A nearly forgotten poet’s view from above timberline

Belle Turnbull found transcendence in the Colorado Rockies.

 

It’s hard to imagine Colorado without its 14 million acres of publicly owned forests and mountains and grasslands. Among these protected areas is the White River Reserve, created by executive order by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. Its 2.3 million acres of stunning vistas stretch from the Flat Top Mountains, up the Fryingpan River, over the Blue River’s Tenmile Range and into the former gold-mining town of Breckenridge. The reserve today has eight wilderness areas, 12 ski resorts, four reservoirs and 10 peaks above 14,000 feet — Colorado’s coveted “Fourteeners.”

To get to know this stretch of mountains, you could hike some of its 2,500 miles of trail, or drive on its 1,900 miles of roads. Or you could ponder its history, which reflects Colorado’s settling, when narrow-gauge railroads ran in and out of mining regions in the 19th century, bringing food in and minerals out, while timber-choppers relentlessly sliced through forest cover. Or you might think of this place in terms of its conservation history, part of a vast system of forests established throughout the Progressive Era. But perhaps the best way to know a place like this is to see it through the eyes of a good writer. Thanks to the publication of a new book, Belle Turnbull: On the Life and Work of an American Master, we can turn to a nearly forgotten Colorado poet for insight and inspiration.

Born in Hamilton, New York 1881, 10 years before the White River Reserve was created, the Vassar-educated Turnbull taught English at Colorado Springs High School from 1910 to 1936. She and her companion, the novelist Helen Rich, then moved to Frisco for two years and on to Breckenridge, settling into a log cabin with windows that looked out onto the Tenmile Range from 1939 to Belle’s death in 1970. No other Colorado writer so authentically lets “the poetry take the poet where it wants, the way mountain weather does,” writes George Sibley in one of several outstanding essays this volume includes.

Spread out a map of the White River National Forest when you read Turnbull’s poems. Even better, take this edition of the “Unsung Masters Series” with you into the Great Divide country the next time you hit the trail. I like best the gems Turnbull sets within that narrow band of wetland seeps, wildflowers and pygmy forest located just above timberline. This is where “ancient mysteries” govern above and beyond homesteaders, timber-cutters and forest regulators. In her world, “Magistrate and forester / Exist forlorn in those rude airs / Where dwell the ancient liberties.”

Belle Turnbull, in her later years, sitting at her desk.
Courtesy of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, Dr. Sandra F. Pritchard Mather Archives/ SHS-P.558

For Turnbull, the vast spaces and tiny, cutting edges of the Rocky Mountains and Continental Divide were places to encounter something transcendent, something beyond the forlorn tenure of land ownership and the edicts of landowners: “For since a rock’s a long, long treasure: / a rock, a root, a south exposure: / the loan of these is our forever.” Tracing the contours of this higher country, the poet borrows from Indigenous trails, tautly notched through mountain passes, before settlers moved in on them. The Great Divide becomes “a full-sprung bow,” where “Stark is the streamhead where the narrow / Careless snowrills stop and go, / Atlantic, Pacific, freeze or flow.” In Turnbull’s eyes, a carpet of wildflowers is more than beautiful; it is there to prove you mortal. “Now at last I have eaten / that dark and pungent honey,” she writes in “Chant,” “which is distilled / out of blue-black monkshood, / marsh-child of forbidden beauty … / Now at last have I eaten / and am consumed.”

Turnbull was an Easterner, enchanted by the mountains of Colorado, who made a home in the high country. Her work is exact, her imagery vivid. Through it, we find a way into the mountains — and a way home.

Let’s step outside in the mountain night, renew

Whole vision of this integer of cells:

This house, in separate amber shining so,

Uniquely seen, as though another self:

Unit in space, now for a time clearly

Walled, roofed, warmed: now for a time ...

How little, how long? Whisper if flawless, dare we?

Shout it, and count the neighbor rays that shine,

Digits of oneness, careless into space ...

Yet if tomorrow, yet if tomorrow shaken,

Lightless, forlorn?

                                    Therefore. Look, while the eyes

Know this for ours, and the amber word still spoken.

Though wood shall rot and light shatter, though

Self dissolve on a breath, this house is now.

Belle Turnbull: On the Life and Work of an American Master
Edited by David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines
201 pages, softcover: $16. Pleiades Press, 2017

Greg Hobbs, a former Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, co-directs DU Law School’s Environment and Natural Resources Program. His published poetry books include Colorado, Mother of Rivers: Water Poems.