A Fluid and Untamed Beauty
by Tim McNulty

Winter has settled over Hoh Valley on the western slope of the Olympic Peninsula, and the air is opaque with wetness. Moisture swathes the stiff sword ferns and glistens on leathery leaves of salal. It brightens mosses and shines the dark, knobby roots of trees. Beads of water gleam on the bare limbs of cottonwoods and alders along the river. Drops drip noisily through the spruce trees. Limbs droop; cobwebs sag. Within minutes my pants are soaked through.

The blue-gray rush of the Hoh River, silty from glaciers on the flanks of Mount Olympus, is deep and quiet here. I can hear the full-throated song of Pacific surf undiminished a mile distant. There, at the coalescence of river and sea, the Hoh rejoins the ocean that gives it birth. A circle becomes complete.

Far off, beyond the verge of cresting waves, vast amounts of ocean moisture merge with the atmosphere. Winds and currents push warm, wet air against the rise of the continent’s edge where it cools, condenses and falls as rain and snow. It is a cycle as common as day, as new as moisture dripping from a hemlock bough, as old as the earth.

The Hoh River offers its burden to the sea: glacial silt, sand and pebbles, its gift of nutrients garnered from inland forests. In winter flood, coastal rivers unload cobbles of stone and flotillas of uprooted trees. They rumble together in the waves, battered like shipwrecks. Then, strewn along ocean beaches, the old logs weather to the color of winter skies. Rocks and sediments speak of a slower cycle, the winnowing and eventual rebuilding of the land itself.

Here on the Olympic Peninsula, the great cycles by which oceans bring life to terrestrial ecosystems are tactile and immediate. Rafts of ocean-born cloud bank against mountains. Precipitation deepens snowfields and glaciers, drenches forests and swells rivers with some of the most prodigious rainfall on the continent.

The mountains themselves are young and geologically restless. Laid out in river-deposited rock over seafloors and rafted landward by drifting plates, they were scraped up and plastered against the continent’s edge like a barge grounding on a quiet shoal. The Olympics began their rise from the sea a mere ten or twelve million years ago. They continue to rise today, even as the erosive forces of rainfall, snowmelt and ice weather them, and streams and rivers carry them incrementally back to the ocean floor.

To immerse oneself in this dynamic landscape is to step into those larger stories, to merge with the cycles of water, land and life.

More than a dozen rivers radiate from the peninsula’s mountainous interior and spill in short, tumultuous courses to saltwater. On the western slope, their flat, glacier-carved valleys host a unique temperate rain forest renowned for its biological richness, stature and beauty. Within the lush green valleys of the Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets and Quinault rivers, some of the largest specimens of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, Douglas-fir and western hemlock on earth lift like pillars from moss-covered earth to misty sky. Big-leaf maples are draped with gardens of mosses, liverworts and lichens. Fallen giants shoulder forests of saplings along their mossy flanks, some well on their way to becoming giants themselves. The peninsula’s rain forests, nourished by more than ten feet of rain a year, support the greatest biological productivity in the world.

On the northern and eastern slopes of the peninsula are other rivers with different characters and moods: the Elwha and Dungeness to the north, Dosewallips, Duckabush and Skokomish to the east. This is dryer country, lying in the lee of the central range, steeper and more rough-edged. Underlain with tough marine basalt, the peaks and valleys have been less worked upon by ice and rainfall. Their characteristic forests and wildlife communities reflect a subtly different mix.

Taken together, the six-thousand-square-mile peninsula is a mandala of watersheds, an intricate tracery of life forms and waterways, each lending beauty and complexity to the whole.

Olympic marmot and Olympic salamander, Roosevelt elk and redback vole, all have coevolved with their habitats within this islandlike range. Each is uniquely informed by thousands of years of adaptation, disturbance and change. When the climate cooled following the warming that ended the last ice age, forests stabilized rivers and streams. Large fallen trees formed pools and riffles for migratory salmon and native trout. Over time Olympic rivers came to host some of the most productive and diverse stocks of wild Pacific salmon in the Northwest. As they return from the sea to spawn and die, salmon carry essential nutrients back from the ocean to terrestrial forest and wildlife communities. In this final journey they complete a circle of reciprocity.

They carry their gifts, too, to the people: Quinault, Queets, Hoh, Quileute, Makah, Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Skokomish. The rivers’ names are their names. Their villages at the rivers’ mouths have been part of this coastal landscape for millennia. Surrounded by natural abundance, the native people of the Olympic Peninsula developed some of the richest and most distinctive material cultures in America. Their survival here is testament to their strength of spirit and deep and abiding ties to the land.

Despite a human presence that dates back over millennia, it was the peninsula’s isolation that kept this landscape largely intact through the era of western settlement and exploitation. When Americans wished to preserve a magnificent example of primeval forest, with rivers and wildlife communities unimpaired, they looked here. In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act creating Olympic National Park. Over the next half-century, the Queets River corridor and sixty-two mile Pacific Ocean strip were added, and adjacent Forest Service lands were preserved as wilderness. Restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem will soon be underway.

The world scientific community has twice recognized Olympic as one of the natural treasures of the earth, designating it a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Two to three million visitors, many from around the world, confirm that recognition each year. All come to experience, in their own way, a part of this miraculous planet left, quite simply, to be.

For more than a decade, photographer Mary Peck has immersed herself in this landscape. She is drawn to the large river valleys, the Elwha, Hoh and Queets, as well as the wilderness coast, places where the grand cycles of weather, hydrologic exchange and geologic process are most vivid. Her approach is less to document the land than to experience herself as part of its living systems. Her exquisite photographs are the artist’s attempt to share that process.

“There are different ways of being in the woods,” Mary says of her work. “Staying over a period of days or weeks allows me to find an inner quiet and a chance to interact with all I see. At some point something changes. I become a participant, a part of the fluidity and change that is all around me. I’m no longer separate.”

A coltsfoot flowering among willow shrubs. A river mouth in winter cloud. Salmon spawning in a glacier-fed stream. A hillside stripped of its forest.

If there is a current that unites Mary Peck’s photographs, it is the sense -- for photographer and viewer -- of being a part of what is seen: The clean, fluid and untamed beauty of the natural world, as well as its heartbreaking abuse.

Charles Wilkinson writes, “The language of cooperation and spirituality -- words like community and love and beauty and wonder -- has never been part of the language of western water law.” In these photographs, Mary Peck articulates an intimate dialogue with place that gives voice to our deeper human longings. In her images, we recognize the world she sees as our own.

“Maybe the artist’s place isn’t very different than anyone’s place, anyone who has the good fortune to spend time in a landscape like this.” Mary told me. “Inevitably, you bring something back. And that can only be a good thing for the world.”


From: Away Out Over Everything, The Olympic Peninsula and the Elwha River, with photographs by Mary Peck.
Stanford University Press, Stanford California, 2004