Archives For Alley Valkyrie

Two summers ago, I was standing in the central plaza in Arcata, California, admiring some flowers when a small bee landed right on my wrist. I looked down and cautiously said hello, and the little bee looked up at me, and then turned around and made itself comfortable, literally nestling into the cuff of my coat. For the next hour or so, the bee stayed firmly planted on my cuff.

Prior to that moment, I had never interacted much with bees, and had always gone out of my way to give them respect, but more importantly their space. As a child, I had been badly stung on the inside of my cheek when a bee had landed on my lollipop as I was putting it into my mouth. My face swelled up and stayed that way for over a week, and my childhood peers taunted me endlessly over what had happened. I walked away from the incident resenting other children much more than I resented the bee, but nonetheless, from that point on, I was extremely cautious and wary whenever I saw a bee in my presence.

But when the bee landed on my wrist and decided to stay, I immediately felt obligated not only to host it, but to protect it as well. For the next hour or so, I went about my normal business, but completely aware at every second that there was a tiny little creature on my wrist, one that could sting me if it chose and one that I could crush if I wasn’t careful. Within that hour and in holding that balance, twenty years’ worth of fear and caution around bees completely melted away and transformed into a feeling of fear and caution out of concern for the bee itself. When the bee finally turned around, looked up at me again, and flew off, I was truly sad that it had left.

A few days later back in Oregon, I was at a gathering with friends in downtown Eugene’s Kesey Square when, once again, a bee landed on my cuff – on the other wrist this time. And, once again, it made itself comfortable and stayed for quite a while. The second time it landed on me, I noticed that the caution and fear that was usually present in my gut was absent. Instead, it was more akin to visiting with an old friend.

Another old friend of the human persuasion walked up to me at that moment and quickly snapped a picture of the bee on my cuff, expecting it to immediately fly away. He then stared at the bee incredulously upon realizing that it was staying put, looked up at me, and grinned.

“What are you, the bee whisperer?” he asked.

A bee on my cuff. Photo by Gregory Walker

A bee on my cuff. Photo by Gregory Walker

I walked off with the bee for a moment for a little privacy, and then thanked the bee out loud for both the visit as well as for the lesson on fear from the first bee. A few minutes later, the bee flew away just as the first one did, but the bees definitively tagged me that day and never truly left me from that moment forward. Since that day, I constantly see bees; I regularly talk to bees. The bees have staked out a permanent place in my thought processes, and bees are a recurring theme in my dreams.

*   *   *

I found the sheet at a Goodwill in downtown Eugene, searching for patch material at a hurried moment during the beginning of the Whoville encampment last summer. It was a queen-size vintage bed sheet from the 60’s or 70’s, ivory-colored with yellow and orange flowers on it, and was a pink-tagged item that I happened to find on a day when the pink tags were half-off. Score, I said to myself.

As I walked to the register with the sheet, a wild-eyed homeless man started shouting loudly right outside the entrance on the sidewalk. As the cashier rang up my purchase, his screams became louder.

“Blessings and curses, loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes, blessings and doom,” he screamed, over and over, pointing a stick at passing cars. I left the store and, as I walked past him, he turned directly toward me. I froze and smiled at him. “FISHES!” he hissed at me, and immediately turned away. “DOOM” he then screamed at a passing car.

I’ll take fishes over doom, I thought to myself as I walked to my car.

I don’t know exactly where coincidence, enchantment, and belief intersected in this specific instance, but I slowly noticed, over the next few months, the vintage floral sheet, which I had paid less than two dollars for, seemed to multiply again and again. I printed series after series of patches, ripping strip after strip off the sheet, and every time I opened up the sheet again it seemed to be the same size as it had been the last time I ripped fabric from it.

I often have nicknames in my head for the different kinds of patterned fabric I buy, usually in reference to the design and/or color, especially when I have a large amount of any one print and it ends up hanging around for a while. The flowered bed sheet quickly became known as the “sheet of fishes”.

Patches from the sheet of fishes. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Patches from the sheet of fishes

*   *   *

I knew that I was dreaming and, yet, I couldn’t force myself awake. In the dream, I was hunched over a whirling pool of water, in a trance, staring into the abyss. Suddenly a spirit-woman appeared in the whirlpool. She opened her eyes at me, opened her mouth, and swarms of bees started to fly out. As they flew away, the spirit-woman started to rot away before my eyes, quickly turning to bones and decomposing flesh.

I suddenly snapped awake, my heart pounding. Death has never been a stranger, but themes and thoughts of dying and the underworld have been much more present in my dreams since being tagged by the bees. I looked at the clock. It was the middle of the afternoon and I had overslept by many hours. I made my way to the kitchen for some coffee and, as I fumbled with the machine, I heard my landlady talking loudly on the phone outside my window.

“Twenty-five thousand bees?” she said alarmingly. “How? What? How could that have happened?”

I immediately felt a knot grow in my stomach, and my thoughts went to the dream I had just snapped out of. I ran to my computer and quickly learned that there had just been a massive bee die-off that morning in Wilsonville, right outside of Portland. A landscaping company had accidentally sprayed neonicotinoid pesticides on linden trees, in violation of state regulations and labeling instructions, and as many as fifty thousand bees were dead or dying. Ironically, it was the first day of “National Pollinator Week,” which was designed to bring public awareness to the issues around pollination and bee deaths. News reports said that it was the largest known die-off in the United States.

Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a piece of chalk, went downtown, and started drawing little bees on the sidewalk near Kesey Square, in the same place where the bee had visited me. At one point, a man stood over me as I drew, watching me carefully.

“They say we’ll be dead in four years if the bees disappear,” he said to me.

I looked up and nodded. “Most folks don’t understand what’s at stake,” I said.

He nodded in return. “Keep drawing those bees,” he said. “We need those kinds of conversation-starters. It’s the only way we’re ever gonna wake people up.”

I need to start printing bees, I thought to myself.

*   *   *

I finally sat down and drew the bee for a silkscreen last January, and it took me still a few months after finishing the first screen to realize that the “sheet of fishes” was the perfect fabric to complement the bee graphic. Not only in terms of the visual, but also in the spirit of multiplying and never running out. As soon as I printed the first bee, I immediately decided to dedicate the rest of the sheet to printing small bees. I methodically tore square after square, three inches by four inches, printing well over two hundred bees in an afternoon.

I divided the bees into three piles. One pile I gave to Rhyd Wildermuth with the request that he disseminate them among the attendees of the Polytheist Leadership Conference. The second pile was set aside for randomly giving out to strangers I ran into on the street. The third pile was initially left undecided, until I saw a bee land on a tree in front of me the following day, and immediately pictured my bee patch where the actual bee was. I decided then that I was going to simply pin the last pile of bees onto trees throughout downtown Portland.

*   *   *

I was pinning a bee to a tree near Union Station in Old Town when I heard a small voice behind me. I turned around to see a very small woman who had been obviously living on the street for a long while.

“I think I’m going to die today,” she said to me calmly.

I did not quite know how to respond. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked, and she shook her head no.

“I was supposed to tell you, that’s all,” she said.

I looked down at the disabled transit pass around her neck. The name on her pass said “Melissa”. She looked at my bee on the tree and smiled, nodded in the affirmative, then turned and walked away.

The bee on the tree near Union Station. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The bee on the tree near Union Station.

I spent the rest of the day out and about with my bees and finally arrived back home many hours later. When I logged onto my computer, I was horrified to learn that, while I was out pinning bees, there was another massive bee die-off at an apartment complex in north Eugene caused by yet another erroneous application of neonicotinoid pesticides. It was almost a year to the day after the Wilsonville die-off, and it was yet again the beginning of National Pollinator Week.

I immediately thought of the street woman, and suddenly her words took on a different meaning. Melissa was the Greek word for honeybee, and I realized her message had truly been a premonition.

*   *   *

Four boys were killed on the beach in Gaza.

I headed out to photograph a protest and “die-in” at Senator Merkley’s office in downtown Portland that was being staged in response to the senseless carnage in the Middle East. I walked south from my building under the Broadway Bridge into the heart of downtown and across the parkway from the river.  Glancing at the Willamette and the beautiful blue sky, I tried to distract myself from the images seared into my mind of the tiny bodies on the beach. I pinned bees to trees, and as I stuck each pin into the bark of the tree, I whispered a brief prayer for the dead.

Among the sky and the glare of the sun, I looked down for a moment. A baby bird was lying dead on the sidewalk directly in front of me. I picked it up and it was still warm. I stood up and looked around. The sidewalks were empty and I was surrounded by concrete. There was nowhere to bury the bird in the immediate vicinity; nowhere to set it aside respectfully. I looked up at the bee on the tree, and down again at the bird. I scooped the bird up in my left hand and continued on toward the protest.

The bird in my hand.

The bird in my hand.

I arrived, and quickly mastered the art of maneuvering my camera solely with my right hand. The energy of the bird in my left hand was calming, centering, anchoring me in the moment as I stood and snapped photos among the emotions and passions in the square.

Suddenly, I needed water. I walked into the closest coffee shop, slightly opening my left hand as it had become clammy in cupping the bird. As I was filling my bottle, a group of tourists behind me looked at my left hand.

“Oh, my”, a woman said. “That bird looks like it could be real!”

I simply smiled and made a quick exit.

I went back to the protest for a moment, said goodbye to a few friends, and then walked back toward my building along the riverbank, looking for a suitable spot to bury the bird. As I walked, images of birds and bees and dead children kept flashing through my mind. Overwhelmed, I tried to shake off the thoughts and concentrated on finding a place for burial, the bird in my hand still grounding me in the moment.

I eventually stopped at a landscaped area on the bike path just north of the Steel Bridge on the west bank of the Willamette River. I sat down in the dirt, placed the bird next to me, and started to dig with my hands. Bikers and joggers going by turned and stared at me as I calmly finished digging the hole, placed the bird in the makeshift grave, and covered it. I whispered prayers into the mound and then got up and dusted myself off. I started down the riverbank path again toward home.

Only a few feet down the path from where I had buried the bird, I stumbled upon a breathtaking display of cairns on the riverbank. I stopped and stared at the piles of rocks, and something in the moment simply broke me. I collapsed in front of the cairns and sobbed – for the bees, for the dead children, for Melissa and her message, for all the folks on the street, for all the tragedies in which I am functionally helpless and yet still bear witness. I let everything go in front of the cairns; everything I had been holding for months.

Cairns on the Willamette River

In the midst of my sobbing, I heard a buzzing sound. I looked up and saw a single bee circling the cairns. Have your moment, the bee said very clearly to me, but then you must keep going forth with your work.

I nodded toward the bee and wiped my tears. After a moment, I pulled myself up, left a bee patch under a rock at the base of the cairns, and slowly made my way home.

Tying the Knot

Alley Valkyrie —  June 27, 2014 — 15 Comments

Starla and Birch both came running up to me, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re getting married!” they yelled in unison, and grabbed me into a group hug.

I embraced them back, trying not to allow my racing thoughts to distract me from showing them love in the moment. She was barely eighteen; he was maybe a year or two older; they had both been living on the streets for several years, and they had known each other for less than a month. And yet I also knew that such a ‘marriage’ was quite typical in their world.

“Congrats,” I said, smiling. “Where and when?”

“Tomorrow, at 3, at the park,” said Starla. “You can come, right?”

“Of course,” I assured them. I was actually supposed to be elsewhere, but those plans had suddenly become meaningless. I had never been invited to a street wedding before.

“It’s going to be a pirate handfasting. You know, old school. Arachne’s gonna marry us.”

“Pirate handfasting?” I asked. “Is that anything like a Pagan handfasting?”

They both shrugged. “Never seen a Pagan handfasting before,” said Starla.

I had been to a wedding that had been billed as a ‘pirate handfasting’ in the past, but that was a typical Pagan-style handfasting with a friendly pirate theme. Arachne was one of the primary leaders in their family, a group that passionately self-identified as pirates. I knew that whatever was to occur the next day would not so much be a simple handfasting in pirate-themed costumes, but a ceremony put on by and for folks who literally considered themselves to be pirates. But I also had a feeling that the ceremony would inevitably be much more like a Pagan handfasting than Birch or Starla realized.

“We’re going to need some skull-and-crossbones flags,” said Birch.

I immediately knew that in this instance, “we’re going to need” was code for “could you provide.” Birch had been to my studio a few times in the past and had taken quite a liking to my skull-and-crossbones prints, and he also was a seasoned expert at nudging me into offering assistance without actually asking for it. “I’m sure I can make that happen somehow,” I said. “Is there anything else you think you’ll need?”

“Yeah, actually … can we use your place before the ceremony to get ready?” asked Starla. “We don’t really have anywhere with a shower … unless you know any other housies who could let us … I mean…”

“Of course,” I interjected. “No worries.”

“And could you be our driver?”

I nodded and smiled. I realized at that moment that I was the probably the only ‘housie’ that they knew well enough to ask for assistance with this event. And with that realization, it occurred to me that the next 24 hours of my life would most likely be devoted to handling most, if not all, of their wedding-related needs. While the social backdrop and implications around this “marriage” were distressing to me on a certain level, I felt a strong obligation to temporarily surrender myself to their needs in order to help make their handfasting as special and as true to their vision as possible.

“Just come by if you need anything else,” I told them before heading home.

Wedding decorations, pirate-style. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Wedding decorations, pirate-style. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

I had been home for a few hours, and was just starting to tear strips of black canvas for the flags when Arachne showed up at my front door. “I need a proper staff, for the handfasting ceremony,” she said. “I just found the right branch, but I don’t have any tools or a space to do it. Do you have either of those things?”

At the time, I was living in a converted garage in the back of a house, with a tiny studio across the yard that I used for dyeing and printing. The building’s previous occupant had left a decent collection of woodworking tools in the desk drawers; tools that had sat unused and mostly forgotten until that moment.

“Yes, I have both of those things. Let me grab the tools and you can carve it in the yard.”

I brought a stool and the drawer of tools out to the yard, and set Arachne up on a flat part of grass next to my studio. I looked at the branch she was carrying, an impressively straight piece of wood that was perfect for a staff.

“Do you know what kind of tree it is?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Of course. It came off a birch tree. Birch for Birch.”

“You knew where to find a birch tree?” I asked.

“I know where to find any kind of tree,” she replied.

I nodded and went back into my studio, watching her work while ripping strips of canvas. A few minutes later, I heard Arachne shout to someone across the yard. I looked up, and saw two street kids who I recognized as part of Birch and Starla’s group of friends. I came out of the studio and looked over at Arachne. “That’s Ocean and Forager,” she said. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “I think they need space to make something as well.”

I walked towards the couple. “Hey there,” one of them said. “We’re friends with Birch and Starla, and we wanted to make them a handfasting cord, and we were wondering if you had any yarn or string or a place where we could make one.”

Handfasting cord, I thought to myself. I thought back to a time years before when I had made a few handfasting cords for some friends. I still had the tub of yarn somewhere. “Yep, find yourself a place in the yard, and I’ll dig you up some yarn.”

I again went back to my flag-making, leaving the studio door open as staffs were carved and cords were woven just feet away from me. I finished tearing the fabric and as I started to print, suddenly there were three more people in my yard. I looked up at them.

“We need to gather flowers for bouquets,” they yelled across the yard. “Do you have scissors, and a basket?” I pointed them towards the house.

A few minutes later, a kid who I knew as Diamond ran into the yard with a cake-sized box. “ SCORE! We dumpstered a cake!” he yelled to the group, holding the cake above his head victoriously. He looked over at me. “Do you have room in your fridge?” I pointed him towards the house as well.

The studio, the house, and the yard in between.  Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The studio, the house, and the yard in between. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

By the end of the evening, at least a dozen people had come through the yard, and an enormous pile had amassed in my tiny living space: sticks, staffs, cords, chairs, stools, drums, cups, plates, tapestries, water jugs, several baskets of flowers, a bundle of wild sage, and an unusually large amount of Chex Mix. The flags were drying in the studio, and I managed to get some cleaning done and a decent amount of sleep in before I was awoken in the morning by the phone.

“Hey, this is Forager. Can you meet us at The Pines? We need your help with something.”

The Pines was a motel downtown, one of many that is primarily occupied by the homeless and transient population. “Help with what?” I asked.

“We all pooled together money so that Birch and Starla could have a honeymoon, and we’re here trying to reserve a room for them for tonight, but they won’t rent a room to us because none of us have valid ID.”

My annoyance at being awoken immediately faded upon hearing their intended plans. The amount of generosity that was consistently displayed by this group towards each other despite having so little to nothing themselves never ceased to amaze me. “Be right there,” I said.

As I walked towards the motel, I reflected on the ‘honeymoon’ I was about to help arrange, and the larger similarities and differences between this handfasting and many of the others that I had experienced in the past. I remembered distinctly that the last couple whose wedding I attended spent a week in Florida for their honeymoon, and it occurred to me that most people I knew from middle-class backgrounds wouldn’t spend a night at The Pines even if I had paid them. And yet, in Starla and Birch’s case, not only was it was a simple and brilliant gift, but they would undoubtedly be overjoyed. A night indoors is a special occasion for them no matter what the lodging situation, but to have privacy of any sort, let alone a room of their own, was a rare and unexpected treat.

When I arrived at the motel and looked at the group gathered in front of the window, I immediately cracked a wide smile. They were downright giddy despite their frustration at not being able to rent the room themselves. It was obvious that they knew the value of their gift. It was not only the most meaningful and thoughtful thing that they had in their power to give, but the personal sacrifices that they made in order to make it happen gave the gift a whole other level of significance, one that I knew would not be lost on its recipients.

I rented the room, dropped several of them off at the service center to do some laundry, and, when I got home, Starla and three of her friends were on my front step waiting to get ready for the handfasting. I looked down at what they were carrying, and somehow they had managed to round up an impressive assortment of hair care products, accessories, and makeup. I walked them around back to the bathroom, which was fixed to the rear of the garage, and went back into the studio to give them room and space. After a few hours I came back in through the front door, and the four of them were posing in the mirror as I walked in. All four of them looked like they were ready for a faerie festival.

We loaded the large pile of handfasting-related contributions into my car and headed over to the park, where the ceremony was already in the midst of setting up. I saw Arachne standing in the center with an elaborately decorated staff and a small altar in front of her. Behind her was another woman with what appeared to be a bowl of sage. Two others were tracing and pointing out the boundaries of the circle.

Starla and I unloaded the car. I handed the skull flags to Birch, and I immediately made myself disappear as much as possible. At that moment, I felt a strong need to simply observe. I stood slightly towards the back, jotting down the details of what surrounded me in a pocket notebook while keeping one eye on what was transpiring in front of me all times. As I quickly scanned the group and scribbled down the names of everyone in attendance, it occurred to me that the list of names read nearly identical to the guest list of any typical Pagan handfasting: Sage, Willow, Raven, Leaf, Cinnamon, Ocean, Forager, Storm, Juniper, Scout, Arachne, Diamond, Starla, and Birch.

One of the very first things that ever struck me as a strong similarity between the Pagan and street communities was the way that folks typically adopt another name upon entering that other world. Street names and Craft/Pagan names were not only nearly identical in the types of names that are typically chosen, but the intent and motivations behind such a choice were strikingly similar as well. Both Pagans and street folks often have a legitimate need to hide and/or protect their legal identity, albeit often for very different reasons. Both groups also often regard the taking of a new name as an act of taking one’s power back and/or cutting ties with their former life. Especially in the case of runaway youths, their legal names are often a closely guarded secret, keys to their old life that they often fiercely protect, and they see those names as potential weapons in the hands of others that can be used against them. And once in a while it is; referring to one by a legal name instead of a street name in public is considered to be among the greatest insults and can often provoke a violent response.

I looked up from my list of names and realized that the ceremony was beginning. As I watched what was taking place, I was unsurprised and, yet, fascinated by how similar it all was to a typical Pagan handfasting. As I watched Arachne expertly tie the handfasting cord after wrapping Starla and Birch’s wrists together, I made a note to ask her where she had learned such a ceremony.

“I learned that from my brother Fern,” she told me later. By ‘brother,’ she was referring to street family, not blood family. “I’m not sure where he learned it, but I’m pretty sure that whoever he learned it from was the pirate who created it, and he spent a lot of time down near Shasta so I think he might have learned it down there. But I taught it to several other people, so there’s probably a few more out there who know it as well.”

I paused for a moment, as it hit me that she was unaware that the ritual she had performed was actually quite well known and widespread within the Pagan community. What I had witnessed was so passionate and true to its origins, which stood out for me even stronger as I realized that the person whose energy drove that ceremony wasn’t even aware of its history or origins. At that moment, someone yelled her name, and she nodded to me and ran off in the other direction. I looked over at Birch, holding the staff that Arachne had carved with an overjoyed expression on his face. I scanned the crowd again, and marveled at the time and sweat and love that they poured into this, all with one day’s notice.

As the crowd started to disperse, Birch and Starla walked towards me. “Ocean told us that you’re supposed to take us somewhere,” Birch said. I nodded and escorted them towards my van, and drove them to their surprise honeymoon suite.

A room at The Pines. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

A honeymoon at The Pines. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

A month or so later, I ran into Starla downtown, sitting on a planter, alone. “Heya,” I said. “Where’s Birch?”

She sighed, looked up at me, sighed again, and looked away.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay, I guess. Birch went back to Cali… his mom is sick and so he took off, although she’s been sick for a while, and that’s kinda just his excuse, but … well, you know how it goes…”

Sadly I did know how it went. It was a story I saw play out far too often.

“But you know what, even though he’s gone, I’m still glad we had the handfasting. It was awesome. Thanks so much for letting us use your house and driving us and all that. I can’t believe what everyone did for us, how you all pulled it off. That was the nicest day I had in a long, long time.”

She got up and gave me a long hug. I nodded and hugged her back, and as I felt my throat tighten up, I thought back to the strong feeling of obligation I had towards helping them with the handfasting. What I instinctively understood at the beginning was just confirmed and clarified before my eyes, and despite the profound sadness that I felt at that moment, I was deeply grateful that I had been able to help facilitate that memorable day for her. It was a powerful reminder that, when one is mostly helpless in the face of the larger tragedy at play, creating meaningful moments within, despite that larger tragedy, is a powerful and often crucial act.

(Author’s Note: Names and minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)

Long before Ken Kesey was an author or a Merry Prankster, he was a farm boy from Springfield, Oregon, and the old hippies I often encounter never let me forget it.

While most outside of the Willamette Valley know Ken Kesey best for either his books or his psychedelic adventures, much of what is remembered about Kesey on a local level comes not from his years in the spotlight as a 60s counterculture figure, but from his role and actions as a generous, community-minded family man who spent the vast majority of his life in the Eugene/Springfield area. Kesey was a wrestling star at Springfield High School, a graduate of the University of Oregon and had married his high-school sweetheart prior to embarking on a decade-long adventure that began as a creative writing student at Stanford and culminated in a six-month sentence for marijuana possession in 1967. After his release from prison, Kesey returned to his family’s farm just outside of Springfield, where he lived until his death in the fall of 2001.

I’ve heard Kesey referred to jokingly as the “patron saint of Eugene”, and sometimes I feel that such a sentiment is more accurate than most care to believe. The spirit and influence of Ken Kesey is woven deeply into the counterculture tapestry of Eugene, through everything from the Oregon Country Fair to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, from the history of the Springfield Creamery to the still-continuing adventures of the Furthur bus. The most obvious reminder of and tribute to Kesey, however, is the plaza that bears his name, the only public plaza in downtown Eugene.

The plaza, set in a downtown corner lot formerly occupied by a building, has been a city-owned open space for at least forty years. Alternately called either “Kesey Square” or “Kesey Plaza”, the plaza was originally conceived as part of a pedestrian “downtown mall” that existed from the late ‘60s through the early ‘90s, and the area was dedicated to Kesey not long after his death. A statue of Ken Kesey titled “The Storyteller” was installed in the front of the plaza, which depicts Kesey sitting on a bench reading to his grandchildren, serving as a powerful reminder of Kesey’s legacy and influence in the heart of a city that was deeply shaped by his spirit.

Statue of Ken Kesey. Photo by Cacophony.

Statue of Ken Kesey. Photo by Cacophony.

But despite its ideal location, and despite the energy and spirit of its namesake, the vibe of the plaza itself is stagnant and stuck. Kesey Square has always suffered as a place due to a combination of significant design flaws, a constantly shifting intent of usage, a reputation as a “problem” area, and the fact that it is the only public space in the commercial district. It’s obvious to most that these issues are interconnected and, in fact, feed directly into each other. But approaches taken by city officials to improve the area have always focused on the symptoms instead of the underlying causes and, as a result, the plaza has been the site of longstanding conflicts and disagreements between city officials, business owners, neighborhood residents and the regulars who hang out in the square.

As the only public plaza in a city that suffers from a significant lack of open space, Kesey Square is a magnet for those who have nowhere else to go. There are no publicly-owned benches anywhere throughout the downtown core, and sitting on the sidewalk can result in a citation, which leaves Kesey Square as the only public place where one can stop and sit, rest or relax. Consequently the plaza is primarily occupied by the poor and homeless, and the area is often strewn with backpacks, dogs, and other personal items, which is considered to be “unsightly” from the perspective of local businesses and certain residents. People gather around the statue, often dressing Kesey up with their own possessions, as they share food, play guitar, sell art or jewelry, or simply socialize.

Street youth in Kesey Square. Photo by Visitor7.

Street youth in Kesey Square. Photo by Visitor7.

Kesey Square is also the only place in downtown Eugene where people are legally allowed to congregate in public at night. All local parks are under a 11pm curfew, and to linger in the parks even a few minutes after curfew is to risk arrest, which means that the crowd in the plaza at night is often even larger than the daytime crowd. Negative perceptions around the homeless lead many people, especially the barhopping crowd, to complain that the Kesey Square crowd makes them feel unsafe. And while such complaints historically haven’t been met with much action, the “downtown revitalization” efforts over the last decade or so have lead to increased strategies and tactics on the part of the city to displace those who regularly inhabit Kesey Square, but such actions have only added to pre-existing tensions while failing to chase away the targeted population.

In 2008 the City of Eugene enacted and began to enforce a set of ordinances that were officially known as the “Downtown Public Safety Zone,” but more commonly referred to as the “exclusion laws.” The DPSZ ordinances allowed police to ban people from downtown who had been cited for certain “quality of life” offenses for up to 90 days, at their discretion, without requiring approval from a judge. The bans were immediate, meaning that the person was excluded from downtown before guilt or innocence had been determined in a court of law. Violation of the exclusion would result in an immediate arrest. The ordinances were controversial from the onset with the ACLU as well as community groups expressing concern that the discretionary aspect of the law would lead to widespread profiling and that the ability to ban someone from public space prior to their conviction was a violation of due process. The ordinance and its effects sharply divided the community with those concerned about human rights and discriminatory treatment positioned against those who felt that the homeless affected downtown business and were a threat to public safety.

The controversy steadily raged on with the issue being revisited regularly by the City Council in packed meeting halls. Over time, the city’s own data demonstrated that the ordinance was disproportionately being used against people who lacked a permanent address, while others who committed identical offenses were not being excluded. A homeless person smoking a joint in Kesey Square would lose their right to come downtown for three months, while a bar-goer a block away who had committed the same offense would only receive a citation or a warning. As the local economy went into further decline and the street population became larger and more visible, the police increased its usage of the DPSZ laws to the point where I would hear stories of exclusions on a regular basis. As enforcement increased, so did the time I was spending in Kesey Square, often sitting right next to Ken himself while witnessing the arrests of homeless people for violating the DPSZ.

Raising awareness about the DPSZ. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Raising awareness about the DPSZ. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

One afternoon, I was sitting next to the Kesey statue when a young man suddenly ran across the plaza, a man who I knew suffered from severe mental illness. He had been recently excluded under the DPSZ laws for “disorderly conduct” that occurred within the context of a psychotic episode. I watched as the police ran towards him and overtook him, as they tackled and arrested him for violating his exclusion and as I looked at the Kesey statue again the tragic irony of the situation suddenly struck me on a very deep level. People with mental illness were being banned from a plaza named after the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and were being subdued and arrested directly in front of a statue of the author himself.

How did a plaza named after a counterculture hero become ground zero for socioeconomic conflict and class-based exclusion policies? Kesey himself would have been excluded under these laws, I thought to myself. He would have been sitting right here, smoking a joint while dressed like a hippie farmer, and they would have banned him from downtown for ninety days if they caught him. So much of this city’s reputation was built off the influence of Kesey and his kind, and I strongly felt that what was currently transpiring was anathema to what Kesey represented. As I sat there, this realization spread through me like a fire, almost as if the spirit of Kesey himself was fueling my rage. Kesey Square might be a troubled, dead space, but it was the commons all the same, and the person whose name is invoked in the title of this specific place would never have stood for what I was witnessing.

From that point on, I looked to Kesey as a spiritual guide of sorts, a wisdom-based reference point in my political navigations of the DPSZ issue. What would Ken do, I asked myself regularly. What did he stand for, what did he believe in? What is the intent of this place, what are the implications of excluding those who don’t “fit in” from the commons? How does one respect the needs of all and act in the best interest of the community in an ethical manner? I quoted and mentioned Kesey often, especially when pointing out the hypocritical gap between theory and practice in a municipality that has dubbed itself a “human rights city”. Ken would have been excluded, I reminded everyone.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Finally, after five years of advocacy, lobbying, protests, and consistent statistical evidence that made it undeniably clear that the DPSZ not only encouraged profiling but failed to significantly decrease crime or improve public safety, the DPSZ laws were finally sunsetted last fall, with city officials quietly acknowledging that the ordinance had been disproportionately used against the homeless and/or mentally ill. While on one hand it was a powerful example of a community successfully coming together to fight and eventually defeat an unjust ordinance, it did not feel like a victory in the traditional sense. When one enforcement tool is rescinded, another is always developed and enacted in its place, and we all knew that it was only a matter of time before yet another criminalization policy was enacted. The threat of exclusion may have been lifted, but the atmosphere of hostility remained and could literally be felt as one walked through Kesey Square.

And sure enough, earlier this month the City announced that it was considering a proposal to enact a 11pm curfew on Kesey Square, with the specific intent of displacing those who use the plaza at night. Such a curfew would essentially ban the homeless from downtown Eugene at night under threat of arrest, and both city officials and local business owners were very candid about the fact that ridding the downtown of the homeless at night was their intention. Excluding specific people may have been legally questionable in the past, but police expressed confidence that banning everyone from the square at night would not only pass legal muster, but was the only feasible solution for dealing with the “troublemakers” downtown.

After I heard the news, as the intent sank in and I started to come to terms with the battle ahead, my thoughts kept drifting back to Kesey himself. I have heard many times that Kesey was a solutions-oriented, common sense thinker, and I thought about such a mindset in contrast to the short-sighted madness that was directing the City’s intended actions. A few days later I walked down to Kesey Square, paced back and forth for the better part of an hour while wrestling with my thoughts, and as I finally looked up from the ground to the statue I noticed a sticker on an old VW bus that was stopped at the corner. The quote on the sticker was from Ken Kesey:

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

I immediately refocused, realizing that the weeks ahead would be spent making that case. A case for the commons, for the importance of public space, for procedures and policies that help to bring people up, not kick them while they’re down, for better services for the homeless and mentally ill. A case against restricting people from public space, against criminalization policies that target the already disenfranchised, against prioritizing commercial interests over human rights. I believe in a better future for both Kesey Square and its inhabitants, and in the potential for a positive, vibrant public space that truly reflects the spirit and values of its namesake. I also believe that addressing the problems that lead to conflicts in spaces such as Kesey Square and crafting viable solutions is of a much greater benefit to the community than the current course that is being taken. Standing in the square, I looked at the statue once more and felt with certainty at that moment that making the case is exactly what Ken would have done.

[Author’s Note: These events took place a few years prior to this writing, and I have attempted to recall the story as accurately and honestly as possible with the acknowledgment that certain specific details have faded in my memory, specifically concerning the amounts of time that had actually elapsed over the course of these events. Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.]

“Help! Quick!”

We ran over as quickly as we could. Sprawled out in the ground, covered in mud was a young man who I knew as Kiley in the middle of what appeared to be a seizure. A girl stood over him, rolling him up onto his side as we approached. “Go find Bear,” she yelled in our direction. “Quick, go find Bear.”

I looked over at my companion who ran over with me, a short, pixyish girl who called herself Sprout. “Who’s Bear?” I asked her, silently hoping that whoever Bear was, he or she had emergency medical training. My cell phone was long dead, it was the middle of the night, and my car was many blocks away.

“Bear’s our shaman. She’s the only one who can make it stop.”

Sprout took off running, and I stayed in place there, frozen, the borders between reality and fantasy once again blurred beyond comprehension. I had overheard talk of seizures a few times over the past week, but like so much of what I had heard, I had initially taken it with a grain of salt, dismissing it as the exaggerated fantasy of attention-seeking youth. And yet, in what was rapidly becoming a noticeable pattern, at that moment the fantasy was all too real. As I stood there wondering where I could run for help, Sprout returned with another girl, one even younger and more pixyish than herself. Bear was barely five feet tall, wore a floor-length red coat, and carried herself with an authority that one wouldn’t expect from such a young, slight creature.

I stood there and watched as Bear crouched over Kiley, put her hand on his forehead, and started to chant in a low voice while waving her other hand up and down in a steady rhythm. After what seemed like only seconds, his seizures started to cease. She stood up, held her hands over him and shouted an indecipherable phrase, and before I knew it Kiley was sitting up and asking for water.

I looked at Sprout, incredulous. “What the hell was that?” I asked. “Is he epileptic?”

“Several people have had seizures over the past few weeks,” she replied. “Bear says that we’re under attack.”

“Under attack from whom?” I asked.

“Probably another street family, although I think it also might be the police. They hire psychics all the time, you know…”

I had learned very early on that trying to challenge such a belief was not only an exercise in frustration and futility, but that doing so quickly eroded the trust that had been built between us. Nonetheless it was often hard to bite my tongue. The idea that the local police department would hire psychics to afflict street kids with seizures was absolutely ludicrous as far as I was concerned. But until a few minutes before, the idea that a homeless teenage “shaman” could take away a street kid’s seizures through chanting would have seemed absurd to me as well, and I had just witnessed such a thing with my very own eyes. At that moment, anything seemed possible. I stayed silent and simply nodded.

“We have a protection ritual planned for tomorrow,” Sprout added. “We’re letting some of the others know.”

By “the others” Sprout was undoubtedly referring to members and/or heads of other street families, ones who they considered to be allies as opposed to foes. I nodded again, and excused myself to get some coffee. At that moment, I had an overwhelming need to step away and think.

The simple truth was that they were under attack, although the nature of that attack was overwhelmingly bureaucratic and systematic as opposed to the type of energetic warfare that Sprout was convinced of. Their presence was unwelcome wherever they went, and both law enforcement and the business community had taken many deliberate steps over the years in order to clear them from public space, none that have ever succeeded in the long-term. The tools and tactics changed regularly, but the constant oppression and harassment aimed towards this population had been apparent to me for years, and over that time it had become clear to me that this group and others like them were a poorly understood, harshly judged, and frequently targeted population that was literally fighting to survive in a community that openly declares their visibility to be “undesirable”.

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Most people simply refer to them as “street kids” and they self-identify as such for the most part, although many of them are in their mid-to-late twenties, and a few even older than that. The youngest among them are in their mid-teens, although as a general rule every one of them insists that they are 18. Most of them are current or former teenage runaways, and some of them have lived on the streets of Eugene for many years. In Oregon running away from home is not illegal, and while police and social service agencies often attempt to reunite runaways with their parents whenever possible, very often these runaways have fled legitimately abusive or neglectful situations and returning home is not in their best interest. For better or for worse, and sound arguments can be made for both, teens who leave home are legally allowed to fend for themselves, and many of them prefer a dangerous and unstable life on the streets over the dangerous and unstable homes that they were raised in. As a result “street families” composed mostly of young runaways can be found throughout Oregon’s urban areas. Police are often quick to profile these street families as “gangs”, and while certain individuals within the street families sometimes engage in petty crime in order to survive, these groups are anything but criminal enterprises. The family is a source of protection and solidarity for its members in the face of legitimate oppression and danger and within the familial units that the street kids create; both love and power are cultivated, recognized and shared.

Initially brought together by their commonality as runaway, at-risk, or wayward youth, what became quickly evident upon spending time with this specific street family and has been echoed in my experiences with others is the way that they have bonded together and almost universally attached themselves to a strong and deliberate shared culture and nature-based belief system, one that I have come to refer to as “street paganism.” From the outside it is best described as a cobbling together of ideas and beliefs drawn from pop culture, fantasy novels, “Wicca 101” books, games such as “Magic The Gathering,” and aspects of the West Coast counter-cultural movement. All those influences are deeply intertwined with the many realities of street culture: scarcity, mental illness, social and behavioral disorders, a culture of substance abuse and self-medicating and the psychic toll that living in constant survival mode has on a person. Additionally the runaway youth factor introduces a whole other set of factors and challenges, namely the psychological scars from abuse and neglect combined with a lack of education and social skills.

All of these influences, tendencies, and identities converge to create a day-to-day worldview and functional reality that this street family operates within, a world that can either be interpreted as an elaborately dramatic and paranoid fantasy or a legitimate shadow reality operating right next to our own. At the beginning I had assumed it to be more of a fantasy than anything else, but I had come a long way rather quickly to a point where I absolutely could not deny or otherwise explain what I was experiencing alongside them other than to simply accept it for what it was. This was a world-within-a-world, one that I would have easily scoffed at in any other circumstance. Many of them self-identified as witches, mages, warlocks, or shamans, and such identities were not only a source of personal power, but were recognized as positions of power and authority within their communities, with those who do not identify as such usually granting an unwavering respect and deference towards those who do. They were untrained and undisciplined, headstrong and often reckless, and yet they seemingly created a whole that was not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also acted as protection and container for those parts.

I thought back to the seizure and what I had witnessed. I sure didn’t think that either the police nor any rival street families were engaged in psychic attack against this group, and I was also skeptical that Bear actually had the power and skill to simply stop another person from seizing through chanting and hand gestures. But what I did know for sure was that they weren’t just faking this scenario for my benefit. While I was doubtful that the seizures were of a solely physiological origin, what had just occurred before me was anything but an act. There were legitimate factors at play here and I couldn’t help but wonder if what I had witnessed was some sort of manifestation of the severe trauma and pain that Kiley and so many others are forced to suppress in order to function and survive in the day-to-day.

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

I did not witness the ritual that Sprout and Bear had planned for the next day, but when I returned later in the day I was assured that it had been successful and that they were safe from further attack for the time being. Sure enough the seizures tapered off, although the paranoia and obsession around the idea of being psychically targeted only seemed to strengthen as the seizures faded. The belief that they were under attack was nearly universal among them as was the idea that Bear was protecting them from an ugly fate.

I thought about my own understandings of how they were under “attack” by law enforcement and the business community in light of their own beliefs about the sources and nature of such attacks. It occurred to me that I had a language and framework for understanding the realities of their oppression that they themselves lacked. I understood these attacks through policies and procedures, by interpreting and constantly revisiting information that I’ve observed and gathered through years of my paying attention to local government and the business community.  The street kids, on the other hand, understood the attacks through their personal experiences with the attitudes and energies directed at them combined with the fears and fantasies of their peers. If I had walked through life in their shoes, I thought to myself, I would very likely obsessively perceive such experiences as a constant form of psychic attack as well.

Over the next few weeks, I paid attention to their many ideas and theories, analyzing and thinking through their day-to-day habits and rituals as though I was observing an established folk religion. I noticed immediately that the more I assumed and accepted their reality as synonymous with my own, the more I was able to understand and experience the power of their connection. Their loyalty and generosity towards each other was heart-breakingly beautiful and the importance and strength of their family as an energetic unit became more and more apparent to me as the days went on.

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Some time later, I stopped by unexpectedly to drop off some fruit when I came across Kiley sprawled in the pathway, once again, in the midst of seizures. This time, I yelled for help. Two street kids ran over and I asked them if Bear was around. She was away, they told me. They did not know where she had gone, but she had been away for a few days. I looked around and saw a police car idling in a nearby parking lot. I told the kids to stay there and ran across the street. I spoke briefly with the officer and, within a minute or two, a team of paramedics pulled up and quickly approached Kiley who was still seizing on the ground, his friends kneeled over him. I ran over right behind them.

As I stood there watching, my thoughts were racing faster than ever. Was Kiley’s seizure somehow connected to Bear’s absence? If not, what was the trigger? Or was Kiley simply an epileptic? But if so, how to properly explain what I had witnessed a few weeks before?

Suddenly, one of the paramedics turned towards me, his eyes flashing with anger. “What kind of B.S. is this?” he asked me.

I stared at him, utterly confused.

“I can’t believe this crap. This kid’s faking it,” he continued. “I’ve been working this gig for nearly a decade. That’s no epileptic seizure.” He looked down at Kiley. “Get up,” he yelled. “Get up.”

I was speechless. I looked down at Kiley, writhing in the mud, his seizures slowing but not ceasing, and then back at the paramedic standing over him, yelling for him to get up. Once again, I had no idea what to think. At that moment, Kiley turned onto his other side and projectile vomited. His seizing stopped and he promptly fainted.

“Was he faking that too?” I asked.

The paramedic looked straight at me, and the anger in his eyes had turned to fear. “What kind of sorcery, what kind of trickery is this?” he asked. “Who are you? Do you know this kid?”

“I don’t know what it is,” I replied. “Who I am is none of your business. And yes, I know that kid, although not well. I came across him seizing on the ground, and I called for help. Nobody’s trying to trick you.” I nodded towards Kiley. While the one paramedic and I had been arguing, the other paramedic had revived Kiley and was checking his vital signs as he weakly sat upright.

Kiley declined the recommended trip to the hospital, and the paramedic who had revived Kiley strongly recommended that he see a doctor as soon as possible in order to be tested for epilepsy. The other paramedic was silent and I could tell by his expression and demeanor that his sense of reality had been thrown for as much of a loop as mine had been a few weeks earlier. Despite his behavior, I felt strongly empathetic toward him in that moment.

A few hours later, I sat down with Sprout to talk about the incident. “You don’t believe he was faking it, do you?” she asked me.

“No,” I replied, “but that doesn’t necessarily answer anything for me, either. I’m never quite sure what I believe anymore. As of late I feel like I’m stuck in a fantasy novel and I’m not sure which way is up.”

“Which novel?” she asked.

“Sometimes you all remind me of ‘the Lost Boys,’ other times I think of Lord of the Flies, and when I’m in these situations I often feel like the main character in Neverwhere or something similar.”

She looked over at me. I could tell by her silence that she did not recognize any of my references and yet it was obvious to me that she understood exactly what I was trying to express nonetheless.

“Well, if I put that all together, we’re the Lost Lords of Neverwhere.” she finally said to me. “That sounds like the name of a good novel. That sounds tough.”

Walking home, I thought about Bear and Kiley, whom I immediately realized would be etched in my mind forevermore as the Lost Lords of Neverwhere. It sounded tough, yes, but I hoped that besides feeling tough, this group of street kids also realized that they were not nearly as lost as so many people think they were. Their perspectives, ideas, and cultural norms are lost on most, they are lost without a place in our present society, and some of them have lost their way as a consequence of the lives they have been forced into, but overall they are anything but lost. Overall, it is what they have created and actualized within their own world, their own Neverwhere, that speaks loudest of all to me. And while I still cannot explain the specific whys behind teenage shamans and mysterious seizures, over time the experience has demonstrated a value far beyond what would be gained with the discovery of any definitive answer. Their ability to create their own reality, for better or for worse, gives me hope that some of them will one day be able to create their own proper place in the world on their own terms. In the meantime, whenever I think of the Lost Lords of Neverwhere, I am reminded that the presence of mystery does not always deliberately obscure the answer, and yet often teaches meaningful lessons that the simple answers simply can’t.

 

The fact that it was the spring equinox did not occur to me at first. I was drawn out of my house by the rare March sun, and was immediately and utterly transfixed by a vibrant downtown which had suddenly come alive after several months’ worth of of gloomy weather. As I stood there, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, I heard the familiar yell in the distance, and when I turned around I saw John Brewster coming around the corner on his bicycle, uttering yet another variation of his trademark line:

“I love America and I love the sunshine and I love freedom of speech, but LTD can lick my sweaty, shaven….”

Spring has arrived, I thought to myself. The locals are officially no longer in hibernation.

John Brewster (aka "LTD guy")

John Brewster (aka “LTD guy”)

In a town well known for its eccentric and colorful residents, John Brewster is one of a handful of figures who stand out even amongst Eugene’s characteristically odd landscape. Better known as the “LTD Guy”, Brewster has been riding around downtown screaming about his nether regions for well over a decade now, often while dressed in flamboyant costumes. Brewster’s tirades against the Lane Transit District have earned him a certain degree of notoriety, and he has achieved a local cult status with an accompanying fan club. Many people cheer him on as he passes by, while others roll their eyes in annoyance or ignore him outright. In the warmer months, Brewster can often be spotted on a daily basis, sometimes several times over the course of a sunny afternoon.

Brewster’s story and history has been profiled in local media and he has even been the subject of a student documentary, and yet most people in the community who see him on any given day still don’t know what he’s so angry about. They laugh, they make small conversation, they note the differences over time in his costume or his script, but the point of his rant or the history behind it is lost on them for the most part. It’s evident from the way that most people react to Brewster that the story behind his anger is not nearly as significant or meaningful to them as the spectacle that is Brewster himself.

John Brewster is one of Eugene’s (mostly) celebrated outsiders, and in the minds of many, the community’s enthusiastic embrace of such figures demonstrates our local values in action, the idea that Eugene is an inclusive community that accepts everyone despite their quirks. But while so many cheer on and support these eccentric local celebrities as a testament to the idea of radical inclusion, what so many fail to recognize is the fact that the circumstances surrounding their notoriety are a result of systematic exclusion policies, policies which seemingly stand in stark contrast to the ideas and values around inclusivity. In embracing the spectacle of the person rather than their actual story, the community can feel good about accepting people of all stripes while conveniently failing to acknowledge the widespread practices that result in such ‘outsider’ status in the first place.

In Brewster’s case, a fight with a bus driver many years ago over whether he could bring his bicycle on the bus resulted in a permanent ban from the LTD bus system, and absent any accessible method of recourse, Brewster has aired his grudges very publicly and theatrically ever since. He is one of a countless number of people who have been banned from the bus system, the vast majority of them homeless and/or mentally ill. And while his theatrics are often embraced, supported, and laughed at, the serious plight of Brewster and so many others is routinely dismissed and ignored. Brewster makes me smile as well, but behind the humor I recognize the dark truths that motivate his actions.

When I saw Brewster ride by on that unusually sunny equinox day, my thoughts immediately went to Glassbar Island, where I’ve seen Brewster sunning himself many times over the last several years. Unlike the theatrical character I often encounter downtown, out at Glassbar he’s not riding around screaming about anything at all. He’s simply one of the regulars, one of many stewards of the land who contribute to the unique character of the hidden little island at the edge of town, a place where outsiders like Brewster go to get away from it all.

Satellite image of Glassbar Island

Satellite image of Glassbar Island.

Situated on the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River, Glassbar Island was originally known as “Bring Beach” due to the island’s location behind the old Bring Recycling facility, which sat on a county-owned parcel just outside the city limits. For over fifty years now, Glassbar Island has served as a hideaway of sorts for various people, groups, and activities that are not always accepted by the mainstream community. The island first gained a reputation as a nude swimming-hole in the ‘60s, later gained notoriety as a cruising spot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has served as a sanctuary for the homeless throughout its history, and in the past decade has become recognized by scientists and botanists for its biological diversity and gained a reputation as an ideal spot for nature identification walks. Today, the island is mostly known as a spot for nude sunbathing, but folks of many different stripes not only peacefully co-exist on the island but also cooperatively maintain and care for the area.

Glassbar functions as a self-policing autonomous zone of sorts, publicly-owned yet left to its own devices. The island is open and welcoming to all, provided that one respects a code of behavior that is best described as mutual respect, cooperation, discretion, and leaving no trace. More often than not, I’ve found myself to be the only one on the island who is neither homeless nor naked, and yet I have always felt completely welcome in this community of outsiders. I fall into another category of respectful visitors: those who simply find the place enchanting and otherworldly.

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island.

The otherworldly aspects of Glassbar Island are not limited to what is found on the island itself. Getting there is often an adventure plucked straight out of a fairy-tale. In the spring and summer months, the Coast Fork dips low enough that one can easily walk across an ankle-deep natural land bridge to the island. During the rainy season, however, the river has been known to crest at well over twelve feet, cutting off island access to everyone except experienced boaters. While my own local sign that spring has arrived is the spotting of John Brewster, the true sign of spring for the close-knit Glassbar community is the day the river dips low enough to safely wade over.

Even when the river is safe to cross, access is still limited to those “in the know”. For an untold number of years, most people accessed the island from a county-owned parcel that led to the low point of the river, until last year when the County shut off access, citing environmental and safety concerns. The parcel was gated and fenced to keep the Glassbar community out, and according to both the county and the state, the island is designated “river access only”, meaning it is only legally accessible by boat. This has not deterred the regulars, as there are numerous entrance points throughout the adjacent properties that all lead to the river. Those entrances are not easy to find, however, and the lack of knowledge around the current access points has only added to the island’s mystique. In its present state, it is not only an island of outsiders, but of outlaws as well: one must break the law to access it on foot. The island is still public and open to all, but every person who fords the river to the island has committed an act of criminal trespass.

There are many angles to the controversy over restricting land access to the island, but remembering John Brewster’s association with Glassbar always brings me back to the politics of inclusion and exclusion, especially in light of the County’s hyperbolic excuses for closing the parcel. County officials publicly cited problems with prostitution, drugs, and sex trafficking in justifying their actions without offering any evidence to back the allegations, and in response the media outlets and private citizens alike alluded to the presence of nude sunbathers, homeless people, and the gay community as the potential sources of those problems. And while the county’s claims were mostly refuted or disproven by the Glassbar community as well as area residents, the fences went up nonetheless and the voices of opposition were drowned out.

No trespassing gate.

No trespassing gate.

The idea that law and policy has created yet one more restriction on where the John Brewsters of the world are allowed to exist troubles me not only on an ethical level, but on a deep spiritual level as well. Scare tactics were used to defend actions that in the end only served as an attempt to further exclude the already marginalized amongst us, and the interconnectedness between the island itself and the community that interacts with and tends to it was completely disregarded in the equation. Among many other things, it was never considered that the island itself greatly benefits from the community and the stewardship that the Glassbar community provides. To say that the relationship is reciprocal would be putting it mildly.

Glassbar path

Glassbar path

As I stood downtown on that sunny equinox day, watching John Brewster ride past me as my thoughts drifted to Glassbar, I felt an immediate pull to head out to the island myself, something I’ve never attempted so early in the season. I had spent much of the winter ruminating on the ways that community, exclusion, and perception interact in and with this specific place that is Eugene, and Glassbar contains and expresses each of those elements more concretely than any other singular place I know of here. And at that moment, heading out to the island seemed more of a directive than anything else, a directive that I was determined to fulfill despite the fact that the river was reported to be nearly three feet high at the crossing.

With the sun holding out, a few days later I set out towards the island with two friends, neither who had ever experienced our destination before. And despite setting out with explorative intentions and a focus on exclusion, my initial reasons for the trip evaporated as we were immediately caught up in the area’s magic. From the moment we stepped upon the initial path beneath the trestle that leads out the abandoned haul road, which we followed for a mile to the river crossing in order to trek across the river itself, I felt myself moving in and through a world completely out of place and time, anchored only by the constant reminder that I was supposedly acting as a navigator for my companions. We took off our boots and set out to ford the river, and although I am usually nervous and wary around rivers, the numinous aspects of our surroundings and the otherworldliness of the moment completely drowned out my anxiety. As I stood in the middle of the Willamette, thigh-high in rushing water, my feet grasping for the next river stone in front of me as I tried desperately not to fall, a message came through to me loud and clear, a message that came straight from the river itself:

Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

And the enchantment swept over me, midway across the river. As soon as we made it across to the island itself, another friend of mine spotted us and immediately took on a tour guide role, taking us around the island while explaining the history and landscape to my companions. I followed closely, trying to pay attention, trying to process what was occurring in the moment, but I kept slipping away despite my best intentions. Space and boundaries blurred as I walked on, and the more I tried to revisit my original purpose, the more I slipped into the otherworld that lay before me. I always felt welcome on this island of outsiders, but I also have always felt as an outsider myself. This time, I felt a part of the island’s dance, pulled in and transfixed by its numinosity. By the time we had reached the other end of the island, several hours had gone by in what seemed like mere moments. As I stepped in the river to cross back, the feeling of inclusiveness and belonging held me up in one sense, as the physical presence of a friend held me up in the literal sense.

The following day, I walked towards downtown with the ideas of inclusion and enchantment floating around in my brain, and John Brewster came around the corner once again like clockwork. I watched as a group of college students interacted with him, and I thought back to the message I received in the river. Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment. The students were laughing as they spoke to him, obviously enchanted in the moment. The policies and forces that create outsiders like Brewster are often unjustified and contradictory to the stated values of this community, but that does not cancel out the power and the beauty of the community’s embrace of such characters, nor does it weaken the effect that these outsiders can have upon the people around them and the everyday nature of a given place. Despite his exclusion, John Brewster interacts within a place where he feels like he belongs, and he is a part of the dance of this community just as much as I felt a part of the dance of the island. Brewster’s presence is a tragedy of sorts, but his presence is also a gift.

The rains came back in a few days ago, and the Coast Fork is slated to crest at ten feet in the next day or two, once again cutting off access to Glassbar Island. Our island trek the week before suddenly seems like a faraway dream, and knowing that our visit occurred in what turned out to be a small window of accessibility only adds to the mysticality of the experience. The county may not be able to successfully block off access to Glassbar Island, but the river itself can achieve that task without issue. And a community of outsiders will wait patiently until they can cross at the ford once again.

“You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

This was Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s advice to women fearing domestic violence in Josephine County, Oregon in the spring of 2012, after drastic cuts to public safety funding resulted in a reduction from 24 sheriff’s deputies to only 6. A few months later, Gilbertson’s chilling warning became a reality when a woman in Josephine County was sexually assaulted by an abusive ex-boyfriend despite calling 911 and pleading for help to the dispatcher for over ten minutes. The dispatcher was not able to send help because there were no deputies on duty at the time. When the Josephine County dispatcher routed the call through to the Oregon State Police, there were also no officers available. Over the course of the call, the State Police dispatcher remarked that it was “unfortunate you guys don’t have any law enforcement up there” and suggested that the terrified caller “ask him to go away”.

The incident made national news a few months later after Josephine County voters once again considered and then narrowly rejected a modest property tax levy that would have provided for adequate law enforcement. Despite having the lowest property taxes of any county in Oregon, and despite the fact that the failure to pass a tax levy the year before resulted in a woman being brutalized, voters had apparently decided that the safety of local citizens was not worth an average of $18.50 per household per month.

On the surface, it would seem easy to simply blame Josephine County voters for their woes, but the situation that led to the county’s financial crisis is far more complicated than just a matter of property taxes. Nearly 70% of the land in Josephine County is owned by the federal government, and the county receives no tax revenue from that land regardless of whether a tax levy is passed or not. Josephine County is one of eighteen counties in Oregon that has been receiving timber payments from the federal government to compensate for the lost tax revenue from federally-owned land since the 1930s. The amounts of payments are dependent on sustainable-yield harvests, and for many of these counties, known collectively as the “O&C counties”, these timber payments have made the difference between feast and famine for nearly a century. And while the O&C counties prospered as a result of these payments up through the late 1980s, over the past 25 years many of these counties have fallen into financial ruin as the payments slowly dried up.

While many felt that Josephine County voters were simply prioritizing their anti-tax sentiment over their need for adequate public safety services, its important to recognize that in rejecting the tax levies, the citizens of Josephine County were not only demonstrating their belief that the federal government has an obligation to help fill their budget gap, but many also strongly believed that rejecting the levies would either prompt Congress to increase timber harvests or would trigger additional financial assistance from the federal government.

The short explanation behind Josephine County’s financial crisis is that the rapid deforestation of Oregon’s old-growth forests over the past century eventually led to a steady decline in timber harvests, which in turn reduced the federal timber payments down to a trickle. The larger story behind that simple explanation, however, of how and why Oregon developed such a pathological dependence on timber in the first place and why basic municipal infrastructures are so rapidly failing as a consequence of that dependence, is an interesting tale of money and politics that stretches back over 150 years. And while critics had pointed out for many years that Oregon’s failure to diversify its timber-dependent economy would eventually lead to both economic and biological disaster, few ever truly imagined a day where in the words of a local forest activist, “we are now being told that protecting women from rape is contingent upon raping the earth.”

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

Clear-cut forests near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas.

It all started with the desire for a railroad.

The Oregon and California Railroad Act, passed by Congress in 1866, dedicated nearly four million acres of land to be made available to any company who would build a railroad from Portland to San Francisco. The Act dictated that the land was to be distributed in 12,800-acre land grants for each mile of track that was built, with an amendment three years later requiring the railroad company to sell the land adjacent to the rail line in 160-acre parcels to be priced at only $2.50 an acre in order to encourage settlement along the corridor. The theory behind the land-grant arrangement was that the sale of the parcels granted to the railroad company would financially compensate the railroad company for building the railroad in the first place. Meanwhile, the value of the government parcels would increase significantly over time due to the building of the railroad as well as the development that would occur on the parcels that the railroad sold to settlers, which would financially benefit the government in the long-term. Similar land grants had successfully enticed railroad companies to construct what became the first transcontinental railroad, which broke ground in 1863 and was completed in 1869.

The O&C parcels were laid out in a checkerboard pattern, extending twenty miles out from each side of the tracks, with the parcels designated for settlers alternating with parcels that were retained by the federal government. Construction was first started in Portland in 1868, and the route was completed over Siskiyou Summit into California by 1877, at which time the Southern Pacific Railroad took control of the railroad line. But while the laying of the tracks itself went smoothly, selling the available land parcels to settlers proved to be quite problematic. The terrain, which was rugged, mountainous, and consisted mostly of old-growth Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, was not ideal nor practical for development, and the land proved to be difficult if not impossible to sell to potential homesteaders. Timber companies, on the other hand, coveted the parcels, but the land grant stipulated that the land was to only be sold to bona-fide settlers. This left the railroad company unable to recoup the money that was spent on building the railroad, as was the original purpose of the land grant.

And from this dilemma, a massive land-fraud scandal was born.

The racket was brilliantly simple. The president of the Southern Pacific Railroad hired a former surveyor tasked with rounding up working-class folks from the bars and saloons on Portland’s waterfront. The surveyor would escort the saloon patrons over to the land office and pay them to pose as a settlers, where they would register and pay $2.50 an acre for an O&C parcel and then immediately sell the parcel back to the railroad company. The railroad company then sold off the parcels in large blocks to the highest-bidding timber companies, who then harvested the timber without restrictions. This continued throughout the first decade of the 20th Century, until a disgruntled lumber employee tipped a Portland newspaper off to the scheme. The investigations that followed led to hundreds of federal indictments.

After the subsequent trials and convictions, the question remained as to how to legally handle the issue of the land fraud and the parcels themselves. A flurry of lawsuits between the state of Oregon, the federal government, and Southern Pacific resulted in a 1915 Supreme Court ruling that found that although the railroad company had violated the terms of the grant, they had a right to retain the land because the railroad had still been built as per the agreement. A year later, Congress overrode the Supreme Court’s decision with the passing of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act, which declared that 2,800,000 acres out of the nearly four million acres granted were to be revested back to the United States under the control of the General Land Office, which later became the Bureau of Land Management. Under the Act, the land became known as the “Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands”, commonly referred to thereafter as the “O&C Lands”. The original plan under the Chamberlain-Ferris Act was for the land to again be re-sold into private ownership so that the counties could recover their tax base, but once again selling the land to settlers and developers proved to be difficult if not impossible due to the rugged terrain.

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Finally, in 1937, Congress passed the O&C Act, revising the terms of the Chamberlain-Ferris Act and mandating that the land be managed for forest production and that the 18 affected Oregon counties be compensated for the loss of tax revenue. The Act guaranteed the counties 75% of the revenue from timber sales on O&C lands, which could be used by the counties for any purpose they chose. A year after the Act was passed, Oregon surpassed the state of Washington as the number-one timber producing state in America.

Under the terms and financial structure of the O&C Act, the counties themselves became the most vocal champions of timber production. More production meant more money flowing into county coffers, and for the next fifty years, the O&C counties in Oregon produced more timber than any other region in the entire world, leveling over 80% of Oregon’s old-growth forests in the process. Between the jobs created through the timber industry and the revenue that flowed through the O&C counties as a result, timber was not only the most dominating economic force throughout Oregon, in many rural areas it was pretty much the only economic force. At the height of the timber boom in the 1940s and 1950s, loggers harvested several billion board feet per year from the O&C lands, and by the 1960s more timber was being harvested on federal lands than any private land in Oregon.

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

Clearcuts on O&C lands outside of Oakridge, Oregon

For years, as old growth was logged and the O&C counties flourished, environmentalists watched the massive deforestation and subsequent destruction of a thriving ecosystem with horror. Under the terms of the O&C Act, however, there was little they could do to halt the logging. Years’ worth of environmental lawsuits had failed to produce any results, and yet the effects of deforestation on certain species were becoming plainly apparent. In 1986, environmentalists first petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species. The USFWS reviewed the petition in both 1987 and 1989, but declined to list the owl as endangered. In the meantime, forest activists started to blockade federal forests in order to stall logging operations while more lawsuits worked their way through the court system.

The Northern Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl

Finally, in 1990, the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Loss of old-growth habitat was listed as the primary threat the owl, which gave environmental activists the ammunition they needed. A lawsuit was filed, claiming that logging timber harvesting old-growth habitat was in violation of the Endangered Species Act due to the presence of the Northern Spotted Owl, and in 1991 logging was halted on the O&C lands via court order. This order provided immediate relief for the owl and the forest, but also had an immediate and devastating affect on the timber payments that the O&C counties relied on, and officials stated that anywhere from 30,000 to 150,000 jobs would be lost as a result of the court order.

During his first campaign for office, presidential hopeful Bill Clinton promised Oregon voters that if elected, he would work to break the deadlock. Clinton kept his promise, and in 1994 his administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan (NFP), which was intended to balance the need for logging on federal lands with the need to protect the habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl. The plan strongly decreased the amount of timber yields that were allowed under the original O&C Act, and set aside several million acres of old-growth forest as habitat for the Northwest Spotted Owl. And while the compromise set forth in the Northwest Forest Plan was arguably better than the stalemate that had preceded it, neither side was happy with the results. Environmentalists and forest activists pointed out that the plan did not go far enough to protect old-growth forests and municipal watersheds, while timber executives and county officials insisted that the allowed yields were not high enough to sustain the timber industry and the economic health of the O&C counties. Over the next several years, the concerns of both groups came to fruition. Environmentalists witnessed, documented, and publicized the negative effects that the logging was having on the ecosystem, which further empowered the forest defense movement to take up blockades in the forest. Meanwhile, the timber revenues of the O&C Counties continued to plummet, and timber jobs steadily started to vanish. Rural towns descended into poverty, while municipal and county governments struggled to stay afloat.

Once again the O&C dilemma compelled the federal government to act, and in the year 2000 Congress created a safety net for the Oregon timber counties as well as other rural areas affected by declining timber harvests by enacting the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The Act allowed the O&C counties to receive the average of the three highest timber payments from 1986 through 1999 in lieu of the payments owed based on actual yields, which at the time was an average of only 150 million board feet a year. The Act originally was set to expire in 1996, but was renewed several times without lapsing, with the amounts decreasing with each renewal. In early 2012, however, the bill stalled in Congress and the federal timber payments lapsed for the first time since they began in 1937, which directly resulted in Josephine County’s drastic public safety cuts and Sheriff Gil Gilbertson’s ominous warning. Although Congress eventually renewed the payments, the Act is again set to expire in a few years.

Today, only 10% of Oregon’s old-growth forests remain, and two more “compromise” bills working their way through Congress are being championed as problem-solvers but also potentially threaten much of the remaining old-growth habitat. The competing bills, one sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and the other sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), have both come under fire from environmentalists and forest activists for increasing timber harvests on the O&C lands. DeFazio’s plan would turn over portions of the O&C lands to a state-managed trust for harvest, while granting federal wilderness protections to other sections of the O&C lands. Wyden’s plan is strikingly similar, claiming that it will boost timber harvests from the current 150 million board feet a year to anywhere between 300 and 400 million board feet a year while protecting trees that are over 150 years old. It is inevitable that one of the bills will become law, which in the long run will only serve as another band-aid that will not satisfy either side. The potential agreement only furthers Oregon’s dependence on a finite resource that is undeniably running out.

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Forest defenders blockading threatened old-growth habitat

Growing up on the other side of the country, it was my fascination with the forest defense movement in the Pacific Northwest that first lured me to Oregon a decade ago, where I spent two weeks in the Willamette National Forest assisting with a tree-sit at a timber sale on the O&C lands. At the time, I knew little of the history and politics that led to the action I was participating in, but the experience of climbing 200 feet up a Douglas fir and the effects of sleeping and waking surrounded by old-growth had forever altered my understanding of the sacred. It was also in the forest that I first regarded the actions of forest activists as a militant form of earth-worship, and it was the energy and passion of certain individuals within that movement that strongly factored in my decision to permanently relocate to Oregon a few years later. Since then, my experiences with the land and the people here have greatly expanded my understanding of the timber-related history and politics that have driven and controlled this area for the past century. Never have I seen or experienced a single issue that so strongly reverberates through so many people and so deeply within a place, and never have I been at more at a loss for answers or solutions. Often I can’t help but feel that Western Oregon is a real-life version of “The Lorax”, complete with an equally grim and predictable ending.

In the meantime, it was announced last week that petitioners in Josephine County have gathered enough signatures to place another tax levy on the ballot this coming May. And while I can’t predict exactly what the future holds for Josephine County or any of the other O&C counties for that matter, what I do know for sure is if the long-term safety, security, and livelihood of the citizenry is dependent on the consumption and destruction of our old-growth forests, we will have retained neither our security nor our biodiversity in the end.

“I’m in a lot of pain right now,” Daisy said to me quietly.

I wasn’t sure exactly what type of pain she was referring to at that moment. For as long as I have known Daisy, which is going on six years now, she has lived a life of constant pain, both physical as well as psychological. She was sober and alert at the moment, which led me to think that she was referring to her arthritis as opposed to her inner trauma and emotional turmoil.

“But I’m still a fighter,” she added with a smile.

The fact that she was a fighter was undisputed in my mind. Daisy has been on the streets of this town for an untold number of years, with a notable portion of that time spent either stumbling through various stages of intoxication or stumbling through various stages of the criminal justice system. Despite the tragedy and trauma of her everyday life, however, her spirit was anything but broken. She is one of many chronically homeless individuals in downtown Eugene who the police refer to as “frequent flyers” due to the frequent amount of times that they are arrested and released for minor offenses directly related to homelessness and/or addiction. Rarely can you find a business owner or resident in the downtown area who isn’t familiar with Daisy, and unfortunately much of that familiarity falls with the context of negative interactions that often result in police intervention. This has resulted in her being banned from entering several local businesses, which further affects her stabilization and well being. For anyone on the street, but especially for someone like Daisy, a lack of access to public establishments means lack of access to quality food and other survival necessities, which triggers stress, which then triggers behavioral issues, which results in another episode, which results in yet another exclusion and/or trip to jail, and so on and so forth. It’s a tragic cycle, one that is seemingly impossible to break under the current conditions and limitations of the system.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

Much like the business owners and residents, the police hold a variety of emotions and attitudes regarding Daisy that range from compassion to frustration to contempt. In my many conversations over the past few years with allies in the police department, it has been made clear to me that they are quite aware that constantly arresting, jailing, and prosecuting Daisy and others like her for the “crime” of being a chronically homeless alcoholic is neither effective nor sensible, not to mention a huge waste of taxpayer money. And yet they stress that they have “no other tools in the toolbox” in terms of methods of dealing with people like Daisy, and I sympathize and agree with them on this point. Their training prepared them to be law enforcement officers, not social workers or crisis intervention counselors, and their duty to uphold the law often requires that they treat Daisy as a criminal in situations that they acknowledge would be much more effectively handled by trained crisis intervention workers as opposed to law enforcement.

I’ve gotten to know Daisy pretty well over the years. I’ve experienced her many moods and phases, and while I understand and sympathize with the frustration and anger that police and businesses often feel towards Daisy, I have quite the soft spot in my heart for her. I’ve gotten to know sides of Daisy that most have never experienced. I’ve interacted with sober Daisy, happy Daisy, worried Daisy. She’s told me jokes that made me laugh until I cried, and she’s told me stories about her life that have simply made me cry. I see Daisy as a person, not a “problem” or “nuisance”, and its impossible for me to every be truly angry with her despite often wanting to scream in hopeless frustration. I refuse to blame or condemn her, and I’ve been known to intervene when others feel they have the right to do so. At the end of the day, I feel nothing but sympathy and love and compassion for Daisy.

Many argue that such an approach and attitude is akin to “enabling”, but I don’t love and accept (and often defend) Daisy as she is because I approve of or condone her behavior. I love and accept and defend Daisy as she is because I recognize her beauty and worth as an individual despite her flaws and I strongly believe that she deserves a better life, even and especially when she does not always believe so herself. Daisy’s behavioral history and current condition is the result of a complex combination of medical, social, psychological, and economic factors, not a personal moral failing on her part as many would believe. It’s been said that a society is judged by how we treat our most vulnerable. In my eyes, Daisy’s situation signifies a society that has failed in this regard, and as a result of that failure so many people are systematically marginalized, condemned, alienated, and stripped of their dignity.

More than anything else, at the very, very least Daisy deserves to be treated with dignity. No matter how intoxicated, how angry, or how unmanageable she can be, she is a human being who has had a tougher life than most of us could possibly imagine, and regardless of her past or present challenges, Daisy is as worthy and sacred and divine as any and all of us are. She may not be able to “work” to earn her keep in her current state, but that does not mean she does not have value as a person and as a member of our community. She deserves respect and dignity, and she deserves a warm, safe place to sleep at night. All human beings need and deserve a place to sleep.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, the city’s approach to handling Daisy over the years is completely insane. It’s recognized on both a local and national level that criminalizing addiction as well as criminalizing life-sustaining behaviors is a dead-end to nowhere in terms of effectiveness, and Daisy’s situation perfectly demonstrates the utter failure of a criminalization-based approach. Police acknowledge that more than anything else, Daisy and others like her need a place to sleep and supportive services, not endless rounds through the criminal justice system. But sadly, the only dry and legal place to sleep that Daisy regularly experiences is a bed inside a jail cell.

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption.

The city’s approach regarding Daisy and the other “frequent flyers” is not only logically insane, but it’s a prime example of financial insanity as well. Estimates can vary widely, and such costs are deliberately not itemized, but its been whispered in many corners of city government and the social service sector that some of the frequent flyers cost the taxpayers upwards of $100,000 per person, per year. The majority of these costs, which usually consist of numerous trips to the police station, the jail, the emergency room, the psych ward, and the detox facility, are directly related to living on the street without shelter options, and most of these costs could be greatly reduced by adopting the “Housing First” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First) model for chronically homeless individuals like Daisy as opposed to criminalizing their existence. In states and cities that have implemented Housing First, the cost-savings has been significant, one example being a stunning 2/3 reduction in costs per-person in Colorado. And while city officials are open and eager to adopting such practices in Eugene, the funding is currently not available on either a local or state level. In the meantime, for over a decade now Daisy and so many others have had no other option than to live on the streets.

For the past few months, however, Daisy has been living at an unsanctioned tent city at the edge of the downtown district known as Whoville. The Whoville camp is a self-governed, community-funded project that has been providing sanctuary for as many as 50 people at a time on a 4,000 square foot public lot since late September. Whoville functions as a collaborative effort between those who were living on the streets and members of the community who are able and willing to provide support: activists, non-profits, church groups, and concerned citizens alike. Whoville currently provides a safe place to sleep, regular access to bathrooms and handwashing stations, access to healthy food and a place to cook it, and a strong network of community support from and for a wide range of people from all walks of life. In many ways, the Whoville population is a perfect microcosm of the homeless population as a whole. Whoville residents range from the recently unemployed to the permanently disabled, from those simply down on their luck to those who suffer from addictions or severe mental illnesses. There are people at Whoville who have only been homeless for a few months, and others who have been homeless for a significant portion of their lives.

The Whoville camp as seen from the street

The Whoville camp as seen from the street.

To be fair, the formation of Whoville in itself arguably falls under the above-referenced definition of insanity. For over thirty years, camping laws have been regularly enforced throughout the City of Eugene, with little to no tolerance of tent communities of any kind. Both history and common sense suggest that any tent community that is formed on public land in Eugene would be disbanded by police, without exception. And yet, in the midst of an immediate crisis in which some of the most vulnerable members of our community had nowhere to go, a public tent city seemed to be the only option. Desperation often leads to insane thinking, and granted we were desperate. But we also knew from past experience, street folks and activists alike, that even though camp would certainly be shut down, that it was what happens within such a camp while it exists that often holds more power than the inevitability fate of the camp itself, which provided the motivation to go forth despite what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

And so Whoville was formed, and it grew, and it was supported. It grew some more, and it gained more support. The camp moved around from parcel to parcel for five weeks, then strategically decided to stand their ground at a vacant public lot just outside of downtown. And over the course of four months, Whoville relationship with both the police and the community at large went from adversarial to cooperative. Local opposition morphed into wary but gradual and steady public acceptance. As Whoville grew, downtown business owners noticed that less people were sleeping in doorways, in parks, in alleyways. There were fewer behavioral issues downtown, fewer incidents related to disorderly conduct, fewer calls to the police department. Some of the frequent flyers had all but vanished from downtown.

For years, activists and advocates as well as the homeless population itself has consistently approached the city with a very simple and sensible message: If you don’t want downtown full of frequent flyers and other subpopulations that are experiencing the realities and effects of homelessness, give them somewhere else to go. If you’re going to tell people where they can’t be, you need to tell them where they can be. People exist, they are made of matter, they do not have the ability to disappear or vanish at will, they have bodily needs and survival needs that cannot be ignored, and they need a place where they can legally exist.

This concept has seemingly fallen on deaf ears for years, as the city continued its policies of criminalizing their existence with the insane hope that one day the homeless will just disappear or go somewhere else. But Whoville, acting on the belief that survival and dignity are more important than ordinances and citations and therefore worth fighting for, has demonstrated and proved that having a place to be not only results in the relocation of those who formerly had nowhere to be other than downtown street corners, but it has also demonstrated to the community that by providing such a place, even the most challenging members of the street population can stabilize to an extent. Not only have behavioral issues reduced, but the corresponding costs to the public of dealing with such issues have been reduced as well. Echoing the results of the Housing First model, the “frequent flyers” at Whoville have needed far fewer law enforcement interventions or emergency services than they had while living on the streets, a fact which has been noted by both police and social service providers. It’s a testament to the fact that while sheltering individuals indoors is obviously preferable, even an outdoor space where they have a place to exist and stabilize within a community results in both instant as well as long-term benefits as opposed to leaving people on the street with nowhere to go.

Even more important than the economic benefits, however, is the transformation and healing that has occurred for many in the Whoville community through the course of its existence. In the time since she has been at Whoville, the improvements in Daisy that myself and others have witnessed has been nothing short of remarkable. The day she whispered to me about her pain, I had stopped by Whoville early in the evening, and it was obvious that she had been sober all day. She was alert, she had a healthy skin tone, and other than her pain issues, Daisy was more upbeat and even-tempered than I had ever witnessed in all the years that I’ve known her. She was functioning within a community, as part of a family, being taken care of, and trying to take care of herself as well. When she reminded me that she was a fighter, it literally brought me to tears. For so long, I had dreamed for something better, anything better for Daisy than what I had been witnessing for years. And finally, she had somewhere to be, was a part of a community, and was taking steps on the road to healing. For Daisy and many others, the community brings a sense of acceptance and belonging that is an essential component of anyone’s well being. I can point to many individual factors that have been an improvement in Daisy’s life as a result of Whoville, but the most powerful factor that I’ve witnessed in the improvement of many here is the power of community itself, both the internal community of Whoville residents and the outer community that supports them.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Ironically, I was walking past an area near my building a few weeks ago and had paused at a spot where I would often find Daisy in the past when I received a text message from my primary contact at the police department, requesting a meeting later in the afternoon. I knew immediately that I was about to be informed of the City’s intent to evict Whoville. Despite everything the community had provided and demonstrated over a period of four months, the City’s response would be no different: send them packing with nowhere legal for them to go and act as if they’ll just disappear. The meeting confirmed my expectations down to the smallest details. No alternate campsites would be opened. No emergency shelter of any kind would be provided. The camp would be evicted sometime in the immediate future with no alternate arrangements made and no real consideration given to the fact that some of the Whoville residents desperately needed supportive services and were not able to adequately care for themselves on their own.

I’ve often observed that the primary narrative concerning the issue of homelessness in this community is dominated by two vocal minorities: the homeless themselves and those who advocate for and support them, and those who believe that the homeless people are all “lazy bums” who are only looking for a “handout”. Often lost in this polarized atmosphere are the sentiments and feelings of the general public as a whole. Both sides of the debate will often claim “public support” for their position, but both sides are arguably equally speculative in those assertions. There is a lot of compassion in this community, but there is also a lot of ignorance.

But this time, while voices obviously rose loudly from within and around Whoville in opposition to the city’s plans, an entire separate chorus of voices also rose up against the plan – the voices of the general public. After four months, people in all corners of the community had recognized the value of Whoville, and many made their opposition to the closure known through social media, letters to the editor, as well as statements sent directly to the City Council. Other influential parties also chimed in, notably Occupy Medical and the city’s Human Rights Commission, speaking out in opposition to dispersing 40 people with nowhere safe for them to go. For the first time, public sentiment seemed to be truly understanding of the idea that if we force people to leave, we must give them somewhere else to be.

And under pressure from many directions, public officials responded, and last Wednesday the City Council granted Whoville a 30-day reprieve while viable alternatives can be explored. While the decision does not guarantee that there will be a place for Whoville to relocate a month from now, it is a decision based on the recognition that pushing people out with nowhere for them to go is neither humane nor sensible, nor does serve any legitimate purpose. Its also a recognition of the fact that Whoville is meeting a vital community need that has gone unmet due to holes in the social safety net, and that the stabilization and healing that people are experiencing at Whoville is a benefit to the community as a whole. Many are starting to recognize that the segment of the street population that the city has deemed ‘unmanageable’ can often function quite well with the right kind of community support. The decision gives the community an opportunity to face this issue for what it truly is and to come forward with actual solutions. For once, an attempt at a common-sense approach is being attempted as a resolution, as opposed to the usual bureaucratic insanity that has been the status quo for years.

It’s a simple idea, really, the idea that someone who has been systematically marginalized and abandoned will show consistent improvement if and when someone shows them a little love and kindness. For someone like Daisy, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. We speak of “community” often, but I find that the word is so often used in a hollow sense, devoid of any real substance, and the true meaning and of community has either been forgotten or has never understood by so many. Whoville is a testament to the potential power and effectiveness of solidarity and horizontal collaboration as practiced in a community setting. United in the belief that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, Whoville offers stability and sanctuary to those who have been all but forgotten, and their ability to self-govern and support each other is an example to us all.

Each of us is sacred and worthy, and we all deserve support and safety. And while its long-term future is still up in the air, if a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, let Whoville be a beacon of light that guides others towards the right path.

(*Author’s Note: Daisy’s name and a few minor details have been changed for privacy reasons.)

The View From Above

Alley Valkyrie —  December 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

I must have driven past the Delta Ponds dozens of times without really giving it much thought or notice. While there was a certain swampy seductiveness that called out on foggy days, it never occurred to me while whizzing by at 55 mph that there was any real story there. It wasn’t until I got lost on the bike paths last spring and ran into some Great Blue Herons on my way to lunch that I realized that this secretive oasis was not only a thriving wildlife sanctuary, but that its existence told an interesting story of the destruction and restoration of a crucial part of the local ecosystem.

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning.

The herons caused me to stop. Standing there, face-to-face with the Delta Ponds, it quickly occurred to me that they weren’t natural ponds. I looked around and took in my surroundings, in the middle of an isolated and strangely preserved natural area between a river and a highway. Suddenly, several clues came together, and the combination of the geographical location and the surrounding place names provided a pretty accurate assessment of the area’s history. The Delta Ponds were right alongside the Delta Highway, which essentially acts as a driveway up to the current riverfront mining operation of Delta Sand and Gravel. I only had recently learned about the mine at the northern end of the highway, but my visits up there had provided an instant reference for the use and nature of the immediate area.

Delta, I thought to myself. These ponds must be restored gravel mines which have been reconnected to the river, which means that this spot is possibly a former channel or side-channel of the Willamette River. The name of the road which loops around the Delta Ponds, Goodpasture Island Road, suggests that this patch of land was once cut off by a waterway, and used for grazing prior to it being mined for gravel. Not only was it a gravel mine, but the highway leading up to the current mine was most likely paved with the gravel that was mined right here.

A few minutes of iPhone research confirmed the bulk of my theory as well as filled in the missing gaps. The area was indeed once a side-channel of the Willamette, which was an important component of the river ecosystem, but the side-channel dried up around the turn of the century due to man-made alterations of the land. The land was then marshy pasture that was mined for gravel in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then sold to the City after the gravel was exhausted, where the pits sat untouched for nearly forty years as the land around them was further altered and developed.

During that time, it suffered the same fate that many old gravel pits do: the pits flooded, and while they became a natural wildlife habitat over time, the pits also became over-run by invasive species such as blackberry and Scotch broom. Finally, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city embarked on a $9 million-dollar restoration project, taking the greater part of a decade to complete, which removed the invasives, altered the steep slope of the gravel pits, and eventually reconnected the ponds to the river. Today, the restored side-channel habitat is the home to nearly 150 bird species, including herons, falcons, owls, and several varieties of hawk. A beautiful, concentrated wildlife preserve birthed out of an old gravel mine, strangely nestled between a river, a highway, and scores of condominiums and housing developments. It was a wonderful and unexpected discovery; despite its urban backdrop it felt hidden and sacred. And while I immediately appreciated the areas for the rare and beautiful habitat that it was, I also realized not only did this area stand out as an exception of sorts, but that it most likely stays off people’s radar as much as the issue of gravel mining itself does.

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background.

Unlike the more well-known resource extraction practices such as clear-cutting, which leaves a visual scar that’s simply impossible to ignore as one drives or walks by, gravel mining is naturally much more obscured from public view, given that it often occurs in a pit. For the most part, the impacts of gravel mining are rarely seen from ground level, and citizens are often ignorant about mining operations that are practically occurring in their neighborhoods. As a result, while clear-cutting practices are the subject of much public outcry and heated debate, few words are said of the deliberate ecological destruction and devastation of our riverbanks that has been occurring since the early 1900’s. Most people generally have no idea that the vast majority of land along the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers north of town is owned by gravel mining corporations, or that much of the land which stretches from the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette eastward towards and past Mt. Pisgah had been mined continuously for the past eighty years. Pristine parks and recreation areas border former gravel mines, and those using the parks are usually completely unaware that the remnants of gravel mining are out in plain sight only yards away.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Standing out over the Delta Ponds, it occurred to me that there’s a blessing in the fact that at least certain gravel pits can be restored in a generation, as opposed to clear-cuts that easily stand out fifty years later. The Delta Ponds, however, is a rare exception in that it is restored, as flooded gravel pits dot the landscape up and down the riverbank for miles and most are either listless or overgrown with blackberries. When I first gained awareness about the amount of gravel mining in the area, I visited several sites, on foot, on bike, and driving by. But aside from the occasional large crane sticking up out of the sky, it was hard to gain a real sense of the mines themselves. It wasn’t until I started studying Google aerial satellite images that I truly started to understand the impacts, cycles, and sheer ugliness of open-pit mining. Taking in the view from above is what really drilled it home.

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

The cement drills outside my window last summer also recently drilled it home. From May through September, a good number of the roads downtown were re-paved in a massive project paid for by a voter-approved bond. The condition of the roads and the actual need for repaving was somewhat debatable in my opinion, but the repairs created much-needed jobs, and provided a significant economic boon for the local sand and gravel companies. As I learned has been the case since the 1920s, the roads were paved exclusively by local companies and mined from either the Willamette or McKenzie, a fact that was stressed by company heads as a positive aspect. And while tapping into the “keep it local” energy was a brilliant move on the part of the gravel companies, it was bothersome to noticed such a disconnect on the part of the community. Well-meaning citizens celebrate keeping it local, but they fail to understand exactly how local and how significant the impact is, and they truly fail to recognize that not all of those local impacts are positive. While the Delta Ponds stands as a testament to something sacred that can be created out of the profane, it’s a very small gain when compared to the overall amount of land that has been or is being ripped apart for gravel.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Last June, the “finite” aspect of what are recognized as “finite natural resources” became a subject that caught the public’s attention. Delta Sand and Gravel’s most recent application to expand their mining operation at the end of the highway was rejected last spring by County officials, and in the ensuing media coverage Delta representatives stated that without the expansion, the company is set to run out of gravel in less than 15 years. For nearly a century, the aggregate that makes up the entirety of roads, sidewalks, jogging paths, and driveways has been “proudly” mined in Lane County by Delta and other companies, and Delta is forecasting a potential end to that tradition, at least in terms of their operation. The County is currently (and rightly) maintaining the need to protect zoned farmland, but Delta’s statements signal a future and possibly significant showdown over land-use on the riverbank. Even if current land-use laws were ignored, the reality is that the supply of gravel is still finite. One day the mining companies will be out of land. The land-use battles of present and future will only determine how much arable farmland is still available when that does happen.

In the meantime, however, Delta Ponds exists as an example of how such destruction can be successfully restored, and I am grateful for its existence and for my stumbling upon this place and the story behind it. For me, the ponds stand as a reminder of how environmental destruction can be taking place right in our midst and yet still remain hidden from view. Sometimes it takes an adjustment, a different perspective, to be able to see a situation clearly for what it is. In this case, I found great value in the view from above.

I was just about to get on my bike when I looked in the basket and saw the note.

“When you’re done finding Jesus, come by the shop and say hi.”

It made me laugh, and yet it also immediately brought me back to something I had been thinking about a lot lately. Indeed, my bike, which is well-known downtown and easily recognizable, had been locked up outside First Christian Church for the past two hours while I was inside for a meeting with a small group that included the church’s pastor. The author of the note was a Pagan friend of mine who worked around the corner from the church, and I sensed that the mood behind the note was both joking and curious at the same time. And while I hadn’t found Jesus in the previous two hours, I realized in that moment that I had been finding Jesus popping up constantly in my work over the past few years. It also occurred to me that at this point I had completely normalized these constant interactions with churches, pastors, and those who follow the philosophy of Jesus in a way that many Pagans would find a little strange to say the least.

First Christian Church in Eugene, Oregon.

First Christian Church in Eugene, Oregon.

I find it a more than a little strange myself at times. But the process of building those bridges has led me to not only greatly respect and appreciate those who work with the poor in the name of Jesus, but has brought me to constantly recognize and reflect on the fact that other than the specifics behind the deity that called us all to the table, we are all in the exact same fight for pretty much the exact same reasons. Over time I have unexpectedly come to understand and accept that the church folks are without a doubt my greatest allies, politically as well as spiritually.

I work with the poor and the homeless. I found myself doing so as a result of listening to both my conscience as well as the Gods. I do this work because I was called to it through an unexpected merging of ethics and spirit. It is much more a divine mandate than a free choice; for me it is a calling in the true religious sense, and yet not one that results from any specific belief or doctrine. Most people who work with the poor in the same way that I do fall into three categories: those who work for government agencies, those who work for non-profit organizations or social service agencies, and those who are following the teachings of Jesus. More often than not I find myself to be the only person in the room who stands apart from these three groups.

When I first felt the pull that started me on this journey, I recognized that the spiritual narrative around that pull was much common and relevant to Christianity than it was to Paganism. While I hadn’t quite given up all my worldly possessions and sworn a vow of poverty, I have sacrificed a theoretical life of ‘comfort’ and inevitably accepted a life of near-poverty in order to do this work full-time in a way that at least in America, is seldom seen outside of a Christian context. Jesus tended to the poor, preached to his followers that they should do the same, and an untold number of people since then have dedicated their lives to the poor in the name of Jesus. I had never stumbled upon a Pagan parallel to this phenomenon, at least not in terms of service to the poor. For me, while this work is a spiritual calling, it is not necessarily an extension of my religious beliefs. There is nothing specific in the teachings of my tradition that critiques wealth or that tells me to serve the poor, nor have I ever stumbled upon related teachings or mythologies that command service to the poor and a rejection of wealth with anywhere near the strength and passion that the teachings of Jesus do.

Most Pagan-identified folks that I know personally who have devoted their lives to a cause tend to dedicate themselves to environmental or civil rights-related issues. They do so with the same degree of ethical motivation and spiritual dedication that I see among the Christians who work with the poor, but they do so in the name of the Earth and/or their Gods as opposed to Jesus Christ. My own activist path brought me to the forest years ago, and it was a natural and direct extension of my spiritual path at the time to be protecting the forest from loggers. It was a passion and drive that directly put my religious beliefs into practice, the belief that the Earth was sacred and needed to be protected. It was a passion, but not a calling. The Gods never insisted that I stay in the forest. They do, however, keep insisting that I work with the poor, and by extension of that insistence I find myself constantly working closely with others who are not only acting in accordance with the insistence of a different God, but who also have a solid text of quotes and reference points as to why they are commanded to serve the poor. I don’t have a comparable reference text. In many ways, my only true reference texts are contained in the reflections and thoughts of others and the constant signs and signals from the universe itself.

But in pondering the perceived lack of mythology/theology that could serve as guidance on this journey as someone who is operating on the basis of divine imperative, I’ve also come face-to-face with the other side of the coin: how this lack of relevant mythology can affect those who are on the receiving end of divine mercy.

In my experience, there are a much higher percentage of self-identifying Pagans in the homeless community than there are in the general population. While I would still say that a majority of the homeless population identifies as Christian, the amount of people on the street who subscribe to some sort of Pagan belief system is quite striking and somewhat surprising at first. It made perfect sense to me quite quickly, as it was easy to see how living on the physical and psychic margins of society would bring with it the tendency of adopting an earth-centered, polytheistic, and/or magical philosophy. But what is even more notable, and in time has become more and more relevant to me, is the way that the beliefs and practices of the two groups often blend together in the context of street life and the way that the two groups have found mutual agreement in ways that are quite atypical but accurately reflective of their situation. I equally seem to run across self-identified Pagans who embrace Jesus in the same manner that their Christian counterparts do, as well as many who considered themselves to be Christian and yet are accepting and often even participatory in the beliefs and practices of their Pagan friends and neighbors.

My friend Mary Ann, who lives in a symbiotic relationship with the riverbank, is one of the Pagans I know who has a deep love for and faith in Jesus. Early on in our friendship, I once asked her why.

“Well, there ain’t no pagan Jesus. at least not when it comes to looking after the poor,” she said. “I’m not saying that you can’t compare Jesus to some of the old gods in many ways, but I never heard of Osiris and Dionysis tending to the poor and oppressed, chastising the rich, specifically promising the persecuted an eternity in Heaven. Jesus has got my back. Who else has got my back like that? None of the other gods or spirits I talk to. They got my back for other reasons, but not because I’m poor. They don’t want to liberate me. They don’t inspire masses of others to fight oppression. Not like Jesus does.”

She had an important point, a point which related closely to my own musings around the spiritual nature of my work and what I was increasingly viewing as a theological hole of sorts in Pagan mythology around poverty and the poor. What Mary Ann spoke of not only pointed to that hole, but also reminded me in the instant of how Jesus is framed in both liberation theology and black theology. Mary Ann sought a deity of liberation, and found that energy to be strongest in her understanding of Jesus.

North bank of the Willamette river.

North bank of the Willamette river.

Not long after that encounter, I was on the opposite bank of the river when I came across another homeless friend, one I knew to be a regular at the local Methodist church. He was perched at the river, with flowers and what looked like salt his hand, and from where I stood ten feet back or so it appeared as though he was making offerings to the river. He turned around, saw me, and waved me over.

“What kind of pagan nonsense are you up to?” I teased.

Conestoga Hut

Conestoga Hut

“You’re not the first to ask,” he said. “I’ll just say this: you live our here long enough, and this place becomes alive in a way where you would have to be a fool to ignore it. The least I can do is acknowledge it.” That’s the other side of the reflection, I thought to myself. The missing theology from his own religion, which he supplemented with what he learned from the activities and beliefs of his Pagan peers. I saw this as the inverse of what both Mary Ann and I found to be missing in Pagan spirituality. His words reminded me immediately of conversations I’ve had with friends who identify as “Christo-Pagans”, who have told me that they walk that path mainly because the reverence of nature and nature spirits is for the most part absent from the theology and liturgy of Christianity.

It makes sense that ideological sticking points become rather irrelevant in the face of oppression, desperation, and survival. While Pagans living in housed communities often face the realities of Christian oppression on a regular basis, on the street everyone is equally subject to specific oppressive forces from outside the street community which act with no regard to creed. Those forces cause the community to unite and put differences aside just as much out of necessity as choice, but they put aside and embrace their differences in an honest and authentic manner. While a few homeless Pagans I know have very strong negative reactions to anything related to churches or Christianity, many do not view Christianity as an oppressive and harmful force in the way that seems to be the status quo among most housed Pagans. If anything, the churches are often the only institutions that help and protect them in the face of systematic oppression from both government and citizenry alike. Churches feed them, help to shelter them, provide clothing, toiletries, and other resources, and in Eugene most of them do so with no strings attached, no conversion attempts, and with a sincere respect for the fact that many of those they are serving may not be of the same faith. One of the churches in town housed a Pagan woman in a Conestoga hut for several months this past year. Not only did the pastor welcome the idea of a Solstice ritual in the parking lot, but he advertised the event on his congregational calendar.

I’ve basically been a polytheist since I was first old enough to understand the concept. I have never had either a significant interest in nor a significant resentment towards Christianity, save for an overall wariness and skepticism that I hold towards all institutional powers. Before I ever worked with the poor, I always regarded Jesus as one of a untold number of deities out there, one whose fan club seems to have missed the point of his teachings for the most part. But this work has brought me in contact with so many individuals and communities of faith that have not missed the point, and my experiences in their company have brought me a deep understanding of the energy of love that is Jesus and how it affects both those who serve the poor in his name and those who are oppressed and seek out his comfort. Working in such environments motivated by love and compassion also makes me strongly yearn for such a tradition of service to the poor in my own community. I realize that my experience in itself is most likely atypical and to an extent is a reflection of a community that is known for progressive ethics and religious diversity just as much as it is a testament to the power of those who truly follow the teachings of Jesus. But their example and their kinship helps me to fill the holes I found in my own theology, not so much filled through teachings of Jesus himself but from what I see and learn from those who reflect and emulate that energy in their words and actions and the love shown towards the poor.

While I have no desire to explore religious Christianity beyond the interactions that are already built into my present life, Teo Bishop’s recent piece about why he felt called back to Christianity spoke to me on a very deep level, and was a strong reminder of the sacred aspect of being in service to the poor. The moment that Teo describes in his interaction with a homeless woman, and the way that he was affected by that interaction is the kind of moment that I sometimes experience on a daily basis. And in the desperation and helplessness that I too often feel in those moments, often it is a specific taste, a specific energy that comes through. There is a current of surrender and desperation in those moments where you truly do give your heart, and the essence in that moment is incomparable to anything other than what I have come to understand as the love and energy that is Jesus.

A few days after I read Teo’s piece, I was riding my bike along an underpass when I saw two police officers in the process of rousting and citing a group of homeless campers. I remembered that the owner of the shopping complex next door had been regularly complaining to police about the homeless that take refuge under the bridge. As I stopped and approached to watch, someone came up behind me. I heard a man muttering softly as the police began to write another ticket.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And there it was, that energy again, that sentiment that has no other comparison. I tried to think of something else to say, but nothing came. In that moment, I was grateful for those words. They were words of hope in an otherwise hopeless moment, originally spoken by someone who I knew for certain had our backs in this.

The oldest house in town is not necessarily looking for attention. In contrast to some of the more lavish, well-known historical properties in the city, artfully restored Victorians that often function as bed-and-breakfasts or historical museums, the Daniel Christian house sits quite unassumingly on a quiet residential block just south of the downtown core, a mile or so inland from the Willamette River. The house blends in nicely amongst the curious variety of dwellings that surround it, and to the average passer-by, there is little about the house that suggests any historical or architectural significance.

I must have walked or biked past the house dozens of times without ever noticing it, until one day when a kitten stopped me in my path on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. I reached down to pet it and it ran up the porch step, daring me to follow. I stepped up onto the porch, scooped up the kitten, and found myself suddenly taking in my surroundings. This porch had a very different feel than the other houses I knew in this neighborhood. It felt… old. I glanced at the front door and noticed a sticker on the door stating that the building was on the National Register of Historic Places. There were four mailboxes next to the front door, indicating that the house was divided into residential apartments. I put down the kitten and thanked it for leading me to the front door. At that moment, one of the tenants walked up the porch steps and took out his key. I asked him if he knew the history of the building. “Its really old,” he said, obviously uninterested. “I don’t know much more than that.”

Daniel Christian House

Daniel Christian House

I snapped a photo of the house and walked a few blocks to the Lane County Historical Society, showed the photo to the woman behind the counter when I walked in, and within a few minutes I learned that not only was the Daniel Christian house the oldest remaining house in all of Eugene, but it was most likely the only frame house left standing from Oregon’s territorial era. Christian and his family arrived in Oregon in 1853 from Illinois and settled on a 209-acre donation land claim, a footprint which is now the heart of Eugene’s midtown business district. The Greek Revival-style farmhouse that bears his name was built by Christian himself in 1855, nine years after the city of Eugene was founded, and the surrounding land served as an apple orchard up until the turn of the century.

I left the Historical Society with a photocopy of a cadastral map from 1860, showing the original donation land claims that formed the City of Eugene. As I walked back to the house, I reflected on the fact that the dense urban neighborhood that I was passing through had once been an apple orchard anchored by a small, simple farmhouse. A significant portion of the land that was once Daniel Christian’s orchard is currently the site of the largest development project in the city’s history, a project that went forth despite sharp opposition from the community, and as I walked past the development I couldn’t help but to think that an apple orchard in that location would have been of much greater benefit to the neighborhood. I arrived back in front of the house, a house which I now knew had been standing for 158 years, and tried to picture in my head what it must have looked like standing alone, surrounded by farmland, with a clear view straight to the river.

Within that visualization, I immediately noted the fact that the Daniel Christian house was a good distance from the river. The yearly, variable flooding of the Willamette had been a persistent problem throughout the city’s history, especially for the early settlers. The original 1851 Eugene city plat had to be revised and moved inland after the first year due to flooding, and subsequent floods wiped out early settlement areas time and time again. As the town grew over the years in size, the property damage from each flood intensified, until the federal government began to harness the river through a series of dams starting in the early 1940s. While the river still floods occasionally, the water levels have never reached anything close to the levels of the pre-dam floods, and flood damage in the modern day has been very minimal. Most current residents have no memory of a time when the natural rhythm of the floodplain greatly affected the use and development of the riverfront areas, and very few remember back to a time when residents had to be evacuated due to flooding. This lack of memory has always concerned me, even before I was ever conscious of how specifically vulnerable this area is to a flood-related natural disaster.

When I first started observing and taking in the layout and architecture within specific neighborhoods in this town, I had noticed early on that most of the houses and buildings anywhere near the riverfront were of more recent construction than most of the surrounding areas, with older houses farther back surrounding the newer developments. There are very few structures near the riverfront that pre-date WWII, despite the fact that some of these neighborhoods were originally platted years before that, in contrast to other neighborhoods in the city where a significant majority of the houses standing were built the same year the subdivision was originally platted. I had learned from an old realtor that many of the pre-war houses had been either built on beams to withstand the flooding or built without any sort of foundations whatsoever, and most of the houses that survived all the old floods have been since demolished. A bank won’t finance a home without a foundation, which made many of the old homes impossible to sell in the modern day. A few of these homes still survive, standing reminders of a time when the neighborhood was often underwater, but even these few survivors are disappearing one by one. And yet, I thought to myself, if a dam failure triggered even a temporary return to the river’s natural floodplain, those few old houses would probably fare much better overall than anything built in the last seventy years. I doubted that most of the inhabitants of those newer houses knew the history of the land that their house was built on, despite the subtle clues in the surrounding architecture.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

Standing in front of the Daniel Christian house, I reflected on the fact that this house had survived every flood from the time it was built up to the time the river was dammed. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or washed away by floods over that hundred-year period, but this simple, inconspicuous house withstood them all. With flooding on my mind, I took out the donation land claim map from 1860, and as I found the location of the Christian land claim on the map I noticed something striking. The bend in the Willamette as drawn on the map did not match the current course of the river. While the current path of the river bends slightly north as it approaches the downtown area, the 1860 map illustrates the river sharply meandering north well past its current boundaries, channeling through a patch of land just above and over the present-day location of Autzen Stadium. I had heard it mentioned once that the flood of 1890 had altered the course of the Willamette, but I hadn’t a clue as to the location or severity of that alteration, and I had never given it much thought until that moment.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

I took out my phone and pulled up a satellite map of the area, and compared the path of the river to the illustration of the 1860 map. In quickly tracing past and present shape of the river, suddenly the history and composition of the land in between the two paths made perfect sense. The 1890 flood had altered the channel at the point of the meander, cutting off the meander and forming a shallow oxbow lake around the river’s old path. Evidence of this former river channel could be seen on the current satellite map, in the form of ponds and sloughs still in its old path. I had already known that the land under and around Autzen Stadium had been undeveloped swampland that was previously used as a dumpsite, but why that swampiness existed in the first place was now clear. The swamp was created by the oxbow lake after the river changed its course.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

I left the house that survived a hundred years’ worth of floods and proceeded towards the river in order to trace the river’s old path. I had walked and biked through the exact area countless times before, but my knowledge of the river’s past spurned a new sense of curiosity about the ponds and sloughs that once cradled the Willamette itself. Following the waterway, I tried to ignore the presence of the looming stadium as I followed the water, envisioning the river, the flood, and the swamp. I suppose it’s fitting, I thought to myself, that a team called the Ducks play in a stadium built on a swamp.

Although I’ve thought for years about the Willamette floodplane and the harnessing of the river, only recently have I really thought about the potential devastation to this area in the wake of a natural disaster, and tracing the pre-1890 path of the Willamette brought that reality home for me. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic modern lesson on the vulnerability of dams and levees in the face of a storm, a lesson which greatly raised my own awareness of development and disasters in relation to floodplains. During Katrina, the greatest amount of devastation occurred in the low-lying areas which were not fit for widespread development prior to modern engineering, engineering which in the end could not stand up to the power of nature. If dam failures allowed the Willamette to rise to its natural level, the greatest potential for devastation would also occur in the low-lying areas that were developed after the river was dammed. During Katrina, evacuees took refuge in the Superdome, which had been built upon higher ground. But in the event of a flood-related disaster in Eugene, Autzen Stadium may very well be underwater.

In 1890, the river changed its course on its own and significantly altered the natural landscape without any help from a natural disaster, and scientists have warned for years now that a natural disaster in this area is only a matter of time. The Willamette Valley sits atop the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which experts say is over a hundred years overdue for a major earthquake. In the past few years, concerns have been raised by scientists, journalists, and politicians about the potential of catastrophic dam failures on the Willamette and/or widespread devastation in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami. Although the Japanese tsunami of 2011 sparked a certain degree of awareness as to the vulnerability inherent in our location and infrastructure, little has been done overall to prepare for such a disaster on a local level. Public meetings are held to discuss the economic viability of long-term riverfront development projects as though our dams are impervious to the ways of nature, while no real time or effort is ever spent discussing the overall viability of the city itself in the event that even one of those dams were to fail. While information and education about the level of risk is occasionally available to those who deliberately seek it out, many members of this community are completely unaware of the likelihood of such a disaster occurring here as well as the severity of the impact that such an event will have.

I thought of the tenant I met outside the Daniel Christian house, who was completely uninterested as to the history of his own building. In the case of a low-level to moderate flood, he is most likely protected in his ignorance, as he just happens to live in a house that has withstood every flood in the city’s history. But if a major earthquake hits, triggering the 40-foot wall of water that experts fear it will, he will literally be in the same boat as the rest of us, no pun intended.

Many of us look to the land to teach us various internal and external lessons. And most of us look to what has been built before us in order to better understand who we were and are. But we sometimes overlook the idea that the objects and structures that we have built can also serve as powerful lessons about the land itself. Lessons that our ancestors knew but in the present-day we have forgotten, lessons that the land may not be able to tell us quite so clearly, especially when man-made alterations have transformed the historic layout of a landscape. The Willamette River, currently held back by over twenty dams, has been muzzled and cannot presently hint at the potential reaches of her natural floodplain. And yet the historic age of the buildings and their relative distance from the riverfront illustrate that reach in a way that the river cannot. Perhaps more significantly, the Daniel Christian house serves as an important physical marker, speaking to the boundaries of how far the water has risen in the floods of the past. And yet, while I am slightly comforted in my knowledge and understanding of the reaches of the natural floodplain and the history of the land, I also know that an earthquake-triggered flood may very well result in a flooding situation that will render these observations and lessons irrelevant. But at least I am aware of this inevitability, and I deeply understand that such a disaster is not a matter of if, but when. In the meantime, however, I am simply grateful for my constantly evolving relationship with the river.