rooftop pole, Daniel recounts the unlikely path he took to become an environmental writer.

The story is also told in his first memoir, Winter Creek (Milkweed, 2002). He came to Oregon in 1966 to attend Reed College, but dropped out “to major in drugs and self-doubt." He reveled in the Northwest's wildness, taking up rock-climbing and finding employment as a choker-setter for Weyerhaeuser. “I loved the trees of Paradise, and I also worked to level those trees," he notes of his time spent on logging crews. “I wanted to do the great Northwest things as a youth. I wanted to wear suspenders and cork boots and a tin hard hat."

He laughs easily, leaning back in his chair in khaki shorts and a blue T-shirt that matches his eyes. “It was a great education for an environmentalist," he says, “to be exposed to clear-cuts -- massive stumps sometimes nine feet in diameter." He decided that clear-cuts weren't always bad: “In previously logged places, where we've turned the forest into plantations, we could keep them that way. But let's offer a little more diversity and leave a little more wood on the ground -- allow a little more wildness back in," he says. “And why leave those pecker-poles? It's such lip service to the idea of ecological responsibility."

Like place, like spirit, like critters found in space
Robert W. Gately
Robert W. Gately
Dec 22, 2008 10:09 PM
Like walking a thousand, thousand leagues in another mans moccasin's, through High Country, cross low deserts, following princely rivers to the Kingdom of the Sea that lies beneath the all, Water did indeed invent Man as an easy way to get around...

John Daniel, the Bum, mothers son , fathers prodigal one, now an avatar for serious consideration, we applaud your prose and are pricked by your poetry, posterity will treat you well.

I am moved to share my bio with you as it seems we have been traveling in a parallel great western American Universe together, you for your sixty years, me for my seventy. Delighted to make your acquaintance.

My ole man was too a hard boozing union organizer who left me an mom right after my birth to go off and organize miners from Death Valley to Carlsbad,NM, Bisbee, AZ back to Trona,CA to Grass Valley California gold mines, Leadville, CO moly mines, drinking hard, talking fast, passing out Old Golds to the miners, muckers, smelter and mill men. Mexicans mostly as they had inherited the earth that they were the salt of and who god fearlessly decended into the depth of hell to mine mothers riches for back east sons of bitches. Dead or alive they won the prize, equal rights, equal pay, equal in every way to triumph over those who would get in the way of they'er familys safety, security, succor. A rootless, ruthless man was he who won the fights the greed heads had started in their well studied stupidy. Man is free ! Everywhere shedding the chains of oppressors, showing whos really the Boss at the end of the day.

Whats an old disabled Irishman to do these days but sit and sip frugally his Old Crow, light up another Sky Dancer and tippy tap away another day on the ancient laptop that is his connection to that modern world at large beyond his secluded Arizona canyon home for the Now ? What indeed but respond to those who have touched the essence of his soul too and moved him to muse with a fellow muse and lose the blues in a Muddy Waters reverie...Thanks, Daniel, we will certainly enjoy following some more of your trails. As Willie says, "Still is still Moving"

Best regards and wishes in the Next Year,

Robert W. Gately Miner/Poet
Castle Creek, Arizona