High Country

Paul Lindholdt

This Idaho high country stunts most growth.  Just outside the town of Salmon, buds of lupine and paintbrush, penstemon and pines, even the paddling mallard ducks grow tiny.

Late in May, songbirds have yet to lay their eggs and winds still agitate Williams Lake -- harsh habitat for creatures that adapt and even thrive.  Trout spawn or lunge for flies. Mule deer, their coats the color of basalt, clamber scabrock canyons.

Near the mouth of a stream that flows from the lake, my father Harold and I set up camp.  I wander down to the stream. In the vigorous water, amid fist-sized stones, an ouzel is searching for food, a bird found only in the western states.  Goldeneye ducks gabble and flash past, pursuing and eluding would-be mates.

Back at camp I find Harold tossing cracked corn to chipmunks and marmots.  He feeds them till they're stuffed and drowsy.  He likes to watch animals eat.  Already, at 4:00 PM, he has folded down his cot from the wall of the van.  From the block of ice we bought in Salmon, he has chipped chunks that swirl in his illicit cup of bourbon.

Six months earlier, in Seattle, Harold had been diagnosed with a prostate cancer so advanced the doctor said he had no alternative but to cut off his testicles, a procedure delicately termed an "orchiectomy."

Harold thanked the oncologist for saving his life.  My father, who liked to boast he had never been in a hospital, never taken an aspirin or suffered a moment's illness.  After I got his news from afar, my groin ached for days.

Williams Lake is deep and cold, one of the few waters in Idaho that still support healthy numbers of native rainbow trout.  Those fish swim from the lake each year to spawn, nosing north toward gravel beds on federal lands in Lemhi County.  At the opposite end of the lake, vacation homes line the shore, half of them displaying For Sale signs.  Their sewage, detergents and human waste, seeps into the lake and causes eutrophication -- what scientists call oxygen loss from nutrient loading.

Eutrophication -- a dizzy demand for oxygen placed on plant growth by aquatic ecologies -- strangles streams and lakes.  It occurs when sewage seeps from drainfields, when cow manure or fertilizers from crop lands cause a "bloom."  Biology students learn early that bacteria in a petri dish will expire from their own wastes.

What kind of a son am I to worry about water quality when his father is dying of cancer? Harold, you see, taught me to fight for fish and birds and ecosystems.  He started me hunting and fishing -- sports we gave up some years ago.  He taught me to keep public lands public. What caused his bloom of cancer cells we will never know.

On Williams Lake, fishermen cast bait from boats and banks.  The most successful among them haul home stringers and creels of native trout, the orange flesh bright and firm.  The fishermen want their luck to last forever, just as immigrants and Indians hoped the sockeye salmon runs in the Snake River would never cease.

At eight years of age I realized I would probably outlive my father, would have to undergo his death.  And I was scared and angry over that injustice.  I wanted to cry like the poet, "Do not go gentle into that good night!"  A couple times I even tried to pray I would go first, to die before he did, if only to avoid the grief of loss.

Our last day in camp, we drive high atop a ridge to get a new view of the land.  We are a feeling a bit dispirited that our holiday is at its end.  Just then a jet bomber bellows past us, drowning the calls of chickadees and setting our teeth on edge.

The blast sounds loud enough to fell a ponderosa pine, alien enough to make a cow elk lose her calf.  Ten miles from town, dozens from any military base, the ground beneath the feet of every animal trembles, and the air that buoys the birds gives way.

Native Americans tell me that one of the highest honors to be paid to the dead is to carry on their work.  That's what aim to do for Harold -- complete some of the conservation work he started years ago.  But I am worried about this land.  So many of us view the planet simply as a stepping stone to heaven, a phase of life to be endured and overcome, like some protracted battle or a run of rotten luck.

Paul Lindholdt (Ph.D., Penn State) is currently Professor of English at Eastern Washington University. He has won awards from Academy of American Poets, Society of Professional Journalists, and Washington Center for the Book. Lindholdt has served on editorial advisory boards for Journal of Ecocriticism (Univ. of British Columbia) and European Journal of American Culture (Univ. of Kent, UK). His chief research interest is environmental literature. His publications include: John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (Univ. Press of New England, 1988); Cascadia Wild: Protecting an International Ecosystem; History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians; Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West; The Canoe and the Saddle: A Critical Edition; and In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau (University of Iowa, 2011), winner of the 2012 Washington State Book Award in Memoir/Biography.

Email Paul Lindholdt

Go to next essay in this issue