By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


I’ve lived most of my life in Washington and Utah. Throw in all the driving I’ve done in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, and it feels like a head start if what you want to be is a writer. All that size. Everywhere. Iconic and mythic. It means I can write new origin stories like “The Woman Who Gave Blackberries to the World” and no one’s going to demand I have at least two sources. And blackberries are worthy of an origin story. I learned that from being born in Washington and by eating them.

What I’m talking about, probably, is place, and about how it shapes what (and maybe even how and why) we write. It’s been on my mind since August 19th, which is when J.P. Dancing Bear paid me a really cool compliment on his radio show Out of Our Minds. He told me that when he thinks about true poets of the West—poets whose work is really connected to place—I’m the first one who comes to mind. Thank you, Bear!

What made him say that? It can’t be all the road signs and place names in my work; they’re rarely ever mentioned. It can’t be my use of scientific names to differentiate one tide-pool anemone from another; I don’t do that. Washington’s state flower is the rhododendron, but I think right now is the only time I’ve ever typed the word “rhododendron”.

My guess is that it has more to do with making up new myths. For instance, I have a poem called “What Any Stone Can Tell You” that starts:

When the earth discovered it was Earth,
its astonishment became canyons,

and its million years of laughter
made them deep.

I suppose people might raise their hands and point out that wind and rivers aren’t laughter, but those aren’t the kinds of people reading poems in the first place. In another poem called “Born and Raised in the Shadow of Mt. Rainier,” I start this way: “In the Old Songs about Washington, salmon nested in trees.” And it turns out I didn’t totally make that up. Not if you think of tree roots as underground branches. Not if you think of nesting as letting go (like sleep, just forever), transforming, becoming nitrogen. What happens—I learned this a few days ago—is that most of the salmon the bears take out of rivers aren’t just eaten right there. A lot get carried deeper into the woods. I dig that place-specific Northwest detail. I love thinking of bears as these massive, clawed, hungry, accidental gardeners whose table scraps fertilize forests. Trading that for a pipeline down the coast of B.C.’s Inner Channel seems like something only the most idiotic and soul-blind would do.

We’ve always had myths and fables—storytelling—to help us know the difference. At least that’s how I see it. How I see it goes something like this: Storytelling is a good way to praise + It’s also a good way to warn and mourn + Myths are an archetypal story form + The West is mythic, or it ought to be = So I can’t really help it; I have to write about, and from, this place… about its owls and wildfires and neighbors and raccoons, about its mountains increasingly lassoed by cul-de-sacs, about its need for more wolves and empathy. I grew up not far from Puget Sound. I’d rather eat clams than a steak.

Using plus signs just now reminds me of something from my junior year in high school. We started at 7:45, which meant we started in blackness during the winter. The 49th parallel. The days are short. They start late and end early. My first-period class was trigonometry, and out the back window one morning I saw a thin line of orange outline Mt. Rainier. Just there, all of a sudden. Like a single orange tracing, a black silhouette. Another minute and the sun was rising. And this was Washington, overcast, the whole sky ceilinged, so the sun split into streaks of light—pinks and reds and whatever—on the undersides of the clouds. And then things filled in and blended, and the sun was halfway up behind the mountain, and the scene out the window was another January morning…. I got a B+ in trig that year, or maybe even an A. But those three minutes are the only part I remember.



Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 4th Annual Contest Winner and Issue 30.

Photo of brown bear with salmon by Jim David, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.