Don Welch is a Nebraska poet and author, recently retired from 50 years of teaching at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He’s lived most of his life with his wife Marcia in central Nebraska, where much of his work has been influenced by the natural world.


The river’s always been a source of wonder for me because I think when I was born I got an X chromosome, and a Y chromosome. But I think I got a P chromosome. And a B chromosome. And the P was poetry and the B was birds. So the river’s always been filled with birds for me.

Some of the very first poems I wrote were poems I wrote for Marcia. They were awful. She still likes them, but they were pretty bad poems.

The river’s always been a source of wonder for me, because I think when I was born I got an X chromosome, and a Y chromosome. But I think I got a “P” chromosome and a “B” chromosome, and the “P” was poetry and the “B” was birds. So the river has always been filled with birds for me.

Some of the very first poems I wrote were poems I wrote for Marcia. They were awful. She still likes them, but they were pretty bad poems.

I was so poor that my idea of a big date was a nickel cup of coffee for each of us, and then a ride to the river to see the cranes. And so I remember the first time that I said to her, wouldn’t you like to go out and see the cranes?

And I said, we’ll kind of sneak down a fence line, hopefully filled with tumbleweeds so that the cranes can’t see us, and then if we can get up behind a haystack, we’ll be even better. And I remember when I hit the word “haystack” her right eyebrow just went up like that, like “yeah, mmhmm.”

But that’s exactly what we did and she became a crane lover, and also a lover of me, so it worked out pretty well.

 

 

Marcia and I can remember taking our girls to the river almost anywhere between Kearney and Odessa. We could park the car and walk right out into the river. And so in the summertime, they liked to get out there and run the sandbars and play in the warm pools and things like that. Well of course all of that has changed and changed utterly because you can’t get to the river anymore. It’s all simply blocked off. And so one of the great treats that we had, especially with our kids, is just gone.

The Platte River for me has always been a place of wonder. I seem to belong there. But it is a place of wonder only if you have the eyes to see it and take the time to look at it.

I was driving down the interstate one day and cars from Colorado were passing me—zip, zip, zip, zip—and I decided that I was going to write another poem from the point of view of how a Coloradoan might look at a Nebraskan.

So this is addressed to anybody who would speed through Nebraska and speed past the Platte River:

View of the Platte River from Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary. (Michael Forsberg)
View of the Platte River from Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. (Michael Forsberg)
      Listen to the Poem
Advice From a Provincial
When you drive down our river-road,
spare us your talk about our backwardness,
of how mile after unrelieved mile dispirits you,
of how there is nothing, simply nothing to see.
Go back to your homes and work on your eyes,
bring back a sight which can co-create meaning.
Then notice at sunset how our river is on fire,
a long burning vowel running westward,
back to the mountains, those granite consonants
which thrust themselves at the sky.
Slow down. Colorado can wait.
Skiing, of course, will make the cold warmer,
but think of this river, frozen in winter,
as a long silent scream.
To the settlers who waited it out,
who felt their sodhouses thaw,
who survived this place and were scarred,
pay a momentary tribute.
And, in spring, if you’re the right kind,
catch the wind with its invisible fingers
making love to the water.
You’ll never read it in a brochure,
but the only worthwhile rivers
are those which simplify lives.

 

 


Music excerpted in this piece is “Quicksand,” by Samuel Ash. (De Wolfe Music)

Voices of the Platte is a collaboration between Platte Basin Timelapse and NET Radio’s Humanities Desk. These audio essays have been edited for length and clarity.    

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