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for people who care about the West

Walking the damp upper corners of America

This mysterious Oregon forest awakens hope in a local writer.


You’re not too sure what you’re seeing when you walk in these Northwestern woods. Thick-shadowed forests overgrown in the half-light, more kinds of moss and lichen than you can name, woolly-green arms above and woolly-green cushions around … rock, tree, yielding, standing.

You can walk for hours without a real view.

What you get instead is this light tricksy and shifting. Is a running whisper of questions and speculations. Things that might be one thing but, at the next step, turn out to be something else. Logic, grammar, straight thinking far from mind.  Up ahead, through the tree-crowd and the green-gloam — Bear? Stump? Sasquatch? Gone when you get there.

Here in the damp upper corners of America — Oregon, Washington, maybe Vermont and  Maine — we wonder about things. We wonder.


Down in the blazing desert states, I seem to remember, things were clear, horizons unmistakable, black and white. The hot, bright West produces more than its share of absolutists, untroubled by doubts or hesitations. Government bad, death penalty good. God with us. War now. I recall the razor-sharp distinctions. Me right: you wrong. Convert. Or die.

Was that really me? Hard to feel it, so long ago.

It seems that desert religions have engulfed half the world and more: Muslim, Jew, Christian — heck, even Mormon. Some days, disturbed by my own hard-edged memories, I fear their seared visions of moral clarity. But then I recall that for every haranguing jihadist, there’s a quieter, subtler believer, probably just off-camera. For every absolutist, there’s a Sufi, scholar, nun … or simple follower, seeking (and giving) loving kindness. I’ve met them, too.


Up here, we hardly ever see it, that horizon.  Unless from the beach (rocky crags and tangled forests at our backs) or from mountaintops (hard-won and temporary). Otherwise, our perspectives are closer, more changeable. Our sky is a fir-fringed scrap. And our idea of “bright” is laughable, a sun-break between clouds, flattering and then abandoning. We know gray. It is all scale, all spectrum. As many days and lights as you walk, that is how many versions you see.

The deity that fills this green-gray world is, perhaps, deities. It’s tempting to see a spirit in each turn of the trail, stream by grove by dale. Such places murmur, and you wish to make friends with them, to propitiate each in its time: to shelter in a dry nook — listen at a bend in the river — tread silently among giants. It seems enough.

We have fewer churchgoers in Oregon than almost anywhere else in America. And more hikers. We belong here, we think, in this forest, this wet paradise. Cradled here, we rest in it.


Yet … sometimes we catch godlight flooding downward in beams through the moted tallness.

It will stop you, awaken strange hopes. You’ll look up — straight up — where fragment blue might persist beyond the branchwork. You’ll try to think what to think. It’s all so very Baroque. So visions-of-heaven. Something is demanded.

Then gray will close back over, trail will pull you on, your glasses will fog with green breathing. The quotidian and the contingent. Here is your pack, your stride, footfall your next turning. Here the lungfilling smells, the soft incessant needlefall, the easy underfoot loam. Yes. Back to the embrace. Like being inside something. Cradled, nestled, you know the words. That reassurance. Void of demand, of edge, of view. 

Except … except. …

That air, fog-distilled or shot through with the divine — that’s our air. We own it, we made (or re-made) it. Thinned here, thickened there, poisoned, hydrocarbon’d. We’re breathing it, this forest and I. All the world is. And I drove a car to get to this trailhead, whatever trailhead it is, I guarantee it.

I want to see clear, but I cannot. I want to act, but what is my action? Really. I just want to hike and be hiked. Simple. But then … I rage to slay the industries and march militant against tycoons and politicians. And voters. And non-voters. And all who drive and eat and pollute.

Then I want to be left alone, on my squishy trail, rain on my cheeks, lunch in my knapsack. I want to quiet my mind from impossible foes and fears.

O the godlight broken, O the cradle fallen from the bough.

Belonging is acting, is caretaking. Wipe the glasses. Shoulder the pack. Take a step.  Action is not victory, is not glory. Does not need a master plan, a D-Day of concerted inevitability. Action is: one foot in front of the other.

This, our forest actually does teach. Take a step. Any step. Where will it lead? We wonder. Yet on we go.

David Oates writes about nature and urban life from Portland, Oregon. He is the author of five books of nonfiction and poetry, including What We Love Will Save Us.