Hell's Canyon, ID


By what means do we come to value and care for a place? There are lands that all will love through sheer beauty or monstrosity of landscape. The National Parks come to mind, with striking monoliths and vast expanses of a humbling scale. That’s too easy. I am far less interested in these than in the small places, the quiet ones, the ignored.

For some, such as myself, the love of these places comes quickly, strongly. For the soul open there is staggering beauty all around. For others it is more difficult. To them, these sculptured hills and riverbanks at worst may be little more than a good place to launch a powerboat or take a nice photo of the canyon. Others may perhaps notice that a number of wildflowers are blooming, or that the Snake River bulges with winter melt. For those that take the time to get out and walk the earth here, beauty pours in. Upon sharing their paths over the hillsides the deer and mice become brethren, and envy for the flight of birds pulls strong. The basalt rocks no longer seem as homogenous lumps rising darkly from the grass. Rather each is seen as individual, for no two bear the same patterning of lichen, each speckled with technicolored crust in a new and interesting way. One sees that the wildflowers appear in great variety. Lupine, yarrow, monkey flower, mullein, balsam, and many others bloom. Each hill becomes special; here now is the hill for the best sunsets, there the hill where one might best catch the calls of the cricket and the meadowlark, up there the hill for the best view of the river canyon. The sense of power and ownership over the land that is present in the human condition diminishes too as we walk upon it. We come to learn that the small rattlesnake coiled under the rock likely has more say over the land than we. The lazuli buntings courting in the creekside grove hold dominion there, and the quail on vigilant watch atop the rock pile could speak more to topology than the greatest surveyor. These creatures call this place home, they know its secrets and changes in ways we cannot begin to imagine. We might do well to remember our place here as visitors. We ought not overstay our welcome. I have some advice for those who come with powerboats or RVs, for those inclined experience nature through the safety of windows: stick your keys in your pocket, tighten up those bootlaces and walk. Walk to the top of that hill. Okay, fine, that small one will do. Stop and listen for a minute to the crickets and the meadowlark. If you’re up for a challenge, see if you can find one. Set aside a good hour for that task if you wish to attempt it. Have your kids tell you which way the wind blows, or figure it out yourself if you are so unencumbered. Feel it there on your cheek, warm and carrying the scents of the grasses. If you're lucky, or you time it just right, at sunset the light catches an army of seeds and spider silk floating by, golden and vibrant in the cooling air.