An Old Country

“Let’s meet tomorrow if you choose beneath the bridge that they are building on some endless river.” –Leonard Cohen–I grew up in the Northwest. Mostly. I spent part of my childhood in California, a perfect time to be a sun-bleached child during the Sixties in a world of surfboards and motorcycles. But, really, I’m a product of tall evergreens and deep forests. We moved back to the Northwest–Southern Oregon–when I was eleven, and I came of age amid great rains and summers of stunning beauty. Oregon in the summer may well be the most perfect place on earth. In winter, it tests your soul with darkness, a constant dampness, and a war with nature that nature always wins.

The old saying goes: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? It does. Forget your human conceits: the question is entirely metaphoric. I have heard a 200-year old cedar fall, split by storms, and it cares little whether humans are present to hear its freight-train death. The trees predate the whites, predate the Native Americans. They were here long before naked apes clambered among their branches and saw the rock-strewn coast, and they’ll be here when we’re dust and our cities are tangles of huckleberry and Doug Fir.

A friend of mine grew up in the desert. He has a sharp and clearly defined personality. But it seems that living here, one takes on a sense that everything is imbued with a deep sense of mystery and continuous change. That the world can’t be entirely understood, and that we’re but guests. I once went for a solo hike in the woods and realized I’d lost my way, the trail somehow obscured by madrone and bracken ferns. For a moment, I felt the most perfect panic, knowing that the gorgeous scenery held no solace and was entirely indifferent to my plight, and that if I didn’t find my way to the trail before nightfall, I would be but another animal swallowed by immense darkness. I sat and cried when I rediscovered the trailhead and never forgot how vulnerable I’d been.

In the Northwest, one realizes that nature is completely immune to your suffering. You are just one facet of its splendor and, ultimately, fodder for its ongoing survival.


Note: The photography above is mine. It shows the Illinois River in Southern Oregon, on the gateway to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

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