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
Petroglyphs Lake, Fourth year of drought, Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge
Alkali Butte area in vicinity of Mary Harris' gravesite, Meek's Cutoff, Oregon Trail
Sunrise, Warner Basin, Southeastern Oregon