Casino Rising

Winter slithered down the streets as dirty brown slush, and darkness was starting to loosen its hold on day.  Frustrated energy roiled in my body, tightly coiled, primed to mangle the first chore of spring with desperate joy, but it was not to be that day.  My home, 100 miles away in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, was still buried under four feet of snow.   On the more temperate west side of the mountains the crocuses were emerging and I was driving in the rain toward my childhood home up a long gray corridor I’d driven thousands of times over the last three decades.

The corridor seemed to me to be forever changing – new buildings, new overpasses, new signs.  It was extremely familiar at the same time it was surprising, like walking the hallway of my home and suddenly seeing new art on the wall.  The “progress” sprung from the shoulder of the freeway like weeds.

The rain beat down on the windshield, perfect white noise for my baby who slept like the dead in the back seat.  Chase was my third baby, my last baby, a treat to savor slowly.  I could just see his tiny stocking feet in the rear view mirror, one next to the other, perfectly still, the exact sort of smallness that filled me with enormous desires to create a better world, to get up time and again in the middle of the night when he cried, to kiss and cuddle and ruthlessly defend him with my fists and teeth and anything at all required to shelter those small feet from the hard rocks of the world.

Through the curtain of rain, I saw the world rushing by, so familiar and yet so grotesquely altered, like a loved one with a bad burn.  I thought to myself:

‘Used to be there wasn’t an exit there, used to be there was a farm there, used to be that wasn’t a golf course or a strip mall or a warehouse, used to be I was a child, used to be I didn’t think so much about the future or the past, used to be this growth wasn’t so unchecked, used to be I didn’t think about unchecked growth all the time, used to be I didn’t think in terms of tumors, used to be my dad didn’t have cancer.’

As I exited the freeway, a cloverleaf exit now, winding my way through a maze of construction signs and temporary roads, in the towering shadow of the giant casino where used to be a two story farm house sat surrounded by fields where geese would feed and coyotes howl, as I drove past windows of flashing lights where people were training to be card dealers and someone was preparing to make a lot of money, as I turned up the driveway to my childhood home just below the outlet for the new stormwater retention pond, I remembered moons hanging over foggy fields, quiet but for crickets and tree frogs, rabbits darting into the road, sometimes running forever in the headlights before bailing into the shrubs. I remembered my dad on his tractor mowing blackberry vines whose berries I picked on my daily runs down the gravel road, my dad wearing his blue coveralls and work boots, his shining smile the only advertisement around.  I remembered family walks.  I remembered walking, my heart hammering, hand in hand with the first boy I thought I loved.  I remembered telling my cousin our family dog was a bear and in the black night he had no reason to doubt me.  I remembered the powerful muscles of our horse as he charged across the fields, his place for wild abandon, with my twin sister and I clinging to his back.  I remembered the fractured rock I hated when it shifted and threw my tires, wrenching the handlebars of my bike from the control of my skinny arms.  I remembered toning those arms by pulling rock back into potholes with a rake every summer.  I remembered Dad in his suit and tie cutting the barbed wire fence so we could drive through the field around a fallen cottonwood tree on the way to my grandpa’s funeral.  Those trees were always falling.

Now along the driveway, a sweeping expanse of recently disturbed dirt lay re-contoured to dispose of thousands of tons of earth displaced by the casino because cars need flat lots, because people don’t like walking uphill, because… anything to get them to spend more money.

My grief and my anger were like vinegar and baking soda and I exploded all over the car with rage every time I approached the farm, but that night I was glassy-eyed, my sorrow for the state of my home displaced by concern for my father.

He seemed worse.  He was all but dragging one leg.  He was having a harder time executing complex tasks especially those that required hand eye coordination, and he was suffering from headaches.  He said it felt as though his toes were crossed when clearly they were not.  He was increasingly dizzy.  And a few days ago, he fell trying to get back into the house.  It wasn’t a violent fall – he just sort of tipped over backwards.  He spent fifteen minutes dragging himself around the garage until he could find something he could use to pull himself back up.  He was falling asleep while we talked.  Every time I visited the farm there was some new symptom – my familiar father was characterized now by change, just like the fields along the driveway.

Last summer, after his diagnosis, it was different. I was eight months pregnant with Chase and he’d just recovered from his biopsy.  As I started down the driveway that summer day, Dad pulled up on his riding lawnmower, his blue coveralls faded and worn, his boots shiny with wear.  He’d lashed a five-gallon bucket of animal feed to the lawnmower so he could drive around the farm and feed the rabbits.  He was hunched over the wheel in racing position.  Understanding the limits of his tractor’s speed, he reached into the bucket and broadcast a handful of feed across my windshield just as I was about to pull ahead.  Raising his arms triumphantly in the air he veered away from the road, heroically losing the race and winning my heart.

I wanted to freeze my dad in that moment forever – his recently bald head and his skinny limbs, his clothes hanging off his frame, all the chemo reductions completely eclipsed by his indomitable spirit.

I felt pride and love and a terrible, terrible grief knowing that short of a miracle, I would soon watch my dad face excruciating pain, emotional desolation, erosion of the precious independence and freedom that shaped his entire life, physical decline and of course, inevitably, death.

Now it was early March.  Nearly one year from the time my dad’s arm jumped off his lap of its own accord and he drove himself, past then farm fields, to the hospital and we learned he had terminal brain cancer.  As I drove my car over the new black asphalt, past the recently hydro-seeded, sculptured parking lot buffers, trying not to look at the casino rising next door, I wondered what would be left.  When my dad died and the farm was sold and the casino doors opened and tens of thousands of people walked across the parking lot where I used to stand alone and watch the geese feed, what would be left of my home, where would we gather, who would I be?

A gurgle in the backseat pulled me from my thoughts.  Chase had a rattle in his hand that he shook impulsively, one of many symptoms of his incessant drive to learn and grow.  His recent mastery of crawling was followed immediately by sprawling attempts to climb – he was always orienting toward the next step in the march of life.  He had no time for self-indulgence.  He did not nurse his wounds.  He just accepted the fall and then he got up and tried again – over and over again.  If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then each of us, at a very early stage in life, is insane.

I texted my dad a picture of the blinking, towering sign announcing the casino’s grand opening in April.   It was new since my last visit and I almost crashed my car when I saw it – looming in the field like a huge concrete bridge abutment for a road that went nowhere.  “I hate this fucking sign,” I wrote – my profanity usurping the need for a vomiting, angry-faced emoticon.

His reply:  “Don’t forget when you start getting discouraged about the changes here at home to take a drive up the Klickitat River and see all you’ve done to protect what we all love… damn good work my little darling.”

I was 37 years old, but I was sprawled out on my face that night, and his words put me back on my feet. Perhaps the point, I realized, was not what was gone after all of the incremental, excruciating change, but what remained.

Along the Klickitat River, conserved forever by the organization I worked for and that my dad helped found, were over 5,000 acres of incredible wild lands.  Dad asked me to remember.  So as I drove that long gray corridor where buildings sprouted like weeds, I remembered the dry stalks of lomatium that rattle like snakes in the late summer when I brush past them, the impossible geometry of mariposa lilies pink against the dry grass, the deer passing through fractured light under a canopy of oak.  I remembered the perfectly pyramid-shaped mountain that towered above the creek where I met my husband and where later we decided to get married, and I remembered the high canyon wall opposite the Klickitat River where we were married.  All of it protected forever from development – from roads and houses, from signs and casinos.  Dad asked me to remember, and I did.  Dad asked me to remember, and I will.

Most of all I’ll remember Dad, his worn coveralls and his makeshift bunny feeder, flinging feed across my windshield, willing to live in the face of death, even despite the casino rising.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cougar Creek Fire

The Cougar Creek fire started in our last lightning bust, on August 10th.  It started on the Yakama Reservation about 3 miles North of WDNR and Private timberland.  I went up on the 11th to fight the fire that was threatening 1600 acres of recently acquired SDS timberland.  The prevailing East/ NE wind pushed the fire quickly to about 200 acres, moving steadily to the west. Soon it was in the old Cold Springs fire, but the woody fuels were so dry – especially in the areas that were not salvage logged – that fire spread rates actually increased.  We were making good progress, building dozer line around the SDS land when the next day the wind did a 180 and started from the West/ SW.  This pushed the fire back toward our company lands and made it very difficult to fight.

IMG_2345 IMG_2350 IMG_2356 IMG_2367 IMG_2372 IMG_2381 IMG_2388 IMG_2398 IMG_2402 IMG_2412Spots were found everywhere, as anything embers landed on that was flammable tended to ignite quickly.  Soon we were retreating to the South – SW to get to the new ‘anchor’, near the 82 road which leads to Bird Creek Meadows.  The most powerful I witnessed was a wall of fire moving 4-10 miles per hour through the old Cold Springs snag-patch, jumping ahead of itself and literally torching from dead tree to dead tree; the snags would explode in fire and throw more embers ahead of the fire, in an endless cycle.  It was obvious that no human could have outrun that fire front.  By day 4 the fire was over 10,000 acres.  SDS chose to keep me signed on to help the fire ‘Team’ which by then was run by a large consortium of State, Federal and Local resources.

I tied in with an Idaho City hotshot crew and (against our Division Supervisor’s wishes) we began building the anchoring line on the SW part of the fire with 3 Dozers (granted there were high winds and thousands of dangerous ‘burned out’ snags overhead, but we couldn’t just sit there all damn day !).  Having success with this “direct” tactic, keeping “one foot in the black” we slowly but surely constructed miles of dozer line and tied it in to old roads, hand-built lines and ‘hard black’ created by small back-burns that the Hotshots lit.  I also got to light some small back-burns.  Worked 8 days straight and we eventually finished the main South containment line that ultimately protected Glenwood and thousands of acres of State Trust Lands.  So I felt good about that.  Then I went back for another 2-day hitch on the North part of the fire to help build dozer line in some much rougher terrain, difficult fuel models and radical fire behavior on the NE portion near Cunningham Creek.  It was challenging to say the least; the heavy ceanothus brush, snags and bears didn’t make it easier.

I met some great fire fighters up there, and some I’d rather not work with again.  Saw some amazing fire behavior and impressive burn-outs.  Did not get hit by a falling snag which was no small feat!  The fire is now at 50,000 acres and growing. It’s contained to the NW by the Devils Garden lava flow North of Mt Adams.  They will use Potato Hill Rd #255 as the North containment line, and the Mt Adams Lake Road 271 to the NE.

Overall the fire managers have done a good job, although I think some more aggressive tactics could have been used at times.  The age-old priorities of Life-Property (homes)-Resources (Timber) was always followed;  saving the houses near Glenwood was job #1.  SDS lost at least 1000 acres of timberland; most of this was young plantations and 20-year old ‘reprod’.  There will be some salvage logging to do on SDS land but mostly on WDNR and Yakama Nation lands.  The State Trust Land and Yakama Nation lost Millions of dollars of nice timber in the fire.

There are a few documented northern Spotted Owl nest  sites in the fire area that completely burned over.  This type of fire is not good for these endangered birds.  It’s true that some of the areas burned were 80+ year old over-ripe Lodgepole pine / True fir ecosystems that needed to burn;  But most of the acres were in managed forests that actually were pretty healthy. This was not a low -intensity fire that ‘does the forest good’, rather a catastrophic event that (in most of the fire area) will set back the health and economics of the forest for hundreds of years.   I believe the drought and dry Winter/Spring/Summer made the woods the tinderbox that it was, and contributed greatly to extreme fire behavior.  This may be the new normal in our Eastside forests.  Also the air quality has been terrible in this area; and the fire has no doubt made a large contribution to atmospheric carbon.

And yes, Bird Lake CG and the Meadows, and most of Bench Lake area did burn.  I am not sure how badly;  the helicopters may have been able to save at least the Campgrounds.  I have not personally looked them over or know anyone that has.  We can only hope the fire may have done some good ‘house cleaning’ in the more natural Meadow forest ecosystems.

Ask me about it some time – after fire season is over !  We’re not out of the woods yet.  Also I have to thank Linds and the boys for putting up with my long absence, working 17-hour days.  She is an awesome woman.  Be careful out there.  –Jeremy

The Case for Curiosity

Every now and then I have an epiphany, except it’s not technically an epiphany because I have the same one over and over, if infrequently.  It always happens when I’m outdoors, when I’ve left my phone in the car, when I’ve stopped thinking ahead to the next place I need to be or to what I should be doing instead of whatever it is I am doing.  The epiphany is this:  I should stop more often.  I don’t have to be anywhere but where I am.  I enjoy stopping.

When last this happened, I was with Finn at a property Columbia Land Trust conserved called Bowman Creek.  Bowman Creek is at the eastern edge of the east Cascades, right on the line between just enough and not enough rain to support a forest, the forest it does support comprised almost exclusively of ponderosa pine and oregon white oak.   A carpet of bunch grasses and wildflowers adorns the understory, creating a place that invites you to slow down and have a nice, healthy epiphany.

Finn and I had finished our walk.  We’d eaten a picnic lunch by the car and were folding up the blanket in preparation for our departure when Finn said, “Mom, I want to look for bugs.”  So we went looking for bugs.

We didn’t get very far.

We were inside a 50′ x 50′ square parking area comprised of gravel, weeds and a few immature pine trees, all of it enclosed by barbed wire.  I thought to find anything of interest, we needed to venture beyond the barbed wire to the beauty beyond.  I was a fool.

When we got to the barbed wire, Finn decided he did not want to climb through, so we turned to the fifteen-foot-tall pine within the enclosure.  At the tip of one branch where the terminal bud resides were two raspberry pink growths that resembled tiny pine cones.  Having received no explanation of their purpose from me, Finn decided they must be antennae.

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Decidedly drawn in by the anatomy of this pine tree, we walked a full circle around it until we were in its shade and then we plopped down under its crown to look a little more closely at its entirety.  At the base of the tree was a small hole, a burrow, about five or six inches in diameter and deeper than we could see.

IMG_5529“What do you think made that hole?” I asked Finn.

“Gecko,” he said, so unequivocally I’d have believed him had I not known there were no geckos at Bowman.  Lizards certainly, no geckos.

“What about a ground squirrel?” I asked.

“Or a snake,” he said.

“It’s too small for a coyote or a fox,” I added.

We investigated the hole for signs of occupancy – tracks or scat, or remains.  Nothing.  We checked out the rest of the tree – pine cones, needles, bark.

Finn’s attention turned to the grasses brushing against his legs.  He picked one, a droopy red-headed cheatgrass and noticed it was different than the perkier bulbous bluegrass with its purple-blue seed head. He picked a dry stem of some dormant weed I couldn’t identify and broke it in half.  I picked a pine needle and bent it in half.  It did not break.  Observing this, he picked several other different grasses and tested them for strength, learning the difference between brittle and flexible.

He picked a broader leafed grass and, intrigued by its green color, asked me what a leaf is made of.

“Water.  And plant cells.  They have chlorophyll – that’s the stuff that makes a leaf green – the plant uses it to turn sunlight into energy.”

“What makes the sun and the darkness, Mom?” he asked.

“That’s a tricky question!  The sun is made of lots of gasses that give off heat and light.  What do you think makes the sun and the darkness?”

“I think dynamite happens,” he said.

I was just about to launch further into this idea when I noticed a little change in our hole.  A small, lithe looking head was poking up out of the darkness, pale white on the bottom, light green on top, two large eyes on the sides of its head and a neat little mouth, closed tight, waiting.  I froze. “Finn, look at our hole,” I whispered. He did.  He leaned closer and in a stage whisper said,  “It’s a snake, Mom, a snake lives there!”

IMG_5533“Wow!  It’s watching us.  Do you think it was trying to guess what was outside the hole this whole time?  Maybe that snake was just as curious about us as we were about it.”

Finn crept closer on his hands and knees until the needles brushed his back.  He was just about to reach out with a stick when the head disappeared back into the safety of its burrow, as gracefully as it had appeared – almost ghostlike in its speed and its quiet.

Finn turned around, excitement writ across his face, discovery pulsing in his veins. “MOM,” he yelled, “IT WAS A SNAKE!”

Epiphany confirmed.  We could’ve hopped in the car when we were finished eating, never noticing the raspberry colored buds on the pine tree or the hole beneath it.  Had we left when we were “done”, we might not have sat amidst the grasses to ponder the power of the sun, or what occupied the hole by the tree.  Our own curiosity might not have been matched by our reptilian friend.

So what fool was I really?  Naive, yes, to not realize how much we might see under a tree in a parking lot, the sort of “seeing” that makes my son pulse with life.  All it took was time.  And intention.  “Look for bugs,” he said.  And we found so much more.

A week in Arizona is a little like Paradise

When we told Finnegan we were going to Arizona, we wanted to impart on him the awesome fact that Arizona was very different from Washington.

“There are cactus and lizards there,” we told him. “It will be hot!”

As sometimes happens parenting toddlers, we took for granted the literal interpretation of our description. After falling asleep on the plane and not waking for a transfer off the plane onto a cart and into a rental car, Finn finally awoke in an unremarkable parking garage in the middle of Phoenix. As he came to, he started looking around. It was 12:30 AM. Miles of box stores and concrete structures passed by in the streetlights.

Finally he asked, “When are we going to be in Arizona?”

“We’re in Arizona, sweetheart,” we said.

He took great exception to the inaccuracy of what we’d said. It was not hot. There were no cacti. Lizards were nowhere to be seen. In a voice only Finnegan can conjure and with conviction only a three year old can feel he said, “We are NOT in Arizona!”

“We are sweetheart, it’s just dark and we’re in the city. See the palm trees?”

This rational explanation did nothing to placate the three year old. In fact it heightened his indignation. “WE ARE NOT IN ARIZONA!” he yelled over and over again, pounding his fists in his lap and puckering his lips. It was too much for Jeremy and I, tired by our late flight, and we could not help but laugh.

“Close your eyes and sleep, honey. When you wake up, we’ll go look for cactus and lizards.”

This was no lie. We were headed for Tuscon’s Sonoran Desert Museum, a place we were practically guaranteed to see all sorts of desert life, and we were not disappointed. From the great blue heron that tried to stab Finnegan in the face through the viewing glass (the boys favorite part of course) to the desert fox, bobcats and rattlesnakes, we all came away from the desert museum in a state of bliss.

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We spent several days at the house of our old friends, Jennie and Jeff, in Patagonia, Arizona, several miles from the US/Mexico border. Their house, a work of art in concrete and glass, sits among the high elevation folds of mesquite trees and bunchgrasses just east of the Patagonia Mountains.

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We enjoyed some country walks and bike rides on the dirt roads into town, sang karaoke at the Wagon Wheel, and journeyed to Nogales for the most delicious fish tacos in America.

Nogales, characterized in equal measure by poverty and border patrol agents, had a preponderance of police vehicles, even an armored car, and many K-9 units. Lyle explained to Finnegan, a pastime he greatly enjoys, the significance of K-9.

“The dogs are really dangerous, Finn, because they are trained to hunt down bad guys. You really don’t want to put your arm in the window of a K-9 car. Do you know what would happen if you put your arm in the window,” he asked?

Finn thought for a moment and Lyle waited patiently. Jeremy and I made eye contact, waiting for Lyle’s grim verdict.

Finn, who clearly knew and did not like the answer Lyle was about to give, said, “The doggie would be really nice to you?”

Finnegan was a source of constant entertainment for all of us, cracking up his brother and bringing Jeremy and I back to earth in moments of toddler induced tension.

“What’s a Tuscon?” he asked as we rolled into town.

“I am going to Arizona,” he responded when the TSA agent asked him for his name. Charmed, the agent accepted this as confirmation that the 3-year old did indeed belong to mom and dad.

“Where are you going,” a stranger asked him on the bus to the airport?

Ever faithful to the description provided by mom and dad, “I am going to see cactus and lizards,” he said.

We spent a short while at the Oakland Athletics training facility where the boys each scored a major league baseball.

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We hiked atop Mt. Lemmon, a remarkably diverse “sky island” where saguaro cactus gave way to mesquite, gave way to pine trees and manzanita and even a Douglas-fir as we gained in elevation.

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Lyle rode competently to town over a rough and tumble dirt road on our small friend, Ayla’s, balance bike. We watched beautiful sunsets, visited the botanical gardens where we were dusted for butterflies before leaving the exhibit, and made a spontaneous trip to see the highly entertaining but tragically exploitive Rooster Cogburn’s Ostrich Farm.

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Despite our fantastic voyage, we were happy to be home – the boys and Jeremy and I having survived a rather long and boring journey home. We arrived at the airport in the knick of time for our 7:00 AM flight, only to be delayed by a power outage at security that shut down all the X-ray machines. Having loaded all our gear into the bins, we had nothing to do but wait while they rebooted the machines, feeling all but certain our flight was leaving without us. Sure enough – we were re-booked onto a flight 6 hours later. Thankfully, there was a play area and wide-open space for the boys to run to their hearts content. And that they did.

It was a small price to pay to have visited good friends in a beautiful place at a time when recent spring rains summoned from the land that all too elusive desert bloom. Who wouldn’t wait 6 hours at the airport to see this?

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