Simple Gifts

I head for Pullman, Washington in a rented car, a drive that many of those who live in the jungle cities of my adopted rain forest home assured me is both desolate and dangerous. They turn out to be wrong, but I may be biased. I’m from Nebraska, and find there is nothing like a hundred-mile horizion to put things in perspective.

What I would like to put into perspective is my experience of left-wing social scholars, most recently at the New England American Studies Association conference at Brown University. All I can say right now is that it is precisely the same as my experience of right-wing social scholars. Both sides seem remarkably in agreement about whose bodies are a problem and need to be removed. Apparently engineering the actual removal of the offending bodies and their owners is the business of the servant classes.

This is not what I had hoped for, but perhaps it is only sour grapes because mine is so high on the list of offending bodies that will be gotten rid of when scholars rule the world. A world ruled by scholars is a very funny idea, as long as you’re not the citizen of a Latin American country with ties to the University of Chicago, or a social service client. I’m sure my sense of humor will return shortly.

The desert is beautiful. It begins just beyond Hood River, at a place called Celio. It’s a name that remains of a thing which is gone, the place where Interstate 84 now takes a joyful turn, banking and diving like a swallow over the water. This outburst of high spirits in an otherwise dour and efficient freeway system makes me wonder: are the wheels of my rented Chrysler spinning over the cities of Celio Falls?

Here where the river widens was a festival of water, tier over tier; thunders and rills of whitewater and over them tier over tier were the stretching hands of skyscrapers made of cut saplings, impossible frameworks as in a country a traveler might visit, as Italo Calvino reminds us in Invisible Cities–and over all rising the reason: the silvery bodies of leaping salmon. All of them are frozen in photographs seen in museums: men standing in crow’s nests gathering fishnets, enormous purses slung from long poles, people seemingly playing with giant’s toys; exhausted, sweating, laughing. Hundreds of house-sized racks shingled with drying salmon.

These are things I have never heard, smelled, touched, tasted. I have heard the lament sung by the thousands who gathered to witness the drowning of Celio Falls. Someone at the High Desert Museum outside of Bend, Oregon thought it worth our time. The only sound I have ever heard like it is a historical recording of an Irish lament collected from a survivor of the famine; a farewell to the white potato. These are love songs for the end of the world.

The river is wide now, mirror quiet. Above it rises the smooth concrete wall of the Dalles Dam power generation complex, whose only ornament is the image of a battlemented castle in black and white, symbol of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Pausing at the Walgreens the day before, I responded to the rumored terrors of the wilderness by buying the only item which seemed truly indespensible; a high-powered flashlight and extra batteries. I have heard that high-powered flashlights are actually a liability in wilderness emergencies. The intensity of electric illumination disrupts the human eye’s ability to adjust to darkness, leaving us able to see only within the narrow range of the electric beam; outside it, we render ourselves completely blind. I knew this, and I bought the brightest flashlight available anyway. Go figure.

Though the dash of the Chrysler features a CD player, after Celio suddenly the best of Tom Petty seems inadequate. I stop at a Salvation Army store and find a copy of Leonard Bernstein conducting Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. This soothes me as I negotiate dozens of eighteen-wheelers marked for the Wal-Mart in Umatilla; they’re on the last leg of what must be a long drive, for the drivers weave alarmingly onto the verge and bounce back again into traffic in the manner of people falling asleep at the wheel.

Last night at the Wlliams-Sonoma store where my partner and I window-shopped for holiday cheer, the look for the season was Faux Imperial: artificial leopard- and tiger skin-pillows, artificial antler candlesticks, exotic island curios featuring body parts of now-endangered species reproduced in lifelike resin, faux silver holders for faux Cuban cigars. On a large flat faux-theatre screen a tastefully whitish servant brought drinks on a tray to blonde ladies and gentlemen in 1950’s costume. All the soft parts of their bodies resembled archetecture.

News flash: I have seen the American Empire, and it looks like Bing Crosby. On closer inspection, however, we discovered most of it is made in China, and bears tiny labels warning that the contents are known to cause cancer and reproductive harm.

A friend recently invited me to the movies to watch the digitally remastered version of Blade Runner, but I declined, feeling that I’d already seen it.

Beyond Celio the wind from the gorge of the Columbia River finds room at last, across hills furred with sage like the flanks of great animals. As the land opens under a vast eggshell sky, Copeland rises–patient, careful, trumphant–into the theme of the old Shaker hymn:

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

Somewhere near Umatilla, a plume of ash-colored smoke slides horizontally across the sky. In a ravine on the Umatilla Army Base, someone is burning piles of something in black plastic bags.

Nearby at the last chance rest stop, I shut off the engine and listen to the end of Simple Gifts. Afterward, wandering aimlessly, I find a lady with red hands sitting inside the shell of a broken trailer, offering free coffee and cookies from dawn until untill dark, when the older gentlemen from the Veterans of Foreign Wars will take up the task.

She hands me a cup. “Going far?”

I tell her where I ought to be and she nods. “You’ve got a long ways to go yet,” she says. “It’s cold today. Nineteen degrees at my house this morning.” She blows on her hands. It’s all right,” she tells me, smiling as she points me toward a jar full of free coffee whitener. “It just makes it hard to get going.”

Under the cloud from the Army base I pluck a single teasel. The beautiful thorny head of this introduced roadside weed was once used to card wool, someone patiently, carefully turning and turning the matted fabric in fragments through the thorns until it came clean.

A single seagull walks across the parking lot, hunched close against the cold.

The word for the day is williwaw. According to Merriam-Webster:
1: a sudden violent gust of cold land air common along mountainous coasts of high latitudes
2: a violent commotion
According to Captain Joshua Slocum: “compressed gales of wind . . . that Boreas handed down over the hills in chunks.”

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