It was a while ago when I began my teaching career at Gaston High School, located about 45 minutes west of Portland. Forested hills, the slow-winding Tualatin River, and low-lying onion fields surrounded the small rural town. Most of my students came from families who logged and farmed, and many of them fished, hunted and spent their summers helping neighbors and families with outdoor work.

Green wapato leaves, the roots were a Kalapuya staple
Wapato Plant  (Photo: nwplants.com)

Since most students had accumulated plenty of first-hand experience on the land, it worked well when I initiated our ecology unit with lessons about the Kalapuya people, who were the first to call Gaston their home. By learning what life was like before European contact, we were able to discover which plants and animals were native to the landscape. Irises, tarweed, camas and yew, willows, wapato and elderberries, deer, trout, and grasshoppers populated our class discussions. We also talked about the challenges and ingenuity required for living with the seasons. And we studied the shelters, clothing, and tools that were derived from the land, trees, and animals.

I’ve since had similar chances to teach Corvallis students about the Kalapuya bands who lived in the Marys River watershed. And over the years, my students and I have managed to plant camas bulbs (with trowels, not digging sticks), create cordage (from pre-gathered plant fibers), and prepare tasty wildfood dishes (some untraditionally sweetened with sugar). All in all, these overviews of Kalapuya lifestyles offered a satisfying foundation for studying place-based ecosystems. But in retrospect, I understand that my overviews were a bit over simplified and certainly over sweetened.

Portrait of David Harrelson, who is a Kalapuya
David Harrelson

David Harrelson’s Lecture: “The Kalapuya Then and Now”

Three nights ago, the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club and the Spring Creek Project co-sponsored a lecture at the Majestic Theater entitled “The Kalapuya Then and Now” in honor of our area’s indigenous Chepenefu Kalapuya people. (Chepenefu, which refers to the place of the elderberry, was the native name for the Marys River and its valley, which encompasses present-day Wren, Philomath, and Corvallis.) David Harrelson, who is Kalapuya, was the evening’s guest speaker. He serves as the Cultural Resources Department Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and he spoke eloquently on behalf of his heritage, which reaches back 500 generations.

Map of Kalapooya homelands, Marys River watershed

Harrelson began his talk by pointing out that it’s critical for us to know and respect history, because it keeps people from being marginalized and their stories from being fabricated. Before sharing a traditional creation legend with us, he admitted we were a lucky audience. He explained, “You don’t tell stories till the first frost, and you don’t stop till the frogs croak.” And since Grand Ronde saw its first frost early that very morning, we got to hear a Kalapuya story about spirit power, dancing rain, mist, camas and clouds. Soon afterwards, we heard the legend of rising waters and people who were carried on the backs of birds, an indigenous account of the Missoula Flood of 15,000 years ago. Harrelson emphasized that each of the stories talks about place, and each telling helps bring back knowledge and traditions.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons traditional knowledge could have vanished from our contemporary lives. When settlers arrived between 1750 and 1850, they brought disease and conflict that wiped out most of the Kalapuya population. In addition, a series of treaties in the 1850’s forced western indigenous tribes to cede 14 million acres to the federal government. Eventually, over 27 bands were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation, amounting to less than one-thousandth of their original land. The move also resulted in lack of food and shelter, and the incongruity of native people becoming agricultural “migrant workers” in their own homeland. Ultimately, the federal government essentially erased indigenous people: tribes were no longer acknowledged and native communities began to lose their continuity, language, and culture.

According to Harrelson, it was during the Civil Rights Era that a  restorative path opened up for his ancestors. Locally, after decades of difficulty, some good and fundamental changes have finally brought improved housing and health care to the Grand Ronde Community. And, at last, authentic indigenous history has become part of Oregon’s public school curricula. Harrelson also noted how traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is becoming respected among natural resource managers as a viable approach toward sustaining all people and all life.

Purple camas flowers, the tubers were a Kalapuya staple
Camas Flowers

In closing, Harrelson described a few collaborative projects that are fueling hope for his people. There’s the “Plants for People” project with the Institute for Applied Ecology to propagate culturally important plant species. Likewise, the US Forest Service is partnering with native people to  improve huckleberry and camas habitat. He’s especially excited about an ongoing project near Gaston, the little town where I first learned about Kalapuya lifeways. That low-lying onion field near the high school? It’s being restored back to its natural state as a shallow lake—Wapato Lake—so the wapato and knowledge of Kalapuya heritage can thrive once again.

Last Tuesday night at the Old World Deli, Dr. Bob Lillie, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University, spoke to a full house about his new book, Oregon’s Island in the Sky: Geology Road Guide to Mary’s Peak. A specialist on interpretive methods for the Mary’s Peak Alliance and the Oregon Master Naturalist Program, Lillie is devoted to connecting people to landscapes– geologically, ecologically and culturally. He values a well-honed sense of place, and accordingly, began his presentation with a quote by Alan Gussow: We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present.” And indeed Marys Peak is one of western Oregon’s special places, serving as the predominant psychophysical influence of this bioregion. To help the audience become better acquainted with this iconic mountain, Lillie provided maps, photographs, and fragments of hard rock (gabbro and basalt) to reveal Marys Peak’s dynamic story.

At 4,097 feet in elevation, Marys Peak rises nearly 500 feet above all other Oregon Coast Range mountains. With its cool climate and 100 inches of annual precipitation, the mountain’s noble fir and high meadow ecosystems date back more than 10,000 years to a time when glaciers covered much of western Oregon. Its high-elevation meadow, in particular, is a biodiversity hotspot.

In fact, it is from the meadow’s clear vantage point atop the peak that one can see the Pacific Ocean’s blue sheen to the west, and the Cascade Volcanoes’ snowcaps to the east. From Lillie’s discerning viewpoint, the same commanding panorama also offers geologic clues of tectonic plate activity from 55 million years ago, as well as the more recent effects of the Missoula Floods that filled the Willamette Valley 15,000 years ago. Together, these geologic phenomena created the landscapes and soils that help define the biotic communities of western Oregon’s bioregion today.

Marys Peak holds considerable cultural significance, as well. Formerly considered a sacred place by the Kalapuya tribe, this mountain was originally named Tca Timanwi, meaning “place of spirit power,” because Kalapuya youths climbed its slopes for their coming-of-age spirit quests. Much later — in the late 1800’s — homesteaders moved into the area, and the mountain was grazed, logged, settled, and skied. And from 1906 onward, the Rock Creek watershed on the eastern flank of Marys Peak has supplied Corvallis with up to 40% of its city water. Meanwhile the mountain’s mixed fir and hemlock forests are home to countless wildlife species, and the high wildflower meadows provide critical butterfly habitat. Importantly, the distinctive meadow and rock garden ecosystems led to the peak’s designation as a Botanical Special Interest Area in 1989.

Built of story-rich volcanic and sedimentary rocks, cloaked in clouds and forests, Marys Peak continually affects climate, culture, and bio-community. This is a mountain that reawakens our certainty that we live with—not separate from—the Earth. And this is a mountain that will never fail to nourish the spirit.

Our Earth—the enveloping atmosphere, vast oceans, life-giving soils, profusion of plants, and grandly varied animals—each aspect of our planet needs our care-filled attention. This whole-hearted engagement becomes personal and possible though direct experience. Whether we’re field scientists, rock climbers, photographers, writers, or anglers, each path of perception reaffirms our place on the Earth and Earth’s centeredness in us. Yesterday, when ice-glazed streets edited my original out-of-town plans, I decided to check out two artists’ attention to nature through a new exhibit in the Corrine Woodman Gallery at the Arts Center: “Connecting with Water, Journeying Through Art”, featuring local artists Abigail Losli and Diane Widler Wenzel. The small and intimate exhibit granted me a chance to slow down and appreciate the creative and significant messages about water, and to consider how water and humans inter-permeate the course of each other’s paths.

16-panels-of-the-willamette-river
    Acrylic panels by Abigail Losli

The display that immediately caught my eye was comprised of Abigail Losli’s 16 individual acrylic panels, together entitled, One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen. Losli, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from OSU, found her inspiration for these pieces through her repeated retreats to the Willamette River near her home, where she found time and space to pause, breathe, be still, and observe. Her work is alive with the river’s color and movement, each panel representing “a single visit, a moment of connection.” In her artist’s  statement, she admits that through her direct, meditative experience with the Willamette River, she gained an even greater awareness of all the ways people build their lives around water, affirming the rich connections and traditions that surround it. Her work exemplifies how environmental art can illuminate the outer and inner life of both artist and viewer.

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“From Silent Slack Waters” by Diane Widler Wenzel

The other featured artist, Diane Widler Wenzel, chose several spontaneous, non-objective abstracted paintings for the exhibit. (Non-objective means the painting’s purpose is to represent that which is not a thing.) Wenzel sees art as a journey—a way of thinking, learning, and growing. Her work has therefore become a journal of her life. With a painting and drawing degree from PSU supplemented by decades of close connection with the outdoors through camping, hiking, white-water rafting and boating, Wenzel strives to visualize her place in nature’s mystery, and encourages viewers to listen to the art itself. And indeed, I was struck by her painting entitled, From Silent Slack Waters, which effectively embraces the quiet lull and curve of watery silence. I was entranced by her success in capturing within her paintings not only the quality of emotion, but also that of sound, made possible by way of her keen journeying among inner as well as outer shorelines.

Wenzel and Losli’s art enriched my day immeasurably. My moments with their paintings confirmed for me the necessity of art for deepening our range of environmental expression well beyond the ordinary world of words.

A crowd of over 100 people came to the Corvallis-Benton County Library last night to watch Tim Palmer’s slide show based on his beautiful new book, Rivers of Oregon. His presentation, sponsored by Spring Creek Project and Oregon Wild, was filled with countless hydrological, geological, and botanical images from both sides of the Cascades, with the theme of rivers flowing throughout. Palmer, an award-winning author and photographer from Port Orford, Oregon, branched into topics that tell the big story of rivers: their journeys from source to sea, the life forms and recreation that depend upon them, as well as the forces that disrupt and harm them.

Choosing the Rogue River as his messenger, he began with the Rogue’s headwaters in the high Cascades, highlighting thdscn0287e river’s varied features and moods through personal anecdote and dramatic photography. Having rowed and paddled along the Rogue with his wife multiple times, Palmer described this iconic river like a good friend, respectful of its power and personality, and proud of its recovery from human-caused setbacks. Not only did we see breathtaking images of frothy whitewater and deep, clear pools, but we also witnessed the Rogue’s vulnerabilities through Palmer’s photos of blue-green algae outbreaks caused by pollutants and increased water temperatures, toxic debris leaked from nickel mining, and harmful mudslides triggered by clear-cuts. Palmer also shared some of the Rogue’s checkered history, how its freedom was hampered last century by three hydroelectric dams, and the good news of its restoration when the dams were systematically removed several years ago. Now the Rogue flows for 160 dam-free miles, allowing its former wildness – and former salmon runs – to return.

dscn0290Palmer began his presentation with the statement, “Rivers are the essence of Oregon”, and he concluded with a request, “Think about the importance of rivers to all of us, and protect and adopt them as (y)our own.” By keeping our rivers clean, free flowing and wild, we will nourish Earth’s landscapes as well as our own souls.

Shotpouch Creek

Last week our brand new cohort stepped onto the beautiful sunlit Shotpouch Creek property to begin the first class of our two-year Environmental Arts and Humanities MA program (which I affectionately call the EArtH MA), expertly led by Jake Hamblin, Director, and Carly Lettero, Program Manager. Through readings, walks on the land, and discussions with experts in the humanities, arts, and sciences we became better acquainted with our program’s interdisciplinary themes, including environmental ethics, justice, history, artistic expression, purpose and action. And very importantly, we became acquainted with one another. Our cohort shines with the multi-facets of each individual; among us you will find writers, conservationists, poets, leaders, artists, field and lab scientists, philosophers, dancers, and teachers whose stories include courage, creativity, and passion for our planet’s healing. To balance the week’s depth and intensity, Dr. Hamblin gave us daily downtime for reflection and rest(oration). And so each day, Shotpouch Creek itself became my source of renewal, where I could always find the flow of music and wisdom to remind me why I am embarking on this academic adventure. The creek became an integral part of me and us, and for that I am grateful! ~Jill Sisson