DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Revisiting ‘The Last Wilderness’

“IT WAS RAINING, of course … Wind from the south, strong and steady and cold, fanned across the swell, kicking up a nasty chop around our lifeboat.”

That’s author Murray Morgan, thrusting us into the Pacific Ocean, out from La Push. Our companion: a 19-year-old Southern Californian fresh out of Coast Guard boot camp. Bos’n Roberts is taking him to Destruction Island, where he’ll be stationed.

“Pretty rough,” the youngster says, and Roberts tries cheering him up.

“It’s one place you can still get away from people …. Don’t fight it, kid. Relax and enjoy it.”

So begins “Land’s End,” the ultimate chapter in “The Last Wilderness.” Morgan, journalist and historian, published the book a lifetime ago — 1955 — and the University of Washington Press has reissued it, redesigned by Port Angeles-bred artist Tom Eykemans and with an introduction by Tim McNulty of Sequim.

I first heard of McNulty soon after landing in the Peninsula Daily News’ Sequim bureau in 2006. I met his daughter Caitlyn, a high school student, when I wrote an article about a short film she’d coproduced. It came up in conversation that her father was a poet. As in that’s his full-time profession. I was so naive; it was months before I learned McNulty is a nature writer and author of some 20 books.

Caitlyn’s film was about how Sequim, with its blocks of new big-box stores, was morphing: set to the melody of the Christmas song “Silver Bells,” the soundtrack turned the “Soon it will be Christmas Day” line into “Soon it will be Silverdale.”

At this point I must admit: There have been times when I felt blasé about this place, and filled with dread toward the long, dark winter. It happens when I don’t look beyond those big-box stores.

Just in time, books such as “The Last Wilderness” come to the rescue. Morgan turns his readers’ eyes to the mountains, the wild coastline and the early streets of Port Townsend and Port Angeles. His true tales are loaded with wit — and lush with moisture.

“Essential to all Olympic Peninsula stories is the rain,” McNulty writes. “Morgan was one of its early poets,” evoking water “slanting down in wind-snapped sheets during the winter storms, drizzling through the spring nights, settling in heavy dew on summer mornings.”

McNulty, no slouch, turns his introduction into a poetic venture into the emerald woods. He recalls his first winter in Port Townsend in 1972, where he discovered “The Last Wilderness” at the Carnegie Library: “It fell into my hands like a cloth-bound Rosetta Stone.”

The book still awaits at the library. Its jacket is a mid-20th century ad for the Peninsula: “Trees as tall as skyscrapers … … Salmon as big as month-old calves … lumber barons … stump ranchers … timber beasts.”

The new “Last Wilderness” paperback cover bears a vintage postcard of the view north from James Island. Dated 1907, it’s a sight familiar to me: high brown cliffs spiked with conifers, a sea blurring into sky.

Morgan “awakens us to our own place,” McNulty told me. He still finds hope and renewal in the wild places, the remote land Morgan loved.

McNulty, it occurs to me, is one of three Tims whose writing enchants. Sequim journalist Tim Wheeler is author of “News from Rain Shadow Country,” not to mention thousands of newspaper articles. Tim Egan, the Seattle-based author and New York Times op-ed writer, periodically renews my delight in an exquisitely written and researched column.

All three men have a kind of humility while being interviewed. I like to think it comes from living under the 20-million-year-old Olympics, those mountains that rose, As Morgan writes, “bare and black, wet, shining.”

_________

Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Feb. 5.

Reach her at [email protected]