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 there.

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).



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