Thursday, September 16, 2004


Always when the rain comes in September, and the dark skies -- you don't know dark skies, till you've lived here -- my heart lifts. Dreamtime again. Soft short days that barely open before they're closing again, the silver and slate sky that glimmers in the wet pavement, smell of wet earth, the drumming of the rain. I love this country. The maritime northwest. I love it beyond all reason. I've been in many beautiful places, but I've never thought seriously of living anwhere but here. This place has a softness, a tenderness, a quietness to it. Not silence, like the silence of the desert, or of the high mountains. Those are silences that can be overwhelming, even terrifying. Never that quiet here. When all the other sounds are still, there's always somewhere the trickle of water or the sough of the wind in fir-needles.

Just a quietness.

The forests are gone. Oh, there's still places called forests, vast quilted stretches of scrubby little third-growth douglas firs, like crowds of gawky teenagers hanging around the edge of a dance floor. And deer flourish, and even bear and mountain lions manage to scrape by there. But the forests of my childhood, the endless old growth that you could drive through for hours -- that's all gone. Except for patches. And the whole point of the old growth forest was that it was huge, and dark, and ancient. These new forests are just trees, trees on sunny slash-littered hillsides.

I watched them cut down. We were in the woods all the time, when I was a kid -- my Dad being a science teacher and an avid hiker and climber. In those days every third vehicle on the mountain roads was a log truck, hurtling recklessly down from the hills. They typically carried three logs. That's how many of the old doug fir trunks could fit on a truck -- just three. Sometimes it was only one. Now the occasional log truck comes by, with a load of scrawny trees, like a bundle of kindling. They drive slower and more carefully than they used to. Dwindled, in every respect.

But -- stricken as this country is -- it is still the land of the long winter dreamtime, of the endless rain, the gleam of wet bark, the swish of tires through gutters, a sighing, soft-singing land. I love it more now than ever. On our vacation we drove to Mary's Peak, which overlooks the whole Willamette Valley. High summer, and still so much was green -- brilliant green moss and smoky blue-green noble firs, vine maple just beginning to turn, and of course the inevitable dusky green of the doug firs, the backdrop of any Western Oregon landscape. Ungainly trees, with an odd back-and forth swoop in the growth of their branches, haphazard and disheveled-looking. They're meant to be deep forest trees, and they always look a little embarassed when they're out in the open, caught outside in their housecoats.

Oregon has never aspired to greatness. It's a place of ordinary people living unapologetically ordinary lives. We have no history to speak of. Nothing has ever really happened here, and none of us wants anything to happen here. The native peoples dwindled here more quietly, maybe, than anywhere else. There are places called "Battle Creek," and so forth, but you know it's just where a few people took potshots at each other and then thought better of it and slunk away. The Modoc, who did fight, a few score of them anyway, were way down south by the California border. The Nez Perce wandered through the Northeast corner only briefly. In school we were taught about Lewis and Clark and the heroic pioneers, but I don't think anyone took it very seriously. There are still pioneers around -- at least there were when I was a kid -- and they were just cranky people who couldn't get along with anyone else, and kept on moving to the next place where people wouldn't mess with them, where this time they were going to get rich, they had a new idea, they'd get shut of their bad luck this time, you just wait and see. It's moderately interesting to move to the middle of nowhere and scrape up a living somehow -- certainly damned uncomfortable. But heroic? Nah.

So the winter comes again. We have no Fall here, not usually. The rains just set in, battering the maple and oak leaves off the trees before they've even had a chance to turn yellow. It's winter now, as much winter as we ever have. Dreamtime. It rains, now, forever, till sometime, suddenly, long after we've forgotten there ever is such a thing, it will be summer again.

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