Listening to Idaho wilderness with CMarie Fuhrman
Author CMarie Fuhrman is all ears as she tours the North Fork of the Payette River, a few miles from where she lives in McCall, Idaho. Walking along an interpretive trail and looking into reflective pools of still water and boggy marsh, she names each sound that enters the terrain: the croak of a raven, the ratchet clicks of the squirrel, a jabbering robin.
“And I always think that's such a lovely message from the robin, ‘cheerily, cheerily, cheer up,’” she said.
Fuhrman is the current Idaho Writer in Residence, part of which entails creating community among writers in the state. She’s expanding the definition of community to include the state’s wilderness, where she takes inspiration from.
Additionally, she is Director of Poetry for Western Colorado University's MFA in Creative Writing Program where she also teaches nature writing. She gives her students advice that’s common but worth repeating: write what you know.
“I can't write the wilderness without being in the wilderness. I can't relate to it or relay it to others without having this deep experience.”
Living so close to nature gives Fuhrman many experiences to recount and compare to life’s stories. One of her favorite sounds is the howl of a wolf.
“It's just such an ancient sound that is both comforting but also a warning.”
She learned to howl a deep, soulful call that rises from her gut and floats through the forest pines.
“That communication, that chance to have conversation with the wild, that is so much fun.”
Fuhrman’s writing takes her all over the West, from her work teaching MFA students in Colorado to directing the Elk River Writers Workshop just north of Yellowstone National Park at Chico Hot Springs in Montana. Fuhrman spends time with the community of the natural world everywhere she travels.
“I often think of myself as indigenous to the West. I'm part glacier and part trillium and part birdsong, and all of that has helped me become who I am.”
Furhrman’s native heritage is in the Four Corners region of the U.S., but to her, indigeneity is about more than just blood. She was adopted and raised in a white family.
“And though my parents did their best in the seventies to bring native culture into my life, it was really difficult.”
Furhman’s mother lovingly braided her hair with beaded barrettes but there was a lack of resources to help native adoptees connect to their culture.
“So I really didn't find native communities until I got older,” she said.
Now Fuhrman focuses on the next generation, describing herself as a ‘future ancestor’ who takes her responsibilities seriously to pass on the planet better than she found it. One way she manifests a better earth is through the attention she gives her fellow beings: the bears, the deer, the fish, the trees. Through writing, the author hopes to help others cultivate connections to the land. Translating that connection doesn’t just happen in front of the computer.
“My longer writing happens in the winter when snow is here, seven feet deep. But everything that manifests, manifests out here.”
A poem she recently wrote for The Inlander, Land Acknowledgement, was written on a trail in the Payette National Forest north of the lake. She wrote Kokanee as she watched the red salmon travel up the North Fork of the Payette. One who derives so much from her natural surroundings notices when that resource is dwindling.
“I've been thinking so much about sound lately because of the growth in McCall and the sprawl that's coming up, and the land that's just being bulldozed for more houses,” Fuhrman said, referring to sound as yet another being in her community. “How we're losing these sounds because they don't have habitat. All the bird sounds and the wind blowing through the pine and the sound of river.”
Fuhrman finds the subject so crucial that she is making a podcast about these sounds and cataloging them in an effort to get to know them better, the nuances and intricacies.
“There's like 18 different sounds river can make at any bend, from the burbling noise, to the rushing wind noise … to the way it sounds as it riffles, or the way it sounds when it cascades.”
Each voice contributes to a larger conversation and each is worth noting and preserving to Fuhrman, who warns that we won’t be able to replicate these after they’ve disappeared. She’s not only cataloging the existing soundscape, but also remembering what we have already lost.
“This lake used to produce so much salmon. There was a cannery on Payette Lake. The amount of salmon that came up here and the amount that they canned and shipped out to the rest of the world was unbelievable until it was dammed and it was quieted.”
Speaking of the salmon reminds Fuhrman of another sound that used to dominate the rivers of Idaho: the sound of salmon.
A 2001 study estimated that between 14,400 to 57,400 sockeye salmon once returned to the Payette River system annually. Now none return, poisoned by mining, overheated in the warming rivers, and thwarted by dams.
And before pioneers settled on the south shores of Payette Lake, the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce Tribe) traveled annually to the area to fish for their winter supply of salmon in the lake and tributaries. The Nez Perce Treaty of 1855 guaranteed them the right to continue fishing and hunting in the Payette Lake and its tributaries, but after gold was discovered near McCall, their territory was reduced by 90%.
Migrating salmon swim upstream from the ocean to spawn in the late summer and fall. They lay on their side and they make a redd (a gravel nest for their eggs) in the river or in lake shallows. After the females lay eggs, males fertilize the eggs and they cover the nest with gravel together, flapping their tails on the water surface.
“Imagine like 50 bodies slapping the water like that and then all of the other animals that were feeding along the sides. To see it and hear it together is pretty amazing,” Fuhrman said.
She argues the sounds of nature indicate the health and balance of a whole place. Salmon connect into a whole community, feeding birds of prey, bears and fertilizing the trees along the river banks. A report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife found that 137 species of plants and animals in the Northwest rely on salmon and steelhead.
Fuhrman crouches at the bank of the lake to splash her hands on the water and demonstrate the sound of a spawning salmon. As she ponders the multi-layered web, a whirring engine chokes to life in the distance. Birdsongs fade into the background and the sound of a motor boat launching onto the lake now dominates, transforming the peaceful aural landscape.
“When a boat or recreationist comes out, how quickly that drowns out the sound of everything else, especially these small gas engines,” Fuhrman said.
At the height of summer, North Beach will be filled with recreators digging their toes into the sand and swimming in the cool, glacier waters of Payette Lake. According to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, 7,811 boat licensees selected Valley County as either their primary or secondary use location in 2021.
The county and seven other agencies who maintain and provide services around waterways in Valley County currently have no way to record how many motorized boats operate annually on specific water bodies in the area but are collaborating on a study for a new Waterways Management Plan to better understand and manage recreational use.
Fuhrman says recreators have a special opportunity to preserve the sounds of McCall if they act with intention to do so.
“I think of how some of these sounds that we're hearing today are sounds that have been heard for 10,000 years that we could all share. We're losing that. And the more and more development that we have and, of course, climate change, we're losing a lot of these species pretty regularly.”
If we lose access to sounds that have existed for centuries, we lose a connection to the past, which Fuhrman says is essential to our well-being. The writer goes to nature to better understand humans and herself. An orphaned bear cub who recently wandered by her back porch, crying from grief, helped her explore her own upbringing and contemplate motherhood and the baby she herself gave up for adoption.
“This kind of chose me. I know I can write. It's about the only thing I do really well and that I feel is a gift that I have.”
She carries an obligation to use her gift for good.
“And so then I think about what matters to me, and these places and people that are marginalized, and these unsung places. I don't want them to go without being heard.”
Fuhrman is chipping away at the world a poem at a time, listening to each voice and channeling each sound towards a greater goal.
“When we think of that being frivolous, writing being this frivolous thing or this thing that doesn't seem to matter at a time of climate change, I disagree. I think that everything we create to celebrate and to show the beauty and the wonder of this place, and to have that deep connection, is saving it.”
This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.