David James Duncan turns loss into great success

Thoughts from a great Western writer on loss, wilderness and moving on.
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Oregon's Wallowa Mountains

Thoughts from a great Western writer on loss, wilderness and moving on.

“Catch and Release: What we hold on to, what we let go, and the one that got away,” was the evocative theme for the 25th Summer Writers Gathering of Fishtrap last week in the remote Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon.

With a theme like “Catch and Release,” writer David James Duncan was an excellent, even pre-destined, choice as the keynote speaker. As well as being the author of the award-winning and best-selling novels The Brothers K and The River Why, Duncan writes often of rivers, fish and fishing. (See his story collection River Teeth and the non-fiction collection, My Story as Told by Water.)

Speaking to the gathering of 200 writers and readers, Duncan pondered “the strange physics of moving from grief to storytelling,” noting that “loss forges writers and storytellers by the thousands.” His own early and searing loss was of his older brother, to congenital heart disease, when Duncan was 13 and his brother 17.

He dealt with that loss not only by writing but by connecting to the wild and to wilderness. His keynote, “Let the Wild In,” told the story of how doing just that offers a healing connection to wonder and mystery.

The setting of the Summer Fishtrap gatherings at the foot of 9,000 foot Joseph Mountain and near the shores of Wallowa Lake is a good place to speak of “letting the wild in.” Here, at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area and adjacent Hell’s Canyon Wilderness Area, wild is all around you.

From the nearby trailheads into Eagle Cap a hiker can explore a rugged bowl of the Wallowa Mountains that shelters fifty-five glacier formed lakes. The remoteness of the setting is one of the things that makes the Fishtrap Summer Writers Gathering unique, according to Fishtrap Executive Director, Ann Whitfield Powers.

As it happens, the Fishtrap theme, “Catch and Release: What we hold on to, what we let go, and the one that got away,” is an especially poignant theme for my wife, Linda, and me this summer. She has just retired from being a school principal in Seattle. We are in the process of taking over the cabin that has been in my family for five generations now.

We both revel in the cabin’s past — family photos are spread on the cabin’s living room floor as I write — even as we make some changes for the present and future. The big change is adding a second bathroom with a shower. This may not sound like much, but after sixty years of getting by with one tiny bathroom and a small tub, I can assure it is a certifiable “big deal.” 

Another big deal, literally, was taking down a withered giant, a 160 foot tall White Fir, earlier this summer. Felling it, round by round, (done by a local arborist) was no small feat. The wood “rounds,” many of which weighed 150 to 200 pounds, fell to one particular spot in the yard, which is now a mini-ground zero of pulverized earth. We could have re-seeded the spot with the clover favored by my father (and the deer), but instead have chosen to make it into an outside campfire circle, surrounding it with granite stone excavated from the hole for the foundation of the new bathroom.

As a new generation — our own — takes over at the cabin and prepares for the visits of a new crew of grandchildren, we do have to decide what to hold on to and what to let go. The bulky 1950’s Admiral radio/ record player console fell into the “let go” catagory, as did most of a collection of “The Harvard Classics.” In recent years the Classics had been enjoyed mostly by ground squirrels who found in its tomes a source of highly literary nesting material.

We hold onto much — my grandmother’s braided rugs, my grandfather’s fishing flies, a ring of comfortable old chairs gathered around the stone fireplace. But most of all, we hang onto the family history and stories here at the edge of wilderness.

David James Duncan spoke of “the thread of connection” he sensed when he “let the wild in.” Summer places, like our cabin, also offer a “thread of connection” not only to the wild but to place and family. I’m not sure whether it is we who are holding on to it (the cabin and its associations) or if “it” is holding on to us. Perhaps it is some of both. In any case, I’m grateful.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.