Monday, February 24, 2014

Salmon River Journal


At the bank of the Salmon the river’s mind is evident. So too is its subtlety. Boulders attend the shores and hunker in the current, carving the water into channels, into deep green pools where trout hide and pebbles are smoothed. Moss on the larger rocks holds wildflower seeds safe until spring. The stripped boles of trees lie across the stream, or jut from the brush out over the water, and holding it all is the white-noise voice of the current itself, come down from the mountains with soft syllables that sneak up on you when pronounced. For a few minutes I stand in silence – not a true silence, but the silence of my own kind – and listen. It helps to think like water, constantly moving, never settling, exploring every stone and every hole and every eddy, every pool, every little rapid now contributing to the conversation taking place, and it takes time to sort them all out.

I don’t know if I can.


I haven’t listened much to rivers lately. My thoughts tend towards mountains, towards alpine meadows and tiny tarns, towards heather and bent fir, and ridges between glaciers. Towards the source. But down here, in valleys thick with ancient trees and ancient communities and truly wild growth, there’s wisdom more fecund and more creative and more entrenched than that of the seasonal blush of the windy heights. The wildflowers of glacial till and volcanic ash are beautiful and strong, but their tenuous grip is diminutive and sentimental, compared to the deep rooted hold of cedar and mycelia and rhizomes, among the mushrooms and the ferns.

But I can’t compare. Sentimentality is just an emotion I assign, unconnected to reality in the way these mossy Doug firs and red cedars are. There are bear and cougar in the shadows that don’t care about my sentimentality. The river itself would drown me if I let it. Voles that never come down from the top branches don’t care where I step, and if I step on a fawn lily will the fawn lily care? The trees have seen many people like me stop and look up at the wild light filtering through the boughs. But every lily on the floor is unique.
Life down here by the river has been at it for centuries, promised in the soil and stream, and angling for the sky, rain, and snow, trying again and again. Life at the tree-line may be equally as old – skeletons of white pine and rings of lichen on the hardest outcrops, growing an inch every hundred years – but it is as rarified as the air, perched upon an arĂȘte where chance landed it and gave it a single summer to make it or die.
How comforting, then, to see this shrine survive in such a transient perch. I clasp my hands before it, say “Delightful is the place where the sprits dwell” five times, and like the river, I flow on to another rocky beach, where the wet stones are the product of a different sort of sentience, one that investigates river and mountains thoroughly.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spirit of Winter: The Benson Bridge Closure

“For many summers the white water has dropped
from the cliff into the pool below. Sometimes in winter
the spirit of the brave and beautiful maiden comes back
to see the waterfall. Dressed in white, she stands
among the trees at one side of Multnomah Falls.
There she looks upon the place where she made
her great sacrifice and thus saved her lover
and her people from death.”

Ella Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest
Here’s something you can’t get to right now: the splash-pool on the first drop at Multnomah Falls, as seen from the Benson Bridge.

A few weeks ago, rock-fall damaged the iconic bridge, and it has been closed since. It could be Memorial Day before the bridge is repaired and hikers can easily access the multitude of trails above the falls, which include the popular Multnomah-to-Wahkeena Loop, the Elevator Shaft, Benson Plateau, and the Larch Mountain Trail. Except for the loop, these trails aren’t closed, but access is more difficult. As a hiker, I find the lengthy repair incredibly frustrating. As an Oregonian, I consider it an affront. 
The Benson Bridge is a major tourist attraction, and a crown jewel of Oregon. It belongs to the people, and its repair should be a priority.

Frankly, I don’t understand why it isn't. The reason must lie in bureaucracy, and the red tape always attached to regulations governing maintenance and repair of historic landmarks. And while the Benson Bridge is perhaps Oregon’s most recognizable architecture, it’s also made from concrete and rebar. Once the red tape is cleared away, the actual fix should be straightforward and quick. The damage is to the rail and part of the walking surface, and the structural integrity of the bridge is intact and undamaged.

Aside from reopening access to the area’s trails, there are other good reasons to hasten the repair. Two and a half million reasons, in fact. Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s most visited natural attraction, drawing more people than Crater Lake. Not being able to walk up to the bridge is like going to the natural history museum and finding out the dinosaur exhibit is closed. Sure, there’s still a lot of cool stuff to look at. But there are no dinosaurs.

On the other side of the bridge, the trail climbs to a viewing platform at the top of the nation’s second highest waterfall, at 620ft. That trail and viewing platform are effectively closed, unless you hike several miles and descend from trails above the falls.

Yet, the thing that probably irks me the most is the fact that Simon Benson, a lumber baron and philanthropist, donated the land and the falls to the people and state of Oregon more than a century ago. The bridge was built in 1914. That means this is the 100th anniversary of the Benson Bridge, and it will likely be closed for almost half of the year.

Ella Clark, in Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, relates the story of a Multnomah wedding feast stricken by plague, and saved only through the sacrifice of the bride, after she discovers plague marks on her lover’s face. It’s a beautiful story befitting one of Oregon’s natural treasures, and it resonates all the more now because part of that treasure is denied to us. When the maiden stood at the top of the cliff, preparing to leap, she said to the Great Spirit, “If you will accept me as a sacrifice for my people, let some token hang in the sky.” Just then, the moon rose, and she leapt.

There’s snow in the forecast this week, and the maiden in white will stand again at the side of the falls. What will she think of that silent bridge hanging broken in the sky?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rime and Reason: Wind Mountain, January 19th, 2014

Somewhere near the summit of Wind Mountain, I realized that I was pushing myself too hard. Not because this was my first hike of the year, and my conditioning isn’t great. And not because of the steep trail, still crossed by multitudes of trees that fell in the ice storm last winter. Instead, it was a realization that I wasn’t really there.

The first, uphill part of the hike focused my attention on my breathing and the lactic acid in my quads. After the switchback halfway to the summit, frost became visible on the trees, then on the understory, and finally on the trail and talus. I slowed to take photos and enjoy the sun and blue sky and white rime.

I kept climbing, and soon passed into the protected, quiet forest just below the summit and talus slopes. The forest was decked out with ice and a soft glow. I followed the trail to the western viewpoint, ducked under some tree branches, and found my way out to a very un-January-like view of the Columbia River Gorge. Here in the sun, out of the eastern wind, it was warm, although flakes of rime fluttered down from the trees. But there was almost no snow to be seen, just a little visible on the summit of Mt. Defiance, and in the gap between clouds to the north, where Mt. St. Helens was a white snow-peak in a band of sky. The view stretched down-river west past Beacon Rock, just visible in a narrow haze below the floating outline of Table Mountain. The Oregon side of the gorge was silhouetted by the sun, a deep blue wash with a thin layer of cloud breaking over Shellrock Mountain Two thousand feet below, the highway ran past lumber yards and green fields and small communities of houses and road-side businesses.

I explored a small ridge on the south side of the summit before heading back up and to the eastern viewpoint, at the top of a large rocky slope filled with native vision pits. On this side of Wind Mountain, the wind was fierce and cold, and I gladly put on the gloves my brother gave me at Christmas – the tips of the thumbs and pointer fingers fold back and secure with magnets, which allowed me to take photos and spend a lot of time in comfort despite the elements. Ice coated the summit trees and shrubs, and grew in feathery patterns on the rock. Dog Mountain, snowless, filled the view, and a thin sliver of the river was visible between Dog’s base and the featureless shore of the Oregon gorge. The sky was filled with thin bright cloud, and the almost total lack of anything man-made – aside from the vision pits – finally succeeded in breaking my feeling of being elsewhere.

My plan was to hike up Wind Mountain, then drive east to Catherine Creek to inspect a shrine some friends had built on a trail-less ridge overlooking the river. I’d hurried up Wind Mountain, taking photos and viewpoints in a rush, with my mind occupied by the physical demands of the year’s first hike and the need to get to the next hike with enough time before the winter sunset. Wind Mountain is small enough that a few other hikers can crowd the summit quite easily, and I knew my time at the summit alone was limited and precious. In short, I’d forgotten to be in the moment.

Looking east, into the cold wind, at the summit of one mountain and surrounded by more, I finally shed the distractions I’d carried with me since leaving Portland. I was suddenly present, in a subtle yet powerful shift of perception, the embodiment of Keats’ negative capability – “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” – and I held all those opposing thoughts to hurry up and to slow down in my mind without apparent contradiction. Shit, I thought, I’m on top of the mountain. Keep climbing.

I poked around for a while, enjoying the expansive view and sun solitude until I heard voices, and I stepped out of the frozen wonderland and headed back down the trail, nodding to some hikers who were enjoying the balmier view west. In my lightened mood it didn’t take long to reach the trailhead, and I made it to Catherine Creek with plenty of time to spare. The shrine and the nearby prayer flags were intact and keeping the peace among the moss and basalt, and I enjoyed the change of pace by stretching out on the thick winter grass with a beer in hand, watching raptors circle overhead in the overcast sky as if I wasn’t really there.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

And the Seeds That Were Silent All Burst into Bloom

I have yet to go hiking this year. It’s driving me crazy. I’m getting older and heavier, and work is stressful. I like to sleep in, but the sun sets early. There’s no excuse. City life can be hectic and uncertain, bordered by mundane regularity, and it’s nice to get away from that and soak in some of nature’s cycles and rhythms. One of those cycles is coming around again now: Grass widow is beginning to bloom again at Catherine Creek, and I need to go reintroduce myself.

Catherine Creek rises from the Columbia with miles of rolling hillside cut by streams, meadows, stands of oak, solitary ponderosa, mixed forests, and towering basalt cliffs. Abandoned dirt roads and a wild profusion of bike and hiking trails run everywhere. There are a thousand hidden places to discover, yet the views stretch far upriver and down. It’s possible to spend an entire day in solitude by a burbling creek or lichen-encrusted outcrop of stone, sitting on soft moss surrounded by wildflowers, watching raptors ride updrafts and listening to meadowlarks sing. Tilting fence posts strung with rusty barbed wire are reminders of a recent past when these hills were grazed by cattle, but now deer file through the grass at dusk to browse the meadows, and in spring, the thin soil swells with water and luxuriant moss.

Grass widows begin to bloom in January, but really get going in February and March, when they cover the rolling hillsides in clusters of vibrant green stems and blossoms that range from purple, violet, and pink to deep magenta. They do best in wet soil and moss, and blossom in grass as well, often near fallen trees where the soil is held together by additional organic matter. Grass widows are perennials, and when they die back, they relinquish the meadows to wave after wave of wildflowers deep into the heat of summer.
Like hundreds of other species, grass widows were named after David Douglas, the Scottish naturalist who first described them scientifically at Celilo Falls in 1826. Years later, scientists classify grass widows as two separate species. The first, Olsynium douglasii, is distinguished by petals with rounded tips (formerly Sisyrinchium douglasii). The second species, Olsynium inflatum, has petals with pointed tips and inflated filaments (formerly Sisyrinchium douglasii var. inflatum).

Thankfully, you don’t have to be a botanist to enjoy acres of blooming Grass widows. You don’t even need to get on your knees and study the petals to understand them (although it’s recommended). But it’s critical to a real, deep, ecological and ethical sense of place to know something about the flora and fauna living in that place. If you love something, you owe it respect, attention, and a receptive mind, at the very least. This is a fair trade. There are different kinds of sentience and your presence in a place does not go unnoticed, just as you should not let the presences in that place go unnoticed. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that the earth stops observing you when your eyes are closed. As the song goes, you are the eyes of the world.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Peering Into Stumps

Dew and Spiderweb, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Taken March 11th, 2013, with a Nikon P100 (cropped from original).
Used for February in the 2014 Borrowed Times calendar.

I have written before about my fondness for stumps. There’s always something going on with them, and I can’t resist looking inside them. This photo was taken at Silver Falls State Park, on a rainy day in March, when very few of the almost one million annual visitors were present. Their litter, however, was left behind, and I cleaned up a ton of trash on the trail. The park service was actively thinning trees while I was hiking there, and trail maintenance prevented access and photography at several of the park’s ten namesake waterfalls. All in all, it was a disappointing day in the woods, and I had to look elsewhere for something resembling “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." I found such an area, and it was in a stump.

I don’t recall what this stump looked like. I believe it was a cedar, not too old, not too big, but there memory fails me. Part of the problem with my memory of this stump is the fact that I didn’t look at it as a whole. Rather, I looked inside it, and on it, and found a spider web that had collected rain in a sheet of drops suspended between a vertical gap in the decaying wood. The web was a net of silver threads anchored to sepia cedar and a veneer of rich green lichen. Rain drops weighed it down, and sparkled, and under them hung odd bits of rotten heartwood that had fallen and been caught in mid-air. As a scene, the web and rain and stump were compact, hidden, and entirely weather-dependent – I happened on it by chance (and a habit of peering into stumps), when it existed in that exact combination of elements, and before the rain collapsed the web, or dripped off the spider silk, or dried up. Of the spider, there is no telling.

Although the web was smaller than the size of my hand, there was room to get the camera underneath the web and shoot upwards towards the rain. Getting the focus right was difficult, and water kept landing on the lens. It took some time, but what else was I out there for?

I quoted above part of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and while Silver Falls is a state park and most definitely not a wilderness, I was happy to find a small part of nature that had not been dominated by man and his works. In that stump, nature went on doing its thing – decomposing, raining, spinning webs, and creating beauty. I took a few moments to appreciate that beauty, and study it through the lens of my camera, and then I walked on down the trail, feeling a little bit more untrammeled by the works of man.