Images of an Eternal Landscape
Photographs by Susan Oleksiw
Okanogan County in Northern Washington was one of the last areas
of North America to be settled by European descendants. It is a
vast territory of high desert country, pine forests, and meandering
rivers, but its first attraction to large numbers of non-native
people was its gold and silver veins. Towns sprouted and died around
the value of a mine, the landscape was crossed and re-crossed by
ever-hopeful families, and the music of the names given to the
area lived on in a poetry blending Indian words and records of
moments poignant, sorrowful, and humorous—Okanogan, Ruby
City, Loop Loop Creek, Rattlesnake Canyon, Twisp, Door Knob Rock,
Mazama, Mud Mountain, Buzzard Lake, Umatilla, Lost Creek, Lake
Osoyoos, Mount Misery, Ragtown, and Similkameen.
The stories of lives lived in this landscape are as mighty and
as fluid as the mountains and rivers, stories of living in a log
cabin with sod on the roof that rained mud in the rainy season,
or of delivering the mail by tramping determinedly over a trail
in winter with frost-bitten feet and only a thin cape for warmth,
a story of survival told without a hint of bravado, or of gratitude
for the clean air and freely owned land and the food that grows
No one in the 21st Century can view this landscape through the
eyes of the men and women of the 19th Century who settled here.
Where a young wife sees wilderness to be cleared and tamed, we
might see a pastoral setting drawing us in for a meditative walk.
In a log cabin with a dirt floor we can’t imagine staying
clean and yet a woman of an earlier era was proud of the perfectly
starched and ironed blouses she returned to the successful woman
who owned the hotel. We don’t expect a teacher today to face
down a man with a gun who wants to take away her school building.
The voices emerging from this land have confidence, determination,
passion and compassion, pragmatism, and humor—all the qualities
anyone needs for a lifetime. Surprisingly, they do not express
fear or self-conscious religiosity or pettiness. Perhaps the landscape
knocked it out of them.
Photographs of Okanogan County, WA, were
exhibited at the Sawyer Free Library, Gloucester, MA, in April
2009. The photography exhibit was inspired by several visits
to the area and Oh How Can I Keep On Singing? Voices of
Pioneer Women, Poems by Jana Harris (Ontario Review Press,
New York, 1993).