Public Lands Steward: In the Lap of a Mountain


Joe Kobler

The Glenwood Valley in Southern Washington is modestly sized, as valleys go. It lies nestled in the broad skirts of Mt. Adams, dwarfed by her looming, snow mantled shoulders. The valley gives home to a small town, an impressive profusion of cattle, and Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It is here, through the collaborative efforts of Mt. Adams Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and AmeriCorps, that I find myself residing on this fine day in early July.


I have to believe that as thinking beings immersed in time every experience alters us, perhaps imperceptibly, perhaps immensely, but enough so that you and I, intrepid reader, are not the same people we were yesterday, or will be tomorrow. I know relatively few things, but I can tell you that summer in Glenwood is a sharp contrast to the sere, palm lined streets of Los Angeles I left behind me; streets I’m sure still shimmer and swelter under a savage southwest sun, saturated with the steady roar of restless traffic, the syrupy tang of smog, and the wafting scent of sizzling carnitas.

I can also tell you of the ways I have changed, and of the most immediate difference here: the quiet. A silent stillness holds reign over Conboy Lake Refuge, unopposed save for the silver whisper of the unfettered wind telling the trees of the many places he’s travelled, far and wide and back again. It is a silence that settles first into the eyes, a new depth to the gaze, a calmness not languid but centered, steady as the regard of still pools. There is nothing sinister to the silence, it simply exists, natural and ubiquitous. Slowly and softly it steals into the bones until a nod becomes a conversation, a work roughened hand as it rests on the truck seat becomes a tale told by the curl of fingers and the tracks of calluses.


            That is not to say that we are always so reticent. My AmeriCorps companion Greg Hendricks and I croon soothing Beach Boys songs back and forth to each other as we stalk bullfrogs through the high rushes; we squabble and squall when hordes of catfish thousands strong flood into our nets overnight. Our proud gasps of triumph after chasing down and banding Greater Sandhill Crane colts move as ripples along the satin curtain of quiet. Certainly we have changed, but remain, as ever, admixtures, studies in contradiction, as variegated and colorful as the blotched backs and rosy underbellies of the Oregon Spotted Frogs we battle daily to save.


            The other change I can relate to you emanates from the mountain. It is her regal presence that dominates the valley, a massive, majestic bulk. She slumbers peacefully, her breathing is the ponderous tread of eons and her pulse the deliberate churn of long buried magma. Most mornings she hides her face beneath covers of cloud, but I’ve woken by her side enough times to know her snow splashed features as well as I know my own. It is a sight which never grows stale, a resounding crescendo of force and might and time and scale standing stark against the infinite azure sky. Mt. Adams has humbled me, unburdened me, and daily held captive my eyes and mind. I bear her indelible mark, and henceforth shall carry its weight within me wheresoever on this vast earth I roam.


            There are likely other transformations, subtler, harder to articulate, unrealized, or yet to come, that I will not at this point endeavor to enumerate or impart. I feel I have said enough, and so very simply would like to thank the wonderful staff of the Mt. Adams Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the invaluable opportunity they have provided for me to learn and grow in a magnificent new place. As I close our brief time together, dear reader, it is with the earnest hope that when the echo of these final words fades from your mind you are left, at the very least, with the fleeting impression of wind murmuring against the monumental silence of a patient mountain, as faint as the dance of eyelashes down a cheek.