Tuesday, October 21, 2014


October, 1983, Florence, Idaho

There is no Florence, Idaho really. Just a network of old ditches through the forest that the Chinese dug by hand with hundred-year-old Doug-firs growing in them now. The Chinese aren’t here anymore. Nobody's here, except us and the Land, which was well on its way toward making a full recovery if we could have just left it alone, which of course we couldn’t.
A chickadee sings its fall song along the fireline where I’m mopping up with a piss pump and a Pulaski and I agree with her. It is a beautiful day, or at least it would be without the smoke. This fire got away. It was supposed to be a controlled burn to clean up the slash from yet another monstrous clearcut hemming in the Gospel Hump Wilderness just a couple miles to the east. But the wind came up at the wrong time and the fire lipped over the original line we’d dug this summer. Now we’ve dug another, a fresh scar of churned dirt through the twinflower and the beargrass that a Chickadee would be naturally curious about. Chickadees don’t scare easy, and they aren’t philosophers, either, as long as there are trees and visibility be damned. They are party animals, they talk a lot, and that's why other birds like to hang out with them. They’re attracted to congenial people while they’re doing woods work, just like us, and if given the choice, they’d rather not talk about depressing things. A savvy nuthatch or warbler can spend a lot less time searching out its own lonely meal and a lot more time following their chickadee friends around from one gregarious insect potluck to the next, learning much from the laughing chatterings of their buddies. Did you know that a chickadee will even change the frequency of its song when ambient noise levels of, say, a bulldozer or a shopping mall, steps on its ability to tell a good joke? Cheer up, cheer-up-today, they say. Tomorrow will be better, and the other birds believe them, and follow them faithfully to the next bugfest. They’re happy like no other bird I know, and I love a chickadee above all other birds.
The sky is blue when the wind shifts, a blue that’s deep enough to allow you to see far past what you're doing, which in my case is the untouched forests of a protected wilderness just a couple ridges over. The drainage within which this clearcut was chopped should have been included within those protected boundaries. It was recovered enough, in my opinion, to merit that much respect, notwithstanding the old ditches, and its inclusion would have gone far in rehabilitating compromised wildlife corridors. But that would have been in a sane world, which of course ours isn’t, so I’m almost perversely glad when the wind shifts the smoke back and I start gagging again. The hemming in of wilderness with monstrous clearcuts is proof that our toxic relationship to landscapes has long been intentional in case one needs such proofs, which I don’t. I can see the malfeasance with my own eyes whenever the smoke clears. But right now I'm trying to focus on my work, and I don't want to see. The key to concentration here is poor visibility. Did the Chinese miners who dug these ditches so far away from home, so long ago, know that?
I squirt some water on a smoke, kick up a little black ash with my shuffling boot and I wonder. These Florence diggings, they precipitated the first gold rush in the Northern Rockies, and were the reason the Nez Perce lost their beloved country, if reasons were needed, which we know they weren’t. Florence boomed for a little while, with thousands of miners escaping the Civil War back east in order to take their chances with the dysentery out West. They surveyed and then christened the Nez Perce’s beloved mountains “Idaho County” and made Florence its county seat. They then proceeded to do their best to turn their spanking new county upside down with the limited tools available to them and, incredibly, they did a pretty good job in only a few short years.
But then the diggings played out, as placer diggings always do, and the miners moved on to the next placer strikes, taking the county seat with them, because these were white miners, and they were leaving Florence to the Chinese who were more inclined to work the diggings for less wages and who, in the departing miners’ opinion, didn’t warrant a county seat. Gold is worth a lot to us, in other words, because we have as hard a time finding it as dealing with it and that Golden Rule is universally applicable. So the diggings played out for the Chinese miners, too. Lacking the reasons of gold or a county seat anymore, they moved on as well. The ditches are what remain of their days here, built for moving the water from where it was to where they needed it to wash the gold they wanted from the dirt they didn’t, and they, too, did an incredible job of turning much of the Land upside down with their mere hands.
Once, in the 1890s, when a road was constructed up the mountains in order to facilitate haul routes, the diggings were tried again. But it didn’t last long, and Florence held on as a tiny forest community for a few more decades until postal service was finally stopped in the early ‘50s, and the remaining buildings were either relocated or burned down. Both scenarios were common among western ghost towns, and I don’t know know where Florence really went. But I do know that the Land sighed when Florence finally disappeared and started its slow rewilding. It’s really as obvious as it is simple. The Land always has its say in the end, with or without us and you can hear her if you’ve got an ear for such things, if you really are interested in a joyful survival. It’s a dependable thing, I think, that we should take under advisement more than we do in these days when dependable things are in such short supply.
Almost dark and I come across Alan, chunking in a slash pile by the road. A brass water nozzle lies in a random spot of bare dirt by his foot and he’s leaning on a shovel. His Forest Service radio squawks fuzzily from his hip in its leather pouch, and he tells me that we are going to spend the night here. I’m gladdened at the news, out of my shuffling reverie in pursuit of subsistence wages, by the thought of more overtime, but more by the certainty Alan’s forest companionship. It's more than just work, now. I sit on a stump and we both breathe in deep, trying to find the good night smells through the smoke. I see his honest face unperturbed, as though he may be dreaming, so I open a can of fruit cocktail out of my C-Rations and offer him a pineapple.
“You like these fires, Alan?” I ask him, and in the last light I see him smile.
“Have you ever taken the ride from Fenn to Slate Creek with Romeo and Juliet and a drunken smokejumper?” he asks back.
“Not yet,” I say.
“Ah,” says Alan. “You see? It’s like beer. You have to acquire a taste for it.” He chunks in the remnants of the slash pile we sit next to, trying to tease up a flame. “You have to wait.”
His face flickers in the reddening dark, and I’m reminded suddenly of a white cloud in the sky this afternoon, a solitary promise against the cerulean uncertainty, and I know that Alan is dreaming for sure. A nighthawk swoops overhead, the chickadees are silent, and metal clanks against rock as our tools fall away and we move closer to the fire.
It’s not something to wonder about really. The chickadees surely laughed at the Chinese miners, too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Foiled Again

Recently-deceased rain forests above Drift Creek just upstream from Drift Creek Wilderness, Central Oregon Coast

Dear Reader,
If you are one of those who have been trying to post comments on this blog, please accept my apologies. I can't seem to post them due to a screw-up in my e-mail. I value your time and thoughts and I do want to stay in touch, even if only in a 19th Century sort of way. I probably need a webpage manager. In the meantime, please try me direct at blacroix@cybernet1.com      Give my regards to the N.S.A. and ask them if they know where I put my favorite ball cap which also seems to have disappeared (might as well get our money's worth out of them). Also just for the record: I'm not making any loans to Nigerian princes or princesses this month. My funding sources dried up for that sort of thing. If you are of that persuasion and stumbled on my blog in your understandable attempts to make ends meet, try the N.S.A.

Seriously, dear readers, my thanks and apologies, and do stay in touch.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thank You, Howard Zahniser

Here's another music video attempt of mine. 

The pictures and documents displayed are from my friend Stewart Brandborg's personal files and records. Brandy took over The Wilderness Society after Howard Zahniser's untimely death in 1964, a few months before Zahnie's eight-year Foggy Bottom slog to get a Wilderness Bill through our ever-unholy Congress was finally realized. It was Brandy's task to implement it against bureaucratic reluctance and intransigence within all the agencies that managed our public lands. The long story is a book that hasn't been written yet (I'm working on it!). For now, though, the short story is this: Brandy's dad (Guy M. Brandborg, pictured on his horse with Zahniser and AnnaVee Brandborg in the video) was a progressive forester from the Gifford Pinchot mold and his grandfather (on his father's side), was what you'd call a socialist back in the early part of the twentieth century when farmer's unions were getting going. Socialism and its progressive cousins are as American as rhubarb pie, just as John-Birch-Society-style "libertarianism" is. Guess which one you can thank for the wilderness law, and for Democracy, too, while you're at it? 

Brandy, as with his whole family, was well-read, well-steeped in social altruism, and a natural believer in Democracy (with a capital "D", not the FoxNews "fair and balanced" kind). With such a rich heritage, Brandy naturally gravitated to Howard Zahniser and his epic campaign to get Congress to pass the singular law that admitted that humility was a good quality for a majority of them to confess they had a little of. After the Law was passed, Brandy pretty much wrote the book on grassroots organizing in the latter part of the twentieth century in order to get it implemented. Other laws, and other grassroots campaigns, followed the trails cut out by the original Wilderness Society organizers. Political hyperventilation from the extractors and their mouthpieces hasn't let up since, of course. It's been mean and incessant for decades, to the point where we can only bear witness to the inscrutable, nasty yet ultimately ephemeral Tea Party phenomenum here in the Rockies. 

The Land, always, prevails. Be on the right side of it. Here's to the start of it all for those of us alive today. Here's to Howard Zahniser, Stewart Brandborg and here's to good ol' Democracy.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Good Grief!

How does one deal with the 21st Century?! I’m not talking about such rabid declines into corporate fascism as peaceful anti-war activists getting put on Hilary Clinton’s thuggish “Be On The Look-out” list (BOLO)[i] while serious Clinton-haters like Bundy’s Army[ii] not only don't get arrested and roughed up but are allowed to continue causing their homegrown brand of armed, terrorist mischief [iii] Maybe I should.
            But not today. Today, I’m upset about my own deficiencies, more specifically about my not being able to figure out these *&^%#$!#! websites and cyber-gizmos and such.
            To point: Several people have commented on my blog without “my” blog informing me. I’ve tried to fix it and, so far, I can’t. To be fair to myself, when I ask for advice from a tech-savvy person, their directions sound something like this to me: “Why it’s simple! Just go to New York City and turn right on 4th Street!”
            But never mind, I'm admitting that this is my problem, and that I’ve let it go on long enough. Therefore, to all of you who are wondering if I exist somewhere other than in the vacuum of cyberspace, here’s my own, personal, unencryptioned email address: blacroix@cybernet1.com .
I know, I know I shouldn’t do this. I’ve just publicly called Hilary Clinton a thug and a hypocrite (and maybe misspelled her name which I refuse to look up!), and look what happened to Ray McGovern for doing less than that. I'll probably get hamfisted now at some airport by one of those people who took advantage of that wonderful T.S.A. government jobs program. For the record, please check out the links below and see if you don’t agree that things are truly whacky, but for God’s sake don’t say it out loud unless you’re a teabaggin’ terrorist who fancies snakey flags while riding a horse and pointing loaded assault weapons at real federal agents! They, apparently, can get away with it. You, if you're the peaceful sort, apparently can't.
      I think we're far past the point of fearing our government...our government or of blithely saying "Oh, all that stuff doesn't effect me. I'm not doing anything wrong." I hate to point out the obvious, but by now rationales like that have allowed us to degenerate to the point where you're probably doing something "wrong" enough to get put on some thuggish list just by reading this.

Once again, to point, all I'm saying' is: 
  • To the N.S.A., Screw you.
  • To my friends and readers, please call.
Whatever you say say nothin'
When you talk about you know what
For if you know who should hear you
You know what you'll get
They'll take you off to you-know where 
For you wouldn't know how long
So for you-know-who's sake 
Don't let anyone hear you singing' this song.

You all know what I'm talking' about
When I talk about you-know-what
And I fear it's very dangerous 
To even mention that
For the other ones are always near
Although you may not see
But if anyone asks who told you that 
Please don't mention me.


You all know who I'm talking' about
When I talk about you-know-who
And you know who could hear me
You know what she'd do
So if you don't see me again
You'll know I've gone away
But if anyone asks you where I've gone
Here's what you must say.


That's enough about so-and-so
After mentioning such-and-such
And I better end my song right now
I've already said too much
For the less you say and the less you hear
The less you'll go astray
And the less you think and the less you do
The more you'll hear them say.

Whatever you say say nothin'
When you talk about you know what
For if you know who should hear you
You know what you'll get
They'll take you off to you-know where 
For you wouldn't know how long
So for you-know-who's sake 
Don't let anyone hear you singing' this song.
                                                         Words and music by Colum Sands, Elm Grove Music

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Bats and Birds, Ebola and the Lungs of the Earth

                                                                                                                                                                                          Watercolor by Daniel LaCroix

I’ve been on the ash-handled end of ecological restoration work for decades. I’ve planted hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of trees and owned and operated a native plants nursery when family obligations kept me closer to home. I kept my hand in the game, saved more than a couple postage-stamp areas of habitat with reclamation techniques that were, in my opinion, the most enlightened for their day. So I feel qualified to share a few thoughts about the 1964 Wilderness Law, Senator Jon Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act”, which releases millions of acres of Montana wild lands for exploitation, and trees.

The most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is already ten times greater in magnitude than any previous outbreak and shows no sign of getting better before it gets a lot worse. Past outbreaks measured human deaths in the teens and hundreds. Large numbers of chimpanzees and gorillas also perished, but they’re hard for us humans to count. So strictly on our terms, which ecological events never are, this outbreak’s count is already in the thousands and climbing daily. One ecological factor strongly linked to Ebola outbreaks is forest disturbance and the resultant fragmentation of its canopy. Deforestation. The unsustainable killing of trees. Sound familiar?

Lyme Disease has a similar ecological amplifier of interest to the only Great Ape on the North American continent—us. As forest habitat is fragmented, like the Tester bill would do, and is otherwise destroyed through gentrification and suburbanization such as we’ve seen occur in the Adirondacks and countless other places, its species diversity declines. Usually that means the predators go first. Mountain lions and wolves, of course, but also the owls and hawks and various other forest creatures who keep the main actor in the burgeoning Lyme Disease drama, the White-footed Mouse, in check. You can have a verdant suburb with as many bushes and trees in your yard as suits your idea of “the country”, green belts nearby with cute little bears carved out of leftover tree stumps. You can be just down the street from a “conserved” patch of forest, two patches, three or even four, and your forest will still be fragmented, compromised, unable to support the rich array of species that it needs to keep such diseases as Lyme in check.

Combine this with another little tidbit of news, just in from the National Audubon Society. It reports that more than half of the 650 species of birds studied in the United States and Canada are at risk from global warming. Again, you can have your bird feeders, with plenty of bushes and non-native trees growing in your yard and in pretty patterns all over the countryside, patterns dictated not by Nature and her requirements but by property owners and theirs. You can have cowbirds and starlings, in other words, or no birds at all. How silly.

Can you imagine a world without birds? Rachel Carson could sixty years ago, when she kick started the era that birthed such political poetry as the Wilderness Law. And yet we continued on our merry way, didn’t we? We should have known better, and yet we have consistently acted as though we didn’t. And now look. So it goes.

Senator Tester’s so-called “Forest and Jobs Recreation Act” is another tragic example of saving a few pieces of wilderness and grinding up the rest for the sake of politics and money, which always fragments the whole and renders any “saved” parts effectively meaningless. Release language within the law opens vast tracts of wild lands to frackers, for instance, who look at trees on top of “their resource” as just the first, relatively minor sacrifice in their quarterly-statement game. That’s enough trees for you, the corporate operatives and their politicians say, and they say it over and over and over again. That’s pretty enough for you. We’ll take the rest.

Senator Tester’s a nice guy in the wrong game, because when energy executives talk about trees, they’re talking about killing them, whole hog, whole forests, no matter what fragments they say they’ll “leave us”, because what’s left are always, always by any ecological definition, fragments and not functional in terms of healthy systems capable of sequestering hardy viruses that will spill over into human populations and become, within an evolutionary blink of an eye, deadly to us and to the balanced ecosystems our lives depend on. 

Here’s a hard-won restoration secret of mine. Politics, by necessity, is the only true restoration project left to us, because trying to save postage-stamp pieces of land one at a time won’t do, and it’s a tremendous amount of work to try at all. My secret to all the siloed-up progressive organizations who, true to our species can’t quite see the forest for the trees, is that the politics that’ll save us has to be the poetic kind, the deep kind, like Howard Zahniser’s Wilderness Law, not the “forest and jobs” kind, which makes a mockery of the beautiful depths Zahniser pioneered for us. Don't be afraid, I think he'd say if he were around today, of holding your breath for a little while.

Here’s another restoration secret. You don’t have to be an infectious disease scientist to understand the connection between trees and our specie’s well-being. We should know better. As we diminish our forests, so we diminish ourselves. So please, do think twice before allowing politicians or energy moguls to convince you that we simply must cut down a few more of our remaining, irreplaceable, intact forests for the sake of jobs or whatever other excuse they’ll wave in front of you like a matador’s cape to make you a more-fearful and compliant actor in their staged eco-tragedies.

We still have large, relatively intact ecosystems in Montana that are not protected, and they are now at risk more than ever, with Tester’s bill, with fracking, with Global Warming and with whatever other human impudence you care to name. We as a species are demonstrably not capable of fully comprehending how much of our remaining intact ecosystems are enough for our children’s children to survive on this planet. We are simply capable of humility, of saying, and meaning, “stop destroying what’s left”.

A tiny bit of Universe in the perfect form of round blue water spins around a giant of fire, over and over again for billions of years while simultaneously supporting life. Notwithstanding the randomness of Nature that our scientists observe and accurately report on, how is a mere human supposed to make sense such things without a little poetry?

So here’s a little poetry, the political kind if you will: Balance is what the Land seeks and Balance is what She will achieve. For the sake of our kids and theirs, let’s strive much harder than we currently are to be a humble and thankful part of a balance that doesn’t necessarily have to include us.

Think Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Think Ebola and Lyme Disease. Think relatively-intact ecosystems and the watershed laws that have successfully, though tenuously, protected them and us up until now.

How about it? Let's evolve.

(Thanks extended to David Quammen and his excellent book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic”, W.W. Norton and Co., 2012)