|Tent lodging on the Zumwalt Prairie|
|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.