Thursday, December 24, 2009

better living through bibliography for dark days

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages will show."

--Charles Dickens

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all...

--Emily Dickinson

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."

--Mahatma Gandhi

One regret, dear world,
That I am determined not to have
When I am lying on my deathbed
Is that
I did not kiss you enough.

--Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

--Jack London

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

--Mary Oliver

Thursday, December 10, 2009

california dreamin'

i'm getting ready - again - to head to california soon, and i'm absolutely thrilled. i answered a little questionnaire the other day that began "what was your favorite place to visit as a child?" and i had to put: california. where did i go this past summer? california. where did i go last spring, the first recreational trip since moving back to the states? that's right. california.

i've got mixed feelings about california in general, just like i've got mixed feelings about a lot of things - like america, and religion. but that doesn't stop me from loving the hell out of it.

as a kid, california represented the golden land of opportunity to me - just like it does to so many other people. the first time i ever went there, i must have been about 10 or 11, to sacramento. i didn't care so much about opportunity and golden lands at that time, but i cared about food, and they had orange trees, right there on the street! i was blown away. i took one look at that, and figured a person would never starve in california - you could just walk down the street, eating oranges all day. and oranges meant two other things, besides free food: sunshine and warmth. there had to be sunshine, and warmth, and lots of it, for there to be oranges, just growing along the sidewalk like that. what can i say? i fell in love. even though, as an oregonian, i had been raised on california-hatred with my mother's milk, as they say. i was born in the tom mccall era, for chrissakes. you know, the whole "Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven's sake, don't come here to live." A-1 on our shit list, throughout the 80s and 90s: californias, and all the property-value-increase and fancy-lettuce-demanding that went along with the consistent steady stream of in-migrants from that state to the south.

so i tried to fight it, that first inkling of forbidden fruit. but who can fight true love? the second time i fell in love with california was when i was 18. i drove down the coast with a friend. we landed in LA, rounded up some friends, and headed east to joshua tree in the middle of the night. although i was mesmerized by - and a little frightened by - my first night in the desert, it was when the sun rose that i fell completely, head-over-heels in love, this time with the california desert.

the room! the space! the crisp air! to a northwesterner, there's no bigger contrast to our cramped, moss-covered, excessive-plant-exhaling atmosphere (i mean, really...who needs that much oxygen?), no bigger contrast to our choked, can't-move-through sea of intertwined vegetation. i woke up and saw that i could see, could actually see, for miles and miles. i could have run for miles and miles, with nothing, nothing to stop me! in the oregon coast range, you can't even walk across the landscape. it's slog, pushing with all your might, against the dense salal and ferns, and step high over the impenetrable thickets, and then - there's a damn 8-foot diameter tree down right in front of you, that you have to walk 200 feet along to cross, or scramble over. there's no running, ever. there was only one word to describe that awakening, up with the sun, lookin out across that vast, beautiful expanse of openness - magical, truly magical. i was spellbound.

the best description i've ever read sums it up in this sentence:

no, wait, i can't just skip to the end. the whole post is too good. it's from a brilliant blog that hasn't been updated since 2008, which is too bad. here's the gist of this post though (see for the whole legitimate thing):

"I live now in the Northeast, but I’m from the Northwest. And if you’re from the West, and anywhere north of Monterey, I think it’s encoded in your DNA to believe that Los Angeles is the place where quality of life and human decency go to die. 
...I went on my vacation, which coincidentally was a hiking trip in California's central coast area. My hiking buddy is an old friend who lives in the Northwest but is French. We got to the top of some very pretty mountain which looked out over a beautiful valley, the sparkling ocean, and about four other gorgeous mountain ranges, and he asked, "So why exactly is it that everyone hates California?"
My first reaction was to clarify: "We don't hate California, we hate Southern California." But he pointed out that two years ago we had an equally terrific hiking trip, and a more visually stunning one, in the Mojave. He also pointed out that I actually like Los Angeles when I'm there, just not when I think about it.
So I tried harder to explain why we have this fascination with and simultaneous antipathy toward Southern California. ...

Then I realized something. I told my friend: "California is for us what the US is for Europe." If Oregon is California's Canada, then California is America's America: big, rich, powerful, and vulgar."

well, that's it, right there (with a slight modification): oregon is america's canada, and california is america's america. i love it, and hate it, for all the same reasons that i love, and hate, america: the vast expanses of open space; the impression of bounty neverending; the desert, mountains, ocean, trees; the whole complicated, convoluted history: gold rush, mining, shenanigans, land grabs, tribal decimation, spanish influence; diversity of people and thoughts; the modern era of hollywood and the good life and yes, arugula - california is all the crazy best and worst all jumbled together in a huge, chaotic mixing pot that occasionally explodes, but still - is "working on things". and working on things means the hope that the golden land exists, that opportunity is there.

i don't live there, it's true. in some ways it's exhausting just being around all that possibility, and i like the quiet life up here. our history is not so colorful, our population not so colorful, which is to our detriment, it's true. but for all that, i'm glad to be next door. it's like living next to the most lively, popular person in town, the one who has the most beautiful house, the most fabulous parties, that you can go visit anytime, but can leave when the drama all gets to be too much. when you don't feel the need to run, run, run anymore.

we were just back from europe 3 months when we went to california in 2008. heading back across the desert on the freeway between LA and las vegas, we encountered a traffic jam. according to the radio - truly - a semi-truck full of salsa had overturned on the freeway and there were thousands of pints of salsa spread all over the two lanes headed east. the why wasn't important so much. we had been camping in the backcountry of the mojave national preserve and for the past two or three days hadn't seen a single person. now i got out of our little rental car, amidst the unexpected complete stop, and basked in the sheer wonder of america. and by this i mean: the people everywhere were popping out of their cars, they were chatting, they were laughing, about the stoppage. they were comparing notes. there were at least 3 or 4 languages wafting on the cold spring desert morning air. there were at least 4 colors of skin mingling. everyone was in it together on that east california freeway, folks from the south, folks from the north, local folks passing though, people looking for solitude, people looking for sin city, all of us looking for the promised land, all of us not minding being waylaid for those few moments.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

my heart wears a black turtleneck (or, my inner french soul)

i was having a nice conversation the other day with my tarot card reader, who happens to be french (i mean that in the real way, like born in france and even has an accent, not the american way, like some one of his most recent 32 ancestors was french), about views on life and the like, and he said, "but you're french!"

he clarified by explaining it this way: "you know french movies? there is never any closure, and in french books, you finish and look around for the gun."  his point was that some people are by nature very positive, seeing the bright side of things, and some are by nature more negative; and that some cultures are more positive, literal, and emphasize the bright side, while some more naturally emphasize introspection, the grey areas of life, and...make you want to shoot yourself, i guess.

i laughed, because i thought it was a funny thing to say, especially coming from a french person. but i should have said, "i'm not french, i'm from the oregon coast!"

the second best book about the oregon coast is uncle mike's guide to the real oregon coast, by michael burgess. it is geared to the first-time visitor and has things like this in it:

"Don't bother putting your best foot forward. Your villagers are simply too miserable to care. Nothing you do, not even throwing your life away and joining them, will change things. These are humans who, from the cradle to the grave, never really get warm and dry, and it's foolish to think their inner child is somehow nourished by the gloom and damp."

"The first rule is not to try and fit in...Your best approach is to regard the nasty bit of nowhere you've come to as a theme park for the depressed, and the villagers as hired rustics with wet blankets to sell".

which came first - the personality, or the environment?

and the ennui of france & the french - or anywhere in europe, for that matter - that world-weary, nuanced view of the world that comes with having been a country, in one form or another, for thousands of years. thousands of years of experience with wars, revolutions, religions, fads - that will make a society a little grey around the edges.

which came first, the personality or the society?

it's funny, because as i was thinking about this post, i remembered some writing i was doing while on the train in france, my first visit there, in 2005. what struck me was how america is really just a teenager on the globe - and, how like a teenager, we - as a country - are loud, impetuous, impulsive, exhuberant, with little ability to think through what the implications of our actions will be, little knowledge of or empathy for others, self-centered, anti-intellectual, and living for the moment.

from my journal that day:

it seems strange but i love the absolute human-ness of the landscape. i love the quiet, settled human dominance, the lack of struggle for supremacy - both supremacy over nature as well as supremacy about whether the preservation of wilderness has any merit in and of itself. it is a moot point here; the issue has already been decided by 2000 years of settlement, during which time most of human effort has been dedicated to eating, having children, and surviving wars with each other. people smile less. but they are not so naive, so full of youthful impetuosity. i used to love that aspect of americanism most of all. now maybe as i see its negative effects on others, it's only natural that i should also seek out a more somber, serious place, without the predominance of absolute rhetoric, without the lack of responsibility for the health and welfare of others, without the emphasis on freedom at all costs...

hack away at that hypothesis - it's full of holes, i know. i'm just telling you that when i was riding on the train through france, in the aftermath of bush's reelection, that is what i was thinking of, and a little fucking societal perspective on the grey areas of life sounded pretty damn good.

was i ready to move to europe? you bet your ass. i just didn't realize it was maybe in part because my inner frenchy was longing for some native soil - that my oregon-coastal soul had found a society to match out there. because maybe for those of us from the coast, the environmental greyness of our youth produces the same personality effect as historical greyness of a society.

i also didn't realize that it was in fact the first step in my patriot retraining program (PTPtm). but more on that later.

Monday, November 23, 2009

more learning - imagine that!

the great thing about being in school is that you're constantly learning new things.

(of course, the downside to being back in school is that you're constantly learning new things, too. for example, my math professor is fond of saying, "consider a set..." or "consider the relationship..." which, in my opinion, simply begs the retort: "how about we don't consider it, and go home instead?" this reached the maximum of ridiculousness at our recent midterm, which i no doubt failed. the last question began, "consider an arbitrary universe...". you can perhaps imagine what my impulse response was. hint: it wasn't the answer.)

anyway, originally i was going to write this about the great things i'm learning in a fire management class, but that got preempted by a seminar i attended the other day. the main speaker was a man who, at age 88, is mostly retired, but who has been a major force in the rural studies field. he had an interesting talk about a conceptual frame for considering rural places, something i'm genuinely interested in.

then the discussant got up. a professor at psu's urban studies program, he proceeded to talk about regionalism in general, and where we could go from here as a rural studies program. in his brief talk, he said several things that were so fabulous i intend to steal them and run with them in my own future work. until then, i at least have to give them breathing room here.

first was the notion that perhaps, as technology advances, place becomes more important, not less. part of the difficulty in advancing a philosophy of 'place matters' is that, with our increasingly homogenized landscape, we may be moving to a future in which built places are no longer so different from each other. his point, however, was that increasing technology has enabled more choice in people's location decisions - thus, enabling place to matter more. if i can choose to live anywhere, that says more about where i do live.

he also talked about the fact that, along with this, as people choose more consciously where to live, the importance of place is allowed to interact more with their lives. as an example, he used a jazz musician in portland; a world class caliber musician who chose to live in portland and is now, instead of seeking to make his music more cosmopolitan - instead of striving to be more truly urban and fit into the music capitals of the world - is seeking to identify, purposefully, what role living in portland may have on his music. in other words, letting the region influence his music and work. a la dvorak, coming to the US - but maybe the first time a classical musician went to portland to be influenced by the region.

two classic views of regionalism are that you can define your region in opposition to the whole - rural is what urban isn't - or, you can define by what it contributes to the whole - rural is the things that it contributes to the overall state. here the discussant also made an excellent point about oregon in particular. we have an outstanding opportunity - should we want it - to explore this idea of rural and urban in our own little exemplary, non-standard place - oregon. not only is our one urban area not very urban, in the grand scheme of things, our rural areas also aren't the typical rural. portland as an urban area doesn't even register on the national or global scene. and certainly, one of the defining things about oregon is their interconnectedness - a rural resident can easily drive into portland and be comfortable, and our urban residents surely spend more time than the average in rural areas. isn't that outdoor lifestyle what Oregon's all about?

well, for those of us excited by ideas but getting lost in the math sometimes, and forgetting the magic of possibility and thinking of ways to redefine where we are and how we identify ourselves, all this was a much-needed motivational shot in the arm. at least until the midterm grades come back.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"all that the rain promises"

i'm not a good sleeper. i often spend a large portion of my nighttime awake. lately it's usually a cat or a kid inside, or a screeching raccoon fight outside, that wakes me up. once awake, there are then a million things that can keep me awake: hooting owls, random thoughts, the rain and wind.

last night, trying to get to sleep at about 1 am, all i could hear was the sound of the pouring rain. it had been pouring steadily for hours. once i focused solely on that sound, i was suddenly overcome with an extreme feeling of peace and contentment. i'm so happy we don't live in the middle of an apartment building; it is the unique patter of heavy, solid rain on the roof above and broad green leaves - like the large rhododendron outside my bedroom window - that is the sound i remember from my childhood. rain is never far from a northwesterner, from anything we write or talk about; and suddenly a phrase popped into my head, clearly connected in some way to something literary: "all that the rain promises". what was it from? it's not from the usual rain-soaked PNW literary oeuvre ("The Good Rain", by Egan; "It Rains All The Time" by Laskin; etc etc). finally i remembered: it's nothing more nor less than the title of a mushroom identification book by everyone's favorite wacky mycologist, david arora.

still, i love that phrase. it seems somehow so meditative and evocative and hopeful. it kept running through my head last night (this morning), resonating something deep inside. all that the rain promises. all that the rain promises. what does the rain promise (apart from mushrooms)? why do i love it so much?

to me, it promises green, growing, living things; it promises the need for a hot cup of coffee and fires in fireplaces; it promises books to read and a repetitive sound to lull me to sleep; it promises flowers and trees and yes, mushrooms, streams and fish; it promises a slowing down, a rest, a family pulled together for the fall, winter and spring.

what does the rain promise to you?

Friday, November 13, 2009

in the interest of time

let's face it, loyal (15) readers, this going-back-to-school thing is kicking my ass, no two ways about it.

i have several posts in line but can't seem to find the time to complete anything these days, not even simple knitting projects.

but just to keep y'all interested, i'm going to take a moment to promote a blog i stumbled across and love:

i don't know how this guy can do it - or exactly what it is - but it's almost invariably great. be sure and check out the recent post on everyone's favorite governator and an uncanny coincidence in a letter he wrote...

and especially, if you look at nothing else, read this enormously clever look at regional speak via word clouds from internet-harvested blogs and social sites, comparing the relative frequencies of words used in the northeast as compared to the south...

there, now you have something to read this long afternoon. enjoy! i'll be back soon to promote the blogs that i love that are actually produced by people i love. how fabulous that is!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

in which i finally, really, give a shit about climate change

i can't stop thinking about the redwoods. before this summer, i hadn't been there in quite a while, so i was awestruck anew at them. redwoods are awesome. they are superlative in size, incredible to see in person. they are masters of their environment, overseeing all other trees. they are like nothing else on the planet.

in looking for more specifics to understand redwoods, i turn to the dry but essential 1965 version of "Silvics of Forest Trees of the United States", old Ag Handbook No. 271, from the USFS. they have this to say in part about the fantastic coastal redwood, a.k.a. Sequoia sempervirens:

"This redwood an irregular coastal strip about 450 miles long and generally 5 to 35 miles wide. ... The frequent summer fogs which blanket the redwood region seem to be more important than the amount of precipitation in delineating the redwood type. ... The range of this tree is limited to areas where heavy summer fogs provide a humid atmosphere."

our friends at the USDA forest service (this edition compiled and revised by one H.A. Fowells) go on to explain to us several key facts, eventually: that redwood trees grow from sea level to about 3000' in elevation, but don't tolerate ocean winds, and so don't grow directly on or facing the ocean; that they reach their maximum development on alluvial soils (i.e., floodplains); that redwoods sprout from the stem or base if the top is damaged or removed; that they are, indeed, the tallest trees in the world, maxing out at 368' (in 1956); that redwood stands are dense, supporting nearly 1,000 stems per acre at 20 years; that redwood trees have no major tree-killing diseases; that old redwood stands show evidence of three major fires per 1000 years, but that old trees survive by virtue of their foot-thick bark. foot-thick! there's no exclamation points in the original, as you well may guess; Fowells et al do not let themselves tend toward exuberance. that's ok, because anyone reading it must pause at that statement, and exclaim to whomever is sitting near, while holding out their hands just so: foot thick bark! that is astounding!

the far more entertaining and poetic "A Natural History of Western Trees", by Donald Peattie, with an original copyright of 1950, at least attempts to capture more of what is so awe-inspiring about redwoods:

"In all the world there is no other forest growth like that of the Redwood. It is at once the tallest and the densest of stands - not dense like the jungle's tangled quantities of trees, lianas, and undergrowth, for the Redwood groves are spaciously open to your footsteps - but dense in the sheer volume of standing timber. ... The [transition into redwood forests] is like stepping into a cloister, one infinitely more spacious and lofty than any raised by man, and closing the door behind you on the bright secular world. ... Your footfalls make no sound on the needles and moss that have lain there for centuries. Your body makes no shadow in that green, lake-like diffused light. ... But this solemnity is not like that of a church or tomb; it is enlivened by the soft dispute of a stream with its bed... And now and then the treetops utter a slow, distant sea-hush, a sigh that passes, and then comes again, as if it were the breathing of a life beside which our lives are as a single day. ...

"And they are mighty past telling. Their enormously swelled bases are buttressed with great lynx-like claws, as if the trees gripped the earth to keep their balance. ..."

what does all this mean? well, from an ecological viewpoint, redwoods are specialists. they fit so thoroughly, so completely, in their narrow ecological niche, they survive only in this almost-coastal, fog-belt laden strip 5 to 30 miles wide and 450 miles long. fires are infrequent here, but when they come, redwoods survive by virtue of the incredible thickness of their bark. one sees many, many still-living trees where the bottom has been completely hollowed out; first the heartwood was weakened by fire, but the strong sapwood remains, keeping the tree alive. floods are frequent here, so redwoods have enormously spreading roots to anchor them firmly into soggy soil and let them take advantage of the nutrient-rich floodplain soil. should they topple over, they sprout back up again from all around the stem. given no windthrow, catastrophic fire, or other such disturbance, they can live over 2000 years.

actually, redwoods are more than specialists; they are master craftspeople. lots of plants are specialists; little particular species or variants of species that survive in small pockets here and there, where some certain condition is just right. what really separates the redwoods from the rest of the endemic plant crowd is the way they are able to parlay their special environment into the most spectacular growth possible. like most conifers, they are able to photosynthesize long into the winter season; in the dry summers, they capture fog and drip it down to the forest floor to the equivalent tune of an estimated several inches' worth of rain. they are so successful that redwood groves can support incredible amounts of woody biomass.

what does this have to do with climate change? sure, i care about climate change, believe it's human caused, believe we should do what we can to mitigate it, etc etc etc. i toe the party line, so to speak. but deep down inside, i can't get worked up about the possible disappearance of some of the more obscure species at risk. i understand why they are important; that we never know in advance the possible ripple effects of loss of a species. who knew a little rabbit could wreak havoc on australia, or that possums could almost single-handedly defoliate much of new zealand? i understand why we should care. i even get really excited when i see an unusual plant. i'm just saying that, deep down inside, i'm not convinced that every species is equally important for ecosystem functioning. i've also been coming to appreciate more and more the impermanence of all ecosystems; even the old-growth forests of the oregon coast range have fluctuated greatly over time, settling on thier current form as recently as 1,000 years ago. things come and go; they ebb and flow. mass species extinction should be avoided, of course. but in many specific instances, it's easy to imagine that an endemic species could disappear with nary a blip in the ecosystem overall.

ah, but the redwoods - those highly specialized masters! what if the climate changes, the fog declines, the fires and floods increase, new insects that can bore through the bark are able to migrate into their habitat? what then? my world, minus a special bluebell - not so different. but my world, minus the redwoods? that would be tragic. to never again stand in those groves, taller than any other on the planet, taller than imagining? to never again touch the crisscrossing bark? to have them as dinosaurs, existing only in dreams? to never again be able to lay down in that perfect cathedral, hearing only the distant hush of the ocean? that would be losing something, for everyone. and standing there, contemplating the possibility of the disappearance of such a marvelous thing, such an ancient craftsman as an old-growth redwood, i suddenly could motivate my lip service to worrying about climate change. climate change appears like a coming industrial revolution, with the potential to render obsolete so many of our natural master crafters.

in the aforementioned book "A Natural History of Western Trees", the author discusses the initial preservation of redwood groves (which began at the local and then the state level, not the national) with these final sentiments. can we rally round the redwoods once again, with the threat of the possible loss of their ecosystem this time instead of chainsaws?

"...For the members of some of the sponsoring organizations live in Iowa or Vermont, in Geeorgia or New York. The great majority of them are probably not persons of wealth at all. They gave anonymously, they gave purely, they gave to the future, to people yet unborn; they gave not only to the country but to the world. And they gave out of a deep religious feeling that the beauty and the age and greatness that here have risen from the earth to tower above us are holy and shall not be profaned." 

amen to that, brother.

Friday, October 23, 2009

a minor freedom

a group of us were studying the other day for a class when one of my fellow students, a student from france, leaned over and asked me, "how old are you?"

i told her - 36, if you're curious - and her eyes got wide. "i sink, in all ze history of frahnce, tat tere has never been a graduate student az ancient az you", she said.

ok, that's what i heard. that's not really what she said. but she did say something like, "i think in france, one does not see graduate students as old as that" or something like that.

i guess i'm glad i spent some time in germany and france, for two reasons: one, i know that different things are taboo to talk about and ask people about there as compared to here; and two, i know she's pretty much right. both of these together mean i can't really be offended by what she said.

first off, people in at least germany, and i'm guessing france, are much more willing to comment on your - or anyone else's - weight and age than americans are. it's just not taboo. i think the reasoning is that they are both obvious characteristics; why bother pretending you aren't curious or shouldn't know or couldn't guess? you could also argue they are far, far less obsessed with youth culture, image, and anti-aging. although they generally are more 'made up' than we are, they are also far more comfortable, in the aggregate, with human bodies and thier imperfections. (what do we, as americans, have no compuction talking about that they do? money, of course. we talk about money to the point of discomfort for many germans i knew.)

second, it's true that there probably aren't a lot of 36 year old grad students in france. if the system is much like germany - and i'm guessing it is more like germany than like here - university is something you do straight from high school, and if you continue on, that's right after that. period. in germany, your track - whether to a general high school degree, a vocational high school degree, or to university after high school (excepting professional programs such as MBA or skilled training) - is traditionally mostly set at age 10. in fifth grade is when you are sent to one of the three types of secondary schools and that, friends, is pretty much all she wrote*. i have asked germans about this and while it's technically possible to buck the system and switch tracks, or go to university after completing a different track, it's so difficult socially and culturally that it doesn't happen very often.

so although my inner american nature automatically bristled at the implied "you're old!" comment, i just smiled and said, "yes, i think you're probably right. it's different here; here you can go to school pretty much whenever you want." of course with the caveat of being able to afford it (no wonder we're so obsessed with money; getting a college degree in the US is highly correlated with family income; rich kids are far, far more likely to go to college than poor kids, for lots of reasons). but it's also true here that you can barely pass high school - or not finish at all - and maybe have a kid, or maybe screw around a while, maybe have some jobs and whatnot - and still decide to go to school on your own terms, without your parents' backing if needed. and go. and once you've gotten the first hurdle down - a four-year degree - you can take some time and go back and continue whenever you want. whenever! you put in the application, have the requirements, get all the documentation you need, and it's your choice.

it's not perfect here (i wish it wasn't so connected to family income, for starters), and it's a minor freedom in the grand scheme of things, but it's a specific and identifiable one, and one i'm particularly glad to have right at this moment. sure, it would have been nice to be doing this at 25 or whatever, when i had more energy and more free time. but i made other choices then that i'm happy with. isn't it nice to get to choose something totally new now? instead of fighting off offense, i should have thanked her for reminding me of this fact - that it's far easier for me to make this radical shift at 36 here, than it would be there.

plus, joke's on her! i wasn't even the oldest one there.

*note: there is work to change the german system to a more flexible, integrated, american style one. but that change is painful and not everyone agrees with it. the old system has its advantages, too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a narrow focus

much of my life in germany was focused around grocery shopping.

you wouldn't think it would be such a big deal. but it ended up being, if not always huge, still a daily ordeal.

one reason would have been the same, regardless of place. i was at home with a toddler, for the first time in my life, for the first year there. those of you who have spent a lot of time at home with a toddler - even without being a stranger in a strange land - know how important daily routine is to survival.

without a daily routine, and a reason to get out of the house, getting out 'for fun' means that the window of opportunity between nap time constraints has to occur when the entire food/sleep continuum is at an optimum and you're already prepared with all the equipment ready to go - well, at that point in time, who's really going to notice if, at 3 pm, you're still in pajamas, the kid's still in pajamas, and your afternoon coffee turns into an afternoon irish coffee, and before long your hard-working partner's wondering why there's all the empty whiskey bottles in the recycling?

it's a slippery slope. that was my first reason to go to the grocery store every day. i had a sum total of one friend in town, and she worked every day. i could go to a park, but i couldn't understand anyone if they started talking to me - plus, that first winter was freezing cold and featured lots of snow. i couldn't spend a lot of time browsing at boutiques, even without buying anything, with a wiggly toddler.

but grocery stores, apart from fulfilling a useful-family purpose, are heaven for little kids in germany. every where you go, there's free stuff! there's always a bit of meat for them at the meat counter, a sample of cheese at the cheese counter, and everywhere, the chance of picking up an inexpensive, freshly-baked soft pretzel, covered in salt. one of those is worth at least half hour of patience from a small child. and, apart from these 'legitimate' giveaways, i can't count how often some random person just gave t. a candy or cookie.

[the first time that happened, it totally freaked me out - when traveling with j. in austria, before we moved to europe. initially, my american-urban-myth-filled head pictured only cyanide/razorblade apples. then i realized that people - especially grandmother-types - in germany just have an inexhaustible well of sweets in their bags, ready to pass out at a cute glance from any little kid. the most amazing disbursement of this type happened once while we were in the checkout line. a woman ahead of us finished paying, reached into her purchases and opened up a bag of chocolates to be able to hand one back to t. we're not talking little jolly ranchers, here, either, but pretty nice chocolate bars or cookies or other treats.]

apart from my mental health, there was a logistical reason to go to the store everyday: our refrigerator, for a family of four, wasn't much larger than a dorm fridge, with a small freezer on bottom. we purchased a middle-of-the-road fridge from a standard appliance store, and the whole thing was not taller than me (5') and not much wider than maybe 2 feet. and that included the separate freezer unit. (we did see a big, silver, double door refrigerator for sale one time. it was advertised as an "american-style refrigerator!")

anyway, you could not fit any milk container larger than a quart in it. which is fine, because - that's the biggest size of milk they sell, in general, in germany. cheese comes in 100g units or so. that's like - 1/4 of a pound. there's no 2 lb baby loaf or gallon of anything. everything comes in these teeny quantities, because everyone has teeny refrigerators, so everyone can only buy these teeny quantities.

there's also just a different style to shopping there. people expect to have fresh bread. they expect to have fresh cheese, and fresh meat, and fresh eggs. even if you get most of your staples at large store runs, you still expect to go out several times a week for fresh bread. most people still buy their bread at the bakery, separate from the grocery store. the culture and the size of your refrigerator work together here, keeping you going to the store every. damn. day.

these daily trips became something of an ordeal. you have to understand that part of this was my own stubbornness. stuck at home all day with a toddler meant i wasn't getting any exercise. so, instead of taking the bus down to the big supermarket in the mall in wetzlar, i always walked to the small market nestled within the wetzlar old town.

which would have been great, except that it was the opposite set up for successful exercise. that would have required decent equipment and a route designed to reward me for my effort. instead, we had one stroller (we really came to germany with minimal things) - one that was great for collapsing as we got on and off trains bound for distant lands, but was not good for daily shopping with. it had no basket of any kind and tiny wheels, which made it hard to go fast or maneuver. not to mention that the perfect route would be to go uphill to get to town, while everyone was still fresh and happy and unladen with lebensmittel. but of course that was not how it worked. we lived half-way up a monstrous hill, with the old town right at the base of it. so i went down first, and up last, once i had several heavy cloth bags full of groceries hanging off the handles and sometimes balanced in t.'s lap. and, of course, all the streets were charming cobblestone - which, when you're pushing a stroller, is almost like working through gravel. almost.

so these daily trips were both the focus point and major frustration of each and every day. every day, we'd head down the hill. every day, fight our way back up, with me sweating, cursing, leaning into the wobbly rickety stroller, telling t. to hush as i tried to concentrate on pushing him up the hill. or, worse yet, discovered he'd fallen asleep on the ride home, so that i faced either waking up a still sleepy/grouchy toddler at the foot of the stairs of carrying it all, stroller, toddler, bags of groceries, up 1.5 flights of stairs.

and yet - it all was worth it. not just because i still had moments where i could look up at the 400 year old buildings and realize, deep down inside, that i was living in europe, where i had wanted to live for so long. it was worth it also because, after a few months, i started to get the town. as a foreigner, i know, but still - i knew folks. the fabulous blond checkout lady at the small store knew me, asked about the kids, commented (slowly, she could tell i was very linguistically challenged) on the day and how it was. the lady at the bakery knew me, and my laden stroller, and always had a cookie for t. the guy at the post counter in the stationary store knew me, and my clumsy attempts to request stamps or shipping for the US. it must have become apparent that we were 'the americans', because folks who knew a bit of english would start asking me things. the lady at the cheese counter, for example, one day asked me how to tell tourists that they should pay up front for the cheese she sliced and bagged for them. 'they always try to pay back here', she confided in halting english. 'how do i tell them where to pay?'

i had learned this before, when we moved to maine - that there are some communities that you have to prove that you're going to stick around in before people start opening up to you. i had to show up, day after day, rain or snow or shine, toting my toddler around, to prove i was worth trying to get to know. it can feel isolating at first - but the reward, of course, is that i bet if i walked into that market now, today, and the blond lady was working, she'd say 'oh! how have you been? and where is your little son? oh, he has grown so much!' as if i had only been gone on vacation, and certainly hadn't returned to another country for almost two years.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

people as places

"I'll be scrambling 'round, hunting high and then low
Looking for the face, love; or somewhere to go
I hardly had places that I needed to go
Cause you're the places that I wanted to go"

-- "People as Places as People", Modest Mouse

recently i got to thinking about this - people as places.

does this happen to everyone? where a person and a place get lodged together so completely in your mind and heart, you can't think of one without thinking of the other?

what is it about certain people that leads to this phenomena? are they the people who are themselves so attached to their place, that one can't imagine them anywhere else? or is it something about our specific set of experiences with a certain person that leads to this mental confusion? do we have our significant experiences in unique, place-specific settings as opposed to generic ones, and that's what makes them people as places as people?

i've had entire states break my heart. i look at a map, and see pain in the shape of a specific geography.

or, conversely, in a moment of sublime beauty & happiness i occasionally wonder: do i love this landscape because of who i'm with? or do i only like this person next to me - because of what i see?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

the 'real'ization of germany

the first place i ever lived where there was a wal-mart was wetzlar, germany.

no kidding! talk about depressing and discouraging proof of the american 'culture' overtaking the world. we never made the trek up to the wetzlar wal-mart, but it didn't last long. while we were living there, wal-mart pulled out of germany - sold all thier stores and never looked back. the stores, bought by a european chain called 'real', i'm sure are pretty similar, but i bet there's no greeters.

i talked this over with a german friend of mine, and we're pretty sure it was the greeters that did wal-mart in.

when you walk into a large store in germany (it's slightly different with small boutiques and small stores), it's just silent. there's no help, anywhere. there's no, 'how are you today?', no extraneous conversation, no 'can i help you?'

i spent the first 6 months in germany shopping with a cloud hanging over me, convinced  that somehow my mere presence had offended everyone so much that they were ignoring me. i was certain i had done something wrong without knowing it. why else would no one speak to me? why else would no workers be around to help when i was struggling to get something off the top shelf? why wasn't the cashier asking me about my child's day at school and complaining about her backache? why wasn't there a cheery, smiling stockboy asking if i found everything ok? it must be my fault!

eventually i not only realized that it's just the way things were, i even adapted to it without realizing it. the first time i was back in the states was about 9 months after moving to germany. we were driving from portland to LC and i stopped at a safeway for something - may have even been to just use the bathroom (ok, one nice thing about the states - public bathrooms). i entered and was walking through the store - walking with purpose, mind you - when a cheery, well-scrubbed lad of maybe 18 popped in front of me.

'hi! can i help you find anything?' he said.

i was a bit surprised and taken aback. 'uh, no thanks', i said and continued on my very directed walk.

then another fresh, bright person accosted me. 'finding everything ok today?' she said, grinning hugely.

'yes', i said, now a little put out. did i look lost? was i going slowly, scanning the shelves? no! what was the freaking deal with these people?

on the return trip - a bee-line, really - from the bathroom to the exit the same cheery cherub that first interrogated me appeared again. 'find everything alright?' he said, smiling.

by now i was downright annoyed. who were these people, and why would they not allow me to move through the store in silence? why were they trailing me, nagging me with their incessant questions? then i remembered - oh yeah. that's just how it is here.

i had only been in germany a matter of months. now imagine a native german, walking into wal-mart for the first time, encountering a person whose sole role in the store was to immediately jump on you. 'HI! WELCOME TO WAL-MART!' how utterly confusing, and kind of frightening. i can just picture nervous frauen clutching their handbags a little tighter when confronted with such a madperson, vowing never to return. it's just not how it's done there.

call it a customer service desert, call it peaceful. sometimes it's annoyingly one way, sometimes another. but sometimes, despite the best efforts of a wildly successful company, their way of doing things just isn't quite - right.

for me, back here in the US, i've completely adjusted back to this way. i love the smiles, the over-effusive offers of assistance. i let those cheery smiles wrap around me like a comforting hug - that familiar way that is neither right or wrong, good or bad, but just what i'm used to.

note: the picture of the real- store in germany comes from another blog which appears to be, randomly enough, devoted to discussions of brands and retail chains - not anything more or anything less than brand talk. how obscure. but the proper credit is thus:
photo from []

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

postcards from the edge

one of the random collections i've accumulated over the years is of postcards. generally speaking, i don't get them all together and peruse them; they tend to pile up in little stacks and live, scattered, in various boxes helpfully marked like so:
misc mc
kitchen stuff
misc mc

but lately, with the whole settling down thing, i've been actually putting my random collections together. with these postcards, i am kind of fascinated by what people choose to celebrate or showcase about their place. the very function of postcards is to impress upon the recipient some key image about somewhere else. i suddenly noticed a striking similarity in two postcards that i found funny:

really? there's two states bragging about potato growing? and they are so cheap, they won't even pony up for a new image?  what are you doing, maine? potato growing in maine is a fairly small industry. there's the whole beach/lobster/scruffy tree thing you should be talking up. and idaho? when you've got the sawtooth mountains, the salmon river, and craters of the moon - you're going to advertise potatoes? is that going to bring people there in droves?

i think the winner of the postcard that is inspiring me the least to jump in the car anytime soon is: 

really, endless fields of soybeans is more attractive than that. and if you've been near a pork farm/iowa...and can associate the appropriate smell with this image, all the better.

i tend to collect 'themes' of postcards: from exotic places, featuring maps or plant identification information, funny ones, and scenes of environmental pillage. i guess the last one isn't too surprising, given my natural resource focus (forestry & ag). still, sometimes it amazes me that we have such a frontier mentality that we will celebrate rampant resource use in these ways. the classic one, from oregon:

a more subtle one, from new mexico:

i know, not all cattle production is environmentally unsound. but let's be realistic - in general, stampedeing tons of cows across fragile rangeland is not entirely sustainable.

then there's the grand champion expression of american pride in progress and utter lack of future-thought:

the berkeley pit, of course, was at one point in time one of the largest open-pit mines. it was owned by a huge conglomerate that dug all the copper out...and then removed the pumps that kept it dry and walked away. since then, it's been slowly filling up with water...which, thanks to the mining residue, is heavily contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, zinc, etc. did the flock of snow geese that landed in the water and died die from toxins or a bacterial infection? we don't know, but over 300 carcasses were pulled out in 1995. it was for many years the largest superfund site. not to mention the fact that the company abandoned the community and people of butte without a backward glance...all in all, a really cheerful scene to send on my family back home while i'm travelling.

or how about this one?

ah, sweet hanford! currently the most contaminated nuclear site in the US - fully two-thirds of the entire nuclear waste of the country sits there (53 million gallons of nuclear waste). plus, you can read up a little bit on it and come up with this fact: that plutonium from hanford was in the bomb that fell on nagasaki. the back of this postcard cheerfully proclaims: "Plant 2 can produce enough electricity to serve about 35,000 all-electric homes". that's it? thousands dead, millions of gallons of toxic waste - but on the plus side, enough electricty to serve a town!

there really used to be a town there, too. everyone was moved to make room for the 500+ square mile site. but they kindly named the new site after the town that had once been there. a sort of tribute to progress, i suppose. plus, they got a postcard out of it. i bet there weren't any postcards of hanford the town.

Monday, October 5, 2009

an inferiority complex of superlative size (or, don't insult the locals)

here's an interesting story i ran across that got me thinking about westerners, easterners, and understanding other places.

it seems that a young woman from new england moved to dillingham, alaska, to work on the local public radio station. while there, she took up blogging, as a way to share her experience in the wilds of alaska with all those civilzed folks back home. given that the blog is called "I'm in Dillingham Alaska, What's Your Excuse?", you can maybe guess a bit of the tone.

that's the quiet version. where it hit the regular news was when suddenly, the locals got whiff of what all she was writing, and the shit storm began.

turns out they didn't always like their drunken and other rural escapades to be shared in a semi-scathing way with liberal elites out east. public sentiment swung against her, she was asked to resign from her job, and found herself the recipient of random pushes while on the street, that sort of thing.

there's a couple things going on here that i find interesting. heck, there's a million things, if you go through and read some of her blog posts, which i won't touch on here, but they have to do with native culture vs. white culture, alcoholism in rural, native areas, etc. it's a gold mine of things to talk about (if not all that well written), but for now, i'm just going to focus on what i think is the most important take-home message. it's one that i tell my cats, in fact, every time i have to stuff one of them into a kennel for a long car ride or plane trip.

"kitty", i say, "don't shit where you have to sleep. i'll be happier, you'll be happier, it's a win-win situation. trust me on this one."

i've never learned it to the extent that this person has. i mean - i think i've never managed to piss off an entire town. and it's more than just a matter of common sense. there's more to it than just not shitting where you sleep (i could find a less crass way of saying that, but then i'd have to forego the alliteration - and i love me a little alliteration). it's all about communication, and condescension. in some ways, i can't believe she didn't see it coming. did she really think it was going to be ok for an outsider to tell those stories in that tone - regardless of whether or not they were the truth?

just as teasing only works (i.e., doesn't hurt) when the other person knows you actually like them, so scathing commentary on another place, culture, or person is only not offensive when the two parties feel like equals. and easterners, bless thier sheltered hearts, will never understand that westerners just don't feel like equals. i referred to it as an inferiority complex previously, i think, but you can call it what you like: rural bias against perceived urban elitism seems to be the current catch-phrase. since most of the west is rural - and the rural areas tend to be more conservative out west - and most of the dominant, liberal population centers are in the east, this can easily be translated into a west vs. east kind of thing. and, now that i'm writing this, i'm realizing that she was a white urban easterner, commenting on a native, rural, alaskan culture. she came from at least three dominant cultures, compared to most locals. whenever you're not equal - whenever one person is speaking from a position of power - offense comes so much faster. and even if you think you're equal, you may not be. that's for the person in the subjugated position to decide - not the dominant one.

maybe one understands this more readily when one comes from a place that has been dubbed both the "20 miserable miles" and "the ugliest town on the Oregon Coast". even so, i had to learn it the hard way. i thought being from such a place gave me some sort of redneck cred. i thought growing up in otis - going camping in clearcuts, riding dirt bikes and ATVs - gave me an 'in', made me an equal, when i moved to montana. so, one day i flippantly referred to native Montanans - and, by extension, my dear friend Kevin, whom i was speaking to at the time - as 'hicks'.

he was totally, utterly, shocked and hurt. i had completely insulted him, without meaning to. i should have known better. i know how offensive it was, growing up, to hear portlanders complain about how ugly and horrible lincoln city was, how unsophisticated us natives were. i can remember in conversation with a friend, we agreed that "they don't get to [have a right to] complain about here yet, because they don't live here and know it. they don't know all the good. and until one loves it, one doesn't have the right to say how much it sucks." not that we had any sort of philosophical or rational logic to that statement, but doesn't it seem somehow kind of right? just as you have to love someone to tease them, shouldn't you have to also love a place before you insult it? i guess i thought he knew that i loved montana already, and the people in it. i guess i didn't understand that he still saw me as an outsider. he didn't push me over in the parking lot or anything. no - worse, to me - he just looked really sad.

i think i've veered off track here. and probably not made my original point clear, at all. i think it was - don't insult the locals. and the other point is - if you hurt someone, say you are sorry, as soon as you can. because sometimes, we're left wondering - did i say what i wanted to say, before they disappeared forever? but that's a different story, and i've veered so far off track, all i can do is add in a picture of kevin (on the left, camping in March 1995).

instead of a kind of conversational post about an interesting story, i've left myself missing a place i loved and left, and a person i'll never see again. next time i'm going to make a goddamned outline and follow it. sometimes place attachment and loss hurts almost as much as person love and loss.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

itchy feet & staying put

we just bought a new house, and it's kind of freaking me out.

here's the thing: for all that western oregon is the only place i feel at home, for all my over-developed place attachment, for all that i can never seem to stay away, i get - with striking regularity - seriously itchy feet every two to three years that demand to be taken out for a long walkabout, so they can see and experience new things.

ever since i was 16 and moved to eugene, it's been the case:
1990 - to eugene (and back to LC in 1992)
1992 - to montana
1995 - back to oregon: albany, then corvallis
1998 - to maine
2000 - back to oregon: LC, then corvallis
2004 - to germany
2007 - back to corvallis

the trend is ominous. it's been two years now and prior history would indicate that my yo-yo nature - or, as i prefer to think of it, my tidal nature - is about to slingshot me out on another run. yet i'm full of this conflicting desire - or dedication, really - to make sure that j. can graduate high school here. in other words, it's time for somebody to nail my feet to the floor. i guess being a homeowner might do the trick.

instead of moving, i've been talking with my palm reader about 'radical openness'. not radical in the sense of packing up and moving someplace new. radical in the sense of trying tiny new things every day, so that one can have new experiences while staying in the same location. this blog is part of that - sort of an ongoing discussion about place, what it means, and a bit of reveling in what it means to stay. so is my current doubling of jewelry-wearing (i put on another ring recently, and have decided it is ok). i'm learning to fly-fish, which i'm pretty excited about. i'm trying to stay here - mentally and physically - instead of always looking forward. i'm returning, in some sense, to my 'see america first!' phase. only it's even more restricted: see the northwest first! i'm trying to get back to really knowing my place, renewing my appreciation for my place, living local - remembering favorite trails, remembering the names of plants, trying to let - say - the sun rising through the trees be my own 300-year-old cathedral.

in the midst of this worry, we went to olympic national park to go backpacking last weekend. and i found my cathedral.

so, it's working. i mean, if that isn't the voice of god/spirit/earth/whatever telling me to stay put and celebrate, i don't know what is.

and just in case the subtlety of that message escaped me, the beach in washington left me a more explicit one:

i'll be staying put for a while.
thank you, trees! thank you, sun! thank you, beach! i love you too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

the relativity of 'of course'

I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.
--Kurt Vonnegut, In an Interview

when we were getting ready to move to germany, lots of people pointed out that 'unfurnished' means something different in europe than here. i kept thinking, thanks, but i get it already. i know about there being no closets.  why else would IKEA sell all those wardrobes? and all those british kids keep popping out of them in stories?

when we landed, we had a place to live for the first month in a furnished apartment in giessen that was owned by the university. it had two bedrooms & a bathroom and worked more like a guesthouse, even though it looked like an apartment building - we had to clean the floors and do all our own food and all, but linens were even provided. we didn't want to be there very long, however, and so we quickly got to work looking for a place to live.

our friend lutz took us to view the first apartment we wanted to see. it was in wetzlar, a nearby town that was much more attractive (sorry, giessen, for bombing the holy hell out of you in WWII). it was a beautiful old building, with three floors; each floor was its own apartment. a surprisingly young woman, the owner, met us all there - all four of us, and our german friend/guide/translator - and began to give us the tour.

now i've looked at lots of apartments over my life. viewed them in various states. i know how to disregard the current furniture, and all that. so we were going through, visualizing the living room empty, that sort of thing, and just generally admiring the hell out of it. then we came to the kitchen. 

i think i said something totally generic and innocuous, like: "this is nice".

then one of the germans - either lutz or the owner - seemed to realize what i was thinking and said, "yes, but you do know the kitchen is theirs, right?"

the kitchen was theirs. it belonged  to them. yep, all of it. the cupboards. the cupboards on the wall. the cupboards on the floor. the counter top. the stove. the fucking sink. when they moved out, it was all going with them. the kitchen would be just like all the other rooms - a bare box, only with a drain hole in the floor and a big outlet for the stove on the wall.

feeling pretty taken aback, we went back into the living room, which looked so nice partly because the floor was a dark pergo-type instead of the dark blue carpet that was in the rest of the apartment. i think at that point in time i commented on how nice that was.

can you see where this is going? i couldn't. turned out the floor was theirs. they had put it in, and they were taking it with them when they moved out. it was pergo laid right on top of the carpet. then we learned more, and it kept getting worse. those lovely overhead fixtures? those belonged to the tenants, too. we would be treated to entirely bare rooms, with just some wires hanging down from those charming 12-foot ceilings. my brain was suddenly in overload, redefining 'bare' and contemplating how a family of four, new to the country, not speaking the language, without a car and with only the contents of 6 suitcases between them, was going to get overhead lights and a ladder tall enough to install them on the day we moved in. not to mention - a sink.

we went back into the bathroom. feeling a little desperate, i asked, is the toilet and bathtub going to be here? the germans laughed. "of course!" they said, like i had said the funniest thing they'd ever heard. the idea of anyone taking a toilet! 

of course? of course, my ass! of course the sink would be there. i had never contemplated a world where the sink was not immutable. in fact, in my world, the sink is so damned immutable, that it's a phrase used to express when absolutely everything else is gone. 'she took/sold/packed everything but the kitchen sink'. the kitchen sink never goes. in a bad divorce you might take the shower head - but no one even contemplates taking the kitchen sink. the kitchen sink will be the last thing standing, the last thing in a house, always. 

then it hit me - turns out that's why ikea sells all those kitchens. turns out that the existence of a kitchen sink is a matter of faith, not truth. cultural relativity, in a very unexpected, small, yet concrete way, hit me like a ton of bricks.

i try not to say 'of course!' too often now.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"everything is so amazing..."

we just got back recently from a nine-day tour of southern oregon & northern california national parks & monuments. 2 adults, a 14-year-old, and a 5 and 5/6ths year old. to his credit, the 14-year old didn't complain too much once we got on the road. and to his credit, the 5 year old didn't ask "how much longer?" more than 4,326 times.

this post could have a lot to do with place, but it doesn't. it's about wildness instead. what got me thinking was when we were driving in between lassen national park and lava beds national monument. suddenly J (the 14 year old) realized we were in cell phone range. 'cool', he said, 'maybe we'll have coverage at the campground'.

here's where i don't go all curmudgeon-y. in fact, i'm a little tired of people my age and older constantly complaining about how connected kids these days are and what dire consequences for society and face-to-face interpersonal communications that will have. how it signals the decline of Western Civilization, Since They Will Not In The Future Be Able To Communicate At All. i remember vividly the days of not being connected. of arranging call times with friends, racing to pick up the phone after one ring so as not to disturb the parents, dragging the phone with the 20-foot cord to the bedroom and closing the door (until the time the irate parent picked it up and said, 'get off the phone!'). am i a better person for it, with better communication skills? i kind of doubt it.

it is amazing, though, that these days even camping does not necessarily mean disconnected. used to be that heading out on a weeks' vacation with the parents meant absolutely no contact with your friends. it was like exile, really.

and what if that's not such a bad thing? used to be that we all dreamed about being out there - you know, beyond the reach of anything. in the true wilderness. you against the land. my side of the mountain, and all that. totally alone...well, except all the jet trails crossing overhead. these days, there's no such illusions. maybe it's only appropriate that teens these days have no expectations of wilderness, of being truly alone. they don't consider it an option. they are - always connected. and, with 6+ billion people on the planet, i'm wondering if that won't be an advantage, survival-wise.

humans are incredibly adaptable. without adaptation, without societal evolution, my only option in life would be to be an uneducated breeder. i'm thinking that teens these days - who don't ever mind being utterly connected, who never expect otherwise, who can find privacy in the midst of crowds with ipods and by texting as opposed to phone conversations that can be overheard - i'm thinking that they might be better positioned for our crowded future than we are, with our archaic expectations of wilderness and solitude.

maybe i was most amazed at my reaction to his comment. when he said that, i didn't really care. turns out he'd been with us for a week already, and had never complained about lack of contact, lack of cell coverage. he had, in fact, hiked 5 miles a day with us. he had been duly, and i think truly, impressed by redwoods and volcanoes, fumaroles and mud pots. he had hiked down to the beach in northern california where there were no other humans in sight the entire time - from start of hike, to exploring the beach, to the return. all this, without complaint. he was just saying hey, it'd be ok with him to once again be in contact. i can't really begrudge him that. i saw him at that moment as a supremely adaptable human. i was reminded of a video clip i love of Louis CK, talking about someone on a plane who was disgruntled at a momentary lack of wireless service - "Everything is so amazing, and no one is happy". everything is so amazing - redwoods, a secluded beach in california, craters, and texting in the middle of a lava field. i guess i'd rather seek out the good, and be happy, than decry unequivocally the decline of culture*.

*especially since it doesn't matter a bit which i do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the best book about where i'm from

"And for another thing, there was nothing, not a thing! about the country that made a man feel Big and Important. If anything it made a man feel dwarfed…Important? Why, there was something about the whole blessed country that made a soul feel whipped before he got started…The flora and fauna grew or died, flourished or failed, in complete disregard for man and his aims. A Man Can Make His Mark, did they tell me? Lies, lies. Before God I tell you: a man might struggle and labor his livelong life and make no mark!"
--Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey
the best book ever about the oregon coast range is without a doubt sometimes a great notion. it's not the best book ever. in fact, i'm not entirely sure it's even a great book, or even successful in what it's trying to do. Kesey's best, by far, was one flew over the cuckoo's nest. that is a gem of a book: succinct, powerful, unforgettable. SAGN, on the other hand, wanders too long, uses a shifting narrator perspective that is insightful at its best and distracting and confusing at its worst, and is so verbose and wordy that many don't stick with it. one of the main characters is not even all that likable.
"For what profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun if the trees and the brush and the moss strive everlastingly to take it back? Strive everlastingly until a soul felt that the town was only a sort of prison cell with green prison walls of brush and vine and he had to labor everlastingly, day in and day out, just to hang onto whatever pitiful profit he might have made, labor everlastingly day in and day out just to hang onto a floor of mud and a ceiling of clouds so low sometimes he felt he must stoop…Floor and ceiling and a green prison wall of trees."
but there's no better book about the oregon coast range. i've never read any prose that can capture better the suffocating feeling of the heavy grey skies, the rain, the enormous trees; the stifling, small-town interconnected community; the pride of woods workers; the incredible richness of the fauna that covers everything.

"For this land was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat – this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying. Saturated and overflowing! The feeling haunted Jonas’s days and tortured his sleep. O, Jesus, light of life, fill the darkness. He was being smothered. He was being drowned. He felt he might awake some foggy morn with moss across his eyes and one of those hellish toadstools sprouting in the mist from his own carcass."
that's exactly how i felt growing up. feel that everyday and maybe, just maybe, you wind up thinking that place matters. it's the only place where i feel utterly, truly, at home and like i belong.
in addition to being the best book to capture the feeling of the coast range, kesey's book is all about place. he is obviously a person for whom place matters. the main oregon characters - hank & henry - are inseparable from the forest environment. they have lived and worked in the woods their entire lives. furthermore, thier relationship with the place - the human community as well as the environment - was partly in response to thier ancestor jonas's hatred and disconnect with the place.

so, it's got place, and more specifically, my place. no wonder it's one i turn to almost every year. when the rains start and the geese start honking overhead i know it's time to loose myself once again in the battles of hank, henry, the union and wakonda pacific...

Photo from eyeliam, flikr creative commons, of the poster used in a portland stage version of SAGN.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

and how did you celebrate statehood day?

for those of you living under a rock and/or in another state, oregon this year celebrated its sequi- sesci- somegodaweful thing -centennial. in other words, oregon turned 150 on february 14th, 2009.

i wouldn't even necessarily know that oregon's statehood day is february 14th except that, while growing up, our class had a couple of jehovah's witnesses in it, which meant we could not celebrate any holidays. so our teacher in the 6th grade had a 'statehood day' party, instead of a valentine's day party. i guess it did firmly fix 'statehood day' in my mind.

turns out this is how i celebrated oregon's sesquicentennial this past 2/14/2009 with my friend holly (that's the correct spelling, i looked it up). the tree tattoo i got years ago while i was in forestry school. adding the state - and lincoln county, where my heart is and always will be - along with other things i think of as truly oregon (salmon and trillium) seemed a good fit.

damn, i love oregon. what is it about this state that inspires such weird loyalty among people? there are others like it in terms of loyalty - i've seen texas tattoos, and california. but those states are icons, if you will - giants both geographically and culturally in the overall american landscape. oregon is a bit player, really, when it comes right down to it. a professor once said, talking of economics, that oregon was about 1% of the nation as a rule of thumb. my jaw dropped, but he's totally right: we're 1% of the population (3 million out of 300 million), and our state economy is about 1% of whatever comparable national measures. 1%? that's nothing!

there are a few other places that are completely unimportant in the national scheme of things that, nevertheless, have a unique pull on the people living there - montana springs most readily to mind. people there are very attached to being Montanans, and always will be. but there's lots of other states that struggle away in relative obscurity and unimportance, and fail to inspire the allegiance of residents. maybe i'm wrong but - can you imagine a delaware tattoo?

note: it's entirely possible that, in fact, oregon does not inspire great loyalty. since i am speaking only from my personal experience (n=1), it's possible that, in fact, i'm just a kind of overly-attached freak, and if i had grown up in deleware, would have in fact a delaware tattoo.

Friday, September 11, 2009


i am a 100%, through-and-through, died-in-the-wool, American.

i'm not saying that that's a good thing, but it's the truth. and really i should say not just an american, but a Westerner; and not just any westerner, either, but an Oregonian.

way back in high school i became dedicated to 'seeing america first' (and not just because i was a fan of cole porter). deep down inside, i was a raving europhile. but i had no resources to fund a 6 week or 8 week soul-searching, backpacking/eurail pass adventure of the type i dreamed about. so, i pleaded the moral highroad of "america first!". gas was cheap, i had a small car, and i could drive all over the west - which is so full of amazing natural places that it was easy to justify.

culturally, though, i still struggled with our western-american-inferiority complex, and saw europe as the center of all - or at least, new york and europe in combination. american history, world history, art, architecture, museums, opera, music, dance - it flowed from there. then i finally got a chance to live there, in central Germany, from 2005-2007.

i moved there at the height of my own anti-american stance. but in the process of living there is when i fully understood that i was an incurable american - an incurable westerner - for good or ill.

this blog is going to be just a sort of series of reflections mostly on what that mean to me, observations about life in germany as an american, thoughts about the west in general, and about rural life. i don't pretend to have any answers or new insights. but it's stuff i like to think about. since i have 2 kids and a partner, there'll no doubt be some random family waffle too.

i was thinking of titling this blog 'americans and other freaks of nature' at first. but probably not everyone revels in our freakiness, so that may sound too negative. but what do you call uncivilized people? wild? we aren't wild anymore; not even in the west. half-wild though - that seemed appropriate.