(An Excerpt from TREK TO TABLE MOUNTAIN: SEASONS OF STORIES)
For several years a legend has sauntered around the rugged country of the Greensprings in southern Oregon. Like all good legends, it grows as it sloshes through creeks and rivers, traipses into canyons and wanders deep into the shadows of old growth forests. Eventually the legend clambers up a steep ridge to the towering height of a mountain peak. If the legend survives the climb, it finds a mythic place in the landscape and in the hearts of people who call the Greensprings their home.
This legend tells of an old man who spends his winters in the abandoned fire lookout on the summit of Table Mountain. Like an ancient character in a many-layered story, he is many images woven into one ... the wise man on the mountain peak, the hermit in the forest chapel, a monk in his cell studying texts, an elder with a vivid memory of the old time stories and how things used to be, the old man who abandoned the weight of the world to search in the wilderness for the song of his heart....
The story says that before he came to Table Mountain, the man traveled nearly every day of his life. As an anthropologist and linguist, he was obsessed with saving native cultures -- myths, languages, folklore, history, songs -- and he scribbled nearly every word ever spoken to him. He filled notebook after notebook with observations, insights and shreds of folklore and language. He stashed hundreds of boxes of notes in "safe" places to be retrieved at a later time when something might be done with the raw data. He put what little money he earned into second-hand clothes, fuel for his rig and into notebooks and pencils.
As years went by, his obsession to collect cultures never slowed. He rarely enjoyed his travels or noticed much of the world as it breezed by him. There was too much to be done. Ancient civilizations were being lost, and quickly. Those moments between native informants were shadowed with the worries and troubled dreams of a riveted urgency. As years went by, he forget where the notebooks had been stashed.
Each time he traveled to a new interview, he was certain that a dozen informants were dying at that very moment -- perhaps the last speakers of their native languages -- and he would never be able to record their stories. They would be lost to the world forever. Once he had a friend run over his legs with a car to keep him out of the army so he could continue working. Another time he gave a dying informant morphine to keep him alive a little longer, long enough to scribble another story and a few more words from a dying language.
More years went by. He grew old. His clothes wore thin. Even on the hottest days he wore a threadbare jacket to hide his shirt that was split up the back. His rig labored and chugged with each trip. He tried to keep up the pace of his youth, but he was tired. The old man slowed down.
One fall morning, as he sat exhausted, he looked away from his field notes and noticed a mountain peak brushed white with a light dusting of new snow. It was beautiful. The longer he gazed at the mountain the less tired he felt. He put his field notes on the ground. His felt light, unburdened. At that moment he replaced his obsession with a new horizon. He let go of everyone elses stories and began to think about his own.
He stored his field notes in his memory, left behind his rig, and slowly made his way to the summit of the mountain. He climbed the rickety steps to the top of the old fire lookout and looked out upon the world. He tossed away his mental debris and began to contemplate what was left of his life ... his own place in the great story of the world.
As winter neared, the old man gathered firewood, got the stove working, carried in food and water, fuel for a lantern, and repaired the old cot and heaped it with blankets. As snowdrifts closed the roads and trails, he gazed upon the landscape where he had spent his life and everything looked foreign.
All winter, during the storytelling season of long nights, his mind traveled through every story he had ever heard. As though stories were as real as the landscape, he put himself into each narrative and began to experience each story as if he were there. As he traveled through stories he traveled through seasons and watched the landscape evolve as each story changed.
In the spring, he walked down the mountain and discovered the relationship between stories and walking ... the rhythm and pace of the story, the measured feet of the poetry of the language, each step shuffling through story and landscape, the silence between the words and between each breath of the warm breeze. He spoke new versions of the stories as he walked. The earth warmed, trees leafed out, spring sunlight pushed away the shadows of winter. With each word of each story, with his own presence as the storyteller, the old man recreated his world as spring remakes winter with the warm-hearted telling of its arrival.
The old man walked through shifting storyscapes of spring and summer and into the fall. He never felt alone. His companions were stories and the places where they continue to thrive. Before the first snow, he returned to Table Mountain for another winter of contemplation and story making.
He remembered that he had first come to the mountain with the Takelma elder Gwishgwashan. It was a November day, ages ago. He was on one of his many ethnographic field trips. But this time he returned not as a collector of stories, but as a story himself.
He became a legend. Perhaps someday hell become a myth. He soon forgot those fixated field trips of his former life. He forgot his troubled dreams and worries. He even forgot his name. What he remembers are the stories which are the summit of his life. As he looks out from the lookout, he opens his eyes wide and the landscape feels like home.
The story says that he has few visitors. He is gone on his walks for most of the year, and when snow closes the mountain roads, he is cut off from the rest of the world. He is alone in his snowy lookout, spinning and re-spinning tales, in the shadows of the long nights and in the warm glow of lantern-light and firelight. Sometimes someone comes to visit and finds the old man in his lookout. The old man tells one of his stories and the visitor takes the story home where it is told again and again. A few folks have come across the old man on his walks, and likewise, they are each given a story to take home. The stories are not lost after all.
This legend is about many things and so it is destined for a long life. It has been written as it has been told, season after season. The facts shift from version to version but the truths of the legend never falter and remain unchanged as the legend continues to grow.