The highway flickers. We have driven east past Deming and into the foothills, where big leaf maples crowd the road. The leaves of this maple, which are larger than my hand, stand folded, like the gable of a house, one side yellow in the sun and the other blue in the shade. What light slips past the maple canopy has hard shadows. Yellow ovals of light fenestrate the darkly shaded highway. I close my eyes against the flickering light as we drive.
The folded maple leaves remain solarized on my closed eyelids. With my eyes closed, memory wells and quickly flickers no less than the light on the highway. The morning’s scenes flip past, and the maples themselves emerge hung in a yellow mossy fur that is dotted with epiphytic ferns. The morning’s maples merge with my first and other experiences with big leaf maples, making a kind of botanical collection of memories.
The Nooksack River is here, hiding among the hills. I am curious about the Nooksack and want to experience the river, want to walk on point bars, flip stones, and scoop river water into the palm of my hand. I look forward to memories of the Nooksack.
Views of the river are fleet at bridges and the few breaks in forest where the channel is near the highway. I sense the river’s shallowness and a glacial source in fast views of flat water with stone ripples and a flatter gray green color. When I can’t see the river, I sense its channel at a hill’s edge.
The hills are high and steep. Our highway meanders like the river around their ends. We drive in a flat-bottomed valley, accumulated surely through centuries of floods. Christmas tree farms tuck against the slopes. The trees are trimmed into tight cones. The hills, too, have been trimmed. There are scars of clearcuts among patches of second growth forest. Houses, both ramshackle and well kept, sit along the highway. Logging trucks park at some. Signs that proclaim support from the timber economy are tacked on frail sheds. There are empty houses partly reclaimed by shrubs and young trees in this lush, wet place. We see more horses than people and assume the horse economy to be robust. At the Equine Breeding Clinic, young colts romp in pasture. Up the road at Black Mountain Ranch, horses in paddock have their leisure. Further on, a young girl paces her horse among red barrels in a farm’s dirt enclosure.
“Flat scattered farms in the bends of the Nooksack” is how Gary Snyder described the place in his poem “Nooksack Valley,” which he dated February 1956. Snyder was situated “In a berry-pickers cabin/At the edge of a wide muddy field/Stretching to the woods and cloudy mountains,/Feeding the stove all afternoon with cedar” when his mind came to a stand-still. The smell of the cabin brought the memory of a childhood farmhouse and brought his 25 years awake in
Whole wasted theories, failures and worse success,
Schools, girls, deals, try to get in
To make this poem a froth, a pity,
A dead fiddle for lost good jobs.
The young man’s memories get mixed-up with expectation. Snyder slips the memories and the place with salmonid drive:
Steelhead run now
a week and I go back
Down 99, through towns, to San Francisco
Memory enjoins motion. There are thick, sludgy memories like wide, deep rivers that are impossible to wade, and we turn back from them to walk away. Other memories may be logjams, impounding our motion but building pressure, and, finally, we jump the banks to take a new course. How often has each of us wanted to remake ourselves in a new place? The enjambment in Snyder’s poem has the effect of logjammed memory—held-up in the moist cabin, his memories build-up, causing him to back-up along old paths before adopting a new course.
The old Nooksack River was like a metamorphic god, a shape-shifter. Its channel once slithered easily across its floodplain, but berms now contain the river against the loss of property. Near its mouth, logjams would impound the river, building a lake and the pressure to flow, and the hold would be temporary. Breaking the logjam could open new channels, and the Nooksack has moved its mouth from north to south, going from Lummi Bay and to Bellingham Bay. The new channel opened old wetlands, creating a new delta to spit logs into the southern bay. The old Lummi delta became wetland, overgrown with rushes, like a memory distilled from the rush of life, where the river no longer flows.
The Nooksack is quick to the sea. From the tips of any of its three tails, falling 4500 feet from glacial cirques, it runs to the sea in less than 75 miles. We follow the north fork, a tail that curves north and slips up into the North Cascade Mountains. The tail tip of the north fork turns south and lies cold against glaciers on the north face of Mount Shuksan. I can see the mountain when I walk on a plain below the peak to the edge of the river. The cobble bars at the river’s edge are light and bright and, when I step from the forest, I feel the frontal strike of heat reflected from the stones.
The milky river is also stone. The cold water pours gray from the palm of my hand. The turbidity comes not just from the fast water of snowmelt but also from the grinding of the glaciers and the sliding of snowfields on the slopes of Shuksan. The palest green of the river’s water is the finest stone, ground from the mountain and now suspended in the current. In the shallows, the river’s stone bed has magenta edges in brown water. It is only in the shadows, where the slow pools are overhung by forest and in the main channel where the current creases, that the river seems watery enough to be blue.
What I dislike about memory is the expectation it builds. Memories like the purity of pleasure, the dredge-like drag of regret, and the blueness of water lead us astray. Memory can ruin a river, although I doubt I shall ever forget the light pale loveliness of the Nooksack’s green water and cerulean shadows.
We stop where the Nooksack falls fast—dropping six feet in a reach of 50 feet—and the narrow channel of the river is contained in old forest. The forest feels as wet as the river. Fallen trees are soft as sponges; their barkless wood is slippery. The standing trees encased in moss have lineaments of dangling lichens.
Trees fall into the river channel and not all of the fallen have drifted to the river’s mouth. The trunks of thick cedars, some with crowns of root stumps, rest clumped high on the bars at the forest margin. I wonder how far a cedar trunk, two or three times as long as the width of this mountain reach, moves when it falls into the river at fast, high flood. The violence of cedar trunks banging boulders and shooting cataracts is unimaginable, especially when I rub my hand over the weathered trunks that lie, silent and gray, supported at river’s edge on boulders. These rough, drifted trunks are the driest objects of the river’s forest.
Fallen alders hang, pointing downstream, over the channel. These slim alders are topless, denuded of all branches, and partly stripped of bark. Unlike the gray trunks of drift cedars, these alders have freshly fallen this season, and their exposed wood is as ruddy as warm, live flesh. Crouched with my back against the slant of a boulder, the fleshy alder stabs like a premonition, a twisted memory construed forward. I look behind me. There is nothing bad—only teacups and a few of my wishes strewn about the stones.
Nothing changes as much as a river. Walk a river and every mile is different. Slumped on a Nooksack boulder, I watch the river strike a stone and spray. A run of memory splatters. Water tumbles in foam. Sheets coalesce, more resilient than memory, slide and divide as the water slips over the side of the stone. The waters run together too much like memories. How will I remember the Nooksack? Reach for a memory and it changes like a river.
* * *
I thank Pete McGregor for calling my attention to Gary Snyder’s poem “Nooksack River,” which I have used to develop this sketch.
“Nooksack River” by Gary Snyder was published in Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems (1965, Four Seasons Foundation).