Thomas Doty – Storyteller

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A Poetry of the Landscape

At Smith Rocks, in the Central Oregon desert, there is a poetry of the landscape native people understand well. These rocks are sheer cliffs of red and brown and orange, rising several hundred feet above the Crooked River into the blue of the desert sky.

Early in the morning the rocks hum with the cooing and stirring of birds. Cottontails freeze as still as shadows along a trail that switchbacks from the top of the rim rock, through sage brush and junipers, to the bottom of the canyon. Beavers swim the river. Trout break the surface, stretching for bugs. An eagle circles overhead ... the dark center of a cloud.

Sound travels in whispers on currents of wind. The first sun burns the rocks orange and red, rocks which are called "the Rock People" by local Indians. "They're the oldest people around," said a Northern Paiute woman. "They deserve our respect."

At the bottom of the canyon a footbridge crosses the river. Trails lead off most every direction to Red Wall, Misery Ridge and Asterisk Pass. Though these rocks have been sacred to Northern Paiutes for centuries, the names on the trail sign as wholly the invention of whites, mostly rock climbers.

Smith Rocks is famous for having some of the best climbing in North America. Most days climbers hang like spiders across the cliffs. But they pay for their sport of ropes and battery-powered rock drills and the scars of their hardware. Climbing accidents -- even deaths -- are not uncommon events.

Upriver past the purple and red of October wildflowers, past willows turning colors, the river narrows. Here time moves not in jerks and stops, but flows smooth and continual. Time becomes what Northern Paiutes call Mythtime or Dreamtime, the time when myths were made.

A raven swoops out of a cave 500 feet up. His voice mimics the creak of the rocks as they expand and contract through the cold and heat of the day.

By late afternoon, shadows cut into the canyon like weather. The smell of sage grows stronger as the air cools. Crickets call down the stars. And all that is left of the sunset is haze along the river. Holes high in the cliffs open like windows to the stars.

The Indians say that if you sleep here with an ear to the earth, you'll hear the slow growing of junipers and the long hiss of underground rivers.

The moon rises over the canyon, cold as a winter sun. The solitude of being in Dreamtime comes with the flow of the river, the cold shadows of night, and finally, with sleep. Here is a poetry of the landscape native people understand well.