Category Archives: Poet’s childhood

Dreams of Ambrosia

When spring rains cease and school adjourns,
we’ll take an old tin pail and swing it by the bail.
With Peggy-Dog at our heels, we’ll race
through the gate and down the path
to the river bottom pasture, where
cottonwood catkins drift as snow.

We’ll scamper and pick and eat our share
of little wild strawberries, woodland berries,
growing in the sand-covered moss where
beetle-bugs hide, as we dream of baking powder
biscuits piled high with God’s own fruit—
delicate and gritty, smothered in thick new cream.
North Cascade Mountains, Washington

Devil’s Club Walking Stick

Some say that when you find a topic that catches your eye, you will write about it in different ways once, twice, thrice, maybe nine! Here’s one I’ve written as prose and now as poetry. Each time, it is the memory that I wish to convey.

An elder speaks in solemn tones:

In spring when leaves are full
and bark slips away,
select a stalk of devil’s club.

Cut it to fit your grip.

Carefully peel the evil thorns.

For a season, cure the naked staff.           


Use a shoulder blade of a deer,

to bone it smooth and dense.

Wrap your handhold with rawhide,

string amulets of beads and hips.


Quietly, take your walking stick

through the river’s shadowy thickets.

Listen as the inner spirit speaks.

Feel your walking stick’s magic

as the evil spirits steal away.


Winter Chores During WWII

     This is one anecdote in an anecdotal childhood. No overarching meaning or underlying theme, no fatherson conflict, no prepubescence struggle; it is just an incident that if aggregated with those of similar youths, becomes a picture of growing up in the time and place.
     This barn was built be Tom Porter in 1912; the field is the one I crossed to go home when the fences were split cedar posts and barbed wire; and we had an excessive snow storm in Dec.-Jan., 1944-45.

                          Winter Chores During WWII

Six animals in their stanchions. Mangers filled. Freshly bedded. Gutter emptied. Shit-splattered floor scraped clean.

It’s a warm, moist, bovine world in this old barn. Temp will drop to ten tonight.

A pale moon, almost white, rises over Porter Mountain, cast the barn’s long shadow over its yard, down the bank, and onto the field below.

High above Sauk Mountain, Queen Cassiopeia and “Big Bear” dance around North Star.

Snow covers ground. Path through the field packed. Been there a week. No rain. A miracle.. No slush. Splashing girls at school is fun, splashing in the barnyard, not.

When the Skagit is high, the meadow swales in the old river bed pond. When a northeaster blows, enough ice freezes for kids to play. Don’t let Mom or Dad find out, or fall in.

Crystalline droplets glisten on straw poking through crusty snow. Ice settling on swale slopes crack. I’ll follow a fencerow home. I can almost see it from here.

Summer Shower

          
Which form works best: lined or prose?


  
Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft,

dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower

raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes,

collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch,

dropping softly on June roses,

drumming elephantine rhubarb.


If it stops, Dad will call me
to the pasture
to auger holes
for hand-split posts to
replace
those homesteaders planted,

now rotted in the ground,

no longer defending hay meadows

with rusting, sagging, barbed wire.

             South side of the Skagit River

                      Rockport, WA

Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft, dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes, collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch, dropping softly on June roses, drumming elephantine rhubarb.

If it stops, Dad will call me to the pasture to auger holes for hand-split posts replacing those homesteaders planted, now rotted to the ground, no longer defending the hay meadows with rusting, sagging barbed wire.
                                                                               South side of Skagit River
                                                                                             Rockport, WA

Bedtime reading

    My bedtime reading has always been kind of a ritual. Currently, I read a poem, if it is a page or shorter, followed by a couple pages of prose. That is, if I don’t fall asleep first. Right now I am rereading William Stafford’s ‘Even in Quiet Places,’ poems collected from several chapbooks that his son Kim and several associates made after Stafford’s death. I’m particularly attracted to ‘The Methow River Poems.’ For prose, I’m rereading ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the Viet Nam War.
    Both of these writers share my valley, the Upper Skagit, with me. Stafford wrote some of his last poems at the request of two forest rangers as he traveled over the North Cascade Highway; and Wolff is an alumnus of my high school, Concrete HS. Two cautions: He came about 20 years after me and ‘This Boy’s Life’ is a highly imaginative memoir and the movie even more so.
    What is on your bed stand?

‘Earth Day’ on the Upper Skagit River, WA State

               To Celebrate Wilderness 

                    
                    I drive into the North Cascades

following the Skagit

past civilization’s blight

to celebrate its wilderness.

 

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.

 

Traveling this trail of refuse,

I ponder our thoughtless greed.

Will we ever recover that which

                    we have destroyed?

From Rockport Bridge

 

I stand on Rockport Bridge,

this sunlit winter day.

My eyes follow the Skagit

past Washington Eddy

to Eldorado’s glistening ridge.

 

For a fleeting moment, I see

snowy ridges, glacial slopes,

alpine lakes and hanging valleys,

traces of ice from eons ago.

 

Framed by cottonwoods and purple hills,

the road edging Mount Sauk

scribes the river,

gently washing pebbles

beneath a winter sky.

 

Travelers pass me

in eagle search,

skimming the view—

a ferry barge,

a cedar canoe,

our log cabin—

artifacts of my youth.

 

These incidental visitors
will never hear eagles call,
see black bear fish,
trout rise to the fly,
witness stars outshining the night,
all that I see from Rockport Bridge.

In These Years of Reflection


In my childhood,

when cold winds swept the slopes,

I warmed myself by father’s fire

and read of life beyond the river.

 

In my youth, when summer rains

washed the garden and ruined the day,

I did my chores in a myriad of dreams,

leaving the Skagit behind.

 

In my adulthood, when fortune

shunned me, I recalled neighbors

and yesterdays across the river,

memories that renewed me.

 

In these years of reflection,

I return to the valley to hear nature’s melodies
and see ancestral spirits in harmony,
as the wild Skagit tumbles to the sea.

Published in The Storytellers, SunPorch Productions, Bellingham, WA, 1994. [out of print].
Read at
North Cascades NP Earth Day & National Park Week Celebration, Newhalem, WA, 1998; Bald Eagle Interpretive Center (Old Rockport School), 2000 and 2001; Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival, Concrete, WA, 2/4/01; Concrete High School Class of 1951 Reunion, 2001.

Our Silver Fir Tree

A couple days after New Years, we dismantled our Christmas tree, returned it to its box, and shoved the box to the back of a shelf in the garage for another year. Other than my sister’s star, the decorations this year were the pre-strung LED lights.

A week to ten days before Christmas during the years we lived in the O’Connor house, Dad would go into the second-growth timber on our place or surrounding logged-over areas to cut our Christmas tree. If the weather was half-decent, we kids would go with him. Sometimes, he took the car or the truck; otherwise we’d try to keep up with his long strides.

Dad always cut a Pacific Silver Fir, known botanically as an Abies amabilis, that he had seen earlier in the year. He frequently felled a 20-25 foot tall tree to get an 8-9 foot top shaped to his liking. This species was common where the old-growth timber had been logged during the first decade of the 20th century. Their lustrous green flat needles with silvery white undersides stood out among the darker foliages. They dramatically reflected flickering candlelight and flaming fireplace logs.

As time passes and those who remember civilian life during World War II become fewer, I feel compelled to tell the backstory to “Our Silver Fir Tree.”

Just before the war, Mom obtained a dozen candleholders and as many candles. I remember her carefully clipping the holders to the limbs, melting the ends of the candles as she inserted them so they would hold tight. She lit them very few times each year, and then for only a few minutes. She didn’t know when, or if, replacements would be available.

Great care was taken with the placement and security of the lighted candles. One errant flame and the tree would have exploded. The pail of water sitting near the tree would have done little to suppress the exploding the pitch-laden needles and bark before enveloping the cedar log and frame construction of our house. The nearest water was hand-drawn by a pitcher pump from a well, a-quarter-mile away.

My sister, with Mom’s help, cut out a star and covered it with “tin foil,” the vernacular for aluminum foil, when she was six or seven years old. (Where Mom found enough foil, I never asked.)

The lamp was an Aladdin Lamp that burned kerosene, and lit the room with a glowing mantle.

We were under “black-out” orders for fear that Japanese planes could find their way up the Skagit River to the hydroelectric dam generating power for Seattle aircraft and shipbuilding industries.

Even during the deepest years of the war, the students in Rockport School put on a Christmas program in the community gym. The highlight was Santa Claus entering from the kitchen with a sack of stockings stuffed with hard candy, sticky popcorn balls and, in some years, a tangerine orange. Since this was always the last event of the evening, most of the contents usually went home. In our case, they helped fill our Christmas stockings hanging from the fireplace mantel.

Our vacuum tube radio was powered with dry cell batteries. Reception was always iffy, and like the candles, batteries were extremely rare.

“Our Silver Fir Tree” was published as “Joy to Our World” in Tough Guys Don’t Give Up (Mary Gillilan, ed. 1996).

Bellingham, Washington

2011


 

             Our Silver Fir Tree
 

Light candles on our silver fir tree,

fill this room with dancing flames,

let them radiate their Christmas spirit

upon Sally, Loretta, Jim and me.

 

Turn down the lamp,

the hearth-fire burns low.

A pail of water guards

the candle-trimmed tree.

Blanket the windows,

keep the war away.

Light our world tonight.

 

Tell us the story of the cardboard star

tangled in angel-hair and crumpled foil,

of paper chains and shimmering balls,

of a Christ Child who cast out fear.

 

Fill our stockings, draped from the mantel,

with oranges and home-made treats.

We’ll pretend the candy from school

will came with Santa in the night.

 

Turn on the radio, drain its reserve.

With our young voices, we’ll sing

of hope, comfort, and peace,

as lighted candles shine
from our silver fir tree.
                                        Rockport, WA 
                                        World War II

What was my childhood like?

    A question frequently asked little known poets, is “what was your childhood like?” Briefly, this will give you some idea:
    I was born during the Great Depression and came of age in the forties. Until I left the Upper Skagit River Valley for college, I lived in an isolated world of rural poverty and wartime constraints. Much of the time, our home was log cabins without electricity, plumbing, or running water; and were heated with wood split by hand. The families of most of my classmates at two-room Rockport (WA) School lived in similar circumstances.
    The situation in Concrete (WA) where I attended 7th-12th grade was somewhat better.
    Our culture was primarily one of loggers and Native Americans, enlarged by the multi-national cement plant workers in Concrete.
    My father worked incessantly as a logger and subsistence farmer supporting us and dreaming of the day that he would own land. My mother dreamt of her children being educated so they would not repeat our life of survival.
    It was during these years that I learned to appreciate the common and the ordinary, the people around me, the landscape, and to dream of life beyond the valley.