On Green Urban Living

A few years ago I wrote about sustainable urban living. Three and a half years later, it’s still a pretty big ideal of mine. There are countless people, pagan and otherwise, who dream of going to live out in the middle of nowhere, a handful of people per square mile. Some even consider intentional communities, or at least extended families, on farms and fields and forests.

I used to be that way. However, after over a decade of city living, I’ve found I can handle urban life pretty well, and I enjoy it quite a bit. I still like having quick access to a variety of grocery stores, antique shops, and more types of cuisine than I had imagined. Admittedly, I do still occasionally miss the small town life I grew up with. I live in a place that doesn’t have a particularly good view of the sunset, though I can catch a gorgeous sunrise if I wake up early enough–or stay up late enough. I miss seeing stars at night, and deer in the back yard. And for my sanity I need regular trips out into more wilderness areas, in the Gorge and elsewhere.

And yes, cities have gotten a bad reputation among environmentalists and others. Cities are seen as sources of crime, pollution, hectic lifestyles, and the like. And, to be fair, many of them are. Even in Portland, which is a fairly laid-back city, we have our crime and our drugs and our traffic and pollution. But a lot of that is a matter of design. Cities could be re-designed to be more efficient and eco-friendly, to be more aesthetically pleasing and psychologically supportive. It would take a lot of work, from better infrastructure to better social services. The people and the environment both need more resources to achieve “healthy” status than they’re currently getting. I have faith in us, though, as a species. I have hope that we can figure it out before it’s too late, and there are already plenty of efforts to find better alternatives to the unhealthy ways our cities have evolved over the past several decades.

So why bother with all that work? Why don’t we nature-lovers just run out to the middle of nowhere, have our acreage and our farms and our permaculture and our peace and quiet and starry skies and all the other things we can’t have in the city? Well, you’re welcome to do so. And yes, there’s a part of me that would be happy picking up and moving to a more rural area. I can live a quieter life, and it has its benefits. But it would come at a pretty serious cost, and I’m choosing to not take that route. Having that pagan commune or earthy intentional community seems like the greener option, but is it really?

Let’s look at transportation for example. If I remember anything from growing up small-town, it’s that things are more spread apart. The next town over might be a dozen miles away–or more. And there’s no bus service; the closest thing to public transit is the taxi cab, or riding into town with a friend. Not particularly efficient, and not particularly green. So just getting myself from place to place has a strike against it, and that’s not taking into consideration getting other resources like gas, food, and the like trucked in from here, there, and everywhere. The more remotely you live, the more fossil fuels you rely on to get to and from anywhere that isn’t home, and to get even your most basic needs met.

Furthermore, for every acre we humans take up in wilder, more rural areas, that’s another acre that we’re pressuring more sensitive wildlife away from. Sure, deer and coyotes are pretty adaptable, but what about the elk and wolves that were pushed further out, or the cougars and pronghorn antelope? Some species simply will not live close to us, and our presence affects them deeply. Our roads and fences interfere with migration routes that are thousands of years old. Our farms and yards destroy habitats that provide food and shelter, and which grow endangered species of plant and fungus. Our cattle and other livestock out-compete wild grazers and browsers. Our cars and other vehicles create noise and smells and pollution that interfere with the ecology in numerous ways. Our septic tanks leak, and we cannot live lightly on the land.

And we keep spreading out, taking available land or suburbs and golf courses, for turning small towns like the one I grew up in into wannabe metropolises. We turn more and more land to farming and ranching every year. And every person who leaves the city for rural living just increases the strain on the wilderness, hems it in a little bit more. Your “getting away from it all” takes more space and resources from beings that absolutely cannot live in a city. There’s no sign of us reversing that trend, either, with more people fleeing urban areas every year.

But I have to try bucking the trend and modeling a greener way to be an urbanite. I am more committed than ever to the idea and the reality of eco-friendly, sustainable cities. While someday, yes, I’d love to own a house somewhere in Portland, right now I’m content in my apartment. The shared walls mean less energy usage for heating and cooling, and my partner and I take up less space than we would if we lived in a house together. The location my building is in is one that’s been paved over for well over a century, so no new ground has been broken here in my lifetime. I’m right in the middle of a hub of public transportation, which means I can catch a bus to anywhere in the area. And I live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city, which means I can get my groceries and other goodies on foot. I have a little porch on which I garden, and earlier this summer I got a spot at the community garden down the road from me (after three years on the waiting list!)

This is just as good a canvas for painting a green life as a farm. I can’t grow all my own food, but I can support movements for urban farming (like my community garden and more). I do have to deal with more pollution, but I can contribute to efforts to clean up the sources of said pollution and find better alternatives. I sometimes still have trouble with the noise, but so much of that is from traffic, and by promoting public transit I can hopefully help urge people toward cutting down on the number of unnecessary cars on the road. I know very well that even “safe” neighborhoods have crime, and some people are living in parts of the city where their lives are on the line every time they step outside the door. But I can advocate for better services to address poverty, public health, and social injustices that are the basis of high crime rates.

Cities don’t have to be places of pollution and ill health and crime. I see a better future, where humans are more concentrated in healthy urban areas, and the wild beings of the world have more land and space to roam, including places we’re given back to them. I’m committed to helping bring that to life, and it all starts right here, for me, in Portland.

The Shaman Brings the Wisdom Back Home

This world is truly fucked up in a lot of ways.

There. I said it. Even with my optimism about the world, and human potential, and the resiliency of nature in general, there are still some things in this place that are heart-rendingly, disgustingly, infuriatingly screwed all beyond belief. I think we all have different opinions about what falls under that heading, but we can mostly agree on things like war and people dying needlessly, children being abused and then in turn abusing animals and later on other humans (including their own children), the extinction of species that didn’t have to die, and possibly the overuse of the Papyrus font in everything pagan. (Okay, maybe that last offense is in a league of its own.)

And I know that this fucked-upedness makes it tempting to run away and never come back. People want to live off the grid, not just to be eco friendly (even though a well-planned city can be more sustainable) but to get away from other humans except for a select few they deem “okay”. I’ve heard people talk about how humans as a species should just die out and the world would be better without us, emphasizing only the worst our species has done, and contemplating drowning the baby in the bathwater. This includes some deeply spiritual people I know who are quite connected to the nonhuman natural world. I’m constantly amazed by how many ways people can justify misanthropy.

I feel that frustration, too. I have days where I just get sick of statistics on how much rain forest has been cut down today and yet another person telling me that the addicts I counsel in my day job are “irredeemable” and should just be locked in prison for life. I don’t need another talking head telling me that somehow letting gay people marry will lead to terrible things that have no actual correlation to gay marriage, let alone any causative factors. Believe me, there’s enough stuff to make me so pissed off sometimes that I make Hothead Paisan look like a Disney Princess in comparison.

And I do take breaks from this crazy-ass world now and then. That’s why I go hiking and escape to the coast every few months. It’s why I hang out with people I love and who accept me in all my weirdness. It’s the reason for good novels and bad movies and hours of vegging on the internet. Self-care is a damned important thing for everyone, me included.

But I have to come back sometime. Part of my job as a (neo)shaman is to stay in the thick of things, as much as my health will allow. When a shaman journeys to the spirit world, or hides out in the woods, they don’t stay there permanently. There’s a community to be served, and knowledge and wisdom and information to be delivered unto them. Going on the journey, whether it’s through drumming and trance, or backpacking, or your escape of choice, is just part of the trip. It’s not just for your benefit. It’s for the people and other beings you serve, too. And that means climbing back out of whatever comfy hidey-hole you’ve discovered in the woods, whatever font of wisdom you’ve happened upon in the spirit world. No matter how not-fun it is, you gotta come back.

Why? Because in your head and your heart and your hands you carry things that can help lots of folks, and you have the ability to convey it. If you keep it to yourself, you’re not doing your job. “To keep silent” isn’t applicable here. Maybe you have to choose carefully how you convey what you have, and who your audience is, to make sure it has the best chance of making a constructive impact. (Pro tip: preaching, browbeating, insulting, and “my way or the highway” approaches don’t work too well on that count.)

In short: escapism isn’t shamanism. If you want to make people come to you, that’s fine; just make sure the way’s still clear, and the hurdles are not so high that most people are too discouraged to even try. We don’t just get the community we want to serve. We get the one we need to serve, which means sometimes working with the difficult, the obstinate, the downright offensive. Abandonment isn’t a part of it. Setting boundaries, sure. Knowing your own limits, of course. But writing off people entirely just so you can go hide in your little slice of paradise away from the hoi polloi? That’s taking the easy way out.

Go out and explore. Go play in the woods. Go take a break. But make damned sure you come back and keep up the good work. The world needs you, and me, and all of us, if we have a chance at getting through the current crises intact.

Pagan Values Month: Service

(Note: This is my contribution for the Pagan Value Blog Project 2013.)

Last week, the Wild Hunt blog featured a piece on “Pagans Doing Good. It started with a critique of paganism, the common complaint that there are no pagan hospitals or homeless shelters or major nonprofit groups. The writer, Heather Greene, then highlighted two activists who also happen to be pagan (and there are more where they came from!)

My only critique of this is that “service” isn’t limited to those who are able to devote their entire lives to activism. Most of us have households to support or families to raise or debts and bills to pay or any of a number of other obligations that we can’t just toss to the wayside to go be full-time activists. We do need these people; I admire devotion and I do admit I envy them a bit. But that is far from the end of pagan manifestations of service.

I am not, however, speaking about service to gods or spirits or other incorporeal beings. There’s a time and a place for such things, if you choose to enact them, but they are no substitute for physical-world action. A lot of it is what the measurable, objective effect of the action is. I can’t walk down the street with my primary totem, Gray Wolf, and say “This is my first and most cherished animal totem; I would like others to make offerings to hir to make hir stronger and give hir the reverence s/he is due” and expect everyone to agree with me. Many will disagree, in fact, and that’s okay. How I interact with a world that may or may not actually exist outside of my own psyche is my own to decide, and same for everyone else.

However, I can feed a stray, hungry dog on the street, and I can invite others do to so; even if they don’t have dog food with them, I can give them a bit to feed the dog so they can have the experience of helping another living being, something that may stick with them. I can take the dog to a shelter and say “Here, do you have room for this dog?” and the people there can either take the dog in and bathe it and give it a place to stay until it gets adopted, or they can refer me to another shelter. Or, if I have the room and resources, I can adopt the dog myself and change its life permanently for the better.

To be honest, if I am going to be able to only give time, effort, or resources to either of these causes, I’m going to help the starving dog. One of the central tenets of my personal approach to paganism is to default to putting this world first, because it’s the one I know for sure exists and that I can have a positive effect on. For centuries, a portion of people of many faiths have fallen into the trap of neglecting the physical world entirely in the hopes that their actions on behalf of the spiritual will gain them something in the end. And it can be easy to get so tangled up in spiritual pursuits that, while one may not willfully damage the world, one may still treat it with benign neglect and apathy.

Do I think everyone who is deeply spiritual abuses this world? Of course not. I know plenty of people who adhere to varying faiths and have devoted practices who also work to make this world a better place with concrete actions. But just as I don’t think prayer is a substitute for medical care in the case of a sick child, I also don’t think that rituals honoring animal totems are a replacement for habitat restoration, fighting for more humane conditions for farm animals, or giving what money you can afford to give to nonprofits that work to protect critically endangered species through legislation and other actions. (In my experience, the totems appreciate the efforts to help their physical children enough that yes, these things can substitute for celebratory rituals, but YMMV.)

So what are we going to do as pagans if we choose service to the world as a virtue to incorporate into our personal pagan paths? Here are a few thoughts:

–First, decide what matters most to you. What group of beings do you feel most needs your help, or that you are best-poised to help? Is the natural environment your cause, or civil rights, or government transparency? If the answer is “more than one/all of them”, which few are the highest priority for you?

–Next, determine what you can reasonably offer in terms of time, money, and other resources. It’s okay if you can’t quit your day job to go ride around on the Sea Shepherd and intercept whaling ships. (I can’t either, for what it’s worth.) Can you put aside a small amount of your paycheck each week to give to a nonprofit that is doing the sort of work you admire? Can your employer match your donations, for that matter? Let’s say you’re broke, jobless, and not physically well enough to go stomping around in the woods pulling out invasive species of plant or travel to a developing country to educate poor children. Can you send a letter or an email, or make a phone call, to an elected official or other decision-maker to let them know your thoughts on an important issue? If you at least have the time and energy and access for social media, can you tell other people about these things?

–Now, educate yourself on specific issues to the best of your ability. Be aware that often there are multiple competing ideas for the the best possible solution is; for example, on the topic of farm animals raised for meat, some people think the conditions they’re raised and slaughtered under need to be completely overhauled for more humane options, while others will only eat meat they themselves raised or hunted, and still others think nobody should eat meat ever for any reason at all. You’ll need to decide where you stand on an issue; take your time, and don’t be afraid to consider the gray areas as well as the black and white extremes.

–Once you’re ready to take action, don’t feel you have to do everything at once! Try out different things, and see what works best for you and the given issue you’re working on. You might find that you’re not a fan of going to big public hearings on potential laws, but you’re fine with making some phone calls from the privacy of your own home. Or you may not feel steady enough on your feet to make an entire garden out of your yard, but a few pea vines in a pot on your porch will work.

And if you still want to back these things up with spiritual activities like rituals and spells and the like, go for it! It certainly can’t hurt. If the powers that be help things along, so much the better.

What embodies the value of service for me, personally, is my environmental volunteering and donations, coupled with my current work as a qualified mental health professional working with addicts in the criminal justice system, contacting elected officials on a variety of levels, and talking to others about issues to let them know what’s going on. Of course, this is all my take on service and its place in paganism. What say you, dear readers?

A Call to My Fellow Bloggers: Show Me Your Small, Sacred Places

At the beginning of this month, I wrote about small, sacred places in my life. These were the not very large, not particularly wilderness-y, but incredibly important patches of woods and fields that I grew up with in my small town. Even if they were no more than an acre or less apiece, they taught me a great deal about the outdoor world and my various nonhuman neighbors.

Inspired by my writing about this, Chirotus Infinitum made a post over at Blacklight Metaphysics about his own small, sacred place from when he was younger. He even included a nice video tour of the place; I recommend taking a look. I’ll be honest—having someone open up that much about their own little spot made me cry. Not, of course, in the “everything’s bad!” sort of way, but incredibly grateful that someone took the time to share something that special.

missouriI feel that the small, sacred places need more attention. They often get overlooked because they aren’t great wildernesses or national parks or miles-long lengths of trail. They’re often the most vulnerable to development because who’s going to protect a half acre of grass and poison ivy in the middle of a suburb? Put a house or business there instead, or turn it into a carefully manicured park or community garden. While a home can give shelter and a garden can provide food, neither of these provide the same diversity of disorganized, beautifully independent life that the untamed scrub and trees can.

More importantly, they’re often the most accessible natural spots for children who are still developing their relationships with the nonhuman world. Most children can’t just go wandering into a state forest or desert trail, especially not on their own. But even with helicopter parents hovering and video games to distract, there are still kids who are allowed to roam their neighborhoods freely and without supervision. I often worry that, as a child of the 80s, I was of the last generation where kids stayed out all day and didn’t come home until dark, riding bikes and building forts and fishing in little meandering creeks. But there are still some who carry on that tradition, and the small, sacred places give them somewhere to go.

And those relationships formed so early carry on throughout a lifetime. It’s how so many of us who today fight to protect what wilderness remains got our start, our initial inspiration. The roots were sunk, for many, in those small, sacred places. Even for those who never followed an expressly nature-based spiritual path, the wonder and awe these places provoked was—and still is—nonetheless sacred.

So here’s what I’d ask of my fellow bloggers who are able, whether on WordPress or Blogger or Tumblr or Livejournal or wherever you blog: please, if you would, tell me (and your readership) about your own small, sacred places. Even if, like my small, sacred places, yours have long since been bulldozed and paved, write a memorial to them anyway. If it still hurts, let the writing be a place to release that pain. Write a post about any of the little fields and patches of woods, the tiny creeks and ponds full of minnows and crawdads, the often overlooked patches of nature that you grew up with. Tell us about the yard that you got to know so well, the grass and rocks and bugs. Don’t worry about that hike your family went on one year, or the brief visit to Yellowstone. Talk about the places you developed deep relationships with over time, whether as a child or later on. Illustrate with pictures, with videos, with whatever introduces the reader to these places the most.

Once you’ve shared these on your blog, please leave a link here. I’d like to collect them and then make a post later with links to all of them. And thank you for this; I’m looking forward to meeting your small, sacred places, and I hope others are as well.

Humans Are Not Either/Or Creatures

First, a quick hello from internet-land! I spent this past weekend down in Long Beach and surrounding areas for Ghostwriters Unite!; I was at the conference to help moderate panels and lend my small press experience to the general milieu, though I also got a lot of schmoozing in as well. I learned a lot about ghostwriting, to include that it’s much more complex a profession than one might think, and I met all sorts of fabulous people from a variety of backgrounds, and I wish we’d had more time together. A huge thank you to Tyger Ward for getting me connected to the conference in the first place! I ended up making a long weekend of it since I was down there on my own anyway, and on my off time I explored the Long Beach marina, went up to the La Brea Tar Pits, and even stomped around Griffith Park for a while, where I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild (probably a southern Pacific rattlesnake) and walked by the cages for the old Los Angeles zoo. All in all, it was a most excellent trip, and I plan to do it again.

tumblr_mmfz9sQzfu1qcrvgeo1_500I spent time today playing catch-up on email, messages, and the like. While I was taking a quick break on Tumblr, I ran across an image depicting two children, one using a smart phone, and one holding a small bird. Below these two images was the caption “Teach your children well”. I’m not entirely sure what the anonymous compiler’s intent was; perhaps they wanted to contrast the detachment of the one child, accessing the world through the virtual reality on the phone, with the direct experience of the other child interacting with the live bird in his hands. Or maybe they agreed with me when I said:

Yes. Teach your children that through the internet they can access more information about the world than ever, from places they may never see for themselves, from people they might never have known existed, about topics they never even knew existed. And then teach them that while this knowledge is well and good and valuable, it’s not a replacement for also going out in the world and experiencing it, and being out in it. Let these things complement each other. Let the internet be a way to fill in the blanks about the new type of bird you encountered while you were breathing in the fresh air out on a hike, moving your muscles and negotiating rocky terrain. Let the words of others who have recorded their experiences and shared them via technology enhance your understanding of what you see with your eyes, or hear with your ears, or touch with your fingers. Let the internet spread the word that a particular species of bird is highly endangered and should not be harmed, even for food, and let on the ground action and protection follow it up.

Both of these pictures are children learning well. Let them teach each other, too.

Of course, this also brings up the issue that there are many, many children (and adults) who don’t have access to the internet, and some whose access is restricted either through government censorship, or limited computer access, or illiteracy, or other barriers. All the internet connectivity in the world won’t help if you can’t get to it, or understand what’s there. It also doesn’t bring into account that more and more children in the US and elsewhere are being denied access to wild, open spaces in which they can roam and explore without helicopter parents hovering over their every move. By the time they’re old enough to make their own decisions on where they can go, the window for early fascination with nature has long since closed, and many simply don’t care.

Unfortunately, tech and nature are often set against each other in an either/or dichotomy. As we create increasingly complex technologies, they may distract us from the world around us, especially the outside world. Those who wish to preserve nature and the human relationship with it may sometimes claim moral superiority because they don’t have a tablet PC or smart phone. I’ve written before about how nature vs. technology is a false dichotomy, and I still hold with that. Both of these influences contributed invaluably to who I am today, from the antibiotics that saved my life a few years ago and the computer I use to communicate with you folks via this blog, to the small, sacred places that raised me and all the trails in the Columbia River Gorge I’ve explored as an adult.

Both unfettered nature and technology have their good and bad sides from a human bias. Unfortunately, we’ve lost our respect for both of them; we take and take of the good while pretending we’ve completely overcome the bad. The Black Plague may be a distant memory, but over a million people die from malaria worldwide every year. Cars get us from place to place with independence and speed, but oil spills are just one of the many costs the petroleum industry likes to sweep under the rug. Still, if people are able to live happier, healthier, longer lives, that can’t be all bad–especially if we can do so in sustainable manners that also leave plenty of room for all of our nonhuman neighbors on the planet.

We won’t learn to respect both sides if we demonize one or the other. This is why I am neither a Luddite nor a technophile, and why I enjoyed both the museum at the Tar Pits and the trails at Griffith Park. Everyone’s personal balance may be different, but I firmly believe that as a species if we are to survive and thrive we must respect both the uncontrolled, wild nature we came from and the technology that we tool-using apes have created.

A PSA, and Escape to the Desert

First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!

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Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

Newly rejuvenated giant horsetails at Bridal Veil. Lupa, 2013.

So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.

It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.

People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

Sheep Rock, Oregon. Lupa, 2013.

And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.

What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.

I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.

Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Common mullein growing in a crevice in Picture Gorge, OR. Lupa, 2013.

I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.

I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Abandoned root cellar, OR. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

One of many, many outcroppings. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

Fossil Leaf, Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, OR. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

This is what the Painted Hills are made of. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

And one of the hills. Lupa, 2013.

The Say's phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put. Lupa, 2013.

The Say’s phoebe I managed to get a picture of despite its unwillingness to stay put for more than a few seconds at a time. Lupa, 2013.

Reflections at Sauvie

Yesterday was another cleanup day at Sauvie Island; as much time as I’ve been spending out in the Gorge, I love my little close-in stretch of the Columbia, too. I especially appreciated its convenience since today was a low-energy day, since I didn’t sleep so well as I might have liked last night. Still, I wanted the opportunity to get outside today, and the beach was due for a cleaning.

So it’s getting warmer, and more people are going to be showing up to fish, and also to party. Unfortunately, some of these people will be irresponsible enough to do things like smash glass bottles in the middle of the road and leave their garbage strewn across the sand. I tend to ready myself for anything any time I go out for cleanup. However, when I got there today, there was a woman walking across the parking lot with a paper grocery bag full of aluminum cans. She had taken the time to pick them all up out of the trees lining the beach. We chatted a moment, and I thanked her and went on my way. It’s always nice to see I’m not the only person cleaning up, and it did perk up my mood.

White-lined sphinx moth. Lupa, 2013.

White-lined sphinx moth. Lupa, 2013.

Of course, having someone else get most of the big, noticeable stuff meant that my afternoon was mostly spent with the little, fiddly things like cigarette butts and tiny pieces of plastic. So it was a slow progression down the beach with my trash bag and kitty litter scoop, sifting stuff out of the sand. I picked up enough cigarette refuse, in fact, that I’ve joined TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade; I don’t smoke myself, but I figure if I can get a few more filters and the like out of the landfill, so much the better. It can get disheartening to come back every time and have the beach look just as bad as before, since I can’t be there every day, and there are a LOT of people leaving trash around. But when such thoughts begin to bring me down, I remind myself of the Starfish Story*; trash pickup isn’t as romantic as saving starfish, but the concept is the same: I can’t get to them all, but it matters to this one. And the next. And the next.

While the day was a bit cooler than it’s been, and overcast, the birds were still out in force. I saw a pair of bald eagles, robins, and an osprey, among others, and I could hear the alarm call of a Northern flicker and the song of a winter wren off in the trees. There were even fish jumping out of the river, though I was surprised there was no one fishing today. Amid the twigs and other refuse kicked up onto the beach by the river, I saw white-lined sphinx moth in its last moments, perhaps dying after having mated. I left it where it lay, and a few minutes later a large ship passing by kicked up the biggest wake I’ve seen yet at the beach. When I walked back a little later, the moth was gone, no doubt washed into the water to become food for a passing fish.

Speaking of the water, as I sat and rested at one point, I listened to the river splashing up against the bank of wet sand. I thought about how much quieter it would be here without the traffic on the ocean, and I-5 not too far away, and the planes overhead, and the various vehicles driving on the access road. I thought of how before all that noise, that splashing water might be one of the loudest things there if one were to sit and listen. And I reflected on how the sound of water on land is one of the very oldest sounds in the world, and wondered whether Mars, or any other planet, had had that sound as well.

Toy plane found on the beach. Lupa, 2013.

Toy plane found on the beach. Lupa, 2013.

It’s thoughts like that that make the work so much more worth it. Yes, it’s good to be out with my hands in the dirt making a small difference, keeping bits of plastic and foam from being eaten by fish or, ultimately, joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And that’s worthwhile. But even moreso are the moments I get to have when I connect with this place I help to take care of. It’s the only place where I get to be right by the river, the wide and deep and ever-flowing Columbia, the heart of my bioregion. So many things I’ve learned there, and so many things yet to be discovered–and my beach is a keeper of some of those secrets. One need look no further than the outdoors for a Mystery School beyond compare.

Of course, eventually we have to go back to chop wood, carry water, sift styrofoam. By the time my day was done, I had one large garbage bag full, mostly with little things, but also a couple of rusted chunks of metal and an old steel cable fragment. While most of what I find out there is refuse, occasionally I pick up something neat. Today it was an old toy plane, in pretty good condition other than one missing wheel. Usually when I find usable found objects I clean them up and donate them to SCRAP, but this one I’m hanging on to; it’ll go along with the circa 1920 milk glass jar and some other random things I’ve found during my volunteer time. Call it the Land’s “tip” for a job well done 😉

*Which was itself an adaptation of the often-unattributed “The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.