We made our three-hundred-and-sixty-third, and final, monthly land payment just a few weeks ago. Well, actually, I puttered about in the kitchen while my sagacious wife, Diane, wrote out the check and addressed the envelope. It was a good feeling to know that after thirty years and three months—a full third of a century—the old shack by the railroad tracks and two acres of serpentine soil was wholly ours. Seeing her sitting there at the dining-room table two thoughts occurred to me nearly at the same moment.
“Sine qua non,” I thought first, “Without whom nothing.” We never could have made it through the past thirty-eight years without each other. And then, sudden-like, a shotgun-toting TV hillbilly appeared in my imagination. I looked at my dearest, frowned at her, and in my best pseudo-Ozarkian accent deadpanned an old movie cliché, “This here’s Heilman land mister.” It worked; she smiled.
I’d had my doubts about the place when I first saw it. It seemed too exposed, too small, too thick with yellow star thistle and poison oak. But then, at one time the landscape of Oregon seemed downright creepy to me. In the spring of 1970, about a week after the Kent State University shootings, I passed through the state after living in northern New Mexico for several months. Being accustomed to walking through the austere open high-desert country, this tall and green land felt threatening, closed-in, a dark and dampish place where things rot and decay. The desert’s scattered and small plants had seemed beautiful, little individual protests against an arid death, heroic somehow in their struggle to survive. Here in western Oregon I saw a tangled forest feast of living things busily devouring the dead and each other. It just didn’t seem right—the vegetation was predatory.
I couldn’t escape the feeling that this overly verdant land might eat me too and hide my skinny young corpse beneath a dimly lit blanket of green oxalis and red duff. It seemed a frightening thought back then, even though, at age eighteen, I felt sure that I would live forever. Now, with the passage of time, the notion of lying beneath blankets of hardwood leaves and evergreen needles forever comforts me.
Diane and I went to a housewarming the other day. Shannon’s place up at the north end of the county has been in her family since the 1840s and the event celebrated the renovation of the newer of the property‘s two houses, this one a mere 120 or so years old. She and Daniel had done a wonderful job but it was a hot day and a crowded house and I took my sweetheart for a short cool walk down to “The Old Place” built in the mid-1850s, back in the pre-Civil War Oregon Territory times.
There is a certain sort of beauty to old homesteads, one that accrues over the long years of human habitation. After the early mistakes have been corrected and generations have added to their comfort and shaped the landscape to fit their ways, the place itself matures, though slowly, much more slowly than the shorter lives of those who shape it. With maturity comes real character, for the older it gets and the longer that people live there, the more it becomes distinctly itself.
By contrast our own wholly owned piece of Oregon has barely begun to adjust to the land and to time. We live in a 1968 Nashua trailer, already dangerously obsolete by any building code standards and probably a good ten years past what anyone expected of its planned lifespan. It is the modern equivalent of a sod homestead shack of the sort that used to house my grandparents, a temporary solution to the need for a roof over our heads, run-down now and not much longer for this world. The trailer was moved here to this hillside in 1972, onto a thin marginal strip of ground wedged between the county road and the railroad tracks. I hope that the next house will fit our needs and the needs of the land better than the old one. After three decades here on the place I know that I understand this place more fully and I hope that time has given me the insightful wisdom to do better.
The phone rang the other night and the caller turned out to be a pollster, mispronouncing my surname and eager for answers to the questions of the day.
“Do you think that Oregon is heading in the right direction?” he asked first without so much as a neighborly “How do you do?”
I couldn’t come up with an honest answer because a sudden swarm of impertinent questions hovered about me. “Heading” somewhere? The whole state of Oregon is going someplace? Why wasn’t I told about it? Come to think of it, I had heard that it was heading due east at about 500 miles-per-hour along with everything else at this latitude. Then there’s the other direction, westward with the drifting continental plates. And then, given the erosion rate, it is true that this entire county is heading downriver to Reedsport. And none of these physical movements are of much concern to me.
Of course, I knew that he was talking metaphorically, as if the passage of time in Oregon and the occurrence of social and political changes here were aspects of an actual journey, which it clearly is not. But if it were, well, what then? Some things Oregonian seem to me to be going quite well, others not so well. It was all much too complicated. What could I honestly say? I had reached a state of mental overload in a matter of seconds.
“Dude,” I pointed out, “you went and skipped a step—you never asked me whether I want to answer your questions or not.”
“Oh… Well, then, would you be willing to take part in the survey?”
This second question was much easier to answer honestly, “No, not really.”
I’m not sure what people mean when they say “Oregon.” It seems simple enough–a geographical designation for a part of the earth and for the 150-year-old political entity spoken of in quaintly ornate rhetoric as “The Great State of Oregon”—but I can’t really bring myself to care much about either of those. I suppose that, like myself, when most Oregonians say “Oregon” what they mostly mean is “my home.”
People cannot love abstractions (though they may be fond of speaking in them). Even what isn’t abstract but is merely remote cannot be as effectively loved as what is near. There is a sort of geographical hierarchy of affection which is natural to all humans. I can not, for example, honestly say that I love Delaware, a place I’ve never been to and which I have never desired to visit—yet one to which I have very real historic, economic, political, cultural and other societal ties. Love—the act itself rather than the associated emotion—requires personal engagement. At best I can include the “Great State of Delaware” within a generalized patriotism that embraces the nation itself.
Of course, whenever I return across the state line back into my Oregon I feel a sense of relief and a contentment that I can only feel here. But then, I feel it again, only stronger, when I enter Douglas County and see any of my beloved Umpqua River valleys and strongest yet when I turn down my own driveway. Within me my allegiances lie in layers like a set of those Russian nesting-dolls: my little bit of land enclosed by Orchard Valley which contains it; the valley contained within the county; the county within the state; the state within the nation; and on out toward the world itself.
Oregon has reached the venerable age of 150 years and we have lived on our place for 30 years. What is it that we celebrate when we commemorate an anniversary if not some large or small triumph over entropy, chaos, and death? The mere passage of time is not something worthy of celebration. In itself it is only inevitable and unremarkable. We are happy because we continue to exist in spite of all the things that could have destroyed what we love—each other and our place here. So many things can pull apart a state, a society, a marriage, and a family that we feel lucky to have survived.
Death is our constant companion, sitting patiently by us all of our lives, teaching us to appreciate life and each other, bringing us to understand the roots of compassion. In the end, each of us must die. Someday, all that we have worked for will be lost and forgotten. Someday this Oregon we’ve loved so carefully for a century and a half now will no longer exist. This is what makes it worthy of our affection, that it, like us, is transient, and our triumph only temporary.
Appreciating our luck is a part of this urge to celebrate, but only a part. We also celebrate the necessary good work without which there would be no surviving. Skillful work, attentive work, informed work, lovingly done work: these are essential aspects of both a well-lived life and of a truly viable culture. It is not through the great enterprises nor as a mass that we do good in the world but by individual small, immediate, and informed acts. At heart, it is caring that keeps an individual sane and that keeps a family intact and a society from collapse. What is a well-run state if not a place where people can and do care about each other and about their land?
People, it seems, are overwhelmingly decent—otherwise there would be no continuation of life. It is the fact of continuing survival that gives us hope. For many years I have been fond of telling people that I’m always optimistic in the long run and pessimistic in the short run. Everything always seems to be heading straight off to Hell in a handcart when looked at on a day-to-day basis.
Democracy, like marriage, is often a messy, uncomfortable, and doubtful way to manage things. But, looked at over the long haul, it somehow works out to be a very good thing for most people. We learn, over time, to be more decent in our treatment of each other. Oregon’s 1859 constitution provided for whipping black Americans for the crime of residing within the state for longer than two years and also denied all women the right to vote. We learn how to do things better, and that is cultural change, from which political change follows.
Our road is old—older than both of us put together—though not as old as the hillside it crosses. We walk, two aging lovers who are friends, two Golden Retrievers who are sisters and, trailing behind, a half-Siamese kitten who adores the dogs. We walk through tunnels of bright early fall leaves, yellow big-leaf maple and now-golden oaks and below them, the bright red of poison oak back lit by the glow of late afternoon sunlight.
As we walk it occurs to me that I can no longer walk this road without being in sight of some place or another to which we’ve attached stories: here we found a kitten, there a naked midnight hitchhiker stood, and beyond that the slope where our errant cow was wandering, the places where various teenagers have driven over the bank, old landslides, and the fallen trunks of once-tall trees. Overlaid on the road of today is another, a road of memories, of old desires, of triumphs and tragedies and both roads stretch on. We walk, hand-in-hand not just through space but through time as well and, once in a great while, we pause to consider just how unlikely we are.
History: Oregon Quarterly, Spring 2009, Eugene OR