A distant shore


Yaquina Head Lighthouse

South Beach Reflection

Some of the weather was nice on the Oregon coast. I gather it’s not normally like this west of the Cascade ranges, but we had good weather. The sea was starting to act up, of course, surging onto the rocks and presaging the more rainy weather that dumped on us the whole way to the airport. 

In two coastal days, though, we saw quite a large amount of the Devil’s work: The Devil’s Lake, the Devil’s Tower, the Devil’s Punchbowl, the Devil’s Creek, the Devil’s Rock. The unified theme seemed to be features of the landscape that either were dangerous and looked it; or features that weren’t dangerous but looked dangerous; or feature that were dangerous but didn’t look like it. Collectively untrustworthy, individually potentially safe — keep a weather eye open for the sea, the land, and the spirits. 

The Devil’s Punchbowl

Cleft in colony island

So how do we work with a landscape that’s nominally America from sea to shining sea, yet has enormous variety in landscape, geology, bioregion, weather, and spirituality? Here, the sacredness clusters around gray whales and cedar trees; the latter are almost literally totem poles (along with cordage, basketry, tool handles, housing and travel {canoes}.  But fiberglass is also a sacred material, judging by the RVs and mobile homes, power boats and surfboards. And the new herb of the land is cannabis — there’s a medical dispensary about every two miles along the Oregon Coastal Highway. 

This is not a landscape of high-end bars and restaurants overlooking the water, skyscraper hotels and sprawling golf courses. There’s some of that, to be sure. It’s more Hampton Beach, NH than The Hamptons at the tip of Long Island.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s probably good that the local weather of stunning landscapes and nigh-constant rain hasn’t been turned into the playground of the super rich. 


But there is deviltry lurking here — there’s signs of tsunami warning evacuation routes , none of which appear to reach high-enough ground in enough time. On the Pacific side are steep cliffs… that slope down to bays and inlets on the landward side. Water in a geophysical upheaval event, an earthquake or a seaquake, will flow into the bays, rake over the towns tucked behind the cliffs, and the zone of devastation will sweep long distances inland over farm and wine country. It’s difficult to imagine, but the Devil has a trick or two still on the table when his Punchbowl overturns. 

Of course the land is beautiful. Rugged cliffs, broad beaches with such fine sand that the beach reflects the sky. Seals and sea lions, gulls and guillemots, bald eagles and bivalves. Western Oregon, the green coast, is as thoroughly adorned with beauty as a place can be, I think. There’s a party going on around the Punchbowl, the riotous interaction of land and sea and life, until such time as the dance cracks Earth and shatters Sea, and melts the land like wax. 

An eternity away yet. 

And tomorrow. 

The great river and the mountain


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.