The following article appeared in the Billings (MT) Gazette on Sept. 28, 2019.
By Matt Witt
It was 8:30 p.m. on a late July evening in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness when an hour-long barrage of one-inch hailstones finally stopped pounding my tent above Native Lake.
The lightning, which had been so close I couldn’t finish saying “one, one thousand” before thunder boomed, had finally moved about five miles away.
Hearing only a slight drizzle, I grabbed my camera and crawled out of the tent. The light was low, but pink sunset clouds were still reflecting in nearby tarns that were surrounded by the newly fallen hail.
In the other direction, dense clouds and the lake itself were glowing with the most vibrant purple I’d ever seen.
This scene was just one of the highlights of nine days I spent as an Artist in Residence for the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) this past summer.
In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, ABWF sponsors several Artists in Residence each summer to spend seven to ten days in the wilderness, drawing inspiration from the beauty and solitude for their painting, writing, musical compositions, or other work.
For me, the artist residency in an ecosystem very different than where I live in rural Oregon gave me unusual opportunities to apply my “Closer to Nature” approach to photography, focusing in on simple details and uncluttered images in an attempt to see nature’s beauty with fresh eyes.
I photographed a sandhill crane silhouetted against a dramatic yellow sunset.
An intensely yellow-orange lily flower was reflected in a lake.
A rainbow appeared above trees colored with red sunset light.
Textures caught my eye on big boulders that I later learned were fossilized coral.
I had a relatively rare encounter with a pika and photographed a lone whitebark pine – both species in jeopardy as climate change threatens the cold environments they require.
As a follow-up to this artist residency, I’m now sharing these and many other images with ABWF to use in its educational work promoting and maintaining wilderness, as well as posting them for the public at MattWittPhotography.com.
With the high-altitude weather sometimes turning harsh, and no one else around for much of the time, I had plenty of time to think about the people who survived in this wilderness for thousands of years without having a car at a trailhead or housing to go back to with electricity and heat. Given how much time most of us spend sheltered by those comforts, it seems more important than ever to protect wilderness and all the living things that depend on it.
This summer, two other artists took part in ABWF’s program. One was Stephanie Rose (StephanieRoseArtist.com), a painter who used a Forest Service cabin as a her base of operations.
“I painted a collection of field studies, each of which seared into my memory my impressions of a particular place,” Rose said. “I will use these field studies to grow paintings in the studio, where I am able to further distill the motif I want to communicate to other people.”
The other was Marc Beaudin (CrowVoice.com), a poet and theater artist who worked from a remote Forest Service cabin up the Boulder River south of Big Timber.
“I finished a manuscript of poetry called Life List, where each poem honors a different bird species that has made an impact on my life and writing,” Beaudin said. “Having several days and nights without electricity, and all the disruptive technologies that come with it, meant there was nothing to take me away from my work, and having the power and beauty of the mountains, forest and river around me meant constant inspiration to keep at it.”
This was the sixth year the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation has operated its Artist in Residence Program, according to David Kallenbach, ABWF’s executive director.
“I’ve been astounded by how many people have found out about the opportunity and by the diverse qualities of the artists who have participated in the program – from a videographer to a paper-making artist to a composer, as well as painters, writers, and poets,” Kallenbach said.
To learn more about the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation and how to get involved in its many volunteer opportunities, see ABWilderness.org.
This poem, together with this photo, was published in the July/August 2019 edition of Jefferson Journal, the magazine of Jefferson Public Radio serving Northern California and Southern Oregon from Mendocino and Redding to Eugene and all communities in between.
Madrone on the Hill
By Matt Witt
The old madrone tree
stands by itself
at the very top of the hill
above our house
in southern Oregon.
In spring, small bell-shaped flowers.
In summer, peeling red bark
on a smooth yellow-green core.
In autumn, berries that feed quail,
raccoons, and bears.
When winter snow and fog
make it hard to see,
the old madrone stands tall
and waits for spring.
Near the bottom of the hill,
the grave of John Beeson
who came here to farm
with his wife and son
just before the Civil War.
He could climb this hill
for a longer view
and see the Table Rocks,
and Bear Creek flowing
to the Rogue River,
all millions of years
in the making.
he also saw
native people killed
by men who proclaimed
their Christian faith.
spoke at meetings,
until a mob told him to
pack his things
Back east, he published
“A Plea for the Indians,”
made his case to President Lincoln,
gave speeches in
New York and Boston.
If John Beeson could stand
with this giant madrone today
he would see a town
where anti-immigrant posters
appear in the night.
But also where
three hundred residents
defended a local mosque.
Season after season
John Beeson is still here,
like our old madrone
at the very top of our hill.
This poem was published Feb. 8, 2019 by New Verse News.
TIC TAC TOE
By Matt Witt
As a child
I played tic tac toe.
Should I go here,
or should I go there?
Then I learned:
you never win
if the other person goes first
with an X in
the middle square.
Olivia tells the city council
she and her son
had to move three times
after rent increases
left nothing to spare.
She works at Walmart
but after the rent
the paycheck covers only
food and bus fare.
Frank, who builds expensive homes
and has fifty rental units,
tells the council he would love to
help people like her,
he really would,
but prices are
whatever the market will bear.
The X in the middle square.
This article was published in the Medford Mail Tribune.
Face to Face with a Bull Elk in the Redwoods
By Matt Witt
There I was, with no sign of an impending encounter with a bull elk, as I hiked the remote and deserted Friendship Ridge Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park south of Crescent City before Labor Day.
As I walked through the giant trees, I was thinking about the fact that while redwoods can be more than 300 feet tall, they have very shallow root systems. The reason they can withstand strong winds or floods is that the roots of many trees in a grove are intertwined. They are like many communities in nature, I thought – they are stronger together.
My thoughts were interrupted, though, by seeing fresh elk scat along the trail. This put me on alert because it was rutting season, when Roosevelt bull elk can be particularly aggressive.
I came around a corner, and there stood a young bull elk, twice the size of local deer, its impressive antlers towering above me, eating foliage from the side of the trail.
He looked at me with interest, but when I stopped, he went back to grazing, showing neither aggression nor fear.
The slope the trail cut through was too steep and dense for me to be able to go around, so I decided to wait, and to take photographs in the meantime. Surely, he would leave the trail to go up or down the slope, opening the way for me to pass.
No such luck. He liked having his feet on a flat trail. He ate. And ate. And ate.
Growing impatient, I decided to see what would happen if I cautiously took some steps toward him, but anytime I did, he turned his 850-pound body to face me. Not wanting to be one of those fools you see in the news who provoked a wild animal by encroaching on its space, I backed up again.
Soon after, he decided to stop eating and chew his cud – to regurgitate some of what he had eaten back into his mouth for a second chew.
So he lay down – right in the trail -- to do so. And chewed. And chewed. And chewed.
By now, an hour had passed. I had planned to complete a 7.5-mile loop through the redwoods to the coast and past several big waterfalls. I had no intention of going back and no way to go forward.
Just then, two people appeared. We eventually discovered that if the three of us stood side by side and walked slowly toward the elk, he would turn away and slowly walk along the trail in the direction we were trying to go. For the next mile and a half, the three of us walked together, with the elk leading the way. The three of us, apparently, were a little like the redwoods – we were stronger and stood taller as a group than as one alone.
Once the elk finally left us and the two other hikers went on their way, I went back to marveling at this species of tree that has been on earth for at least 240 million years. Ninety-six percent of the original old growth has been logged, and climate change now threatens what’s left. I could only hope that the cathedral-like feeling I was experiencing – and perhaps quirky encounters with Roosevelt elk – will be there for future generations.
(Originally published in the literary and arts journal, Cirque, Summer 2016 edition.)
By Matt Witt
A long-haul trucker’s got his shiny red rig parked
on an early Wednesday morning
off Highway 395 in remote eastern Oregon
at a wildlife area at the edge of Lake Abert
where the few tourists that pass by
might stop to snap a scenic picture with their phones
and move on.
Ever since GPS technology came in,
the company knows where he is
every minute of every trip –
exactly where he stopped
and for how long
(after all, how long does a person need
to eat breakfast or make a bathroom stop?)
But GPS doesn’t know everything,
and neither does the company.
They know that he stopped
a regulation amount of time to sleep
in that cramped compartment behind the cab.
They don’t know that he walked
along the curving shore
in his t-shirt that used to be white
and watched the young sun light up
the ridges in the salt-covered mud.
They don’t know that he saw
silver bands of seepage
trying to snake their way
from the bottom of the hill
out to the little bit of actual water
way out in the middle
of the mostly dried-up lakebed.
They don’t know that he thought,
about all the climate change
he wishes he did not see
everywhere he drives.
They don’t know that he climbed
a little ways up the hill behind
so he could see how the water appeared
out of focus and dreamy
with reds, oranges, and yellows
as the fast-moving clouds
kept changing the light.
They don’t know that he sat
for a few minutes
in the silence
doing absolutely nothing
except watching the geese
waddle away from him
like they used to do
at the marsh outside of town
when he was a boy.
In a few days
he will pull that shiny red rig
into the company terminal
and the records will show
that he got as much mileage
out of this trip
as he could,
and that he never wasted
even a single moment.