Oregon Patriot in Tough Times

This essay by Kim Stafford ’71, MA ’73, PhD ’79, is the second installment of Oregon Quarterly’s Boyd-Frohnmayer Writers Series. A gift from former UO president William Boyd in honor of former UO president Dave Frohnmayer makes it possible for Oregon Quarterly to hire exceptional writers to cover topics vital to the University and the state. In the Autumn 1992 issue of Old Oregon, as this magazine used to be called, Frohnmayer addressed a difficult period in Oregon’s history from a political point of view in his essay “The New Tribalism.” Almost twenty years later, Stafford continues that conversation from a more cultural perspective during another trying period for our region, calling on his lifetime of immersion in the Oregon Country “we all love.”

Stafford is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College, and author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft.

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What does it mean to be a patriot of a place—not a nation, not a cause, but a place? What does it mean to be a patriot of Sisters, Jacksonville, Imnaha, Mosier? What does it mean to be a true citizen of a river threading an old path through the Coast Range, a swale somewhere in the valley of the Rogue, the Umpqua, or the Willamette, or patriot of a nameless place in open desert country east from Glass Butte, where sage twitches in the wind and you hear your heart tapping softly like a small animal inside you?

And if you are a patriot of a place, how big is your home? Is it a bend in the river . . . the whole river . . . the watershed where that river forms a part?

My place of origin is not a hospital, not the house where my family lived when I was born. Maybe my beginning was those places, but my place has become Oregon. For Oregon is the place where I “caught sense,” as a friend’s grandmother put it—the place where I woke up to who I am and what I am about. This “catching sense” in and about a home for one’s loyalty can happen to a native like me, or to someone who arrives and awakens here to a full sense of Oregon citizenship. The native and the immigrant can say together, “This is how we do things here.”

I once learned a story from a Yakama basket-maker about the round ball of lead that served as a doorstop of her childhood home on the reservation. This fist-sized lead ball they would kick aside in winter, when the door stayed shut, then roll into place in summer to prop the door ajar and let in the wind. One day my friend asked her mother, “What is this ball, with the little loop of chain on one side?” “Oh,” the mother said, “you know, when your grandmother, my mother, was young, about eight years old, they took our people away from Nch’i-Wana, the Columbia. We had to go live on the reservation. But my mother, this little girl, kept running away, trying to get back to the river. She would go at night, and they would have to go find her, and bring her back again to the reservation. Finally, they put this lead ball onto her ankle with a chain so she could not go. And still she tried to go.”

Then, my friend said, she could see the doorstop for what it was: an obstacle to a way of life. Denial of citizenship at the place of origin.

An Oregon patriot is someone who keeps coming back to what this place is, was, could be, should be, will be—like the child by night, running toward the sacred land, the moving water, home. Every salmon is trying to go back to that place. Every salmon is a patriot of a place, willing to die to get there. When I crouch down at that pool below the dam at Eagle Creek, up the Gorge, where the wall of concrete stops the salmon from going home, what do I learn about my chance, our chance, our imperative as Oregon? The salmon swivel in the pool there, just deep enough to go blue where they hunker low, then bolt in frenzy, the females rolling on their sides to fan the gravel open for a redd to hold the future. The last, difficult, perfect act of the patriot.

Things are tough these days—in the world, in our nation, and here in Oregon. Many children are hungry. Many grandparents raise the little ones, for a part of the generation in between is absent at distant wars, or hijacked from this life by drugs or despair, or pulled into jobs that do not feed their spirit work. We all struggle. What shall we do with the particular hardships of our time? I am instructed in this matter by an old song called “The Alsea Girls.” Probably composed sometime in the nineteenth century at the remote community of Alsea, in the Oregon Coast Range, this song brags about hard life. No whining, no complaining—straight lyric brag. It can’t have been easy then—isolated, muddy, cold, with winter a long aisle of rain through dim skies. As an old pioneer told me once, “Salt salmon and potatoes, three times a day, every day, all winter long.” Yet out of this privation, comes a song:

Come, girls, come—listen to my noise.
Don’t you marry those Oregon boys.
If you do, your fortune it’ll be:
Johnny cakes and venison is all you’ll see.

They’ll take you to a side-hewed wall 
Without any windows in it at all—
Sandstone chimney and a puncheon floor, 
Clapboard roof and a button door.

The song goes on to describe milking into a gourd, straining clots from your cream across a board, and going hungry until you rake away the ashes and heave a “great big hunk of old sourdough” onto the hearth to bake. In the world of this song, you are a patriot of an Oregon way of life, because that is your destiny, as forged by the fire-welded connection between who you are and where you are, no matter how tough it gets.

If we want to so sing our troubles, it seems to me, there are three ways one might be an Oregon patriot. First, we can be loyal to what Oregon once was. We can look backward to identify who we are supposed to be. We can yearn for the understanding of precontact First People, or of those pioneers sweeping into Oregon. Second, we can be loyal to what we are now. We can look around, and struggle to maintain what is, or those parts of what we value that we can salvage with diminishing resources. Or third, we can be loyal to what is coming, what we are creating, what we can be in this place if we attend to the Oregon future with clarity and devotion.

While we honor the first two, of course, I believe the third will best reward our loyalty. We grope our way toward the world we cannot see, because it is just beginning to unfurl in the imaginations of our young.

In the face of this predicament, I have been forced to live by a proverb as I grow older: “Ignorance is a form of youth perennially available.” When you don’t know how things will turn out, you can only lean forward with the eagerness of a naïve child, hungry for what is about to happen. When you try to learn a new kind of music, a new skill, a language, you are suddenly made young in the presence of surprise. This is how I felt one summer in Wallowa County when the Nez Perce elder Horace Axtell set out to teach us some Nez Perce words.

“If you want to learn to speak Nez Perce,” he said, “just listen to the birds. They’re all speaking Nez Perce. They say their own names in Nez Perce. They like speaking this language so much, they say their names over and over, so you can learn them. These teachers are not in a hurry. They have all day for you.”

And I thought: If the new learning is actually a way of listening for the first time to something very old, then we have a chance. Schooled by this beginning, what are the signals an Oregon patriot can read? At this crossroads for our Oregon, what are the signs? “Congestion.” “School Xing.” “Bump.” “Slow.” Rambling a single dirt track southeast of Bend one summer, I came across a sun-whittled sign with one arm pointing north through the sage for “The Dalles” and the other pointing south along the twin dirt ruts for “San Francisco.” Those destinations seemed a tissue of legend to me, and the dusty place I stood the center of the world.

The sign that talks to me today stands under old alders where Savage Road meets the Salmon River Estuary at Cascade Head: “Road Ends 300 Ft.” What makes me love that so: Road Ends. What are our options when the road ends? The options that occur to me: go back the way you’ve come, settle down, or set out walking.

The new Oregon trail will lead us to the future on foot, a trail threading through our trials in close contact with the place that has chosen us. As we step lightly along, Oregon will transform who we are.

The song they taught me in grade four, at Forest Hills Elementary, has transformed in my mind. We sang “Blest by the blood of martyrs,” and Miss Miller taught us these unfortunates were the Whitmans, Marcus and Narcissa, killed by Indians and somehow key to the creation of Oregon. But now I see it was the native people who were martyrs to the true identity of the Oregon land. They, like the Whitmans, died believing in a way of life. Now, by “listening to the future,” we will design ways to be here that are as different from now as the modern is different from first ways. Informed by the past, formed by the present, we listen for the future, leaning forward, ready to adapt in the matrix of Oregon.

Carl Jung said the ultimate fate of Americans would be this: You will become the Indians of your place. The idea, as I understand it, is that we will eventually be shaped by the place we are, and by this process consider the place a close relation and so care for this connection as if we belonged.

When I was a student at the University of Oregon, it was my custom in times of confusion (there were many) to repair to the Pioneer Cemetery between the School of Music and McArthur Court, to commune with the gravestones of the departed and seek new direction for my life. My favorite there was the gravestone of a mysterious stranger named Nathaniel Wheat. Wheat must die to live, I thought, must fall to rise, must go down into darkness to be saved. So I would go for a time down into my difficulty, sitting on a cold stone, wondering. And somehow when I stood to return to study, I was renewed, and sauntered the leaf-strewn path with a light step, having traveled for a time with Nathaniel to the end of ambition and beyond. I had begun to catch sense. And when I graduated (twelve years later), I went forth to roam the larger campus of the state. Now I am forty years beyond those musings in the graveyard. But still I find that the end of the easy road is threshold to the future.

When I look at the history of Oregon, and then at the political, economic, and environmental challenges that face us, I’m reminded of something I learned from a young Buddhist in Bhutan last winter. He explained to me that those “who are not yet awake” may view the past as a series of errors, and the future as a series of punishments for these errors. The destiny of such a person is to suffer, inescapably, for past sins, and this person cannot enjoy the present moment, cannot feel any sense of freedom or initiative. One who is awakened, however, who sees things as they truly are, will view the past as destiny (I had to do these things to become who I am), and the future as freedom (knowing who I am, I can choose what I will do). The destiny of such a person is to make courageous decisions based on self-awareness, and on a study of the world as it is.

In a sense, this view coincides with something my father used to say: “The greatest ownership of all is to look around and understand.” And I think this perspective has relevance for the way people look at the history of their state. We can view our past as a series of missteps for which we now have to pay. Or we can see how our history shaped our character, and move into the future with complete freedom to do exactly what it takes to become the state we want to be.

Maybe one chooses home by this feeling—you look around, and understand, or long to understand, devote your life to understanding a place, a people, a history, a future. I have tried living other places. Good jobs have taken me to California, Idaho, Alaska, New York, Missouri, Texas. But I keep coming back, sometimes limping back, without a job or serious prospects, but with a salmon’s deep homing instinct that can’t be brushed aside by anything so frivolous as practicality. I remember one particular return—from teaching for a year at the University of California at Davis—stepping from the car at around 2:00 a.m. somewhere south of Wolf Creek, and feeling my foot first touch the soft duff of the Oregon land. Gratitude flooded my body like rain.

So to be a patriot of place is not a choice, a decision, the act of a practical mind. This choice is the helpless, blind, instinctive predicament for someone tugged by instinct, caught by identity’s tether, bedded by a lover big as weather and young as April pussy willow rampant with caress. Oregon feeds you sage, slakes your mind with rain, thunders percussive rivers through your dreams, and demands something of you audacious in its simplicity: take care of where you are and those here with you.

All this happens by a slight turn from the prevailing habits of our time. My friend Steve, who years ago worked as a coeditor of Rain magazine, tells me in the 1970s young people from all over wrote to the staff to announce, “I’m moving to Oregon, I’ve heard such good things.” Steve and his fellows first wrote back saying, “Well, it’s not that great. We cut our forests, pollute our rivers, have cities, struggle to agree. . . .” But at a certain point, Steve says, they looked at each other, and said, “What are we doing? These creative and idealistic people want to come here. That can’t hurt. Let’s tell them it’s paradise, and if enough of them arrive, maybe it will become such a place!”

That decision is an ongoing experiment in our time. We are the inheritors, and the stewards, of what resulted from this intermittently fictional welcome. Our chance is identified by a proverb I once heard spoken in Scotland: “Live as if in the first days of a new nation.” We have a chance here to live in these first days. A student once told me that composing music requires “listening to the future.” Being a patriot of place, I believe, requires the same. We are called to lean forward in humility, and listen to what is trying to happen in this place. Schooled to brace ourselves for “The Big One” in seismic terms, we are also called to be ready for significant change in cultural terms. It has long seemed to me that if the problems of our time are economic, political, and environmental, the solutions are cultural. Solutions require a humane touch with facts, science, tough economic times, the old knot of politics, and the trump cards of weather and climate that are bigger than us, but intersect with us. The solutions are not about numbers, but about listening to numbers in insightful ways; not about political reactions, but about listening eloquently—to those who disagree—in search of common ground. The solutions are not about polarizing battles over Earth’s bounty here, but about listening to what our children want this place to be.

Years ago, we created a museum exhibit of Oregon folk art called Webfoots and Bunchgrassers, by way of honoring creative citizens on the wet and dry sides of the state. After the show had run its course, I traveled with a friend to return the treasures of the exhibition to their makers. We had artifacts whittled, welded, painted, braided, stamped, and sewn from all over Oregon, and our returning journey took us to far corners of paradise. We dropped off a hand-tooled saddle in Pendleton, a quilt in Wallowa County, a rodeo buckle of bright silver in Suplee, and a throne-chair welded of fifty horseshoes in Burns. The beauty of these works had taken them to Washington, D.C., and from there to Morocco (where the rodeo tack was a hit with the camel herders). Unwrapping these wonders on porches and in living rooms across Oregon, as we returned them to their makers, was a thrill for my hands and eyes. But what struck me most on this journey—no surprise—was the wisdom, skill, and kindness of the Oregon makers.

I remember in particular a conversation in Pendleton with a gentleman named Loren Wood, as I asked about a number of hand-wrought pieces in his shop. I asked the price for a headstall of braided rawhide.

“Local kid made that,” Loren said. “If he keeps at it, he’ll get pretty good. That’s $50.”

I asked about a set of reins in braided horsehair.

“An old fellow from Mexico made that,” he said. “You can see the years of his family’s long learning in that. Those have to go for $200.”

Then I asked about a headstall and reins, long and supple in counted-strand, black-and-white horsehair, stunning in design and finish, deeply friendly to eye and hand.

“I made that,” Loren said. “That took so much time I’m going to have to give it away.”

In that moment I understood true citizenship in a cherished place. You have work and earn pay. But then something takes you deeper, and simple forms of accounting fall away. It’s about being accountable for something that can’t be counted: your family, your craft, your belief, and your place on Earth. All you can do with such treasure is to give and give away.

That’s how one becomes an Oregon patriot. That’s how you know you will be here for the duration, you will become part of what “here” is about. That’s what the student knew when I asked, in a little school on the Oregon Coast, “How many of you will live here all your life?” A wispy girl in grade three raised her hand.

“Because in the morning I go down to the lake, and there’s mist, and the air is all soft, and I want to be like that all my life.”

Somewhere in the forest a tree is weaving a nest for a bird. Somewhere in the city, or in an Oregon village, or at the end of a road the future is weaving a place for you.

In October I was to give a talk to a gathering of surgeons meeting in the Gorge. Their topics were dire: an alarming suicide rate among top doctors who felt they had failed when they lost a patient, when they could not accomplish the final miracle, when ninety-nine lived but one did not. As remedies, the doctors spoke of meditation, yoga. They had a virtuoso play Chopin. One played a drum to give rhythm to his words. They shared poems, eulogies, powerful silences.

The task of healing involved life and death. The remedy involved great skill with the hand, great knowledge in the mind, deft teamwork—and also healing words and spirit songs for those who did the most difficult work. Deep dedication and long odds for certain procedures made the surgeon’s life almost impossible—almost. How could we help each other to keep on? What is the diagnosis for a generation under siege? What prescription can we give one another in these tough times?

As I drove downriver from the conference of wounded healers, dusk was gathering over the water of the big river. I knew the salmon were in there, throbbing against the current for home. We had put dams in their path, mercury in their water, silt in the gravel of final streams. But none of this mattered to them now. They had no thought but giving all they had to find their native places.

And I thought of Sophie’s grandmother, as a child with the chain at her ankle, the tug in her heart, staggering through the dark toward what felt like home.

By Kim Stafford