The Madrona Project, Volume II, Number 1 (Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia) Edited by Holly J. Hughes
Empty Bowl Press | 2021 | 146 pages
The Madrona Project (Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia)is the second of a planned series of seven anthologies from Empty Bowl Press. The name honors the madrona tree that is held sacred by many Pacific Northwest tribes. This second anthology presents 64 women writers and artists who reflect on what it has been like to live and work in the Cascadia bioregion.
Planted throughout with vigorous seeds of poetry, essays, and visual art, this book is particularly relevant during unprecedented times of Covid-19, political polarization, social upheaval, and fearsome challenges to our ecosystem. Each contributor recognizes the Indigenous roots of the region where they reside. Nine of them bring their own Indigenous perspectives to these pages.
From the cover’s fanciful painting, “Valley of Love in Birdland,” by Linda Okazaki, the large format paperback opens to subtle divisions as pages traverse like a river with six tributaries alternating poetry and essay sections. Each section begins with unique images and/or text. Drawings by Susan Leopold Freeman enhance several pages as plants rise as if in a riparian zone. The poems and essays pay homage to geography, animals, and early human residents of Cascadia.
Because of today’s strife, these women writers also offer poems and essays that respond to racial violence, wildfire devastation, Covid-19 pandemic anxieties, Indigenous issues, and climate concerns. Essays inform and elucidate, such as one by Kristen Millares Young describing “[n]ot just geologic but cultural” fracturing. She writes, “Reader of the present, take note: the reader of the future will study our society for clues about what and whom we protected. They will see whether we preserved and shared our abundance.”
The initial poems celebrate nature and geography. Marybeth Holleman’s prose poem, “Wet,” delights with similes: “This rain is like seeds that disperse by attaching to a passing animal’s fur, so easily do I gather rain to my body.” Her adjacent piece, “Bear,” tells how the “acrid stench of decay fills the air as persistently as a cloud of mosquitoes on caribou.” The speaker is outside hanging clothes and spots two bears fishing the stream beside her cabin. There is apprehension and respectful coexistence.
Environmental, historical, and personal grief is a thread that runs through the anthology. Meredith Parker’s poem, “To Bear Witness,” speaks of the grief from watching a bird dying on the beach:
Here at this moment to bear witness,
to acknowledge the life that was, the immensity of his travels,
the sweetness of flight, wings tirelessly pumping,
ache of hunger right before a small fish is swallowed,
sating, fulfilling, free, and then it is time.
Besides grief, there is nostalgic remembrance of hardscrabble beginnings. In “The First Ten Acres,” a persona poem by Jana Harris, a daughter recounts her mother’s pioneer life, how her parents had kept borrowed wheat seed warm as they slept “inside the oxcart” in Oregon Country and later “dropped / each seed into a black well of earth.” Such narrative impact weaves a spell throughout this collection.
The four essays in section two focus on place, nature, exclusion, and righting history. Jill McCabe Johnson writes in “Seasonal Round” that colonial settlers had little comprehension that their “savage wilderness” was neither “unmanaged” nor “unoccupied.” She points out that even as U.S. history needs revising, “Colonial exploitation is not exclusive to the Pacific Northwest or even the Americas.”
In “Keeping the Story Alive,” a synopsis and story map about her grandmother who “was born into Laxgibuu (wolf) clan,” Sandra Jane Polzin reiterates a message that resonates throughout The Madrona Project—that stories reveal ancestry, giving us “a place to unfold memories.” Via repetition and reinterpretation through generations, such stories from the past ground us, nourish community, and help us grapple with present day challenges.
The pandemic encompasses searing sociopolitical issues excavated in section three. Sharon Hashimoto’s poem “Washington Covid Death Toll Passes 2,700: November 2020” uses the metaphor of a mobius strip and recalls how crows and humans mourn:
We shout as we witness a meteor-shape
plummeting toward us, the caws and swaths
of wings vertiginous. The sight alarms
me—a pattern as erratic as the spread
of a disease. But I know the starlings
are not invasive, not strange to themselves.
The flock wheels together—every bird shifts
Essays in the fourth section braid the natural world and Covid-19 times. Iris Graville, the first writer-in-residence for the Washington State Ferries, warns in “Not Just a Drill” that by “ignoring alarms sounded about coal, fracking, endangered owls and orcas and coral reefs, overdevelopment, and overpopulation, we’ve failed to ensure that our children (and grandchildren) won’t need lifejackets,” a metaphorical reference to necessities on a passenger ferry. This echoes warnings from K’Ehleyr McNulty in an earlier poem, “Unprecedented,” chastising us for not learning from the pandemic of a century ago and for straying apart from one another.
With realistic and optimistic poetry, section five includes a braided essay that weaves in poetry. Sara Marie Ortiz writes in “River” of her work in Native communities. “Every story is a birth story,” with narratives about the “cyclic nature of all things.” She admits that “I am struggling—as most are—to keep working, keep hoping.” She writes of sadness “rising up and the silt of it flowing and dropping back down as the river / needs. / It was a river, this poem.”
The adjacent poem by Jenifer Browne Lawrence, “Landscape with No Net Loss,” begins with “This is the river’s fingertip, pink bulb-end of a wild onion,” which exemplifies the anthology’s frequent semantic echoes between and among pieces.
One of many lyrical and thought-provoking poems, “Tulips and Garlic,” by Barbara Drake, reiterates a theme of seeds of hope: “Imagine a spring without tulips and garlic. Can you? / In the dark days of autumn, we must not neglect planting bulbs.” Perhaps obvious but a necessary metaphorical message.
Essays in the concluding section remind readers what we have learned about the importance of place as we have sheltered within our regions during the pandemic. Carolyn Servid’s title asks, “You Say This is Your Land. Where Are Your Stories?” She honors the rich oral tradition of Tlingit stories, reiterating that story and the human imagination are tools to help us see our way “through this moment in history—through the crises of climate change, politics, economy, social justice, and pandemic.” In her essay “To Love a Place,” Claudia Castro Luna writes that “Terrain and language dwell inside us.”
The last essay, by Kathryn P. Humes, “The Well-Being of the World,” asks, “How do we partner with plants, animals, and one another to bring back balance?” It is fitting that the final piece heralds a better future: “Imagine working together, spreading seeds,” Humes writes.
Editor Holly J. Hughes has gathered passionate, gifted writing and artwork within the covers of The Madrona Project. Her introduction describes 2020 as part of a “hinge moment” in history, calling for an informed and lyrical response to living in the tumult of recent years. This anthology is a timely plea for change, for recovery, for resilience, and for sustainability. It is a compendium of hope.
Mary Ellen Talley’s book reviews appear online and in print journals such as Compulsive Reader, Asheville Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, and Sugar House Review. Her poems have appeared in many publications including Raven Chronicles, Gyroscope, and Banshee, as well as in multiple anthologies. Her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. She resides in Seattle, Washington, and spent many years as a school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP.)