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Sunday, March 14, 2010


“When I'm sampling from your bosom / Sometimes I suffer from distractions like / Why does God cause things like tornadoes and train wrecks?”
- Crash Test Dummies

Heritage Landing is strategically placed near the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia rivers. Pulling into the parking lot, I noted that there was only one other car and it might as well have been abandoned, considering all the other people that I saw, which was none.
The sun was hot enough that I imagined skinny or fit young people might do things like take their shirts off in public and try to get some color. It was considerably more nipple-y in the shade. The river was benign if not friendly and inviting. The surface of the water was wrinkled by waves, like a forehead thinking about something, but not thinking about it all that hard.
I prepared the kayak and wiggled into my new dry-suit. I’d been saving up for one ever since my trip to San Juan Island where The Oracle explained to me that my likely life expectancy in cold water approached a whopping 10 - 15 minutes. I was pleased to be wearing a bit of life insurance, but was a little concerned that I looked like a cross between a clown and the Michelin tire creature. Though I had trimmed the neck gasket with an X-acto knife to make blood circulation to my brain a possibility, it still seemed a bit tight as demonstrated by the red balloon shape assumed by my face. To be honest, it wasn’t clear that blood circulation to my brain would have much effect on my survival chances, so I called it good and shoved off.

As I paddled out into the current and was gently carried to the Columbia, I imagined how many times scenes like this must have played out at this spot throughout history. I thought of Northwest Indians setting out in elaborately carved dugout canoes to pioneer new trade routes for their lucrative salmon market. I tried to share in the illusion of humanity’s mastery over nature by lamely mimicking these earlier explorers who ventured into new and strange environments aboard specialized boats shaped over time by the great successes and spectacular failures of pragmatic generations trying to turn water into a road (phew! That sentence got a little away from me).
Sometimes I wonder if I have it all wrong. Were explorers really brave and smart and courageous, or were they the outcasts and the unloved who had no choice but to find some new niche?
It takes all kinds I guess.

Some aspect about sailing into the Columbia River Gorge is like sailing into time. Maybe it’s all the geologic history laid bare by the river when it was free and in its prime. Or maybe it’s the hostile desert landscape that fought off dense human habitation up until the advent of irrigation technology and fertilizer.

I gradually settled into a paddling rhythm - concentrating on taking efficient strokes until they became reflex. Somewhere in the middle of the river, also gradually, the incessant, blaring messages of our attention-deficit-culture began to fade away…
There are neuroscientists who say that our brains don’t have sufficient bandwidth to consciously evaluate all the sensory input we receive, so it delegates monitoring responsibilities to the brain stem and various other specialized structures and concentrates instead on recognizing the things that change.

I sensed the wind through the difference in sound from right ear to left ear, through feeling which part of my face was coldest, through how hard I compensated to keep the kayak from veering off course, from the pattern and direction of the waves, the sound of water lapping – sometimes slapping - against the bow, and through the fingerprints of invisible fingers that pressed ripples into the waves.

I set up camp in a new location that gave me easy access to the center of Miller Island and a back door to the high basalt cliffs that line its southward facing side.

A rapid drop in temperature reminded me that the day’s good weather was only the faintest rumbling of a still distant spring. But this pair of geese also reminded me that of all nature’s animals, I’m probably the only one that’s still single.

In summer, the basalt cliffs prove to be an irresistible location from which to watch the sun go down. But at this time of year, the sun traces an arc in the sky so far south that the Oregon rim of the gorge acts as an artificially high horizon. This makes sunset an extended event in which the actual presence of the sun plays no role. Instead, all the color in the world slowly gets sucked away. Vibrant blues fade to pastel purples and pinks, then gray…then black.

When the sun goes down in the city, streetlights automatically blink on. Families gather around dinner tables. Warmth and light leak past blinds and curtains and out of windows into the streets. Flickering T.V. shadows and dialogue betray the presence of unseen watchers in otherwise darkened rooms.
Out on the island, I endeavor to do my essential tasks, cooking, eating, preparing for the cold night, but in the end I have to fill big gaping holes of darkness and silence with that old retrograde pastime; thinking.

I ended up thinking about the book I had just finished, Pastwatch; The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. In the book, a remnant of civilization has survived a catastrophic plague event. They seem to be doing O.K. They appear mature and their technology surpasses ours, their major invention being devices that allow them to watch the past. It is a golden age for anthropologists.

The horrible surprise is that even though this older, wiser civilization is finally getting along and not engaging in wars, even though they have adopted sustainable lifestyles, even though they care about and encourage the potential of each individual, and even though the population has been substantially reduced, the environment has already been too severely damaged and the irrefutable numbers point to inevitable famine and the collapse of this last civilization. And when this civilization collapses, there will be no return since all of the easily obtainable resources that a new civilization requires are gone.

Have we already delivered the fatal wound to the Earth? Are we just waiting for her to finish bleeding out?

Maybe the Columbia is a case in point. From its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean, there are 14 dams constraining the once free-flowing river. This number doesn’t count all the dams built on the Columbia’s many tributaries (There are 227 major dams in the Columbia River drainage basin). These dams make the generation of electricity and irrigation possible, but also seem to have a major effect on salmon. We’ve learned to make fish ladders and limit our catches, but is it enough?

Or will we have ultimately already removed an important link from the food chain?

Undoubtedly, Miller Island today is a different island than it was before the construction of dams. Much of its lower expanse must now be under water. East winds currently seem to be blowing a sand dune down the middle of the island, and stands of trees appear to be struggling.

On the other hand, maybe this is just what trees do when they try to survive in arid landscapes. These tortured limbs remind me of the long lived trees that try to pioneer the timberline.

Miller Island has witnessed passage of an ice age and more recently the collision of civilizations. When I was taking high school history, the clash of civilizations was charitably called ‘manifest destiny’ (I’m not kidding). Manifest destiny was the idea that God had determined that the early United States should spread across the entire North American continent. Presumably, distributing small-pox infected blankets to indigenous people was only a very teeny tiny part of God’s plan.
While the distribution of blankets for purposes of germ warfare is hotly contested, the idea of manifest destiny is not. It was a popular idea that inspired U.S. territorial expansion. And just as some Christians were able to wink at genocidal activities because of a questionable interpretation of God’s intent, so too are some able to look at pollution, overpopulation, and climate change as inconsequential because of their belief in a special ‘escape clause’.

Nothing against God, but his spokesmen leave a lot to be desired.
In 2004, Newsweek reported that, “…92 percent of Americans believe in God, 74 percent believe in Satan and 75 percent believe there is a Heaven where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded. A majority (55%) believe in the “Rapture”, that before the world ends the religiously faithful (presumably only Christians) will be saved and taken to Heaven…”
Is it even possible to work out the politics of saving our world if more than half of us think we’ve got nothing to worry about since an apocalypse is inevitable and all the ‘good’ people are scheduled for departure before things get ugly?

Sam Harris writes, “We have become increasingly deranged by our own religious certainty. We have a society in which 44 percent of people claim to be either certain or confident that Jesus is going to come back out of the clouds and judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years. It just seems transparently obvious that this is a belief that will do nothing to create a durable civilization. And I think it’s time someone spoke about it.”

Life in the gorge still seems abundant…

…and surprising.

…yet human fingerprints are everywhere.

On this planet at least, life of some sort (bacteria? phytoplankton?) will likely struggle along until the sun finally dies. The trend for large brained primates isn’t very encouraging. As for intelligent life…well, we still may not have any evidence for that.

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