The fires still burn, but the solid curtain of toxic smoke begins to fold pleat-by-pleat. Lightning and thunder cracked the shell, and rain-O-sweet-blessed-rain fell a bucket full. The smoke ebbs and flows, from yellow to orange, but not the deep purple of last week. The water bucket is still out on the hill for the wild things, but they have gone their own way, braver than me.
Each month of this astounding year taught a new acronym-filled vocabulary of disaster:
AQI= Air Quality Index
Viral Load= Distance x Duration + Density
BLM= Black Lives Matter AND Bureau of Land Management
Equinox arrives tomorrow morning when the sun moves into the constellation of Libra, the sign of the scales symbolizing justice and balance, when days and nights equalize for a trace moment of exhalation. Then we fall. How hard is the question. There will be neither justice nor balance this season. It’s still the Year of the Rat and though we gnawed off the paw, we are still caught in the trap. There’s a hitch in my left hip from curling downward, especially at night, hugging my knees and straining for rain to fall from the eaves.
Mercy and I went out to the river so she could finally swim after two weeks, picked the ripe feral figs along the way. We fell into polite, socially-distanced step with a young woman and Otter, her red heeler . He hasn’t been the same since the fires, she said. And I nodded. Sing goddamn.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Half the water is gone from the bucket when I check it this morning, but there’s less ash than the day before.
They come at night, creep up from the dry shaggy woods in the dark to drink. I dump the water and carry the bucket back to the house and rinse it out. I refill it with as much water as I can carry without slopping out most of it walking back to the hill where the deer trail opens from the withered bramble. With the fire so close, the wild creatures are fleeing the forest and moving down toward town. 150,000 acres of wildfire burn a few miles to the east-northeast, ash flurries sift down. I wear my best mask, pull my hat down low.
The West is on fire.
The red flag warning for strong dry easterly winds was issued over the weekend. Labor Day skies dawned clear and blue with the coppery mellow light of early autumn, a crackle of birch leaves skittering across the drive. By evening smoke enveloped the valley in a sickly thick fog. Hard winds swirled up born of the high pressure and heat in the heart of the state and dropped trees and power lines. Power lines sparked fires in the parched forests.
Evacuation alerts for the eastern county into the Cascades woke us in the night. The fire jumped the river and consumed homes and towns along the watershed, fire burned down river insatiable. Rainbow trout, summer steelhead, and Chinook salmon hatchlings were released downstream from Leaburg moments before the fire overtook the hatchery. It’s too soon to know what is lost, but it is incalculable. The fires are still burning.
“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…,those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”
The corner of the top deck leads south-southwest, a prow of an old sailing ship leaning into harbor. I drink morning coffee under the awning, even in the winter, even with my down coat zipped and a slippery mug gripped by fingerless gloves. Unless there is typhoon, when even the crows and jays are grounded, and instead I pace at the window.
Barefoot on soft cotton July mornings, the plants that wintered the darkness flower and tiny seeds planted in April now sprout fruit. A chorus of black-eyed susans lean and nod as I tell them secrets learned during the night. Outside the kitchen door are pots of dill, parsley, tarragon, thyme, mint, and oregano. Rosemary is wild and refuses to be bound. She grows in the ground, tosses her hair against typhoon.
In March there was nothing but bones.
Perhaps we are only the reflected magic of what we cultivate, a passing breath blown on a silver mirror. Cross Quarter Day comes, a reef to bank and tack against, halfway between solstice and equinox, the feast of first fruits. In other years there would be fairs, music and contests, and young couples hand-fasting, but not this year. This year we offer up the grain on a solitary alter after Lugh of the long hand.
Days grow shorter. Light leaks away more spilling sand.
“This harmful road into the New World, quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it–the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores–was never visible, in which an end had no meaning.”
–Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America
Barry Lopez lives upriver, below Sahalie and Koosah, close by the landing at Finn Rock. I believed it was mine, this river; these were my own moss ferned trails down to rock and rapid. I read Lopez’s River Notes.
Each spring I ranged over stone deltas along the river channels to study the flow, after winter floods remapped the current, before wading into the water and letting snow melt wash me down stream. The black dogs walked up river beside me and then floated along behind, waves of August bleaching the bend where we would land.
I was young and proud in presumptive possession, but long years teach, even if one does not learn: I belong to the river, bearing the same nativity as heron or trout, not the other way around.
A green university town, emptied of students in March, ordered under curfew two nights, a text alert announcing the second restriction was delivered eight minutes after it was already being enforced. Windows broken in Starbucks; fires set.
Traffic stopped Sunday over the Ferry Street Bridge, made way for crowds marching north to the river front park, mostly masked and carrying signs, a young woman riding her small gait horse bareback, so many people so close together after so many weeks, panting for breath.
“We would have to memorize and remember the land, walk it, eat from its soils and from the animals that ate its plants. We would have to know its winds, inhale its airs, observe the sequence of its flowers in the spring and the range of its birds…To be intimate with the land like this is to enclose it in the same universe we occupy, to include it in the meaning of the word community.”
Craving early bitter greens, pea shoots and breakfast radishes, roots and leaves, first spears of mint and feathered dill fronds, thick red rhubarb stalks sliced and simmered in cinnamon, mossy handfuls of parsley, spinach and early arugula, of earth, from earth.
Recite the alphabet, a silent sing-song recitation, roll hands one over sudsy other, digits and thumb, up the wrist, rinsing and turning. Zed. Omega. I try it backwards. At night, when the doors are locked and the shades drawn, I rub ointment into my knuckles.
Water makes small choices; a pebble might turn a flood.
Raccoons wash their food, roll muddy tubers and tuna fish sandwiches one paw over the other down on rocks next to the stream. They dip digits in a can of stolen shortening and gobble handfuls of greasy fat, sneak into the house through the cat door and look for crackers in the cupboard, a time after Rogue died and before Mercy was whelped.
I faced a raccoon nearly as big as the dogs, spit-sapping shock at the size of it, looking for a weapon without shifting focus away, settling for the broom at hand. It came in June to pluck ripe strawberries along with the crowns. I let it.
A group of raccoons is called a gaze. After dusk one summer night, a gaze in the neighbor’s backyard killed their cat while they stood at the door and flicked the porch lights on and off and, stamping wailing thrashing, watched.
Hail comes to hammer the gutters, applause of thunder, rivulets run down the roof of the shed and pool in the strawberry bed.
One red tulip cup opens in the front garden, not yet plucked by a wandering doe, a bright cup between gray lavender and dusty sage. Tree pollen billows and blows in rafts.
The full moon brought clear skies and warm afternoons, breezes to loft the gold dust away across the hill. A bright copper penny placed in the bottom of a vase will keep tulips stems upright rather than dropping their heads. An old woman told me that once long ago, repeated her instructions and stressed, as she looked up into my eyes, that it must be a bright penny.
A penny for your thoughts.
Wealth untold in this little hill that is my home: a wood, a bramble patch, an onion bed, four pots of geranium overwintered on the top deck, a bay laurel, countless rosemary cuttings grown from two mother shrubs, birch and maple saplings salvaged from the garden and potted for some unknown reason save I couldn’t bear to pull them up and toss them on the heap. I have windows and wind. The dog chases sticks and tennis balls in the morning and we patrol a patch of wild grass and woods.
I wonder at the fortitude of my friend in Manhattan without so much as a balcony; she lives alone and hasn’t left her apartment in nearly five weeks. How does one live without sky?
All those living in cities without seeing the sky for the smother of human hurry, and now skies above Delhi and Los Angeles are blue and clear, though a bright penny is paid as price. Fin whales were seen close off the coast of Marseille. My grandfather worked a tug boat there during the war, salt water somewhere under the oil and blood. Clever monkeys.
Mercy and I go out to the river and watch, proxy hunting ground squirrels, nutria, and pheasant, for a hunting dog must hunt. During the first rainy weeks of what-comes-next, we owned it all, strangely alone along the river paths, in the endless acres of park.
Yesterday, we went down to the canal beside the Japanese garden, skirting a generous margin away from three young women practicing hoops under the blooming cherry tree. They came over the rise to watch Mercy swim and laughed when the dog ran to greet them. She showered water when she shook herself and tried to pry away a pretty hoop, but then dashed back past me on the bank and into the water, showing off.
The trio were singing when they left to cross the footbridge, spinning their streamered hoops and waving, When they disappeared into the trees on the farther bank, I could still hear their voices.
The greenhouse is open and swept, most combs the paper wasps crafted knocked down. A collection of seed packets is stacked on the shelf. It’s still too cold to start tomatoes because the only heat is solar, but soon. The sun is marching north. Take a breath. Take another.
Here are radish, chard, kale, carrots, some seeds so small that breath will scatter them. Three packets of sugar pea pods, the heirloom variety, fourth generation nasturtium seeds gathered and dried in autumn all sleeping and waiting for this.
It must be getting early, clocks are running late Paint-by-number morning sky looks so phony Dawn is breaking everywhere, light a candle, curse the glare Draw the curtains, I don’t care ’cause it’s alright
The moon waxes in the sign of the Bull, the place of earth. Lettuce roots are shallow and salad might be grown in a dish, plucking outer leaves every night for supper, until days grow too hot and the plant bolts to seed. Soak the peas.
I see you’ve got your list out, say your piece and get out Guess I get the gist of it, but it’s alright Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
Four yards of mint compost delivered last week and dumped under the birch tree. Oregon grows one-third of US peppermint. After the mint oil is extracted, the cooked vegetation is spun further into a fine compost. The heap steams from the center, each shovelful releasing shimmers of heat. Pollen from the birch blows gold away as gray clouds gather.
I know the rent is in arrears, the dog has not been fed in years It’s even worse than it appears, but it’s alright Cow is giving kerosene, kid can’t read at seventeen The words he knows are all obscene, but it’s alright
Artichokes, woody herbs such as oregano and rosemary and alliums grow outside the fence. In a hard winter, late spring, the deer will try to eat the chokes and even the green tips of sprouting garlic, but usually they move on as the season softens. Last year there was a late snowstorm and deer pulled up onions as they ripped at the greens. I pushed them back into the dirt. Deer are so destructive to gardens because they cannot bite, they tear with side teeth.
The shoe is on the hand it fits, there’s really nothing much to it Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s alright Oh well, a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway And that was all I had to say and it’s alright
Mercy watches me pitch compost into the onion bed and her tennis ball rolls down the hill. In the dark of the moon, I push the shallot sets down under the black dirt. How old is Asher, our young downhill neighbor? I try to remember, but figure he’s between 13 and 14 now, born at home in the beforetime. He has books from the library about gardening and wants to learn, but doesn’t know how to handle a spade.
I find an overturned two-gallon black plastic pot and sweep out the leaves and webs. Asher shovels compost into the pot and mixes in vermiculite from the bag I bring out from the greenhouse. He watches the heap of compost steam.
“Is it cold?” he asks.
Asher presses a palm down over the impression he shoveled out.
I nod as he uses his bare hands to mix the dirt and glittering minerals together in the pot. I tap out pea seeds and radish, show him how to read the back of a seed packet. Give them dirt, light, and water and get out of the way, I advise. Nothing will stop them.
Italicized lyrics lifted from Grateful Dead tune “Touch of Grey,” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
Ships wait at anchor, just as once they stood offshore from Venice during the Black Death, the Plague, the Pestilence. Venetians waiting for the crew to finally die and the diseased ship be burnt to the waterline, or live and revel in release by the Doge, trade their cargo of spices and silk, laugh at night in the wine house and raise the full ruby goblet while sharing wondrous tales from the East.
Forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted.
Make bread out of stones, to feed unbelievers with miracle; jump from a pinnacle and fall into mystery in the arms of angels; worship the Prince of this World in return for authority over all kingdoms, the Grand Inquisitor contends. This is all humanity desires: miracle, mystery, and authority, not the scourge and starvation of freedom. The prisoner remains silent, yet is set free with a kiss.