In Oregon’s Coast Range, a writer explores identity

A collection of essays ranges through the histories, trees and wildlife of the state.

 

There’s a moment midway through Nick Neely’s nonfiction debut, Coast Range, in an essay called “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Neely apparently sets out to write about the fleshy madrones — the “refrigerator trees,” he calls them — that he encounters on the way to Lower Table Rock in Medford, Oregon. But he’s distracted by the mutilated bark of the madrones on the trail’s periphery, carved with phalluses, hearts, initials and enigmatic phrases along the line of “Jesus Team A. A+C =<3.” One might expect Neely, an environmental writer, to rebuke the carvers, accuse them of being inane graffiti-scrawling vandals. Instead, Neely realizes they’re his kind of person. “What is an essay, a book, but an incision into a tree?” he writes, and he concludes the piece with photographs of the arborglyphs. In this moment, it’s hard to discern word from page, page from tree, tree from word.

Named after the mountain range spanning the Pacific Northwest in California and Oregon, Neely’s Coast Range is populated by chiton fossils, madrone trees, salmon, steelhead, chanterelle mushrooms, hummingbirds, coyotes and a cache of agates. The millions-year-old agates, culled from Neely’s beachcombing, are “comforts, pacifiers. Curiosities.” They sit on his desk as he writes, displaced from the eternity that created them. “Once an object joins a collection,” Neely writes, “it tends to become more than itself.” It becomes sacred, carrying layers of history and association. As other objects join it, almost of their own volition, the collection gradually grows to “fill some part of the psyche.” Neely, obsessed about ID’ing certain agates of distinction, reaches into the cubbyholes of his lexicon, deeming them “Rorschachian” and “amygdaloidal.” They have crescents, crystals and spots as they cobble the shore. Look at their striations, their chemical variations: One is a webbed lima bean, while another is a pool of translucent blue. Considering Neely’s habit of handling the agates, it’s not surprising that these wondrous pebbles are sometimes “ruddy and skin-like,” as dermal as the palms that cradle them.

Agates found at Siletz Bay in Oregon.
Alamy Stock Photo

In this book, the difference between agate and skin, bark and flesh, nature and human is sometimes imperceptible. This is most obvious when Neely is on a quick march through the wood. During more extended wilderness sojourns, though, humankind and mountainkind are occasionally at odds. This is most true in the 44-page penultimate essay, “Homestead,” in which Neely lives off-grid with his wife, painter Sarah Bird, in southern Oregon along the Rogue River, as a participant in the Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. They begin as interlopers, hanging one of those classic hummingbird feeders, “plastic ruby-red with yellow florets. Without a doubt … the most garish object for twenty miles.” Nick and Sarah watch the birds “parry each other’s jousts,” but this is a minor project when compared to the daily work that will be required of them.

In a single paragraph, they sweep needles, prune grapevines, pull thistle, eradicate poison oak, and mow grass for a fire buffer. Weeding, clearing, shoring up? If these verbs aren’t for you, then that particular residency is probably not for you either. Their human habitat is conspicuous amid the encroaching natural world, and over the course of weeks, it takes a toll on their physical and emotional endurance.

In this long-form essay, Neely strays from the personal to include Indigenous histories, trapper records and accounts from Oregon’s first homesteaders. And despite its breadth, it’s every bit as polished as the micro-essay on 500 million-year-old chiton that opens the book. By “Homestead’s” end (the end of the residency, too), Neely is so thoroughly immersed in the landscape that one can barely see him, “(plunging) down the Rattlesnake, glissading through scales of scree and fragile earth; catching trees with (his) hands and swinging (himself) around to temper (his) fall, (his) momentum.” Blink, and you might miss this momentous caroming. Blink, and the body is gone: pure landscape painting. As a testament of their tenure, Sarah leaves some paintings in the meadow and Nick leaves his words in the cabin, all a part of “the clay of vocabulary.” Neely is as agile a witness as he is a custodian of the range.

As a writer, Neely often behaves like a shadow; in one essay, he stands by as hatchery technicians select diverse broodstock. Rather than watch “disposed” salmon simply recede out of the frame, his impulse is to follow them, which leads him to the kitchen at a nearby casino and a ceremony for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. The shadowing transcends the physical into the realm of the psychic. He may not “speak salmon,” but his shadow gets so close to the carcass it nearly “(becomes) the flies” swarming above it.

Though Neely is a native of the California bounds of the Coast Range, it’s clear he feels equally at home in Oregon; it’s part of his “biological address” (to borrow a term from environmental writer Ellen Meloy). For the reader, the word “range” might equally apply to the scope of this book’s roaming, the array of its narrative approaches, or the breadth of its collecting. Or maybe range is just the literal space between the first and last page of this book, inside which Neely makes his meticulous incisions. Like arborglyphs in a stand of madrones, it is “a coming-together, a declaration of identity.”

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