We have journeyed to an island where the beauty of the visible – not small – is eclipsed by the enchantment of fragrance. I am safer than Odysseus ever was – and anyway my Penelope is here with me – but I might be tempted to believe unlikely and mysterious powers dwell in a place so sublimely, so unexpectedly scented.
The island is a peninsula, in truth. It floats cradled by the Columbia River, whose coursing currents reveal nothing below a surface the quenching depth of unpolished greenstone. On either side, the maple- and fir-clad massifs of the Western Gorge shoulder about, protective, their slopes a misty morning blue. This land between them all lies flat and drowsing, open to the dreaming of the sky.
The morning is an early one, cool and fresh the way I treasure Northwest summers in my memory, when winter rains birth halfway frozen mud, or blue skies pitilessly proffer the bread-oven heat of the past few days. At the eastern end of the sky, the mountains cup a struck match between them, kindling yellow sunshine we won’t see for hours yet in the west. High up, light slips through in silver shafts. Ospreys greet it with cries of joy – or possibly it is their fish breakfasts they are celebrating.
Eyes on the sky, we have trodden on a patch of flowers before we can stop. They are – they were – perhaps 5 inches tall: improbable towers built of powder-pink puffballs stacked one atop the others. They spring back up behind us, releasing the cool scent of peppermint. Soon we notice them everywhere, miniature and fantastically sculpted, like we’re walking in a Dr. Suess tale. Their fragrance, carried on the river-stirred breeze, cannot make up its mind to calm or enliven; instead it does both at once. It’s the nearest thing to a hot cup of coffee since I gave up that particular contradiction.
No human-habituated land in the Northwest escapes the Himalayan blackberry, and always the blackberry escapes us. This most pernicious of plants makes partial apology by way of prolific sweet fruits in July and August, and this island has the sweetest I’ve tasted all summer. I keep stopping to sample and exclaim, and soon I am talking to myself; Jeremiah has wandered on without me, patiently pausing the conversation.
Not all the berries are still sweet; entering the trees near the island’s tip, we’re suddenly in a wine cellar. The heady pleasure of fermenting fruit recalls friendship and lazy afternoons, and, for me, another life. The scent carries a smile between us. Lewis and Clark called this place Strawberry Island, but the jealous blackberry has colonized that too.
I cannot pick apart the fragrances of the wildflowers tangled all about. Sweet pea and Queen Anne’s lace and tansy and thistle grow in exuberant clouds along the wide mowed paths, their joined breaths an untranslatable song of joyful purpose. No fans of the fray, chicory flowers on calf-high stalks rise at decorous distances through the drying meadows: milky, marble blue on the silken brown of toasted bread. Were this morning’s sky pale instead, and clear, this field would find its mirror.
In a landscape that interests me, I cannot stop thinking of words to remember it by. I seek among the limited structures of language for the way to convey a color or a scent. I put names to the animals and plants I know, and describe those I do not so that I may discover them. It is a form of respectful greeting, but its opposite may be one, too, and that I have trouble practicing. Wendell Berry: “To be quiet, even wordless, in a good place is a better gift than poetry.” Prose, too.
At the western tip of this scratch-and-sniff poem of an island, we pause beside the ruffling river. Wind rattles the cottonwoods, willows toss their heads under a high gray sky. I try to let this go and follow Berry. I loose my language and only hear, only see, only smell. Not interpret. Not speak.
I come back to myself understanding that I have forgotten, for a moment, where I am. This is how I know I have succeeded, however briefly. In the unnaming, a granted gift of merging.
This is a good place, well met.
My good place is called Hamilton Island, these days. About 40 minutes east of Portland/Vancouver on the Washington side, it contains the open meadows and river banks described, a pleasant forest, a historic site as interesting for what it leaves out as what it describes, a fine prospect on the massive and fascinating Bonneville Dam, and glorious Gorge views – if you don’t mind your views looking up. Several miles of mostly flat trails, paved and unpaved, wind around the entire place, including the small community of North Bonneville. There are no fees or permits required to park.