When I grow up, I want to be Afton Currit. Afton is no Annie Dillard, yet the personal journals she has kept for three decades resonate with lyrical musings of the soul-satisfying effects of the wild. She is not Vincent Van Gogh, but her dynamic oil landscapes decorate the walls of the Currit home. Although not a celebrity in the fashion of Katherine Hepburn, Afton is nonetheless celebrated by her family as a devoted wife of fifty-eight years, an educated mother of six, an engaging grandmother of sixteen, and a fun-loving great-grandmother of eight. As our friendship has formed over the last four years, I have recognized Afton as a woman who hears an oriole sing.
As demonstrated by the various ways Afton honors the wilderness, she clearly deems it divine. Afton has lived in the Wenatchee Valley for thirty years. Six years ago she and her husband, Paul, purchased twenty acres in Brisky Canyon west of Cashmere at the site of the original Brisky homestead, and in 2001 the couple moved into their dream home. Afton’s goal is to maintain the land in as natural a condition as possible. Mingled among the banks of lavender lilacs and old-fashioned yellow roses that were planted by the original settlers are ancient prune and plum trees that still produce fruit savored by the close-knit neighborhood. Well-meaning locals have encouraged Afton to pull out groves of aged cherry and maple trees, but she believes, These plants have been here for a long time; they have survived with no extra water or care and are doing their best to fulfill their part in the scheme of things. I love them.
Afton's oriole-consciousness carries into other parts of the property as well. When plant growth in the half-acre pond became unmanageable, she researched a natural way to control it by introducing triploid grass carp. Native to Asian rivers, grass carp feed on aquatic plant growth and are used as a biological tool to maintain a twenty-to-forty percent plant cover. However, the required steps to obtain the carp would daunt a less committed person than Afton. Because stocked grass carp cannot be allowed to migrate into lakes and streams, all inlets and outlets to the pond must be screened. Her property was inspected on three separate occasions by program managers from the Washington Departments of Fish, Habitat, and Wildlife; they advised her she would need only one grass carp to control the plant growth in her small pond. Afton then submitted her inch-thick series of forms that subsequently traveled to seventeen different government agencies, including the Yakima Tribe and the Colville Indian Confederation. Four months later she was granted her permit to purchase one grass carp plus five extras in case one carp died. Afton summarizes, These six carp came the next spring by bus in a Styrofoam container and they now reside in my pond and are growing nicely. Afton’s efforts have resulted in a thriving ecosystem: I enjoy the pond—the water lilies, the skates, and other little things—and the frogs. I love to hear the music of these frogs every evening. And then seemingly millions of frog eggs and tiny tadpoles show up. So I appreciate the mother merganser duck who comes with her string of babies, stays for a couple of days until they have eaten their fill of tadpoles, and keeps the frog population under control.
Afton has fashioned her ear to hear fair tunes through years of hiking the canyons of north central Washington, often with her dog, Bob, a Saint Bernard/golden retriever mix. Afton fondly remembers autumn adventures up Sand Creek past Cashmere where the trail was carpeted with deciduous Western larch needles and yellow-brown vine maple leaves. On one occasion she and Bob felt compelled to leave the road and go up a draw: This side trip seemed so enticing, I felt we had to go. I busied myself making a “sign” on the old roadway to show Paul which way we were going. I collected rocks and sticks and made a very visible arrow to point in the direction of this draw. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. The sun was new in the east, wild flowers were blooming, and the air was still and sweet. I stopped in my task and thought to myself, I am having the MOST fun! Afton's journals record her warm-weather memories of placid streams, sagebrush and greasewood so tall they made her feel small, and purple lupines blooming beside bursts of yellow balsamroot. In the cold of winter she wrote of the lace formed by newly fallen snow on the bottlebrush branches of Douglas fir trees and the sun striking the ice crystals on the snow turning them into a field of tiny blue, yellow, green, and redsparkling diamonds while Bob smiled through a snow-covered muzzle. Afton especially cherished the silence and solitude, the only sounds being the crunch of the snow beneath my feet, and while stopping, only the sound of the creek bubbling through icy, snow-covered rocks.
Currently, Afton discovers the runes of the wild closer to home. The verdant hillside behind the house vibrates with vanilla-fragrant coltsfoot flourishing among scores of desert parsley umbrellas. For nearly a mile, Paul has carved a picturesque walking trail lined with vibrant red Indian paintbrush and soft pink Nootka rose bushes. Afton says the trail is not finished yet, and may never be, because it is not a destination trail, it is a journey trail to see changing nature, like the buttercups and trillium in the early spring; the balsam root and lupine and phlox later; to see the signs of deer and turkey and coyotes, and sometimes bear; to see the new growth on the evergreens; to check on what the wind has done to old trees; to look out over the canyon and see the sun coming up over the mountains.
Though skeptics may claim the tune is in the tree, Afton agrees with Dickinson that the oriole's song originates "in Thee:" I sing while I am walking, or sometimes talk to myself, or to my mother, or I visit with my Father in Heaven. I remember one winter when I was overwhelmingly concerned about a problem. Paul was skiing with me on the summit of Blewett, and it was getting to be night. I had lagged far behind because I wanted to be alone. I was skiing through an area where open spaces were interspersed with thick groves of trees so that most of the time I could see because of the moonlight, but at times I would be in the nearly black darkness of the trees. I sang this hymn:
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene--
One step enough for me.
(Text: John Henry Newman, 1801-1890; Music: John B. Dykes, 1823-1876).
I was impressed that I didn't need to have all the answers. I just needed to trust and I would be shown the next step. Following in the footsteps of Annie Dillard and Emily Dickinson, Afton Currit marches to the beat of the oriole's song. I would be honored to walk among such company.