Finn wilcox / jerry gorsline

Edited by Finn Wilcox & Jerry Gorsline

Working the Woods, Working the Sea is a unique collection of poetry and prose by Gary Snyder, Tom Jay, Holly Hughes, Tim McNulty, Jim Dodge and many more of the North Pacific Coast. Deeply connected to the earth and sea through physical work, these writers speak eloquently of the beauty and power of their environments and of their shared labor and sense of community. With its wit, song and wisdom, this book will take you out to sea and “back to the land.”
As novelist Tom Robbins writes,
“These mud-flecked prose lines and skinned-knuckle sweat poems out-sparkle every diamond necklace at Tiffany’s.”

ISBN: 978-1-929355-40-2 Price: $22.00; soft cover, 376 pages

This new and revised edition is the updated version of the highly acclaimed 1987 Empty Bowl Press book by the same name. A few of the pieces have remained, but mainly this collection of essays is completely new. Following is a list of the authors who contributed:

And a review from High Country News:

Working the Woods, Working the Sea: An Anthology of Northwest Writing
Edited by Finn Wilcox and Jerry Gorsline
400 pages,
softcover, $22.
Empty Bowl, 2008.

Finn as featured poet at the Robert Sund Memorial reading in Mt. Vernon, WA - May 2010
The second edition of Working the Woods, Working the Sea — the first was published in 1986 — contains a lot of new material, but its core is still fiction, nonfiction and poetry centered on the relationship between labor and nature in the Pacific Northwest.

The book is divided into four parts: "Treeplanting," "Working the Woods," "Working the Sea," and "Coda," which consists of just one piece, Richard White's "Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?," a 1995 essay that still resonates today.

Particularly evocative are Mike O'Connor's insightful piece "WhenYou plant a Tree, Where is the Buddha?" – a conversation with  longhair co-operative pioneer Jesse Miller about the beginnings of treeplanting co-ops on the Olympic Peninsula — and Mike Shepherd's stark story "The Bridge," which captures a deadly bridge demolition  in split-second detail. The anthology truly finds its rhythm in its third section, "Working the Sea," and the alternately wistful, reverent and wrenching accounts of salmon and their decline in the hydroelectrified watersheds of the Pacific Northwest. This section ranges from a reprint of a richly reported news story by the Seattle Times' Lynda Mapes, "Tribes Mourn Loss of Falls," to Mike Connelly's "Lost & Found," chronicling the sense of place shared by the author and his Danish-born great-grandfather, both of whom planted permanent roots near the Klamath River headwaters. The piece toggles between the former's contemporary musings and entries from the latter's 1951 journal.

With a breadth ranging from koans to field journals, the book's entries are not uniformly great literature, but that was not the editors' intention. They want to pull back the curtains — the roadside "beauty fringe" of trees masking great clear-cuts and the supermarket ads showcasing cheap salmon — and let the reader enter these unique and often wild worlds. The stories, essays and poems in Working the Woods, Working the Sea paint a rich portrait of the controversies and contrasts surrounding  loggers, fishermen, environmentalists and treeplanters from Ketchikan to Eureka.


Gary Snyder

Tom Jay

Holly Hughes

Tim McNulty

Jim Dodge

Mike O’Connor

Lynda Mapes

Mike Connelly

Fred Miller

Chuck Easton

William Acker

Julia Warwick

Hal Gaskell

Howard Horowitz

Hal Hartzell

Finn Wilcox

Jesse Miller

Michael Daley

Bill Shepherd

Philip Whalen

Ru Kirk

Greg Nagle

Leonard Davis

John Daniel

Red Pine

Roger Risley

Paul Thomas

Dann Irish

George Silverstar

Judith Roche

Sam Green

Clemens Starck

Richard Dankleff

Robert Sund

Erin Fristad

Wilcox and Jerry Gorsline are two of the founders of Empty Bowl Press. (See Michael Daley’s Running on Empty to read about the early
of Empty Bowl.) They have been heavily involved in the ecological as well as the literary life of the Pacific Northwest for more than thirty years. Wilcox, a poet is the author of Nine Flower Mountain, Lesson Learned (recently re-released by Empty Bowl Press), and Here Among the Sacrificed.

Left is Finn Wilcox, working the sea

Right is Jerry Gorsline pictured with long-time friend and former tree planter Courtney Keith

Gorsline is the editor of Shadows of Our Ancestors: Readings in the History of Klallam-White Relations (Empty Bowl, 1992) and The Family Letters of Maxwell Perkins (Empty Bowl, 1995).

You can watch Finn reading some of his poems by checking out the following YouTube link. His son Dane posted this, and he had to cut it into several chunks of ten minutes each, but, as Dane writes, “It’s all there!” Finn is a terrific reader and the video really gives you a good introduction to this unique individual. Click here. Or listen to an interview with Finn and Michael Daley by clicking here: Download.

Check out the review of Finn’s Lesson Learned:


And here are some comments:

“In Working the Woods, Working the Sea more than thirty men and women who labor under the fluent gray skies of the Pacific Northwest craft tales of experience that, collected here, body forth a real world. Several now-classic pieces and much fine new prose and poetry make palpable the falling, hauling, shivering, stooping, mending, gutting, reveling, and grieving moments entailed in earning a living by logging, tree planting, or fishing. Short on illusion, long on truth, here's literature imbued with sweat, necessity, and the daimons of place.” – Stephanie Mills, author of Tough Little Beauties and Epicurean Simplicity

“You won't believe how good this book is. You'll feel as stupid as I did for not knowing each and everyone of these creators of the tangiest, freshest, prose, poetry, and the best stories I've read in years. A few are old pals, but most were thrilling surprises that I'd drive 1000 miles to talk to. There's a commonality of excellence and intention here, overlaid like the rings of tree, one sustaining the other. The youngest voices resonate with the traditions of their elders. The elders have been marked by the vast, flinty, 'just so' mind of Gary Snyder, whose sensibilities surround the next inner core of old Ainu, Japanese, and Native American sensibilities surrounding the heartwood itself - the wide, singing throat of Nature. I'll keep this book the rest of my life and you will, too.” – Peter Coyote, actor and writer

“This new edition of Working the Woods, Working the Sea feels revolutionary. First it shows that the North Pacific Coast late in the twentieth century produced a literature distinct & salty as anyone’s. Second, here is a book that puts work – back-wrenching, mud-on-your boots work – at the fulcrum of culture. Wilcox and Gorsline’s crew are ecologically savvy, and bring us word from the other postmodernism. Not the official version, which squandered the revolution when its poets stepped into universities, the corporate grant circuit, & the world. Nobody in Working the Woods, Working the Sea drew down paychecks as armchair Marxists, or took over “the liberal weeklies.” It they look rough and unwashed, well, Hesiod & Chaucer also looked rough, with smoke in their hair, shirts, & pantcuffs. These writers have worked, wept, laughed, fought to restore watersheds, sworn, spit, and made sharp little poems, durable essays. If you learned to read poetry in what Jack Spicer calls the English department of the soul, you better buy this book.” – Andrew Schelling, poet and translator

“Graceful, tough, and real”: a review of Lesson Learned – Love poems by Finn Wilcox (Empty Bowl Press, 2010) -- Bill Yake

In the title poem from an earlier collection, Nine Flower Mountain (Tangram Press, 2001), Finn Wilcox describes a Chinese nun’s aerie -- a ridge “high in the mountains of Chiuhuashan” -- as “A place so graceful / So tough and real / Even the immortals / Feel a shiver up the spine.”  Finn’s most recent chapbook works similar territory, the land lying between rough-going and grace, between the stone and the pine growing out of that stone.

Lesson Learned – Love poems, an elegant chapbook classically designed, was first published as a limited edition by Tangram Press in 2008. This year (2010) it’s been republished by Empty Bowl Press. The collection holds fifteen poems selected from a life that’s been shaken and settled by work, rambling, and love. The poems ring true; they bear reading and re-reading.

Wilcox belongs to a clan that might be called the Empty Bowl Poets, or perhaps, more accurately, the Empty Bowl Artists -- as there are essayists and editors here, as well as a photographer, a sculptor, and a printer or two. Centered on the northern Olympic Peninsula and nearby Washington State shorelines, it’s a group that at one time or another has included Robert Sund, Tim McNulty, Jerry Gorsline, Pat Fitzgerald, Tom Jay, Michael Daley, Red Pine (Bill Porter), Mike O’Conner, Tree Swenson,  Sharon Dubiago, Steve R. Johnson and more. Counterculturists, Western Buddhists, and philosophical wanderers drawn to the Peninsula by the right, if meager, livelihoods of tree planting, fishing, cooking, and – eventually – writing.  It’s said the Empty Bowl takes “its name to mean both replenishment and the gift that moves” (Daley, 2007). I suspect it also implies receptivity, humility, and a familiarity with hard times. Each of these traits, in its own way, characterizes this collection.

There are no author notes, no biography, and no introduction. So the poet must be inferred from the clues in his poems, his other writings, and the slight spore discoverable on the internet. These, in sum, yield this bio-sketch: Young Finn (I have to think of Huck), a runaway at sixteen in Utah “trying to stay out of the way of the law” (from the poem Close Enough); the story-telling hobo-essayist  hopping freights down the west coast in Wilcox’s book Here Among the Sacrificed (Empty Bowl, 1984); a twenty year stint working the Northwest’s forests, often as a tree planter; a trek south of the Yangtze River with Red Pine (translator and poet Bill Porter) that inspired the poems of Wilcox’s earlier chapbook Nine Flower Mountain; a fourteen-year effort helping run Empty Bowl; a continuing thirty-two year marriage to Pat Fitzgerald – principal of the Salal Café in Port Townsend; and two sons – who, from the poems’ dedications, seem to be go by Shi and Dane.

It’s not hard to imagine something of the rambling, gambling songwriter in Finn: Woody Guthrie’s brother or a Townes van Zandt confederate. One of those “… poets with mud on their shoes,” as Wilcox’s friend, Robert Sund (Sund, 1969), put it, leaning towards freight train riding, the road and its comradery, drink, poker and the “soul going feral” (Lesson Learned).  There’s the outward pull of wandering being tugged inward by the draw of settling in with the right woman.  

As I read these poems, think them through, find from which lines backbone chills and the throat constricts, one thing is clear: love is no one thing.

The following motivations, experiences, adjectives, nouns and markers appear in this collection either as love, as one of its nearly indistinguishable surrogates, or as a symptom or result of love: 

Love is the memory and yearning that comes in dreams.

It provides a balm from wandering alone.

“Love is simple courage.” Still it can cause the poet to beg. And begging, for the self-sufficient -- and Wilcox is certainly that, requires courage.

It is affection and attraction (of course); attachment and laughter.

As one of the collection’s epigraphs, the New Testament, and Woody Guthrie all insist, “…God is love.”

Love is sacrifice; major league compassion; placing another’s welfare, happiness, and even survival, first. 

It is warmth against the cold, home against the wild. It is redemption.

Somehow love is at the root of grief and may or may not be the same as longing. Grief and longing manifest as traps or prison cells.

And love can impair poetic critique – “It’s beautiful you say… / But you love all my poems, / how can I trust someone / who would take a bullet for me?” (from Love Poem with Jerry in It)

The list unfurls -- myriad aspects of what Wilcox calls “love’s unfathomable knots.”  

And in working out these knots, it’s clear that both the shine and sting of love are best evoked by Wilcox in apt description and metaphor couched in everyday language. And, as is always true with the best poetry, there’s occasionally a little inexplicable magic involved: 

“…These poems?

A lucky pull

Of the rabbit

From a hat.”

from Proem: Love and Poetry

From confessions of naïve error to the desolation of utter loss, these poems can nail the moment with devastating precision:

Of error: after waking to a lover in tears (I’m leaving you…I don’t want to / but I must) --

“…I was too young,

only nineteen,

and in matters of the heart

dumb as a sack of hammers

tossed into love’s deep end.

So I didn’t believe you.

Turned over,

went back to sleep...”

from Apology

And of loss, possibly to death:

“…my heart leaps and drops

in a single beat

remembering you are gone.”

from Farewell

I found the poems of short narrative especially moving although every poem in Lesson Learned invited long consideration and appreciation. Nice to Meet You captures Finn and Pat’s first meeting. It unfolds like a well-crafted film vignette.

No, better, because in addition to the visual it evokes odor and feel:

“…The old drunk of a wood stove

was tamped way down,

drooling just enough alder smoke

to keep the world fragrant...”

“You wiped your wet hands,

looked at me,

and smiled.

And when you did,

everything evil in this world disappeared.

‘So you’re Finn,’ you said.

‘It’s nice to finally meet you.’”

from Nice to Meet You

So now it’s your chance. Get a copy of Lesson Learned and meet Finn. I’m betting this book will end up with your favorites.


Daley, Michael; 2007. “Running on Empty,” in Way Out There—Lyrical Essays, pp. 141-154. Aequitas, New York, NY.

Sund, Robert; 1969. "The Thoughts of a Turtle are All Turtles," in The Sullivan Slough  Review, Number 1, Spring, 1969 (Robert Sund, editor). Edmonds WA.

Wilcox, Finn; 2002. Here Among the Sacrificed. Empty Bowl Press, Port Townsend WA. 

Wilcox, Finn; 2002. Nine Flower Mountain. Tangram Press, San Francisco CA.