Ourselves

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."