I am a happy outlier in a high Idaho outpost.
My history with dirt begins as a small child on my grandfather’s two acres, walking barefoot into his vegetable garden I pick a beefsteak tomato big as my hand, and bite down. Juice oozes down my chin and that taste, sun warmed sweetness mixed with earthy undertones, is a marker for how I long for the land and find what feeds me.
I am Belfast, N. Ireland born, with rebel, mystic, and stubborn mule hard wired. My early career as a Landscape Architect in Toronto, Ontario, melds a childhood fluent in Latin plant names, an artistic and no fear of dirt under the nails sensibility, with environmental stewardship. After several years of consulting life I retire West in search of a simpler way. As my creative expressions morph from landscapes to motherhood to words, themes of environment, humanity, and earthy spirituality emerge.
Kelowna, British Columbia, is my home of 22 years, coming full circle from the 1940’s when my grandfather spliced apple whips in Grimsby, Ontario, then shipped them to the Okanagan Valley. The agriculturally rich and vital Okanagan landscape is my contentment and inspiration. Although wilderness is here, I borrow wild views and stay on tamed edges where I lose myself in thought without danger of being eaten. Spaces that feed my creative spirit are Okanagan Lake beaches in off season, cut alfalfa fields, apple orchards, cemeteries, greenways, and South East Kelowna rural roads. I find my place here and learn to flourish.
My wildly creative Landscape Architect/land developer spouse challenges me to see how great project design can sometimes warrant uprooting orchards and leveling farmsteads. It’s not easy for me to accept this. I often write poetry as record and witness to what was. I imagine a way of life where we sustain ourselves yet save vernacular and wild beauty, all the while knowing I live a contradiction of railing against what puts bread on my table. This too feeds my creative process.
I have lived most of my adult life in Idaho, and I spend as much time as I can out in the woods and the river canyons. The immensity of Idaho’s wild lands is why I continue to live here. My wife (the writer Kim Barnes) and I spend, on average, a month of nights each summer, camped on one or another of Idaho’s rivers, fly fishing. I love fishing because it’s the only thing I’ve found that’s nearly as difficult, and rewarding, as writing. Since I’m a ways into my sixties, I don’t backpack as often as I used to, but I still get myself into the wilderness for at least one trip each summer. I have heard and twice even seen wolves out there, for which I feel blessed.
I have only lived in central Washington for the past few years yet have felt an affinity with the landscape that surprised me, though in truth it makes perfect sense. As a child, I spent many winter and summer holidays in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and on the plains of southern Kansas, and these landscapes never left me, particularly my love of flowing mountain streams and the changing of the seasons. I was born in Texas, but spent most of my life living near the Pacific Ocean on the central coast of California, between Santa Cruz and the East Bay. I earned a bachelor of arts in English from Mills College in Oakland, and a master of arts in Poetics from New College of California in San Francisco before serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village in Western Ukraine. My experiences in Eastern Europe, in landscapes more akin to central Washington than the California coast, inform much of my art today, so to be back among snow, sunflowers, and koza feels like a homecoming to me. I am cherishing the fields and hills of my new home: mist rising off marshland in autumn; herons watching from cattails and iris; raptors sitting atop craggy trees like sentries guarding a mystical underworld. I still have much to explore in Cascadia and the Pacific Northwest but am grateful to be in, as David McCloskey stated, “a land of falling waters.”
I used to climb a pine tree just to have a quiet place to read, and I looked forward to the Minnesota winters because the snow makes the world so intimately silent: You can hear your heart, see your breath pushed out just in front of yourself, and then walk through it into another breath. Growing up with many siblings and a small house put me on an early path of pursuing silence and privacy, those places where I can hear the rhythms of my mind and feel word shapes take form, build, connect, and become ideas. I need a fair amount of space and quiet for this to happen. Living in the inland northwest at the edge of the Blue Mountains for the past fifteen years has provided plenty of such spaces: rolling Palouse wheat fields, thick forests, scrubland, and a river with its many tributaries. Oh, the river: I grew up in water, and so it has always been a companion that shares a need for both the hidden and the surface flash. I have lived too many very different places to say with any kind of authority where I am from (Wichita, Kansas; Boston, Massachusetts; southern Oregon, China, etc . . .). But I know what I am from: Lynch Lake, Mill Creek, apple and oak and pine trees, granite and basalt, and grasses . . . . I believe I can claim the what of place more than the where, making my homes among those things where there is potential for recognition of a mutual residence within.
Even natives complain of the Oregon rain. Not me. The low gray sky, the sifting drizzle. I get a sense of enclosure, calm, quiet. Along a November trail, the brushy bank of dripping hazelnut and thimbleberry thrums with drowsy satisfaction. The streets of downtown Portland reflect puddled light from welcoming shops. Frogs sing in the weeds with all their little green hearts. Golf course coyote regards me urbanely over her dewy shoulder. Beyond her, the firs recede into a pewter mist. Raised in the hot, dry sun of Northern California, I have converted to a better, wet religion.
I spent my entire childhood in Idaho traipsing through the Sawtooth Mountains and the Bruneau Desert with my family. My family also spent summers commercial fishing in Alaska, which meant my sister and I were allowed to explore with more freedom than we would at home. Sometimes we would find ourselves a few miles away from our island camp, narrowly escaping the rising tide.
After graduating from Boise State University, I moved to Montana and began working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. From my childhood, I felt very connected to the landscape around me. After spending time at a remote fire lookout where my only companions were the landscape and the sky, I now feel connected to the land as though it is my closest friend. In times when I was hiking alone in the wilderness, or almost walked off a cliff in the fog, or saw a grizzly bear a little too close, I was not afraid of the land around me; I trusted it to take care of me, or at least know my place in it, large or small, safe or not.
I did a lot of traveling in my thirties, when I was making good money and had good cat sitters. And I discovered an interesting thing: I loved pretty much every place I visited. I could see myself living almost anywhere—southern Indiana, the Ozarks, Berlin, Christchurch, Nairobi, Austin.
So I guess it’s no surprise that I love the Northwest, my home for the past ten years. I am gaga over the San Juan Islands, McKenzie Pass feels like my own personal lava bed, and I dream about Warm Springs’ strange rockpile fenceposts and the frogs singing in La Conner. I am from a family of transplants, itinerate ranch hands and train conductors and builders whose only constant was constant moving. Having grown up on two coasts and the Rockies, I always struggle with the concept of “home.” But I know what it is to love a place.
This time of year, Ashland, Oregon, makes its quick-change from summer to winter, the dry Cascade foothills to the north readying for snow and the steep, green Siskiyous to the south pulling what rain they can get into their deep carpet. And Ashland always in between, sun-snow-sun-snow-sun.
I just recently returned from a trip to Japan and, before that, France. A combination of both work and pleasure or, in the case of being the artist that I am, “pleasurable work.” I love the fact that I can work anytime, anywhere. Inspiration comes to me from my surroundings. I don’t sit and wait, though, for it to come; I prefer to chase after it with blinding faith and my box of colours.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, a city girl with a backyard that hosted beautiful cedar trees. I lived with those cedar trees for twenty-three years before I moved to a new life living on farms with horses and wonderful green fields that went on forever. Growing up, there were always two things that I was very sure about: my passion for art-making and horses. I knew I was very fortunate to know what I wanted to do with my life at a very young age. The voice in my head would always say “paint, just paint.” It still does.
My work has led me in many different directions over the years—from subject matter to painting techniques—always challenging, whether it be landscapes or figurative work. Collaborating with various organizations and having them involved with my art shows is always a welcome experience. Working with “WOLF: Watchers of Langley Forests” and collaborating with twelve poets for my “Written in the Forest” show achieved results that were certainly hoped for: a small group of determined people, a big idea and a box of colours.
“Written in the Forest” came to me when I joined in a call for public support through poet Susan McCaslin inviting artists, poets and musicians to help bring an awareness to save twenty-five acres of mature coniferous and deciduous old trees in Glen Valley just outside Fort Langley, British Columbia. More than two hundred poets contributed to the Han Shan Poetry Initiative to raise awareness about the forest. In December 2012, poems inspired by Han Han, an ancient Chinese poet who suspended his poems from trees, were hung in the trees in Glen Valley for several months. I was so inspired by what I experienced watching and listening to the poets that I approached Susan McCaslin and asked if she could help me select twelve poets and invite them to be part of my next art exhibition. I selected phrases from each poem to express how I felt while painting impressions of McLellan Forest East and West.
I often ran barefoot through Michigan woodlands as I was growing up. I climbed trees, leapt over fallen trunks, and sludged through swamps. I learned to swim very young, so I easily forded rivers and swam across large lakes. My Aunt Dee and Uncle John instilled in me reverence for nature and respect for the land. They also taught me how to hunt, trap, and fish—but only for sustenance, not for sport. As an adult, after randomly wandering the globe and vocationing myself in numerous noble and not-so-noble positions, I found myself in South America, ranching and farming. I always ensured that a respectable portion of the land was kept fallow as a refuge for the local flora and fauna—equally as a morale obligation to the earth’s environment and its populace.
Currently, I live, work, and write in Washington State and have called it home since I moved here at twelve years old. My connection to the natural realm and climactic nuances of this area in the south Sound is a constant source for inspiration and poetry. The ever-present rain; the locality and accessibility of the Puget Sound; the epic, oceanic beachheads; the damp, lush landscapes; and green, rustic foliage are a constant mirroring of my own meandering poet’s mind and my observant, deep, and concerned moods that change like the weather. For me, living in Washington is like looking into a lake every day. You see yourself reflected back, but it’s always through the fluid, changing water.