A Sense of Place
by Joel Huesby of Touchet, WA
My fingers are purple tonight. We just came back from picking blackberries at the base of the Blue Mountains. It was a great Sunday afternoon and I enjoyed spending it with my family. We have four children between the ages of 5 and 11 who have gotten much better at helping us fill the containers! We do this every August, just before the local county fair. “Our place” is on private property that my uncle rents for summer pasture. I have spent many days in that pasture, chasing cows down the long ridges and out of the brush in the bottoms during fall round up on my saddle horse, Peaches. Mostly I enjoyed these times, but I haven’t gone the past year or so. We all get so busy with our own plans and life fills in the gaps…
The berries are bigger down by the creek. My uncle warned us of cougars in the area so I kept a passive vigil as we pulled back the thorny briers to reveal the loaded vines beneath. It only took an hour of picking to get about 4 or 5 gallons. When we had our fill of berries, we turned to the wild plumbs and apples nearby and picked and ate some more. They were delicious, sweetened by the sun and mostly free from wormholes and the like. We picked some of the best and left the rest for the cows and bears.
I had proposed to my wife on the point of the ridge above us a couple miles 15 years ago. We were riding our horses… There is a great view of the valley from up there… I knew I was close to asking… She said YES! The rest is history…
A couple stopped by as we picked. This was unexpected because the gate is usually locked. She was a student in Spokane. He had farmed the steep slopes with a Caterpillar years earlier and said that his family had tried to purchase that place some time back. He asked me if he could still drive out the top. They had to be back in Portland that night and left after she picked a few berries.
Just up from the berry patch a short distance is a basalt rock outcrop into which the water from Cottonwood Creek has cut a yard-wide channel. It was said to be a popular place for Native Americans to gather – No doubt for reasons similar to our own! The kids were busy collecting wild turkey feathers for play Indian headdresses. We had just seen a band of them run over the bank as we pulled up. William found a dead crayfish, Emily found a snakeskin, Rachel was looking for Indian artifacts, and Katelyn was throwing rocks into the pool at the top of the chute. My wife and I sat on the smooth rocks with no particular agenda in mind. I listened to the water babble over the rocks. It sounded similar to what I had heard only a week ago in Seattle.
To the hour a week ago I had heard water babbling in the backyard fountains of an extraordinary home. It was the place of a Slow Food “convivium”, with a meal featuring our Pasture Finished Meats. The chicken we brought had been smoked the day before at a downtown café. It was exquisite, the engaging conversations the food, and the wine… What an evening! Thundering Hooves shared the podium with Don Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds conservancy. Among other topics, we talked of lost genetic diversity in our farm animals and cultivated crops – We depend on far too few species for the majority of our food production and we are vulnerable!
I thought about that Seattle evening there in the mountains picking berries. I thought about the plumbs and apples that had withstood killing frost, insects, and who knows what over the years – that these trees had “earned the right” to be there and produce whether someone was there to enjoy picking their fruit or not. (Fortunately for us, this particular genetic diversity goes on without our involvement.) I thought about the other lives that had used the same place over the years – The cows that get there water, the bear and cougar up the draw, the band of turkeys over the bank, my uncle’s cattle ranching, the Native Americans, the couple driving through, and us. A great feeling of a sense of place came to me, of being part of a timeless continuum of activity. Place is important.
My wife, Cynthia, is canning the blackberries and plumbs for winter right now, as a matter of fact. They’ll make great pies. The question may be asked, “So why are you in front of a computer right now when there’s work to be done!”
It was a great afternoon.