SUPERIOR – The winter sun hasn't reached the bottom of Lower Oregon Creek Gulch and a morning haze hangs among the cedars. A headlamp guides Janet Roberts through the darkness of her cabin, her kitchen table warmed by the glow of two oil lamps.
She sits to a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and toast. Her friend and artist, Claire Emery, works by lamplight to weave a Christmas bough. The setting is idyllic, as if plucked from a 19th century poem by Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope.
The poetic analogy is no accident.
On the verge of her 90th birthday, Roberts has called these woods home for the past 45 years. It was back in 1970 when she and her husband, Dick, purchased an old mining camp tucked away from the outside world. Over the course of their life they repaired the cabins, righted the beams and patched the roofs, cutting 5,000 shake shingles by hand.
At the end their day – after the labor and toil – they retreated to their cabin and its warm, dark room. They read poetry by the fire. They sewed, drank wine and contemplated the workings of time. Bound by simplicity and a love for the natural world, electricity was never part of their life.
“We didn’t cut down one single tree when we built this house,” Roberts said proudly, looking out from under the glow of her headlamp. “Dick was really proud of that. He wrote a poem about how we built this place.”
Dick, or Richard Roberts, passed away in 2007, leaving behind more than 70 years of poetry. His writings on nature were a given considering his views of the world. His reflections on World War II remain stark and revealing, steeped in the reality of combat and loss.
Removed to these woods and with time on her hands, Roberts recently compiled Dick’s work into a new anthology, “Before We Say Goodbye.” The work spans more than 70 years and, through the poems, Roberts still hears her husband’s voice.
“I was thinking of a memorial to Dick, and I wasn’t really that thrilled about a stone monument,” she said, turning to the window. “He’s buried out there – his ashes in the trees. When my son dug the hole, we put in Dick’s tobacco, his pipes and our kitty’s ashes, too, so he wouldn’t be alone.”
That day, her son found an old horseshoe and nailed it to the tree. Roberts calls it Dick’s good-luck charm, and maybe it is.
Finding Roberts’ cabin takes luck and careful listening. The directions include a steep hill, a warning not to cross a bridge, something about Idaho and an icy road that dead-ends in her yard.
In reality, she lives 10 miles south of Superior at the bottom of a shaded gulch. A creek runs past her back door, but she doesn’t have running water. For that, she relies upon a nearby spring. Oil lamps light the cabin when the sun goes down, and a stove cast in Vermont iron keeps the room comfortably warm.
Roberts doesn’t find her back-to-the -Earth living odd, though it’s a different life than she envisioned growing up on Long Island. If New York didn’t suit her as a girl, then attending private school as a teen in Boston was a step in the wrong direction.
As fate would have it, Roberts’ life changed when she attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the early 1940s. America was still at war, one that involved the service of the man who would soon become her husband.
“The whole thing blew my mind,” Roberts said of the liberal college. “Black Mountain was so free and open. It wasn’t that it was a nudist colony or a hippie thing – the standards were very high. But it was a life I wasn’t used to.”
Given the times, the college kept a farm and the students tended the work. Roberts was tasked with making butter. Late at night, working over that barrel and plunger, she met her husband. He’d just returned from a war he wasn’t fond of fighting.
Dick reflected on WWII in his poem “Duty to Death,” writing, “See now, dead friend / Where they have taken you / The men who persuaded you, of patriotism?” The piece first appeared in 1945 in “The War Poets: Anthology of the War Poetry of the Twentieth Century.”
Roberts described her husband as deep, a “Montanan from day one.” Born in Miles City in 1919, he began writing as a teenager in a cabin on the East Boulder River near Big Timber. The setting inspired his first collection of poetry, “Strength Comes in Many Ways.”
It was the start of more to come.
Roberts stokes the fire and talks of poetry as though she’s been around it all her life. In a way, she has, even when the couple set out in 1947 to teach on the Blackfeet Reservation, followed by the Northern Cheyenne in 1965. There are poems about that, too.
Roberts paused amid the rush to teach at the University of Montana and Big Sky High School in Missoula. Along the way, the pair pined for a day they could drop off the map and get away from it all in the solitude of the forest.
“We always wanted to be someplace where it was quiet and remote, with nature,” Roberts said. “We found this place and Dick wrote all the time. Toward the end, he didn’t write and it bothered me because he had the time, but he wasn’t up to it physically.”
Roberts sips her tea and notes the old leather chair placed in the corner where Dick would read and write. Over the years, his poetry appeared in several publications, including “High Country News,” “Christian Science Monitor” and “Voices.”
“Selecting the poems for this new anthology was kind of hard because he had a compilation he was sending out to be published,” Roberts said. “Some of them were not my favorites. I would have put something else in, but he wanted it.”
Their cabin in the woods is suited for introspection, a place where books outnumber the nails used to construct the place. Sitting in that old leather chair, Dick read the works of Dickens and Trollope while Roberts sewed and listened.
The memories are strong and familiar, and Roberts reflects on them fondly. “I see you there with pipe and wine,” she wrote in the forward of the new anthology. “I miss you not being here to share what is left of life.”
It’s a trick of time that it passes so quickly. A scrapbook kept amid the pile of books remembers the years the couple grew together.
“I never thought I’d end up like this,” Roberts said. “I always thought Dick and I would be together.” But, she wrote, “I’ll not say goodbye because in your poems your voice still sings.”