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for people who care about the West

Fear and love in Oregon’s forests

How far will you go for the person you love?

I noticed Keith at Espresso Roma when he was talking about blowing up the Columbia River dams, all 14 of them. I recognized the tenor of this coffee-shop conversation immediately. It was the one about “How far should we go?” or “How much are we willing to risk?” For example, how far would you go to keep an old-growth forest from being logged? Would you stand in front of the logging truck or would you blow up the truck? It was a test of your moral boundaries, which sometimes deteriorated into “Would you throw your dog off a cliff for a million dollars?”

I knew this was the “Would it be worth it if you killed one person” quandary.

 

In Eugene, I came to realize, friends came and went in complex combinations, building new realities while tearing down old ones. My friend Lydia Yuknavitch joined a lesbian separatist commune in the woods, only to return because there was no plumbing. “You put down an outhouse, fill it up with shit, and then move it to a different place,” she said. “But eventually, you’re falling through into shit as you walk around.” To me, Lydia was a fearless, braless beast with her long blond mane, cargo boots, and patchwork Depression Era-looking skirts. Other friends of mine went to live off the grid in “sustainable” communes. One or two built cities in trees and dropped out of school to keep those trees from being cut down. Some people in that crowd poured cement in holes they had dug in the ground with one side of a handcuff stuck in the cement. Then they would put a hand in the other. To block the bulldozers.

But I was too shy for that sort of thing and so just kept reading books, wide-eyed at all the transmogrifications around me. Inside, I was transmogrifying, too. I had switched from English after my MA to get an MA in environmental studies and then a Ph.D. in comparative literature. I wanted to read everything, get degrees in everything. Until I maxed out my student loans, that was the only plan I had. I stayed eight years and met Keith in my last.

At that coffee shop, Keith was wearing a blue Gore-Tex jacket, a wool plaid shirt, and blue jeans that were clearly ripped because they were old and not because it was trendy. He looked as if he had just come from a fish-packing plant. With dark thick Eastern European hair, enormous blue eyes and pale skin, he was smoking with the nervous apprehension of someone who looked as if he might get caught. Sitting across from him was a friend with curly grayish hair, cargo cutoffs and an old denim satchel, nodding as if taking directions. Next to them, a woman in plastic flip-flops, two skirts, a wool scarf and a corduroy jacket was sitting with a man in a “Free Leonard Peltier” T-shirt, vigorously engaged in a political discussion.

Keith kept looking over at me, nervous that someone was listening. “All you have to do is dynamite the hillside above the reservoir and the water will overtop the dam,” he said. “That would be enough to topple the first dam, and none of the other dams would have the strength to keep back the flood of water. The rest would come down like dominoes, all 14, starting in Canada but gaining enough momentum to take out the big dams in America.” As I listened, I shook my head. While you might eventually forget that dog you threw off a cliff, I knew you would never forget the person you killed.

It was not that I had a problem with sabotage. For my Composition 101 class, I had assigned Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which teaches techniques such as spiking trees, building smoke bombs, and putting sugar in gas tanks to disable logging equipment. I had taught The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a novel whose heroes blow up the Hoover Dam. So I knew about blowing up dams. You did it to save the ecosystem. Perhaps we all contemplated it, at one point or another, as we watched tender Oregon firs plowed down and carted away in Weyerhaeuser trucks, or when we saw newly dead trees sticking out of reservoirs. We all wanted to do something to stop it.

Keith continued, “I’ve devised a system for warning the people in Portland, but even if a few die, I say it would still be worth it, eh?” The rhythm of his voice was quiet and reassuring. Only a Canadian could talk about killing and make it sound like a polite proposition. His friend still said nothing, as Keith continued, “The Columbia dam system is blocking salmon that are trying to get up the river to spawn. It’s destroying our fishing industry, people’s livelihoods.” Our fishing industry, he said. “We’ve got to help the salmon. …” His friend kept nodding. “Don’t you think? I’m serious.”

Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

I found out Keith was also getting his master’s in the environmental studies program. We often sat next to each other in the graduate student lounge, working at our respective white plastic boxy computers. Keith was Canadian-shy so never spoke to me, though I would look up and watch him working on the computer. Every now and then, I would find him looking at me, not as invisible as I thought I was.

One day, an email showed up on my computer, green lines on a black background. “Student lounge is dreary, isn’t it?” it said. I looked around the room, and he waved. I introduced myself — on email. Before long, our emails turned into missives, manifestos and declarations, which we kept writing even after we started going out. I still have a box full of them.

I asked about his hometown, Vancouver, British Columbia. “Isn’t it dreary?” I wrote.

“Even this summer in the worst rain of my life it wasn’t dreary because of all the life,” he wrote back. “It was like moving through one large living thing, like being inside of a whale. … Sure, some days were raining like hell and others were equally hot, but the word ‘dreary’ never came into my mind. ‘Alive’ certainly did.”

I shared an essay I had written about the Oregon woods, and he responded, “To have language that can circle something living, like a relationship, like putting your arms around a big cedar, feeling its life and power, while allowing the roots and stems to continue to grow. By holding something living like this, the language becomes equally living. It makes us alive. Your essay does this, these things.” I watched him typing, his fingers moving so fast, so freely, unlike mine. I watched his brain working as he typed.

No one had ever written to me like this, like someone who knew me. Even then our transactions occurred only on email, as if there were a wall down the middle of the student lounge. On my side of the wall, he reached me in my place of isolation.

One night, we ran into each other at the gay bar, the only disco in town, where we had each been invited by mutual friends. A big sign at the entrance read “No Overt Heterosexual Activity.” A friend of mine had been thrown out for such activity. Now I sat across the table from Keith, a disco ball spinning overhead, while one of my girlfriends flirted with him. We looked at each other, secretively, every now and then. My blood boiled a little when Keith touched her neck for a moment after she asked him to put on her necklace. He spoke with her all night and never to me.

The next day, fearing he’d gone home with her, I found an email in my inbox that had been sent after we’d left the bar. Keith wrote, “You are hard to read. You don’t have a jacket that you didn’t give up after leaving the Hells Angels. You don’t dance like you studied ballet for 20 years (you dance better). I have never seen you eat so I can’t tell which hand you use for a fork. I am curious because you hint of things not right although what I see looks very well adjusted indeed.”

I wrote back, “Let’s get a shot of tequila.”

I watched him, fearfully, when he finally came in and opened his email, but he replied, “Tell me where you live and I’ll bring the tequila.” Is this how love begins, in fear, and glances and encrypted emails?

Keith was a spy into my life. He captured my love of furry animals and desert wanderings and wrapped them up inside his brain. He found my secret backyard.

That night, we made love on the roaring banks of the McKenzie River. The rocks poked into my back, even though he laid out his Gore-Tex for me, but the pain did not matter. Nothing did but this. After that, we had sex in hammocks, on beaches, on mossy forest floors, anywhere. We were in love.

He felt the waterfalls inside his head too.

Our only problem was that we’d met too late, or so it seemed at the time. After eight long years, this was my last year of funding at the University of Oregon. The thought of what came next was terrifying to me, with professors hardly in demand. My friends ended up working in chocolate factories, starting nonprofits, or becoming waiters or waitresses. One friend said he planned to hold a sign on the freeway that read “Will Interpret Novels for Food.” So when I started getting phone calls about job interviews, rather than that dreaded letter in the mail, I was shocked. Where would I go, and was I ready?

It turned out it would be the University of Missouri, where I was finally hired. You must understand that we have no real choice in the matter as to where we go. It’s a national job search, and at the time, hundreds of literature Ph.D.s were getting rejected for every tenure-track job opening. Many ended up teaching at below-poverty wages with one-year or even one-semester contracts. Some of them still do, wondering every year if that job will be there for them the next. For decades. Others worked at the nice restaurants in town, offering a little conversation on Proust with dinner. Hoping smart people walked in.

I wrote to Keith, afraid to tell him in person. “I got a job in Missouri,” I wrote.

Surprisingly unflustered, he wrote back, “Maybe living there will spur you to write more, to reminisce over lost land, lost home. … Maybe you will take root there, find yourself going to church, gossiping, picketing abortion centers, quilting, polishing silverware, watching evangelists, darning socks, looking for UFOs in cornfields … and then again, maybe you won’t.” He did not mention what this might mean for us. We had been together less than a month.

I felt unmoored, and each time this happened, the pain seemed to be worse. Maybe this was because I was finally inhabiting my own skin … but my skin hurt. Ever so slowly, Oregon had become home to me — the chanterelles that popped by the bucketful in the forest, the mountain huckleberries I ate until I was sick, and the wild winter ocean. Even the rain. Again, I wrote to Keith, “How am I supposed to leave the West Coast? I keep saying that but no one takes me seriously. I’ve won the lottery, gotten a job — and everyone is screaming congratulations — and it is happy, I do deserve it. But then this other thing starts to nag … how am I supposed to leave? This place, all of it, has made me who I am. And now I feel I’ve been consigned to exile in some foreign land, where I have no identity or history, where there is no picture in my head.” At the time, it truly felt like a disaster, and that disaster would keep growing.

So when Keith asked if we could hike up Mount Pisgah to see the “super” moon and have a “talk,” I expected the worst. We’ll still visit, I pictured him saying, as Garett once had.

It was a pitch-black night as we started up the hill, passing a bottle of tequila back and forth. The moss beneath our feet was dark and squishy. At the top, we leaned against each other in our Gore-Tex jackets, saying relatively little. His black and gray jacket was patched, and mine, navy, was second-hand. Then the moon burst over the horizon, huge and red and glowing like a spaceship rising, ready to suck us up and take us somewhere.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s cool.”

“So American.” Keith laughed, pulling me close. “‘Wo-o-w.’” “Had enough of that, e-e-h?” I playfully swatted him.

As I did, he grabbed my hand and started to suck my fingers, one by one, and it looked as if he were trying to tie a knot in a cherry stem with his tongue at the same time.

That’s a bit odd, I thought before I realized what was happening.

He pulled away to reveal a ring on my left ring finger. I stared at it stupidly, thinking the stone looked black. He asked, “Will you marry me?”

“How did you do that?” I replied, impressed, then, “Yes!”

I screamed and hugged him, laughing. “You were freaking me out!” I said.

In the moonlight, the gem was so dark that he had to tell me it was a ruby, though I did not care if it was onyx, or black diamonds, or a piece of lava. He was my love.

It never occurred to me then that perhaps I was rushing into things. I was desperate for something to stabilize me, thinking I could not handle entering a whole new world alone, not this time. Missouri may as well have been another planet, so far from home. What would I find there?

The moon was the color of Agent Orange.

Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

From A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Karen Piper.

Karen Piper is the award-winning author of The Price of Thirst, Left in the Dust, and Cartographic Fictions. She has received the Sierra Nature Writing Award and the Next Generation Indie Book Award and fellowships from the Huntington, Carnegie Mellon, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is currently a professor of literature and geography at the University of Missouri.