I’m standing outside of a house in Gresham with one of my clients. A contractor is pushing his thick fingers into the garage doorway. He pokes randomly at the wooden frame, sending bits of yellow paint and dry rot into the air.
“Yeah, this is all rotted,” he says and continues his poking. He walks around the other side of the house and points to the siding where it meets the concrete foundation. “This wasn't properly painted over the years,” he says. To prove his point he kicks at the siding, sending chunks of it flying.
I feel like telling him to stop. We get the point, I want to say.
My client looks nervous, “This is a nightmare,” she mumbles at me and pulls out a cigarette.
“If it were me, I would replace all of this,” the contractor says gesturing to one side of the house.
He has already led us around all sides of the house. The deck is rotten, the doorway frame of the garage is rotted, the back wall of the garage, where the dryer vented into the wall, needs to be totally replaced. It seems as if half the house is rotted. As the contractor continues to talk to my client, I think about the house’s deferred maintenance, how Oregon’s wet climate slowly disintegrates human efforts; when I show houses I teach my clients to check the roof for moss. The fuzzy green plant will slowly tear a roof apart. The wet creeps in everywhere: mold in the bathroom, rot along the edges of unpainted wood, moss on the roof, mushrooms and termites in the crawlspace. This is our cross to bear in the Pacific Northwest: if you’re not careful your house will drown and rot in the slow drip of Oregon winters.
I’ve been casually reading a book about a research forest in Oregon. One of the interesting points that the book makes is about our huge conifers; evergreens on the west coast grow bigger than anywhere else in the world. We have more biomass and larger trees than the Amazon. But why? The author hypothesizes that the large trunks of the conifers work like a camel’s hump – a way to store water through the dry summer. It’s true that for two to three months there is hardly any rain in Oregon. And then the rest of the year it rains nearly constantly. It’s not just a coincidence that the trees are big here. I think about how us settlers have adapted and not adapted to our climate. Is it worth building houses out of wood? Should we even live on the Sandy River? Are umbrellas really useful? Now that we’ve destroyed all the native forests, are we obligated to maintain a veneer of authenticity in their management?
In April I wrote about logging and “old growth forests” in Oregon. I think about them again as I follow the contractor and my client around the rotting house. It seems we are fighting a losing battle; our old growth forests, the ones that remain, are essentially huge piles of rotting wood garbage. They are one of the few ecosystems that release as much carbon dioxide as they consume, resulting in a net zero oxygen production. Meaning, in one sense, our rain forests aren’t even “ecofriendly.”
In a way, our constant battle against rot, seems like denial. Our lifestyle fights against nature instead of embracing the ecosystem we inhabit. We think we are in control...but we aren't. I have been thinking a lot about grief and its stages lately; grief about our changing city, grief over our lost old growth forests, how grief is a process. Our culture is in denial, only the first stage. It’s a carry-over from colonialism – this belief in the inherent superiority of our way of life. Instead of modeling our culture more closely to the peoples who originally lived here before us, we plow forward convinced that we know best. I am reminded of Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, where he talks about the Greenlanders who starved to death rather than adopt an Inuit lifestyle, a lifestyle that had been practiced successfully in Greenland for thousands of years. Instead they tried to model a Scandinavian agrarian lifestyle and limped along for a couple hundred years until giving up/failing.
Looking around it doesn't look like our culture is failing, that we are fighting a losing battle against nature, but I have a nagging fear that the next hundred years will reveal the ugly truth. Globally, temperatures are rising and the oceans are acidifying. Locally, Native Americans mourn the loss of traditional gathering areas for huckleberry and other native plants central to their culture. Salmon die in warm shallow waters, Portland is crowded. I don’t go hiking in the Columbia River Gorge on the weekends anymore because it has turned into Disneyland. The lost past and the lost future weigh heavy if you let it.
On Monday I went up to the top of Larch Mountain with my sister, a friend and my nephew. I grew up on the side of Larch Mountain. My whole life my dad had been telling us a cautionary tale about a boy he knew who fell to his death at the top. The story goes that two Corbett boys, two brothers, were playing with Poopa-troopers, those little parachute men they sell at dime stores, and one boy went down to fetch his and fell off the cliff and died.
I think about this story every time I go to the top of Larch. My sister and I joke about it to her son. Telling him he can’t climb out on the cliff. They have a chain-link fence now, encircling the top, but this doesn’t stop people from endangering their lives by climbing over it. When we arrived there were about fifteen young people on the other side of the fence, huddled together on the steep boulder watching the sunset. They kept walking around and the older adults would yell at them every time they went too far. On the platform, behind the fence, was another group of older adults, probably a photography club with their fancy cameras pointed at the setting sun. It was quite irritating. They were all blocking the view.
I griped about the crowd after we got in the car to leave. I knew I sounded petty, but that’s the thing about grief, it’s an endless process – no matter the pettiness or uselessness of raging endlessly. Deep down, I think I’ve accepted that the Oregon I knew growing up is gone, but every new injustice, each new grievances opens the wound and I have to sigh and go through the process one more time. Staying in the anger and denial is totally counter-productive, but grieving is nonetheless human and necessary.
Last week I went to a vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando. One of the speakers said, “A culture that doesn’t grieve, is a violent culture.” It’s true and we have so much grieving left to do. It is our work. Let’s get to it.