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Artist, poet, and educator Nancy Canyon’s childhood home was across the street from Spokane’s Audubon Park, a 2.7-acre city park with a variety of mature trees: oak, maple, chestnut, fir, and pine. “I was in the park nearly every day,” she says, “collecting cones and leaves, sketching plants, and drinking in tree aerosols. “In a way, the park was my sanctuary.” It’s fitting, then, that Nancy recently accepted the position of Whatcom Land Trust’s Poet by the organization for the project “Writing the Land: A collaboration between Poets and Protected lands and a project of NatureCulture.”

In this role, Nancy will create poetry in the Todd Creek area on the Nooksack River. Named for the creek that runs off of Stewart Mountain, the 59-acre piece of land is a patchwork of bigleaf maple and Sitka spruce forest, pastures, and wetlands set along the South Fork.

Whatcom Land Trust first reached out to the previous owner, Mildred Todd, in 2007. Todd was planning her estate and thought Todd Creek might be a good property for the Land Trust. After she passed away, the property went to the family estate. The Land Trust received a grant from the Department of Ecology and the property was finally purchased for permanent protection in May of 2019.

Nancy’s husband, Ron Pattern, is a steward for this parcel, and while he planted trees or removed invasive species, she wrote poems while sitting on the rocky beach as eagles flew over the river.

“Being a poet for the land is a perfect fit for me,” she says.

“I could easily sit and write for hours, following the story unfolding in my mind,” says Nancy Canyon. Photo credit: Ron Pattern

In her year of writing poetry at Todd Creek, Nancy will pen three poems for the program and record herself reading a poem for the Writing the Land website.

Writing the Land partners with land trusts across the U.S. Poets visit their adopted properties, and then create poems inspired by the land. An anthology will be published at year’s end.

Nancy says that as a visual artist who also wrote poetry, writing was always more difficult for her. But Natalie Goldberg, author of “Writing Down the Bones,” helped her get words on the page with her mantra: Write fast and don’t edit. Nancy began digging into her feelings by using writing prompts such as: “I remember when…”

And then she was accepted into the creative writing program at Pacific Lutheran University.

“I had been writing fiction and poetry for a number of years, and began a rough draft of my published novel, “Celia’s Heaven.” She’d also been working as a fine artist, painting natural elements and showing her work in Seattle and on the Kitsap Peninsula.

In her role as Whatcom Land Trust poet, Nancy will create poetry in the Todd Creek area on the Nooksack River. Photo credit: Ron Pattern

It’s not the first time she’ll be writing in nature.

In 1972, when Nancy was 21, she manned Corral Hill Lookout in the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest.

“I spent my off-time wandering around in the woods, studying plants,” she recalls. “I thought at the time that I wanted to write an herb book. I loved the idea that plants had healing qualities and that I could collect them, dry them, and make them into tea for a headache, cramps, or sore throat, and I could live off many plants growing in the wild around me.”

She didn’t keep a specific journal during that time — “I could kick myself for that now,” she says — but she wrote letters, the best way to stay in touch with family and friends from a mountaintop, in which she described natural phenomena, copied out recipes, and suggested herbal remedies for healing her family members and friends.

She wrote about the experience in her memoir, “Struck.”

“I could easily sit and write for hours, following the story unfolding in my mind,” Nancy says. “Some people can’t visualize like that, but for me, every scene I create first starts in my mind’s eye as a movie. Even poems start as an image for me.”

Nancy Canyon spends time enjoying the beauty of Todd Creek with her dog, Olive. Photo credit: Ron Pattern

When she paints, Nancy likes to render what is right in front of her, such as one leaf or flower, enlarged beyond its natural size, and painted in fine detail.

“Close-up detail work suits my nature — observing minute details, rendering them until an image comes alive,” she says. “That excites me.”

Nancy finds both writing and painting to be therapeutic.

“As I remain focused in the moment on an image or story, I lose myself in detail,” she says. “Once I achieve laser focus, everything else drops away except for the task at hand.’

Although she does schedule time to write poems and to work in her art studio in  Fairhaven’s Morgan Block, she loves it when the muse strikes.

“The blank page and the blank canvas can intimidate,” she admits. She tells her students, “Show up! Don’t think! Just create!”

Blocks, she continues, happen when intimidation results in procrastination. “If you schedule time and show up prepared to work…then something will come from your effort. And there’s always the possibility for brilliance. If not brilliance then, at least, satisfaction!”

People can follow Nancy at www.nancycanyon.com. Learn more about Writing the Land here, and how you can support Whatcom Land Trust here.

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