17 January 2009

Valsetz, Oregon

A note about this piece: the italicized sections are from an Oregonian special section from 1984. The citation is at the end of the essay. This was initially an asignment for a writing class, but I have grown to like it a lot on its own merits.
Valsetz Oregon

“Valsetz is laid out east to west. In most places it is less than 100 yards wide. To the north, the town is hemmed in by the trees and mountain ridges. A log pond, Valsetz Lake, runs the length of the town’s southern side. From end to end, the town stretches a little more than 1 ½ miles. A person can walk from one end of town to the other in less than 15 minutes.” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

My grandfather brought me up here to this ridge above our town when I was seven or eight years old. We sat on the warm hood of his old truck looking down over the dark green second growth fir trees at the town far below us. The mill where almost everyone worked dominated the scene, trucks loaded with logs coming and going, smoke billowing out of the power plant’s large chimneys, slowly turning the tree covered hills into 2x4’s and ¾ inch plywood for houses all over the country. Granddad would point out to me the school, the town’s only store, and my house and his sitting side by side on the east edge of the town. Twenty-five years later, I am sitting on the warm hood of my own old car, on the same ridge, looking down over the same hills. No longer does the mill vent smoke and steam like a great dragon’s lair. No more can I see my house and his side by side, or any houses for that matter. The town is gone. If I didn’t know better, I would doubt a community ever existed in this valley. But I do know better, and knowing makes me sad enough to wish I could forget.

“…she took a stack of unemployment forms and walked to the fist table…the clean, white forms contrasted with the dirty, callused millworkers’ hands. The forms were tangible evidence of the mill closure. It was now a fact. It would happen. The men’s pride, security and sense of self worth were slipping away…Jim Smith Quietly read his out loud while Dennis Weaver, Larry Pasley and Tim Hagen discussed the instructions on the forms. Bill Fitzgerald set his to one side…” (Hallman Jr. pg 25)

My home used to sit at the very headwaters of the Siletz River in the Oregon Coast Mountains. This is big tree country. Big trees mean big profits for lumber companies and jobs for people willing to do the work. Back in 1919, a lumber company of the name Cobbs and Mitchell created the town of Valsetz by building a lumber and plywood mill, a school, housing for the millworkers, and damming up the South Fork Siletz to make a large millpond. In 1984, a company known as Boise Cascade did exactly the opposite, laying off employees, knocking over houses as the occupants moved out, draining the pond, and burning down the discarded husk of the mill buildings. From my ridge-top vantage point I can see the old mill-site easily; a big flat area full of densely packed ten foot tall fir trees right next to the wide stretching plain of winter bare alder that marks the basin of the now dry pond. I close my eyes and I can see the mill burning, even feel the heat of the blaze on my face. Not a friendly and warm heat like a campfire gives, but searing and oppressive, wave upon wave of destruction. Opening my eyes again, I see for the briefest of moments flames dancing across the mill-site below, phantoms of memories stirred up by this place.

“The visitor [to town] is greeted by a 6 foot diameter log slice that has been fashioned into a sign. ‘Welcome to Valsetz’ curves around the sign’s top, while the words ‘Boise Cascade’ hug the bottom” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

“Tree Farm -noun A tree covered area managed as a business enterprise under a plan of reforestation that makes continuous production of timber possible.” (Dictionary.com v1.1 www.dictionary.com)

Coming into the old town site earlier was shocking. Everything has changed. What was town is now tree farm, with jack fir and red alder everywhere. I stop where I think my house used to be, and all I can find that says I grew up here is a chunk of water pipe sticking up out of the rain soaked earth. I walk through the mud, pretending I know where things used to be. “This is where our porch was”, I tell myself. “And here would have been the driveway between our house and Grandma and Granddad’s.” I’m not fooling myself, though. I have no idea if this is where my porch was. I used to play on that porch all summer, jumping my Evil Knevil Stunt Bike action figure off the steps and over Hell’s Canyon again and again. I don’t know if I’m standing in Evil’s landing zone, ore in the middle of the Purdy’s living room, three houses down the street. I take a picture anyway and head back to my car. I hadn’t thought about that old toy stunt bike in many years. I can almost feel the wooden porch decking on my knees, and I wonder if that’s not more important than finding some old house foundation anyway.

“Three years ago, the town built a modern school that is one of the best in Oregon. For most of the spring term, the large, modern classrooms have been nearly empty…There are only 50 students in school. The senior class comprises nine students.” (Hallman Jr. pg 7)

Far below my perch on the ridge I hear a truck motor laboring up the pitch. I’m a bit worried by this, since I am technically trespassing and could, according to the sign down below, be arrested. Arrest me. I don’t care. This was my home for sixteen years and I will not be kept from being here if I wish. When the truck finally rounds a corner and comes into view, I am a little relieved to see not the familiar white and green Boise Cascade logo, but an old yellow Chevy that belongs to a classmate from Valsetz High. I wave him down and we both express surprise at seeing each other here. We talk for a while of old times, school and town memories, talking small to fill the awkwardness of knowing each other but not knowing each other. Fifteen years is too much to tackle here through a truck window, so we talk mostly of missing the home we both shared. We talk of the changed evident to our eyes; the extensive clear cuts, the missing town, our mutual aging. Before long he drives on leaving me alone with my thoughts. I am sad to see him go, as though another link to my past is disappearing down the dusty road.

Looking through my old school yearbook from 1984, the last one ever made at good old VHS, I am startled by the images. The yearbook was published as a sort of memorial to the school, and every graduate from 1940 to 1984 is pictured (it was a small school). There under 1960 is my dad’s young smile, and under 1966 my mom’s. My Aunt Linda is there, class of ’64, and my Aunt Sally in the class of ’71. I think of my senior picture in the Glide High School yearbook, 1986 go Wildcats, and feel as though I’ve been separated from my past. For a long time after Valsetz closed down, I struggled with what to tell people when asked where I was from. I would explain the town’s closure, the mill employing almost all of the town’s residents, the sixteen miles of gravel road into the mountains that served as my driveway. Sometimes, I would get some polite questions or a quiet apology from someone with nothing to apologize for. Most often I would get a blank stare in return. Soon enough I learned to take a different tack. Glide, Oregon still existed, could be visited, and could be comprehended by strangers making polite conversation. In my heart I knew Glide was the easy answer, but not the correct one.

“Fifteen feet from the home, Lige stops the shovel and anchors it to the ground…He drives the jaws [of the machine] through the roof and the ground shakes…The jaws snap to pull apart the roof. The dry wood, which was harvested from the forest surrounding Valsetz, cracks and yields…Carol Wyscaver stopped her car to let [another car] pull onto the street. But after [the car] drove away, Carol lingered and watched Lige at work…A wall on the [house] caved in as Lige swung the jaws back and forth…That was enough for Carol…’What a waste,’ she thought, ‘What a God-damned waste.’” (Hallman Jr. pg 24)

A soft breeze is coming up the backside of my ridge now, sliding past my shoulder and down the clear cut toward the memory of my home. I think about my Granddad, who passed away about ten years ago. I wonder what he, the most pragmatic of people I have known, would think about my sentimental memories of this place. Would he think me silly, or would he tell me stories of the Valsetz he knew. I long to hear his voice again, to sit on the hood of his truck and sip coffee out of his thermos, pretending to be all gown up. Suddenly I am overwhelmed by a desire for a cup of coffee. “No problem”, I think, “I’ll just stop by Mom and Dad’s house on my way out of town.” For just a second this thought hands in my head making perfect sense in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “No, I guess I won’t do that, will I”, I say out loud to the wind. I take one long, last look around before climbing back into my car. “Nope,” I think quietly this time, “I won’t be doing that at all.”

“In some cases, the future holds better jobs at better pay, in others, the future holds compromises: lesser jobs at lesser pay. In still others, the future is uncertain, but the people of Valsetz will survive.” (Hallman Jr. pg 31)

Works Cited
Hallman Jr, Tom, “Valsetz: 1919-1984.” The Oregonian July 1, 1984 (Special Section)

11 January 2009

My Favorite Neighbors

Occasionally, on my drive home from work late at night, I see a neighbor or two roaming the empty streets of my neighborhood. It’s always just a glimpse. They see the headlights coming and duck off the main road in a hurry. I don’t blame them, these neighbors of mine. I too, enjoy a good walk through the streets when they are empty. A little solitude is hard to come by in the greater metro area I live in; something to be savored, something to be protected, something worth dodging headlights for. But I am afraid these locals duck away for other reasons. These neighbors of mine are a little on the wild side. They’re Coyotes.

I don’t know how long the Coyotes have been living in the neighborhood. I’ve only noticed them on my street over the last couple of years, but hey have lived in North America for around 2 million years, long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. First neighbors with the Dire Wolf and Mastodon, later with the Flathead and Kalapoya, then ranches and farms and orchards moved in next door to the ‘yotes. And now they eke out an existence next door to four bedroom suburban domiciles with cockapoos and tabbies in the backyard. The Coyote could be thought of as the ultimate victim of gentrification.

I’m not sure how large this Coyote neighbor family of mine is. I’ve seen a pair of them loping along together a couple of times. I’ve seen lone wanderers several other times. But the glimpses I’ve had are so short lived I have not established individuals in my mind. I wish I could spend some time investigating them. Learn their habits, their likes and dislikes, learn which one is which, but a good neighbor needs to respect the privacy of those around him. The city is just too crowded to tolerate nosiness. So I let them be.

I revel in each sighting of my neighbors. Once upon a time, there were deer I would see on the way home, but that was a long time ago. For many years, the only wildness in the neighborhood was the occasional hawk or the semi-tame squirrels on every third tree and power line. The ‘yotes, though, bring a measure of real wilds to me. Here is an animal, true and regal, something to make the heart start just a little with threat-response adrenaline, even though the threat of a Coyote attack is pretty low. In fact, there is only one recorded human death attributed to a Coyote attack, in 1981 in California. Real problems begin when humans try to make a sort of pet of the Coyotes. Feeding and coaxing in these animals only lowers their natural trepidations, it does not make them tame in any way. As with any neighbor, familiarity breeds contempt. So I give them their peace and their space.

I’m not saying the Coyotes make perfect neighbors. This isn’t a good ‘hood for them. They have a taste for small dogs and cats. They don’t respect fences or crosswalks. They make people feel unsure, a little afraid. They remind us that the world is an unsafe place. I love them for that. This world, this North American monoculture of suburbanites and strip malls has become to antiseptic for my tastes. We need a little unsurity sometimes. Into every foyer, a little mud must be tracked. The Coyotes do a good job of shaking our foundations just a little.

I feel bad for the Coyotes, though. They have lived here longer than people. They have a deep claim on this landscape. Only, “this landscape” doesn’t exist any longer. People have remade the land in the image they wish, regardless of the legitimacy of any other claims. So where once many lived richly and in balance with the world around them, now only a few Coyotes exist, harried by local authorities, living lean, hiding out, and running away from the lights approaching in the night.

04 January 2009

Soulspring Prologue excerpt

The following passage is an excerpt from the prologue to an epic fantasy novel I am working on. It is just the first page or two, but I wanted to get something up this weekend. It is unedited, in its raw state, but I am open to (even hoping for) some comment or critique if anyone wishes to give some. Hope you find it at least a bit intriguing

The gaunt man crouched in the tall grass, indifferent to the steady drizzle of rain falling on his bare shoulders and back. Next to him lay a dappled foal, newly dead, steam still rising from its opened body cavity. Slowly, with great care, the man dipped an obsidian stylus wrapped with gold thread into the downed horse’s slowly draining ichors, chanting in low guttural growing sounds as he raised the stylus to his right arm to continue the tattooing he had been working on since so long ago.

The horse blood laid down beneath the man’s skin like a living fiery thing crawling around and up his arm with a warm glow. Above, the sky ran with veins of the same glowing, crawling orange against a dead black background, darker than the man’s skin, but not much. Below the sky, a tall grass plain ran golden to all horizons. Nothing else existed in this place but the man, and what once was a fine young pony.

The man himself was a riddle. One could not say if he were old or young. His appearance seemed to change slightly as one looked upon him, morphing from old to young, strong to weak. To most he seemed to exist in shadow, just out of focus, like looking at someone standing in front of the rising sun. His skin was dark; weathered deeply, wind raw, chapped and calloused. He wore only a yellowed linen cloth about his waist. The cloth had the look of once being very fine and embroidered with gold, but long wear had reduced its finery to near rags. He was small, slight enough of build to be afraid of a stiff breeze, but there was very little fear left in this man. Very little he did not control, either directly or otherwise.

The man had no hair, none on his head or on his body. Only the tattoos. Up his legs, beneath the loincloth, across his chest and down his right arm. Everywhere the man could reach except for his left arm. A grand work in progress, a great investment in time and horseflesh had gone into the flesh art. Great power can come from such things, or great waste. All things with intent, with purpose, believed the man. Soon the right arm would be done. Soon he would conjure a new mare, pregnant and near to term. Nothing existed in this realm he did not bring to being.

The mare would birth the final foal, a roan this time. She would nurse the small, wobbly thing for a while, building its strength. The grasses here were very rich, wonderful for raising horses. When he could feel the foal’s power in his soul, in his essence, he would complete his artwork. By then the boy should be ready, he thought. By then, the long incarceration he had submitted to would be at an end, he felt in his bones the truth of it. He could feel the boy’s power, sometimes, like one of his foals. He had been watching, checking his progress through the years. Yes, soon it would be the time of action once again.

03 January 2009

Personal Holidays

This time of year always makes me think about the calendar of holidays we in the U.S. celebrate. You know, the ones thought enough of to get printed into most calendars, day planners and the like. Christmas, New Years, Halloween, the Fourth of July, and on down the list; these are our national times of celebration and reflection. But what about those days special to a select few, don’t those days deserve a little attention as well? I think the time has come to rebel against certain overly commercialized holidays in favor of a “personal holiday” movement.

What is a personal holiday? Any day you deem worthy of celebration. I’m not talking about Mondays because you hate going back to work after the weekend. No, that’s a mental health day, a different thing altogether. What I am talking about are days special to each of us as individuals. Allow me to give you a few examples from my own set of personal holidays to set the stage:

1. Birthdays. Well, duh! Everyone should be allowed to celebrate their birthday if they wish. I will be once again celebrating my 25th birthday this year. Hey, no arguments, it is my holiday after all!

2. Winter solstice. What more perfect time to reflect upon the year past, and plan for the year to come than on the shortest day of our circuit around great Sol.

3. Trout season opener on the Collowash. Clean up the fly line, tie on a new leader, grab a handful of orange elk hair caddis flies and head up the river. Sure the water is always too high to fish at that time of year, the fish down in the Clackamas waiting for the cfs to drop, but it is important I celebrate my ability to legally get skunked on a stretch of wild and tumbling water whilst checking out how much the river changed over winter.

4. Mt St Helens day. May 18th, 1980, a lovely conical Northwest mountain demonstrated just a little of natures power with great panache. This is a day to remember, a day to celebrate the wonders of nature, and remember to give old Ma Nature her due respect every time we head to the wilds.

5. The first good hard rain after a long dry summer. There are few things better for the spirit and the soul than a good hike in a hard rain after a dusty stretch. It cleans, it renews, and it invigorates. I heartily recommend it to anyone who cares to get a little wet.

What are the personal holidays you would like to celebrate each year? What holidays are you willing to get rid of in exchange. The loss of Valentine’s day, President’s day, and Columbus day certainly wouldn’t hurt my feelings! I like to think my year is just a little more magical looking forward to my own special days, rather than letting my calendar tell me when to celebrate and why.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season these last few weeks. And here is to celebrating in our own ways over the next 360 some odd rotations of this old planet we call home. Look for my line of “Excellently Explosive Mt St Helens Day” cards in a store near you soon.