Nonfiction The Upper New Review

The River Knows Me

By Tim Ott

When I returned to the United States from Rwanda, having served a couple years in Peace Corps, somebody asked me to teach a sense of place lesson. We were at a place called Davidson Flat, one of the most popular places on the Deschutes River in Oregon, east of the Cascades, in the sagebrush desert of the Columbia Plateau. We hiked up to a place with a pretty view, and I introduced the lesson by poking fun at the idea of sense of place as being a fad that had just popped up into popular consciousness while I had been abroad. I noted that some things in my country had changed while I was gone. Sriracha was out, and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce was in. Something called Tinder was all the rage in the dating scene. And now I was surrounded by people who talked about mindfulness and a sense of place without explaining to me what they were.

Why would anyone need to make an effort to get a sense of place? Had people forgotten how to read a map while I was gone? (perhaps they had—a few months later I was leading a group in the Oregon Cascades using a map and compass, and another hiker passed me on the trail and asked me where my phone was). I got a couple chuckles from the students as I made fun of “sense of place,” then proceeded to teach a sense of place lesson that my co-instructors told me was well done. While I might not have completely understood what a sense of place was, if there is a place I know, it is there, the approximately one hundred river miles flowing north from Warm Springs to the Columbia River.

I have traveled down that river somewhere between twenty and a hundred times. As I have long since stopped counting how many laps I have made, I cannot be any more specific than that with any degree of certainty. The most recent time was a week ago, Thanksgiving of 2023. I arrived in the dark, but even without seeing, I knew where I was and who I am better than I do on even the clearest, endless summer days here in Fairbanks, AK, the Land of the Midnight Sun. I hugged a couple old friends, shook hands with and introduced myself to a couple new ones, accepted an offered can of cold beer, then lit some incense and set up my tent. I wasn’t even halfway through when I fell to my knees and cried. Not a wail, or a dramatic, snot-inducing wet sob, but a quiet cry. Those are often the most powerful and sincere of all tears. The intensity of my emotions was set on me by how much I felt loved there. Although the river can be a dangerous and harsh place, if there is one thing I know, it has how to adapt to the demands the Deschutes places on me. I heard the current, the water that had been snow in the high Cascades before it melted and was now surging over the ancient stones and boulders in the river, and what I heard ki say was that ki loved me. The sweet-smelling sagebrush loved me. The wind loved me—I had missed the wind in Fairbanks, where it rarely blows. Somewhere out there was a rattlesnake that had loved me enough not to strike and bite me when I stepped on ki (ki might have realized that I didn’t have health insurance and antivenom is bloody expensive). I felt loved by the small town of Maupin, setting on the hillside looking down on me. Obviously, my two old friends love me, but I understood that given they were river people, and we were in it together on our little expedition, and knowing they were friends of such good friends of mine, I heard their laughter across our camp and knew in their own way they already loved me, and I loved them already. As sentimental as it sounds, all of that love was enough to literally bring me to my knees and cry. There are several other words and concepts that I would have listed had someone asked me at another time and place what contributes to a sense of place. I would have discussed familiarity, emotional connection, a sense of belonging, memories of defining moments in your life and rites of passage, a sense of the sacred, and relationships to the people of a land. I could have discussed how I am familiar with the human and natural history of the Deschutes Canyon, how I almost always know which direction is north, which direction the Cascades are, and how far the Columbia River is. I know exactly where the Warm Springs’ Reservation’s northern boundary is on the west bank of the upper section of the river, and I know exactly where the county lines are separating Jefferson, Wasco, and Sherman Counties. I know what it means that the river is under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management. But what about the meaning of love to a sense of place?

You can know where you are, know about a place, know your directions, but you can’t really know a place if you do not know yourself. And I realize after my most recent trip down the Deschutes that when I am there and feel loved by everything around me, I actually relax enough to be myself, to stop worrying about whether I am good enough and just be, and to understand my place in it all as a small yet essential part of the greater whole. If you have to ask me how that works, I don’t think you can understand.

I would like Alaska to someday feel as much if not more my home than the Deschutes River in Oregon does, and truly have the sense of place that I have never felt more strongly than when I have my feet in that sacred water. Alaska certainly has the majestic natural beauty and vast spaces with a paucity of human-built structures (which I often find distracting when I try to place myself) to do the job of making me feel equally powerful emotions as I do on the Deschutes. But it will take time to build the relationship and form the memories. At any rate, I will have to escape the classroom and get off of the campus in Fairbanks, which I very well might not have time to do until after I graduate, until I am given official sanction that my formal education is complete. It is a shame that they do not understand that the best lessons cannot be taught in the classroom.

Author’s Note: I use the pronoun “ki” to describe natural objects, such as the Deschutes River. This is a practice promoted by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Braiding Sweetgrass.” She spoke at a writer’s conference I attended last May, and encouraged us all not to use the pronoun “it” for natural objects like rivers, but instead the Potawotami language’s pronoun “ki” (or “kin,” in plural). I wish I had put this in my artist’s statement, but if you were wondering why I used that pronoun, that is why.

About the Author

Tim Ott

Timothy Ott was born in North Dakota, raised in Osage, IA, received a B.A. from St. Olaf College in Minnesota in 2008, majoring in Russian, then completed his M.A. from the University of Washington, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, in 2012.

He is now pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He instructed many years for the Northwest Outward Bound School in Oregon and Washington, taught English in China and Russia, and served in the Peace Corps in Rwanda.

When he is not working on his thesis and academic work, he enjoys spending time hiking and boating, searching for animals, listening to live music, running, and cooking lefse with his mother. He has worked a variety of odd jobs, particularly in the restaurant industry.

His friends call him Rusty.

Tim’s home watershed (HUC) is Chena River (190803060907). This means he is a continental creator.

By The Upper New Review

The Upper New Review is an environmental literary arts magazine based in the Upper New River basin, which intersects the states of North Carolina and Virginia in the United States of America in present-day North America. We are seeking out place-based creative works from all over the globe.