Friday, December 3, 2021

Amtrak Changes the Route

     I am so mad at Amtrak!
    For many years I have taken the train between Eugene, Oregon, and Tacoma, Washington, where I get on a ferry for Vashon Island to visit my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. I loved that ride, which crossed grand rivers and traveled through marshlands and woodlands after it left Portland, and then—the best part—traveled along the Puget Sound, with islands offshore, ferries chugging through the water, and, when the weather was fine, a view of snow-topped Olympic Mountains across the sea. When the train passed boathouses and houseboats, I imagined what living on water would be like. When it went past waterfront parks, I watched people walking along the shore and children playing on swings, water birds stalking along beaches, water softly lapping not far from the train tracks. Then the beautiful, long, graceful Narrows Bridge arched into view, with its double span, one green, one gray. After that, vision shut down in the dark tunnel just before the train arrived at the Tacoma station.
    I always made sure to sit on the left side of the train, the water side. I loved that journey.
    Once on the way back from Tacoma, after the train had left the Puget Sound and was traveling through marshes and woods, one of the conductors came on the intercom to apologize for our having stopped to let a freight train pass. Then he started reminiscing. He had wanted to work for Amtrak ever since he was a kid, he said, and watched the train go past. He had been on this train for forty years. He had seen cougars and bears and foxes in these woods. Eagles. Egrets. Ever since then, I have looked and looked for that quick glimpse of an animal from the train window, but I have never been so lucky.
    And then—dumb Amtrak! Stupid, unfeeling, efficiency-blinded Amtrak changed the route! The train no longer goes along the sound. There is no more expanse of water to gaze at, snow-peaked mountains to contemplate, lapping waves to meditate on, leisurely walkers to watch in the waterfront parks. The route is all inland now. Instead of seas and rivers and parks, it passes industrial ugliness, trashy yards, urban clutter. 
    I am devastated.
    Amtrak has turned a spiritually uplifting experience into mere transportation. Just get there. Never mind the loss.
    I would forgive Amtrak, I think, if the new route were made for environmental reasons—to preserve the habitat for those animals the conductor had seen. Or for social justice reasons or safety reasons. But the point was speed. The reasons were economics and efficiency. 
    Bad, bad choice! 
    Who cares if it's a faster route? Who cares if we no longer have to wait for a freight train to pass? How did Amtrak weigh efficiency and speed against beauty and solace? How do they measure satisfaction from some passengers against a great sense of loss from others? Did they ask us? How did they know we would be glad to make the sacrifice of scenery for speed? 
    We so much need to slow down and immerse ourselves in beauty. Amtrak gave us that opportunity. Now they, too, have succumbed to get there-get there-get there. 
    I am sorry for the people who made this decision. They have no soul. And I am sorry for those of us who have lost a beautiful ride in this beautiful country that not enough of us see enough of, anyway.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Earthy Artifice of Autumn

     It's easy to remember, every spring, how beautiful the woods can be with the colorful glory of wildflowers under the trees and in the meadows. But I forget, every autumn, that while alders and maples hog the spotlight with their fiery yellows and reds overhead, deep on the dark forest floor another kind of flora is pushing up through mud and leaf mold to spot the earth with color. Mushrooms are autumn's answer to spring's wildflowers.
    Whereas spring bursts into bloom with neon intensity, mushrooms take hues more appropriate to the woods and to the closing days of autumn—cantaloupe, mauve, leaf-brown, pumpkin—but they are no less startling for having more subtlety. And, anyway, sometimes they aren't so subtle. Slick, white mushrooms are such a contrast with the black soil of their birthing bed they elicit exclamations equal to those emitted at the sight of a field of lupine at the base of a snow-capped mountain.

An amanita, red with white spots, round as a dessert plate; those large, yellow, spongy-looking mushrooms; the little brown ones running around on the ground like a flock of baby birds—purple mushrooms, blue ones, orange ones—the hues are the same names as those we give to wildflowers and maple leaves, but the chroma is in keeping with autumn: earth-toned, tinged with melancholy, akin to decaying leaves and clouded skies. Beauty of a different kind.

    A walk through the woods in November reveals a marvel of variety: curly edges, concave cups, perfect circles, smooth and shiny tops, scabby tops, frilly fans. How did mushrooms manage to find such different ways to present themselves? I kneel to pay homage to the strength of a mushroom as it shoulders its way through dirt, pushing aside rocks and roots, ignoring vines that want to hold it back. Here they come! The mushrooms! Thrusting up from the underworld, full-formed—no need for roots to dig in and leaves to photosynthesize. Here they are! The mushrooms!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Under a Roof of Birds

    I was walking through the woods last week when I thought I saw a movement ahead of me. I stopped and peered through the trees. But wasn't that a blackened tree stump I thought had moved? I was walking through a part of the forest that had been underburned a few years ago, so burned stumps and logs are common. Then the blackened tree stump jumped up and ran up a tree—a bear cub, in the exact place I had seen him and his mom and twin sister a few weeks ago.
    "It's all right," I called. "Don't worry. I'll take another trail. Have a good day," and I turned around and walked a different direction.
    After a short walk I had cause to thank the bear cub for turning me in a different direction because on that new trail I was suddenly under a roof of birds, twittering, chattering, chirping in the trees over my head. The musical commotion held me captive. The birds weren't singing and whistling; they weren't making melodies. They were telling stories, and I was privy to their gossip. From time to time one would flit to a perch in a different tree. Another would flutter to another perch, then another bird to another tree. They chattered like girls at the Coco-Cola parties of my teenhood. Occasionally the rasping call from a distant crow or Stellar jay would add perspective to the aural experience—outside the room of birds—but nothing disturbed the gorgeous color of sound that saturated the air around me. It was like standing under a rainbow.
    Suddenly, with no discernible provocation and with a rush so loud it startled me, the whole flock whooshed out of the trees and flew northward. I was left with the silence of the forest again. 
    What a privilege it is to be in such a world. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

When the Trees Turn Gold

Suzanne Simard tells us that the Mother Tree cares for her offspring,nurturing them, feeding them, warning them. It sounds a lot like love, so it's hard not to credit the trees with other emotions, too. It's hard not to think that the trees in Southern Oregon have expressed their joy at rain and a nip of cold this autumn by bursting into color.
Don't you, when you are overjoyed at something, burst into song? Maybe bursting into color is the equivalent response to joy from the maples and oaks of southern Oregon. And if that's the case, we might see that the trees are particularly happy for all the wonderful rain that has fallen in the last two weeks, because the maples have been a richer, deeper yellow than ever,
and the dogwoods, usually so demure in their pinks, have blushed almost red,
and the scrub oaks have grown exuberant in bronze, yellow, scarlet,burnt orange, and maroon, all in one tree.
Vine maples also go wild with different hues in one tree and even on one leaf.
You probably think this is a case of psychological transference, that because I am full of joy at the abundance of color in the maples, oaks, and dogwoods this autumn, to say nothing of being overjoyed at the rain itself, I transfer that joy onto the sentient trees. But I assure you it is the other way around, that walking under the maples transfers joy to me. Like sending nutrients to their offspring through mycorrhiza, the trees send their autumnal joy to me through the air we share and that, indeed, they so abundantly provide.
(Another expression of joy in the mountains this autumn.)

Thursday, October 21, 2021


 I came away from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Fannie (see last week's post) with mixed feelings. Of course, I was moved by the story of the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer—how much she suffered for her work, how brave she was to face hatred and bigotry in order to register black people to vote and even to run for office herself. That she was doing what she was doing in the name of freedom for black people was a great tribute to the concept of freedom. 
    But these days the word disturbs me. It is easy to see what it means if people are enslaved. It isn't hard to understand "freedom" in terms of Jim Crow South. What I don't understand is people who march today demanding "freedom," meaning "You can't make me wear a mask." In France people made the outrageous analogy between having to wear masks, and Nazis making Jews wear a yellow star. In some places in this country, people are crying out that a requirement to be vaccinated in order to work or go to school is an infringement on their freedom.
    In a way that's true—in the same way that there is a law that we have to drive on the right side of the road, for instance. Why can't I drive anywhere on the road I want to? Because it is dangerous for other people. Likewise, there is a danger to others for those who won't get vaccinated and yet want to interact in large groups. It is not reasonable to let people be free to do as they like in public places if what they are doing could endanger others. There are certainly some "freedoms" we are willing to give up in order to have a safe society. "Freedom"finds its footing only in relation to other entities. 
    I have just finished reading The Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard, and, before that, David McCullough's biography of John Adams, making, with Fannie, a tripod of concepts of freedom for me to contemplate. That John Adams fought for our freedom from English tyranny is such a truism of history by now that we have lost the nuances of the arguments—people still held as slaves, the international relations, the nasty political battles. Suzanne Simard wants us to understand that trees are sentient, caring beings, as she has proven in her meticulous scientific studies. Shouldn't we, then, curtail our "freedom" to slaughter trees by the thousands? As morally responsible people, we find our freedom to act as we please hemmed in on all sides. For us all to live well, we must be willing to share our freedoms and bear their reasonable restrictions.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

At the Theater Again

     The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, Oregon, an hour's drive from my house, is famous for outstanding productions, not only of Shakespeare but of plays throughout the ages. I have seen some stunning productions at OSF and some unforgettable scenes.
    Then COVID hit, and even before COVID, smokey summers in recent years meant one cancellation after another of performances in the outdoor theater.  OSF took a nose dive. They quickly moved to Zoom presentations and other types of online performance, but it isn't the same. There is no substitute for live theater. 
    So I was excited to hear that OSF was producing Fannie this summer, in the Elizabethan (outdoor) theater. I bought a ticket for an October performance, hoping to escape smoke and made confident by OSF's COVID protocols: show proof of vaccination, wear a mask throughout the show, and sit (in your pod) distanced from other attendees. 
    Fannie is a one-woman show about Fannie Lou Hamer, the brave civil rights activist who defied Jim Crow to work towards voting rights for black people. Greta Oglesby gave an astonishing performance, and the play itself was excellent, but it made me sad to watch it, thinking that in spite of what has changed in Mississippi since Fannie's days, bigotry and voter suppression still exist, and thinking about the changes COVID and climate change have wrought on our own way of life. OSF's changed circumstances were painfully evident: the theater was only two-thirds full because of the spaced-out seating; this play had only one actor, lasted only an hour and a half, had minimal sets with no scenery changes, and offered no program—obviously a production on a greatly reduced budget. 
    Hope resurged, though, as I drove home—hope that we could overcome a racist society as long as OSF can give its audiences such material, hope that we can overcome the despair of our life under the domination of COVID, hope that this abbreviated season at OSF is the beginning of a grand comeback of live theater, however slowly it might have to inch forward.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Mt. McLoughlin One Day, Grayback the Next

     Last Saturday at 8:40 am my friend Greg Stanko and I started up the five-mile trail to the top of Mt. McLoughlin, Medford's own Cascades peak. We would be ascending 4000 feet to the 9,459-foot summit.
    This balmy autumn day contrasted starkly with our attempt, two weeks earlier, when snow turned us back at about 8000 feet. Now, we couldn't have chosen a better day. I was in high spirits. I have lived in the Rogue Valley for almost half a century, and this would be my first time on top of McLoughlin.
    If I got there. I began to doubt that assumption as I climbed higher. After 3.2 miles, marked in white chalk on a rock, the trail turned nastily steep, and oh, my God! the rocks! I had been told the top part of the climb was boulder hopping, but that's not what it was. I've done boulder hopping. This was not jumping or hopping over big boulders but lugging the body up steep rocks, heaving the unwilling, heavy body from one rock up to the next one. Steep, on this trail, is steep.
Greg and me, on the ascent
    I began to have second thoughts about climbing Mt. McLoughlin on my ninetieth birthday.
    Then the trail turned not only steep but slippery with soil that was really only pulverized rock. Each step meant a slide backwards half that length.
The trail to the summit is up the edge on the right.
The altitude was affecting my breathing. On I 
slogged—or, rather, pulled and slipped and struggled. Greg, ahead of me, didn't seem to be having any difficulty. I envied him his long legs.
    And then we were on the top.
On top of Mt. McLoughlin
All the difficulty vanished, leaving only exhilaration. The view was expansive: Mt. Shasta white with snow, the Siskiyou Mountains, Mt. Thielsen sticking its pointed finger into the sky, Mt. Scot looming over an unseen Crater Lake—and the beautiful lakes below us: Fish Lake, Lake of the Woods, Fourmile Lake—my skiing country. Remnants of the snowfall that had turned us back two weeks earlier 
streaked down the sides of the peak below us.
    We were on the top for about an hour, along with about two dozen young people and three dogs. Everyone said, "What a beautiful day it is!"
    The way down went faster than the way up because every sliding step took us towards our goal rather than away from it. However, the slippery soil, especially on top of steeply slanted rocks, was so treacherous I fell several times. Even Greg went down a time or two. Finally we were on more solid and less steep ground, then under the trees again, where the walking should have been easier except by this time my feet were hurting so badly all I could think about was Greg's truck at the trailhead. A little over eight hours after we started, I sat down at a picnic table at the trailhead, took off my boots, and hobbled to the truck. 
    Greg very kindly said he thought that was one of the hardest climbs he's done—and he has been trekking in Nepal and has climbed Mt. Shasta and spent the night on top of Thielsen. He also kindly said we had made good time. It's true that all those people who had passed us on the trail were a lot younger, including the young man who was running this trail. 
    An Epsom salts bath when I got home revived my sore thighs and aching feet, but was I really going to hike up Grayback Mountain with Margaret Perrow tomorrow? What was I thinking, to have made those plans?
    But the next day I felt fine, walking felt normal, and the weather was again gorgeous so, sure, why not climb Grayback the day after climbing McLoughlin? 
    I know this trail well, so I was prepared for its steep beginnings. My legs were a little wobbly, but that soon wore off. At Windy Gap, we made our way off-trail up the spine of the mountain, through woods, then over rocks, kind of like clambering over rocks on Mt. McLoughlin except not as steep. My feet and thighs were doing fine. Three hours from the trailhead, we were sitting on top of Grayback Mountain, higher, at 7048 feet, than we could be on any mountain east of the Mississippi.
On top of Grayback. Mt. McLoughlin is the point on the horizon to my right.

Margaret at the summit
    We could see across the valley to the Cascade Range: Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, and, pointing into the horizon above the valley, Mt. McLoughlin. Yesterday, I thought, I was there. 
    Turning around, we were looking at the Siskiyous, plowing from the west into the Cascades at the point called the Klamath Knot. 
The Siskiyou Crest. Photo by Margaret Perrow.    
    It was a glorious two days. I wore out my boots, but my feet have completely recovered. I love my mountains. Maybe I'll do a repeat for my ninetieth birthday, after all.