Wednesday, Nov. 8 — Last month on a plane heading east I read the opening lines of the novel “Mink River” by Brian Doyle:
A town not big not small.
In the hills in Oregon on the coast.
Bounded by four waters; one muscular river, two shy little creeks, one ocean.
End of May — the first salmonberries are just ripe.
I immediately thought of Wesley Voth, long-time correspondent/columnist for Siuslaw News. Wesley, in a number of his spring columns, described in sensual detail the pleasure of finding and eating the first salmonberry of the season.
Wesley died suddenly last week and left a permanent void in the fields and woods and alongside the beautiful river that served as the church and classroom for a son of the natural world.
I met Wesley and his wife, Susan, shortly after the turn of the century. As editor of the Siuslaw News, I was forming a small group of correspondents to write a weekly feature called “Neighbors.”
Wesley and Susan volunteered to represent the Mapleton/Swisshome area. In later years, Wesley took over for the pair, and after the death of revered historian/storyteller Bob Jackson a couple years ago, Wesley became the final Neighbor still writing for the paper.
Wesley’s columns on the one hand chronicled life along the Upriver communities where people are hard working, honest and kind. Mostly.
He would let us know what events were planned or took place that defined community in that special world at the head of tide of the Siuslaw, the muscular river that forms the backbone of the one-time timber and mill communities.
As a contract mail deliveryman for the postal service, Wesley was especially suited to hear and, in turn, to tell the stories of the people along his mail route.
On the other hand, and perhaps more to his liking, he was a naturalist who loved to detail all forms of life as they appeared and carried on around him. He wrote of the change of seasons and of the birds and animals and fishes and trees and plants that are peculiar to those hills and that river and his shy little creeks.
Wesley came to writing naturally and learned and grew as a writer over the years.
Like an artist who chooses his colors carefully, Wesley savored every word as he painted his stories. One time he gently took me to task for changing the spelling of the word “grey” in one of his columns. He was personally hurt, telling me he had always spelled it that way and it was a favorite word.
I was following the Associated Press stylebook, I told him, but apologized and said I would respect his wishes and never change the spelling again. (To this day, I use Wesley’s spelling of “grey.”)
Wesley was not political in the classic sense of the word, but he was closely in touch with political matters that went against his natural ethics. He gently wove those issues into his stories to make points about how we should treat other people and all of life. — and how we have an obligation to protect and steward the natural state for us now and for our children and future generations.
Wesley, through his columns, was a spokesman for our communities and for our times. This kind and gentle and quiet man loved everyone and everything.
He was our Neighbor in every positive sense of the word.
I’ll be reminded of him and of his stories and of his goodness when I see the first perfectly formed salmonberry of spring.