Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Toads Singing Unexpected Songs

Petroghlyph Lake, Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Southeastern Oregon

If you’re ever on a jaunt in Southeastern Oregon and driving down Highway 20, stop in for gas and a Hampton Burger at the Hampton store. The store is located along an ancient trade route that the People used to travel to reach Celilo Falls, where they would meet in truce to socialize and to trade with the coastal and river peoples, salmon for obsidian, seashells for slaves. That community, at Celilo Falls, has been there for ten thousand years, and is the oldest known site continuously inhabited by human beings on the North American continent. Hampton Store, for its part, is just a little north of Glass Butte, which has been one of the main sources of trade obsidian for the People throughout the region from time immemorial, and for that reason alone it’s worth you’re while to grab a Hampton Burger on your way through. The burger, if not immemorial, is big and relatively cheap, and the gas, if the owner happens to have five gallons that day to sell you, is your last chance until you reach Riley, forty miles further east down the desert road.
            You’ll know you’re in Riley as soon as you’re able to read the homemade sign that says “Whoa you missed Riley!” Like Hampton, it’s another one-store town, and probably has good burgers, too. But Riley, unlike Hampton, was in the national news recently by virtually the only way a desert town like Riley ever makes the national news, by archeologists who have unearthed an interesting thing. At an excavation site nearby called Rimrock Draw Rock Shelter a scraper was found, under a layer of ash from an eruption of Mt. St. Helens that occurred almost 16,000 years ago, long before the Clovis people supposedly graced the North American continent with the human species. These archeologists have yet to go through the meticulous and critical peer-review process that Science rightfully hangs its hat on, but they plan to, and in the meantime Logic, a softer branch of science not necessarily limited to peer-review, opines that since the scraper was underneath the 16,000-year-old ash, there’s a good chance that it’s older.
            Scientific knowledge is, by definition, incomplete and will always remain so. At one point Science tells us that humans have been on the continent a mere 13,000 years despite what the First People say about their having been here forever. Then it tells us, no, make that 16,000 years, or maybe 20,000 or 50,000, but not forever. And so on, which is the necessary, peer-reviewed language of Science. This makes it a poor substitute for Earth Wisdom, but it’s the only one we have for jumpstarting ourselves down the path toward the kind of knowledge we so desperately seek and need right now, the kind of wisdom that’s taken so for granted by those who have known and understood it by virtue of the simple fact that they and theirs had been around these parts long enough to hear it, to know it, and to understand it.  
But as our Science wends its way with us in tow, I think I see it heading toward a slow and reluctant intersection with that Earth Wisdom that will tell us, Indeed! Coyote did it, or something else equally un-peer-reviewable, and by the time it gets to that inevitable point it will be called something other than Science, and we are going to have to deal with its new name, which in our contemporary parlance may end up being called Humility, and that’s going to be hard, very hard indeed.
It’s not a contradiction, though. Rather, the realization that this intersection is about to occur is nothing if not a perfect opportunity for us to critically measure a few delusions we suffer under in these times, the trite and dreary songs we hear repeated so much these days, of how we should either deny outright the mess we’ve made or, equally obnoxious, of how we can mentally twist or geo-engineer our way out of the consequences we have created for ourselves and our world. In a modern sense, this intersection is counter-intuitive, seditious if you are one of those who lean toward the ever-trendy fascist persuasions we seem to inflict ourselves with such sickening regularity, but there it is. I’ll try to explain.
            The Blitzen River drains the backside of Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon, which is the magnificent mountain for those of us who love mountains. It’s forty miles long and rises in sheer drama over a mile above the Alvord Desert, one of the driest places in America. The small river, as well as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge which it flows into, owes its riparian existence to the snowmelt coming from the high country off of this one, single mountain, and that is phenomenon enough. But go ten vertical feet above the surface of the river’s riffles and you’re back in the desert, and it was here I heard a toad high up in the dry, basalt talus that defines the river’s desert canyon when I camped along it last week. It seemed unusual, to hear a water-prone animal in such a place. But more unusual still was her voice, modulated in cadence and tone unlike the monotonous chirpings we tend to expect from toads, as though she were literally singing to the mountain behind her. I was sure that, contrary to the majority of life forms we share the Earth with whom we know nothing about, most animals who insist on being so vocal have been tagged with a genus and species by now, and that this toad probably had one of each. I knew that there were those who could identify her just from her voice and even say a few more interesting things about her. I could even climb up the talus myself and make the intrusive identification. But I satisfied myself with standing still and listening until I heard another toad answering from the river, also singing, and this was a cause for wonder, not just at what I imagined they might be saying but at those new-baked academics among us who would respond to Global Warming by claiming that we modern humans know enough about the Earth now to not only understand what this toad is singing, but to “manage” her in a garden of our own purpose. Not to worry, they say. It's all good.
Ironically, Steens Mountain is named after the Army major who chased the Paiutes— those who probably could tell us exactly what our toads were singing—off the mountain. But that’s just irony. The point is, the toads are still there, singing to the mountain which has been there long enough to understand.
             This experience repeated itself in reverse when I got back to town after my camping trip. The milk I'd left in my refrigerator had “gone cultural”, which in this case meant that the various microorganisms, some of which scientists have labeled as such and some of which they hadn’t, had matured. It was the consistency of cottage cheese, and after my jaunt through the drama that is the naked geology of Southeastern Oregon (no trees to get in the way of your geology) I thought this milk smelled unique, unlike anything I’ve ever quite smelled before in my many decades of experimentation, and I found it interesting. But at the same time I knew that action was needed if I were to have my morning coffee the way I wanted it, and so I went shopping. When I got to the checkout area I was presented with a choice: interaction with a real human being, who had a waiting line, or with a checkout machine, who didn’t. Being caffeine-deprived and therefore impatient, I chose the latter, and as the mechanical woman’s voice thanked me ever so much in her modulated tone programmed to sound like...a singing toad!...I received that dystopian jolt we all experience from time to time no matter how much we deny its existence, the realization that we have not only successfully trained ourselves off of the toad’s song but that we are allowing those who think only in one-and-two-dimensional terms to use infernal, ubiquitous, even automated insults--with our active acquiescence, mind you--to train us off of ourselves. I was sorry, for the toads at least, because of the question this all presumes. If there’s none among us who are at the stage of Earth Wisdom where they can say with any measure of accuracy what it is that talus-bound toad has been singing to the Mountain for a million years, and if Science can't get us there--which it can't--then who among us can presume to claim we know enough not to be humble, and to therefore not leave the toad's world as alone as we possibly can while we meander down our own tedious course of learning to listen?


Poker Jim Wilderness rising above canoe route through the lakes of Warner Basin, Fourth Year of Drought
Southeastern Oregon

 Petroglyphs Lake, Fourth year of drought, Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge

Petroglyph Lake

Alkali Butte area in vicinity of Mary Harris' gravesite, Meek's Cutoff, Oregon Trail

Blitzen River, Southeastern Oregon

SunriseWarner Basin, Southeastern Oregon

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Democracy Defined

A note to readers. I'm currently working on a project, labeled "What's Bigger Than the Land" on this website. In regards to that effort, which has been taking up all of my writing time lately, I wish to credit the Brandborg family, the Matthew Hansen Endowment for Wilderness Studies Fund and the Montana Community Fund for their generous help and infinite patience with this unique Wilderness History project.

Hamilton, Montana

January 16th, 2015

Stewart Brandborg and I were watching six mule deer bucks making their way west along the ditch bank behind his house. It was sunset, and they were about thirty yards away, a good view, their forked antlers swaying like tree branches in a wind as they looked up to the noise of a car passing on the county road or simply to see what their buddies were eating. They moved slowly, unhurried. At leisure, which is what we were at, too, watching them as we were from out of Brandy’s big picture window in the living room next to a crackling fire in the woodstove.
            “Can you see them all yet?” he asked loudly.
            “Not yet,” I told him. “There’s still some behind that stand of willow.”
            “That’s not willow,” he informed me. “That’s chokecherry.”
            “They’re still there,” I corrected myself, “behind the chokecherry.”
            Brandy, who turns ninety this Groundhog Day, is mostly confined to a motorized wheelchair now, one of those all-terrain-vehicle kind of things with the joystick control mounted on the armrest at his fingertips, and he’s good at it. He’ll go outside to the woodpile, get a lapful of bullpine rounds and kindling, come back in and make up a roaring fire in a matter of minutes. In fact, like all people who have lived lives where expert fire making skills were occasionally required as a matter of survival, he’s possessive about his ability to make his own fire. He generally won’t let me help him.
Since his wife, AnnaVee, had passed away a little over a year ago, the family has hired regular help for him in the mornings until about mid-afternoon each day. They’re local women who, like everyone else who enters his house more than a couple times, are now his close friends. They cook breakfast, lunch, run errands and clean the house. Then they leave a dinner on the stove for later, because Brandy, who is turning ninety this Groundhog’s Day, still lives alone in his and AnnaVee’s house, wheelchair be damned. Why shouldn’t he?

            “There they are!” I said. “They’re up on the bank now.” Brandy rose out of his chair, chuckling.
            “Can you count ‘em?”
            “Yep. There’s six, like I said before. At least two of ‘em are four-points. Huge!”
            “There were seven here this morning. Are you sure there’s only six?”
            “Yep. I saw ‘em crossing the road when I was coming in and counted ‘em then, too. They haven’t multiplied any, I guess.”
            Brandy’s house sat on the outer skirts of what now can fairly be termed the Hamilton suburbs, which means that there are lots of newer houses mixed in with lots of rural deer habitat, and it was still open archery season, not to mention the traffic. “Wonder what happened to the other one,” he mused.
            “I don’t know,” I said, and we both watched silently as maybe twenty antler tines that seemed to reach a full two feet above the buttons on the tops of their skulls raked the Bitterroot skyline, a view from Brandy’s window framing every Bitterroot drainage and peak north, from Blodgett to Lolo and far beyond, all the way to Canada if you had enough imagination, which Brandy did.
            “One of the many benefits of livin’ in the Bitterroot,” Brandy said matter-of factly as though these sorts of quiet dramas offered themselves up every day to a discriminating eye, which as often as not they did.  
            “They’re a lot bigger than whitetail, aren’t they?” I observed after a bit. “Maybe half again as big, don’t you think?” I was a hunter myself, and had developed a self-serving interest in being able to size up big animals, and like almost every other hunter I knew I fancied myself pretty good at it.
            Brandy sat back down at this, dialed his joystick toward me and wheeled a little closer, leaned over and in a confidential tone that was almost a whisper said, “Y’know, that’s a common misconception. When we did the surveys at our checkpoints they weighed in about the same by the hundred.” 
            There you go, I thought, and it doesn’t take long to be reminded, in case I forgot, that Stewart M. Brandborg was one of a vanishing breed, of pre-eminent 20th Century conservationists who, for all their decades spent in Washington D.C. fighting and winning the watershed environmental laws that would define their era and ours, they remained old hands of the mountains, their perpetual students and admirers, and they never quit. I was, in other words, reminded that I was sitting next to a master.  

                    One time, for instance, when he was a young boy, Charlie Engbretzon took him up to Nez Perce Pass to dig up some “Indian graves” that were located along the Ni Mii Puu trail[i] near its junction with the road. Charlie was one of his father’s supervisors down on Deep Creek when they were punching the first road up into the upper Selway country, roadless and wild back then, and still is today partly because of this ill-conceived desecration expedition, as I’ll try to explain.
The trail had been located across the pass forever. It followed the ridges between the Nez Perce homeland to the west, in the Clearwater country, and the buffalo hunting grounds to the east, along the westernmost fringes of the northern Great Plains. Native trails in the mountains almost always followed the ridges, because once you got up into the high country, it was more open than the tangled creek bottoms the whites preferred to punch their roads alongside of later. There was less downfall to move out of the way for your stock when you were up high, which made the ridgelines natural highways for the People, who had been moving along them since long before steel axes and crosscuts were available. When axes and saws did come when gold was discovered in Florence, Idaho in the 1860’s, miners and packers cut the trail out a little more. A little later when the Forest Service came along it was trimmed up even more. But it was still the Ni Mii Puu trail and it was still ancient.
Then the Nez Perce Road came along, located over the Bitterroot Mountain Divide at the pass for only a few years, heading up from Nez Perce Creek to the east and down into Deep Creek to the west, to Magruder Ranger Station on Selway River, and it crossed the old Ni Mii Puu trail right in the saddle and when the road came in the graves were close enough to it for knowledge of their existence to become common. To be clear, these graves had long been remembered by the relatives of the ones who had died so long ago between the Clearwater and the buffalo grounds, and their relatives still visit them even to this day.
To further clarify, as an adult Brandy thoroughly recognized it would have been a “horrible desecration” to have dug the graves up. But this was the mid-thirties. Charlie Engbretzon was probably from someplace else originally, and Brandy was only a boy. Back then people took things as they were, which is to say they took them for granted. Most western public lands were wild, and they figured they always would be no matter what they did to them.
Being wild, the rugged Selway country was prone to frequent fires that were hard to catch in time to be in compliance with the Forest Service’s new 10 a.m. rule, which mandated that a smoke had to be extinguished by 10 a.m. the morning after its discovery by a fire lookout before it got out of hand and became a forest conflagration. The Forest Service was as young as a boy eligible for the draft back in the Thirties, and the idea of putting out forest fires for the sake of timber was also new. But the rule was the new Law of the Land, which in those days meant that a fire lookout—another new idea--his horse and a pack mule must navigate the forest trails such as they existed to the site of the smoke and then chop, saw and dig with hand tools until the smoke was either out or until the lookout and his stock were exhausted in the attempt to make it so. The Rule, in other words, begged for roads, which were, ironically, seen as progressive forest management tools at the time.
When the Depression hit, FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which roughly coincided with Brandy’s dad, Guy Brandborg, being transferred to the Bitterroot National Forest as its new, progressive-minded supervisor. “The C.C.C.”, Brandy recalls, “brought in hundreds of men…into camps where the army handled the physical facilities, ran the camps, brought in these young men from the impoverished states of the east, West Virginia, Ohio, many of whom had lived all their lives in poverty, a significant number had never worn shoes.” The Regional Office saw its chance for its roads, and tasked Guy Brandborg, one of the most progressive foresters of that early era, with ramrodding the Nez Perce road down the Selway River from Magruder north to Paradise Guard Station. Then it was to follow the wild Selway down to Moose Creek Ranger Station, then out to Selway Falls where it would connect to the Kooskia road and on to Lewiston and everywhere else including Rome, because once you start building roads, they don’t lead anywhere else but there. Guy Brandborg’s father—Stewart’s grandfather--had run for Governor of Minnesota on the Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1910, so he was a forester from Gifford Pinchot’s stamp and an old-time progressive besides. But this road, if World War Two hadn’t put a stop to it, would have sliced the largest contiguous wildlands left in the lower Forty-eight right in half, ripening it up for the big logging interests, who have generally been anathema to progressives of any era, waiting to sink its teeth into the wild country's juicy virgin forests.
Guy didn’t flinch from the roading task, which seemed progressive enough for the times, putting impoverished men to work and all. Only a few could foresee any negative results for the land then, Guy, in fact, being one of them. But being his father’s son, at the same time he saw his chance, too. He wasn’t going to let a bunch of boys who’d never worn shoes before get away without a little education. So he took all those greenhorns and had them sit down for a few days, for maybe what was the Forest Service’s first “in-house” training sessions for seasonal workers. He’d go over all the mundane things like safety and basic firefighting skills that, combined with the evolution of excruciatingly-dull government training movies, would put later generations of seasonal workers to sleep in the upright position--literally. But he would also teach them history and a little social science and other things that some appreciated. “You find many people back in the Bitterroot Valley,” Brandy tells me. “Who have reunions, cite the wonderful experience and what a difference it made in their lives.” But many of the young men couldn’t see how history and social studies would help them figure out a bulldozer, which was what they were really itching to get on top of. The bulldozer, after all, was the up-and-coming thing, replacing the Fresno Scraper and the mule that the C.C.C. crews were still using on the Going-to-The-Sun Road up in Glacier Park, and that was what a lot of the guys wanted, not history, which couldn’t keep you busy like one of those cantankerous new bulldozers could. “Always breaking down,” Brandy recalls. “But they’d always find a way to fix them up enough to keep ‘em going”. And before World War Two stopped its progress, the Selway Road had reached all the way up to Paradise Guard Station deep in the wilderness. Things weren’t looking good for the future of wild, sacred country or of old, sacred graves.
During this time Guy often took his young son Stewart along, who would fish for native cutthroat in the summer-placid Deep Creek pools while his dad and the C.C.C. boys would work on the road.
“That was the grandest exercise,” Brandy explained, “in finding these capable seasonal workers who could go into these camps and give guidance to these young fellows in the skills of woodsmanship—trail maintenance, phone line maintenance, operation of equipment.” One of these capable seasonal workers was Charlie Engbretson, “a great mountain man and Forest Service employee who took me under his wing just to build my enthusiasm for everything he could dream up….I think it was when I was eleven I went back and stayed with him at the camp in the Selway. Had my bed in his office and his wife was a few hundred yards away in the summer tent camp where they lived. I ate with the C.C.C. boys. It was down on the road job, we would hunt grouse, we would catch fish. First road going down the Selway.”
Charlie seemed to have the leeway to take him on many adventures, and “always had the new scheme to make things exciting. We were gonna go up and find where these grouse were…I shot this deer and we’d been up this canyon wall of the Selway, little short stream, big cave at the head of this slope and he says ‘y’know, this creek doesn’t have a name. Let’s call it Stewart Creek’. So he had a C.C.C. kids scribe a sign, stuck it up there. By god it got named Stewart creek on the map[ii].”
And then. “One time, we went out to dig up some Indian graves and a hell of a storm, almost tornado conditions, hit the Idaho-Montana line as we were going up the old Nez Perce trail from the pass, from Nez Perce Creek over into Deep Creek. We had a C.C.C. kid along and some wire netting. We were gonna put the (soil) through that for artifacts and we were gonna have a great day diggin’... And this storm hit and it put trees down all around us. So we got off the Divide. There was lightening and wind. We finally got back down to the car, and after sittin’ this storm out for a while, started down the road, ten miles down Deep Creek, or whatever it was to the Deep Creek camp, and it took a few hours because there were so many big trees down on the road. That spooked Charlie. He figured that was an omen. We never mentioned it again.”
Upon reflection, of course, Brandy realizes they were on the verge of doing “terrible damage to the souls that had died”, and that it was the storm that had stopped them from doing it. Charlie and Stewart were true believers after that, and at least with Brandy, this lesson stuck. Maybe that’s because he received it when he was so impressionable, and also because this lesson from the souls bedded down in the mountain was the same one he received from his parents, over and over again, about “the beauty of the mountains and the meadows and the valleys and the crags. Those kinds of things.”
The CCC program stopped as the storm that became a hurricane started over in Euorpe and resources became scarcer. World War Two saved the Selway country from its road leading to Rome, just as a summer mountain storm saved some graves from desecration by the otherwise-well-intentioned. Decades later Brandy would cash in on these early, uncommon experiences by having a pivotal hand in saving the Selway country twice more from desecration—once when the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a seven-hundred- foot dam dubbed “Penny Cliffs” above Kooskia, Idaho in the 1950’s, which would have flooded the whole country along with any road along the wild Selway River that his dad would have punched in if World War Two hadn’t intervened, and once more in the 1970’s when the Forest Service purposely excluded the “Magruder Corridor” from its official wilderness proposal in order to finish the road—safe from flooding now thanks in large part to Stewart Brandborg! --and “get the cut out”.
Given his pivotal role in the passage of the Wilderness Law itself through an always-unholy Congress, you could say he saved it thrice.
            “The imprint of that wonderful life,” Brandy recalls as he explains why he spent so many years in Washington D.C. fighting the Fight. “Of being in the woods was lasting. You don’t get over that.”

[i] Also known as the southern Nez Perce Trail across the Rockies to the Great Plains
[ii] Google “Stewart Creek, Idaho County, Idaho” for its location just below the mouth of White Cap Creek on the Selway River”