Monthly Archives: October 2012

Condit Dam Revisited

A year ago, I alerted my co-workers at our early morning huddle: I would be in the office but watching the live webcam footage of the breaching of the Condit Dam. They were welcome to join me, but I would be a little distracted. This event verged on religious ceremony as far as I was concerned.

I tuned in around 11:30. There wasn’t much to see yet; the explosives had already been set and there were just a few Pacific Power engineers and Fish & Wildlife people in orange vests and hardhats running around and checking things. A documentarian, Andy Maser, had set up three cameras: one on the west bank, looking down on the basin; one on the east bank, a little lower and closer to the dam; and one on the top of the dam that could rotate to look both up- and down-stream. The feed switched from one camera to the next.

Looking upstream, the camera showed Northwestern Lake lying placid and unsuspecting. Mike and I lived just uphill from it and had canoed on it many times. It was a great lake to paddle around—we passed by floats of cinnamon teals, mallards and any number of other migrating water birds. Wild turkeys and deer gathered at its edges for a drink. If we pulled into one of the fern-covered, cedar-lined coves we might spy an adorable water ouzel, or American dipper, bobbing on a rock next to a waterfall.

Looking downstream, the dry canyon was lined with ferns. A monolith of basalt, probably 30 feet tall, rose in the center about 40 yards from the dam. The usual trickle of run-off flowed from a chute in the dam. Everything seemed to crackle in anticipation. Or, maybe it was just me.

Pacific Power, which owned the 125-foot dam, was not removing it (yet), just blowing a hole in the bottom. They had excavated most of the tunnel, which was about 15 feet across, and this day’s explosion would complete it. The rest of the dam removal would occur in 2012. I knew a bunch of my friends were congregated at a locals’ viewing station up the road, in Husum. There had been 24-hour guard on the dam for weeks to keep out interlopers and The Curious.

I waited.

At noon, there was a series of loud air horn blasts. A flicker called, as if answering them, and then a basso percussion of explosives rumbled. Cement flew from the base of the dam, and right behind it was a black shaft—dense bottom sediment thrust through the tunnel by the pressure of a mile-long reservoir.

It was thrilling. The water seemed to scream with joy. The camera angle switched to the east side camera, which was getting sprayed; droplets slid down the lens. Water rushed past like a speeding locomotive. The camera angle switched to the downstream view: The spike of basalt was being pummeled by the torrent shooting from the dam. I swear it was laughing.

The water was free. I could feel its power from 75 miles away, over an Internet connection and through a camera lens. Even though I would miss canoeing on Northwestern Lake, I was so happy for this river, silenced for 100 years, to get its voice back. I realized tears ran down my cheeks.

I stared, transfixed, for the next hour. The engineers expected the lake to drain in four hours; it took 45 minutes. At first, it didn’t seem like much was happening from the upstream camera, but once the top (the widest, of course) drained it was possible to see the level going down. National Geographic later posted a sped-up view, which seems to me a little like God watching the Creation.

Shortly after the dam was breached, Mike and I drove up to Washington to see everything first hand. To our chagrin, Pacific Power was still guarding the access road to our former canoe put-in. Biologist friends had told us that the put-in was now a deep crevasse, and we would just have to take their word for it because the guard was unmoved by our arguments to let us down there.

Next, we drove to the county park, which is a mile upstream from our old house. With the exception of the deep slice the new river had cut in the east side of the lake bed, the rest was untouched. A mile of perfectly smoothed basalt rocks spread in front of us; we pocketed a few and kept walking. Dead salmon, caught below the dam and released above before the breach, rotted in the rocks. Mike found an old cork handle to a fishing rod.

First salmon above Condit Dam in a century

Standing in the middle of the lake

A year later, salmon and steelhead have been seen jumping Husum Falls. A long-time Columbia River Gorge artist, Daniel Dancer, had been part of the effort to remove the dam for decades. His video adds depth to the history; in it, I learned that part of the dam breech included a Native American ceremony, calling the salmon home.

Hearing their voices and drums rise above the roar of the water, I started to cry all over again.

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I Brake for Gophers

As I drove south on Highway 97 in June, on my way to read from Get Your Pitchfork On! in Bend, a sage rat ran in front of my car. (“Sage rat” usually refers to Belding ground squirrels or gophers.) Without thinking, I braked, carefully and steadily, to let it go by. Then, I laughed.

I guess I’ve been re-citified, I thought.

No country person in their right mind would think twice about running over a ground squirrel. In fact, it’s common practice in southeastern Oregon to go on sage rat hunting expeditions for fun.

A few days later, I drove up Wallowa Loop Road. The road is a barely-two-lane scenic byway through the Wallowa Mountains with sketchy pavement and so many curves I never exceeded 40 miles per hour on the straight-aways. I loved tooling along with the windows down and the dry smell of pine trees filling the car. Butterflies that crossed my path rode the air current over the top of my car without incident.

When driving in third gear, you’re more likely to stop along the side of the road to admire the wildflowers

At one point, a local’s pickup came roaring up behind me. How did I know it was a local? No one else would be sporting the enormous “deer-smasher” on his grill nor driving so fast—he’d traversed the road so many times he had it memorized. I pulled over so he could pass in a cloud of gravel and dust, and wondered how many deer he’d actually run into. There a blind corner about every half-mile.

My relationship with animals is complicated. Generally I welcome them, feel protective, even. I love to see antelope or moose grazing on a trail or a nearby hillside, elk or deer at the side of the road, horses and cows in a farmer’s field, woodpeckers and songbirds in my yard. I welcome dogs and cats into my home. I even like skunks!

People I know will go out of their way to run down a snake, gopher, coyote or other critter that happens to find itself on the pavement at the wrong time. I am the opposite, constantly slowing for them. If one fails to get out of the way, which has only happened a couple of times, I wince at the thump and carry a burden of guilt for a while. Thankfully, I’ve never had a large animal dart directly in front of my car.

I am a carnivore but abstain if I can’t be sure that the meat in question came from an animal that was treated and fed well. As documented in a previous post, I do not abide mice in my kitchen. I would never shoot a flicker on the side of my house but I’m not shy about scaring them off, even with warning rocks across the bow. I’ve occasionally thrown rocks at scrub jays simply because they won’t shut up. I vacuum around spiders unless someone is coming to visit; then, I apologize to each one as I unceremoniously suck them up.

Many people who have attended Get Your Pitchfork On! readings have heard the excerpt (published last year by the Jackson Hole Review) about fighting gophers in our garden. It was a learning experience for me, not only in doing the killing but—perhaps more importantly—in preparing emotionally to kill. By the time we left our land, I was still not super-excited about the killing but I sure appreciated the being-dead.

Going out of my way to spare a sage rat in Eastern Oregon showed me that I’ve still got one foot in the country and one in the city.

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A Sense of Place

At Get Your Pitchfork On! readings, people ask me what I miss most about living in the country and I answer, the land. I’ve been ending my readings with the opening to the Land Section, which I describe as a sort of love letter. Sometimes I have to fight back tears (and if you know me, you know I’m not predisposed to public weeping), because this makes me think about the plant-friends Mike and I left behind: the fruit trees we planted; the orchids, ginger and Indian pipe that grew in our woodlot; the Ponderosas in our field.

For the last eight years, I have participated in a special arts event in the Columbia River Gorge—the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. Held in conjunction with a painting competition, this program is sponsored by the Columbia Center for the Arts and takes place at the end of August. For five days, artists with canvases and notebooks descend upon pre-selected locations that offer gorgeous views.

The goal: capture a moment. Plein air painting is an art form that developed before photography. You’ve seen someone out on a hill with an easel and canvas, studying the horizon? That is plein air painting. The artist is attempting to re-create a specific view as quickly as possible—before the light shifts and the clouds move across the sky.

Writers do the same thing but have all of their senses, not just sight, at their disposal. Plus, they can incorporate their thoughts. Both art forms have their charms.

I generally don’t do a lot of nature writing, but I really enjoy this annual pilgrimage out into the land to try to put words to the love I feel for it. And, apparently, so do a lot of other writers! Julie Jindal coordinated this year’s program, and she put together the anthology of participants’ work, Blue Skies Forever Open. There you will find two of my pieces, “Glider” and “Ponderosa.”

The latter piece describes my longing to live in a rural place. I eagerly await the day Mike and I can move back out of the city!

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Celebrating Harvest and Culture

In most of the world, food is cultivated rather than foraged. This means that seeds are planted in the spring, the young plants and trees are nurtured through the summer, and then the fruits of those plants and trees are harvested in the fall. Without exception, this harvest is a cause for celebration.

Ancient farming cultures had fascinating and intricate superstitions, myths, and traditions in hopes of ensuring future harvests. I’ve been thinking about how the harvest is celebrated in different parts of the world. Nowadays, we focus less on pleasing harvest gods and goddesses, and more on having a party before the long winter.

My husband Mike and I are European Americans, mostly Eastern Europe in Mike’s case and Western Europe in mine.  We grew up in Minnesota, a state with a good number of Germans (though not as many as Wisconsin!), and went to elementary school in the 1970s. There was an effort in our suburb to re-popularize German culture, as it had taken a bit of a public-relations hit during the two World Wars. So, I had German-language instruction in my fourth-grade class, elected to take it from seventh grade on, and even studied it in college.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I decided to make it a heritage weekend. On Friday, we went to The Rhinelander in Portland. We eschewed the Oktoberfest party tent outside and settled into a booth in the pub, which ended up being much warmer and just as fun. A guy named Tony wandered through playing an accordion, and the waitstaff would occasionally stop everything to lead a round of “In München steht ein Hofbräu Haus” or “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit.” Everyone joined in.

Eins, zwei, g’suffah!

We had a great time! I wondered why people don’t sing at the top of their lungs during every meal. Our waitress, Maria, told us she moved to Portland from Germany in 1982, and has worked at the restaurant ever since. She helped me decipher a few words in the old sayings painted in a mural across the walls.

“You should come back any time you want to speak German with me,” Maria said.

Since Northern Hemisphere cultures harvest at around the same time, autumn weekends can get busy in the United States. That same weekend there were also huge Greek and Polish festivals. Mike grew up with Bohemian and Polish food on his dad’s side, so he was very excited to go to Polishfest.

Clockwise from top: golumpke, pierogi, kielbasa, sauerkraut, bread. He already ate the pickles.

There was a loooong line at the food tent—lots of people share Mike’s passion for cabbage rolls. Thankfully, we got cups of Żywiec beer before we went for food, and then settled under the big tent to watch some traditional courting dances.

I mused about the variations of the same folk dances in so many cultures, even square dancing in the United States, all meant to give the kids a respectable way of feeling each other out for mating purposes.

German and Polish cultures are, all in all, pretty similar. There’s beer and sausages; modest folk dances in circles with elaborately embroidered costumes; pink-cheeked Caucasians; polka music. That same weekend, while cruising around Facebook, I noticed my friend Lara posted a photo of a leafy lean-to and wrote, “The sukkah’s up!”

“What on Earth is a sukkah?” I wondered.

Well. Yet another element of Jewish culture I knew nothing about. Despite all this talk of growing up around Germans, the western suburbs of Minneapolis were also home to many Jewish families (some were both, of course). I remember the Talmud Torah bus parked outside my elementary school in the afternoon, and those same Jewish kids, who had been learning German with me a few hours before, climbing aboard the bus after the bell rang to go learn Hebrew.

I felt like I knew a lot about Judaism, having grown up with dozens of Friedmans, Goldmans, Goldsteins and Bernsteins, and attending their bar and bat mitzvahs. But, the more I learn about Jewish culture the more I realize how deep it really goes. I could write an entire blog post about the sukkah, an element of the Jewish harvest fest (and pronounced soo-ka), but I will leave it to you to research. In short, it is a temporary outdoor hut that you decorate and eat meals in; it’s not unusual to go “sukkah-hopping” and check out your friends’ sukkahs. What a great tradition! I feel like I want to start building my own sukkah at harvest time.

The innovation of agriculture has had an enormous affect on human culture. Some of the first harvest celebrations honored Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, and Ceres in Rome; their successors span the globe. How do you celebrate the harvest?

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