Thursday, June 6, 2019

On Robins, Nuclear War and Bigotry

“If we want to maintain a planet that looks like the one humanity has known, then we’re basically out of time.”
           Dr. James E. Hansen 
           Former director of NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies

A couple Februaries ago, I noticed three fat robins in our crabapple tree, picking off the fermented fruit the waxwings inexplicably never came for. That was just one of several odd things I noted that winter. The waxwings usually get most of the crabs before the robins arrive. It’s usually quite a party, but almost March and no waxwings. The shriveled red raisins still beckoned all comers.

I watched a robin fly down to imbibe, then another and another, like leaves falling from the tall green ash by the driveway that had no leaves yet. I looked up and there they were, a whole community of twenty birds, huddled against the wind in the old tree’s unkempt branches. Gossiping, I suppose, like we do at our parties.

Unlike us, though, dreams of worms were in those fat kids’ eyes. They weren’t just winter-overs. They were part of the migrant horde, and they’d settle for fermented crabs and have some fun, but they were expecting the ground to thaw sooner rather than later, the worms to wriggle out of the wet, warming soil. They knew, even if we can’t quite wrap our heads around it through gossip or by other means, that spring was coming weeks earlier than it used to around here.

This past February was looking like it might have been the same, but then we got a month of snow in March. Maybe some robins perished in their miscalculation. 

Like most people, I have a limited understanding of jet streams, but I also have opinions about things I have limited knowledge of. So I’ll opine and let the reader judge. It’s easier that way. 

All life, I think—inculding human life—has evolved over the last few million years around the weather produced by the earth’s jet streams that have swirled around her hemispheres in quasi-predictable patterns for that same amount of time. Cold swaps with heat, wet swaps with dry, spring follows winter, et cetera. But now after a mere couple centuries of burning fossil fuels, in the blink of an biological eye, we’ve fucked it up, like jamming wads of toilet paper down a swirling bowl of shit. The jet streams are slowing down, and the weather won’t flush predictably. It’s clogged and spilling unpredictable pottie water all over the floor. We’ve been three-year-olds about whom grown-up would make excuses for. They couldn’t have possibly known any better, those grown-ups might have said, and maybe that was true once. But it's been two hundred years. We’re grown-ups now, right?

What’s the matter with our heads, then, that isn’t the matter with a robin’s? Is there something about opposable thumbs that is so basic, so atavistic that we can be so clever with our manipulating hands while blocking out the consequences of what we have done? Can we really not help but destroy ourselves and everything around us, ever wobbling toward despotism all the while? Is Democracy just an old Greek word that really means nothing?

Bigotry, I think, is what a grown-up’s misuse of the opposable thumb is called, and, like nuclear war, it is a revelation you can rely on. The dread of both will sit there unexposed, invisible til it’s stirred and forced back to the fore, floats for a while like sun specks on the skin of your eyes, temporarily annoying. Then gone just as quick, denied and forgotten even though it’s swimming right before your eyes, like a shark, or  sun specks, or robins.

We’ve certainly gotten ourselves into a pickle, with this current nest of “leaders” who suggest, openly now, that Democracy is indeed just a silly, old word that should have no bearing on decisions made in air-conditioned rooms. So what to do? 

I suggest you find yourself an old dictionary. I’d recommend a Funk and Wagnell’s, circa 1946. They didn’t use algorhythms to define things then. They just wrote things down the way they were, like poems, measuring out the meanings with synonyms and antonyms. There was a hope once, that by defining things as precisely as possible we could be prompted toward progress, growth, even evolution. They must have thought it would help, at any rate, to simply state the obvious and hope for the best. I'd say we were fairly innocent, but I’m not saying we were wrong. I’m hoping for the best, today and tomorrow. 

In the meantime, here’s to innocence, progress and to pondering what the hell is wrong with us at the very least. 
Reasoning Fairly
                                                Bigotry has not the capacity.
                                                Superstition the knowledge or discipline.
                                                Fanatics have not the patience.
                                                Intolerance the disposition.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mickey Mouse Will Lose to trump

On the Hazards of Early Voting

Goddam Facebook. I can’t get shed of it. I started up just before I went to the Standing Rock protests against the pipeline because I was told that’s where everybody was. That’s where the information was being posted—daily, hourly, instantaneously—about what was going on, and what you were getting into if you came. 

So I signed up, got an account, lied about my birthdate (a shout-out to all you folks who wished me happy birthday on January 1st) and dove in, got addicted, and finally learned what selling your time off cheap really meant.

I remember when a long-distance call cost $2.00 for the first minute and 25 cents every minute thereafter. You had to find a supermarket that would trade your five-dollar bill for a pocketful of quarters, then a phone booth, not to mention needing to develop a fast flick finger reflex for when the operator interrupted your call and demanded more change. You had to have an innate aversion to bullshit, in other words. For that kind of money and effort you wanted to get right to the point.

Not so now, and goddam Facebook, because I do so miss that innate aversion to bullshit…

On the other hand, it is incredible, really, what’s out there these days, and how fast it gets around. Talk is cheap and Facebook’s cheaper, so maybe I shouldn’t get too worked up, but (fair warning) I’m going to vent about something I’ve seen on Facebook one too many times and, to be honest, it almost feels like I'm going to puke. Like when you eat some inconsequential sausa left in the fridge a bit too long, a mere triviality of substance and circumstance that shouldn’t have any impact whatsoever on you or what you do, and yet there you are, your stomach suggesting that you vehemently reject this inconsequential nonsense immediately, becoming more and more demanding until you’re rejecting what your stomach told you all along was no good. That’s what venting on or about Facebook feels like to me, disjointed and cathartic at the same time, and I’m sorry. As I'm trying to say, I can’t help it. I have this uncontrollable urge, and some things just can’t be deferred, or even stalled. The times are too epic. I’m gonna puke. So here goes.

This is a sentiment that is appearing over and over. On Facebook. Probably other places. There are variations on the theme, but the theme is now ubiquitous. “I will vote for the Democratic candidate for President no matter who it is. Period.”

Of course what this means is that if Mickey Mouse were to run against Donald Trump, you would vote for Mickey Mouse. And I agree. I would pick Mickey over Donald anytime. At least with Mickey we’d have to admit that we've become caricatures of ourselves, living in a cartoon-reality where there’s at least a fighting chance that the Great Illustrator will give us a break, unlike our chances in the real world. What's more, I have been a believer in this very sentiment since Richard Nixon times, my first election year to vote. And so of course I do agree that in the midst of this horrendous pickle we’re in everyone of us to the left of Atilla the Hun needs to understand what solidarity is, and to act on that understanding.

But this now-ubiquitous sentiment, repeated on wide-ranging platforms ad nasuem for the last year and a half (a full three years before the next presidential election or a full five years if you count the incessant Bernie-bashing) is having the exact opposite effect of solidarity, understanding be damned.

Sad to say, but what I mean to point out to you is that those of us who have been voting reliably for Mickey Mouse since Nixon Times (OK, I'm feeling a little better. Let's modify that to "since Reagan Times"), those whom the Democratic Party machine feels are in its pocket, always counted on, condescended to and then ignored, those kinds of peoples' vote (your votes), do not count anymore, at least as far as getting this current monster and his ex-wife’s anchor babies out of their public housing berth called the White House. I’ll explain.

All of the Mickey Mouses we reliably-blue voters have been casting our reluctant ballots for since Nixon Times (sorry, since Reagan Times), have been tepid, corporate Democrats. Most of us have known this all along (surprise, focus groups!) but we've done it anyways because we really have had no other choice. So now that we have real choices, opportunities to actually transcend and soar above their corporate wrecking balls and so many millions of you are getting scared off by talking TV heads with fluff between their ears??!! You’re prepared to admit to the world (so to speak) that you prefer being a corporate shills’ vote-o-matic over something better—and possible??!! Even more to the point, now that all the non-voters who will be the ones to decide this next election (not you, reliably-blue voter who will vote for the Democrat no matter who) finally MIGHT be given a real choice to vote for real hope if we allow the possibility, and so many millions of you are going to actively and irretrievably work to crush those hopes—and any chances for our own political, cultural and physical survival???!!! 

This, dear reader, is madness (or WTF in Facebookian). The elections are a year and a half away, and now is NOT the time to be “negotiating” like a corporate Democrat (read: from a position of capitulation). Mickey Mouse (aka: Joe Biden) will lose. Let me repeat: Mickey Mouse (Joe Biden) will lose, no matter how many times you vote for him anyway. If you want to be the responsible voter like you demand others should be you will not be giving aid and comfort to those deep pockets who are putting Joe Biden up as our only choice and and seem perfectly happy to usher us further into this existential pickle they're in large part responsible for. If, as you apparently are willing to think, we are doomed to have yet another corporate-tangled caricature of a human being up there at the convention podium next summer giving his calculated acceptance speech, you better be working now to make damn sure that the Great Illustrator makes him give a speech that, under no circumstances, should be anything but transformational. That means that, like any good caricature in a long-running farce, he will be predicting his and his handlers’ own end, politically-speaking, and that he will be convincingly-ready and willing to usher in the real change that those non-voters who will decide this next election will demand if he (and his backers) really want to see those non-voting fannies at the polls or their own fannies in any position of power, ever again.

Sound likely? Of course not, but it goes without saying. We need solidarity, now more than ever. Now then, now that we finally (FINALLY!) have a real and generational chance for something better, why, why, why (!?) are so many millions of you (reliable blue voters all) so bent on defeating the intensely-important goal of doing better by giving Mickey Mouse your vote a year and a half before the election and hoping for the best?

Human nature, I guess, which doesn’t speak well of our chances given what that kind of nature has gifted us these last few years. So let’s broaden the thread a bit about those seemingly-inevitable and unchangeable things, like Nature. Let’s talk in meta-terms for just a minute, and why not? If you’re casting your vote a year and a half before it has any meaning other than a bad one, you’re basically admitting that we have plenty of time to be reflective. So let’s do that, and here, finally, is my parting rant, which is also the only hope I’m still clinging to in these dreary times.

How ‘bout we quit parsing clever words over which focus group with the most talking-head time on TV gets to decide whether Americans can handle “socialism”? Socialism is as American as rhubarb pie and is in fact an integral facet of democracy and vice-versa. That’s why “they” hate democracy and, by extension, “socialism” so much. “They” have been saying so for decades in case you haven’t been paying attention. Literally. What do you think Koch-flavored libertarianism is about, if not corporate rule enforced by a strong Leader (Mussolini's definition of fascism)? “They” who would rule by caricature (fascist) hate the fact that democracy (and by definition, “socialism”) has been here long before the Pilgrims started parsing words in the hold of a fetid ship to better beat their world view over the heads of all who disagreed with that particular world view, which, to non-believers amounted to the above-mentioned fascism (Don’t take my word for it. Ask them). “They” and so many millions of you, haven't considered the possibility that, far from being democracy’s creators, modern-day Americans are merely its host species and that we ignore this symbiotic relationship at our own great peril. The proof's in the pudding. Democracy (and by extension, etc.) is part and parcel of the flora and fauna that the original inhabitants of this place reflected, that we mimicked and that “they” now seem so bent on destroying, along with us and “their” fetid world view. I may be struggling with words here, but after living in close proximity to relatively-intact ecosystems for so many decades (Western Montana) I think all this is obvious.

So how ‘bout it? Why not admit that unless we think and act otherwise, “they” are, by default, us, even those of us self-righteously voting a year and a half early? How ‘bout we look at the Big Thing, not the words, like the fact that, since democracy (and by definition, etc.) was here long before “we” showed up and started breathing oxygen from Her trees, then She'll be here after we're gone, and what does that mean? If you don't have any ready answers to these rants of mine, how ‘bout, at least you many millions of reliably-blue voters who will not decide this next election (please remember that if you reject the whole rest of this mess), acknowledge a couple basic, self-evident, ecological, social truths that may not be fully understandable but that we ignore at the cost of our very existence? 

It should be plain as the above-mentioned pudding by now to everyone whose worldview is not fetid that: 1. Nature (the non-human kind) does not necessarily have to include us in Her future plans, and, 2. that by giving up before we even begin to reflect on HOW we got here, by aiding and abetting in the non-voters not showing up next election day, your vote not only does not count. It’s toxic. 

In terms of (human) Nature then, how ‘bout we make more room for possibilities and less for fear. How 'bout we evolve or something? 

It’s just a thought. 

Note: The above is not meant to be an attack on anyone, including Joe Biden who, I'm guessing, is a "nice enough guy". It a commentary on his calculated public political persona combined with his unenlightened policies over the decades. To present such a demonstrable corporate neoliberal as a "progressive" to the tens of millions of potential voters who will actually be the ones to decide whether the trump crime syndicate goes or stays is either a bad joke...or a good cartoon. I rest my case.

Museum of the Future. Coming Soon
"Are we there yet?"
"Hope so."

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Stewart Creek and the Salvation of the Magruder Corridor

Brandy Peak, Bitterroot Valley, Montana

“The earth is not a resting place for any Brandborg.”
                                                                                                          Big Brandy

Note: Both Stewart and Guy Brandborg were known as “Brandy” throughout their careers. This is vexing to a would-be biographer of Stewart (like myself) who realizes that he can’t tell the story of one without referring often to the story of the other. Their family had a way to solve this conundrum by simply referring to Guy as “Big Brandy”.  When I can fit it into this narrative without overly-confusing the reader, I will also use Guy’s family handle.

Stewart M. Brandborg’s dad, Guy M. Brandborg, often came to visit his son’s family in the Washington, D.C. area when Stewart was working for The Wilderness Society during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was on one of these visits, when Stewart had an appointment to meet with Lee Metcalf, that Big Brandy asked to come along.
            “Are you sure you want to go?” Stewart recalled asking him, to which his dad replied “oh yeah, let’s go. I’m ready.” And off they went.
            This was sometime in the late ‘60s, during the middle stages of the Magruder Corridor controversy, which involved a scheme the Forest Service and the lumber companies were colluding on to arbitrarily exclude hundreds of thousands of acres from the new Wilderness Act, that Senator Metcalf had helped the younger Brandborg champion. There was a road there, the only one in those mountains, the so-called Magruder Corridor, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between the small Montana lumbering town of Darby and smaller lumber and mining town of Elk City, Idaho. The Forest Service and the timber industry were ready to use the road for the purpose it was originally built, to “get the cut out” and to “develop” the vast, wild area the way that God (or at least a certain version of Himself) desired those last wild areas to be developed, with roads and clearcuts and picnic tables. Of course. That sort of thing.
Conservationists were working the issue hard because, aside from the fact that the Upper Selway country (the Magruder Corridor) was a vast, unspoiled area in its own right, it would be a watershed precedent for them if they could get it designated as wilderness even though a perfectly good road existed right through the middle of it. 
But the Forest Service was run by foresters, and after the passage in 1964 of the Wilderness Law that directed their agency to identify areas within their domain that qualified for inclusion into the newly-mandated system that disallowed practicing their profession, their natural inclination was to drag their feet. And so they did, by coming up with a set of criteria that set their wilderness-designation bar so high that any area that wasn’t “pure” like a vast, wild tract with a primitive dirt track scratched through it in the ‘30s by a crew composed of young men who were wearing their first pair of shoes, for instance, would be disqualified and released for “multiple use”, which in forester-speak meant more roads and career-enhancing board-feet. And yes, picnic tables. This became known as the “Purity Doctrine” and has skewed wilderness conversations ever since, away from protecting and preserving the Land for its own sake towards the foresters’ preferred altnerative, the slow but irrevocable attrition of Death by a Trillion Cuts. All relatively-intact ecosystems rendered “impure” by the presence of a road, primitive, ill-advised or anything in-between, would be forever vulnerable to logging, roading (and picnic tables) no matter how economically or environmentally silly those activities might be, and in a place like the Magruder Corridor, which was many rough miles away from any mill or road maintenance crew, the prospects for such silliness at the highest levels were all but assured. At the time the Brandborgs visited Lee Metcalf, in fact, the foresters and lumbermen had figured in the Magruder Corridor as a fair-and-square part of the region’s timber base, largely because of the road’s existence. Metcalf, while not so keen on “getting the cut out” was on board with the developing of the Magruder Corridor for political considerations, even though he is remembered today as one of Montana’s premier progressive politicians, which includes his championing of watershed environmental issues like the Wilderness Act. For his part, Big Brandy had been working the Magruder issue hard back home, including the currying and advising of a new activist in Hamilton, Montana, Doris Milner, to take the front role in pushing for the Corridor’s salvation. Metcalf had been hearing a lot from Doris by this time, but he either didn’t know that the Brandborgs were also thick into the controversy or, more likely since he was a consummate politician, he may have known and strategically didn’t let on.
            So father and son drove to the Capitol and went to see Lee. They sat on deep leather couches that interior designers of Senate offices still prefer, and they talked, Lee and Big Brandy, about many things. Lee and Big Brandy, you see, were old friends. Lee had grown up in the Bitterroot when Guy was the Forest Supervisor there. They were both counted within the post-World-War-Two Montana intelligentsia that included Bud Guthrie, K. Ross Toole, and other progressives who were beginning to stand up to the Anaconda Copper Company's bullying grip on Montana's politics and resources. In 1949, for instance, Lee (as a Montana Supreme Court justice) had been one of Guy’s defenders at his infamous House UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) inquisition in Missoula. The "Company" didn't like the way Big Brandy was preaching about Pinchot's "social forestry" designed to conserve resources for the long-term benefit local, rural communities. More to the point, the Company intensely disliked a Bitterroot Forest Supervisor's (Big Brandy's) advocacy for more government regulation on private company tracts in the Bitterroot that they were in the finishing stages of skinning the "golden stream" of ancient Ponderosa Pine off of. They sent a man to his office in Hamilton one day to warn him off, to tell him he better lay off of that "social forestry" stuff or else, and Big Brandy had told him to go to hell. It wasn't long after that that he received an impersonal letter ordering him to appear before an inquisition in Missoula, which resulted in a great victory for Big Brandy. The list of defenders at that hearing represented a virtual Who’s Who of Montana’s progressive activists--including Lee--who testified (according to Stewart six decades later) that "the last thing he would be would be is a communist because he's so in love with making democracy work." These were the golden days, at least in Montana, and they succeeded in beating back the McCarthyites in that instance. Lee, in other words, had long-supported Big Brandy staunch advocacy of Gifford Pinchot’s early version of tree-based democracy, based on favoring sustainability of both forests and local jobs over corporate greed. Simple enough, and in those days it was natural for intelligent people who were active in Montana’s politics to be on board with Pinchot’s vision and with Guy Brandborg’s garnishing of that vision with his famous socialist twist (although Big Brandy never referred to himself as a socialist), and so he and Lee knew and regarded each other well. Guy's vocational specialty was rangelands, and Lee, who was forever in the midst of the resource wars that constantly whirled Congress by the tail, must have welcomed Guy’s refreshing homespun expertise as a tonic against the professional lobbyists he must have been obliged to also entertain on the very couch the Brandborgs were currently occupying.
            There was a fly in the ointment, though, and after an unspecified length of warm discussion, Lee’s voice became low and he started in on a new subject.
"But there’s one thing…” he began, his deep quiet tone gathering steam as one word followed another, “…that’s driving me up a wall…”, his voice rising like a slow moving tsunami until by the end of the sentence he was literally shouting, “…is that goddam Magruder Corridor!!”
            Six decades later, Stewart recalled an eruption, a venting, a mushroom cloud of frustration that the Brandborgs little suspected Metcalf had on the subject. “Wasn’t millions of acres of wilderness enough!?” Lee fumed. 
            Of course, being the consummate political animals they also were, the Brandborgs never let on that they had anything to do with trying to save the goddam Magruder Corridor. After all, Lee was a senator now, and as advocates for sound forestry practices in the Bitterroot and wilderness designation for qualified areas, Big Brandy and his son wanted something from him in that context. So all they could do was “sit on that couch and grip leather”, like cowboys trying to stay on a sunfishing horse, as Lee went on and on about the goddam Magruder Corridor! 
          But the Brandys had their way in the end, and too many of us who have enjoyed those unravaged, wild areas that he, his dad and Doris saved for these last forty years take for granted the fact that eventually Doris won Lee over to the the conservationists' point of view and that the Magruder Corridor is now part of the largest contiguous unloaded (except for one) wilderness area in the lower 48 and not a road map to Hell. 
Lee Metcalf eventually had a wilderness area and a wildlife refuge named after him in gratitude for his environmental advocacy. The Brandborgs, for their part, disapproved of the naming of geographical features after mere humans, but they let that go after their fashion. Big Brandy actually ended up having a peak named after him while Metcalf was still a sitting senator. Brandy Peak is the first one you see at the mouth of the Lost Horse drainage in the Bitterroot Mountains when you look up into it from Highway 93. Other than expressing pleasure that a mountain would be named after his old friend, Metcalf’s only other recorded comment was the gruff statement, “Well, now the Bitterroot Mountains have an active volcano!” 
Stewart, too, has a creek named after him, in the Upper Selway country. This happened in 1937, when his dad, Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor at the time, had a CCC crew punching a road down to Paradise from Magruder Station with the newfangled bulldozer, ironically just below the Darby-Elk City road being built at roughly the same time. The foreman of Big Brandy's crew, Charlie Engbretzon, had befriended twelve-year-old Stewart and led him up a steep unnamed drainage that emptied into the Selway just above Paradise Guard Station where Stewart shot his first deer. Charlie then had a CCC boy make a simple wooden sign that read “Stewart Creek” and nail it to a tree where the creek crossed under the new roadbed Charlie and his crew were in the process of creating. That sign apparently lasted long enough for the name to stick onto the maps of the protected wilderness lands that would have been logged and thoroughly roaded long ago if not for the creek's namesake, along with several hundred other “elitist” nature-lovers who pestered Metcalf until he caved to their side. Stewart would qualify this story told decades after the facts with a simple addendum, that he didn’t think Stewart Creek should be named after him. After all, that creek had a destiny of its own long before he showed up.
       Consummate politicians—the good-hearted ones, anyways—are in such short supply today, but the arc of environmental justice is always slow and accurate. Every once in a this arc is even observable among committed creatures within the human species. We’d all do well to remember the physics of that kind of justice that doesn’t necessarily have to include us in her sweep.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Cedar Grove--Preliminary Notes

It's spring, and I'm thinking of planting trees. This is a pleasant pastime even though I know it means busting through inches-thick sod in a cow pasture, digging holes in the heart of the Rocky Mountains (where there are more rocks than topsoil, duh!) and stooping (with my 66-year-old back) over them forever. That's how it is, and in all the decades I've planted trees I've known that the activity is nothing but a cautionary tale, about not breaking something as dear to us as our ecosystems to begin with, coupled with love, and this is what releases those natural endorphins that make me forget about physical pain and make the thought of planting trees pleasant to me.  Soon, I dream, I'll be writing poetry in the dirt and, if I'm lucky, maybe 10% of that poetry (in the form of mature ponderosa pines) will outlive me and do good in the world that has done so much good for me. Those are better odds, by the way, than those faced by poets who use merely words, and as a matter of fact I hope to be planted--unembalmed--under a ponderosa pine when I die because I just don't think I'll be ready to leave this beautiful Land when the time comes. If death holds true to life, which of course it does, I'm going to want to be the last to leave the party, to take that one-more breath of mountain air blended with chickadee breath and turpentine before I go, and I'm guessing that, if my loved ones pick the right spot (which they better!), that going could take a couple hundred years. That's about enough time to say goodbye to something so beloved as this place we call our home, I think. It should do.

Personal preferences aside, though, individual tree planting efforts aren't going to Save The World any more than individual efforts to reduce the number of plastic straws you allow the 16-year-old girl at the Dairy Queen to slip into your root beer. I could--and should--organize a consciousness-raising tree planting non-profit with the goal of getting 10,000 people to plant 100 trees apiece and then meticulously caring for them for a decade until their leader candles grow above the reach of the deer's killing scissor-bite. That's a lot of work, babysitting a tree for ten years, but if I were to somehow be successful in my effort that would also be 1 million trees, each of which when, at maturity (say, from 20 years old on) would annually consume as much carbon as two gallons of gas. Now, let's be gracious. Let's assume that the average American drives 10,000 miles per year, and let's also figure that the average car these days gets 20 miles/gallon. Ideally, then, 100 trees would (graciously) wipe out about five months worth of driving per year (past or present) for every person that babysat 100 trees for a decade---which I'm here to tell you almost no one would. Shaklee Corporation (the organic-vitamin supplement behemoth) claims to have planted 1 million trees already, and wants to plant 999 million (a billion) more. That's great, but planting a tree and "adopting" one are two very different things. I've probably planted a million trees myself, but I'm positive that 5% is a gracious number to give the odds of how many of them survived to when they'd have actually started doing some good, let alone survived the first year. 

Tree planting is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and I think that if we became a tree planting culture there might be some hope for our culture in particular, and our species in general. But simply planting trees or using less plastic bags as an individual doesn't necessarily merit anyone a warm and fuzzy feeling if you consider how little time we actually have left, maybe 8 or 10 years, or maybe 20 depending on how you count, to get our act together enough to hand over a livable planet to the next seven generations, and individual efforts simply are not going to cut it. My point is this, that no matter how warm and fuzzy our individual life choices may be, if we are truly concerned about the fate of our beloved Earth, we have to change our behavior at a policy level, and that is a hard thought for so many people who have convinced themselves that "politics" is a dirty word.

And I understand, because I feel overwhelmed, too. I want to plant my way out of this mess. I want to tell that 16-year-old girl not to give me that straw and to feel good about my "choices". But the only choice left, folks, is policy, and that means politics (duh!). We have about 8 or 10 years left. We don't have any time to have any effect at all on the outcome of this uncommon mess with truncated, individual choice unless everybody who truly gives a shit throws themselves full-body into changing the way our species behaves at a societal (read: government-writ-large) level. 

Politics by any other word. Sorry, really, but get over it and get busy.

Weyerhauser lands east of Coeur d'Alene

Mixed private and public lands near the Montana-Idaho border

"Managed" drainage that supposedly will save us from "catastrophic wildfires"

Intact drainage after "catastrophic wildfire" for visual contrast

Just west of Missoula, Montana
Which way?

The Cedar Grove

Rocky Mountains west of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho


Chapter IV

“If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
                                                                                                            Kurt Vonnegut

Our burn crew was working 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 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 gifted to Great Northern Railroad in the 1860s to sweeten the deal for that 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 somebody else, a railroad company who morphs into a timber company, then into a real estate company, then into something else and just so, this was the Civil War-era legacy our burn crew waded to work into each morning. Wilderness (the Bob Marshall’s Swan Range to the east and the Salish Kootenai Tribes’ Mission Mountains to the west) cupping the quarterly statement. Heaven and hell screaming at each other.
The Forest Service, was a timber-cutting outfit in its own right. Chainsaws and tank-tread technologies arrived in force here after World War II, creating the potential. A sustained housing boom for a couple of decades after that war demanding cheap federal timber created the market, and the haughty foresters were given a free hand to squeeze every two-by-four 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, her shopping malls, her throwaway soul, was born and the Forest Service happily ate the trees alive, and it was not pretty.
Then, after about two decades, the inevitable happened. Reasonable people started reasoning, which happens in nominal democracies such as ours, from time to time, and occasionally has consequences. 
“This Forest Service,” the reasonable people reasoned, “is a public entity, isn’t it?”
Of course it is, they reasoned back. 
“And aren’t we at least a nominal democracy?” 
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, an unusual number of politicians who were getting an earful from angry constituents watching their viewsheds being ground to sticks and moonscapes 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 those 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 20thCentury to become singularly but only slightly restricted in their abilities in laying down square-mile sections of public forests 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.” They’re still proud, in other words, of being capable to do such a glorious thing as a clearcut, and they’ve never forgiven those who would presume to crimp their style. 
The other land owner in the Seeley-Swan, Plum Creek, is not beholden to nominal democracies or damnable acts. Epic forests that existed within Plum Creek’s linear boundaries were seen as assets, and they just went ahead and stripped those epic forests in square-mile blocks without asking anybody.
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 the Rocky Mountains, turn off your reading light or Kindle and 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 woods hippies working through them on the ground, they were the distorted ecological disasters that they actually were, the massive jackstraw remnants of centuries-old forests bulldozed into windrows for our crew to burn. But to you flying high above, these linear blocks of former forests will tell you something else. Don't worry, they will whisper as you reach to adjust the knob of air caressing your cheek, about the things you cannot change.
 And just so, at seven in the morning in the Plum Creek parking lot, we weren’t worried, either. It was way too early. Most of us were treeplanters, 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. By late-October we were playing the odds between summer wages and unemployment. We were done with our backbreaking season, and were 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 down our good-paying spring and summer work. 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 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. At seven in morning we only concerned ourselves with knowing that we were heading towards another burn unit, and all we sought was help in interpreting what we knew, from experience, was coming.
Our drive to any particular unit within the long, gorgeous Seeley-Swan valleys took anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, depending on the location of the unit in relation to the town of Seeley, but we always drove slowly to the designated unit of the day. This was partly because of Plum Creek’s inscrutable corporate reasoning, which was to pay us by the hour for driving to work but not to pay us at all for coming home. We knew there was a jaded bean counter somewhere in the Plum Creek offices who thought she could get the best of us, but alas for her! No one’s as jaded as professional treeplanters, and we always made sure we gave ourselves plenty of driving time, even if the unit was close, to 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 for the last couple centuries has learned and passed on. Little victories add up. Plum Creek: zero. Treeplanters: one. Don’t worry. Move on.
Drip torches are funny-looking things. They're 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 seem 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, mountain men if we were male (which about three-quarters of us usually were), 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, where we’d again pile out of the crummies and into the Wilderness Bar (not its real name) 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, slipping quarter-sized chunks of our paychecks into the poker machines under the dusty, watchful eyes of the deer and elk heads mounted on the blackening log walls around us. We loved this bar, and 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 ourselves squandering our winter-survival funds on trinkets and drinks after busting our asses for chump change outdoors?  How much more godlike can one 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, spider webs and drunken thoughts aimed upward, and all things being equal, we loved this bar. 
On a 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 and monsters these certainly were. Six-to-eight feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall, these beings 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. Massive, house-size trunks horizontal in pick-up-sticks disarray, the slash of dismembered limbs mixed into their upper, still-green canopies twenty feet deep in places. It was an immense mess, and that whole morning, as I waded through it with flaming drip-torch dangling from my gloved hand, my boots hardly touched the forest floor far below me. For centuries prior to this, that forest floor had seen no more than mottled spots of sunlight even on the hottest summer days. For centuries prior, 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 wood because Plum Creek was not obligated to concern itself with ecological disasters. It was only obligated to concern itself with quarterly statements. Simple, and 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(sic) 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.”
            Pinchot 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 more, 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 radical travelers 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 down 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 a 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 as 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 thoughtful pause 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, 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 the tangled branches as thick as my torso. But the problem was my boots. They were stupid, 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, though, are heavy and slow you down. I never used them, for piecework or for anything. 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, high-heeled logger boots, which were almost always made with an inexplicably-high heel as if you were a 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 a pair of custom fit White's 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, the kind of lamb chop that bumps up your heart rate because it’s just about to slip down into the flame and get ruined, and just so, with the fire starting to rumble beneath me, the transformation of hard carbon into a vapor of gases and ages into pure yellow heat fringed with waving orange flame, I got my first excellent view of the Afterlife, the 
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 are looking for, and within a blink of time that doesn’t even count as thought, I realized that, since I was I was obviously no genius, I could be a martyr. 
Stupid, high-heeled logger boots!...and that’s when they sprouted wings. Magic, the very ingredient in life that we kill ourselves seeking, revealed itself to me and I was once more the expert slash climber Plum Creek was paying me eight dollars an hour to be. I leapt, wormed, crept, burst 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 the funny kind, is deceptive, especially when you look back at it, so 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 vice versa, an upside-down imprint. It happens all the time. Ask any martyr. 
The real problem for me 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. 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. 
A wall of fire laughed at us as we drove down the crooked mountain fast, hit the valley blacktop and zipped on down to Seeley Lake where 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, to drink and to forget, because irony is just a human construct, after all. 

(from "Woods Hippy" by Bill LaCroix)