Poets of the Okanogan

“I’m not rooted to this place.”

It’s the first line of a poem I wrote a while back. I rarely face up to the challenge of writing poetry, but every year the Okanogan Land Trust nudges me to give it a try. The Trust, through the efforts of Walter Henze and Grant Jones, invites residents to share poetry and songs about the Okanogan at an annual potluck.

In a kind of mission statement, the men explain: the poems “celebrate the

nature of the American Okanogan, giving a voice to its scenic landscapes seen through the eyes of poets that inhabit or regularly explore the hidden valleys of this sequestered region.” A few poets from the Canadian Okanagan (note spelling) have filtered into the collection from time to time.

This year, Okanogan poets are getting special attention. A half-dozen who read at the potluck last January will be featured next week during the “poetry moment” on Spokane Public Radio’s KPBX FM station at nine a.m. (right after the weather). Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can listen. Over the air, KPBX is at 91.9 in the south Okanogan Valley, 88.5 in the mid-valley, 90.9 in the north valley, and 91.1 in the Methow Valley. You can also stream it at spokanepublicradio.org. If the time’s not convenient or you miss any of the days, wait about a week and you’ll be able to hear the poems on the station’s podcast page.

Thanks to our local broadcasters—Becki, Chris, and Joe at Okanogan Country Radio—for recording the poets at their studio. And, of course, thanks to the poets: Carey Hunter on Monday; Grant Jones, Tuesday; myself, Wednesday; Victoria Jones, Thursday, and Walter Henze, Friday. The readings began this morning (Oct. 12) with Bob Goodwin, Omak, reading “The Land Does Not Care.” If you missed it, do wait for the podcast. It’s worth the wait.

This spirit of community throughout the Okanogan is what helps me grow my roots a little deeper every year.

ROOTS

I’m not rooted to this place.

Born amidst Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes,

My soul demands water.

Uprooted, I found my bliss at last on a coastal island.

Then I met a man who smelled of inland sagebrush and pine.

I could never live there, I told him.

The Okanogan is like an island, he told me.

Distant, detached, land of the disaffected.

He planted my thirsty soul by the river,

Where I found not bliss but blessings.

Years later, I planted his ashes in the earth

That nurtures sagebrush and pine.

I wandered, seeking a place to plant myself.

Still rootless, I returned to live among people

Whose roots are millennia deep.

Roots deep enough to withstand theft of their land.

Deep enough to reconcile my rootlessness.

Some day my ashes will mingle with his

In earth that nurtures sagebrush and pine,

Where my roots will grow eternally deep.

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The Season of Largesse

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My kitchen cornucopia–all locally produced

The Okanogan Valley, where I live, is an over-achiever at this time of year, producing an embarrassment of riches. My kitchen teems with pears and apples, squash and onions, peppers and potatoes, corn and chard, even a purple kohlrabi. More food than I can eat, freeze, or dry. As for canning? I can’t. Still, I revel in the guilty pleasure of abundant harvest.

When I first moved here nearly forty years ago, I was a frustrated locavore before the word was even invented. The Okanogan was about as close as you could come to a monoculture. Orchardists raised just two varieties of one crop: Golden and Red Delicious apples. Yeah, there was the occasional stand of cherries, peaches or pears. But the Red Delicious, perched on its distinctive, four-pronged pedestal, was Queen. (Until it wasn’t.)

I was living in a rural, agricultural community but had to buy food that came from everywhere else. Farmer and venerated writer Wendell Berry speaks for me: “I like to eat vegetables and fruits that I know have lived happily and healthily in good soil, not the products of the huge, bechemicaled factory-fields.” If you’re Wendell Berry, you get to make up words like bechemicaled.

Eventually, like a welcome rain on a dusty landscape, the farmers’ market phenomenon reached the Okanogan. Most of the farmers were backyard gardeners, selling their overabundance. Gradually full-time farmers emerged, offering a variety of crops and even CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) packages.

Then came farm stands. My car is hard-wired to pull in.

“This is probably the last time I’ll stop before you close up for winter,” I told Gene as I emerged from her stand last week carrying two bulging sacks of produce, including her sweet corn, famous countywide.

“I don’t want to hear that,” she answered. “You gotta come back for your pumpkin.”

I’ll have to add it to the two already decorating my front step. The day after stopping at Gene’s, I’d joined a gathering of women at a friend’s house. Before we even made it to the front door, one opened her tailgate, enticing the rest of us like a shady character luring children with candy. She offered pumpkins, plums, melons, squash and tomatoes. I demurred at the tomatoes, then watched longingly as another woman carried them away. I had more than enough tomatoes already but oh, gosh, it’s the last of the season and we won’t get fresh, local tomatoes again until next year—only those bechemicaled, plastic-like imitations in the grocery stores.

I accepted a pumpkin. She handed me a second. Aggressively. She’d had so much fun planting pumpkin seeds with her toddler granddaughter last spring, she got carried away. One hundred fifty pumpkins and counting. Most, she says, will go to the food bank.

I grow only one cherry tomato plant (because I love the scent) and a variety of herbs. The rest of my garden is flowers. For eating, I know I can count on the largesse of Mother Nature and her local gardening kin.