by Ashley Lodato, Methow Arts staff writer
Settled in scenic spots along the Methow River from Pateros to Washington Pass, the Methow River Poems invite readers to feel the grandeur of the watershed’s stark beauty through the words of the late Poet Laureate William Stafford.
Seeking an alternative to the natural history interpretive signs the United States Forest Service typically employed to connect forest visitors to the places they visited, in 1992 the Methow Valley Ranger District asked Stafford to write a series of poems that would honor the landscape and character of the North Cascades. A year before his death in 1993, Stafford wrote the seven Methow River Poems, capturing the spirit of this special valley.
The Methow River Poems offer an opportunity to reflect on “this wilderness with a great peacefulness in it,” Stafford writes in Time for Serenity, Anyone? which is located upstream of the Methow River’s confluence with the Columbia River. In a wilderness like the one surrounding the Methow Valley, it’s impossible not to “live in the sound of water,/in the feel of mountain air,” writes Stafford. “This world is still alive.”
In A Valley Like This, installed at Washington Pass near the headwaters of the Methow River, Stafford asks “What can a person do to help bring back the world?” and then provides the only answer possible: “We have to watch it and then look at each other/Together we hold it close and carefully/save it, like a bubble that can disappear/if we don’t watch out.”
Stafford’s words were both prescient and prescriptive, and they are ones that the Methow Valley community has subscribed to in order to solve problems that threaten the essential character of the valley. In this community, people “look at each other” and put aside differences in order to hold the valley “close and carefully,” to protect it.
Capturing the convictions of those who live in the valley for their connection to the natural world, Stafford writes in Is This Feeling About the West Real?, which sits at the Twisp River Park, of people looking out and wondering “Is it magic? Is it the oceans of air off the Pacific?” It is both, Stafford implies, and “You can’t/walk through it without wrapping a new/piece of time around you.”
The sites of the poems themselves invite both quiet contemplation and vigorous enjoyment of the ecosystem the poems celebrate. Visitors to the poems’ plaques may choose to sit and meditate, to sketch or paint, to birdwatch, to skip stones across the river’s dappled surface, to wet their toes in the water as it makes its “blind progress along the valley/tapping to convert one boulder at a time/into a glistening fact,” Stafford writes in Where We Are, located near the Suspension Bridge in Mazama. The “motionless turmoil, this everything dance” that he refers to in Time for Serenity, Anyone? is evident nowhere more so than in watching the river, its mesmerizing pulse, its motion and its stillness juxtaposed on the backdrop of rock, forest, shrub, and sky. The river itself is a “tranquil/chaos that seems to be going somewhere.”
With the Methow Valley in the middle stages of reopening in the midst of the global pandemic, the Methow River Poems provide residents a series of mini-outings: destinations that offer a means of appreciating the landscapes through a different lens. By examining familiar landscapes and Stafford’s poetic responses to them, we better understand our own relationships with these special places. As Stafford writes in A Valley Like This, “Please think about this as you go on./Breathe on the world./Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings/roll along, watch how they open and close, how they/invite you to the long party that your life is.”
Access to the poems is free and available to all at ADA-compliant sites.
METHOW RIVER POEM LOCATIONS
A Valley Life This: Washington Pass overlook. Original location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994
Silver Star: Washington Pass overlook. New location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994.
Where We Are: Tawlkes-Foster suspension bridge. Original location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994.
Ask Me: Winthrop. Behind Farmer’s Exchange building. New location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994.
Is This Feeling About the West Real?: Twisp Park. New location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994.
From the Wild People: McFarland Creek parking area. Original location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994.
Time for Serenity, Anyone?: Mouth of the Methow River. Across from fruit stand. Original location. Installed by the Forest Service in 1993-1994