Chapter Three–just as curious


You may be just as curious about me and my world as I am about you and yours. The better to help you start to develop your own historical perspective and to place yourself and your surroundings in context, I am going to tell you about where I live, and give you some idea of its condition as of 2018.

I live on the North American continent in a country that at this time is still calling itself the United States—though as a people we are far from united. My state of Oregon is on the west coast, and, because I live on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, our weather is moderated by the maritime influence of the Pacific Ocean. This means that our summers, when it seldom rains, are not bake-oven hot, but usually fairly comfortable, and our winters don’t get too awfully cold, and almost never reach zero. What we get in abundance here, fall, winter, and spring, is lots and lots of rain. And this is probably one reason why the state of Oregon is not so overcrowded the way California, to our south, is. Lots of people seem to shy away from rain, especially when it comes with day after day of dark gray skies. But let me tell you, the summers here are glorious, and where I live in the foothills of the Cascades is a popular tourist destination.

How I ended up in this place is a little unusual. When I was eight, nine, and ten, and living with my family on a remote lake in northern California, I spent a lot of time alone, either out on the lake or deep in the woods. On this special day I am going to tell you about, I was nine and in the very densest part of the woods, my movement stopped by tangles of shrubs and vines. I can remember just standing there when suddenly the picture of a river appears in my head—a vividly detailed picture of an especially beautiful river. I had never seen this river before, and I had no idea why I was seeing it now in my visual imagination. Nor did the picture come with any sort of message: no parting of the clouds; no voice from on high telling me what this river was supposed to mean to me; just an unforgettable picture of a river that was its own unique shade of blue-green, with its whitewater rapids showing a paler, phosphorescent shade of this same blue-green.

Four years later, when I was living in Ashland, in southern Oregon, I would sign up for a summer church camp, which turned out to be a couple hundred miles to the north. Shortly before arriving at White Branch Youth Camp I would pass the McKenzie River and immediately recognize it as the river of my waking dream. So, there it was: an actual river, and not just some invention of my unconscious mind. But what of it? If this coincidence was supposed to mean anything, I had no idea what, so I just let it go—for about twenty years, while I put in my time in high school, then the army, then five different colleges and universities—until I was ready to settle down. And when I finally did decide to sink in roots, I did it here on the banks of this river, where I have spent the second half of my life.

For the last nine years I have been living on two acres that belong to my son, acting as a kind of caretaker, landscape designer and planter, and dedicated gardener. I live in a twenty nine foot trailer that was new some twenty-five years ago. I should say that trailer living is not considered prestigious in this part of the world, but it works for me, and since my trailer is paid for, and I pay no rent here, it works for me financially, too. These days, my sole income comes from a government program called Social Security, which provides me with enough to get by on, but not much more. By your time—maybe somewhere between 2040 and 2060—I doubt that you will be living under a functioning national government, and therefore social programs like this one will no longer exist. But you should know that there was a time when the nation-state appeared to be a vibrant and viable form of social, economic, and political organization. As I hope to show you along the way, the nation-state is but one phase of human social evolution.  Many now think of it as a more or less permanent pinnacle, but it is neither of these.  It is just one phase among many.

As for these two acres I live on, they have suffered unconscionable abuse. Once old growth forest, the first big trees were felled here with ax and crosscut saw, about a hundred years ago. Then, twenty years ago, they came in with chainsaws and a Caterpillar tractor, took the standing trees down, bulldozed the rootwads, loaded them in a dump-truck, and hauled them off—along with most of the topsoil. What topsoil wasn’t removed was left to blow and wash away, which it predictably did. What my son and I have been doing for the past twelve years is trying to restore this industrially ravaged land to some kind of biological integrity. We have planted a couple dozen fruit and nut trees, a hundred or so blueberry bushes, and forty or so rhododendron bushes, along with other native flora. And I have carved out, by hand, a diverse kitchen garden which covers about twenty five hundred square feet—which in spring, summer, and fall comes pretty close to being a full-time job.

When I am out in the garden, down on my hands and knees, weeding with my hand plow or just pulling them up by the roots, I stop now and then and look around, noticing all the bird and insect activity in my immediate area. Even though I am wearing a wide-brim hat, I feel the sun on my cheek, and now and them a slight breeze, as I glance up at the mountains to the north and then over at those to my south. This is when I know why I had that vision of a river, now more than sixty years ago. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to be doing. And how many people ever get to say that? My guess is you wouldn’t be among the fortunate few. Mind you, I am not telling you about the felicities of my world to make you feel bad, but to provide you with some context and perspective. And believe me, the world I inherited, though far more intact than yours, was, and is, far from pristine, or even fully functional.

To give you a deeper look at the landscape I live in, I am going to take you along on my daily hike. I am privileged to walk for an hour every day in old growth forest, two different hikes in separate locations. One is along the beautiful McKenzie River, and even though it is just a beauty strip, a linear fragment  of the old growth forests that once defined this mountain and river landscape, there are still trees six- and seven- and eight- foot through, and two hundred feet tall. My other old growth grove is situated on a mountainside, and the trail switches back and forth across a finger ridge, and puts you in sight of a flow of water that follows the folds in the land. There are particular trees on both of these hikes that are remarkable individuals. On this steeper hike I know of two yew wood trees that are three feet in diameter. This is a rarity even for this once-excellent yew wood habitat, and these particular yews show character traits, in their folds and branching, that mark them as absolutely unique individuals. Yews are shade-loving and slow growing trees of the lower and middle canopy, and these two have been standing where they are since before Columbus.

On my hike by the river there is one old Western Red Cedar (we also have incense cedars) who must have a particularly strong will to live. It is about seven feet in diameter measuring the longest way across its somewhat oval shape. Fire has hollowed it out at its base and has burned a conically shaped “room” out of its center that is well above man height. Its top was long ago broken out and it has formed three stovepipe branches out its sides, now growing upwards as leaders, and these are more than two feet thick at their base, and they, too, are asymmetrically oval. One of these stovepipe branches was long ago ripped away by a glancing blow from another falling tree, leaving behind a silvery scar. Despite its deformities and many scars, this tree has its own tenacious beauty.

A forest is more than just trees, and a healthy natural forest has species diversity and a multi-layered canopy, as well as diversity in its undergrowth. These two groves are mostly Douglas firs with some hemlocks and cedars mixed in, along with big leaf maple and dogwood, a few alders and chinquapin, and of course yew. The understory is rich in Oregon grape, salal, sword fern, rhododendron, and vine maple, with the entire forest floor, including down trees and nurse logs, being covered in bright chartreuse-green feather moss. In spring and summer a succession of flowering plants decorate the forest floor with blooms ranging from wood sorrel white to Oregon grape yellow to Calypso orchid magenta.

Both of these groves show some stumps from selective logging long ago, mostly grown over with feather moss; otherwise, these are relatively whole, intact ecosystems. When I walk in them I feel relatively whole and intact myself. I have to drive four miles to get to either of these daily walks of mine, and I go to the trouble to get to these places because they make me feel differently than the nearby second growth “forest” I can walk to right out my door. This second growth stand was clear-cut, then replanted, more than sixty years ago. Douglas fir trees planted ten feet apart do not a forest make, even when they get to be in the twelve to  sixteen class, as these trees are. This is an even-aged monocultural stand with very little understory diversity, the ground cover consisting of Oregon Grape and little else. When I walk in it, I don’t get the same feeling of wholeness and biological integrity I find in old growth, and my sense of well-being is diminished to just the extent that this human-planted “crop” of trees fails to be authentically what Nature means by Forest.

Coming out from these sanctuaries of near-primal forest, I am exposed to a disturbing number of clear-cuts. When I look at a mountainside that has been stripped of its trees, leaving only logging slash and naked soil behind, I feel like my own skin has been ripped off, leaving only sensitive flesh behind, and with the pain I feel a gaping void of emptiness. This feeling of emptiness and compromised wholeness has happened to me over and over again through years and decades of being exposed to brokenness, and my feeling of inconsolable loss, smoldering anger, and unresolved grief has never lessened or abated.

Someone once said, “You become what you behold,” and I believe there is truth in this. If all you see around you is the brokenness, ugliness, and wrongness of the human-made city-scape or paved-over suburbs, how are you supposed to feel like a whole human being? Cities are, of course, a relatively new innovation in human history. And it is not just cities that are absent the necessary trees. Many a farm-scape has gone the way of industrial agribusiness and gotten rid of wind-rows and fence-rows, dragging the plow right down to the creeks, leaving nothing of the primordial world behind. We humans have a long term relationship to trees—much longer than all these experiments in unsustainability–and this gets to the heart of my point. We are who we are only in context. We are not isolated, autonomous beings. The human heart is not separate from the body that contains, enfolds, and nurtures it. When we lose our vital connection to the wholeness of a living world, we lose an essential part of our innate humanity, and, losing ourselves, we lose our way.

Whatever is left of the natural world for you to inherit, I know it isn’t enough, because it has been robbed of so much of its essence, leaving you robbed of much of yours. As I have been saying, and will continue saying, it is extremely important for you, and those who may follow you, to understand your situation in context, the better for you to rebuild your world in the right direction. To that end, you need to understand some of your deep past.