IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
PART I: ‘The Windswept Soul’
PART II: “A Rivendell of Words”
PART III: “I Think I Am in Love”
PART IV: “Passing the Buck”
PART V: “Notes from the Empty Quarter”
PS: “May We All Become Neighbors”
“It’s not about publishing. It’s about writing.”
~ Luis Alberto Urrea
By Douglas Imbrogno | July 16, 2012
I will let the photos tell part of the tale. That will be easier, I think, than to try and describe what it’s like to vault the country, come to rest in Boise, Idaho (a word that’s fun to say, and so repeat with me: ‘Boise-Boise-Boise’). It is a flat, hot city in July. I am glad to get my Dollar Rent-a-Car, a Ford Fusion, and to crank the AC, exit left and strike off down the highway, heading west to Oregon. I am enthralled by the desert’s sere and empty empire of undulating hills. As I write this, I look up ‘sere,’ a lovely word I may have never used in print before: ‘dry and withered.’ I think that says it. See the pictures. Like I said.
My heart has always sung and hummed in wastelands. Nature’s wastelands, not Man’s. His wastelands piss me off and make me, on some darker days, long for Nature to shrug us off. Restore the world to its pre-mountaintop removal, pre-Great Pacific Garbage Patch, pre-poisoned water days. But enough of that. The point of Fishtrap, or one of them — a core point of this writers’ community to which I head in the Wallowa Mountains of Chief Joseph’s people — is to aid the earth, to work with what we have right now. To describe the life you live upon and in it. To wake up to who you are — and where. I have children, maybe you do, too, or care about some kids you know. So, I’d rather the earth on which they live, when they are 55, like I am now, would have some grandeur and some glory left.
For surely, there is grandeur and not a little bit of glory in the hills and plains of Oregon, to which I come. I wonder at how much water, how much thirsty drinking, this land must demand, to keep these fields of green alive in what is otherwise its dry and stony places. A million sprinklers douse the land, left and right, and turn the brown to green. A novice visitor, who hopes to return, I think the politics of water must be fierce and contentious here, no doubt. I come from West Virginia, blessed with a rich capillary network of streams and creeks and rivers. In truth, perhaps, its wetness is one of the Mountain State’s most precious treasures. Next to its oceanic hills, its forests and its cursed coal and gas reserves, which give so many corporate titans — feeding, let’s be honest, our own vast electric appetites — the shareholder resolve to maul the hills, fracture the very land on which we stand and run off with the riches. With maybe a nice martini afterwards to celebrate.
“Do your own best writing and tell the story only you can tell.”
~ Kim Stafford, Fishtrap co-founder
So. Here is my destination. I am agog. For it is July and way back home, one-third a continent away, you’d never see a snowy mountain this time of year. “It can snow twelve months a year here,” says the sweet grandma clerk in a gift shop on main street in downtown Joseph, Oregon. The Wallowa Mountains hover to the right over the town in the hazy distance, streaked and painted with high snows. I long to stand upon a ridgeline way up there and look down, maybe toss a snowball. Then, retreat into a solitary hut with fire and strong coffee waiting.
Onward, to Lake Wallowa, past the stone-arch entrance to the tomb of Old Chief Joseph, who may or may not be there: “This country holds your father’s body,” said the old chief to his son, little Joseph, who would replace him as the chief and whose people called him Heinmot Tooyalakekt, meaning ‘Thunder Traveling to Loftier Mountain Heights.’ The old Chief went on: “Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.” Two people tell me, no, the Nez Perce fooled the white man. The bones, they are not there, they are in a secret place. Another says that, no, the bones are there, that’s just a fable. Whatever is the case, the bones of the mountains are still there, ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce. And they are captivating to the eye, the heart. They cannot be looked at enough.
Each morning, each night at the Methodist camp where the Fishtrap writer’s workshop occurs, you’ll find me just standing there, looking. Up. For my friends in West Virginia, here is a visual exercise to paint the camp’s visual geography. Imagine you are standing, looking up at Seneca Rocks to your right, stunning Seneca. Now, on your other side — to your left — place an exact copy of those cliffs. Same high stony cliffs ascending half the available sky (but with a lot more pines). Put between these two Senecas a narrow divide, a small village of yurt-like cabins and meeting halls. And a greensward filled with weirdly tame deer, come to chew the clover constantly. There you’ll have a sense of Fishtrap’s homeland with a glorious, chortling, hurtling river running through it. Oh, and the air smells sweet as molasses. Some native, please correct me if I’m wrong. But it seems to be the aroma of the resin of the many pines — or the tamarack, too? — that carpet the enfolding hills.
“I am an artist.
And some days
it is not
~ The Cardinal of Crowes
I’ve come to Fishtrap bone-tired with the percentages of my working life. I’ve spent a decade or more evangelizing the transition to multimedia writing and reporting. Which means, I wrestle constantly with the technological as a video feature producer. I’ve torn out hair, banged my forehead so it looks bruised like a penitent’s incessant prostrations, tattooing his ever-bowing head to floor. Only curses, not prayers, are what I utter. Ask me about video codexes — no, don’t. I am sick to death of them, waiting on deadline or well after, for the damn video to process, then upload, so I can link it to the website and go home. I work a 12-hour day uploading a video I think is pretty cool and weeks later it has 62 views on YouTube. I arrive at Fishtrap as my newspaper’s all-time video hit leader racks up our highest-ever count. It is my ambient video portrait of Tiger Woods, playing his first-ever round of golf in the hills of West Virginia. Last I checked? Let’s see: 2,002 views. Which, I tell you, is a veritable best-seller in the small-bore newspaper video world I inhabit. But it’s not so much the monstrous effort for the limited reward of viewership. Video is an art and skill like anything else and I am not bad at it. It’s that I spend so much of my time waiting on machines. And watching spinning balls-of-upload-death go round and round. And waiting for the viewers to come and be swayed, informed and moved by what we doyenes of video are trying to do.
I could be writing. Have I lost a decade to my absent Muses? I have come to re-set the percentages, torque down the technology. To ratchet up the paragraphs. To sleep around with more verbs. To flirt with nouns. My first, best lover: words. We used to make out on the couch all the time. Alright, enough of that. What I mean to say is that I want to go back to where the words are precious and the point. Where people make them, craft them, care for them and set them loose into the world to grow.
And I hear Fishtrap is the Rivendell of words.
“We show the Spirit of Writing we are available.”
~ Luis Alberto Urea
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
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