I love creative retreats. It’s a time when I can escape from the nagging responsibilities of daily life and immerse myself in the creativity of some genre. In July I rejoined the Fishtrap experience, but this time instead of being in the remote grandeur of the Zumwalt Prairie like last summer, I attended the summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers for five days at the Wallowa Lake Lodge. Wallowa Lake is nestled at the foot of the rugged, snow-capped Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon, an eight hour drive frome my home in the Willamette Valley.
What is Fishtrap? Founded 35 years ago by forward-thinking writers Kim Stafford, Rich Wandschneider, and historian, Alvin Josephy this organization was created to provide support, connection, and education to West Coast writers
From their website “ Every July, readers, writers, journalists, historians, publishers, and lovers of the arts from all over the world gather at Wallowa Lake to write, to explore issues important to people of the West, and to make connections. The weeklong conference has provided hundreds of writers the opportunity to work with some of the best authors and teachers in the West including Ursula K. LeGuin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Bill Kittredge, Laura Pritchett, Anis Mojgani, Kathleen Dean Moore, and many, many others”.
We returned from four days at Paradise Campground, a favorite camping spot in old growth forest on the McKenzie River here in Oregon last week. It was our first visit since a devastating wildfire swept the area in the summer of 2020. This was one of our favorite camping and kayaking spots. We were devastated when it burned. The fire destroyed thousands of acres of forest taking a multitude of homes and businesses with it. Thankfully, the upper McKenzie where we would be camping was spared.
Who doesn’t love flowers? There seems to be even more of a special place in people’s hearts for the wildflowers found in nature. Here in Oregon it is prime wildflower season. Some are even blooming currently in my new native plant garden. Especially prevalent right now are camas (Camas quamash), beautiful blue-violet spikes of star-like flowers that pop up in the meadows. They were a significant food source for the Native Americans that once inhabited the area
About 40 minutes away from my home in the town of West LInn a new Nature Conservancy site opened up last year, the Camassia Nature Preserve. The 22 acre parcel is a mix of lush forest, meadows, and oak savannah with a boardwalk that meanders the main route. There is about 2 miles of hiking trails in the area. Also prevalent are glacial erratics- boulders from Montana and Canada that were dropped in this area after the great floods that occurred after the melting of the ice sheets that covered the north during the Ice Age.
Yesterday the weather was lovely, partly sunny and in the 60s, a welcome change from the rain and cool temperatures. I decided to take a drive and check it out. I was not disappointed!
Here are some of the things I saw in this special place.
A bit of wildflower trivia…
The reason you may often see the dazzling combination of bright yellow and purple wildflowers together is that it attracts pollinators- and humans seeking beauty.
And…my photos really don’t do this place justice!
Looked what bloomed today!
a wild Iris
a queen amidst my garden
her lilac petals arch gracefully
like arms in a curtsy
about her throat a white collar
etched with fine black lines
with a blush of gold
Gaudy hybrids shout for my attention
down the driveway
but it's her sublime elegance
that captures my wild heart
It’s been a very cool spring – even by NW Oregon standards. April set a record for the wettest ever recorded so native plants planted in late February & Early March have been slow to emmerge. Still, it’s been thrilling to watch the ferns unfurl and various flowers to reveal themselves in my native plant garden. I’ve been adding some artistic touches with some old sculptures of mine scattered about the garden.
One great find at “Hortlandia” was a little table made of scrap wood for a top and legs of thick curly willow. I added two small benches cut from the stump of an old walnut tree that was taken out a few years ago. and sorely missed. Now I have benches to remember it by This area is my fairy tea spot.
As children, most of us have been told “Don’t color on the walls!”, but it is so satisfying to have such an expanse waiting to be graced with marks made from your small hands.
I did get my chance as an adult. For a number of years I was an artist in residence in an assortment of schools in a three-county area. At times there were opportunities to color on walls creating murals with a cadre of small hands.
Now that I’m retired from all manner of teaching and the monetization of my artwork, I have a chance to color on my own walls. A boarded-up window on the outside of my detached studio building has been calling to me for a makeover. Numerous ideas swirled around my head for months. A cheery window scene was my ultimate goal. I sketched out many thumbnails but nothing seemed totally right. One thing I knew for sure, I was going to paint a black crow on the right side of the piece to disguise a hole that birds had enlarged for a nesting nook. Also I wanted my tuxedo cat, Zander in the picture along with a teapot, cup, and some flowers (I have this thing about teapots). I nixed the sun at the top in favor of a compass, a symbol that shows up frequently in my images.
Ultimately I settled on a basic design, a color scheme, and sketched it out on the wood. Procrastination settled in as perfectionism (fear) took over. Then I decided the worse thing that could happen is I would paint over what I didn’t like. So I got going.
I worked on the mural bit by bit in the cool of the evenings as the heat wave here in Oregon made it unfeasible to work during the day in the hot sun. Eventually, I finished- yesterday! In all I only painted over one vase that was bright orange, changing the color to more of an understated coral.
I love this mural because it is personal to me and adds a happy focal point to an otherwise boring wall My next goal is to doodle all the way up my stairwell. Let’s see how that goes!
In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.
This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.
The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land. It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity. It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests. Careful grazing management is part of the picture. The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.
We were driving back from a blissful writing workshop up in a remote area in E. Oregon when we came back into cell service. I’ll never forget my friend, Linda saying “Oh my god- there’s this thing called a heat dome that’s moving into the Pacific NW. It’s going to get up to 116 degrees F!” Seriously I thought she was joking until she insisted it was true.
We live in a place where occasionally we will experience triple-digit temperatures in the low hundreds but not this. These are Death Valley or Phoenix temps.- not Oregon. Another blow- last year it was the forest fires and now in late June extreme heat. Add to that the pandemic, politics and it’s beyond cataclysmic.
My house has no AC. There have been few times we have needed it as it is well insulated. This time, however, since it only dropped into the high 80s at night the house would not cool off and remained at 89 degrees inside. This was intolerable- especially for me as I am highly sensitive to the heat and can get ill.
September has been a gruesome month in my home state of Oregon. We were traumatized by wildfires and smoke that began Labor Day Weekend staying in our homes for 10 days to avoid breathing the toxic cloud of air that descended over the state. Thousand of people were evacuated from their homes. The fires ravaged over a million acres of land burning several 2800 structures including homes and businesses. About 11 people lost their lives. Many are homeless and without jobs. The towns of Detroit Lake, Talent, and Phoenix were decimated as with many communities up the McKenzie River Hwy. Many of the larger fires are still burning.
Particularly heartbreaking to me is knowing that some of my favorite places were hit especially hard; the Breitenbush Hot Springs Community, the McKenzie River corridor, and the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center and Wilderness. These were places that recharged my soul. Nature will renew them- but not in my lifetime. It looks like my ashes will be scattered among the ashes.
We are among the lucky. Thus far we have only lost power and internet service. There is a fire a few miles away but it seems to be holding. My heart goes out to those who have lost everything and the 500,00 who have had to undergo the stress of evacuations.
As Oregon Burns
A dry wind howls from the east
We extinguish the candles
and do not sleep
As Oregon burns
A black cloud draws across the sky like a flat curtain
“A good river is nature’s life work in song.” ― Mark Helprin
If there is one place that will give me a sense of peace, it is in the presence of a river. Besides being beautiful, rivers have an uncanny way of calming the spirit no matter what kind of dither you are in. In the infinite haiku of moving water, we can let go.
My favorite river in Oregon is the McKenzie. It is born from an underwater spring in Clear Lake high in the Cascade Mountains out of Eugene. From Clear Lake, it tumbles down a fantasy of waterfalls, disappears for a bit into the lava bedrock, and reappears in Blue Pool, a deep touramaline pool that gathers all kinds of visitors to admire its beauty. Eventually, the McKenzie becomes a big river. It tumbles down from the mountains in a sparkle of rapids, calming as it flows into farmland before it flows into the Willamette..
Every year we take a trip on the fourth of July to camp by the McKenzie. Part of that trip includes one or two runs down the river in our inflatable whitewater kayaks. We skipped last year as my spousal equivalent had a series of knee surgeries. We were both nervous about this year’s run down the river as our skills were rusty. In the end, we both agreed that if we didn’t buck up and get out on the water we would never forgive ourselves. There is the feeling of being by a river but being ON a river is the ultimate experience.
Off we went and in 50 yards hit a class 2.5 rapids, a rough way to warm up. We paddled through the waves as they roiled up around us. My adrenaline was buzzing until my mind and muscle memory kicked in and I thought to myself “oh yeah, I can do this!” The following rapids were pure fun. We had lunch on a gravel beach with wildflowers around us. It was a memorable run and probably will be the high spot of our summer. I’m so glad we got over our fears.
Rivers are great teachers, so full of metaphors. Here are a few lessons I have learned from my numerous rides on their liquid paths…
Pick a run that matches your ability but is still challenging.
Have at least one buddy that will watch your back.
Go with the flow- watch where the main current is. It takes less effort.
Keep your sights to where you want to go. If you fixate on a rock, you will hit it. Aim to the side.
Stay committed in tough water and paddle with intention.
Find a peaceful eddy and take a break now and again.
Enjoy the scenery.
You will fall out of your boat occasionally. It’s okay. Get back in and keep on going.