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The Far Corner
"These essays include meditations and arguments on becoming a writer; on old-growth forest and the practice of clearcutting; on the fluid dynamics and biotic diversity and mythic resonance of rivers; on the writers Ken Kesey and Wallace Stegner; on the literary genre of "creative nonfiction" and its kinship with fiction; on death and dying and the consolations of death and dying; on the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001; on a stint of hot-weather solitude in the Rogue River Canyon; and on my allegiances to the places and region and country I call home."
So writes John Daniel in the introduction to his latest book of essays, The Far Corner.
Daniel writes from the ground he walks and the landscapes he inhabits in the Pacific Northwest, spinning narratives that seek to define how he belongs to the land and to the wholeness of life itself. He takes his readers to beaches, old-growth forests, sagebrush steppelands, and deep river canyons—wild places, and places scarred by human uses—and leads us too through inner terrains where he explores mortality, creativity, and spirituality.
Both lyrical and informational, these essays are diverse in focus, various in length, and inventive in form—one is constructed as a journal, two as linear montages. By turns playful, praiseful, cantankerous, and tender in tone, they deliver themselves in a style of high informality, welcoming readers to join the author as he journeys through some of the puzzlements, sadnesses, delights, and glories of living.
The Far Corner extends John Daniel's earlier work in the personal essay form, collected in The Trail Home (1992), which Richard Nelson called "wise, deep, passionate, meticulously informed. An important contribution to the legacy of insight, beauty, and hope shaped by a new generation of American nature writers."
Comments from 2011 Oregon Book Awards judge Kyoko Mori, Professor of English at George Mason University
The eighteen essays in John Daniel’s The Far Corner are impressively wide-ranging. They inform us about the natural history of rivers and forests, the literary history of the Northwest, and the personal history of a writer, hiker, naturalist, son, teacher, student, husband, and citizen. Mr. Daniel’s writing is at once precise and lyrical—equally compelling in passages that present ecological facts and in those that portray the elusive workings of memory, grief, or joy. From its opening description of the daily labor of the tree fallers that “never seemed to advance very far against the front of the forest” but turned “the standing woods into pick-up sticks,” the book astonishes the reader with its complex observations about time and place, the relentless industry of humans and the forces of nature that cannot remain inviolable. Mr. Daniel writes eloquently about duality, paradoxes, and wholeness. The source of every stream on earth is a river in the sky. The fawn who survives the growing season to become “a young deer eligible for winter, a member of this country” breathes for himself and also for his dead twin—as a son practices the art of memory and story-telling learned from his mother. The book celebrates rootlessness and rootedness, the exuberant imagination of Ken Kesey’s writing and the spare beauty of Wallace Stegner’s, the solace of solitude and the rewards of community. While each essay stands alone brilliantly, the collection resembles one of its main metaphors: a river of heaven and earth, drawn from a multitude of living streams.
Excerpts from The Far Corner
To the Reader
I have lifted my title from Stewart Holbrook, the twentieth-century Oregon wordsmith, raconteur, lowbrow historian (a phrase he either invented or happily accepted), and proponent of sustainable forestry and sensible growth before the state became broadly identified with those values. The man liked loggers, he liked trees, and he liked language, which made him a pretty complete Oregonian.
From the 1920s into the 1950s, Holbrook’s books and articles sent the Pacific Northwest into the awareness and imaginings of a national readership. He tagged his beloved region the “Far Corner of America,” by which he meant Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, “with a piece of western Montana thrown in for good measure.” The full Northwest, to my mind, also includes southern British Columbia and northern California down at least through the Klamath Mountains and Mount Lassen, but this collection hews pretty closely to the Holbrook standard—traces of Idaho and Montana, bits of Washington, lots of Oregon.
Like Stewart Holbrook, I came to the Northwest from the far East— forty-two years ago—and called it home. It was in this region as a young man that I slowed down long enough to notice where I was and to feel somehow part of it, and it was here that I became a poet and a writer. I have made a name mainly as a nature writer, but along the way I’ve discovered that Homo sapiens is one of the most mysterious and interesting of animal species, and I know it better than I know any of the rest. I have also come to see what should have been obvious all along—that nature and human beings have been and must be inseparable. Removing ourselves from the rest of creation has gained us only a reckless disregard for other lives and a vast loneliness endured by no other species on the planet.
I have identified this book regionally because, like most authors— though many don’t know it or acknowledge it—I am a regional writer. Most of what I have made in language, especially since the late 1980s, involves Northwestern places, issues, and living things. That is not to say that I intend this collection solely for a Northwestern audience. The work of an essayist is to think on the page about something that has excited his imagination, seeking to explicate, clarify, and bring it into focus—for himself, in the course of writing, and if he succeeds for himself he stands a chance to succeed for any reader of any region who’s willing to make the journey. The universal can be approached only through the particular. My aim always is to write for a reader who does not know me, might live anywhere, is a good listener, and is just a tad smarter than I am.
Except for “Wavewash,” which dates from the 1970s, these essays were written since publication of my first collection, The Trail Home, in 1992. They include meditations and arguments on old-growth forest and the practice of clearcutting; on becoming a writer; on the joys and virtues of life lived on the move; on the relationship of darkness to creativity and spirituality; on the fluid workings and biotic diversity and mythic resonance of rivers; on the writers Ken Kesey and Wallace Stegner; on the literary genre of “creative nonfiction” and its kinship with fiction; on the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001; on a stint of hot-weather solitude in the Rogue River Canyon; on death and dying and the consolations of death and dying; and on my allegiances to my home places, my state and region, and my country.
I am all too aware that the mere glimpse or mention of the word essay—the “e word”—is likely to spark fear in the hearts of half my readers (as it does publishers) and put the other half instantly to sleep. The reputation of the essay has been more or less ruined by dry exercises of that label assigned too often over the years in schools. Reader, if you hesitate for that reason, I hope you will forge ahead. I can’t promise that you will like this work, but the contemporary personal essay is not the trussed and embalmed critter you have rightly learned to despise. Here and there it might give off a whiff of the academy, but only as part of a broader engagement with everyday life in its wholeness. The personal essay can be the most lively and welcoming of literary forms.
Whether or not my book is for you, to find an essayist who interests you is to go for a walk with a friendly (if sometimes contentious) stranger with whom you enjoy conversing on a variety of subjects, sometimes debating, sometimes agreeing, a companion whose reflections may stir you to reflect on your own experience and the questions most important to you and to your place on Earth.
Winter Creek, Oregon
To the Reader
I Loose on the Land
A Word in Favor of Rootlessness
In Praise of Darkness
II Oregon Rivers: A Suite in Six Parts
Life Among the Ruins
A Brief History of Eden
A Place in the Rivered Land
The Spirit of Rivers
III Writing Life
The Prankster-in-Chief Moves On
Wallace Stegner's Hunger for Wholeness
"Creative Nonfiction" and the Province of Personal Narrative
IV The Wages of Mortality
Solitude in a Dry Season
The Mother of Beauty
A Word in Favor of Rootedness
Notes and Thanks
The canyon is a vault of light, its streaked volcanic walls rising hundreds of feet above me. A prodigious job of excavation for a river as small and mild as this one, the West Little Owyhee, flowing at its October low among yellow and russet willows. An overhang of stone is reflected in the clear moving water, and water is reflected on the stone—a rippling, wavering river of light follows the river that follows the stone as it wears the stone away. The stream sings a subdued music, a scarcely audible lilt, faint and fluid syllables not quite said. It slips away into its future, where it already is, and flows steadily forth from up the canyon, a fountain of rumors from regions known to it and not to me.
We don’t tend to ask where a lake comes from. It lies before us, contained and complete, tantalizing in its depth but not its origin. A river is a different kind of mystery, a mystery of distance and becoming, a mystery of source. Touch its fluent body and you touch far places. You touch a story that must end somewhere but cannot stop telling itself, a story that is always just beginning.
The West Little Owyhee starts somewhere in the vast sagebrush tablelands of far southeastern Oregon, maybe in a pocket of aspens dropping leaves into a pool that gives itself to a trickling over stones. Stories begin that way throughout the high desert country, on Steens Mountain and Hart Mountain, in the Trout Creeks and the Ochocos. And they begin, too, in dry rocky creases that wander the immense tablelands as if lost. They are not lost. When snow melts or enough rain falls they are the rivers gathering, finding their way, forming themselves as they gradually form the land.
In the Cascades and the Coast Range, the Wallowas and the Strawberries, there are other kinds of beginnings. Spotting the forests are seeps and springs where grasses, mosses, and horsetails silently riot, growing and dying to grow and die and grow again. There are lakes surrounded by conifers or alpine meadow, lakes brimming full and overfull, pouring off through little ravines checked with boulders and beaver dams and the trunks of trees. Higher on the peaks there are slumping snowfields littered with rockfall, tinged pink with algae, the rubble below them glistening with melt. There are slow rivers of ice that hoard the story for centuries before letting it go in minuscule drops, in streamings milky with ground stone.
Start at any of those sources, let water lead you, and eventually you will stand where a river pours into the Pacific Ocean or a desert lake. The story isn’t hard to follow. But start at the mouth and trace the story back, and your journey may involve more questions. Trace the Rogue River, to choose one. From its outlet at Gold Beach on the southern coast, follow it back through its wild canyon in the Klamath Mountains, through the broad valley it has formed between Grants Pass and Medford, and up past Lost Creek Reservoir into the Cascades. Climb alongside through the volcanic landscape, where at one point the river hurls itself into a lava tube and churns out of sight for two hundred feet. Follow still higher, until the Rogue is nothing but a stream joined by other streams, all of them small and white and fast. You could follow any of them. Here, says the river, here and here.
Stay with the blue line your map calls the Rogue and you’ll arrive, on foot, at a place called Boundary Springs, high in the northwest corner of Crater Lake National Park. But even here you’ll face choices. There are several springs, each of them bright with moss and rushing water. Where is the Rogue River now? The largest spring? Take off your boots, douse your feet. Watch the lucid water spring forth among shaggy stones and cascade lightly away. Watch how it flows. It does not gather and then begin to move. It is born in motion, a gesture already underway. This spring 50 oregon rivers: a suite in six parts is only the place where the story emerges from the deep cold joints of an exploded mountain, a subterranean wilderness of water fed by seepings out of Crater Lake, which itself is fed by underground springs, which themselves are fed by snowmelt seeping into soil.
Snowfall, then, is the source of the Rogue. But snow is only an expression of winter storms, and the storms are swirling eddies of a vast air mass that flows out of Siberia, soaks up moisture south of the Aleutians, and delivers barrages of weather to the West Coast. It is known as the Pacific maritime polar airstream, one of several such atmospheric tendencies that shape the North American climate. The headwaters of the Rogue, and the West Little Owyhee and every stream on Earth, is a river in the sky.
From "The Prankster-in-Chief Moves On"
The answer is never the answer. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer—they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
Ken Kesey was dressed in white from head to toe when I first met him, in the spring of 1979, at the first and only Southern Oregon Writers Conference in Klamath Falls, which a friend and I had organized. A broad tank of a man with a fringe of sandy curls around his balding head, carrying some extra weight but otherwise looking every bit the collegiate wrestler he once had been, Kesey talked at dinner about farming and especially about sheep, the purity of their innocence, how we needed that in our lives. There was a Christian flavor to his remarks. He likened himself to a retired country squire. I, tuned to his every word with the hunger of an unpublished novice, was disappointed. This was my psychedelic hero, the progenitor of McMurphy and Stamper, the Prankster-in-Chief on the legendary bus called Furthur?
But in the fiction workshop he said some things I’ve never forgotten. He asked what we were reading. “You!” somebody hollered. Well, Kesey replied, why are you reading me? If you want to write you should be reading Melville and Hawthorne, Shakespeare, the King James Bible. You should go to the source. Listen, he said, his enthusiasm gathering, when you sit down to write you’re inside a bubble, see? And the bubble lives outside of time, outside the little room where you’re writing, and with you in that bubble are the greatest, the truly original writers—if you’ve read them. That, he told us, is the possibility, the pure potential of creative writing. We knew he had been there. He lifted us, and challenged us, with that directive.
On the second day of the conference, perhaps a bit worn down by short stories such as mine, which was about a man who kills a woman and forgets it and climbs a mountain and remembers and freezes to death, Kesey said, “People, listen. It comes down to this. If it doesn’t uplift the human heart, piss on it.”
He was then forty-four. It had been twelve years since he had resettled on the farm near Pleasant Hill where he had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s, doing magic acts onstage—a showman from the start—at the McDonald Theater in Eugene, and later wrestling for the University of Oregon and almost making the 1960 U. S. Olympic team. In 1958, twentythree years old, Kesey moved to California with his wife, Faye Haxby, with whom he had eloped two years before. He brought an unpublished novel and a lot of ambition and attitude to Wallace Stegner’s graduate creative writing program at Stanford University, and a couple of years later he enrolled in a different curriculum—Army- or CIA-sponsored tests at a Veterans Administration hospital on the effects of psychoactive drugs, for which he received seventy-five dollars a session.
The Defense Department wanted to know if LSD could be useful in espionage and prisoner interrogations. It’s unknown if Kesey helped them to an answer, but it’s certain that he became an instant advocate of exploring the inner wilderness of the psyche, and fundamentally changing society, by means of LSD. When he hired on as a night aide in the psychiatric ward of the hospital, he recognized the kinship between psychedelic awareness and psychosis: The patients were lost explorers. Kesey began a story about life in such a ward, a story that wouldn’t cohere until one night, in a peyote-induced vision, he conjured a schizophrenic American Indian he called Chief Bromden. He had a narrator and he had a novel.
The miracle of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, first, that a guy could write a novel while regularly blasting his head with hallucinogens; and, second, that he could write a very fine novel in which psychedelic consciousness, deftly and aptly incorporated, is essential to the tale. He captures its paranoiac aura in the subtle click and hum of machinery Chief Bromden hears in the asylum walls, and in the “microscopic wires and grids and transistors . . . designed to dissolve on contact with air” the chief imagines when he crushes one of the daily sedatives Big Nurse forcefeeds her inmates. And he evokes just as tellingly the expansive, synesthetic happiness of the psychedelic high, as when Randle Patrick McMurphy first enters the joint and bellows his vast laugh—“free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward.”
Kesey had the mental and emotional strength to harness for his art the experience that reduced most of us to wordlessness—an indication, surely, of a sense of self and purpose as powerful as his physical being, and this in a writer in his mid-twenties. But the book came to full fruition, it turns out, in the ordinary way—through hard work. According to Malcolm Cowley, the Stanford professor Kesey liked best, he wrote long patches of the novel “at top speed,” often under the influence, but returned to those drafts later to add, delete, correct, and rewrite, responding to Cowley’s observations and his own, un-spaced-out judgment. The canard that Kesey never revised his first drafts, in the fashion of some of the Beats, has flourished far too long.
Cuckoo’s Nest, tapping perfectly the temper of the times with its cosmology of a tight-assed freedom-hating Combine running the country, was published in 1962 to enormous acclaim and sales. Hard on its heels two years later came a second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey had returned to Oregon, lived in logging camps, and re-frequented the haunts of his youth to write it. Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps the better-achieved book, but Notion, for me, is the greater achievement—a sprawling, boisterous, multigenerational story of a Coast Range logging family pitted against its community, of one brother locking horns with another, and of East Coast culture at odds with earthy, implacable, Western stubbornness. These tensions play out in a place—landscape, weather, biota—as intimately and animatedly evoked as any in literature. If Cuckoo’s Nest shines with the moral clarity of parable, Notion has the variegated texture, heroic proportions, and moral complexity of epic myth. The book’s ambition is evident in the method of its telling, which has time sliding freely backward and forward and point of view slipping continually among several characters, including a dog and an eerie, Whitmanesque omniscient observer who sees everything, right down to blackberry roots deepening their hold in the rain-sodden earth.
Sometimes a Great Notion trips now and then on its special effects. It is overlong and in parts overwritten. But it fairly vibrates with the life and land of the Pacific Northwest, and it is, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of the best novels I know.
From "A Word in Favor of Rootedness"
In 1966, eighteen years old, I navigated a blue-and-white Jeep with a bad electrical system up U. S. 101 from San Francisco, having left my mother’s home in Washington, D.C., two weeks earlier. I hit the Oregon border around 1:00 am on a very foggy night in late summer and pulled into a wayside north of Brookings. I parked the Jeep on a downslope, stumbled toward the beach in the thick dark, sat on a rock, and let the boom and wash and shrill withdrawing hiss of breakers soothe my overheated head. After a while I went down to touch the Pacific Ocean for the first time and got my sneakers wet. In the morning the Jeep started without a rolling jump, which I took to be a sign.
I was on my way to Reed College, in Portland, where I would try to be a student and would succeed for a year and a half. My relations with my new natural surroundings turned out to be far more pleasurable than my relations with books and classrooms and the anxieties of late adolescence. One stormy night in the fall of my freshman year, not far outside my room in the Old Dorm Block, a shot of lightning exploded the top of one of the tallest trees on campus, a solitary Douglas fir, and turned it into a flaming torch. I wasn’t lucky enough to see the strike, but I did come along in time to behold a crazy spectacle—yellow flames blazing a hundred feet overhead in the top of a wet dark tree. Another sign. “This,” I said to myself, “is a cool place.”
My enthusiasm waxed further a year later when a ripping windstorm blew in off the Pacific. On campus, with friends, I watched trees snapping and tumbling on the other side of the Willamette River in southwest Portland, taking down power lines and popping a transformer now and then with a hail of sparks. We hollered and cheered, being far better situated (as I would learn) than Lewis and Clark and their men had been in December 1805, when, newly arrived near the mouth of the Columbia, mildewed, all paddled-out, living on spoiling salmon loaf bought from upriver Indians, they were assaulted by a similar storm. “The winds violent,” wrote William Clark in his journal. “Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day. Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!” A rough welcome to the Oregon Country—and then the long, gray, sopping winter, sleepless from flea bites, eating what little they could find to shoot, their whiskey long exhausted.
It was Oregon, wild and lovely and violent Oregon, that ruined my academic career. How could I keep my nose in Herodotus, my ears in windy seminars, my spirit in dolorous, fluorescent classrooms, while outside swarmed a green paradise of mountains and rivers and seacoast and forests of gargantuan trees? And so I ditched Reed and took up back- packing and mountain climbing. I hiked the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park, from the mossy rainforest of colossal cedars where it begins up to brilliant alpine meadows and Mount Olympus, and later I trekked a few sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Oregon Cascades. On Mount Hood, my first big climb, I couldn’t believe my Eastern eyes. I was standing eleven thousand feet in the air atop a snowbound volcano with nothing around me but everything, an oceanic vista such as I had never seen or imagined, the wavy verdant landscape with its roads and towns and other human marks—trifles from that vantage, chicken scratches—stretching vastly in every direction, the Cascades punctuated with snowy exclamations as far as I could see. Mount St. Helens (then still a perfect cone, the Fujiyama of the Cascades), Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier stood to the north, and Jefferson, Three-fingered Jack, Washington, and the Three Sisters to the south.
To put shekels in my pocket I went to work for a while as a logger in southern Washington State, under Mount St. Helens, my youthful enthusiasm dissolving any sense of contradiction between loving the trees of paradise and leveling them. High-lead logging has some of the brutish appeal of terrible weather. An entire mountainside of trees has been clearcut, some of them huge old-growth cedars and hemlocks, and bucked into thirty- and forty-foot lengths. A hundred-foot steel tower is set up on a punched-in road, a gargantuan network of cables is strung down the hillside, and workers like me, again and again, scramble to noose cables around logs and clear the hell out of the way as several tons of ex-trees at a time go up the hill under protest, scattering other logs and uprooting stumps and gouging furrows in the muddy earth. It’s exhausting work. The chance to witness spectacular violence is about all that saves it.
I left the Northwest a couple of times to pursue my personal confusions in San Francisco, which seemed a necessary thing to do in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but I kept coming back. I never considered living in the East again. I didn’t know much for sure in my early twenties, but I knew I had corrected the mistake of having been born and raised on the wrong coast. In 1973 I left the Bay Area for a railroad job in a part of Oregon I hadn’t seen, the Klamath Basin, just east of the Cascades and north of the California line. Once again I couldn’t believe my eyes. Surely this was Nevada, not Oregon. Where was the forest? Where were the merry streams, the emerald meadows? Seven years after first setting foot in the state, it was just then dawning on me that two-thirds of Oregon is semiarid steppe and outright desert. “Won’t stay long here,” I said to myself.
I stayed ten years. Bleakness turned to beauty before my eyes. I grew to love the spacious distances of rimrocks and alkali lakes and junipered hills, of mountains blue on a far-off horizon. I gradually discovered the lofty pronghorn pastures of Hart Mountain, the Malheur Refuge with its seasonal bonanzas of waterfowl, the singular standing wave of Steens Mountain, the painted hills and tilted vistas of the John Day country, the psychedelic geology of Leslie Gulch, and, far to the northeast, the exuberant granitic Wallowas, nothing like the Cascades, more like a branch of the Rocky Mountains that got lost and wandered west into Oregon.
Nature, I learned over the years, has a lot on her mind in this state, a slew of wildly various thoughts, and she’s committed to all of them. Forget the interior, consider the corners alone. The steep slopes of the Klamath Mountains in the southwest, where the Rogue and Illinois Rivers flow, host one of the most diverse temperate forests in the world, a green hodgepodge of broadleafs and needle trees of all forms and sizes. There are spots on the coast down there where palm trees grow. Jump four hundred miles straight east, to the Owyhee Uplands we share with Idaho and Nevada, and you can walk the lonesome sagebrush tableland all day long without sighting a single trunk, but for an occasional willow or cottonwood down in the winding canyons etched into the basalt bedrock. The Owyhees might get eight inches of moisture a year. Zag diagonally coastward to the Clatsop Plain in the northwest corner, where Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery spent their triumphant and miserable winter, and you’ll get a hundred and twenty inches, up to two hundred in the ferned and mossy Coast Range not far south. From that country of rainforest, of storm surf hammering the stacks and headlands, vault due eastward to a still different kind of grandeur at a place called Hat Point, beyond the Wallowas, where you’ll gaze down almost six thousand feet into a vast, terraced, grassy-benched vessel of quiet called Hells Canyon. Tiny within its inner chasm, the green Snake River hurls itself through Rush Creek Rapids, its thunderous roil refined at your elevation to virtual soundlessness, a whisper of wind.
Of all the states, only California can credibly claim greater variety of landscape and extremes of climate, and California cheats by being so big. I was lured into its bosom again in the 1980s, tracking the dubious scent of a writing career, but when I came north again I came to stay. First in Portland, that good gray city of bridges and bookstores and the best beer in America, and now, for the last fifteen years, on an acre of land tucked up in the Coast Range foothills at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, the New Eden that enticed caravans of settlers over the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and ’50s. Those settlers learned that the New Eden is a tad wetter than the old one, particularly down our way. The ground crawls with slugs and newts, the dank soil ridden with moles, voles, and other vermin. Our yard is more moss than grass. Marilyn and I trudge through the rains and mists in rubber boots, leaving footprints inches deep. The days are gray and gray and gray again, for month upon month. The trees drip. The mossy roof drips. The downspouts gurgle incessantly. Don’t consider settling here. This is habitat for borderline lunatics.
All that keeps us going is our faith, long tested, that eventually the sun will goof up and blunder back into our sky. When trillium rise in late March and open their perfect three-pointed blooms in April, things start looking up. Pretty soon sword ferns unfurl new fronds, pale new growth appears on the tips of Douglas fir boughs, and the grass and weeds start growing an inch a day. Irritable hummingbirds buzz the kitchen windows demanding their feeder, dogwoods spread creamy rumors in the woods, blue camas hazes the bright green pastures, we hear a tentative stir from the bee tree, and the Vaux’s swifts announce by a whirring of wings in the chimney that they have returned to raise a brood again on our premises. By then it’s warm enough that we don’t need a fire, and we decide to stay another year.
I’m not much of a flag waver, but a flag does fly from the peak of the roof on the south end of our house, over the back deck from which we look out on mossy Douglas firs and a few white oaks. It’s a handsome flag, I have to say, and it makes a happy sound. When I’m digging or pruning or loafing on the deck and hear its sudden flappedy-snap in the wind, I look up and smile, as if surprised by a friend. Depending on the way the wind’s blowing, I might see the flag’s front side, which shows, in gold on a navy blue field, a pretty ordinary state seal with a few generic symbols—a plow, a sheaf of wheat, a pickaxe, and a sunset behind a covered wagon, thus acknowledging those who traversed the Oregon Trail and the work of the land that some of them have pursued since. The most interesting images, beneath the inevitable eagle that forms the crest of the seal, are of two sailing ships, a British man-of-war and an American trading vessel. The man-of-war is headed to the left, away from our coast, and the American ship to the right, sailing toward us. In this way we rejoice, within the crude limits of two dimensions, that the British were sent packing from this hotly contested Far Corner when American settlers established the Oregon Territory in 1848 and in 1859 entered the Union as the thirty-third state.
Of the fifty state flags, only ours, it turns out, has different images front and back. I prefer the back side. It shows, also in gold on blue, a humble beaver, facing right and seemingly in a chipper mood, chewing on a downed log he has already notched in several places. No words, just a hump-backed beaver doing his thing. The irony runs thick. The Anglo- American contest for the Far Corner was chiefly about beaver pelts, much desired for fashionable robes and hats in Europe and the American East. Before any of those who would vote for statehood had arrived in the Oregon Territory, before a single settler had made the six-month crossing from Missouri, the indigenous population of Oregon beaver had been reduced by probably ninety percent, trapped out by British and American traders in the first decades of the nineteenth century. While Oregon was still a wilderness, the animal that would be totemized on the state flag was already an endangered species. Settlement did not improve its lot—by the early twentieth century, when the state flag was adopted, the beaver had been practically exterminated—and now, a full century later, its population stands at a small fraction of its pre–Euro-American numbers. The state of beaver in the Beaver State is not prosperous.
Early American plantation owners and yeoman farmers wrote admiringly of this rodent’s assiduous habits—it repairs and strengthens its constructions nightly—but were less charmed when those habits crossed purposes with their own. The human and beaver species have different ideas about which trees to take down and which tracts of land to flood, creating a nuisance now and then for present-day ranchers and farmers. Overall, though, we humans clearly have had the better of the disagreement, which would have been a fairer contest back in the Pleistocene, when an ances- tral beaver the size and weight of a modern black bear, its cutting teeth six inches long—the largest rodent ever to roam the continent—lived and worked in North America.
But the modern beaver, which weighs usually no more than a fairly large dog, is plenty scrappy and tenacious; what’s more, in pursuing its self-interest it does good works for the land that sustains it. Beaver numbers are on the rise these days in some heavily logged Northwestern places because they like the willows and alders—the inner bark is their favorite food—that pioneer plant succession in stripped riparian areas. The dams they build slow the erosive energy of streams, retaining moisture and nutrients in hungry and thirsty places. Before the beaver was trapped out of eastern Oregon, streams there tended to be strings of beaver-dammed pools and surrounding wetlands, the wetlands absorbing flood waters in season, keeping the water table flush, springs a-flowing, food webs thriving. A dry country was not as dry then.
And so I’m happy that the beaver honors our flag, and I think we would do well to honor it. The beaver perseveres in the face of persecution. The beaver works hard (though surely it doesn’t consider its activities “work”). The beaver does what it does, and in making a home it promotes the general well-being of the country around it. Liberal with its energy, conservative with the water of life, the beaver earns its place in the intricate and populous commonwealth that we call the land. Does it love the land? Surely it loves its mate (beaver pair for life) and loves its kits, and who can say that it does not love its mud-daubed home of sticks, and its home forest—so tasty and useful!—and its home lake or stream? The beaver contributes more to watershed health than most humans do. It does not raise flags on its dams and lodges, but in my book, the beaver does indeed love the land.
Patriotism in America has been trivialized, abstracted, and forced into partisan servitude marked by shallow observances. For me, it begins where I am. Love of country, if it’s to mean anything more, must first mean country, land, the physical ground and growth and weather and inhabitants—beaver as well as human—of the places we call home. If I can’t love my home acre at Winter Creek and its partially stripped surrounding hills, and if I can’t love my outlier homes in eastern Oregon and the Rogue River country at Dutch Henry Homestead, how can I possibly love my state or nation? If I can’t take responsibility—imperfect as it is— for a few actual American places, how can I be a responsible American?
My love of country does extend beyond my home places, but I keep it pretty close to the ground. I love the landscape itself of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest; I love, in fact, the entire breadth of the forty-nine American states I have seen, in all their regional inflections. I love American literature and the spoken American tongue in its array of accents and dialects, its distinctive tunes and idioms, and at my best I love all who speak the language, including those I disagree with. And there are, of course, American ideas and institutions that I love and feel grateful for— the casting of ballots in free elections, the deliberations of earnest men and women in the jury room, the near-miracle of a revolutionary experiment in self-government evolving for more than two hundred years under the guidance of a Constitution stable enough to contain but dynamic enough not to overly constrain the freedoms of its people.
Why then not fly the Stars and Stripes? Because, though I believe in our democratic form of government—it is, as Winston Churchill quipped, the worst system in the world except for all the others—too often I cannot support the particular administration running the government, especially when that administration leads the country into needless war and continues warring for years without the majority consent of the American people. The Iraq War is more than five years old as I write, at the cost of about forty-two hundred American dead and thirty thousand wounded. The Vietnam War went longer, killing fifty-eight thousand Americans. Neither war was necessary to our national defense. Four thousand or fiftyeight, squandering the lives of our young men and women, and the lives of foreign innocents across the oceans, cannot possibly earn security. It can earn only a future of more such wars. We would do better to spend our labor and treasure strengthening national security at home, including the security of the land itself—healthy watersheds, flourishing forests, clean energy sources, and a generally defter, more imaginative, more responsible membership in our home places.
My patriotism, I know, will not satisfy some members of my community and some Americans of other communities. I can only say in return that I cannot honor a patriotism that idealizes a heroic American identity and considers failure to worship that America, right or wrong, as tantamount to sin. I suggest that dissent from acts and policies that I consider wrong affirms my best hopes for what our society can be, that it expresses love of country more meaningfully than wearing a flag pin or holding hand over heart during the national anthem. I concede not a drop of patriotic superiority to those who make a cult of such customs even as they condemn dissent. But I also say this: Despite our differences, all earnest men and women can and should hold in common a love for the American land itself, the land that bears our footsteps, yields our sustenance, and holds the remains of our dead, the land that spreads scarred but beautiful before us in its ample variety, the land that will thrive if only we realize that we are part of it.
I don’t like everything about the state of Oregon, either. Let me count the ways. We’re too hard on beaver, salmon, old-growth trees, and other members of the commonwealth with far more seniority than we have. Our state capitol in Salem looks like a bowling trophy or a misbegotten birthday cake. In many localities we are selfishly starving our schools of funding and thereby stunting our future. We are addicted to amending our state constitution with one piddling provision after another. Our history includes shameful episodes, not completely acknowledged, of killing and uprooting Native Americans and of racist acts and policies toward African Americans. Ours is one of two states in the Union that ban self- service gasoline, preferring that eighteen-year-olds making minimum wage inhale the benzene and other toxic vapors while we relax in the driver’s seat comfortably insulated from the stink of carbon consumption. And lastly, for a largely moderate populace in a moderate climate in an out-of-the-way far corner of the country, we are a culturally and politically divided people—a mostly conservative rural population that practices or did practice the traditional economies of working the land, and a mostly liberal and environmentalist urban and suburban population that supports itself by newer economies, while relying, of course, on products of the old. The two Oregons are still learning to talk to each other, which is only to say that like Americans of any state or locality, we have work to do.
Marilyn and I have seen one beaver in this area. He was scuttling around in shallow water by a culvert just up West Sheffler Road, where a small stream comes down from clearcut slopes and pecker-pole plantations on the ridge above. A hundred years ago, Douglas firs five and six feet in diameter stood up there, and still larger trees down here. Now the stream runs through willow thickets, cloudy with suspended clay. As we watched that beaver, he seemed more irritated than enthused. He paused now and then, as if thinking, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” We didn’t see him again, but peering upstream into the brushy woods a month or two later I thought I glimpsed a pool that hadn’t been there before. It’s posted private property, so I can’t go in to confirm, but I think our irritable toothy neighbor decided to stay and go to work. I like that. He takes an interest in this scraped and battered countryside, and so do I. He does some good for our common watershed and I try to as well. If he causes a little trouble from time to time, well, I do too. Neither of us may be an exemplary citizen, but the way I see it, the beaver is a patriot and so am I.