It is what I was born for–
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
into the soft world–
to instruct myself
over and over. . .Mary Oliver
The painting you see above was transferred from the riverbank to the canvas by my grandmother, who was an accomplished oil painter. My grandfather was an early timber cruiser in western Washington, and in the summertime the family would go into the woods to camp with him. In between camp chores she would set up her easel and palette and capture the scene before her. Rivers and deep woods seemed to be where she was most comfortable.
These paintings graced the walls of our living room when I was a child. I confess I always thought that they were rather somber, and I could sense that my grandmother was not quite comfortable with blue sky and sunshine. I have a painting that now hangs next to my bed of a small cottage by a river, a bright pink sky in the distance. The soft light of the cottage and river makes me think it was a sunset rather than a sunrise, though I cannot know for sure. One thing is clear: all that bright color must have been at least a little bit uncomfortable for her. This scene seems forced. I imagine that it must have tired her out after completing it. It takes so much more energy to live in the bright light than to retreat into the shadows of the forest.
I did not know this woman well nor very much about her life, apart from the way a child knows her grandmother: how her apartment always smelled like freshly baked bread, how she would slice off a piece whenever my brother and I visited and spread it with a thick layer of homemade raspberry jam, how she would take me for walks in the rose garden at Point Defiance Park near our home in Tacoma.
Her paintings were a mystery to me, for she had given up her art long before I was born, but I always sensed that I had something to learn from them, something to learn from her about the western Washington forests before they were heavily logged, before roads crossed every mountain slope, before Pat and I ate freshly baked bread with raspberry jam.
My mother told me that most of the paintings were done in the 1920’s and capture images of places that now have been logged or paved over. One is of a dirt road, reportedly an early section of the Seattle-Tacoma Highway long before it would be transformed into Highway 99, a route that remains congested with traffic and stoplights, despite the ease of travel on Interstate 5 now running parallel to it.
The dark forests and roadless areas of Grandma’s paintings still remain but are now confined to protected areas like National Parks and wilderness areas. I am glad that she painted them, that she bore witness with her brush strokes.
My efforts as a painter ended when I put my crayons away into their cigar box in the first grade. Instead I took out my pencil and began writing: poems about birds and flowers, stories about my family’s camping trips, children’s stories. I started keeping a journal when I was twelve years old and have been doing so even since. During my teenage years it was mostly about boys.
By my early twenties I had married one of those boys and had begun hiking alone on those still protected mountain trails. I carried a spiral bound notebook with me, and in it I wrote about the challenges I had faced on the trail that day, notes about the wildflowers I had identified, the way the sunset cast soft light on my campsite, how the sun rose above the trees in the morning and the wonderful warmth that moment created, rapturous praise about the particular shade of red the vine maple took on in the fall. I didn’t paint the trees. I wrote about them.
The dirt road between Seattle and Tacoma is still there, preserved forever in my grandmother’s painting. So are the wildflowers and the vine maple and that moment in the sun. It is there in my spiral bound notebook.