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Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Placeby Robert Michael Pyle
Beforetimes Going to Ground in Grays River
To go to ground”—an English fox-hunting term, meaning into a burrow or hole in the ground, to earth”; as in When a Fox goes to ground, after a long chase . . .”With respect to the digging of Foxes which hounds run to ground.
—Oxford English Dictionary
Walking to the compost this morning, I was arrested by the sight of a leaf pinioned on a rush spike. The bunch of rushes grows in a pot in the corner of the heather garden. The leaf was birch, clear yellow spattered with remnant green. It hung there, impaled as it fell from the tall white wand of the birch. Shivering on the light November air, the leaf was like a moment of grace before the fall. The compost heap shone bright with still more leaves of maple, oak, and hornbeam, spattered among bracts of Brussels sprouts, over- the-hill red currants, and the collapsed brainpan of a jack o lantern—the exuviae of a satisfied autumn and its festivals. Returning to the house, I paused as always to rinse the white china chamber pot in the spray of a standing spigot. Just before tossing the water onto the heather, I noticed a struggling spider in the chilly swirl. Spiders up spouts suffer a well-known fate, and so it had. But rescued with an oak leaf, it unfolded just fine. When I placed it on the spigot post, I saw a rotund female of another species, a big native orb weaver, hunched up under the handle. The skinnier one crawled back into its shelter, apparently uninjured by the dunking. So the two spiders had been there together at this late date, somehow surviving the harsh frosts and heavy rains of recent mornings. As I approached the back porch a Stellers jay rocketed off, screaming that the kibbles were all gone from the cats dish. An elegant Andersons slug, slender, yellow-rimmed, reticulated, glided away from the bowl too. From the doorway I noticed a flutter in a tall English oak by the drive. The first-year Townsends warblers that had come for Thanksgiving were still there, flickering through the tawny foliage together while chickadees and kinglets loitered off to the side. The migrant warblers lemony breasts and faces were as bright as the slugs mantle; their presence was as unexpected as a pair of spiders in late autumn, their gift as sudden and fleeting as a birch leaf on a rush spike.
ONE APRIL DAY in 1970, I drove a wide circle through southwest Washington in search of early-season butterflies to photograph. Very few were yet on the wing, and I came home with only one good shot, a linen-fresh margined white basking next to a new leaf of its host plant, toothwort. I also brought back a vision of the kind of place where I would spend most of my life. My random route took me through several broad, low valleys where streams ran down through green velvet pastures between low evergreen hills to Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean. To an urban visitor, these valleys looked both bucolic and idyllic. The sun was out that day, giving the rural prospects an uncommon luminosity that intensified their magnetism. I decided then and there that I would someday like to live in such a valley: a place where I could see something new every time I stepped outside. Now that they are in their fifties, as I am, many of my friends are just beginning to seek a permanent home. Work or adventure has taken them here and there, to this house and that, and at last they hope to find abodes that will see them happily into old age. They may think I settled into my long- term habitation awfully early, though it seemed none too soon to me at the time. I had grown up in a Colorado suburb, gone to college in Washington and Connecticut, lived and worked in California, England, New Guinea, and Oregon, dwelling in some twenty homes along the way. I had long idealized a rural or edge-of-wildland domicile that would serve as a central repository” for my stuff and a warm retreat from which I could range outward into the world. I knew several biologists and writers who had indeed established such holts, but usually only after retiring from a long academic, bureaucratic, or journalistic career. What right had I, a mere whippersnapper, to a country seat?
My family had once owned several ranches in western Colorado, any one of which might have been a perfect place for me to live. But they had been lost since the Depression or before, so I had no patrimony of land to which I might repair. I would have to find and adopt my own home place. My ideal of a naturalists abode was Trail Wood, the old New England farmstead where Edwin and Nellie Teale made their final home after Long Island became too populous for them. In his book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, Teale describbed the arduous process of finding the right place and the success that finally came through the grace of happenstance. I expected that it wooooould be many years before it was time for me to settle, and I would have to make just such a search. The only similarity between my search and the Teales was the good luck. It happened like this. My first long-term job, with the Nature Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, involved a great deal of travel and furnished a ration of stress. The gallery job that my wife at that time, Sally Hughes, held was also stressful. Yet our combined salaries were too small even for the tiny shack under the abutments of the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland that we considered buying. We dreamed of retreating to the country.
That summer of 1978 I had a field assistant, a teenager from Ithaca, New York, named David Shaw. On weekends David and I often prowled terra incognita for butterflies within a days drive of Portland. On August 30 we ferried across the Columbia River to Wahkiakum County, Washington, where no butterflies had been recorded. I didnt know at the time that most days it rains in Wahkiakum County. This day the sun shone hard. We found a few butterflies on pastoral Puget Island, netted a few more up the Elochoman River out of Cathlamet, then drove up into the Willapa Hills and crossed the Grays River Divide to the west on logging roads. We came down from the hills not long before sunset into Grays River Valley. Three years previously, a friend named Denny Gillespie had taken Sally and me here—in the rain—to see a number of historic buildings and to look for butterflies. Remembering a nearby covered bridge from that visit, I proposed that we look for it. Heck, New York is full of covered bridges,” said David. Lets get back for dinner.” I began to turn left on State Route 4 to return to Portland. Then I realized that I wanted to see the covered bridge, and I was in charge. I turned west instead. After we crossed through the bridge and paused on the other side of the river, I beheld a green valley much like the ones Id fallen in love with eight years before. Then I looked up and saw an old white farmhouse perched among huge hardwood trees. English oaks, red oaks, black walnuts, European beeches and birches, Scots pines, sugar maples, and one great Port Orford cedar all loomed over the place. FOR SALE BY OWNER said the sign by the road. Thats where I want to live,” I told David, and set off to find the owner. Ed Sorenson was away, but his son, Merle, showed me around the place. The next day Sally and I made an offer. We borrowed money for a down payment, closed at Christmas, weekended all winter, and moved in June. I have essentially lived here ever since. Lives change, and after greatly enhancing the fabric and gardens of the place, Sally returned to her native Eng- land in the early eighties. My old friend Thea joined me here in 1984, and we married the following year.
WHEN I OPEN my eyes in the morning, my vision is framed by four rectangles of wavy old glass enclosing a field of gray sky of many possible shades or, occasionally, blue. As I sit up with my cup of coffee, the sash windows of our bedroom shift perspective, opening onto a view of cake-plate- flat fields of green, hemmed in by dark hemlock hills. One scrubby meadow away runs the river, crossed mid-window by the old gray covered bridge. A scattering of houses breaks up the verdant plain, looking smaller for being so few and spread out. Cattle, the agents of the short grass sward, roam broad pastures that were created for producing dairy cows but are now more often occupied by Hereford beef cattle, blackberries, and thistles. Any black-and- white Holsteins still to be seen are heifers raised to replace dairy cows elsewhere.
Through it all runs the river, which very gradually wavers from one side of the valley to the other. The East Fork and the West Fork of the Grays converge just three miles upstream from the house. Breaking out of two canyons, the river long ago laved the floor to make the valley that runs for some ten miles down to the marshes of Grays Bay on the Columbia River. I am looking out from one of several old river terraces. Broken slices of these former levels survive at various heights above the present valley floor, left behind as the river cut deeper into ancient seabed sediments. They support some of the few flat forests in these hills and most of the sensible home sites, stable and well above the floodplain.
Down in the valley, Larsons Pond, freckled with ducks, glitters in thin mild sunshine. The river describes a long S into the west. Heavy rain could set in tomorrow, or even snow, but right now there is no more congenial place in the world than this little vale. Come summer, waves of blue timothy and green canary grass will replace the pond, and the rivers S will slink behind a screen of foliage. Next winter high, wild water will pour over the whole bottom, bringing down the silt of the hills and sweeping away any semblance of congeniality. From my vantage on the river terrace, the valley presents a world both contained and expansive, handmade and natural, ancient and hopeful. It is beautiful in a flawed and unspectacular way, and homely, like river scoured lowlands anywhere.
Nothing appears to be moving but the river. Then the motionlessness is broken by the yellow school bus, delayed by slick roads, making its way around Covered Bridge Road. The mail ladys car appears from the other direction, slowing for our box. At tonights Grange meeting, the annual Christmas party will be planned, the winter floods predicted.
From my second-story study, I can see that the birch leaf has blown off its pikestaff, to join the thousands of other leaves in the glowing, already rotting carpet. Later, fetching tea, I check on the slug, which has slithered off someplace. Both spiders are gone, too; maybe the jay, deprived of kibbles, found them and saved them from the coming frost. The warblers continue to forage for insects among late leaves, flitting from tree to tree in a loose bunch, siskin-like, packing fat against their inevitable departure.
None of this is high adventure, but it meets my hope for a home where boredom remains at bay. I live where I do so I can look out or walk outside at any time and instantly be within nature.” Of course, one is in nature everywhere, since there is nothing else. But I mean a place where you can actually see all the swallows depart on a certain day in the fall and see the first arrivals in the spring in all their joy and relief and know there is nothing sentimental in saying so. See rufous hummingbirds working the sparse nectaries of blood currants while they wait for the salmonberries to break bud. Watch the early vultures ride the airs just above the treetops, and the bald eagles, whose nest in a cottonwood top was blown away by last winters winds, start in again to soar, to hunt, to feed their young in a brand- new nest. See the bleeding hearts fan, the trilliums crack, the banana slugs strike out from their cold-weather hideaways for fresh pastures of moss, and the first spring azures appear on what Robert Frost called Blue Butterfly Day.” These things are as important to me as love, and in fact, thats what they are.
As for high adventure, its here too, if wanted. Out over the valley, one harrier, one kite, and one eagle quarter, flutter, and soar, each hunting after its own fashion; the ravens circle far above as the redtail hunkers and watches, and two westering swans silently merge with low clouds, all against the ever-changing, ever-present sky. More than anything, it is the sky that de- fines this old homestead in this small valley in this subtle range of hills. Often gray, sometimes blue, always dissected by a canopy of leaves and needles and crisscrossed by birds, and ordinarily the conveyor of dampness in one form or another, the Grays River sky reflects every story that happens here. It is here, beneath this particular slope of sky, that I have chosen to go to ground.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Michael Pyle. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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