Years ago I camped in an Oregon forest. There I met an intense and toothless young man fueled on cheap wine and crank. He introduced himself by yelling, "Hi! My name's Todd. I was born by Todd Lake, Oregon! I live in Oregon City! Don't get no more Oregon than that!"
I have never forgotten Todd's words. They have since served me as a mark of cool distinction that I say whenever I come across something indigenous and essential to Oregon that also touches something so deep within me that I want to share it with others.
A while back I read:
I think it must be a thing that happens only in a country like Oregon, where the winter crushes you into the ground and makes you something only half alive. The rush of summer makes you ten feet tall, and you can stand in the morning and feel the strength roll up out of your belly, drawn by the power of the sun.
Don Berry wrote these sentences. They originate from one of his trilogy of historical novels published in the early 1960s. Nineteen sixty-one to 1963 saw the publication of three Berry novels, Trask, Moontrap, and To Build a Ship, all set in pioneer-era Oregon. Later a critic would call the output "a spasm of sustained creativity unequaled in Oregon literature."
The novels sold well and Berry received critical praise, including a National Book Award nomination for Moontrap. Berry never published another novel and when he died in 2001 at age 70, none of his novels were in print. Thankfully, a few years ago, Oregon State University Press reprinted all three books in handsome new editions.
Trask, Berry's first novel, tells the story of a former mountain man who has settled near Astoria, too close to the "Boston men," who "saw no more than the surface of the world."
Hmm… sounds like most of the Masters of War, Oil, Money, and Ego running the planet today.
Troubled by restlessness, Trask makes a perilous journey to the south, over Mt. Neahkahnie. Arriving at Tillamook Bay, he is instantly seized by its grandeur and hungers to homestead there. In places, Berry's writing on the philosophical futility of this typical human hunger borders on scripture. "The taking possession of the land is the first — and the final — grasping of a man toward permanence; toward what he has occasionally called immortality for want of a word that means more."
Has any writer in American literature summed up our collective national sickness any better?
At Tillamook Bay, Trask meets Kilchis, the chief of the Tillamooks, and in the novel's soaring Zen Buddhist-meets-Native American shamanism dénouement, he goes on a Searching, a quest for a vision. He succeeds in his quest, and in the end, "Trask rose to his knees and listened in fascination until a door within him opened and he begin to laugh."
God, I would love to see members of Congress experience this!
Many of us would love to open Trask's door, walk through, and laugh in acceptance of something Berry wrote in Trask: "What moves a man — and ultimately, the only thing that moves him deeply — is the finding of his own image, the solid configuration of himself, worked in materials of better staying quality than bone and blood."
Moontrap followed Trask, and Oregon City near the Willamette Falls is the primary setting of the novel that takes place in the aftermath of the Whitman Massacre and white-hot racial prejudice against Native Americans. Once again, the plot involves a restless former mountain man. Johnson Monday is married to a Native American woman and is struggling to find a satisfying role in a changing Oregon Territory society where, "Things had changed so much. Seed wheat and missionaries."
When an old friend from Monday's days in the mountains shows up, various cultural clashes ensue and Monday is compelled to reconsider who he is and what he believes in. Moontrap ends tragically and suggests that Berry felt that a person who wanted to live in concord with the land and not exploit it or its native inhabitants didn't have a chance against relentless and ruthless commercial and racist forces.
To Build a Ship, the story of pioneers living near Tillamook Bay trying to construct a schooner, completed the trilogy. It stands as my favorite because of its depiction of racial tolerance and statements from the narrator like, "After a lifetime which it sometimes seems I devoted to cutting down trees, I am convinced that they were not meant to be cut down. God intended forests to stand eternally…"
Amen! Can any contemporary writer of fiction living in Oregon write a sentence about Oregon with a similar kind of passion and insight?
Today, some might dismiss Berry as an environmentalist, but his writing about landscape, which predated the professional environmental movement by two decades, should not be so easily reduced. In these novels, all his protagonists exhibit a fully formed ecology with their natural surroundings. They exist in harmony with the land. Achieving that enlightened state is arguably the most pressing political and cultural challenge facing Oregon today. Curiously enough, I haven't met many writers (or musicians) from Oregon who have attained this consciousness.
Many older Oregonians read Don Berry once, but probably have forgotten the experience. The best way I can describe reading him is that his stories exist as an organic and native species. They grow inside you. They are religious. To read these books today is to experience a feeling like walking in Oregon rain without an umbrella, eating out of the garden, or playing tennis with a wood racket.
Trask, Moontrap, and To Build a Ship were written by Don Berry with sentences like, "In Oregon after two days of rain it seems as though it has been raining since the world began, and you cannot remember the last time you saw the sun."
I'll let Todd's words express the editorial verdict:
Don't get no more Oregon than that!
[Editor's Note: Powell's currently carries first editions of To Build a Ship and Trask (2nd printing).]