Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Hills

And now I'm thinking about the hills, the hills I grew up with. In Eugene, the long line of the Coburg Hills, many of them bare, yellow in summer, green in winter, garnished with radio towers. And to the south, symmetrical Spencer's Butte, dark with doug firs, surrounded by his commitatus of lesser hills. In Springfield, The Hill, with its park and stone 'S' obelisk on top. My stepfather's house was the highest, the first one below that. It was a little hill, but it stood into the flow of Springfield like a rock in a watercourse.

My stepfather, Lou, was an engineer, and he had built the house with his own hands. He and his adopted sons. Poured the concrete for the swimming pool himself. He was a good man, according to his lights, so far as I know: his only fault was heavy drinking. But he grew up in a time that didn't disapprove of that much. Remember that? When drunk driving was a matter of comedy, and "holding your liquor" was considered a sort of moral achievement? No, many of you won't. That slips quietly into the stream of time, and runs away like the McKenzie.

I was desperately unhappy, much of that time. But I had books. Wonderful books. Science fiction, my first love. Books of myths and legends. And then fantasy, all those writers with initials instead of first names: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, E.R. Eddison. And later Mervyn Peake and Ursula Le Guin. And Joy Davidson, was that her name? It distressed me greatly when "fantasy" became a genre and flooded the market. It was mostly, of course, horrible stuff, hack stuff. There was a time -- or at least there was a time in my imagination -- when you picked up a book of "imaginative fiction" and you could bet it would be good, because it was such an unpopular and derided kind of fiction that you knew the writer would only have written it because he was driven to it, because he had other worlds in his head that would not leave him in peace. I lived in those books, wandering in those other worlds. And of course made up worlds of my own. I taped together sheets of typing paper and made enormous detailed maps, five by eight feet, maybe, covered with little inverted 'v's for mountains, chevrons for forests, inverted 'u's for hills. Always a Great River running through it all. But I knew, even then, that I was just copy-catting. I didn't really have the gift: it wasn't given me to be, as Tolkien put it, a sub-creator. That is really maybe what I've most minded, in my life: not having that gift. I wanted that more than even I wanted to be an astronaut: to make worlds as Tolkien or Le Guin did, worlds you could vanish into. Not my gift.

Here in Portland: Mt Tabor, of course. And across the river, the West Hills. And if you climb over to the other side of Mt Tabor, you can see Mt Hood, a real mountain. I remember how perplexed I was when I first encountered people who would refer to ordinary hills, ones with no snow on them in the summer, as mountains. Didn't they know? Hills are just hills. Mountains are sacred.

It was a long time before I realized that my love of other worlds was a religious impulse. My father had taught me to regard religion as superstition, and of course, if you're not inside one of the great traditions, or living by some lucky accident in the neighborhood of a saint, you only meet the stupid religious people, who make you feel smugly confident. The Mormon missionaries and the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Hare Krishnas. Stupid, uneducated, credulous, superstitious: clearly using their religion to feed their egotism. Easy to dismiss.

There's a scene at the beginning of one of Eddison's books. The narrator goes to a little church, and sees there a man who impresses him greatly, intelligent and able-looking. He catches up to him after the service, and starts chattering to him: was he, too a sort of tourist, seeking out the quaint? What was he doing, at the church?

"Praying," says the man, shortly, and goes on his way, leaving the narrator, and the reader -- especially if he's a know-it-all science teacher's kid -- at a loss.

The shapes of hills on the horizon are embossed on the insides of my eyes. When I draw idly, on napkins, I always draw some variant of the Coburg Hills, rising abruptly out of the flat, rich farmland of the Willamette Valley. Sometimes there's a river in front. Sometimes there are mountains behind. But there are always hills, rising ground, leading the eye into the distance, ramifying and implicating as they fade.

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