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Sacred Spaces

In late August, I spent two weeks at the Mineral School, a small residency for artists and writers on the shoulders of Mt. Rainier, an active volcano in Washington state, the tallest of the Cascade Range. 

Mt. Rainier is enormous, rising almost three miles above sea level to 14,410 feet, with thirty square miles of glacial features. It’s familiar, visible from Interstate 5 at various points along the 212-mile trip from my home in the lower Columbia River estuary to Seattle and back. From certain places along the Columbia, we look for the tip of Mt Rainier—called Tahoma or Tacoma, among other indigenous names. It towers in the distance when you see it from Tacoma or Seattle. There’s a particular excitement in getting closer to, or more intimate with such a magnificent presence.

The Mt. Rainier National Park is the fifth oldest national park, formed in 1899.  The mountain itself measures 100 square miles, and it’s surrounded by ridges and valleys formed by the volcanic activity that has formed the region. Most of the rivers that originate on Mt. Rainier flow to Puget Sound in the northeast corner of the US, but two, including the Ohanapecosh meet the Cowlitz River, which drains into the Columbia and flows on past our house.

There wasn’t much signage in the park connecting it to the indigenous people who have lived here and have treaty ties to the land. The National Park Service describes its relationships with the six nations, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot, Yakama and the Cowlitz, but locates them firmly in the past, writing “All but the Cowlitz trace their modern tribal identity to one or more of three treaties signed in 1854 and 1855. The Upper Cowlitz, or Taidnapam, did not sign a treaty with the United States, but like the treaty tribes, maintained [sic] traditional ties to landscapes that later became part of Mount Rainier National Park.”

Or again, reading an archeological survey from 2006, when writers were becoming more specific about local indigenous Nations, “the only ethnographic account focusing specifically on Native American use of Mount Rainier alludes to continuing use of subalpine landscapes, travel about the mountain, and even use of Indian guides, such Wapowety (Meshal- Nisqually) and Sluiskin (Taitnapam/Upper Cowlitz –possibly Yakama), to direct would-be climbers and explorers along Indian routes to Mount Rainier. Even so, it is clear that by the mid to late 1800s, Native American use of Paradise, and Mount Rainer generally, was but a shadow of its former state.” Reading histories of America and trying to see an indigenous presence requires reading between the lines or seeing with a wider lens.

Mineral is a town of 202 that began with mining coal, which played out around World War I. It’s quiet here. The freeway is miles away. In the morning log trucks make the long curve on their way to Hampton Lumber Mills in Morton, their gears ratcheting up and down the hillside. The trucks return, hurrying home mid-day. In small towns you recognize the sound of your neighbor’s vehicles. I hear the neighbors talking on the sidewalk in the early evening.

At the residency, I’ve written but I’ve also explored. The southern entrance to the park follows the Ohanapecosh River through a forest whose beauty began to speak to my spirit. Lacy vine maples were bright green in the morning light between immense fir trunks. The park is filled with jade green alpine lakes, with meadows filled with wildflowers even this late in summer. I’m blessed by striking views of ridges with snowfields and glaciers. Last August, visibility was poor; residents were tormented by haze and ash from forest fires.

While I was at the residency, photos of the Osage cultural heritage trip to Blanchard Springs Caverns in Arkansas appeared. It was good to see details of the trip: grasses that the old Osages wove, pictographs, the work it took to navigate into the deepest parts of the caves. Hearing about the meaning Osages assigned to that amazing space underground, made me think of Osage families being forced to leave the Ozarks for Kansas. I imagined young children and babies traveling with their parents on that sad journey. It made me think of the people including young children, some babies crossing Mexico seeking safety now.

In the deep quiet, hundreds of swallows swirl mid morning. Roosters crow. The red brick Mineral School was built in 1948 and functioned as an elementary school with four large classrooms before it closed. The wide halls are lined with dark brown linoleum tiles; there’s a gym across a small breezeway.

Each of the artists at this small residency— we are three writers and one fiber artist from Texas—stays in an old classroom, 27’ by 30’, with fir flooring polished bright. Tall windows look on an enormous maple tree with a treehouse almost completely hidden in dense foliage. The mountain glows pink some evenings.

I’m staying in what was a library at one time, which feels fitting. I imagine school children sitting on the rug around a Windsor rocking chair in my room listening to a story. There’s an innocence here. It’s an open space full of light. It’s hard to compare it to today’s schools where teachers and children brace themselves for violence. We need sacred spaces like this mountain or the journey to the deep caves to refresh ourselves.