Prairie and Poetry

I’m still shaking the dust of the Zumwalt Prairie out of my shoes after a week in northeastern Oregon at the Fishtrap Outpost workshopI spent 5-1/2 days there with 12 other writers, a naturalist, and essayist Scott Russell Sanders, “Giving Voice to Earth.”

Despite efforts to write fresh descriptions, it’s hard to avoid over-used superlatives like magical, awesome, and incredible. Here’s one of my attempts to put the experience into words.
Tent lodging on the Zumwalt Prairie
View from Buckhorn Lookout

Sunset on the Zumwalt

Out on the Zumwalt, Jan peppers us with the vocabulary of the prairie. Each day, this biologist answers our “What’s this?” with terms new to me:  gum weed, creamy buckwheat, prairie smoke, vesper sparrow, Belding’s ground squirrel, rock jack, exclosure, desire path.  I scribble the words in my notebook, just as I did in January at the start of my first poetry craft class.  Then, my teacher peppered me too, with iambic pentameter, off-rhyme, sestina, slant rhyme, terza rima, and trochee.  All semester, writing at my home in Washington’s San Juan Islands, I wrestled with these forms, as unfamiliar to my prose pen as the buttes, grasslands, and draws of this Oregon prairie.

At the end of Outpost, I joined other writers for the conclusion of Summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers. There I sat propped against granite rock beside the Wallowa River, on its race toward Wallowa Lake.  I washed the prairie’s dust from my hands in the river’s icy flow, strong enough to skirt a 24-foot remnant of a tree that once shaded the river’s banks.  I wished Jan had been there to name the squirrel exploring the tree’s roots and the bird skipping and chirping across the ridged bark. However, that landscape of pine-robed mountains surging upward from the river valley is more akin to my spiritual home in the North Cascades. It was there, in a tiny village on the Stehekin River, that I sought direction about vocation. I encountered teachers on mossy outcrops, in glacier-fed creeks, and on switch-backing trails shared with marmots and black bears.

As I wrote in my journal at river’s edge, I thought of the next day when I’d return to a different landscape, one with salt- and seaweed-scented air, tides and rocky beaches, Madrones and Nootka roses, bald eagle trills and blue heron squawks. Just as at the end of my poetry class in the spring, I closed my time on the Zumwalt with new sources of inspiration and appreciation. Poetry’s rhythms and shapes inform my prose. The prairie’s sounds, smells, textures, and terrain spur my awareness of earth’s beauty, power, and fragility. They also renew my commitment to give voice to the places I call home.

Last moments of sunset on the prairie


  1. Thank you so much, Iris. I loved hearing a version of this at Fishtrap and it's so good to read it here. It's also good to see you beautiful photos, the first I've seen of the Zumwalt since I left.

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