Christopher Solomon’s essay (Methow homecoming, 12-8-08 edition) struck a heart chord with me. Like Solomon I escaped from the East Coast with a master’s degree (mine was more useful; it came with a teaching credential) and went looking for a home in the West. And like Solomon and Rick Bass whom he quotes my wanderings took me into one of those gem-like valley’s hidden amid the West’s mountains.
It was a glorious October day in the year 1975 when I guided my 1963 short-bed Chevy pick-up up and over steep curves to Gazelle Summit and then down into the Scott River Valley. The oaks had turned, a warming sun shown brightly on green pastures. Above, splashes of brilliant yellow marked where groups of Big Leaf Maple highlighted conifer clad slopes. Limestone and granite peaks stood out against a wilderness blue sky. It was thrilling and, as Rick Bass has written, it was like falling in love.
As I neared the valley floor I passed another battered pick-up. The driver waved; I thought he must have mistaken me for a neighbor. Soon I passed another pick-up and its driver waved too! A thought flickered through my mind: “If these people are waving at me perhaps this is home.”
That thought would return from time to time over the next 30 years during which I lived, worked and raised a family in the Scott River Valley. I can remember returning from trips; coming over the last pass my heart thrilling anew as the now-familiar peaks of the Salmon Mountains came into view. As I wound down toward my valley home I’d swell and sigh - contented at homecoming.
I suspect that this experience pattern – an escape from circumstances, a wandering search, falling in love with a place and coming in time to love that place intimately – is a western pattern widespread in both space and time. I imagine the ancestors of the Shasta People migrating down from the Bearing Crossing experienced something similar. We know that mountain-man Stephen Meek retired in the Scott River Valley. Meek had wandered and trapped beaver across the West with the likes of Jedediah Smith. But when wandering lost its luster and the beaver trade declined, Meek returned to a valley which he had first seen many years before – a valley with which he had fallen in love. He remained for the rest of his life; his ancestors still live nearby.
While the experience of falling in love with a place is a persistent western pattern, how that love expresses tself has changed. Stephan Meek saw incredible beauty in the Valley of the Scott River but he also helped begin the process which would transform it. First the beaver were all but trapped out; next the gold was mined; then the whites went about the business of draining beaver ponds, channelizing creeks and the river and ultimately dewatering the river and valley tributaries with devastating consequences not only for Coho and Chinook salmon but also for a host of other species which are related through ecosystem processes to the iconic and keystone salmon.
Is this too then part of the pattern? Are we who fall in love with a place destined to alter that place until it is but a shadow of its former self?
We can’t know for sure what was in the minds of the Shasta and other Indigenous western ancestors but the ceremonies and traditions they left behind indicate that they were mindful of the need to sustain and renew that which they loved. With the Europeans who next wandered in it was quite different. Whether mountain man or gold-seeker, homesteader or developer most of those who have come into these western valleys during the period of European conquest and domination have not had preservation and renewal in mind. Instead these folks were focused on transformation – on forcing the land to yield its riches no matter what the price to land, the ecosystems on the land or the people who lived there.
The story of the West’s transformation (some would say “destruction”) is well documented and has been well told. But along the way something changed. In the Scott River Valley a child of pioneers named Jim Denny would write in the 1970s about what had been done to the Scott River. He titled his short history Death of a Lady. It reported on what the Scott River had once been as well as what had been and was still being done to her. Jim’s intent was to motivate fishermen to (as he put it) “get off their duffs and do something” to save and restore the river Jim loved – a river which had once teemed with salmon.
Like Jim, my love for this beautiful valley and its river led me into outrage and disgust at what was being done to them. It was love that motivated me to begin appealing timber sales, to join with others to form the Klamath Forest Alliance and to embrace the ongoing work of transforming the European invasion from destruction to restoration. Christopher Solomon, Rick Bass and many other western transplants are, I suspect, in similar straits. Having fallen in love with a place they have chosen to preserve, defend and restore it. The work goes on.
I am confident that the experience of falling in love with out-of-the-way western places as reported by Christopher Solomon, Rick Bass, and numerous others will continue to be an important western experience. The nature of nature is that - while it can be transformed and degraded – it will always look new and beautiful when seen with new eyes. I am less sure about the pattern of relationship which future lovers will follow. How many of the West’s next generation of explorers and pioneers will choose the path of continued destruction and how many will chose to work for restoration?