Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Immigration Blues and Greens

The Gatepost

Magruder Ranger Station
Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Central Idaho
Summer of 2001

Gateposts can be stubborn. But I’ve learned a thing or two about working with impossibly-heavy things with only hand-tools, and one of those things is that nothing is impossible, including gateposts, and the way you do a gatepost is this:

You unbolt the gate from its broken post and then you lay the whole huge thing down on the ground with the new gatepost. Bolt the gate onto the new one. Then you lift the whole heavy thing up by your own buff self so the bottom end of the post slips into the two-foot hole you just dug the old gatepost out of. Then you fiddle around with it until you can latch the gate shut to the opposite post. Find a couple of bracing sticks to temporarily hold the gate still until you pour your cement. Mount your permanent bracing poles back onto the new gatepost and go do something else until the cement dries. After a day or so you come back to see if anybody’s messed with it. If they have then you’re simply screwed. But if they haven’t, you knock the temporary sticks off and the gate will now swing and latch for you admirably, or at least as though it were built that way. Ask anyone who’s inclined toward working with impossibly heavy objects in the backcountry, or any engineer. Working backwards is a reasonable way of dealing with intractable problems and is also a serviceable way of looking at the world in general. God was not an engineer. She merely created them, and only God, as any honest engineer or cowboy will tell you, is perfect.
Two bags of cement have been lying in the barn since last season’s fire crew was sent over the hill to fix this very post. The outfitter had been using the pasture without permission for a while, which was okay as long as he was respectful. But then he’d backed his horse trailer into the gatepost, broke it off at the ground and didn’t fix it. After that everyone was letting their stock in, including the sport riders, leaving nothing but dirt and horseshit for the Forest Service string that actually had work to do down here.
These mountains tried to burn themselves up in the summer of 2000, an unprecedented fire season the news dubbed “Firestorm 2000”, and isn’t the news a funny thing? It’s about stories to put us to sleep with false lullabies or to keep us awake with nightmares. No in-between narratives need apply. It’s about selling product, and the three biggest products in 2000 were that the Northern Rockies had burnt up with “Firestorm 2000” and it was all the environmentalists’ fault, that Global Warming was actually a mental disorder that could be traced to chemicals placed in our water supplies by communists and that George Bush really hadn’t stolen the election. You have to admit that, if nothing else, the news is consistent.
Hundreds of thousand of acres actually were profoundly affected by fire, in the populated Bitterroot Valley as well as down here in the wilderness, and a lot of it did burn hot. But what actually occurred can be explained more accurately in abstract concepts like ecology, which teaches us that while any given fire’s perimeter is measured in acres on the map by the sum total of its outer boundaries, the land within that perimeter is never completely charred. Lots of the land has either been burnt only in its understory, which actually cleans the place up, or is left untouched. Global Warming notwithstanding, this is called a mosaic pattern in the forest vernacular, and that’s how it looks. Almost like a giant jigsaw puzzle if you’re up at the lookout on top of Salmon Mountain, or in an airplane. Old fire scars merge into new ones, multi-aged canopy colors mingle like genetic codes, and it’s actually the most healthy thing for forests, and the most economical for taxpayers when you consider how expensive it would be to manually clean up the mess we’ve made of our mountains over the last century.
But never mind, says the news. Abstract concepts are not newsworthy and besides, it’s much more spangly to believe that the whole place burnt up because of environmentalists who may as well have burnt down Disneyland for all the bad press we got.
And what’s true to the nature of the news is also true to the natures of most fire crews, like the fire crew who was supposed to fix this gatepost last Fall and who panic-stashed their cement bags in the barn instead when all hell broke loose in the populated Bitterroot, where there was money to be made.
“Never mind!” they cried in the general direction of the gatepost and then raced back over Nez Perce Pass as fast as the gravel road allowed for their share of the overtime and hazard pay the Forest Service bribes its help with to put their life and lungs on the fireline. Chump change, really, when you think that you can make more money working full-time at McDonald’s. But don’t think about it, because fire’s exciting and adventure’s your real pay. That and winter beer money.
In their excitement the fire crew didn’t think about a good place to store the bags of cement, failed to pick a dry spot for the bags to stay put for the winter, which was how long they knew those bags were going to stay put. Fire crews are predictable in this way, and so it’s not surprising when I find the bags in a wet corner of the barn with their sides hardened and just enough good cement left in the middle of the bags to do a good enough job. We’re only trying to keep the outfitter’s stock out of the guard station’s pasture this season, and it’ll be good enough when I’m finished. I was sent over here to fix a gatepost, not to lay the foundation for a new tomorrow, which I’d prefer.
I’ve worked sporadically in the backcountry for the Forest Service for many seasons between treeplanting and unemployment, and opinions are a natural outcome of backbreaking drudgery combined with silence. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, and to the occasional armed and angry hunter I’d run into on a lonely trail who would wonder aloud how I could stomach working for the same repressive government that framed Randy Weaver, I’d say, “Hell, I’m worth ten bucks an hour just for my opinions and I work my butt off besides. So can you please just pick up your cigarette butts anyways?” Actually I only said that once, but it sure felt good and left a durable memory. I wish I’d said it more often.
I’m just ripping open the first bag of cement with the tip of my fire shovel when the bass riff from a set of sub-woofers rolls down the mountain, pounding the solitude out of a wide square mile of silence. I feel its sassy bottom beating against my skin, jabbing at my heart and rattling my brain until I toss my shovel hard against the post, causing it to sway slightly out of its hard-fought kilter, and let’s admit right here that there can be no account written about the Wilderness movement, or at least the fight to get enough people to see the value of relatively-intact ecosystems, that would not be an understatement. It was all very heartbreaking and hard. Too hard, too heartbreaking, and the upper Selway country is no different. The Elk City road, the road  that the car containing the blasting sub-woofers is driving down, is a case in point. It’s a little more than a hundred miles long and is really nothing but a long stretch of single-track dirt and gravel ribbon rolling through the heart of the Northern Rockies, the Land that the Nimiipuu[i] knew well and loved more, from western Montana and over into the South Fork of the Clearwater in Idaho, seventy miles to the west of where I’m working. It’s just a common logging road by today’s standards, but it rolls through the largest wild area left in the lower forty-eight states where today’s standards shouldn’t apply. The Elk City road is an artifact, left over from the time when the Wilderness Law stared the Timber Beast down in ’64. It had been scratched out by a CCC crew in the thirties, but the hopeful loggers wanted to turn it into their haul road for getting the cut out before the whole place was declared off-limits to them, which it finally was after years of heartbreak.
Compromise, I suppose, is the way of politics, but it’s a dirty word when it comes to what’s left of the Quiet World because the Elk City Road is now grandfathered into the Wilderness Law, and where in a New York bass player’s world is there any space allotted for congressionally-mandated boundaries on solitude? I, for instance, work for short pay back here and I count on doing that work in silence while I take my half an hour or however long it takes to get my gatepost to its right kilter. Silence is my real pay, and shouldn’t one be able to count on silence any time one can find it these days?
But now I’m going to be a victim to some guy’s obnoxious mating behavior usually associated with overcrowded cities. “Center Of The Universe approaching,” I mutter through clenched teeth in time to the bass riff. “Make way, make way.” These guys might as well be riding elephants. How on God’s Green Earth, I would like to know, can people be so clueless?

            I should always be careful what I wish for when I invoke something with as warped a sense of humor as the Earth, because I’m about to find out.
The sub-woofer gets louder as it closes in, slows its progress just a bit at the intersection of the guard station with the Elk City Road about a quarter-mile uphill as his car turns into the long driveway. “Thump-thump-ba-bum-bum-thump!” Louder still as it passes the old ranger house that used to really be a ranger house through the Depression and up into the seventies when rustic appearances were more in line with reality, Now it is a guest rental booked online by DisneyCorp, but never mind.
An eighties-something Camaro appears around the bend. It bangs its red tail against an ancient rock in the dirt driveway and pulls into the turnaround next to the pasture entrance. A young man is inside, mid-twenties, sunglasses and no smile. He turns off his engine. Suddenly the woods scream back into their former silence. Pine tops around the pasture sway imperceptibly in what passes for confusion among their kind, and then relief if you can see it, because once again the Selway River gurgling fifty yards away and I remind myself for the thousandth time that although a tree’s innocence is always slightly damaged by this kind of nonsense, it’s never irreparable. That’s what I like about the mountains. They make you feel like you still have a chance.  
 I remain squatting next to the fencepost in an effort to avoid eye contact, fiddling with my level like I’m trying to true the post again before I pour the cement. This is honest enough because it’s exactly what I’m trying to do other than ignore this guy. Honesty’s important, I think, but it’s no use. The guy slowly unfolds himself out of his Camaro and walks stiff-legged over to me with what I take to be the fatalistic gait of someone who couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting into when he turned off the highway in Darby a couple hours back. With a car like that, how could he have? His running shoes squeak in a new-bought way as he squats opposite to the fencepost and without introduction asks in deeply accented English, “You know where is Horse Heaven?”
            I’m stunned. I couldn’t have said it better myself. “Where you comin’ from, man?” I ask, not quite knowing how to buff this intrusion back to what I consider real, or at least real enough.
            “Portland,” he admits. “My family there. My family here, too, pickin’ mushroom. They call. Tell me plenty of mushroom. They say come. They say camp at Horse Heaven.”
I’ve seen their camp, of course, laid out about fifteen miles up the Elk City Road from the guard station, high above the river, past Salmon Mountain. There’s a large group of Hmong folks with a school bus and eight to ten older compact cars and pickups on any given day. It lies about fifty miles into the wilderness. Lots of garbage accumulates along the Elk City Road, which would be okay with me if the garbage stayed within its congressionally mandated bounds. But it doesn’t and I’ve also seen their plastic buckets, their bungied backpack frames, their coolers stacked up and around the shady side of their school bus, and that’s the thing. Their camp is legal enough, but their activity isn’t. They’re picking morel mushrooms for money back in a protected roadless area, which is forbidden by the Law of Good Intent, which is where all good wilderness laws come from. I want to tell him that right away, or to simply tell him where the camp is and get him out of my sphere of annoyance. But I wrestle with my familiar, self-inflicted conundrum instead, that if I wanted easier work for more money, I wouldn’t be down here planting gateposts all by myself, would I? So I hold my tongue and let this guy squat in glorious silence a minute more while I think up a good response.
As everyone knows, rules are made for good reasons and for bad ones, and rules for wilderness follow this same trajectory. There are many bad wilderness rules. Good wilderness rules, however, are mostly made with little precedent and the best intentions to protect these last places from those who, for instance, make bad rules. So the good wilderness rules are, by definition, very good rules indeed, and so it is that there are some very, very good reasons for prohibiting commercial mushroom picking in wilderness areas.  
One of which is this guy! Who does he think he is, coming down here clueless, from Portland of all places (another planet!!) disturbing my peace with his thumping pheromones and then further insulting my sanctuary by asking me how he can further degrade it? But I digress.
Anyone who’s inadvertently stumbled into a secluded marijuana patch understands how some people tend to get proprietary and downright testy when someone steps into what they consider “their” economic space. Whether or not it’s on your public lands matters not at all as long as they think they can get away with it. Unregulated greed is ugly when it comes to the Land. Ask any mountaintop that’s been removed, and that’s usually legal. So it follows that if you allow roving bands of commercial mushroom pickers who are fond of packing pocket pistols into hard-to-access mountainous public lands, you get an ego-driven Wild West show not necessarily compatible with what most folks expect within wilderness boundaries.
But every year’s summer months have always brought fire to the Northern Rockies, and now, as our globe heats up beyond redemption the fires are more numerous, hotter, bigger. They are, in two words, very exciting, the kind of thing newscasters in search of marketable human drama find irresistible, and Firestorm 2000 was no different. The media line that time was that this whole place was crispy-creamed by environmentalists and now there’s nothing left but zombie elk walking the river bottoms looking for hapless hunters to gore and--if you’re among of the hordes of pickers who flock to burnt-up public lands they heard about the summer before on the news--easy-to-sell morel mushrooms! And so, for a few months a year, these pickers practice a peculiar brand of post-modern paganism, resting upon the three pillars of morel mushroom mysticism. Ecology, economics and sex.  
 So first of all, let’s be clear about that last thing. Morels are not an aphrodisiac, as some folks—mostly men-- really, really want them to be. And they don’t come from Heaven either, as their cost suggests. They’re just mushrooms. Their niche in the Northern Rockies is a hot mid-to-high elevation forest the Spring following a fire the year before. The burnt-over forest floor combined with the moisture from snowmelt and Spring rains creates the ideal bed for their fruiting body—the mushroom—to sprout and cast its spores, and they wait years for this semi-regular, natural occurrence. They typically come in thick enough after a fire that a local can collect enough to fill the space in her freezer where the elk she shot last fall used to be, which is their big plus. But they are tasty, too, and have become trendy at fashionable restaurants throughout the United States, Canada and elsewhere, which has turned it into a product, a “natural resource” free for the taking off of our public commons, the national forests. Much like beaver pelts in past centuries, their popularity has spiked their going price enough to encourage classic pioneer attitudes about “resources” located on public lands, such as greed, lawlessness and land abuse.
In addition to coming in thick after a fire, they’re also easily identifiable because they’re the only mushroom that looks like your brain, and on the strength of that alone it’s hard for the hordes who descend upon last year’s burns to mistake them for anything more poisonous than an intelligent sex toy. They pick them as fast as they find them and if they’re lucky they’ll make twenty to thirty dollars an hour stooping over all day long cutting mushrooms off at the stump, stashing them in a five-gallon buckets bungy-corded onto a pack frame and hauling them out to camp, where they’re dusted off and sold by the pound to the buyers who make the real money off your labor. To repeat, you may as well be working at McDonalds, but never mind.
You are free to do all this and more only if you’re willing to put up with hordes. They show up every Spring, after a big burn on forested public lands in the Rockies, sometimes thicker than the mushrooms they seek, from all parts of the country with all issues and attitudes represented. Most of them, I’ll admit, are only looking for an excuse to hang out in the woods, like myself. But like all hordes, there’s more than the occasional desperado who can’t find regular work, who packs heat instead of spores, and who has all those issues people who don’t have steady work are dealing with and maybe want you to deal with too if you bump into them out in a burn in what they consider ‘their” economic territory. Also, like the sum total of all human hordes, they feel free leaving their garbage wherever they figure God intended it to be left. Grrrr! Poetry and politics usually don’t mix, but Howard Zahniser[ii] pulled it off when he got Congress to agree to his definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man (sic), where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Where, I would ask, is this kind of drama in that poem?

A randy kinglet has been kissing out his mating call above us constantly, and other than the wishing of the river nearby that’s the only sound passing between us as I ponder the Universe, which reminds me of when I became intimate with the kinglet’s call. I followed one around a stand of bull pine shading the Buckhorn Cabins and RV Park in Zortman, Montana during a blizzard for over two hours with a pair of cheap binoculars, trying to match the bird with the call and with absolutely no expertise in the matter. Kinglets are ubiquitous in western forests, as is its kissing call, but I hadn’t made the personal connection between the two yet. More importantly, my choices for killing time in Zortman were limited. We were there to plant trees at the Pegasus gold mine in the Little Rockies when a spring storm laid us up for three days. The storm dumped two feet of snow on the rubble of what used to be Spirit Mountain, formerly one of the most prominent peaks in Eastern Montana. In fact, before its demise it was one of the only peaks in Eastern Montana. We’d been hired with a straight face by Pegasus Gold to “reclaim” the mountain corpse so that the giant gold company could get its reclamation bond back from the state. Anyone who’s planted trees knows that it’s often impossible to see the ground well enough to pick a suitable spot for your little seedlings to survive with two inches of snow on the ground, let alone two feet on top of soccer ball sized cobble. We couldn’t go home because home was four hundred miles to the west, in the Bitterroot Valley. This was in the late eighties and I remember the discussion of the crew revolving around climate change even back then, the consensus being that a few trees growing on the rubble that Spring would be better than none at all, and so our only moral option was to wait the storm out until the weather warmed and we could finish the job. Poor Spirit Mountain, but we stayed and waited to do the best we could, even though staying meant either entering into the comatose trance induced by endless cycles of HBO movies in those tiny log cabins that served as motel rooms, feeding quarters into the poker machine at the bar or catching up on your birding. I chose numb fingers over a numb mind, which says something about how I find myself in this current situation.
The guy is waiting patiently, which is a good sign, but I don’t feel as though he’s remarked the sacredness he’s interrupted. As he squats silently across from me I have no idea, really, what he’s thinking because I don’t ask. I look at his face instead for clues, but his face is hidden behind wraparound sunglasses so there are no clues. What I think I see are two kids in an inner-city fourplex with a young wife waiting for a money order in the downstairs mailbox. Refugee camps, maybe. War in tropical places for all I know, with handguns in the glovebox, yikes! How can I know without asking, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to do that!
I use my imagination instead, because I am like everyone else. Tiny brain, large imagination. And also, I hate my peace disturbed, more so down here in my sanctuary where I also find myself prone to impatience as much as any of the other human curses we must face and fight against every day if we want to evolve our species out of the hole we’ve created for its offspring. Finally, given the setting and context, his cheap sunglasses are boring, so I go for honesty, which is important.
“You know it’s illegal to pick mushrooms for money down here in the wilderness,” I tell him. “In. The. Wilderness.” I repeat. It’s not a question.
He takes his sunglasses off at this. Embarrassed, I look down into my posthole. He looks down also to see what I’m looking at and, seeing a hole, looks back up at me. “Tell me,” he asks, implacably urgent now. “What is this ‘wilderness’?”
Here’s something you may not know. When you devote your misspent working life to the woods, your guard is down when the big city shows up. You have irrational urges, to lock a door or at least to shut down any explanations for something as profound and dear to you as your wilderness. There’s not just a little bit of misanthropy involved. Why not? That’s why I’m down here getting bit up by mosquitoes and no-see-ums and planting a fencepost for short pay. I’d really like to know. Is there any common sense or simple sense of irony left in this obnoxious world we seem to prefer anymore? I tend to think not! “What’s wilderness?!” I think incredulously. Tell it to the marines, dude.
But then, right in the middle of this rare, quiet moment in a world getting smaller and noisier with every spin on its axis, I experience that flash of recognition, that illumination of fantasies that show a person under no uncertain terms that their fantasies about what the hell they think they’re doing with their lives are as sublime as they are untenable. Because really, this isn’t my wilderness at all. It’s really just the home of the Nimiipuu, who didn’t have a word for “wilderness”, and who were booted out of here by the same immigrant hordes who bombed this guy’s tribe off their mountains in Southeast Asia a mere century later. What would their answer be to this guy, I wonder. Worlds apart from mine, I’ll bet.
I fall back on my default position, then, on something I know for sure and something you probably know, too. That right now there are vertebrate species, particularly the wet-skinned amphibian type, who are becoming endangered and going extinct within these nominally-protected wilderness areas. Environmental degradation and its resultant resource conflicts know no bounds set by Congress or bought with foundation money, and just because it’s easy for those of us lucky enough to experience true quiet firsthand to understand the difference between silence and obnoxiousness, that doesn’t mean anything of lasting value if the planet and, by definition, we are not saved.
The point, of course, is simple math. Urban areas are where all environmental policies, all policies in fact, are ultimately made or broken. It can’t be otherwise in a true democracy, or even in an imploding one like ours. Cities are where the people are, the votes, and a vote’s a vote. If any definition is going to carry water in a situation like this it’s that true human-based democracy needs vast swaths of relatively intact ecosystems to survive, and Democracy is what is lacking in the Land. And one of those democratic votes is waiting patiently for my explanation of this word, “wilderness”!
Damn. The moment glows as rare as a gold nugget in a creek you stoop over to sip from twenty miles back, an opportunity as rare as anything else that never happens. This guy really, really doesn’t know, and he really wants to. I give him high marks for coming up with great one-liners, and it’s all I can do to keep from high-fiving him now. The only reason I don’t is because we’re strangers, and I don’t want to give him the wrong impression in case I’m the one who has to drive up to Horse Heaven and give his crew the news.
And with that hesitation I let my opportunity slip away. “That’s a good one, man,” I say instead with a grin. He grins back and the connection is made, which is what l like about down here. Connections are easy when you have to make them. There are fewer distractions.

The kinglet above us continues his high song. Spirit Mountain is dead, he tells me, which I know. It got a flat top from Pegasus Gold, who split the country when the price of gold dipped below the price of honesty for Canadian mining companies. In place of Spirit Mountain they left a gigantic, stepped pyramid of blasted cliff and cobble that looks to all the world like a sacrificial alter to a God with a very sick sense of humor indeed.
This kind of God can be best defined by one of His high priests, a road engineer that I had the luck to meet and converse with at the Zortman mine. In the fall of 1989, he was tasked by the company with showing our hippy crew around the planting sites on our first reclamation project. When we came to the giant pyramid, we let out a collective gasp, which, to his credit, he noticed. He was in the middle of explaining the importance of knowing where the blind spot was for the dinosaur-sized haul trucks whose tires were bigger than our crummy. He gave us exactly one moment of respectful silence.
“Well,” he finally said matter-of-factly. “It was an old mountain, anyway,” and without skipping another beat he went on to explain how it was company policy to wear our hardhats at all times on their premises in case a dinosaur-sized truck happened to crush our crummy. He lived in the little highline town of Malta where good jobs with benefits were as rare as the buffalo in Malta are now who were the only ones who ever made a real living there. He was probably making twenty dollars an hour at the time, with benefits, which was pretty good wages for back then. But now his job’s long gone and the cost of the toxic pit where a mountain used to be has boomeranged back to the People, where the mining company knew it would go. But the kinglet still sings there in the scrubby bull pine, where we planted them long ago in the rubble of what was Spirit Mountain. How the neo-greens would sing the praises of that happy serendipity, except for the simple fact that neo-greens don’t know how to speak Kinglet any more than I do. Maybe she’s saying that the earth will definitely abide, no matter what you wise-guys (Homo sapiens) decide to do or not to do with the mess you made. It’s just you wise guys who may not.

I may have let my opportunity pass, but I’m not ready to give up. “Wilderness,” I begin, puffing my explanation up as large as possible and then… alas! Clich├ęs ambush me despite my best precautions against them. “…Is a state of mind.” The hot air steams out of my mouth before I can cork it. We just can’t seem to help ourselves, can we?
            “You mean,” his brow furrowing, clearly trying to do his part to keep his end of the conversation up until he gets the information he wants. “Like Idaho? Montana? Which state is Horse Heaven?”
So much for my crippled sense of cultural relativism. “It’s where you can’t pick mushrooms for money,” I clarify, my explanation deflated back down to mere misanthropy. “It’s illegal. And you can’t throw your trash around here either, y’know?”
I could fit this whole wilderness thing into the simplest quip if I wanted to, the one that the gutted Wilderness Society lawyers stole and still use today, “In wildness,” I could quote Thoreau, “is the salvation of the world.” That recipe has lost none of its power in spite of decades of misuse, which speaks volumes about its durability. Good old Thoreau, and I’ll admit his is just one of many, many recipes for saving our planet. But it’s about good as the next one, and maybe better than most. Can I ever hope to convince this guy that my wilderness is holy because it’s been declared so by an unholy political system, which is the definition of a miracle? Maybe I don’t have to. What’s it matter who calls what what, as long as you understand how rare chances are these days, and how a relatively unspoiled country can make you feel like you still have one. I give it one more tepid, yet honest, try.
“If we let you guys make the big mushroom money down here…in the wilderness…we might as well let the logging trucks roll over the mountain, too, and then where would we be?”
“I think Idaho,” he answers, smiling. “Def’nitely Idaho.” His palms turn up, he rocks back on his heels and squints at the treetops as though reaching into the depths of his own cultural memory, which is not mine yet. “What logging trucks, anyways?” he asks.
“The ones you don’t see down here!” I snap before I realize that my well-honed cynicism is not only misplaced but worse, misunderstood and, worst of all, unappreciated.
“Look,” I say, settling my tack back to the worker bee within us. “Whether you guys get away with picking mushrooms up there or not, you’re not gonna make it to Horse Heaven in that rig.” I wave my gloved hand toward his red Camaro with the racing stripe across the top and the fin on the trunk for keeping the rear-end from sliding when you’re going a hundred miles an hour around a racetrack or a freeway. If he’s lucky he’ll be going fifteen miles an hour on the good stretches. “The road gets worse as you get up toward Salmon Mountain. And steep with lots of rocks and ruts. Then you gotta go a good ways past Salmon Mountain. You’ll bottom out and punch a hole in your gas tank or something. Especially the way you’re driving.” This, I think, is a gentle warning, a closure of sorts, because I’d really rather get back to thinking about simple things like my gatepost. “And I’ll bet you put Premium in that car, too,” I add for good measure. “You’re in the wilderness, man, is what I’m sayin’. That means you won’t make enough money picking mushrooms or doing anything in here to pay for the damage you do. Nobody does. That’s what wilderness means.”
I’m suddenly quite surprised and satisfied with this explanation, to which he lifts his eyes up over the treetops again and off to the west, where all he can possibly see are more tall trees because nothing else is visible from the guard station pasture. “So,” he says, his brow furrowed again, his smile gone. “You drive up this mountain you call Salmon. Go a way more. Then Horse Heaven.” It’s not a question.
“That’s right,” I say, finally enlightened. “You’ll be in the wilderness, in Horse Heaven, where you guys’ll find boatloads of mushrooms and make bucket loads of money because you’re not supposed to be back there doing that.”
He smile again, and I’ll just bet he used a GPS to get down here, not a map. He has no idea where he is heading other than on adventure and he’s not having any of my warnings.
And he’s right, of course. I can’t stop him, and I ought to know. If anyone can recognize that glow of boomtown mentality from a mile away, it’s me. I’ve suffered from the same disorder all my life. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, just like in the old days when we set up a treeplanting camp on top of what was left of a mountain or some other ecological disaster. We didn’t always know exactly where we were, but we always knew that we were part of epic doings in an epic country, and so we fooled ourselves into our backbreaking work with the same high expectations of spangly financial success while at the same time reverting as fast as we could back to the campfire cultures of our ancestors, which is the real point of going to all the trouble in the first place. Priests, for example, are on about the same pay scale as your average treeplanter, trail dog or mushroom picker and just like priests, busting your ass in the woods for chump change is really more of a vocation than a job. All you really end up with is a deep personal satisfaction combined with a worldly dread when you look back at where you’ve been, that all hell’s about to break loose and you’re ready for it, which I believe is a good, honest perspective to have these days if you want to do anything about that hell other than to just put Jesus to sleep.
The guy’s sneakers squeak as he rises from his squat and walks back to his Camaro. The outfitter hasn’t had his stock in this year, and it’s too early for the sport riders, so there’s a flush of green starting to show as I look across the pasture toward the river. We’re just shy of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, which goes until ten at night at this latitude, and so the five o-clock sun has that magic summer angle to it that sets the new growth off into the exact hue of contemplative emerald that people go to all that trouble having lawns for, just the kind of afternoon you set your sights on in the hopes of hitting as many of them as possible. I consider this guy’s question with misanthropy’s opposite twin, solidarity, because there are only a few choices down here.
 “Make sure you tell your buddies what I said,” I call after him. He gives me the finger-thumb grunge salute and grins wide this time.
            “I be sure to tell them,” he says as he stoops into his rig. “What you said.” He slams the door and I can hear him chuckling. The rhythm starts almost immediately upon entry, and off he goes, the fin-crowned tail end dutifully banging on the ancient rock in the road once more for perfect cadence. This time I notice that he has a cast-iron frying pan set on the back shelf, which bangs against his racy curved rear window. That’ll cost him about three hundred bucks, I figure, but he’ll make it up to Horse Heaven come hell or high water, because he’s a child of pilgrims, just like me, and he’ll be successful enough in his purpose, which is my purpose, too.
There’s nothing simple about a gatepost.

[i] Nez Perce tribe
[ii] Executive director of The Wilderness Society, 1945-64, author of the Wilderness Act

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sociopaths and their Fracking Frackers; Jobbing the Bakkan

"Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over.”
                                                                                                Charles Ponzi, 1882-1949

Proprietary Capitalism is our modern, Bizzarro-world term for the relatively-old scheme of con artists separating “fools” from their money. It’s where We the People are not allowed access to the information we need in order to make informed decisions about industries who scheme to profit off of our ignorance, and it’s all the rage now. “Intellectual property rights” was the battle cry when Silicon Valley started cannibalizing its apple orchards and pooping out shiny gizmos, and now you see the shiny poop of intellectual property rights everywhere, on the chemical industry, on the privatized school industry, on the music industry, on everything. Our very culture has been devoured and “privatized” by the bastards in full view of everyone, a daylight heist, and our only questions seem to have been “How much is the next shiny gizmo going to cost and when can I get mine?”

Speaking of digestion: Consider all the high-priced claims of oil patch con artists about how the Bakkan oil patch and its lower intestine, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) are going to poop out endless jobs across the North Dakota plains and downward towards New Orleans and everywhere else the Black Snake slithers. (Eee…eww!) Jobs, right? Dirty jobs, but jobs all the same. Right?

Well…consider the words of a petroleum industry operative who spent almost four decades working for the likes of AMOCO, BP, and other such bastards. Art Berman currently makes a living as an oil industry expert, a consultant and contributor for corporate news outlets on oil trends for the smart investor who desires to place her bets on the table where the money flows downhill, toward her. Easy Street, right? But wait…On March 1st, Berman wrote in Forbes Magazine that:
“All major Bakken producers continue to lose money at current wellhead prices…there may be nowhere for the Bakken to go but down. Higher oil prices may not help much because the best days for the play are behind us. Future profits were sacrificed for short-term objectives that lost the companies and their shareholders money…investors should be worried. As analysts cheered the resilience of shale plays after the 2014 price collapse, nearly a billion barrels of Bakken oil were produced at a loss...vast volumes of oil were squandered at low prices for the sake of cash flow to support unmanageable debt loads and to satisfy investors about production growth.[i]

Why is this not the news we as well as the low-lying investor should have been hearing since the pipeline was first announced in 2014? After all, wouldn’t Republican governors who would sing the praises of “private property” while simultaneously authorizing “eminent domain” seizures of the very same at least want to know that the whole scheme is based on an economic model that even Charles Ponzi couldn't job to the rich of his day? Why are we hearing instead about all the “jobs” that Ponzi's economic scheme will generate for all us poor folk now?

Silly you. You forgot about “intellectual property rights”, haven’t you?

“The Bakken play represents the fullest application of modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies,” Berman writes. But with a couple of downsides.

“There is no way to stay away from water and it is produced from day one in large volumes. The Bakken has produced 1.5 billion barrels of water along with its 2.2 billion barrels of oil over the decades. Where are they putting it and what does that cost?”

Indeed. Where are they putting all that water? And furthermore, what have they put in all that water?  Well, intellectual property rights dictate that these Lying Leviathans don’t have to tell you any of that, because the information you need in order to know whether or not you are being poisoned for the sake of someone else's quick buck is…get ready…private property!

Wow, and that’s the root of the other downside that Berman mentions in his article. Think of the underground fracking patch as a giant balloon with finite pressure and lots of holes being drilled into it. At first the additional pressure needed for oil to bubble to the surface is generated with the toxic, proprietary slurry mix. After a while, though, the pressure needed to make the oil bucks bubble out of any single well is generated more and more by the gas pockets that develop underground in relation to the environmentally-destructive fracking activities. From then on, as the patch gets more and more overdrilled (which the Bakkan has been) the pressure drops for all the wells and everybody’s oil money heads south of the Red Line. This is basic physics, and basic capitalism, never mind the environmental costs, which investors never do.

So, in the oil expert’s own words, while the very efficiency of fracking technology has led to the over-drilling and the rapid depletion of the field, “pressure data (of the over-drilled patch) is not publicly available and is needed to complete the case.”

Did you catch that? The evidence for depletion of the Bakkan oil patch, the very information we as a society (and she as an investor) need to determine whether or not the environmental catastrophe of the patch and the associated pipelines is in any way economically justified is proprietary, under the very same rules that has kept the details of the environmental catastrophe itself (the fracking mix, for instance) from us all along. It’s none of your business, the Rich Man tells us. That’s enough democracy for you. We’re running this country now, so run along and eat some cake.

Why is the Dakota Access Pipeline being built at all? Quite simply “…for the sake of cash flow to support unmanageable debt loads and to satisfy investors about production growth.”

It’s not for jobs. It’s not for “energy self-sufficiency”. It’s not even for any traditionally-defined version of free-market capitalism. It’s a Ponzi scheme where the Rich Man and the politicians in his pocket are the only beneficiaries and We The People and the Land are the chumps.

Nice, huh? And that’s not coming from cyber-left field. It’s in black and white, in Forbes, and maybe that’s the beauty of this horrible moment we have willfully visited upon ourselves. Black and white becomes color, at least it becomes the Bizarro comic-book world we should have recognized it as all along.

Let’s get real and get busy, shall we?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Cedar Grove

Western Montana, 1986

Our burn crew worked the eastern faces of the Mission Mountains in the fall, from the foothills stepping above the Seeley and Swan valleys to just below their ragged peaks. We would crummy up at seven in the morning at the Plum Creek office on the north edge of Seeley Lake, then drive to the designated unit we were slated to burn that day.
Seeley Lake is a forest town, tiny and ephemeral compared to the eternal peaks rising above it, nestled deep within a deeply forested land. Much of that land is public, managed by the Forest Service for wilderness, timber production and for other things. Most of the rest is owned by Plum Creek, managed for the quarterly statement.
Plum Creek is the corporate heir to the Northern Pacific legacy, the millions of acres of timberlands stolen from the First People who occupied them, then gifted by the culprits to Great Northern Railroad in the 1860s to sweeten the deal for the company to complete their northern-tier transcontinental rail. That’s how it was in those days, and still is. Steal the Land, then give it to someone else, like a railroad company who morphs into a timber company, then into a real estate company[i], and then into something else and just so, this was the Civil War-era legacy our burn crew waded to work into each morning. Wilderness to our back with the quarterly statement at our front. Heaven and hell screaming at each other.
The other big landowner in the Seeley-Swan, the Forest Service, was also a timber-cutting outfit in its own right. Chainsaws and tank-tread technologies crawling out of the back ends of two world wars arrived in force, created the potential. A sustained housing boom demanding cheap federal timber created the market, and for a couple of decades after World War Two the haughty foresters were given a free hand at squeezing every stick of timber out of every public acre they could reach with their preferred wound, the logging road. These were the times when the American template, her suburbs and shopping malls, her throwaway soul, were born and the chainsaws and bulldozers ate the forests alive, happily and efficiently for a while, and it was fast and not pretty.
Then, after about two decades, the inevitable happened. Reasonable people started reasoning, which happens in nominal democracies like ours from time to time, and occasionally that sort of thing has consequences.
“This Forest Service,” they reasoned, “is a public entity, isn’t it?”
Of course it is, they reasoned back.
“And aren’t we at least a nominal democracy?”
Yes, can’t argue there.
“So shouldn’t this Forest Service,” they reasoned louder, more confidently, “at least ask us, the public, first before they go ahead and strip our lands clean of its epic forests?”
Of course they should, and as occasionally happens in this country, an unusual number of politicians who were getting an earful from angry constituents agreed, because this was the sixties and seventies, those golden years of political hope and upheaval for anyone to the left of Richard Nixon. A raft of federal laws were forced upon land agencies by an awakened public more concerned with new-fangled concepts like ecology than with old-fangled ones like quarterly statements. The National Environmental Protection Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, all these damnable acts!
   The upshot was that the Forest Service was told to tone it down a bit, mandated by law to do so, but just a bit. They were directed to put some biologists and soil technicians on staff along with their foresters, or at least a couple of landscape architects for god’s sake! Hide the clearcuts, behind some geological contours, behind some trees, round off their edges, pretty things up a little, make them look more natural, less linear, so the People will quit their bitching. And that, dear reader, is how our government foresters segued themselves into the latter 20th Century, and became singularly but only slightly restricted in their abilities in laying down square-mile sections of trees within their care at a swath.
“Clearcutting,” the industry-subsidized Forest History Society still instructs us, “remains the silvicultural timber harvest method of choice, especially in the private sector, but…restrictions by various forest and ecosystem plans have made clearcutting on the national forests mostly a memory.”[1]  They were proud, in other words, of being able to do such a glorious thing, and still are, and they’ve never forgiven those who would presume to crimp their style, and maybe they never will. Don’t worry, then, about what you cannot change.
Plum Creek lands, on the other hand, are private property and so are not managed by any sort of nominal democracy or damnable act. Epic forests that existed within the linear boundaries of their land were seen as assets, and Plum Creek just went ahead and stripped those epic forests in square-mile blocks without asking anybody[ii].
A square-mile block of obliterated forest overlain on steep mountain terrain is hard to visualize, but it’s possible and here’s how. Next time you find yourself flying over a mountainous public forests intermingled with private lands in Western Montana, look out the window. You will visualize, from thirty thousand feet, a massive checkerboard, just like the square-mile sections on a Forest Service map, or cornfields in Nebraska. So tidy in such a jumbled-up country, neat squares of surveyed devastation that can be accurately described as nothing, if not engineered projections to the Universe of human hubris over reality: linear chaos. For us working through them on the ground, they were merely the distorted ecological disasters that they were, the massive jackstraw remnants of centuries-old forests bulldozed into windrows for our crew to burn. Don’t worry, these linear blocks of former forests would say to you if you were to look out your window. You can’t change it.
 At seven in the morning at the Plum Creek office, though, we weren’t worried about anything. It was too early. Most of us were treeplanters and thinners, wildland firefighters and wilderness trail workers, local hippies and rednecks conditioned to the rigors of woods work and to the various levels of landscape-sized catastrophes we would daily wade through. We were playing the odds, at this late-fall point, between summer wages and unemployment. By late October we were done with our truly backbreaking season, looking to pad off the last few weeks with some laid back work before we set our jaw against another stretch of unavoidable winter that would shut our good-paying work down. Why not, we mused, saunter around the skinned-off hills for a few weeks with nothing heavier to carry than a drip torch and a hard hat? You don’t even need to bend over much on a burn crew, you just drip your fire down into the sweet spots of the massive slash and walk on into the autumn of the Mission Mountains, which is the definition of beauty even if your job was walking through catastrophes, which ours was. At seven o’clock each morning, then, we only concerned ourselves with knowing that we were heading towards another burn unit, and we only sought help in interpreting what we knew was coming.
Our drive to any particular unit within the long and gorgeous Seeley-Swan country took anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, depending on the location of the unit in relation to Seeley Lake, but we always drove slowly to the unit of the day. This was partly because of Plum Creek’s inscrutable corporate reasoning to pay us by the hour for going to work but not to pay us for coming home. There was clearly a jaded bean counter somewhere in the Plum Creek offices who thought she could get the best of us, but no one’s as jades as a professional treeplanter, So we always made sure we gave ourselves plenty of driving time even if the unit was close, so we could smoke up whatever shake or bud was riding with our crewmates in their lunch pails and be hooting happy-- which as far as we could tell was the central goal of forest work--when we arrived on the scene to divvy up our drip-torches. It was such a little victory each morning, but if you haven’t done so already, give yourself a few years of industrial-scale grunt work and you’ll learn the same truth that every other class of laborer who’s ever graced the planet in the last few thousand years has learned and passed on. Little victories add up. Plum Cree, zero. Treeplanters, one. Move on.
Drip torches are funny-looking, task-specific tools, gallon-sized cans made of thick aluminum filled with a mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene. A large handle is welded to their side and a curly spout on top keeps the torch at its tip from lighting any more of the mixture than the flaming drip with which it was our job to immolate the landscape of the day. They cost about a hundred bucks at any forestry supply store, and were very durable. In fact they seemed to last forever. Our drip torches bounced around jauntily on top of our crummies in their homemade angle iron racks. These crummies of ours were two beat-up suburbans carrying anywhere from six to ten workers each and when we finally arrived and piled out of the dirt-caked rigs into a crisp fall Mission Mountain morning in jolly confusion and thread-bare work clothes, we looked like the atavistic pilgrims from another time that we were, maybe Okies from the thirties, if anyone had been looking, which they weren't.
After work, and because of Plum Creek’s scheduling fetish, we drove dangerously fast back to town, because remember: they weren’t paying us to drive home, where we’d again pile out of the crummies and into our favorite bar—I’ll call it the Wilderness Bar—located right in downtown Seeley. Many times as fall’s early dark tamped its paw down on the town outside, we’d be inside sipping Miller’s on tap and slipping quarter-sized chunks of our paychecks into the poker machines under the dusty, watchful eyes of the dead deer and elk mounted on the blackening log walls around us. We loved this bar. It even came complete with one-sentence homilies to sanctify our particular brand of worship.
“GOD IS A COWBOY”, declared a cobwebbed script in lariat rope above the bathrooms on one end of the bar, and we agreed that this was a reasonable statement. Weren’t we were squandering our winter-survival funds after our days’ saunter out in the mountains? How much more godlike can you get?
A little more problematic was the competing assertion scripted in chainsaw-chain above the bar’s main entrance: “THE LORD IS A LOGGER”. After wandering all day through massive Plum Creek clear cuts, experiencing first-hand what this God had in mind for us and ours, we weren’t so sure. But both sentiments were heartfelt, sanctified by a dirty glaze of nicotine, spiderwebs and drunken thoughts aimed upward, and all things being equal, we loved this bar.
One crisp fall day we drove up to what had been an old-growth cedar grove, tucked into the folds of a steep drainage within the mid-elevation skirts of the Mission Mountains. It was one of several old-growth stands located only where proper elevation and moisture allowed monsters, and this, too, was holy ground. Monsters these certainly were, who had contemplated peaks housing spirits of even more-ancient ones for centuries. Hundred foot high dead tops, scrubbed to their characteristic bones by uncountable winter blizzards lifting the hair off of peaks, lacing prayers into the wind. We knew who they were, just as we knew that these prehistoric devourers of carbon were alive when the great comet called Europe crashed into the western hemisphere, the comet only the size of three Spanish galleons, the crater ending up blasting out to about the size of the moon, lopsiding everything. This cedar grove, we could clearly see through our good-time haze, was part of that crater. An obvious part.
The whole grove had been lain down. Six-to-eight-foot diameter trunks horizontal in pick-up-sticks disarray, the slash of their trunks mixed into their upper canopies twenty feet deep in places. It was an immense mess, and that day, with my flaming drip-torch dangling from my gloved hand, my boots hardly touched the forest floor far below me, which, prior to a few months previous, had seen no more than mottled spots of sunlight for hundreds of years, even on the hottest summer days. It had been covered with lush fern mixed with low-growing foamflower, trillium, grouseberry and almost nothing else. Starting next Spring, after we got done with it, it would see as much sun as a Wal-Mart parking lot.
The stand had been destroyed because of a quirk in Montana tax law, which valued standing timber on private lands as “inventory”, subject to a tax. Since taxes are not good for quarterly statements, the Plum Creek managers decided to cut down vast tracts of timber lying within their Western Montana holdings, including this cedar grove, and then burn them, soley for the purpose of liquidating their inventory, thus avoiding the tax. There was no local market for the cedar. The mills weren’t taking it because of the glut from Canada. But Plum Creek had done its math correctly. The land was worth more to them destroyed than whole, even without any receipts for the cedar wood because Plum Creek was not obligated to concern itself with such romantic and hard-to-define notions as ecological disasters. It was only obligated to concern itself with the quarterly statement. Simple. Please allow me repeat that one more time: Quarterly Statement.
            Gifford Pinchot, the man credited with introducing the industrial version of what’s now known as the “conservation ethic” to Western Civilization, saw this coming and he had something to say about it.
            “Many thousand square miles of forest have been ruined by reckless lumbering because heavy taxes forced the owners to realize quickly and once for all upon their forest land, instead of cutting it in a way to insure valuable future crops. For the same reason many counties are now poor that might, with reasonable taxation of timber land, have been flourishing and rich.”
            He enshrined this economic tenet in his 1905 “Use Book”, one of the Forest Service's very first publications in a long, long line of many, and in most aspects Pinchot aimed his long career at curbing the European proclivity for seeing forests as a problem that needed fixing.
            “The old fairy tales,” he underscored for his fellow travellers of white privilege in another book “which spoke of (the forest) as a terrible place are wrong.” And it’s true, that for several decades, Pinchot was successful in making “conservation logging” synonymous with “forestry” in the minds of those who worked the Land. But old habits die hard, and inevitably, after a mere few decades and in the name of “forestry”, along came this cedar grove.
Anyone who owns a home with a cedar roof and has sweated out a wildland fire within spitting distance of worry knows that cedar holds an excellent flame once you get it going, which doesn’t take much, and as we dripped our flames into the brown sweet spots that were so recently the canopy of greater trees than we were human, we could see that this unit was dry enough. This cedar unit would go up in one giant puff.
And so it did. But the art of a burn crew is to release such inert and dangerous chaoses in as orderly and safe a manner as eight bucks an hour can buy, and so we took our time. After all, this was supposed to be laid-back fall work.
About mid-morning, I looked back at what we’d lit so far. I was standing, as I had been many times that day, high off the ground with my drip torch dangling, its diesel flame dripping downward. The whole mountainside was a curtain of flame, pure orange heat. It was amazing to think that we had been standing there an hour before, that we had unleashed that much energy with so little of our own, and my face became cherry-hot as much by the thought as by the nearest conflagration about a hundred feet away, which I had lit.
At that moment my drip torch lit a sweet spot directly below my boots. It caught and spread willingly, like they all did that day, and before I had time to realize it, I was in some sort of danger, maybe the same kind that got Joan of Arc and those other martyrs who played with fire into their trouble. Maybe I’m wrong about them, but I had a lighting-quick revelation that day anyway, that you don’t necessarily have to be smart to be a martyr.
Usually I was much more careful, although excitement is part of the attraction of woods work, and we sometimes courted it. This was a bit much, though, which a crewmember crawling over the debris nearby pointed out to me by screaming wildly and trying to cuss me off the pile I’d accidentally lit under myself. 
I had enough presence of mind to jump down and try to worm my way out through tangled branches as thick as my torso. But the problem was my boots. They were stupid. That is to say, they were steel-toed, high-heeled logging boots, the kind I never wore. Usually in woods work I wore tennis shoes, because they were lighter and allowed me to be more nimble when in a tangle or when doing piecework like treeplanting. The more nimble you are in piecework the faster you are and the more money you make. That’s not complicated. Logger boots are, though. They’re heavy and they slow you down, and I never used them, for piecework or for anything else. But Plum Creek paid us by the hour and didn’t require us to be nimble, or even fast. What they required was for us to wear stupid, steel-toed logger boots, which were almost always made with an inexplicably-high heel like you were cowboy working from a horse. White’s were the only logger boot that was designed correctly enough so the heel wasn’t a liability. You could buy them custom fit to your foot if you wanted. But they cost two hundred bucks and I wasn’t going to pay top dollar for an eight-dollar-an-hour job. So I bought the cheapest logger boots I could find at Missoula’s Army-Navy store, “Gorillas” at fifty bucks a pair, no sales tax in Montana. They featured block-like high heels attached to floppy souls that buckled under you more often than not, and made you stumble even on level ground.
About halfway down from the twenty foot pile, one of the heels plunged itself between two thumb-thick branches of slash and I became stuck as a lamb chop caught between the grids of a barbeque grill. I looked down at the progress of the fire starting to rumble beneath me and this is when I got my first excellent view of the Afterlife, the transformation, the vaporization of gases and ages into pure yellow heat fringed with waving orange flame.
As any adrenaline junkie knows, there’s an indescribably-pleasurable rush in seeing your own end before it happens. Maybe that’s all that martyrs look for after all, and if that’s the case then virtually anyone could qualify to be one, and within a blink of time that doesn’t even count as thought, I realized that, since you obviously don’t have to be a genius either to be a martyr, I could be one, too.
That’s when my stupid, steel-toed logger boots sprouted wings. Right then, magic, the very ingredient in life that we kill ourselves seeking, and I was once more the expert slash climber Plum Creek was paying me eight bucks an hour to be. I leapt, wormed and crept, bursting away from the slash like an action-movie hero and I was out well before the flames took their final run to the top of the pile and all those centuries of beautiful carbon sequestration became one with the belchings of a coal-fired power plant in someone’s China or Texas. It really is a small world, always has been, and getting smaller every day.
But magic, at least, is funny, especially when you look back at it. Therefore I’ll admit that maybe it wasn’t quite as close a call as I remember, but that’s all I’ll admit, because isn’t it also funny how we remember things? Impression leading into detail, not vise versa, an upside-down imprint. It happens all the time. Ask any martyr.
So here’s my secret. The real problem for me that day in the cedar grove was that someone had put some really good bud in their lunch pail that morning, and in our righteous, working-class glory we had smoked a good bit of it up before we arrived at the job site. By the time I was standing on top of the world as I had formerly known it, I was crying. 

A wall of fire, maybe the devil’s own face, laughed back at us as we drove down the crooked mountain fast, hit the blacktop of the valley and zipped down into Seeley Lake. We parked our dirty crummies in front of the Wilderness Bar, piled out once more to gamble our paychecks away a quarter at a time, drank to forget, especially about irony, which is only a human construct after all. Nature is what she is, and she ain’t what she ain’t. But irony, that’s the face of the new attack—maybe the final one—on Nature by her human wards.
There is a sickness passing through the Land, and it will consume us if we don’t identify it and take the necessary steps. The sickness is plainly evident everywhere, in everything we touch and do and our current prospects are dismal because of it.
No, this sickness has been around a long time, and nothing we touch or do anymore is immune nor can it be otherwise. It will consume us if we don’t fight back. But fight what?