Alvord

Someone to lean on. Ray and I in the Alvord Desert.

Someone to lean on. Ray and I in the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord Desert is 12 miles long and 7 miles wide (19 x 11 km). Located in the far southeast corner of Oregon at about 4000 feet (1200 m), it's an ancient dry lake lying in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain, a 9,733 foot (2,967 m) fault-block of basalts and lava. The nearest community is Fields, Oregon, population 86. The desert is ideal for the breaking of speed records (Jessi Combs lost her life here in August attempting to beat her own record) and land sailing is popular. But the remote location keeps casual tourists way. We drove 846 miles RT from Portland.


At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning I woke to the still brightness of the slowly setting harvest moon. It lit the tent like daylight and I could no longer resist its call. I pushed myself off the cot, dressed, and walked into the desert. The sun was merely a hint of orange in the eastern sky and it would be more than an hour before it touched the desert floor.

All was silent. We had camped on the south end of the flat playa and as I looked north I could see nothing but mountains and the pale, utterly flat ground at my feet. I started walking.

There were no lights, no people, and no noise. I watched as the moon, who seemed to be taking her time setting, turned pale and translucent against the blueing sky. I kept walking, ambling really, in no hurry to get anywhere, just walking north on the endless flat with the rising sun off one shoulder and the moon off the other. Utter silence. Even my footsteps were muffled on the dry cracked earth.

Ever so slowly the sun began to show itself above the low hills to the east, and I looked west toward the Steens to watch the first light touch its ragged top and begin its journey down the mountain. The moon had not obviously moved but clearly Earth was turning.

I looked back toward camp and was surprised to see how small, alone, and distant it was. There were other campers, but miles north near the hot springs. The world was soundless and I was alone in it, walking and watching the shifting light and stopping occasionally to internalize as much of the beauty as I could.

There are mountain goats and wild horses on Steens Mountain, and deer, and other native creatures, but if there is life on the desert floor I saw no evidence. No bird showed itself. This dead sea floor always reminds me of the parched earth around my Northern California home at the height of summer. Parts of the yard never saw water unless it rained, and as the summer lengthened the earth dried and the cracks widened and broke open.

The Alvord is miles of cracked white playa, though five to seven inches of moisture fall yearly, mostly in summer thunder showers. On this morning the rising sun had painted the cracked edges—just for me apparently, since I was the only one about. They are no longer shallow fractures, but artistic black shadow-lines, like carefully etched India ink drawn across the pale floor. I looked for patterns and wondered if fractals were at work here.

The Alvord was always a favorite spot for Ray and I to visit, camping at the west foot of the Steens and driving around the foot of the mountain to the desert, to soak up the soundless, empty space. Sometimes we came with friends, sometimes just the two of us. It is a place of memories for me, and though it seemed odd to be here without him, I felt an overwhelming peace.

At last the laggard sun had reached the desert floor. The moon still hung in the west but her light had gone and she was barely discernible. The western foothills glowed ocher and the distant mountains to the south were pale pink and purple. My shadow, which at first touch of sunlight had been all legs, was now assuming a more human shape, and I turned my back on the silent beauty and longed instead for coffee.

I walked and turned back, walked and turned back, reluctant to leave this loved and lovely place. Life, however, has its own demands, and when I finally reached camp my friends were awake and water for coffee was on the boil.

A dark anniversary

As you no doubt know, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery into the United States. I wanted to know more. I checked my People's Chronology and found this entry in 1619: "The first black slaves to arrive in the Virginia colony come ashore from a Dutch privateer whose booty includes Spanish plate and 'twenty negars.'"

No date for their arrival is given and no other comment is provided regarding this historically important event. The book also reports that on November 30th, 30 Englishmen celebrated the first Thanksgiving aboard the ship Margaret, which touches at the Virginia shore.

It's rather ironic that slaves and Thanksgiving both arrived before the Mayflower pilgrims (1620).

But now it's been four hundred years. Four hundred years and we're still arguing about bussing and equal education and fair housing?

Four hundred years and innocent black boys and men are still being killed for no apparent reason? Still being arrested at more than five times the rate of white men? (For drug charges it's six times higher.)

Four hundred years and black women are still paid 61 cents (white women earn 80 cents) while their white male colleagues earn $1? But hooray, yesterday, August 22, was "equal pay day" for black women, meaning that their entire 2018 salary plus their 2019 salary to that date finally equals what a white male earned in 2018 alone. According to CNBC, "This disparity is present regardless of education, location and age and it persists in both high and low-paying positions."

Yes, Lincoln freed the slaves, and yes we passed the 14th amendment, and yes there was Reconstruction, which melted into Jim Crow laws as soon as the troops were pulled out of the south. And yes, those laws remained in effect until 1964.

Four hundred years and we still haven't solved this problem? And I haven't touched on the racist language and symbology that is rife in the culture. What is wrong with us? Yes, things are better now; yes, we're making slow progress—emphasis on slow. I am ashamed for myself and for my country. We keep saying "We're better than this." Are we?

In praise of geraniums

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I write from the porch, where I'm appreciating the warmth of this summer day and the several blooming geraniums crowded together in a narrow strip of sunlight. (We won't talk about the plants that struggle, despite copious dosings of insect spray and fertilizer.) It has taken me too long to learn what works here and what doesn't, and what works are geraniums. So no more buying exotics, or anything needing pampering. Life's too short.

I suspect my age has made me more appreciative of the always reliable geraniums, or of anything, in fact, that can be relied on not to break, quit, decay, or go out of style. I admit to craving a bit of style on occasion, but it mostly hangs unworn in my closet while I grab jeans and a tee-shirt. I can't decide if I've reverted to childhood, or finally come to my senses.

And maybe it's not my age but the age I live in that has me craving consistency. Life moves in herky-jerky ways that surprise and confound us on a daily basis. I wake each morning afraid to check the news, for surely yet another shock has been administered overnight to our collective psyche. How do reporters and news readers bear it?

No wonder the geraniums are comforting. I knew them as a child in sunny California and here they are on my mostly shady Oregon porch looking just the same. Continuity is good.

I read recently that Americans are all suffering a kind of PTSD. That feels overblown to me, but I don't doubt those who live on the edge—of poverty, illness, or any disaster—are especially susceptible to the constant yammering and hammering at the pillars that used to hold us all up. It must make grabbing a gun feel so reasonable.

Don't worry, I'm not about to grab a gun. But given the fetid atmosphere that issues from the Whitehouse, global economic uncertainty, and the hundreds of daily downers that reach us via social media, we can expect continued disruption and violence—until we don't.

It's not true that individuals can't make a difference. I watched my activist husband do it again and again. Not all of us can be activists but all of us can be kinder. We can listen. We can tamp down the urge to make a snide comment, or cut off another driver, or fail to offer a smile to those who serve us. We can keep our own stress levels down by turning off electronica and taking a walk or hugging a tree—or maybe a geranium. If a butterfly in Mexico can cause a typhoon in China, what do you think a smile can do?

Surprise!

It won't surprise you to know I watched both nights of the "debates," which should more properly be called "confrontation contests" or "pointless-way-to-spend-two-hours competitions." I had enjoyed the first two, hosted by NBC, but I found these boring and irritating. It's not that I don't like the candidates, I do. But there are so many.

And I knew what would happen. Bernie would turn red and wave his arms, Warren would have a plan, Biden would equivocate, Harris would be combative, and Buttigiege would speak in well-formed sentences and perfect paragraphs. And the rest of them would fight for air time.

I didn't foresee CNN moderators continually pitting one candidate against another instead of eliciting information, though I suppose I should have.

So why did I watch? Because I keep hoping for something better. Because this feels like the most important election in my lifetime. Because I need to know that help is on the way.

To clear my mind this morning I listened to a podcast interview with Ross Gay, a writer and professor of English at Indiana University. His book of poetry, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and his book of essays, The Book of Delights, are expressions of his belief that joy is available to us at all times in all places. "How can we not be joyful," he says, "especially in a moment like this?"

Like Mr, Gay I believe that joy is not limited to major events. It can be found in all kinds of ways, most often in the little things life offers up each day.  The smiling checkout clerk who offers to carry your bags, a butterfly landing on your arm, the laugh of a baby in a stroller.

Many years ago, my college roommate suggested a nightly "rule" that Gay's interview brought to mind. No matter how late it was or how tired we might be, the light could not be turned off until we each identified a "pleasant surprise" the day had brought. There were, of course, days when that was easy, like getting a passing grade on an unexpected test. Other days the task seemed impossible. We were young; college life was confusing, challenges were daily events. "Nothing good happened!" But yet, as we carefully reviewed our day, we always, always found a pleasant surprise.

If help is on the way, this is how it will arrive. It's going to be a long year of political ups and downs; elation and discouragement. But by focusing attention on the thousands of small events and pleasant surprises that make me happy every day—even joyful—I will get through it. So may we all.

Winners all

Today I'm celebrating the winning World Cup soccer team and their co-captain Megan Rapinoe. What happiness it was to see them win—under tremendous pressure—by welcoming that pressure and showing the world what women of grit and determination and talent can do.

The word hero isn't one I use everyday, but the country desperately needs heroes, and Megan Rapinoe is one. I watched her on television last night, and I saw part of the ticker-tape parade this morning, and on each occasion I loved her radiant joy in winning and her proud celebrating of the team and herself. I saw no smugness there, no misplaced self-satisfaction, hardly any ego. She's just telling it like it is. This is what women do. This is how women win. This is the way life should be for all of us.

How can we translate this joyous love of self, others, and country into a meaningful conversation about what's not changing and what desperately needs to change? We have a president who seems bitter about everything, whose failures are always someone else's fault, whose very presence on the world's stage casts a pall that, like an undertow, pulls the rest of us down.

It's like watching split screen TV: his dark irascibility and wrath vs. the light and joy that Rapinoe and her teammates represent. It is our country's dilemma writ large. Shall we welcome the challenges and accept whatever comes with joy, or cower in bitterness, blame, and hate? Given those parameters it would seem an easy choice but Trump is formidable. Today, however, Megan rules. Away with the darkness; I'm joining the ladies.

Where lines cross

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The path you see pictured is part of a 1.6 acre state park, the Willamette Stone State Heritage site. If you follow it to its end, not too far, you'll come to a survey marker called the Willamette Stone. A cedar stake was placed there on June 4, 1851 by John B. Preston, the first Surveyor General of the Oregon Territory. In 1885 it was replaced with a stone obelisk.

I know this because the park borders the eastern edge of the condominium property where I live. It's a pretty little park but unfortunately the fence on the property line means one can't get there from here without driving.

I like it though, it's quiet, and feels more remote than it is. Each time I find myself thinking about the surveyors, James Freeman and William Ives, and how they found this point, on this hill. It seems an out of the way place to designate such a critical crossing of meridian line and baseline—a point from which all land in Washington and Oregon is measured.

The grid system used throughout the Northwest Territories was suggested by Thomas Jefferson, and clearly someone saw that a survey marker was needed if the territory was to grow. I admire that foresight. I'm impressed with the intelligence that figured it out and did the work with 1850s equipment.

As humans we're always on the alert for markers and patterns. Our brains seek them everywhere as it tries to make sense of the world and what it tosses at us daily. So maybe what I like about this spot is the clarity and simplicity it signifies. Here is where two lines cross, Meridian and Baseline; here is a marker. Go.

I've been listening and reading about the power of, and unseen connections between, the five technology companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). The interwoven complexities are enormous and the influence they have over our everyday lives—in ways we fall far short of comprehending—is worrisome and discouraging. (For instance, read Life Without the Tech Giants by Kashmir Hill.)

So it's not surprising to find simplicity appealing. Two men used solar compasses to designate a point that is still used almost two hundred years later. Even if we don't succumb to global catastrophe I doubt those technology companies will survive 200 years. But I'll bet the survey stone will still be there.





The view from the porch

I had my coffee on the porch this morning but the warming sunshine called so I did three loops around the lake, where there are still baby ducks to see, and goslings. They are growing fast, but still observant of their parent's wishes. I watched a Canada goose family sail across the water; mom in front and dad in back and between, in a perfectly straight line, five young geese, almost grown. It was a sight to make you smile, and their undeviating line was strangely comforting. Here at least was an orderly world, going about its business just as it should.

Our human world isn't particularly comforting at present. The president's statement Thursday that of course he would accept help from a foreign country has kept the media and twitterers spinning. At least he's being honest for a change. But we still have tariffs and kids in cages and the ongoing impeachment debate, to name just three of a host of ills.

But there is comfort here in the warm breeze and nature's surrounding green. There is hope in the bountiful selection of capable Democratic candidates, in the growing acknowledgement of the climate crisis, and so much more. I try to remember that it is not the world that makes me happy or sad, it is my thoughts about the world. It is how I choose to see it. So for the moment at least, I choose to see the world as a welcoming, comfortable porch where magic dwells, and only good can enter.