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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!