War Creek

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Aug 13, 2014 / 0 comments

Have you ever read a book with such an extraordinary sense of place that you either felt at home –or longed to feel at home– there? Have you ever traveled to a place where you immediately felt at home? What is the unique draw of these places? And why do these places affect each of us so differently? While the answers to the last question may never be known, we do know that when we find a place where we feel at home, it tugs at our hearts and never lets go. We move there, or travel there as frequently as possible, pining for the home we’ve found.

One such book with such a strong sense of place, and home, is War Creek. It’s a new novel by Susan Marsh, a naturalist and US Forest Service wild land steward. I will tell you right now – Marsh so loves this land that she brings us along with her, to cherish and observe and care for this place. I’ve not read another book that was grounded so firmly in love of place (a close second would be Edwin Way Teale’s A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, but I digress).


War Creek



War Creek follows a personal journey of family, love, small town living, and the strength of community, but it is much more than that. War Creek is a naturalist’s ode to place, to the important work of the Forest Service that few of us know, to wildlife and the environment, and to the mountains. Oh, the mountains. For a Midwestern reader like myself, this is a foreign landscape unfolding in front of my eyes. These mountains gather power and fling it, daring people to thrive there. These mountains are a source of life, and death, and solace, and beauty. These mountains capture the heart and hold it tight.

If you’re ready to be captivated by the Cascades, by learning about a mountain range that has captured countless hearts, and by a story of a family that embraces such a place – for life – War Creek is the read for you. Highly recommended.


Sawtooth Ridge

Sawtooth Ridge


We were lucky enough to catch up with Susan Marsh, and ask her about War Creek, her inspiration, writing, a sense of place, and even grizzly bears. Here’s what she had to say…


Please tell us about your book, War Creek...

The book explores the relationship between a grown daughter (Agnes Clayton) and her aging father, a relationship fraught with animosity, unforgiven transgressions, and family secrets. It takes place in the late 1980s, in a remote part of Washington State’s Okanogan National Forest where Clayt (the father) is a retired ranger. Agnes falls in with a bear biologist and Clayt is trying to save his ranger station from demolition.

At the time, in real life, grizzly bears (listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act) were being studied for possible reintroduction in North Cascades National Park, and the Okanogan National Forest was about to be consolidated with the nearby Wenatchee National Forest. So this time and place had some coalescing events that made their way into the story. While Agnes and Clayt are adversaries as a result of their past and their opposing views on the grizzly bear, they become allies in an effort to save the old ranger station about to be torn down.

The book was conceived to shed light on the vanishing traditions of the Forest Service, the plight of endangered species, and the grandeur of the national forest just east of North Cascades National Park. It is a place dear to me, and I wanted it to go far beyond ‘setting’ to become one of the characters. I began the book not long after my father died, and my relationship with him was on my mind, though there is nothing in the book that reflects it beyond the emotions involved. I finished writing the book, a ten-year effort, just as I was finishing my own 30-year career with the Forest Service. 


Sawtooth Ridge

Sawtooth Ridge


What inspired you to write this book?

I was in the latter part of another novel (as yet unpublished) and was beginning to think about what kind of story I wanted to tell next.  I knew that I wanted to write about a place that meant a lot to me, to wrap it around a wildlife and preservation theme—so the bear and the ranger station fit that bill—and I wanted to explore the relationship between estranged family members. I felt pretty estranged from both parents for most of my adult life, but there was no obvious reason why, no lurking past to be discovered. In trying to understand my own feelings about it, the father/daughter dynamic struck me as the best place to start.

I wanted to write about certain themes as well. Forgiveness and redemption – and whether either is possible. And the desire to preserve what is precious and endangered – whether a species of wildlife, a way of life for people, or a structure that represents that way of life that has already passed. How do you preserve the memory of such a life, or retain parts of it, when those physical reminders are gone? This is certainly something I experienced while working for the Forest Service myself, the tossing-out of past work that I considered valuable, whether documents, photographs, or buildings.


Lake basin

Lake basin


War Creek is your first published novel, although you've written many books. How was the writing process for fiction different for you, than nonfiction? Did you still need to do research, or did you have it all in your head?

Much lay in my head, in memories, sharpened by re-reading journals and looking at maps as well as old photos. I have lived away from the area where the book takes place for many years, and the last time I was there was in 1983. So there was much research to be done for this book, from looking at old slides and journal entries to delving into the history of the area and the national forest. Although the book is fiction, the places are real, except for the ranger station that I made up. War Creek is a real place, and I have backpacked in that area. I grew up on the west slope of the Cascades but was drawn to the east side and its open country through which you could travel off-trail without having to climb over 5-foot diameter fallen logs every few feet. The country ignited my imagination, and experiences there stayed with me in vivid memory. Yet, I could not remember precisely which wildflowers grew on a specific peak (amazing what zooming in on an old slide will show you, though!) – so there was a lot of research to be sure I had it right. Even though fiction, I wanted to portray a real place that I deeply love.

The process of writing fiction feels very different from non-fiction, even though most of the non-fiction I write is of the personal essay/creative sort. In non-fiction, I am conscious of trying to show the reader something or some place that I have experienced without standing in the way of what I’m trying to show. Yet, I have to be in the story as the so-called main character, because it is, after all, my story. So there is a constant balancing act between sharing myself and my experience and not wanting to have the writing be “all about me” – if that makes sense. With fiction, I am free of that. Which is not to say that fiction is easier to write. Writing a novel is the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. To write a story I have to grab the heaviest boulder I can lift and dive into the deepest pool of storytelling as I live in and with my characters. They reveal themselves to me over time, rather in the manner of a long and intimate friendship.


Above Eagle Pass

Above Eagle Pass


Your book is So evocative of place. How do you recommend readers get to know a place deeply?

I don’t think you necessarily have to be from a place to love it, but you for sure have to love it. A deep emotional connection to a place is necessary to write about it in a way that conveys that love without effort. I can’t write about the places that are dear to me without having my regard for them show through. You also have to know it well enough—or do your research—to portray it accurately unless you are writing pure fantasy.

The main way I get to know a place is to pay attention. Walk through it, slow down, notice things. It helps to keep a record, whether notes jotted on a pad, or sketches, or whatever suits you. I just catalogued nearly 300 native flowering plant species in the first couple of miles of a creek near my home. I learned a number of new plants by doing this, and also found out there was a lot more going on in a supposedly familiar place than I ever realized. I learned about pollinators, creatures that eat or lay eggs on the plants, and one thing led to another. Suddenly I found myself writing a natural history book about our little next-to-town creek, which I hope to self-publish next year.

So – go to the place to know it deeply. Notice the sounds and smells. Go there often, all times of year, if possible. Go with an open heart and an active imagination. All this will help.


Oval Peak and lake basin

Oval Peak and lake basin


One of the main parts of the book involved bears in the wild - are those issues that these communities face today? What can be done, and how can we learn more about it?

There is an ongoing controversy around the west about the status of grizzly bears. The population is recovering from the 1960s when it took a nosedive, but due to lawsuits and counter suits, the bear keeps going on and off the threatened species list. Its main food sources and much of its habitat are in jeopardy. Deep in the North Cascades, a few bears come down from Canada and make a living but there is no current reintroduction effort that I am aware of. Part of the park and surrounding national forest land is identified as a ‘recovery zone’ in which management is supposed to favor the bears. In the late 80s there was an effort, and that’s what enters into this story. The local reaction and history of bear-human conflicts is a familiar scenario in many places.

Current information about the status of grizzly bears can be found at the web site for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (made up of agency biologists mostly) igbconline.org and Conservation Northwest, which has a lot of good information about efforts to keep the bear from extinction. conservationnw.org


What's up next for you?

A Hunger for High Country, my memoir of working in the Forest Service in Montana and Wyoming, is coming out from Oregon State University Press this fall. More about grizzly bears in that! I am at work on a second novel – actually begun before I wrote War Creek, and am coauthor of Too Special to Drill, a case study about the citizen effort to buy out oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range. This book is likely to be out in 2015 from University of Utah Press.


Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Only to say thank you to anyone who finds this interesting and enjoys the book. I wrote it to reach readers and I appreciate anything that helps me do that.

Learn more at: http://www.slmarsh.com/




All photos courtesy and copyright Susan Marsh


Note: We were sent a review copy of War Creek by the publisher – thank you!