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Lines of Thinking - August 2018: Poems about Remembering and Forgetting

“Lines of Thinking" is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley.

August, 2018.

A six-and-a-half hour drive through and beyond the Columbia River Gorge takes you to the picturesque town of Joseph, Oregon. Sitting at the edge of Eagle Cap Wilderness, snow-clad even through most summers, Joseph is named for the Nez Percé leader Hun-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Chief Joseph. The treatment of the Nez Percé and Chief Joseph are an all too familiar story of betrayal by the state and federal governments. In the words of Chief Joseph:

“It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises…It does not require many words to speak the truth.”

The American poet William Stafford underscored this hypocrisy sharply in a poem written in the mid 1950s.

In the Oregon Country

From old Fort Walla Walla and the Klickitats
to Umpqua near Port Orford, stinking fish tribes
massacred our founders, the thieving whites.

Chief Rotten Belly slew them at a feast;
Kamiakin riles the Snakes and Yakimas;
all spurted arrows from the Cascades west.

Those tribes became debris upon our lands;
Captain Jack’s wide face above the rope,
his Modoc women dead with twitching hands.

The last and most splendid, Nez Perce
Chief Joseph, pony-tough, armed through Idaho
fluttering eagles almost got away.

They got him. Repeating rifles bored at his head;
in one fell look Chief Joseph saw the game
out of that spiral mirror all explode.

Back of the Northwest map their country goes,
mountains yielding and hiding fold on fold,
gorged with yew trees that were good for bows.

If you head east from Joseph along Route 350 and then follow the highway south and then northeast along the Sheep Creeks, you’ll descend for 35 miles into a narrow canyon and eventually come to the postage stamp town of Imnaha and a most beautiful river by the same name. Imnaha the town is only a few buildings (although they include a post office). More significantly, it is an access point into the Hells Canyon Wilderness Area.

In winter, because the temperatures were warmer in the canyon, bands of Nez Percé would decamp to spots along the Imnaha, where a bounty of fish and game were to be found. At night ,canyon walls and mountains open to a sky scene so thick and bright with stars that it makes you wonder if your glasses are somehow smeared, until you realize you are not wearing glasses.

The Imnaha, and other rivers whose origins are snowmelt from the Eagle Cap, flows north into the Snake River, which empties into the powerhouse Columbia and then flows inexorably on to the Pacific. For some reason, I am always caught off guard by the idea of rivers flowing north and even more so by the yearly miracle of migrating salmon persisting in perilous journeys past predators, fisherman, dams, and then on up countless small rivers, past more dams, and into streams to unerringly find their original spawning places. Of course, staggering feats of will are to be found everywhere in Salmon Nation, the Imnaha included. It is part of an ancient and continuing confluence of forces that shape natural systems, which humans strive to grasp and capture as part of their livelihoods and cultures. Hence, Maya Lin’s monumental series of site specific installations along the Columbia River, titled “Confluence;” and more toward the written word, the annual conference in nearby Enterprise, Oregon, known as Fishtrap.

You pass through Enterprise on the way to Joseph and Imnaha; and if and when you do, make time to visit the remarkable bookstore called The Bookloft. While the Fishtrap conference had just ended, the store still had a good supply of collections from writers who spoke and led workshops this year, including my friend the poet Kim Stafford, William Stafford’s son. In a small collection, The Right to be Forgotten, Kim offers this wonderful poem by the same title.

The Right to Be Forgotten

Among many forms of wealth
in the catalog of luxuries, I choose
a quiet morning such as this
and the right to be forgotten –
as the foxglove footed among stones
beside the rivulet without a name
that steps deliberately down
from rain toward the rumor
of the sea. Rare privilege this
frame of the butterfly, wings
like flames, all flit and scamper
by whim of the spiral tongue
seeking what is sweet and free.

Driving back towards the Gorge, we stop at a Nez Percé gathering in Enterprise that is open to the public, featuring traditional dancing and music, beautifully crafted objects, and generous offerings of salmon and elk as the centerpiece to gracious potluck lunches and suppers.

The open, heart-full hospitality runs as clear as the Imnaha and is all the more unforgettable given the histories that must not be forgotten.

“Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.