As it appears in the Winter 2012 edition of Clover: A Literary Rag.
Quelcid, S’Klallam elder, teaches us to make walking sticks. She beats her deerskin drum and sings: Pick a devil’s club, peeled andcured, that fits your stature. Bone it with a table knife, as my ancestors boned it with a deer’s shoulder blade. Wrap the grip with rawhide. Hang on it amulets of rosehips and beads.
To touch diabolical “devil’s clubs,” Oplopanax horridum causes me to shudder. With each stroke of the table knife, I remember horse-logging with Dad and my brother Jim on the back of our place in the Upper Skagit River Valley. I remember “swamping out” trails through devil’s club and vine maple before each tree was felled, and whacking out horse trails to drag the logs out to the truck.
I remember Jim bending the green devil’sclub stem, then letting go as I swung my ax. Up it would spring, slapping thorns into each of us, driving them through our worn-out gloves. Always, as we were pulling thorns out of our hands, dad and the team would show up, impatient and disgusted at his teenage helpers.From Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, indigenous people have for centuries, burnt, carved, ground, mixed, painted, plastered, rubbed, steamed, tattooed, and infused roots, stems, inner bark, and berries of this genus of ginseng, sometimes with thistles, black hawthorn, prince’s pine, cascara, and bear grease, for medicine, magic, and fishing lures.
And now to the beat of her drum, Quelcid sings: Take your walking stick. Go quietly through shadowy thickets to the river’s edge. Listen for its inner spirit speaking to a shaman, his face painted with bear grease and ash. Evil spirits know the magic, they will sneak away.
on the upper Skagit River, a Wild and Scenic River
Richard Lee “Dick” Harris
You surmised correctly. I am a poet of place, grounded in the Upper Skagit River Valley in the Cascade Mountains of Northwest Washington State who appreciates the grandeur of nature. I did enjoy fishing and owned a boat—an aluminum canoe with a quarter-horse electric trolling motor. Two years at Boy Scout camp and still I could only swim a few strokes. The boys who taunted me pulled me from a river backwater as I was drowning.
As you interact with my words you will learn that my growing up in log cabins without electricity, indoor plumbing, or running water, in an isolated culture of backwoods loggers and Native Americans in the Upper Skagit River Valley shaped my perceptions and language; and from this valley, I wandered through much of the world observing the significance and uniqueness of ordinary experiences, their relationship to the natural world, and clash of cultures.
Born in ice melts and trickling creeks, the Skagit River rushes through gorges, faults, breached ice age moraines and magma, growing in voice and spirit as it flows to the Sound. Raven, salmon, eagles and The-People-of-The-River were one in word and spirit before Chechacos, King-George-People, and their books, sought to make The-River their own.
With magnanimity, The-River has borne the evils of their ditches, dikes, and dams. When leaves rustle golden, it calls Wind-Spirit and Rain-Spirit to return Valley-Spirit; and when creeks quicken and fawns drop, it calls Shaman Spirit to awaken from dreaming-sleep and restore the The-Valley to days before the world changed.
In the season of advent, in the days of long nights, storms sweep our valley with moisture laden clouds streaming fog and mist over sandbars and sloughs and lifting their disgorged masses over the North Cascades. Eroded windfalls and flotsam careen and crash in the river’s turbulence. Leafless cottonwoods and shallow-rooted hemlocks torn from saturated earth and duff-laden sponge dive and bob in undulating arrhythmia. Roots skeletonized into filigreed tendrils spew frothy wakes of dirt and rocks.
These storms happened when The-People-of-the-River spoke many tongues and the river ran both ways. And, they will happen again.
This River Sings
Snow, avalanche, and scree;
creeks, ponds, and seeps,
collect in reverberating rush,
cascade in mountain pools,
eddies glazed undercurrents.
Mosquitoes and deerflies,
survive winter’s minus.
Spring, tempered and wet,
its creeks quicken and swirl.
Tawny duff and flecks of sun
conceal newly dropped fawns.
Eagle, salmon, and raven
sing this river’s song—
sing as it flows—
This river sings as it
sprays cool mist,
splashes rocks with
Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,
maples in baritone,
as softly this river sings
through mist and fog.
Softly, its spirits sing
of a mountain’s ashes
rising in evening drafts.
Wild and free, this river sings.
Chak-Chak, the Skagit Bald Eagle
Perched in an old-growth forest,
Chak-Chak rouses. In morning light,
Scans the river with piercing eyes,
Searches sandy bars for dying chum.
Chak-Chak breaks silence,
Soars from Sauk Mountain,
Drifts Washington Eddy;
Glides the river’s course.
Chak-Chak skims shimmering water,
Clutches a floundering salmon,
Settles on a backwash beach,
Feeds on his catch.
Perched in barren cottonwoods,
On the south bank where the wild Skagit bends,
Chak-Chak, in stoic dignity,
Basks in warm afternoon sun.
Chak-Chak calls his mate.
Wings extended, talons interlocked
In descending flight, they tumble,
Somersaulting earthward, breaking skyward.
Before evening shadows deepen,
Purple hues of dusk chase the day.
Chak-Chak catches an ascending draft
To his nightly roost—and slips away.
Insensitive that I can’t swim
or my parents’ orders,
my peers taunt me,
“Damn it, chicken shit.
With adolescent derring-do,
they defy undercurrents
to swim eddies.
I look down in humility,
count pebbles in the gravel
and dream of elsewhere.
I drive into the North Cascades following scenic Skagit River past civilization’s blight to celebrate its wildness. I gaze in awe this fleeting moment at snowy ridges and glacial slopes, alpine lakes and hanging valleys, traces of ice from eons ago. I see barren hills stripped of hemlock, cedar and fir, dammed rivers, meadows without life, mountains raped for gold.
Others, too, have seen this blind greed and wanton scarring, destroying the spirit of this beloved land.
Eagle Feathers and Rainbow
Looking at you now, Imogene, in your
cradle of lasting years, I see you in
our picture on the steps of Rockport School,
two rooms at the foot of your family’s
sacred mountain by the river of your
tribe, so many years ago. You are
the pumpkin-faced first grader wearing
a simple wash-dress in the first row,
so sober under your freshly combed hair
and new barrette, Imogene. I’m a second-
grader behind you, all frowns and ears sticking
out, my hair slicked-down. I loved your name,
Imogene … Imogene. You see,
I still sing it. In minutes now, elders
will carry you away, to lower you
into an earthly bed under boughs of
cedar and snow on your sacred
mountain. As darkness hovers, Imogene,
your spirit will rise, an eagle passing
through a rainbow above the river.
Quelcid, Native American elder, teaches us to make
walking sticks. She beats her deerskin drum and sings: Pick a devil’s club, peeled andcured, that fits your stature. Bone it with a table knife, as my ancestors boned it with a deer’s shoulder blade. Wrap the grip with rawhide. Hang on it amulets of rosehips and beads.
To touch diabolical “devil’s clubs,” Oplopanax horridum causes me to shudder. With each stroke of the table knife, I remember horse-logging with Dad and my brother Jim on the back of our place. I remember “swamping out” trails through devil’s club and vine maple before each tree was felled, and whacking out horse trails to drag the logs out to the truck.
I remember Jim bending the green stem, then letting go as I swung my ax. Up it would spring, slapping thorns into each of us, driving them through our worn-out gloves. Always, as we were pulling thorns out of our hands, dad and the team would show up, impatient and disgusted at his teenage helpers.From Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, indigenous people have for centuries, burnt, carved, ground, mixed, painted, plastered, rubbed, steamed, tattooed, and infused roots, stems, inner bark, and berries of this genus of ginseng, sometimes with thistles, black hawthorn, prince’s pine, cascara, and bear grease, for medicine, magic, and fishing lures.
And now to the beat of her drum, Quelcid sings: Take your walking stick. Go quietly through shadowy thickets to the river’s edge. Listen for its inner spirit speaking to a shaman, his face painted with bear grease and ash. Evil spirits know its magic, they will sneak away.
Decades later, a thousand miles north, I walk along a River Road and the tidelands as the Chilkat River melds into Lynn Canal and the afternoon shadows of the Chilkat Range. I stroll past dandelions in multiple bouquets and remnants of snow in the off ditch decorated with florescent swamp lanterns, my winter coat over my shoulder.
Lunch is freshly caught trout and newly picked beach greens; dessert, spring’s first rhubarb.
Politics are with the crew at the Main Street intersection where the temperature is 57 degrees, Fahrenheit, filling chuckholes and replacing collapsing sewers. God is in the pantheist totem on the path between Mountain Market and the town library celebrating “where they go to learn by themselves.”
Only the eagle sees beyond the glaciers.
Skagit is pronounced SKAJ-it.
“Cheechako paddling shovel-nosed canoe, midstream Skagit River near Rockport ferry crossing” (Cover photo, circa 1920, from family collection).
Cheechako is Chinook Jargon combining Lower Chinook “right away” and Nootka “come” into “new comer.”
“Born in ice melts and trickling ….” See “When the River Ran Both Ways,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).
“In the season of advent, in the days of long nights ….” See “Signs of Winter,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).
“This River Sings” came to mind while I was sitting on the banks of the Skagit River at Rockport waiting for the celebration of life for my brother Marvin L. “Jim” Harris, 1937-2009, to begin. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); Phrasings In Word and Dance 2010 (spoken and dance); Chuckanut Sandstone Review, 2010; www.skagitriverjournal.com.
“Chak-Chak, The Skagit Bald Eagle.” See backstory, Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); p. 20, Concrete Herald, May 2010. Pencil sketch by Helen Harris.
“Eagle Feathers and Rainbow” is dedicated to Imogene Washington Bowen, 1935-2007, elder, Upper Skagit Tribe. Imogene is pronounced ΄Īm-ŭ-‘jēn. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010).
“Quelcid, Native American elder, ….” Photo by Helen Harris.
“Decades later, a thousand miles north, ….” “Chilkat Range in the Morning” photo by RLH.
Collins, June McCormick. Valley of the Spirits: The Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington (1974).
Hilbert, Vi, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound. (1985).
Midstream was drafted in Generating & Editing Poems for Publication, an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop, June 9-15, 2012, led by Richard Jackson, UT Chattanooga.
Remembering the Less Honored
Richard Lee “Dick” Harris
Each Memorial Day we proudly wear our Red Poppies and decorate graves. And, when I attended two-room Rockport, WA, School, we recited, “In Flanders fields where poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row . . .” (John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.”)
With each new Decoration Day, my thoughts turned more and more to the less honored who died in the service of their countries and our remembrance of them. These gradually coalesced into a poem.
As I drafted the poem, three individuals came to mind, giving the poem a face. Foremost, was my great-uncle Mark Harris who grew up in Maple Falls, WA, died in the closing days of World War I, and is buried in Bayview Cemetery, Bellingham, WA. The others are a brother and sister from North Yorkshire, England, who died during World War II, and whose epitaph intrigued me.
I learned about my great-uncle in 1984 when I read my Aunt Belva Harris Poldervart’s newly published book, “On The Move” From Oxcarts to Motor Homes. With this information, his draft registration from Ancestry.com, and The Trail Through The Woods (Frances B. Todd, 1982), I created a picture of Mark.
Harris was born to Lydia Baker Harris and Civil War Veteran Chancy Harris on March 20, 1893, in Bradford, Chickasaw County, Iowa, ninth of 12 children. In 1907, he moved with his widowed mother and six siblings to Maple Falls with a “colony” of destitute Iowa residents recruited by a team of Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad agents to begin a new life in the Pacific Northwest. Their ticket: passage in a boxcar!
On June 5, 1917, when Harris registered for the draft, he was medium height and build, with blue eyes and dark hair, and had a crooked finger on his right hand. He lived at 2226 Franklin Street, Bellingham, with his mother and brother, whose dependency he claimed as grounds for exemption from war. He was employed as a shingle weaver by Holly Shingle Company in Mill Town, Skagit County, WA.
Bivouacked at Camp Vancouver, Washington, during the 1918 flu pandemic, Mark contracted bronchial pneumonia. He died on October 22, 1918, five days after falling ill. He was buried in Bayview Cemetery on October 27, 1918.
It is unlikely today, that those who pass by grave 8, lot 15, section 3, notice the unadorned headstone on, with scarcely enough room for great-uncle Mark’s name and mismarked dates of 1894-1919.
For the last verse of the poem, I chose the epitaph on a plaque in Fountains Hall, a Jacobean mansion now a ruin, in North Yorkshire. It commemorates the lives of Elizabeth Vyner, an 18-year old nurse who died with encephalitis while on active duty in 1942, and her brother Charles, who was missing in air operations off Rangoon, Burma, three years later.
for Mark Harris, 1893-1918
A cloudless sky,
a day filled with spring,
a day to remember those
who lay in common ground,
Fallen without honor,
unseen by us,
whose flags they bore.
As volleys resound in sharp salute
and banners dip to a trumpet’s call,
it is our day to remember
plaques that cling to crumbling walls,
and plead as we pass by:
Tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow,
we gave our today.
“Memorial Day” was originally published as “Memorial Day, 1995” in Tough Guys Don’t Give Up, ed. Mary Hamilton [Gillilan] (Bellingham, WA: SunPorch Productions, 1996). Currently published by the author in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.)
Mary and Andrew
I first learned about my great-grandparents Mary Anderson (1856-1925) and Andrew (Hanson) Vestrem (1856-1938) from my mother’s recollections, an 1895 portrait and several pages in a hand-me-down scrapbook.
Both were born in Hallingdal, a mountain valley in Buskerud County in 1856. The residents of Buskerud County, where agricultural land was scarce, frequently migrated to Vesterålen district, Norderland County, an island and fjord island county above the Arctic Circle, and the cod and herring fisheries. When economic conditions or lack of skills precluded fishing they immigrated to North America, eventually making their way as farm laborers, to north central Iowa. Independently, Mary Anderson and Andrew Vestrem sailed steerage on the same boat in 1875.
They knew each other socially in Hallingdal, met again on the boat and by happenstance, worked off their passage as cowherd and milkmaid on neighboring farms owned by Buskerud immigrants. Records show that they were married in 1876. They lived in Palo Alto County and Estherville, Iowa. Some records show they Mary had 12 pregnancies. Nine children lived into adulthood. Andrew worked as a laborer and carpenter. Both were awarded citizenship in July 1881.
Sometime in 1920, the Vestrems moved from their home in Estherville, Iowa, to live with their youngest daughter Mai and husband Glen Eggleston and their family, first in Worthington, then in Mankato, Minnesota.
During her later years, Mary carried a small bundle of papers with her, no matter where she went. Mom guessed that these were personal papers, quite possibly certificates of baptism, confirmation, naturalization and marriage, including those brought from Norway.
My mother recalled that in June 1925, her mother was too sick to care for Mary. Mai was, herself, ill after a premature birth, and exhausted from caring for a family of six small children and her parents in Mankato, where they had recently moved. (My mother, the oldest, would not be ten until October.) Additionally, Mai did not have family or neighbors nearby for support, as she had in Worthington where they had always lived. Also, Mom’s dad was out of town on his railroad job most of the time.
During my last visit with Mom, then ninety-years-old, she reached into her memory as a nine-year-old and remembered how sad her family was the day the taxi took Great-Grandma Mary to the train to live in Sibley, Iowa with Mary and Andrew’s son George and daughter-in-law Grace.
Although not the dialect spoken in the rural valleys of Norway in the 19th century, I used Norwegian Bokmål for native terms or phrases. These are:
- bygdedans: traditional “village” dances
- datter: daughter
- favel: farewell, good-bye
- hallingdans: rhythmic, acrobatic male solo dances originating in Hallingdal.
- lausdans: “free” dance during which the dancer attempts to kick his hat off a stick held aloft by his partner.
- fra hus til hus: from farmhouse to farmhouse.
- samdans: a slow couples dance
- underdekk: steerage deck, frequently crowded with upwards 450 passengers
- siste dans: last dance
Siste Dans (“Last Dance”)
(In the manner of a Norwegian Visionary Poem
[Draumkvædet] told in the Middle Ages.)
for Mary Anderson Vestrem, 1856-1925 &
Andrew Herman Vestrem, 1856-1938
Hear Great-Grandma Mary’s story
remembered in a portrait and family
scrapbook; how illness and the moment
illuded her, and seven decades were timeless.
Mary was born in Hallingdal
in the mountains of Norway,
the year Andrew was born
in a village nearby.
In their youth, they danced bygdedance.
By steerage, they came to America,
to labor in Iowa for their passage,
marriage, and to rear nine children.
Now old, they live with their datter.
Holding tight her son’s arm,
Mary leans over her datter,
whispers “farvel” in her ear and
kisses the tiny bundle in her arms.
In her other hand, she holds papers
neatly folded, tied with faded ribbon.
Her life she holds in these papers,
to remember when memory is gone.
As straight and tall as pain allows,
Mary clings to her son even more.
Slowly, they shuffle through
an open door into blinding sun.
Andrew standing along the path
with datter’s children, their arms
outstretched, tearfully pleading,
“Grandma, do not go!” are shadowy
silhouettes fading into Mary’s past.
Andrew, his thoughts with Mary,
helping her from her sickbed,
dressing her for this day, reaches
to touch his wife one last time.
Bewildered, she smiles ….
You are best hallingdans,
We applaud your head-spins,
you kick so high! I will hold
your lausdans hat-stick.
Papa was a logger.
He drowned in the rapids
of Hallingdal River.
I must be with mamma,
to go fra hus til hus,
baking farmers’ knäckebröd.
You must go to Vesterålen,
to the arctic islands
and fish. Hallingdal has
no skills, no trades to learn.
I love you, Andrew.
I will dance samdans.
Do not hold me tight
or talk of marriage.
I go with our son.
He will care for me
I hear your voice, Andrew, I know
your dialect. Do not leave me in the
dark of this crowded underdekk.
I dance siste dans with you.