Of all the masterful fiction of the North Coast, Don Berry presents the most vivid naturalism: capturing the scent of the woods, the hollow of a log or the whisper of a dream. The writer lived in Gearhart and managed to capture the essence of the land and water around him along with the heritage of the tribes - the Nehalem, Clatsop and Killamook —
The story is almost crude in its overt simplicity — Elbridge Trask, a settler on the Clatsop Plains with his wife Hannah — wants to settle on farmland to the south to what we known as Tillamook Bay — then uncharted territory. Not a trip to be undertaken lightly, considered the densely packed forests, deep crevasses and tides breaking across the rock.
His Quixotic mission is abetted by two Native Americans, a holy man or “tanawanis,” and the ne’er-do-well Wahila who signs on as guide. “It is my goal,” Trask tells the Native American Chief Kilchis, “to make of this bay one house, of which we can all live in peace.”
Berry’s descriptions are magnificent, painting word images of the dizzying heights of Neahkahnie Mountain to Manzanita and beyond.
“Five hundred feet below,” Berry writes, “the surf crashed against the base of the cliffs with a thunderous roar, throwing white water slowly up the side.”
“Jagged spires of rock” point upward, and the “base of the sheer slab was a jumble of sharp and angular pinnacles around which the surf surged and churned.”
Of the elk who wander the mountains, “they traveled in amiable companionship, a stark contrast to the mating season in the fall, when the bulls would be trumpeting their wild challenges and fighting for harems.”
In the Tillamook Bay, he writes; “There was a quietness in the air, and the distant thin screaming of seabirds could be heard clearly. Flights of gulls began to wheel over the flat waters of the bay in long floating arcs.”
Such descriptive prose is worth of a thousand pictures.
The narrative is never predictable, never a “gee-whiz” western — although this was marketed as a paperback pulp novel in the 60s, the first of Berry’s trilogy “To Build a Ship” and “Moontrap.”
In Jeff Baker’s introduction to the Oregon State University republishing of the books in 2004, he describes how Berry wrote these three novels, published between 1960 and 1963 “in a spasm of sustained creativity unequaled in Oregon literature. … Berry believed fiction could tell larger truths as effectively as history.”
“Don was a painter before becoming a writer,” Cannon Beach artist Rex Amos told me. Amos knew Berry as a colleague and friend.
Berry lived in a cabin in Gearhart then had a log cabin on the Nehalem River, Amos recalled. “One day I dropped in on him and he came to the door with a bloody apron on. He had just shot a bear and was making bear jerky. Long story there; sort of Hemingwayish.”
Amos “probably met him in early 1960s, set up by a mutual friend Friedrich Peters, who taught comparative lit at Portland State and who was first director of Deutsche Sommerschule am Pazifik — a German summer school which was then in Manzanita and now at Lewis and Clark.
John Allen of the Pacific Way Cafe recalled Berry as a legend in Gearhart. While he never met Berry, he knew Wyn as a journalist and erstwhile restaurant server.
Wyn, reached via email from her home in Vachon Island, Washington, recalled a happy time in Gearhart with family and friends in the 1960s.
Don Berry met Gearhart’s Graham and Bunny Doar while at college at Reed, and the Doars introduced him to the North Coast. (Graham Doar was a recognized TV and science-fiction author whose short story “The Outer Limit” — a “close-encounter” story written in 1949 — was rewritten and readapted throughout the 1950s.)
Graham's daughter, also at Reed, Wyn Berry said, met Don at the Reed Bookstore where he was working, heard him talk about wishing he could talk to a published writer, and Jane said, ‘Pops writes for Saturday Evening Post and Esquire — why don’t you go to Gearhart and talk to him?’ He did, and thus began a long friendship, quickly followed by the addition of (the Berrys’ children) David, Bonny, Duncan and myself. Both Graham and Bunny considered the kids to be their own grandkids.”
‘Trask” was researched at the Tillamook County Museum and written in a barn on a farm in Peach Cove on the Willamette River, Wyn recalled. He also wrote the last chapter in a cabin he built in the Coast Range forest.
“(Don) Berry walked every step of whatever way he wrote about, from Hug Point, in ‘Trask’, to Sawtooth Mountain past the Lewis and Clark River,” she said. “Berry loved the NW in all its rainy glory. He spent many days wandering or hunting all over Clatsop County. He was one eighth Native American, Fox, and always had an affinity for wildness.”
He was lucky enough to have an agent, based on his years' of award-winning science fiction, who took Trask to publishers, she said. “Trask's contract asked for and got first refusal on any subsequent book, and off he went! Heady times.”
His books were recognized by the public and critics quickly, she added, and the author enjoyed the accoutrements of success: glowing reviews, writers workshops and travel.
“He wrote Moontrap in southern France, collected the galleys in New Zealand, and proofed them in Hong Kong” she said. “Then came home, went to the cabin, and wrote ‘To Build Ship,’ again based on early journals. And oh joy! He brought me a Pentax 35 millimeter! Last time I looked, his cedar cabin was still there."
Berry gave up writing except on the internet, Amos said. “He gave that writing away.”