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Matt Love’s Gimme Refuge

Our On Oregon blogger, Matt Love, has just published his newest book, Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker :

Frustrated with life, teaching, and the inability to become a writer, Matt Love escaped Portland in 1997 at 33 years of age and moved to the Oregon Coast. A year later he became caretaker of the 600-acre Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. During his decade (1998–2008) as caretaker, he helped restore the grounds to fuller ecology, discovered a love for teaching, and reinvented himself as a writer and historian who established Nestucca Spit Press and eventually won the 2009 Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award from Oregon Literary Arts.

Gimme Refuge is his passionate, 177-page account of his teaching career, experience as caretaker, and awakening as an Oregonian. The book also includes 17 original illustrations by Cindy Popp.

We're thrilled about the book, which you can order here. The following excerpt (with photos) is from 1998, when Matt visits the refuge for the first time.

As I drive to the refuge, I consider the duty of caretaking as a writing topic, not the labor I vaguely expect it might require.As I drive to the refuge, I consider the duty of caretaking — as a writing topic, not the labor I vaguely expect it might require. The topic presents literary potential, but it's been done before in the West and done well, classic in fact: Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, Rick Bass in Winter, and Pete Fromm in Indian Creek Chronicles. Ten minutes later I turn left on Christensen Road and spot the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge sign. I drive up a gravel road and stop the car in front of a hulking and forlorn yellow barn. I don't see a house where Eric said one should exist, but I do see, forty yards away, a small mountain of blackberries and overgrown shrubs enveloping, what I deduce from evidence of a chimney poking through foliage might be a house. Ray and I exit the Honda and move toward the chimney on a dead reckoning course. Upon closer inspection, I detect a faded cedar-shaked roof. This cannot be the place. Eric said "vacant," not abandoned, and I believe he knows the difference between these two adjectives because he's generally demonstrated a decent grasp of English the few times I've heard him speak.

I walk up the road with Ray and probe for better views of the structure. Indeed, it's a house, tan-colored, siding streaked by mold, with a garage attached at a bizarre, inexplicable angle. This is it? Eric thinks anyone we'll move into this dump? I can't even change my oil! I know how to pound a hammer and straighten a leaning Christmas tree with duct tape. That completes the inventory of my home remodeling skills and interest in the subject. All I really know how to do is teach. Cindy will never go for this, not a sentence of indentured servitude I imagine this caretaking responsibility demands.

Battling through waist high grass and blackberry thickets, I circle the house, count off my footsteps and estimate its interior at twelve hundred-square feet. At every window and sliding glass door I try to peer inside, but all the blinds and curtains are drawn. I sit on the rotting deck and absorb the visual details. A glimpse of the Little Nestucca River leaks through the brush. I faintly hear the ocean and faintly smell salty air. The Coast Range's scarred slopes loom east. A cemetery on a far hill comes into view. Huge RVs roll down Highway 101. Big Sitka spruces tower behind the house. Milk cows graze in the pastures below. Blackberry thickets full of fruit. Blackberry fields forever, crawling over everything, snapping in the breeze like Medusa's snakes. Elderberries flushed red and sprawling. Wild roses intertwined high into the branches of a shore pine. The barn verging on collapse. In a former yard stands an anemic cherry tree and the vague outline of a dormant garden. I watch two red-tailed hawks glide overhead. Ray digs furiously for something. The nearest neighbor lives a half mile away.

I sit on the deck looking in every direction. Ten, fifteen, then twenty minutes elapse and I don't say a word. Ray joins me and I brush the dirt from his snout. Something manifest is happening.Something manifest is happening. I feel it rising within me; I envision. I'll never piss inside again, the dream of every real man. Constant home improvement. Manual labor outdoors. Turn up Rock and Roll to eleven! Record a country rock album. Bust my ass during the school year. Caretaker and Lord Protector of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Live for free. Drink porter and read Shakespeare in the yard, Cindy and me nude like William Blake and his wife. Guardian and master of nearly six hundred American taxpayer-owned acres on the glorious North Oregon Coast. Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss! Write out all the jams! Ticket to write! Thunder prose! Smells like adult writing spirit! Spill the words! When I write my masterpiece! Dirty writing deeds, done dirt cheap! Back in ink! When the ink begins to flow! Be a hardback writer! Spend all days writing ethereal! I will get writing satisfaction. Never get fooled by teaching again! Even the teachers get lucky! Roll over John Dewey and give American literature the news. Give me literary shelter indeed!

I vault off the deck and Ray follows me. We walk toward the car intending to leave, but I notice the gravel road continues past the house, barrels through blackberries around a bend, and then disappears from view. Eric hadn't mentioned anything about this or what comprised the rest of the refuge. I'm curious to know where the road leads, and since time is on my side at the Oregon Coast and Cindy isn't coming back for a few days, Ray and I set out on foot up the road.

Approximately a quarter mile later up a moderate grade, the road flattens out, emerging from foliage and shadows into a vast clearing with sweeping hills lifted from The Sound Of Music. Straight ahead in the distant I see the tops of trees. We venture a little farther down the road and a few yards later I stop, transfixed, and witness something wholly unexpectedWe venture a little farther down the road and a few yards later I stop, transfixed, and witness something wholly unexpected: Nestucca Bay receding at low tide, and farther out still, the Pacific Ocean. The sea is this close! Ray starts bounding up the bigger hill to my left and I follow him. We hike south, through waist high grass, gaining in altitude, until I spy a yellow pole at the apex of the hill that piques my curiosity. I decide to investigate and begin jogging to the top. Ray catches my rhythm, gallops ahead of me, and in a few minutes, we've ascended the hill and stand next to a USFWS survey marker. I see: Nestucca Bay wrapping round the headland; Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda, and Cape Lookout to the north; Mt Hebo to the northeast; Cascade Head to the south; the Little Nestucca River and Coast Range to the east; Nestucca Spit to the near west; and to the endless west, an ocean all to myself. No one is around and no one ever will be. I see one house and hear nothing of human-generated sounds. Sitting down on the ground, I pluck a long blade of grass and recall one of the Old Man's writing assignments: in the spirit of Walt Whitman, ask a student to bring in a blade of grass and then challenge her to write five hundred words about it on the spot. I'd never written anything about a blade of grass, but over the years had issued the Old Man's challenge to many students as an extra credit opportunity. Only one had ever accepted, the same student who landed the jab. She'd written a thousand words of elegant prose serving up a blade of grass as a metaphor for her life. I subsequently shared this piece with other students as a model of perfect metaphorical expression. It occurs to me sitting in the tall grass with Ray, that, although I'd read Leaves of Grass many times, I never understood it until now.

Time to go. I push myself up from the ground, pet Ray's head, and begin jogging down the hill. A few seconds later, I launch into full reckless sprint over uneven and mole-hill studded ground with Ray in loping pursuit. This could be our run every morning.

Ray and I return from the walk and probe the grounds around the house again before leaving. A few minutes later, we sit on the deck for ten minutes and suddenly a vision floods me: on the refuge I can become someone else besides a teacher, the only adult identity I've ever known. The possibilities contained within this place are endless and exhilarating and have nothing to do with teaching. I intuit with the most astonishing flash of clarity in my life that caretaking this refuge is the Big Lucky Break I've sought my whole life.

÷ ÷ ÷

Click here to purchase Matt Love's Gimme Refuge.

For more pictures, click here to see Matt's Gimme Refuge slideshow.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Gimme Refuge: The Education of a...
    Used Trade Paper $12.95
  2. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855)... Used Trade Paper $7.50

  3. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the...
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  4. Winter: Notes from Montana Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter...
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98

2 Responses to "Matt Love’s Gimme Refuge"

    Chris A. Bolton March 30th, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Great piece! I was already interested in the book, but I'm now kind of dying to read it. And the slide show is making me have very active daydreams about being a caretaker of a refuge for ten years... and having dogs to run with...

    monkeywomantoo March 30th, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    this book is as much about how we educated our children as it is about the refuge itself. with enthusiasm and humility he describes mutually edifying adventures with his students that most teachers would never dare dream of. any sane and sensative parent of school age children will demand a more enlightened approach from their educational system after reading this.

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