There's nowhere else in the world quite like the Northern Rockies. And it's not just because this is one big fuckin' mountain range that literally bisects most of the North American continent. Nope, there's something else to 'em; something far more mysterious and foreboding than my beloved Cascades or Klamaths. Perhaps it's the absolutely unfathomably steep terrain where mountains seem to have mountains growing upon them. Or the dark hollows where direct sunlight hasn't hit earth in 20 million years. Or the gnarly history of mining, logging and genocide that hangs in the air as much as the sweet smell of color changing Gambrel Oak. Whatever it is, this bioregion spooks me the fuck out.
And the timing of this trip to Flathead Territory hasn't diminished my sense of unsettled, but very much impending doom one iota. The autumnal equinox passed three days ago and you can literally feel the world writhing its way between seasons; in the air, under your feet, before your eyes. Late season thunderheads sail across the sky like some phantom armada of empires past. A cold wind, damp with the flirtations of winter swings through the woods with a hollow sigh. The larch have turned yellow in anticipation of their yearly molt, while the huckleberry turn the color of freshly spilled blood. Wolves have been howling their ominous laments over and over in those dead hours between night and dawn. Nature's reluctant comedian, the snowshoe hare, has begun its annual transition from brown bunny to white bunny. The grizzly bears are out hoarding whatever foodstuffs they can find before the sirens of hibernation call them to six months slumber. Like all other mammals in the Northern Latitudes, I can feel the portence and possibility of the seasonal shift coursing through my blood; not in some detailed woo woo prescription, but in the instinctual sense that shit is changing in profound and powerful ways.
Not sure what shape or texture these changes might be, I hiked up to an exposed ridge line. There's nothing quite like being a completely exposed target to help lure some divinity or change. Along this ridge, windblown Lodgepole Pine share space with the occasional Spruce and Ceanothus bush and it seems like you can see from one end of Creation to the other.
I sat down on an exposed rock and looked Westward to the High Rockies. Like all good woo woo motherfuckers, I was ready for some change, I just wasn't sure what this change was gonna reflect. I closed my eyes, cleared my mind, took a deep breath and waited for the changes to come; or barring that, maybe some enlightenment. Or even a little trinket of wisdom. A smidgen of insight? I waited. And breathed. And waited some more, but all I could feel was the pounding of my heart and the pokey rock pushing up through my jeans.
Expecting change or enlightenment is like going to a thrift store looking for something in particular. If you ever need or really, really want that thing to be sitting there on the green tag rack, there ain't a damn chance of it being there, but if you're not expecting it, poof! there's the perfect pair of 501s or that perfect Clash T-shirt from 1981. Of course, sitting on a beautiful ridgetop anxiously awaiting change is not only a bad Carlos Castañeda cliché, but a recipe for failure (Although for some reason, rest area bathrooms, the slow line at Trader Joes and seedy backrooms at bars are all perfect places to stumble upon wisdom).
Anyhow, after a few minutes of waiting and taking deep breaths, my ass started to hurt and with a bit of guilt, I opened my eyes and looked around. No lightning bolts, no smoldering ruins or mushroom clouds, nothing to indicate that anything had changed at all. Sure, I was disappointed. Here it was autumn, in the Rockies, on top of a gorgeous ridge and nothing at all divine had happened.
So I consoled myself by surveying the scenery. There were a few of the usual rocky outcrops you'd expect from a range like the Rockies. A waterfall, a couple snowcovered peaks. And damn, way more fucking clearcuts than you'd ever think they had in the Rockies. In fact, as I looked downhill from my little alcove, I realized that the only reason I had such a good view was that some dude with more torque than common sense had the foresight to cut down every tree for 2000' either direction.
Like any good peace punk with an eco twinkle in their eye, I started woeing the errors of men and cursing the godless sky and conjuring up images of avenged ecosystems. I vowed death to the horrid individuals who drafted such awful forest practices and lamented the permanent loss of yet another beautiful hunk of Nature. I pouted and mourned for the land that wolves and bunnies and grizzlies would never again frolic in. But then, like magic, changes came. Ok, so it wasn't so much "revelation" as it was that the pokey rock had put my left buttcheek to sleep. I bent forward to hopefully get some feeling back in my 'cheek when I happened to notice that the entire clearcut I was sitting above was carpeted in a fine shag of larch, spruce, lodgepole and subalpine fir.
I suddenly felt really fucking silly. I had turned myself into a fucking stereotype of the whiny, overdramatic, emotionally crippled environmentalist, even when I was by myself. There I was, moaning and groaning and assailing the sensitive ears of lodgepole with my profane declarations of war against the insensitive system of domination we call the US timber industry, all the while ignoring the heroic acts of Nature as it bounced back from yet another divot in its billion year history.
All too often we ecos act like we're playing in some Broadway play where we might just win a Tony Award for the "Best Performance in Decrying a Crime Against Nature" category. We throw our hands in the air and declare that this, a XX acre cut in XXXX drainage of XXXXXX River of XXXXXX bioregion, has ushered in the apocalypse. I can remember a few years back hearing "And if one more fucking tree gets cut we're all gonna die!" come out of my own mouth, even when any halfway rational being could see that it wasn't true.
And my comrades have ushered in thousands more. "The forests will never again grow here." "Humanity cannot exist if this sale in Northern Patagonia gets cut." "Fuck you asshole, turn off your saw! Don’t you know that 110% of the world's oxygen comes from this forest!"
But the fact of the matter is that, aside from making environmentalists look stupid (which in turn makes us less effective) these claims to apocalyptic prophecy just aren't true. As much as clearcuts are horrible and shouldn't happen, at the same time, there's enough evidence against clearcuts from scientific, fiscal, and aesthetic sources to keep us from having to grovel in the cataclysmic turf of Christians ever again.
Nature can bat back from just about anything thrown at it. Firestorms, ice ages, oceans flooding and receding, toxic clouds of volcanic ash, yet another Justin Timberlake album, you name it and Nature has probably seen it, felt it and recovered from it. In the span of natural history, a clearcut is a relatively minor disturbance to land that has been torn by geology, bathed in fire and washed in the sea. Is this an argument to help meanspirited people with no sense of exterior woodland décor clearcut more? Fuck no. It's merely taking a moment to remember that when we allow rhetoric and melodrama to supercede the power of Nature, we essentially deny the power of everything we claim to love.
The revelations continued as the wind switched directions and grew drier, yet colder. For no real reason, I started thinking about the drive from Portland to Montana and my visceral responses to different land uses. One stretch of road gets me in particular, the road up through Trout Lake, Washington. Here, just North of the Columbia River Gorge, there's a large shelf in the Cascades where quaint family farms sit below forested hillsides which sit below the glacial features of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. I've had a crush on the land there since the first time I saw it 15 some years ago and to this day, my heart gets all pitterpattery just thinking about it.
But one of the things I retroactively caught myself doing along the White Salmon/Trout Lake road was cursing the abundant clearcuts while admiring the multitude of small organic farms. Why is this weird? 'Cuz it's totally hypocritical.
In strict terms of biodiversity and ecology, a farm, even a small, organic family farm, is a complete and total eco-holocaust compared to even the worst clearcut you can think of. In a clearcut, more or less every woody plant is either severed or crushed by the falling and yarding of logs. Soil structures, vegetative makeups and nutrient cycles are most definitely affected, but the essential components of natural processes are still present.
In creating a farm, well, let's just say you do all the bad stuff that a clearcut does (i.e. cut down every fucking tree and shrub), but then you till the soil (transforming soil profiles Nature took millions of years making), you plant non-indigenous plant species (which further exclude Native Species by altering nutrient cycles), then you remove nutrients from the land (by removing seeds or fruits) which have to be replenished by artificial fertilizers like shit and compost (which only further aggravate all the aforementioned wounds). And throughout the agricultural cycle, the diligent farmer will do all they can to prevent the restoration of the land's natural cycles, 'cuz well, they will only fuck with your ability to grow more food or pot.
So why in the fuck do I, in my best cute puppy voice say "Ahhhh… Look at that gorgeous farm over there with its lush green crops and budding orchards and bountiful gardens!" and then turn around and see the fresh clearcut on the hill and be ready to blow my top? Sure, a well maintained farm is way prettier than even the best executed clearcut. But maybe this prejudice stems from a cultural understanding of beauty where we appreciate making land subservient to humyn interests so long as primal urges are fulfilled (the need to eat) versus what clearcuts are extrinsically good for, which in the end turns out to be $8 2x4"s at Home Depot.
And why do I feel like a traitor for having an ecologically correct revelation involving my thoughts? Because farmers are regarded as heroes (as long as they're organic) to the punk scene while loggers are chastised as being assholes, even though farmers and loggers perform the same tasks, just in different areas of humyn wants/needs?
A blast of cold, damp air raged through my open necked shirt and derailed my train of thought. The latest in a series of storm systems had arrived. It was time to get off the ridge.
I took the long way back, hooking West through a grove of the fattest Larch I'd ever seen in my life. As the sun set over the High Rockies and one by one the layers of mountains grew grayer and grayer before disappearing into the blackening sky, the grim reality of humyn existence once again hit home. There is nothing glamorous or valiant about the mammalian experience on earth. Everything passes exactly how it has evolved to. Just as wolves shed and bunnies turn from white to brown and back again, we humyns grow hair, lose hair, gain perspective, lose perspective, believe things, disbelieve things, hate techno, love techno, ad nauseum. It's the way the world has functioned since the first multi-celled slime decided it was a good time to start breathing and giving live birth and unless that long awaited cataclysm arrives, will be the way it is for a long, long time.