Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: These Feet of Rain

This is how life can turn,

on ghosts of smoke, spin of air

and flare of yellow as

clouds grab and release

the weighted, bilious sky.

My toes seek the rarified wetness;

my breath does not halt and drag.

This thundering morning

is not (for me) like the other eleven

as firestorms snagged and exploded

not so far from this locked, taped door.

Long hours have been disappeared into jaws of flame,

bound by smoke, thief and master.

Who believed that time could be erased

by a manic advance of fire that roared,

massacred like hordes unleashed?

There are too many who dread the final report.

But here, now, I unlatch, open my door a crack,

lift my nose to sniff a slick of breeze,

push outward inch by inch into open air,

step into the diffident moment and

an exhausted, mourning earth,

a world that still spins within loss.

I cannot believe any promise of full healing.

Every step now feels like a lingering cry,

a call to wilderness whose great heart blackens.

Still, now, these feet of flesh and rain

hold fast to the primal dirt,

my face lifting to a startle of sunlight.

Monday’s (Dream) Meander: The Gem of Yachats

Ah, what a picture of simple pleasure, even innocence. And good Yachats, how I long to see you!

I am dreaming of travel, any kind of small rambles, as I remain captive indoors here in Clackamas County, OR. It has been 7 days since Oregon’s catastrophic fires began to rage closer to our home and seriously threatening the county I live in. In fact, there have been 40,000 evacuated people, many of whom have lost their homes already in this county; 500,000 in all of Oregon have been evacuated; ten confirmed deaths with a dozen more persons missing at this time in Clackamas Co. The air quality is so hazardous–Portland metro’s is reportedly the world’s worst now– we are strongly advised to not leave our homes (those who have dwellings still).

So I have not set foot outdoors yet, though our suburban city (set among woodlands) is no longer on alert to evacuate since yesterday–a small mercy. I unpacked my “GO bags” finally this afternoon, a bit uncertain but trusting our experts. The constant barrage of images and news is hard to hear and see. Below is one terrible shot of the devastation not so far away. Some fires have been contained now; many others yet burn on and spread.

(Image on left: AP Photo/Paula Bronstein. Image on right: citizen Dale Voris, from car.)

Even large areas of Oregon’s Pacific coast lands (and of course, California…) have been aflame. But I believe beautiful Yachats has remained safe and in good shape. I’ll visit there today with you via photos from a trip in 2016. Most important, too, is remembering the wonders of Oregon, and that we’ve had many bad fires each year as this is part of living in the Pacific Northwest. Just not like this conflagration of 35 fires that have ravaged 1 million acres, so far. It is inconceivable to me.

You can see I have mixed feelings: relief and worry; gratitude and some lingering fear; hopefulness and sorrow. And I keep thinking of the people whose lives have been altered beyond recognition, some lives having been lost. And , as ell, the fleeing and harmed wildlife. Someone I know heard a cougar roar outside her bedroom window in the night. Yes, we live that close to these creatures and many others.

But at least here on WordPress we can take in a breath of fresh air, even when it happens with memories sparked via pictures. I value these even more today.

The village is a favorite because it is less touristy and gentler in mood, and I am fully absorbed by nature’s charms–which is always my first and last priority when I am not in the city. But no matter where I go–like so many– I enjoy cultural attractions, shopping a bit, savoring tasty food at cafes/restaurants. A local good place for coffee, baked goods and sandwiches is the Green Salmon. Another favorite stop is Earthworks Gallery. Many favorite pieces of jewelry have been found there over the years. This village lures artists of all mediums in residence. I can see why they end up staying…

I will get back to the green and the waves and the forest trails, the wildlife and open sky. Patience, I counsel myself. Faith in nature’s remarkable ability to regenerate. Even with such glaring evidence of climate change as these fires, there remain possibilities to improve things. I know environmentalists and others are working hard on it. We must–so that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may well inhabit and revere an earth they can yet call home territory.

Saturday’s Poem: Put Me Outdoors

Put me outdoors, into the arms of evening.

Let pungent winds enfold me, lift me to a hiding moon.

May birds whisper sweetness, cougars lie with paws close,

deer stir inside pearled twilight, eyes bright as honey.

Put me on a saved trail, into satin cloak of dark.

Let the sky find me, Cassiopeia and Cygnus, loyal Venus.

May waters ruffle and mirror, fish tip into blue hush of sleep,

river otters float among dancing grass, muddy stones.

This useless poem is trying to find itself,

is an urgent dream

as demon fires kidnap, possess

flailing branches, a tapestry of roots;

to punish the life-giving dirt;

smother forsaken ones, their dwellings of love.

How does one sleep in a night like this?

How does one rest when I cannot

step outdoors to take in a breath,

am not to trod the trails first

shaped by God’s mastery, of holy

regard for all? Days and nights

are sleepwalkers, are at the mercy of raging

otherness that covets the beauty.

Nothing but ash and tears track the stinging hours,

the birds silenced, the cougar screaming softly,

the deer racing and wandering lost, the fish–

the fish who float somewhere, waiting,

small sleek bodies shimmering

in garish light of ambush,

this curse of wildling fires.

My heart pounds the heavy drum of me

as forests fall, let go, are defeated, gone.

Please, put me outdoors into the mourning night;

grant me one prayer for gifts of the emerald life–

for healings to lift up all creatures once more,

to allow more worship in the arching realms of leaves,

under maps of a trillion stars, light messengers of hope.

Soon release us of this beast’s dominion

and teach us to become wise, how to live in these times

o God o God o God amen

(Close to a million acres have burned in Oregon in unprecedented firestorms. They burn near me. We wait for containment, for victory over them, and a long recovery.)

Wednesday’s Words: Wildfire Nightmare

This is an old picture taken near city center; what I see out my own window is far, far worse.

The sky beyond our conifers and deciduous trees turns pastel orange before 4:00 pm, and the jittery air beyond is clogging up with smoke. Since last evening we have been under a Level 1 warning for wildfires, which means our bags are packed, our documents are gathered and we are alert to changes in conditions. Our particular Oregon county–Clackamas Co.– is already partly engulfed by fires; a third to one half on the fire map is noted in a critical state, a deep red color. Though these are not yet too close to our home, they have already destroyed so many properties. We don’t know how many acres are charred, or what the loss of life and property is yet. But we have packed our bags and are alert to the ongoing reports and notices. Where will we go, with COVID-19 still circulating? An emergency shelter site? We’re thinking on a workable plan.

It is very difficult for firefighters and other agencies’ aid to keep on top of multitudinous firestorm areas, as we have been experiencing higher gusts of wind a couple of days; foliage and trees are so dry that ravenous fires spread rapidly. And we cherish our a multitude of trees, including this spot where we are. It is a fraction of the greater state of Oregon. There are 35 devastating wildfires burning now. And worse in California. There are some burning in the State of Washington, our neighbor across the Columbia River and Portland metro.

We have a yearly fire season; the Columbia Gorge in 2017 was a bad season. This time they are occurring in areas not often impacted, not ever as huge or close to suburban spots and many small towns. Thousands have been evacuated from the area, but south/southeast of us. Our governor has declared a State of Emergency, as there are these various and broad areas of raging fires. In fact, it has been called “unprecedented fire behavior.”

Unfortunately, sliding glass doors were left open a short while as potted balcony plants were watered early morning. Even before I came downstairs, I could smell it–that dry, noxious permeation of unmistakable if faint smoke. The doors were closed tightly again; we taped every window shut. We do not have an air purifier or even air conditioner. The good portable purifier broke a couple months ago. I didn’t think to replace it yet since my allergies don’t kick up until the leaves start to fall. So we’re sealed inside our townhouse. We’ve not needed the air conditioner as it remains evenly cool, even when temperatures reach mid-nineties. Why? Because we live among an abundance of trees…and face the west side, looking toward the Coast Mountain Range… where now the sky is not ordinary sky but a blanket of tangerine smoke that camouflages foothills and peaks.

It is ominous, strange. I feel secure here in the valley between mountain ranges. But now both an external and internal energy is powerfully unnerving, as if a suddenly unearthed demon spewed its breath across our astonishing and gorgeous topography. It feels irrelevant to calmly type as the smoke layers and bunches. The updates on fires are a constant background track to our days and nights. Just now another evacuation notice was posted, and people will flee with little in hand and hearts in their throats, pets under their arms and families rushing beside them. All the while knowing their homes will likely be gone, just like that. I cannot imagine such reverberating loss, not having endured it before.

This has been a blessing, to live within hills by rivers and forests, mountain ranges on both sides, beauty that is awe-inspiring. It has been both solace and joy to walk circuitous, challenging trails, visit rejuvenating waters that abound nearby. Now all we can do is wait out the horror of September 2020 wildfires and hope that the area is spared. Such a small word, hope, but essential.

Yet my words feel off-kilter as I try to think carefully–it feels uncomfortable or even wrong, for our state’s neighbors are not safe as they evacuate or wait to hear if they must go. None of us could imagine this, not here, not away from forested mountains. None of us are safe, nowhere near it yet. Not until towering fires are contained as dominating winds settle down–until our usual pure “green” air is near-breathable once more. It is enough to humble this woman, to threaten tears–but I remain vigilant, organized and prepared to leave all that fills this home if need be.

Think of us kindly, and countless numbers more. Discover and hold close all the gratitude for your lives. One never knows what is ahead–not in these peculiar and often dangerous times. I plan on writing another poem to share with you this Friday. Such is the nature of my own stubborn hope.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Where There’s Smoke, There’s More

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 128

I grow more uneasy, not less, as we drive towards Cannon Beach for a spontaneous Sunday on the northern coast. The weather report has noted a cooler temperature as it always is–blessedly in summer–at the Pacific Ocean. It has not noted anything unusual out there and the sun is high and blasting as we vacate city limits. My hair flaps in the breeze. Bare feet are pulled onto the seat as I lean back, watch landscape change from suburban to fields, forested to mountainous. But it looks hazy out there; an opacity develops mile by mile.

Now, smoke alternately obscures and suffuses more of the woodlands, hovers over hills and creeps into mountainous acreage. We roll up our windows as we drive farther, turn on the air conditioner. We still are philosophical as we travel on; it is the time of forest fires, the annual fire season. Surely as we arrive at the beach the ocean’s wind currents will have cleared it away. We will breathe fresh salty air and romp about all day.

Little to no rain has fallen for weeks and weeks, though this is not unusual during Oregon summers–we get at least four months of golden sunshine before the rains descend. Still, searing temperatures (90 degrees F or above) have turned fields and forests into combustible land in most western states. California has been subject to terrifying infernos in countless spots; Colorado has had a large number of fires. Parts of Oregon and Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and more have burned–the list has seemed longer this summer than last, when our beloved Columbia River Gorge succumbed in large part.

When I see the Fire Danger sign at “High” and smoke thickens in the distance, I roll down my window a few moments to peer into the trees. It is cooler at a higher elevation but not the unmistakable smoky scents assail nose and eyes. The air is denser with shadow about us, that yellowish-gray tint within mountain peaks and foliage. I check my phone for fire updates, certain we it is nearby and find none in the area. Still, we travel on to the beach if also with less confidence.

My consciousness is set on instinct, awake to possible danger and any lick of flame that might emerge around the next bend or rise. It is possible high on the mountain pass, tangled forest lining the road, miles and miles to go. All it takes is a cigarette butt not entirely safely extinguished, a campfire that was thought to be out but smolders after the tent has been packed and campers done–or lightning strikes from a storm that renders pitiful little moisture but triggers electric zigzags and bombastic thunder. I don’t have a clue what we would do if we were caught in a fire but Marc states clearly that roads would be closed off if there was any real danger lurking nearby. It is about then that I see a detour sign; Timber Road is closed (though I don’t know why). But traffic is heading to and returning from Cannon Beach. We still have hope this persistent smear of smoke will fall away and all will be well.

But it is not. The smoke not only lingers but appears more voluminous. Where, we wonder, can all this be coming from? We note a long back up of traffic on an exit we often take but that also can lead away from the beach, so take another one. Do they know some news we do not? We are still going to Cannon Beach. The feeling we have is that we may as well move forward as moving backward will yield us nothing but the same. We suspect, at least. We want to see and do what we can after an hour and a half on the road. At least give it a good try the pretty coastal town.

The place is packed as it always is in summer, despite a pale haze. I roll down a window and there is that unmistakable potent smell. I am waffling as we park. I know that smoke inhaled for long, even lighter smoke with its particulate matter, is not healthy especially for those with respiratory issues or heart problems. I have the latter. Still, we get out and stretch then decide to check it all out. We  do not want to give up the idea of a relaxing day on the beach.

The main street is streaming with vacationers but it is as if they are moving in slower motion. It seems grittier, has a blurry pallor rather than cheerful palette as is usual. But folks cluster at charming shops, huddle about tables at outdoor cafes despite temperate weather. They look a little bored, impatient. Some appear more stoic, amenable and carry on exploration and conversation with drinks in hand. I imagine how disappointing it could be to have booked a room a few days and wake up to smoke obscuring the views, no glittering sunlight on cresting waves or salt tang on lips. A few people have on respiratory masks which I’ve not seen here before.

As we approach steps that lead to the boisterous sea, a long line of people look over a railing to study sandy and watery expanses, cameras dangling against their chests. It is not a pretty sight, either the lackluster line or the scene. Not the usual jewel blue sky even when a bit of wispy fog or clouds scud about. Not the beckoning, gleaming ocean defining sandy reaches. The smoke has descended upon all like mild melancholia. As it softens all edges it also adds an unevenly textured cloak of grays and yellows: a smudge upon pristine waters and lofty horizon. In fact, I cannot see the horizon at all. It is not like fog, uniform, light-infused and airy. It seems heavy on the skin, sight line and mood. I feel privy to a strangely reduced environment, almost a quasi-apocalyptic feel but maybe that is because I know there are ravenous fires destroying acreage and homes, even killing people not that far away. It sobers me as I walk and gawk. Just three weeks ago we were on a four day vacation along the southern Oregon coast, and it was splendid there.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 072

There are people making do with this holiday time (though there is a couple in a car from Minnesota who get out and get right back in and leave). Families, couples and lone walkers set out with cavorting dogs, seeking sights they can barely make out. It’s as if all are intent on fun despite this prohibition against ebullience and pleasure. I get it. We descend the steps, determined to feel waves grab at our toes, seek agates, observe stalwart gulls.

But as we saunter , we also marvel over how weird it is to see smoke blanketing the famous beach, half-hiding an oft-photographed Haystack Rock and beyond. Groups of people are drawn to it despite the conditions. I photograph here and there, taking things in with bewildered interest. Children and youths are the most unaffected by the smoggy air, racing about, splashing in the surf, shrieking at one another, urging their parents on. They cheer me even as I study the tree line and feel sadness edge into my general well being. The ocean is almost warmish, a rare thing, inviting as we slosh through rolling waves of a low tide, pick our way through seaweed and hollow crab shells and gelatinous blobs.

And all the time I am thinking: how much hotter this earth has become, how many more monster fires now ravage it: how this changes everything and we are not prepared for it. The beasts in air and sea and on ground are not, either, how can they be? How much life has perished in multitudinous wildfires? Once extensive, poorly contained fires seemed a more rare event. A tremor of fear ripples through me.

Growing up in Michigan, a state dominated by forested land, vast lakes and rivers, I seldom considered fire except to be respectful of it. To appreciate its beauty and usefulness for a summer or fall campfire or glowing fireplace or wood stove or, more seldom, a pig roast and party. Since making my home the Pacific Northwest I have developed a greater perspective and even some anxiety about it. The media carries coverage of alarming wildfires routinely much of the year. A ruinous dominance of fire is what I’ve learned here, not its utility or magnetism. How it can turn life into ashen debris.

So we stand still to observe. Walk as long as we can. Sniff the rancid edge of air but also that whiff of sea breeze sailing in from far away–the sweetness and pungency of it. Only at the beach do I have no significant allergies. Only at the beach do we both feel cleansed in the certain ways that waves/beach/wind/rocks can offer. I love our rain forests but the sea mystifies me in ways both foreign and familiar. It always demands attention, shows off its powers, shares wild beauty and reminds me how small I am in my humanness.

I try to be grateful and positive we are at the Pacific Ocean again but the smoke is becoming too much, clinging as if dropped from a huge dusty bag to lurk and float about. My eyes sting; I cough a little. I want out from under it, want it off my skin and out of my chest–and we have been in it only a couple of hours. We find Fultano’s, a pizza joint, and enjoy a tasty meal with icy drinks, then browse at Cannon Beach Bookstore. Someone explains the smoke is arriving from the north, blowing down from Washington and British Columbia wildfires, not California and southern Oregon as we thought. Not it sits here a few days. I am surprised it’s come from as far as Canada. I wonder how the smoke as it travels will impact weather patterns, where it will blow to descend next.

As we drive through and leave Coastal Mountains I follow ominous smoke, watch as it alters colors and shapes of surrounding land, as it so darkens late afternoon. As the elevation lessens again, it may be slowly fading; it might be gone soon. But, not: when we come closer to home we can see it has visited Portland. The waterfront of city center doesn’t sparkle as usual when summer light dresses it up in finery; it lies  sullen under heavy, smutty air as the start of sunset signals end of day. Proud Mt. Hood, a beacon as we enter the city, is hidden behind it. nightfall when I peek out, the half-moon glows red through a darkness made murky by the haze.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 133

As I write this it’s been over four days of smoke dominating our activities in Portland and I know that this isn’t at all long compared to countless people seriously impacted. I’ve taken a couple brief walks in evening or early morning when it is perhaps less oppressive but I still feel the sting of the smoke–I can’t risk breathing too much  of it with heart disease. The neighborhood seems emptier with fewer runners, cyclists and scampering dogs with cheerful, chatty owners. Many of us are or feel captive indoors. My restless body and spirit long to play and work outside, just as in any season. The windows stay closed, the air conditioners on full blast to cool and filter our air. I run the purifier all day long. I can still smell it as it seeps into my home. Fires are engulfing much of northern California. They flare and spread in Western states as well as Canada’s besieged provinces. It is taking a heavy toll. We hope for the salvation of a number of serious drenchers to fall upon the flaming diverse and magnificent lands. It may be a long tough wait. It may bring too many more tears before it cools and starts to settle once more.

(To read a post on Oregon’s 2017 wildfires click here: https://talesforlife.blog/2017/09/06/beauty-and-this-beast-wildfire/)