Robert Sund is our bard of the Skagit River, a singer of songs celebrating skunk cabbage, frogs, muddy water, ducks and the rising tide.
In the summer of 1973, the poet—who studied under Theodore Roetke at the University of Washington in the early 1950s—built a small shack on the pilings of a former gillnet shed in the estuary of the North Fork of the Skagit River. Access was only by boat and though his hermitage was only a short paddle from La Conner and downstream from the active artists’ colony at Fishtown, he felt worlds away, “far, far back,” from modern society.
This remove gave Sund time and space to closely observe the rhythms of the natural world, as well as the fluctuations of his own thoughts and emotions, and he recorded these impressions in a series of thin, 26-page notebooks. The tidal marsh surrounding his shack provided him with endless inspiration for more than a decade of on-again, off-again residency.
“Out on the river you know you are in the midst of a great creation,” he wrote. “You see the old work and the new work side by side: the ancient migration routes of all the birds, and the slow building of silt and soil in the estuary.”
The choicest tidbits from Sund’s 75-plus journals have been extracted and lightly edited to produce a new volume of work from the well-loved poet, who passed away in 2001. Assembled by Sund’s close friends Tim McNulty and Glenn Hughes, Notes from Disappearing Lake: The River Journals of Robert Sund presents poem-like journal entries documenting life in the Skagit River estuary alongside spiritual insights, weather reports and a celebration of friendship and community.
“Robert was obviously not there to advise us,” McNulty says, “but he was definitely looking over our shoulder as we worked on this project. We excerpted material that was pretty much intact and didn’t need to do much editing. Robert’s voice was rough and authentic and we wanted to keep it that way. Several friends have read these pieces and said, ‘This is like spending time with Robert again.’”
Though he departed more than a decade ago, Sund’s unique voice as expressed through his poems, painting and calligraphy has risen in stature since the 2004 publication of Poems from Ish River Country by prestigious publisher Shoemaker & Hoard, home of Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and others. 2010’s successful “Fishtown and the Skagit River” exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Art only heightened interest in the unique countercultural confluence of art, poetry, spirituality and community that flourished in the Lower Skagit in the 1970s and ’80s.
In light of this posthumous offering from Sund, words he once wrote seem prophetic: Maybe exalted gestures will be retrieved in our time. Maybe our grandchildren will go through our trunks and boxes and be amazed.
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