Saturday, March 1, 2014

January, Part 1

January, Part 1

WE HAVE a handful of garden chairs stacked in the porch area of our country home, and from time to time we lift the topmost two from the stack, dust them off, and carry them through dew-spangled grass to a point below the fruit trees and above the garden. A vista opens across the neighbor's field to a bluff, or ridge, locally called Jasper Mountain, in the distance.

The ridgeline has changed shape a bit over the years, due to human activity. There has been intermittent logging over the last century and a half, beginning with the harvesting of giant Douglas firs, some over eight feet in diameter. These were cut by pairs of men with long handsaws known as misery whips; you can still see notches in stumps where the men stood on springboards while making the cuts. Now the cutting is more mechanized. Second-growth or even third-growth timber is efficiently reduced to second-grade lumber and "fiber" by highly capitalized and industrialized systems requiring generous doses of petroleum for their operation.

A few houses have appeared on the mountain's slopes, no doubt built with lumber hauled from somewhere far removed from the ridge and its sometime groves. These homes are expansive, two or even three stories in height, with cupolas and dormers, with each a large veranda and no doubt a swimming pool in the back. These testify to the power of bundled debt – while that lasted.

To get to these homesites, roads several miles long were added to the existing network of what were originally logging access roads, removing still more forest cover from the steep slopes. The roads added to the burden of silt in the numerous rivulets working their way down from the ridgeline to the river below.

The river is stressed -- not nearly so much so as at the Big City, a hundred miles or more downstream, with its three-eyed fish -- but where running water is concerned, such stresses are cumulative over distance. Wherever we find them, it is possible to regard them with interest.

We can also see changes in the massive promontory that gives the mountain its name.

The rock there is relatively high quality, a greenish basalt that makes good gravel for roads and construction sites. A quarry has been built into the face of the mountain, and a road, discreetly hidden among the remaining firs and big-leaf maples, provides access for huge dump trucks and wide-bladed dozers with gigantic diesel engines. These we cannot see or hear from our place, but from time to time an explosion gently rocks the valley, and for a few minutes the mountain resembles a small volcano as the powdered stone drifts along the ridge and down to the long line of cottonwoods along the river.

The quarry does not much spoil the looks of the promontory, because from this distance -- or even up close -- it looks like nothing so much as a natural scree slope somewhere in the higher mountains east of here. But this, too, with its road and its heavy equipment, adds to the burden of silt, with trace hydrocarbons and heavy metals as well, in the watershed.

All too true. And as we look closer to home, watching the chromed and painted monsters passing in front of the house, breathing out their noxious fumes, and noting our own such beast reposing in our driveway, and thinking how soon we will be mowing the grass under these fruit trees with yet another poisonous machine -- and from here we can also see our electric meter with its merrily spinning kilowatt-counting disk -- We're as aware as ever of our part in the curious web of capitalized destruction that has been devised and substituted for what might have been Western civilization.

And yet we're feeling remarkably cheerful.

That cheer, we recognize, is hardly justifiable. We're the privileged, an American couple in a not-poor neighborhood, which makes us part of the most massively consumptive minority in history. Nevertheless, the beauty in the scene before us, of sky, clouds, trees, stone, and the neighbors' ewes and lambs, costs nothing in itself; the price of viewing Jasper Mountain, which, with all that has happened to it, is well worth looking at, is zero.

Now, on the one hand, we have "bought" the right to look; the ad said, "country house with view." On the other hand, when we were younger, and had no land, no car, no family to support, and were living out of backpacks and our feet were our transportation, we saw just such views, and they were just as beautiful then.

Ownership is perhaps the most overrated concept in Westernism.

Busy-ness is a close second.

By sitting here, there are several things that we're not doing. We're (at the moment) not driving to the mall, not shopping, not eating a hamburger, not watching a car commercial. We're not tooling around in an outboard runabout, or on a jet-ski or snowmobile. We're not attending a football game, auto race, or rock concert. I could build quite a list here of "nots," but -- not to worry -- you can think of more of these, and never mind that yes, sometimes we do choose to do some of these things; attend a conference in the Big City, say.

But we are actively choosing to do fewer things, and less consumptive things, not as avoidance, as in "oh, mustn't do that," but as seeking out activities that have the inestimable value that viewing Jasper Mountain has -- partaking of the quality of being that, because it has no price in consumerism, barely has a name, but which every person in the "third world" who is habitually freer and happier than we -- and there are many -- would immediately recognize.

Disengaging from the error of capitalized gratification by thinking of it as error, by focusing on the negative, is a project fraught with stresses, pitfalls, failures and depression.

We're too deeply enmeshed, many of us, to take the bravest positive approaches, exemplified, in recent history, by so few: Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Peace Pilgrim, Jane Goodall, Mother Teresa. These challenge us, and it's easy to focus on their commitment, conclude it is somehow unachievable for us, and drift back to our potato chips and our cable news, feeling vaguely depressed, wallowing in a gray fog of discontent with ourselves and our little self-defeating ways.

The good news is that none of them would condemn us for starting out with smaller goals.

A positive approach is not less positive for lasting for only a few years, or days, or even seconds. It is never a matter of scale.

Every moment of viewing Jasper Mountain is its own eternity of getting it right, and no one can ever take that away from you.

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