The River and the Moon

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There is no camera gear in the world that was up to the task of capturing the moon shimmering on the western water this morning, as we cruise eastward under cover of night toward Portland, OR. A little after 4:30 there was a knock at my door: dad, in his underwear, beckoning me from our cabin to the stern deck, there to see the setting Moon framed between mountains. A bend in the river took it behind those self-same mountains, a few minutes later.  But it was enough — the Moon is capable of shattering our unhappiness, our fear, our terror, especially if we encounter it in the right state, half-asleep yet startled from our beds.  We wake thoroughly to encounter the world in silence.

It was the same at Multnomah Falls. Despite the crowds, the rain, the place was tremendously green and lush. Despite the fact that we spent an hour round-trip on a bus that smelled of diesel to get there, and had maybe 30 minutes at the Falls, there was a serenity there, a joy. A bus load of kids from some school trudged up past us on their way to the upper bridge, looking lonely and wet in plastic ponchos. They came down the hill again cheerful, connected, peaceful. They were collecting high-fives from complete strangers on the way down. I myself got twenty-seven high-fives; it felt like a reunion with humanity.

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Water and the Moon both reconnect us to ourselves and to each other. They remind us of our humanity, our connection to each other.  And it’s often enough to wash away loneliness and fear. The Moon has a tendency to remind us that everything will be all right, eventually. Give it time. Give it another go-round. This too shall pass.

The great river and the mountain

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Yesterday, we left Kalama, WA by bus and went to the visitors’ center on the edge of the “red zone” around Mount St. Helen’s. The mountain erupted on May 18, 1980, ejecting thousands of tons of rock, ash, and pumice into the air. 

There wasn’t much to see. The upper reaches of the volcano were hemmed in by cloud cover; the roads that could have brought us closer are still knee-deep in snow. It’s the typical visitor center: interactive exhibits with buttons to light up displays, where each button has been hammered by so many schoolchildren that the bulbs or the buttons no longer work; sun-faded photographs laminated by plastic touched by so many fingernails that you’re not sure what you’re looking at; explanatory text blurbs that tell you everything and explain nothing. 

Why were this couple fishing on the river? Why did the logging company send a crew of four into the red zone on a Sunday for a regular work day? The mountain was bulging outward and upward at five feet a day for six weeks — a 210′ gain in elevation! Why would anyone go near it? What was so important about logging that they did this?

The lodge-master Harry Truman’s decision to stay in the house where he’d lived for fifty years makes more sense. “I am Spirit Lake,” he’s reported to have said, “and the lake is me.” He didn’t leave the land, and he and his house were likely buried beneath hundreds of feet of rock, mud, ash and water.

The land remade itself. This photo is deceptive, really: I was south and east of the mountain, and the region of devastation was north and west. It looks fully recovered here, but it isn’t. 

What is fully recovered, anyway? The volcano did what it’s supposed to: blow its top, shatter the trees, bury the lakes and remake the land. The plans and trees colonize the soil, remake it with the help of mycelium and bacteria and helpful insects. These happen in their proper time, not in human time. It’s only been thirty-seven years: both an eye blink and an eternity. 

The ash fell from the sky for weeks, all around the world. Among the things the ash did, was close the Columbia River to navigation. Today there are dozens of (currently empty) tanker ships waiting for cargo to transport to the world, thanks to the Coast Guard and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

The river and life 

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The world and the river

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There’s something remarkable about going to sleep on a boat on a river in the middle of the wilderness, and waking on a boat in the middle of a city.  An old city. 

Kennewick is just downstream from here. In 1996, some bones were found sticking out of the wall of silt along the Columbia River, barely a mile from where I am now. Dated to about 9000 years before the present, the local natives, the Umatilla nation, refer to him as “The Ancient One”.  People have lived here in dense settlements for a long time. When Lewis and Clark passed through in 1806, they found thriving and wealthy communities. 

Those communities are still wealthy. The dams of the Snake and Columbia rivers produce some of the cheapest electrical power in the world: glacial ice of the Rocky Mountains returning to the Pacific Ocean and the high desert between the Cascades and the Rockies as irrigation, wild fish farm, and gravity-powered energy. This water lit the fire of ten thousand suns: the electrical power of the Pacific Northwest fueled the Manhattan Project, refined the uranium and plutonium for the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and smelted the aluminum that built the ships and planes of World War II. 

Today, the electricity produced here for a penny or two per kilowatt-hour gets sold in Los Angeles, CA for 10-17 cents apiece: Hollywood’s blockbuster movies and CGiI special effects are born of this river; so are Seattle’s Amazonian online commercial wonders and Redmond’s Microsoft magic. The bathtub locks and salmon ladders make commerce and fishing possible all the way to Idaho, where Clarkston and Lewiston sit as the easternmost ports on the American Pacific coast, sending timber and grain and paper to the world. Even Silicon Valley’s technological achievements are fished out of this river system like so many salmon of wisdom — rerouted electrons shimmering like so many stars in the heavens, refashioned into to stuff dreams are made of. 
Hail, Columbia!

It occurs to me that Columbia is herself a goddess, but one who shares a certain cachet or category with Cerridwen. The poet-technologists watch her flowing, bubbling cauldron, and withdraw the gifts of prophecy and foresight and poetry and art from these waters. The goddess chases them all the way to the sea, shedding her gifts behind her as she goes, steadily and unhurriedly demanding what is hers— the right to reunite with Great Ocean. I don’t know anything about her identity in Native myth… I’m going to have to find out.