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Poetry Feature: “Belay”

Vedauwoo, “rough, brutal, gorgeous,” as poet Kristen Gunther notes, is “a place of restoration and comfort.”

[Photo] Kristen Gunther

As an ecologist and a writer, I spend a lot of time contemplating how those two vocations speak to each other. Fundamentally, my research explores what it is to translate a landscape and how language shapes our perception of the ecosystems on which we depend. One set of ideas, words or images can cause a person to look at a place and see it as a site of anxiety, fear, risk–presented another way, the same place could evoke a feeling of safety, opportunity or hope. Neither response is more or less true than the other, and it is not a contradiction to feel both.

I find the same effect alive in climbing. Pushing yourself to the edge on a canyon wall or fighting up an offwidth, you might be suddenly, keenly dwarfed by your own mortality, or perhaps feel more alive or at home in your body than ever before. Living in Wyoming for seven years has taught me much about how landscapes and experiences can be both harsh and generous. Vedauwoo–rough, brutal, gorgeous–is often a place of restoration and comfort to me. Sinks Canyon (the setting of this poem) is perhaps gentler and more sheltered, but it was also the first place I ever put on a climbing harness and so it lives in my mind as a place of challenge and immensity.

I have tried to make these layers come alive in “Belay,” with its small scale but, maybe, vast scope. I hope that it speaks to the complex, tensioned beauty we so naturally feel in challenging, awe-inspiring wild places.


The chlorophyll-starved canyon trees

stripped themselves in the wind as I clung,

fingers and jammed toes, to the limestone,

feeling the disappearance of the sun,

the cool drop of air; those minutes shivered,

slow, parallels calculated against rock

where, as in your hands, the rope

blazed unreal yellow. I know how light

it felt as you held it, I half-know the knots

that connected us at the hips.

I know that in a later coming night

the brights would catch quick a Great Gray Owl

standing roadside, then drop back its shroud,

to which it belonged, until you turned the car

to show me, and we watched the wings

shear at the edge of the light.

[For more of Gunther’s work, visit her website:]