Archives For Alley Valkyrie

Column: What Lies Beneath

Alley Valkyrie —  November 21, 2014 — 21 Comments

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.” - Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

A Fire in the Earth
I’m not sure what was on my mind that morning, other than hoping I could reach Columbus by nightfall, but as I drove west on I-80 through eastern Pennsylvania I started to zone out. It wasn’t until I hit Bloomsburg that I realized that I had missed the exit for I-81. I pulled off at the downtown exit with the intention of turning around, but after I got some coffee and walked around to stretch my legs a bit, I was seduced by the beautiful, sunny day and decided that, rather than head back the opposite direction on I-80, I would take the back roads southward through the country towards I-81.

I pulled out the map from under the passenger seat, which by the design and typeface looked as though it had been printed at least fifteen or twenty years earlier, and quickly found what looked like the most sensible route to take. It looked easy enough. Keep heading further down 487 towards Catawissa, where the numbered route would change to 42 and, then, continue on through Numidia and into Centralia. In Centralia, the route would then again change to 61, which would take me down through Ashland and, then, through Gordon, where I could meet up with I-81.

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. Photo by jakec

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. [Photo by jakec, via CC lic. Wikimedia]

I started driving south through the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. My attention was equally captivated by the natural beauty of the area and the ecological destruction throughout, when out of nowhere something about my surroundings felt very wrong. I glanced down at the map and up again at the road. According to the map I was still on 42, approaching the north end of Centralia where the road changed to 61, and the size of the typeface matched up with the map’s key, indicating that Centralia was a small town with at least a few thousand people in it.

And yet, the town was empty. There were streets and intersections just as it showed on the map, but very few signs of civilization. Curious, I took a right turn onto what was supposed to be the main drag, and drove slowly in silent horror as the abandoned emptiness continued on and stretched all the way to the end of town. Driveway after driveway led to nothing but empty lots. Sidewalks were overgrown and obviously hadn’t been tended to in years. Mailboxes sat in front of bare foundations. The few houses that still stood literally looked terrified in the midst of their abandoned surroundings. There was not a single person in sight.

I parked the car on the side of the road and got out for a moment. There was a strange, acrid smell in the air. The silence was deafening, and yet amidst that silence I could literally hear the land screaming. The ominous feeling in my gut grew stronger by the second. I quickly became overwhelmed, got back in the car, and turned around to return back to my intended route. I looked at the map again. My faith in its accuracy was already shaken, but I needed to make sure I knew how to get out of this place. According to the map, Route 61 would take me straight out of town, and I needed to fork right just after the cemetery in order to stay on the highway.

The fork didn’t exist, however. Instead, the road forced me left, onto another road that was marked as a side-road on my map but according to the signs in front of me was now also Route 61. I glanced at the map once more, and then again at the highway in disbelief. My eyes were not playing tricks on me. The abandonment of a town, the re-alignment of a highway, something had definitely happened in this area over the years.

A few minutes down the road, I arrived at the next town, which I was relieved to find was no different than any other small Pennsylvania town, complete with buildings, people, and commerce. I parked and walked into a pizzeria and ordered a slice to go. As I was being rung up, I caught the cashier’s eye and decided to ask him about what I had just seen.

“Hey, why is the town just north of here deserted?” I asked, calmly and politely. “And is that related to why 61 is in a different place than what is marked on my map?”

He looked at me somewhat surprised, as though he couldn’t understand why anyone had to ask such a question. “You’re not from around here,” he said slowly as he handed me my change. It was a statement, not a question.

I nodded in affirmation. He continued as he started to cut my slice.

“There was a fire, its still burning. It’s a ghost town. The authorities forced just about everyone out over the past thirty years or so. There’s a few stragglers, but it’s not safe to live there and they know it. It’s dangerous to even walk around there. The ground, its hot to the touch from the fire. ”

I remembered the acrid smell in the air, but I hadn’t seen any fire. “The fire? Where’s the fire?”

“Underground,” he said, gruffly. “There’s a fire in the earth, in the mines, it started in the mines but they say it goes even deeper now. Its been burning since I was a kid. “

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. Photo by jrmski

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. [Photo by jrmski]

From the early 1800s onwards, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were at the center of the nation’s coal industry, which fueled the Industrial Age and continues to help fuel “progress” in the modern day. The first anthracite mines in Centralia opened in the 1850s, and the town became quickly populated by mine workers, who were for the most part of Irish Catholic ancestry. At its peak in 1890, nearly three thousand people lived in Centralia, and the coal deposits in the area were mined continuously until the Depression. A limited amount of mining continued through the early 1960s, right up to the time of the fire that would eventually lead to the evacuation of the entire town.

While the origin of the fire has been somewhat debated over the years, most agree that it was caused by an intentional landfill fire that was set in a former strip mine at the edge of town. The fire accidentally ignited an exposed coal shelf that extended underground to the numerous abandoned mines, some which had been dug nearly a century earlier and had long since collapsed. The fire quickly spread underground, and a few months later all of the area mines had to be permanently evacuated. It continued to spread further over the years, and by the early 1980s, residents started to experience health and other environmental effects. In 1984, Congress allocated money in order to relocate the residents of Centralia, and many residents accepted a buyout in exchange for moving to nearby towns while others stayed despite the ever-growing danger.

Nearly a decade later, thirty years after the fire started, and after four separate excavation attempts and untold millions of dollars were spent trying to put out the fire, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to invoke eminent domain in order to displace the remaining residents. Aside from eight residents who fought relocation and were eventually allowed to stay until their deaths, the town has been completely abandoned. The buildings were razed, much of the infrastructure removed, and what remains is crumbling and overgrown.

Some of the trees have turned white from the fumes. The ground is so hot that in some places, a match will light if you drop it. Smoke seeps out of cracks in the earth and the smell of burning coal permeates throughout. Route 61 had to be re-routed due to cracks and fissures that appeared in the original road over time.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 6 in Centralia. Photo by navy2004.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 61 in Centralia. [Photo by navy2004.]

Centralia is a cautionary tale, but it is far from the only one. Currently, at least 100 documented coal shelf fires are burning beneath nine states, and experts believe that there are many more burning that have gone unreported. Nearly two centuries’ worth of coal mining has scarred and devastated the earth beneath our feet, and yet the mining still continues with our nation’s current need for sources of commodified energy. And from that need, the consequences remain long after the coal is gone. Massive ecological destruction and widespread unemployment and poverty remain throughout the regions of America where the mining industry once flourished.

Experts estimate that the fire beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania will be burning for the next 250 years.

Black Gold and Bleeding Veins
In addition to coal mining, nowadays we rely mostly on conventional oil drilling, hydraulic fracking, and most recently the extraction of tar sands in order to fuel our march towards “progress”, our march towards our eventual extinction as a species. Tar sands oil has been described by climate scientist James Hansen as “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet,” and it is the extraction of tar sands from northern Alberta that is driving the push for environmentally devastating projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

I hear lots of talk of “the pipeline” lately, as though it was a singular entity, as though there weren’t already 2.3 million miles of pipeline laid beneath American soil. It’s a positive sign overall that the average person is finally paying attention to pipelines and, while Keystone XL is undoubtedly the most widely-publicized and controversial pipeline project in American history, the focus on Keystone XL as though it is a singularity distracts from the fact that pipelines are already everywhere, wreaking environmental damage and destruction throughout the nation.

For all you know, there could be a pipeline directly underneath your own local, sacred refuge.

Millions of miles of metal veins criss-cross the country, with black gold coursing through on the journey from source to destination. Metal veins that lie under streams, across fault lines, through watersheds, beneath farmlands and cemeteries, shoddily-built metal veins that often bleed out that black gold that runs through them, seeping out through uncountable leaks and fissures, poisoning the land we live on in the name of “profits” and “freedom.” From 2008 to 2012, pipelines beneath American soil have spilled an average of more than 3.1 million gallons of toxic liquids each year, causing at least $1.5 billion in property damage. Potentially leaky pipelines are literally in our backyards.

Pipeline warning sign in a residential neighborhood in Woodbridge, NJ, circa 1974. Photo by Ike Vern.

Pipeline warning sign in a neighborhood in suburban New Jersey circa 1974. [Photo by Ike Vern.]

Although not one has ever received the level of coverage that Keystone XL does, current pipeline projects are scattered and numerous throughout the country, and many of those projects have been met with fierce, but often unsuccessful, opposition. In Oregon, several inter-related proposed pipeline projects, including the Oregon LNG project, the Pacific Connector, and the Jordan Cove LNG terminal are intended to expedite the transport of liquefied natural gas to markets in Asia. These projects are still in the early stages of development, but the Pacific Connector project has so far received the go-ahead from the federal government.

Earlier this year, an energy company known as Williams Partners announced its intention to place a natural gas pipeline in the ground through eastern Pennsylvania in order to cheaply move liquefied natural gas (acquired by fracking) from the Marcellus Shale across the state to the Eastern Seaboard. The pipeline, dubbed ‘Atlantic Sunrise’, would stretch through eight counties on a north-south trajectory, connecting two pre-existing pipelines that run across the northern and southern ends of the state. Local residents and Native groups have mounted a significant challenge, and some local government officials are also against the project, but the project is still under review and no decisions have been made either way.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is slated to be built less than twenty miles to the west of the still-burning Centralia mine fire.

An “Act of War”
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be the final section of a multi-phase pipeline system that has been under construction since 2008. The first phase, completed in 2010, delivers tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta through Saskatchewan and the Dakotas to Steele City, Nebraska, and then on across Missouri to refineries in Illinois. The second and third phases connect to the first pipeline in Steele City and carry the oil south through Oklahoma to a refinery in Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The Keystone XL pipeline, which still awaits government approval, would duplicate the route from Hardisty to Steele City, but would go through Montana in order to transport Bakken crude, as well as tar sands, through the Midwest.

Keystone XL is slated to cross active seismic zones, fracking wells, the Ogallala Aquifer, and numerous indigenous lands and sacred sites. Opposition to the project has been steadily increasing among the American public. However, support for the project remains strong in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. Photo by Brylie Oxley.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. [Photo by Brylie Oxley.]

Last February, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota passed a tribal declaration opposing the Keystone XL project. In March, over a thousand college students representing 80 different schools marched on Washington. Approximately 400 were arrested after they marched on the White House, with many of the protesters chaining themselves to the fence with zip-ties, and others re-creating an oil spill using black plastic sheets in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. A month later, an organization known as the Cowboy Indian Alliance, composed of tribal members, farmers and ranchers, marched on Washington, some on horseback, and held a five-day gathering near the White House in order to draw attention to their opposition of the Keystone XL pipeline and to lobby Congress. At the gathering, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer stated that “Keystone XL is a death warrant for our people,” and he urged the U.S government to reject the pipeline and to respect Native treaty rights.

On Friday, November 14th, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline by a 252-161 vote. In response to the vote, Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Cyril Scott stated the following: “We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” Scott added that, not only does the Keystone XL pipeline violate the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but also the Sioux Nation has not been properly consulted on the project by either the U.S. government or TransCanada, who owns the Keystone Pipeline network.

Four days after the House voted to approve Keystone XL, the proposal lost by one vote in the Senate, which is currently controlled by the Democratic Party. However, the Republican Party will gain control on January 1, and the Keystone XL proposal will undoubtedly be approved next spring. Whether or not they will have enough votes to override a presidential veto has yet to be determined. In the meantime, other pipeline proposals are in the works, and alternative plans to move crude oil are already being discussed should the Keystone XL proposal fail.

Whether its Keystone XL or the Atlantic Sunrise project, a war is indeed being waged against the land; against the gods and spirits that inhabit that land; against the health and well-being of the animals and people who inhabit that land and against all life as we know it. This war is not over a cause nor a belief, it’s a war being waged in the name of greed and profit. It is a battle for the fate of the planet itself.

Our addiction to oil and gas is literally destroying our ability to live on this planet, and yet it continues undisturbed and unfettered over the objections of many, but nowhere near enough, people. Despite the limited successes of pipeline resistance movements such as the Tar Sands Blockade and Idle No More, the extraction still increases and the poisoning of the land and its people still continues at an unprecedented rate, with no end in sight.

How much more does the Earth need to burn and bleed before we change our ways? How many more towns will we be forced to be abandoned, how many more oil trains must derail, how many more pipelines must leak before finally decide that enough is enough? How many more must die, how many more must be poisoned before we finally realize that the land that we live on is more important than profit?

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

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It took me a few hours to find the girl whose face had appeared to me so clearly that morning, but as soon as I spotted the figure sitting on the bench out of the corner of my eye, I immediately knew that I had found the right person. She had a pile of cards, a handwritten cardboard sign, and, as my eyes met hers, she broke into an impish grin. She was definitely the one.

I handed her five dollars and sat down on the blanket.

“What is your question?” she asked me.

“I need to know what story to tell,” I answered.

She drew three cards, turned them over in front of me, and started to study them. As soon as I glanced at the cards, an old friend flashed through my mind, and instantly my question was answered. I quickly glanced at the cards again, snapped a picture of them with my phone, and then gently interrupted her thought process.

“No need,” I told her. “All I needed was to see the cards. I’ve got everything I need to know now.”

She looked at me, puzzled. “If all you needed was to see the cards, why did you pay me for a reading?”

“I was supposed to seek you out,” I answered, momentarily drifting back to the vision I had on the riverbank that morning and remembering that I had neglected an important detail. “I was also supposed to compensate you twice what you asked, so here…”

I reached into my pocket, handed her another five dollars and started to get up.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to ask. What’s the story? What are you writing about?”

“Its about the dead,” I quickly answered, realizing as the words left my mouth that she deserved more of an explanation than that. I took a breath and tried again. “I’m being nagged to write about the dead. But I’ve got too many possibilities in my head and I was drowning in an indecisive fog. Those three cards made it perfectly clear who and what I need to write about.”

She smiled and nodded. I thanked her again and headed home, ever so grateful for the simplicity of that exchange.

*  *  *

It was Samhain, and we had dedicated the day to honoring the forgotten.

We had started the afternoon at Washington Square Park, on the east side of the park where an estimated 20,000 bodies were buried and forgotten beneath one of New York City’s most well-known landmarks. The park was packed that day with children and adults alike in Halloween costumes, milling about in anticipation of the parade that would pass through Greenwich Village in just a few hours.

Jim and I stuck out for our lack of costumes and, yet instantly, attracted attention as we spread flowers throughout the east side of the park and sang songs and left offerings for the dead, purposefully ignoring the confused and questioning stares from passers-by. The crowds of people dressed as ghouls and ghosts hadn’t a clue that they were atop one of the city’s largest graveyards, and observing the depths of that ignorance only fueled our energy towards the task at hand. If only they knew what lies beneath, I thought to myself as I sprinkled flowers along the perimeter of the park.

From Washington Square, we walked uptown to Madison Square Park and then Bryant Park, performing the same ritual again in both places, and then briefly over the pedestrian bridge to Ward’s Island and back before taking the 6 train up to Pelham Bay in the Bronx and hopping a bus over to City Island.

The day before, I had arranged to borrow a boat from a friend whose family lived out on the island. It was a rickety old skiff, perhaps 12 feet long with a sputtering old Evinrude motor, that had seen better days but was sufficient for the purpose of our voyage. I was given a quick lesson on the boat’s quirks and operations before dragging her on the dolly down to the dock. I looked out into the water and focused my eye towards our destination in the distance.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

The sun was just starting to set as we strapped on our life jackets, grabbed a few flashlights and a set of oars, and headed out into Long Island Sound with a large plastic bag filled with fresh-cut flowers. It was a clear night, the water was still, and Jim piloted the boat while I helped navigate us northeast past Rat Island, the nautical map of this stretch long committed to my memory. I had been out on the Sound only a few times before in years past, but I had taken this trip many times in my mind, to the point where I felt a definitive déjà vu while we crossed the sound, despite the fact that I had never taken this exact route before.

A short time later, we stopped the boat and shut the motor off a hundred feet or so away from the shoreline near the northernmost tip of Hart Island. We carefully stood up in the boat and gazed out towards the island, immediately noticing that the land formation before us was literally shrouded in mist against an otherwise clear sky. Without a word we each grabbed an oar and slowly rowed closer in silence, drawn to the eerie, numinous energy that was emanating from the shoreline. Before us was a literal island of the dead, a 101-acre tract of land that held the distinction of being the largest publicly-owned burial ground in the world.

Over a million of New York’s indigent, forgotten, stillborn, and otherwise unclaimed dead are buried on Hart Island. The island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1868, when the city purchased the island and designated it as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Prior to the city’s acquisition of Hart Island, potter’s fields had been maintained throughout Manhattan from the time of the city’s inception. The area that is now Madison Square Park was the first large-scale potter’s field, until the city purchased the area that is now Washington Square Park in 1797 and designated that tract as a potter’s field until 1825. Bryant Park was used to bury the indigent from the 1820s until just before the Civil War; Ward’s Island was then used for burials for several years prior to the purchase of Hart Island in 1868.

In addition to a potter’s field, Hart Island had also alternately housed an insane asylum, a drug treatment center, a boys’ reformatory, a tuberculosis sanitarium, prison dormitories, and a Nike missile base. The island was dotted with ruins from these various incarnations – ruins that were left crumbling and unexplored as the island had been closed to the public for as long as anyone could remember. The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates from nearby Rikers Island. The inmates and employees of the New York City Department of Corrections were the only living souls legally permitted on the island. Signs warning the public not to land ashore were scattered all around the perimeter of the shoreline, and anyone who did step foot on the island was potentially subject to arrest.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

Before I had met Jim, I had never even heard of a potter’s field, let alone had any thoughts of ever visiting one on Samhain night. I had occasionally wondered in the past what became of those who died and were unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a burial. But I had never taken those thoughts to their logical conclusion until I started spending time with the segment of society that tends to end up in such places. I understood why nobody ever spoke of potter’s fields, as poverty and death are equally uncomfortable subjects as far as society is concerned. And yet, I found that once it truly sunk in – that there were untold thousands of the forgotten dead scattered throughout New York City – I couldn’t ignore or look away from the implications of that knowledge. I felt a need to honor them, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

Jim was unusually familiar with Hart Island, having worked as a prison laborer on the island during his last stint at Rikers some years back. A long-time petty criminal, he consistently credited his experiences at Hart Island with scaring him straight and setting him on the right path. Burying the indigent dead had moved something in him, forced him to examine his life and the hand that he was dealt. He spoke of the dead redeeming him in the same emotional manner that so many others spoke of Christ and, while I hadn’t known him prior to his prison experiences, I could regularly sense the deep changes that were continually occurring within him. He was homeless, struggling with sobriety, and stumbled regularly in that struggle, and yet there was a consistent fire within him that lifted him through his struggles, a fire that was deeply connected to the sense of purpose that he found while working with the dead on Hart Island.

“I got at least ten or eleven friends out there, that I know of, anyway,” he had said to me a few weeks prior to our trip. “Two of them died while I was locked up that last time, and for all I know I helped to bury them. It’s literally an island of forgotten souls out there for the most part. Most folks don’t even know its there.”

He told me of the memorials that the prisoners would build after they finished filling a trench. Altars of sticks and rocks, left in corners and crevasses throughout the island, built out of a sense of solidarity and empathy with those inside the simple wooden coffins that they stacked into the trenches day after day. “After a while, you feel a responsibility, an obligation to the task,” he told me. “Being locked up is a lesson in what it means to be forgotten. and most everyone who ends up on Hart Island is forgotten, whether you’re out from your cell for the day or freshly arrived in a wooden box. The forgotten in boxes, after a while, you realize that you’ve got perhaps a little too much in common with them.”

I thought of Jim’s time out on the island as we rowed close to shore and, as I looked over at him, I had a feeling that his thoughts were in similar places. We steered the boat eastward through the still water, and slowly started to circle around the island. I grabbed the bag of flowers and started to sprinkle them out of the side of the boat as we moved through the water. Jim rowed, and I sprinkled flowers, and we sang songs and prayers, rowing a full circle around the island of the forgotten dead as the sun set behind us.

As we made our way around the island, serenading the dead, the mist over the island started to glow in the  moonlight. We felt shifts in the air as the island seemed to respond to our presence. A whistling breeze picked up, and it was almost as if the dead were singing along with us. The veil was thin, time and place started to blur, and there was a sense of ever-strengthening connection as we slowly rowed through the water.

By the time we had completely circled around Hart Island, it was well after dark and both of our voices were hoarse. The island was pitch black, the moon was half-full, and we sat in the boat staring out at the island, watching as a sudden gust of wind stirred the mist that had been hovering throughout our journey around the island. We looked at each other and without a word spoken we decided it was time to depart. Jim started up the engine, which promptly sputtered and died, and we took it as a sign to maintain our silence as we gently rowed back to City Island without a word said between us.

As we landed back on City Island, the sky opened up and it started to pour, and as we looked back towards the opposite shore, the island of the dead was still eerily glowing.

*  *  *

In the time since our trip out to Hart Island, which took place in either 2002 or 2003, the island’s existence and the mystery around it has become much more well-known and widely publicized.

Among those buried at Hart Island are an untold number of stillborn children who died in city hospitals, many whom were buried at Hart Island without the knowledge or permission of the mother. Many of those mothers, along with the help of a local filmmaker and advocate, steadily fought the city and the Department of Corrections for the right to visit Hart Island. The department had always refused all requests to access the Island, from grieving relatives to filmmakers and journalists alike, but over the years their fight has gained traction, and the department gradually started to soften their position. In 2007, the department allowed ‘closure visits’ for the first time, which they granted only to family members who could legally prove that they had a relative buried on the island. The families were restricted to a gazebo next to the dock at Hart Island and had no view of the actual gravesites.

After eight women threatened to file suit against the Department of Corrections in 2010, seeking to visit the actual grave sites of their children, the department finally relented and allowed the women to visit the graves under tight security. The Department simultaneously lifted the overall requirement that visitors to the island need to legally justify their request through burial records. According to the Department of Corrections website, Hart Island is currently open to the public on a limited basis, although the visits are still restricted to the same rules that govern visits to Rikers Island, which means that no photographs, flowers, or mementos are allowed.

I lost touch with Jim a few years after our trip, and learned from an acquaintance several years later that he had died of cirrhosis in the hospice ward of Bellevue Hospital after a long battle. I was told that his body was unclaimed after his death, which means he was undoubtedly buried on Hart Island.

I put this story to words in the spirit of honoring his memory, and in the hopes that others will take it upon themselves to remember and honor the otherwise forgotten dead. What is remembered, lives.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

I came across the marsh last spring on my very first walk through the new neighborhood.

Three blocks from my building I stumbled upon it, flourishing within the confines of a city block in sharp contrast to its immediate surroundings. Overshadowed by condominium complexes on three sides, a vacant lot sits to the north, and then another park on the other side of that lot which stretches to the riverfront. The vacant lot allows for a breathtaking view of the Fremont Bridge gracefully arcing over the Willamette River.

Tanner Springs Park, as the marsh is officially known, is a modern recapture/recreation of the creek and wetlands that flowed through this area up until the late 1800’s. The original creek was filled in to make way for industrial development, which dominated this area from the turn of the century until approximately twenty-five years ago. When the industrial cover was eventually stripped away in order to plan the neighborhood as it stands today, the city was presented with an opportunity to restore a small piece of the natural topography, which eventually manifested as a thriving, swampy ecosystem contained within the boundaries of a city block. The park is not only specifically designed to capture storm water as the native environment once did; the storm water is then treated and pumped back into the spring as opposed to simply being directed back into the river.

Since that first encounter with the marsh, I’ve visited the spot nearly every day, sometimes only for a minute or two and other times for the better part of an afternoon. The marsh feels very tucked into itself; there is something very grounding and psychically cohesive about the block that is not felt among its surroundings. There are strange spirits among the grasses and ponds here, spirits both old and very, very new, and their presence seems to magnify the more I pay attention to them. The marsh is both beautifully out of place and also completely fitting as it stands. Its surroundings protect and isolate it while highlighting it at the same time, and the open space between the block and the river creates a positive aesthetic flow that opens up the surrounding neighborhood in a very distinctive and pleasing manner.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park

At the marsh, I can hide in plain sight. The more I pay attention to the everyday details, which are contained within its borders, the more the everyday details outside of its borders become more obvious to me. I have developed an energetic reciprocity with this spot, and the spirits have made it clear that they welcome my presence. In a sense, it’s the only block in this neighborhood where I feel at ease.

*  *  *

For the past seven years, I had been deeply engaged in a close relationship with a small section of the Willamette River, specifically the curve that defines the border of Alton Baker Park in Eugene; a spot that the State of Oregon defines as River Mile 183, and that I could never quite define myself.

Nowadays, I live exactly 172 river miles north of that spot in a building that sits a few hundred yards away from the west bank of the Willamette in Portland at River Mile 11. While the mile markers of the Willamette generally don’t carry a specific connotation, River Mile 11 is significant and often referred to by name due to the fact that it marks the furthest point upstream where the Willamette has been designated as a Superfund site. From the Broadway Bridge downstream several miles to Sauvie Island, the river suffers from highly elevated levels of toxicity due to well over a hundred years’ worth of industrial activity on the waterfront. The banks and waters of River Mile 11 are specifically noted for their toxicity apart from the rest of the Superfund site. The area from the Broadway Bridge downstream to the Fremont Bridge is the only stretch of the Willamette in Portland where swimming is not only ill-advised but advisory groups caution against even walking barefoot on the riverbank.

The toxic effects of a century’s worth of industry was not confined to just the water itself. The housing complex I live in was built on top of formerly toxic brownfields, as were many of the surrounding buildings and current features of the neighborhood including my beloved marsh. But while the toxicity on the land has been cleaned up to an extent over the past twenty years, any substantive cleaning of the river itself has yet to begin.

The view at River Mile 11.

The view at River Mile 11

I have learned that she is both the same river I knew in Eugene and a completely different character at the same time. I feel as if I’ve gotten to simultaneously know her in two separate stages of her journey. The youthful exuberance of the Willamette at Mile 183 is largely absent from the river that now sits across the street from my building. Here, the river has been altered into submission, industrialized to a point where the energies that I easily sensed in Eugene are almost unrecognizable.  And yet, she is my old friend all the same. And, while I miss dipping my feet in, the understandings and lessons that I am quickly gaining from living on this stretch of the river far outweigh what I used to take for granted.

*  *  *

I stood in front of the statue, keeping in mind that the imposing woman before me was the second-largest copper repouseé statue in the country after Lady Liberty herself. Hunched down, she reaches out to me with her right hand as she wields a trident in her left. I take in her essence, both fierce and inviting.  In the tradition of Columbia and Brittania as well as Lady Liberty, she is intended to embody the persona of this city. I feel that she does in many ways, although not necessarily in the ways that were originally intended. For me, she is a powerful symbol of what is held back as much as what she inspires to push forward.

Symbols hold tremendous power, and one of the reasons that the Statue of Liberty is such a powerful symbol is that she can be seen everywhere. One does not have to visit her in person to quickly conjure up her likeness in the imagination. She appears on everything from birthday cakes to snow globes, and to step inside of any New York City tourist shop is to be visually assaulted with countless versions of her likeness.

The statue I stood before at that moment, however, is barely a recognizable symbol at all. Her likeness is restrained under threat of litigation. Despite the fact that the statue was built with public funds, the statue’s creator retains the copyright to the statue’s image, in contrast to most publicly funded art, which is generally in the public domain. Not only does the artist retain the copyright, he aggressively enforces it, which means that commercial reproductions of the statue’s image are practically non-existent. You will not find a cheap postcard with her image in a tourist shop.

Interestingly enough, despite its failure to become a symbol of any sort, the statue’s name is instantly recognizable among the American public, albeit the association is far removed from its original source. When people hear the name “Portlandia,” they generally think of a television show, not the beautiful copper goddess that kneels before me at that moment.

Standing before her, it struck me as strangely fitting, in a depressing sense, how the name of this statue has come to be primarily associated with a show that satirizes the very real tendencies and excesses of hipster capitalism, as opposed to being associated with the statue itself, a powerful and potentially iconic image that has been intentionally repressed and held back from mainstream recognition on account of its creator’s excessive love affair with capitalism.

Portlandia

Portlandia

I left a flower for Portlandia at the entrance to the building that she hovers over, and bid her adieu. As I walked away, I deliberately tried to picture her in my mind as I had just seen her, but strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, her specifics had already become a bit of a blur.

 *  *  *

The cargo trains are often close to a mile long, and several times a day they slowly roll past less than a hundred feet from my bedroom window. When the cargo is mainly lumber, my throat occasionally tightens as I think of the forest, but my throat tightens much more when I spot the ominous black tanker cars that I know to be carrying crude oil, mostly from the Bakken region of North Dakota en route to a refinery near Clatskanie, Oregon.

The oil trains have been a subject of controversy, especially since a tragic accident in Quebec last year when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, killing 47 people. Oil trains started running through Portland a few years ago without public notice or input, and oil train shipments have increased 250% just in the past year. Railroad companies are not required to report the entirety of their oil shipments through Oregon; only trains that are carrying over a million gallons of Bakken crude on a single train, the equivalent of approximately 35 cars, must report.

Oil trains crawling past my building complex

Oil train crawling past my building complex

Aside from the dangers of transporting crude oil in the first place, the frequency and slowness of these cargo trains creates additional environmental and quality-of-life issues on a local level. Vehicles are stopped several times a day for the trains to pass, and dozens of cars sit idling, sometimes for the better part of an hour, while stopped in a narrow traffic corridor lined on both sides by residential apartment buildings. Especially in the summer, and when the air is already stagnant, the build-up of car fumes as the train crawls past is noticeable and unpleasant.

There’s a cruel irony in witnessing all the refined oil being wasted as cars just sit there in frustration. These cars, which are often covered in pro-environment bumper stickers, idle away, waiting for the trains carrying Bakken crude to pass on the final stage of the journey towards becoming refined oil.

*  *  *

A block south from the marsh, I walked down Lovejoy Street and once again couldn’t ignore how new the corridor felt. The entire neighborhood feels new to an extent, which makes sense in that most of the development is less than thirty years old. But Lovejoy Street radiates newness in a way which truly captures the feel of the neighborhood.

In relation to the surrounding neighborhoods, I can’t help but to liken the Pearl District to an ultramodern bathroom in an otherwise old Victorian house. From the turn of the last century until the late 1980s, this area was simply known as the NW Industrial area.  Then rezoning and the removal of the viaduct that towered over Lovejoy Street opened up the area for development. The classic gentrification pattern followed: artists moved in, developers followed, artists were then priced out, and today the Pearl District is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Portland. It’s a neighborhood that reminds me more of SoHo in New York City than anyplace else.

Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

The Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

I did not choose this neighborhood — this neighborhood chose me. My ideal vision of living in Portland consisted of a cute little bungalow in the southeast with a garden in the backyard, but the Gods had other plans. I surrendered once I realized what was at work and, while there is something awkward and distressing about both the newness and the lack of standing history in the area, the why part of the “why here?” question is starting to become clearer to me by the day. Right now, within that one question, my task is to simply bear witness and take notes.

*  *  *

I was sitting at the edge of the dock at the marsh last month when I first heard the sound of the pile driver. I looked over at the vacant lot in horror, and noticed that overnight the lot had been surrounded with fencing and filled with construction equipment. I realized immediately that my beloved view of the Fremont Bridge was about to disappear.

And though I’ve only lived here since last Spring, it feels very personal and very raw in its effect upon me.

My view, interrupted by construction

The view, interrupted by a wall and a pile driver

Every day since, I’ve watched as the hole in the ground expands, and the pile driver has just recently been replaced by a crane as concrete paneling is quickly ushered in. Most who walk by seem much more affected and upset by the sound of the construction itself than the fact that another huge mega-building is about to go up in the vacant lot, destroying the open feel of the park. Part of me, the small part that tends to envy the bliss inherent in ignorance, wishes I was as unaffected as everyone else who walks past. But I just can’t shake the inevitability and the reality of the impending loss.

Slowly but surely, developers are stealing a little piece of my sky.

The spirits in the marsh seem unsettled and anxious; their feelings mirroring my own, affected by not only the construction but by the utter disenchantment in everyone around us. Sitting in the marsh, it feels like the spirits and I are the only ones who feel that there’s something subtly disturbing in the acceptance and normalization of urban development as it occurs before us. For everyone else, it seems to be business as usual.

This neighborhood has many impressive features: three well-designed parks, several coffee shops, countless yoga studios and art galleries, Portland’s first dog gym, a spiffy new streetcar line, and more “sustainable” restaurants than one could possibly track. But what it notably lacks is what stood out for me the most at that moment.  It lacks both a collective memory as well as a cohesive community spirit.

construction

 *  *  *

I came back from lunch to learn that activists from Portland Rising Tide had temporarily blockaded the train tracks leading to Clatskanie as a protest against the shipment of crude oil.

I sat with this for a moment, silently honoring anyone and everyone who potentially puts themselves in harm’s way in the name of environmental justice. At that moment, I heard the train signals clanging outside my window, and I could tell from the sound against the tracks that it was a cargo train.

Quickly, I ran out of my building to see the black oil tanks snaking their way down the tracks towards the Steel Bridge. At the end of the side street, I saw vehicles backed up over a mile in each direction from the tracks, most of them idling away as the oil train crawled past. I looked behind me, and something on the light-post caught my eye.  It was a faded sticker that read “Portland: America’s Greenest City.”

I glanced out across at the river and, as the sun reflected off the water, I remembered hearing that there was currently a rare and toxic algae blooming on the Willamette. The advisory not to enter the water now reached far past the confines of River Mile 11. The oil train made its way across the Steel Bridge as I looked on; an ugly feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as I watched the dangerously toxic train cross the dangerously toxic waters.

I walked back in the other direction and headed over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the tracks at Union Station. On the bridge, I looked out at the train. Its black cars stretched eastward as far as the eye could see. A few tourists walked by, snapping pictures from the overpass, and then stopped to stare at a map for a few moments. I asked them what they were looking for.

“Do you know where we can find that big statue, the one that you see in the intro to ‘Portlandia’?” they asked me.

I pointed to a spot on the map. “Just so you know, Portlandia is actually the name of the statue itself,” I told them. “That’s where the show got its name from.”

They looked at each other, surprised. I smiled and nodded and continued walking across the bridge. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused for a moment. My original destination had been the marsh, but I suddenly felt the urge to bring a flower to Portlandia once again.

I took off in the direction of the statue, tuning out the sound of the oil train in the background as I conjured up the image of Portlandia in my mind’s eye and, for the first time, I was truly able to picture her clearly.

 

 

I still can’t believe you’re moving there. That neighborhood is dangerous.

At that point, I had already had this conversation way too many times, with way too many well-meaning friends who simply couldn’t see past their prejudice. It seemed that every cup of coffee over the past month came with a free intervention attempt. It was getting quite tiring, and my patience was wearing rather thin.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself to once again engage in the same line of arguments that I had gone through countless times over the past month.

“Actually, it’s not much more dangerous than this neighborhood, and when it comes to the kind of crimes that I’m most concerned about, its quite comparable to this place. According to the latest NYPD statistical breakdown, I have just about the same chance of being mugged in the heart of Park Slope than in the five-block radius of my new place in East Flatbush.”

I paused for a moment, knowing full well that the next thing I was about to say would not go over too well. “Your beliefs around safety are based on a flawed perception, not reality. This neighborhood is not any safer than the one I’m moving to. Its just much fancier and much whiter.”

She bristled. “What, now you’re suggesting that I’m racist? I just think you’re making a bad choice, that’s all.”

Choice, I thought to myself. As though this move was a matter of free choice rather than of economic displacement. And while my friend was not a conscious racist, I knew her opinion on this issue was based on prejudicial fear much more than she realized or would ever admit. It was the exact same reaction that I had gotten from all my white, middle-class friends over the past month.

She continued. “I know you need more space, and I know your place isn’t ideal, but I just don’t understand why you would move there.

There. She simply couldn’t hide the distaste in her voice. She didn’t understand. She had said so numerous times, and the depth of that lack of understanding was becoming quite evident. And such a lack of understanding definitely wasn’t limited to her. Apparently the entire neighborhood felt a need to warn me of the bad “choice” I was making, a neighborhood almost exclusively made up of white, liberal urban professionals where the average person made well over four times what I did in a year. The friends so concerned about my well being were all college-educated with jobs that paid well enough to be able to afford market rate rents in the Slope. They never quite figured out over the years that I had been expertly “passing” as one of them by virtue of my whiteness and my middle-class roots while in reality I had been barely scraping by from paycheck to paycheck.

I was tired of maintaining that illusion, and once my living situation took a turn for the worst it was clear to me that I needed to move on. Moving on meant I had no choice but to move out of the neighborhood. While my reasons were primarily economic, I also felt a strong need to get away from a community atmosphere that I had come to regard over time as an insular, privileged bubble. I may have passed for years as just another one of the Park Slope locals, but I had realized over time that their values were not synonymous with my own, and my recent interactions with well-meaning friends had driven that point home in a very painful way. I was more than ready to move on. In fact, I was greatly looking forward to it.

I. Displacement and Divine Intervention

It was the spring of 2004. For the past four years I had been living in a falling-down Victorian-era brownstone in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the one shabby brownstone on a million-dollar block that had been renting for less than half of what the apartment was worth on the market due to its condition.

The “deal” had come with many downsides, tolerable at first but which worsened over the years: little to no working heat combined with drafty windows, broken appliances that were rarely repaired, and a landlady with schizophrenia who had recently taken to sneaking into our apartment on multiple occasions and snipping the phone wires in an attempt to quell the voices in her head. While the intermittent inconveniences such as no stove, no flushing toilet, and no heat were things that I had been willing to put up in exchange for a front-stoop view of Prospect Park, the unsettling invasions of my privacy was the straw that had finally broken the camel’s back.

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Finding somewhere else to live proved to be much trickier than I had expected. Gentrification had already taken hold in previously affordable areas such as Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights, and the rents in those neighborhoods were far out of reach. I had very few criteria for a new apartment: I wanted to stay in Brooklyn, I needed to be within walking distance to a subway line within an hours commute into Manhattan, I needed a bodega within walking distance, and my preference was to feel safe when walking at night, though I was also quite aware of the relative nature of that last piece. I had been looking at places in surrounding neighborhoods for over a month, and I was starting to feel quite discouraged. I wasn’t sure where to look next and I was worried that my realistic options were few to none.

The brownstone next door to me in Park Slope was occupied by a husband-wife architectural duo that worked at home and employed two Haitian nannies, one for each of their children. One night, I had been driving home late after a day of unsuccessful apartment searching when I saw one of the nannies, walking in the opposite direction, south down McDonald Avenue. I assumed she had missed the last bus and was headed home on foot, and I pulled over and offered her a ride.

She refused at first, not wanting to be an imposition, and as we went back and forth through the open car window an overwhelming feeling came over me, one that was too sudden and intense to simply ignore. I felt very strongly that I needed to take her home, that I was supposed to, on a level the reverberated far beyond the motions of kind gestures and good deeds.

“Please, I insist. Driving past you was no coincidence. I’m supposed to take you home. Really. Please.”

I got the impression that she hadn’t quite understood everything I said, but something in the urgency of my voice caused her to relent. She opened the passenger door and climbed in. I asked her where she lived, and she told me to head “towards Flatbush, near the crossroads”.

“The crossroads? Do you mean Flatbush Junction?”

She nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry, I forget the name sometimes,” she said in steady, careful English.

“Nothing at all to be sorry about,” I answered. “I just wanted to make sure I’m driving to the right place.”

As we drove towards her destination, that feeling grew even stronger, a feeling that I had long ago come to associate with aspects of divine intervention. As we neared the junction, it occurred to me that in all the neighborhoods I had searched for apartments in, I hadn’t yet considered this one. I was vaguely familiar with the area, as I had applied to (but never attended) Brooklyn College a few years back. It was a working-class Caribbean neighborhood, and as I pulled up to the “crossroads” I remembered that it was at the end of a subway line, just about an hour’s distance from Manhattan.

She got out of the car, thanked me profusely, and walked eastward down Glenwood Avenue. I drove a block or so in the other direction, parked my car, and proceeded to walk the entire neighborhood for the next several hours, staying out all night long.

A block past the commercial strip that constituted Flatbush Junction, I discovered a quiet, modest, working-class neighborhood, with residential blocks that alternated between a mixture of Victorian and post-war homes and 50’s-era five and six-story apartment buildings. As I walked around, I became increasingly charmed and captivated by the energy and aesthetics of the neighborhood.

As the sun rose, I realized that not once had I felt unsafe at all while walking the streets at night. Heading back to my car shortly after sunrise, I encountered the first wave of morning residents, and noticed immediately that Kreyol, not English, was the dominant language in the air. I briefly felt as though I was in a foreign country, and there was a great appeal to that feeling. I stood at the corner of Flatbush Junction, and recognized it for the first time as the true crossroads that it was. There was some deep magic in that neighborhood, and the pull I felt was indescribable.

Flatbush Junction, looking north, Summer 2004.

Flatbush Junction, facing north, Summer 2004.

A day or two later, the very first ad that popped up on my morning apartment search was for the first floor of a house in East Flatbush, only a few blocks away from where I had dropped the nanny off. I called the number, and went to look at it the same afternoon. It was literally everything I had been looking for. The house was a beautiful old Victorian with a handsome front porch, a driveway, and a front and back yard. The price was right, it was near the subway, and it was bright and spacious. I knew immediately, this was the place. Best of all, the landlady seemed quite eager to rent to me.

“I just rented the second floor to a young Puerto Rican couple,” she told me as I walked through the house. “There’s a small studio up on the third floor, but I’m not trying to rent that out right now. All I ask is that you all split the yard work.”

We talked out some details, and a few days later the papers were signed. I started to pack, broke the news to my current friends and neighbors, and after a month’s worth of well-meaning folks trying to dissuade me from my decision, moving day could not come fast enough. I left Park Slope without much fanfare, relieved to be free of that environment and looking forward to a new experience.

II. White House, Black Street

I was an economic refugee of sorts, trying desperately to carve a little hole for myself in a quickly gentrifying city that seemed to have less and less space for folks like myself. Many of my new neighbors, on the other hand, were actual refugees. A significant portion of the neighborhood population consisted of Haitian immigrants who had fled the regime of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and settled in Brooklyn in the early-to-mid 1980s. The rest of the neighborhood was mainly composed of folks of Jamaican or Trinidadian descent, many who had been born in the Caribbean and had settled in the neighborhood a few years after the first wave of Haitians.

flatbushstreetcolor

My new landlady, Leslie, was a second-generation Jamaican-American. She had grown up in the neighborhood, had become the first in her family to graduate from college, did well for herself in the business world, and had bought the house as an investment property. This distinguished her from the other homeowners on the block, the vast majority who were all Haitian or Jamaican-born working-class folks who owned their homes and lived in them with their extended families. I could sense immediately upon moving in that the neighbors were not thrilled with her decision to rent the house out to “white folks”, and I also learned quickly that the neighbors considered my upstairs neighbors to be “white” as well, at least white enough to be regarded as outsiders in their eyes.

Within the first week of moving in, I was buying some fruit at one of the corner markets when a tall, college-aged Black man came right up to me and introduced himself.

“Hey there, I’m Karl,” he said. “You must be the girl who just moved into the White House.”

“The White House?” I asked, baffled. “It was mauve the last time I checked.”

He laughed. “That’s what my momma calls your house, as does most everyone else on the block. It’s got nothing to do with the color of the paint.”

My face must have revealed my sudden discomfort, as he immediately tried to put me at ease. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “If it helps, they were calling it that even before you moved in. The moment that Miss Leslie bought that house, we all knew she was gonna try to rent it to white folks. She’s just trying to make money off that house. I get it, I don’t blame her, but many folks around here think she’s a sellout. They’re worried about gentrification, and the last thing they want to see is wealthy Blacks who don’t live here buying up properties to rent to white people with money.”

“But I don’t have money,” I countered. “That’s why I moved here in the first place.”

He laughed again. “What you actually have don’t matter much. It’s the perception. You ARE money, even if you don’t have money.”

I looked down, not sure how to respond. “Hey, look, I don’t care,” he said reassuringly. “I think your presence here makes it all a little more interesting, to be honest. But I thought you should know what’s what as far as the neighbors are concerned.”

I learned later that Karl was the son of one of the local preachers. He was the son of Haitian immigrants, born and raised in the neighborhood, and he was a student at Brooklyn College. He lived a few doors down, spoke both English and Kreyol fluently, and was the only person on the block who actively made a regular effort to be friendly toward me. From our very first conversation onward, I understood what his role was and would be: as a middleman and mediator between the “White House” and the surrounding neighbors. In the beginning, our exchanges began and ended at simple courtesies, but he soon became a trusted acquaintance, always willing to talk about anything. Karl was never afraid to ask hard questions, would always give honest answers, and had an uncanny way of reflecting my truth back to me when I couldn’t see it for myself.

“My friends think that my living here is dangerous,” I mentioned to him one afternoon a few weeks later. He laughed. “HA! Dangerous? For you? You’re the safest soul for miles. Nobody’s gonna touch you with a 10-foot pole.”

I looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t quite understand,” I said.

“Its easy. If anything happens to the nice little white girl, this place’ll be crawling with police in about five seconds flat. And nobody, absolutely nobody wants to bring that around here. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen around here sometimes, they do. But crime around here is driven by disputes, and those disputes tend to be interpersonal, and when they do happen its usually kept on the down low and dealt with by the community. But you, nobody dare mess with you. I can promise you that. We all got 41 reasons to make sure nothing happens to bring the police around, if you get my drift.”

I was silent. While it was a slight relief to be assured of my safety, the implications of what Karl just told me were very unsettling for several reasons. I had experienced police oppression as a political activist in the form of pepper spray and riot gear, but I did not fear police violence as an everyday reality in the way that I knew so many Black residents in the city did. Karl’s mention of “41 reasons” was a well-known reference to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, shot to death in the vestibule of his Bronx building. He was pulling out his wallet to show the police ID, and police mistook his wallet for a gun and shot him 41 times. I was now living one block from the border of the NYPD’s 70th Precinct, where Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was brutalized and sodomized by police in the bathroom of the stationhouse in 1997 after being arrested at a nightclub. The beating led to the indictments of five NYPD officers, four of whom were found guilty.

The murder of Amadou Diallo, as well as the deaths of Patrick Dorismond, Ousmane Zongo, and the brutal beating of Louima, were still fresh in the minds of New York’s Black community. Those deaths were still fresh in my mind as well, but I did not personally walk around in fear as a result. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of “white privilege” as it applied to my life.

III. Invisibility, Racism, and Unwanted Attention

There’s a thin yet definite line between cordial and friendly, a line I had always been aware of but learned to sense very quickly around my new neighborhood. The neighbors were mostly polite to me, but not always welcoming. They were understandably wary, not so much about me personally, but about what my presence in the neighborhood meant on a larger level. I accepted their wariness and understood it very deeply, always sensitive to my position as an outsider in the community, and I never took it personally when I was met by aloof behavior. I considered myself to be a guest in the neighborhood, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was wear out my welcome.

There was a wide range of reactions to me from various business owners, from outright coldness to an over-emphasized politeness. While some shopkeepers would often pretend not to notice me and deliberately pay me as little attention as possible, one of the Korean women who worked at the produce market would go out of her way to wait on me every time I walked in, deliberately ignoring all of her other customers in the process. I found that while being ignored at the deli counter brought a certain discomfort, the preferential treatment I experienced at the produce market felt much, much worse.

The simple act of buying food quickly revealed certain cultural differences that stood between myself and the rest of the population. The man who owned the meat market around the corner took a liking to me immediately, and we were equally fascinated and respectful of each other’s ways and mannerisms, but he made it clear to me that I stuck out as an anomaly in ways that went far beyond the color of my skin.

“Why you always in such a hurry?” he asked me one day.

I hadn’t been in a hurry at all, or so I thought. But instead of answering him immediately, I took a moment, looked around, and really thought about his question while taking in the environment around me. It was true, there was an impatient edge to my energy that was absent amongst everyone else in the market. There was a certain patience that most around here seemed to exercise that was not easy for me to tap into. I also realized that when I had lived in Park Slope, I always saw myself as the patient one, constantly having to deal with the arrogantly rushed nature of time-obsessed business types. Oh, how the tables had turned.

“I’m not really in a hurry, but I’m starting to realize that I do need to learn to slow down a bit,” I finally said to him. He smiled and nodded while handing me my purchase.

A few blocks down was a Caribbean carry-out restaurant with a smell coming out the door so intoxicating that every time I walked past I slowed down to enjoy it. The first few times I peeked inside, it struck me as being as much as a social club atmosphere as it did a restaurant. People gathered together and talked while waiting for their food — loud, animated conversations that carried across the entire room. Going inside felt intimidating, but eventually the smell of curried goat overtook my feelings of hesitation, and I opened the door and walked in.

The entire place immediately went silent at first. I froze for a second, and after what seemed like a very long moment, everyone went back to their conversations, and I walked up to the counter and ordered some curried goat. I paid and stepped to the side, looked around for somewhere to sit, and finding none I leaned up against the wall and waited. And waited. And waited.

I looked around, and the social aspect suddenly became very clear to me. The wait was part of the experience, and a very enjoyable and anticipated part for everyone else in the room; time spent catching up with friends and relatives after work. But I didn’t know a soul in the room, I didn’t understand most of what was being spoken, and I felt both like I stuck out and yet was completely invisible at the same time. It was unlike any feeling I had ever experienced. It felt alienating and lonely, and yet it was also fascinating.

I felt so impatient, and yet was militantly determined not to show it. After what literally seemed upwards of an hour, my name was finally called, and I walked back up to the counter as slowly and calmly as I could. As I was handed my food, the woman behind the counter looked me in the eye and gave me a warm, genuine smile. “I know it can get rough and loud in here,” she said to me. “But thank you for coming in, and thank you for waiting. I threw some extra plantain in for you.” She smiled again, maintaining eye contact. I returned the smile and thanked her for the food.

It was one of the best meals that I’ve had in my entire life.

* * * * *

A few months later, one of my friends from Park Slope came to visit for the afternoon. She had stopped to buy a soda at the deli while walking from the subway to my house, and when she arrived at my door she expressed her anger at the experience.

“They completely ignored me in there,” she said. “I’ve never experienced such racism in my life.”

“That’s not racism,” I said to her. “Its aloofness, its arguably prejudicial, but its not racism. If you want to really experience racism, go buy a soda at the produce market down the street from the deli.” She looked at me quizzically. “Come on, I’ll even go with you. You’ll see what I mean.”

We walked the few blocks to the Junction and went into the produce market. I grabbed a soda and walked up towards the front counter. And just as I expected, the shopkeeper saw us and immediately waved us over to the front of the line while shooing away several Haitian women who had been waiting patiently to pay for their groceries.

“No,” I said firmly to the shopkeeper. “They were first. They are waiting. Please serve them first.” The shopkeeper looked at me with anger and frustration, and reluctantly went back to ringing up the Haitian women, already in line. I looked over at my friend. She was frozen with disbelief.

“That happens every time I walk in there,” I told her after we walked out. “Every single time. That there, that’s what racism is, and that’s what it means and what it feels like to be on the beneficiary end of systemic racism. A few grumpy old-timers at the deli counter just don’t compare. What you just witnessed happens every single time I enter that produce market, no matter how many times I voice my disapproval to the shopkeeper.”

“Is it because she thinks you have more money than everyone else?” she asked.

“I think that’s a part of it. But I also think it runs much, much deeper than that.”

She nodded. I could tell that she had firmly grasped the point I had tried to make, but I knew that she was also having a very hard time processing what she had just experienced.

We still spoke once in a while after that day, but she never visited me again.

* * * * *

I was sweeping my front porch one afternoon when Karl waved me over from the sidewalk. I put down the broom and walked over.

“You’re being watched, just so you know”, he said to me. “Or someone in your house is, anyway.”

“Watched? By who?”

“I don’t know who, men in suits in an unmarked car. They’ve been watching you for at least a week. Not sure how you missed it, but I can tell you that the rest of the block is quite aware of the situation and more than a little uneasy about it.”

“Why are they…” I started, and immediately stopped and swallowed the rest of my words. I was asking a question that I realized I already knew the answer to. We stared at each other for a second as the weight of the situation sunk in.

I knew full well why my house was being watched by men in unmarked cars. It was a only a few weeks before the 2004 Republican National Convention, and my place had become a hotbed of activist organizing over the past month. Other activist friends had experienced police and FBI surveillance in recent days, so it was no surprise to me that I was being watched as well.

But I immediately realized that while I wasn’t bothered by this, my actions were bringing law enforcement attention at the expense of everyone else’s comfort, and while I had no control over that reality, I was responsible nonetheless. My very presence brought police surveillance to a community that held a deep-running fear and mistrust of police, due to the history of police brutality in NYC as well as the significant number of undocumented residents living in the neighborhood. My lack of fear was a testament to my privilege, and the reactions of my neighbors were a testament to their lived reality. I did not fear the police the way my neighbors did, but I also did not have reason to fear the police as they did. I had always understood this in theory, but nonetheless, when it hit home for me, it hit quite hard.

I stopped holding organizing meetings at my house. It was the least I could do.

IV. Gods, Ghosts, and Ghede

I had never been surrounded by so many churches, and never any that piqued my fascination quite like the storefront churches near the house. The “Apostolic House of Prayer” on Nostrand Avenue was but a tiny brick front with bars on the doors and windows, but the singing in that church on Sunday mornings was so powerful that it would often wake me up from a sound sleep. Equally fascinating was the Haitian Freemason lodge right next door, which bore the name “Respectable Loge Les Frères Unis, Orient de Brooklyn”. The “Mistical Order of St. Gabriel’s Spiritual Church Inc.” down the road was often shuttered, but when it was open the line to get in stretched halfway down the block. But more than anything, I was drawn to the energy emanating from the “Yoruba Orisha Baptist Church”, further down on the same block. Every time I walked by, I felt a distinctive pull, and resisting the urge to satisfy that curiosity was a challenge. Once, I placed my hand on the door, and while I felt the pull even stronger, I sensed that the very doorknob itself recognized and regarded me as an outsider. Stepping through the door felt quite inappropriate, despite my gnawing curiosity.

But I soon learned that one did not have to step through the doors of a local church to experience the local gods, however. I had been working with various Lwa and Orisha long before moving here, but being in a place where my neighbors granted them strong attention greatly elevated their presence in my everyday affairs. I had always perceived gods and spirits as real, independent beings, but in East Flatbush, the Gods themselves were literally my neighbors. The Gods were everywhere; their voices and opinions were often louder than the sounds of the neighborhood itself. I felt them in the sidewalks, heard them in the streets, and after a while, their presence became normalized, a part of everyday affairs. I would find myself regularly conversing aloud with spirits on my treks around the neighborhood, prompting a few of my neighbors to start quietly referring to me as “Le Fou” as I walked past.

One afternoon, I was approaching the house when a gleam from the third floor window drew my attention. In the window, stood an elderly white gentleman and a young girl in a bright red dress. Both looked out towards the street.

That’s funny, I thought. Leslie had given me the distinct impression that the third floor was vacant. I thought hard, racking my brain for her exact words. She had said to me that she wasn’t trying to rent it out at the moment, which I had taken to mean that it was uninhabited. Perhaps I had misunderstood her? I looked up again, and the man and the child were gone. A split second later I spotted a fleeting image of a smallish-looking man in a top hat. As soon as I realized what I was seeing, he disappeared from the window.

Le Fou indeed, I thought to myself. Perhaps I am going a little crazy. I deliberately put that last image out of my mind, making a mental note to introduce myself to the old man sometime. I saw the old man and the little girl a few times after that, but their existence had a tendency to fleet from my memory. While their presence remained a lingering curiosity, its one that I left lingering instead of chasing it down.

One afternoon, I opened the main door to the house to find a young man struggling to move a small loveseat up the stairs. “Hi, I’m Sam,” he said to me as I entered. “I’m moving up to the third floor.”

I thought back to the old man and little girl whom I had seen at the window. Had they moved out without my noticing? I drifted off in thought, then quickly snapped back and offered my assistance with the loveseat. As we rounded the top of the stairs through the door to his studio, I suddenly felt an immediate shift in energy, as though I had walked through an invisible barrier. The apartment felt slightly claustrophobic, despite being spacious and nearly empty. It also felt old and stuck in time, though the paint was fresh and the floor had a polished shine to it. Sam seemed oblivious to everything I was feeling, and as I stood there taking in my surroundings, he excitedly started to show me around.

“It was just refinished,” he said to me. “Everything’s new, except for the bathroom sink and tub. Leslie said she’s pretty sure that nobody’s lived up here for a long time.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t trust my instincts at the moment, and I was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts. Subjectivity and rationalization were battling in my brain, and I tried to tune the fight out as I followed him around, nodding in approval as he showed me the bells and whistles. When I walked into the bathroom, I noticed that the fixtures were original to the house, unlike the bathrooms on the other two floors. The beautiful, claw-foot tub took up more than half the bathroom, and the sink had a quaint, 20’s vibe that made me just a tad envious. Other than the strange energy that I couldn’t quite shake, the apartment was quite the sweet space. I complimented him on the find, and he beamed. “It’s my first apartment away from home,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

A few weeks later, I was sitting at my kitchen table, putting the finishing touches on a series of sketches, when I felt a drop of water on my head. I looked up just as the first ceiling tile started to fall, and I pushed my chair back just in time to avoid a whack on the head. Within seconds, the entire ceiling started to fall, and after the water-soaked tiles all fell, water started to pour through the holes onto my kitchen table, destroying my work.

The ceiling as it started to fall

The ceiling as it started to fall

I ran upstairs to the third floor and knocked on the door as hard as I could. I could hear the water running. I knocked again and started to yell, but no answer. I tried the handle but the door was locked, and as I stood there debating whether to whack the handle off with a brick, a bleary-eyed, barely-conscious Sam opened the door. I ran right past him into the bathroom. The tub was overflowing, and there were at least four inches of water on the floor. I turned off the faucet and turned around. Sam was standing there at the doorway, aghast.

“I don’t even remember turning the tub on,” he said, both his voice and body shaking. “I mean, I guess I must have and just forgot, because, well, obviously it was on, but I’ve been sleeping this whole time as far as I know. I went out drinking last night, and I’ve been out cold for hours.” He pointed to the couch next to the door. “I didn’t even make it to my bed,” he said, sheepishly.

We were equally in shock, for very different reasons. By the amount of water, I estimated that the tub hadn’t been on for more than an hour or so. But I could also tell by Sam’s lack of responsiveness when I entered the apartment that he had been in a deep sleep. Something didn’t add up, but I couldn’t dwell on that at the moment. The entire house was flooded, and it needed to be dealt with.

The next day, I was dragging the wet mess of ceiling tiles and debris from my kitchen out to the street when Karl ran up to help me. “What happened?” he asked, as he grabbed one of the bags of tiles from me.

“New kid on the third floor overflowed the tub and it flooded down through all the floors as a result,” I told him. “My kitchen’s a disaster. He’s been up there less than a month, and he just caused at least ten grand worth of damage to the house. He says he doesn’t even remember turning the tub on, and for some reason I actually believe him, but at the same time I want to slap him senseless. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is keeping in mind that my anger is nothing compared to what he’s going to get from Leslie.”

I paused. “I feel like the house was much better off when the old man and the little kid were living up there. What happened to them, anyway?”

Karl immediately froze in his tracks and turned noticeably pale. He looked at me, eyes wide and round with fear. “You’ve seen them too?” he whispered quietly.

“Yeah, once or twice. They were real quiet up there, I never spoke to them, but….” I trailed off when I noticed that Karl was literally shaking. “What is it?” I asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Have you see the Ghede as well?” he asked, his voice still barely above a whisper.

“Ghede?” I asked. “Do you mean the man with the top hat?”

Karl nodded. “Momma’s been seeing them all since before I was born. Papa won’t let her speak of it, says it’s the devil’s work.” He pointed to the house across the street. “I talked to Emmaline about it once. She says something bad happened, years ago. She’s not quite sure what, but she sees them too. She told me that the man in the top hat is one of the Ghede. I always wanted to ask her more about it, but Papa doesn’t like me talking to her.”

Emmaline was an elderly Haitian woman who lived down the street. I knew very little about her overall, as she had made it clear to me at the beginning that she was not interested in meaningful interactions with me, but she was well-known around the neighborhood as a competent and powerful vodouisant, much to the displeasure and distaste of some of the more Christian neighbors. I could only imagine how Karl’s strict Baptist father would react upon finding out that Karl was learning about ghosts and Ghede from Emmaline.

“That answers a whole lot of questions, even ones I didn’t know I had yet,” I replied.

Karl nodded. “Every time someone else says they’ve seem ‘em, I feel a little less crazy,” he said.

It all made a little more sense now, although I was still unnerved. Sam was evicted from the apartment due to the extent of damage he caused, and once Leslie received the full estimate for the damage, she chose to only repair the bottom two floors. The third floor apartment remained vacant from that point forward.

I still felt a need to tie up one last loose end, however, to remove any lingering doubt I had about the facts of the matter and what I had witnessed. The next time I saw Leslie, I innocently asked her again about the third floor apartment. “You know, I hadn’t even realized that apartment had been vacant and for rent until I ran into Sam in the hallway that first day. When did the other tenants move out?”

She looked at me surprisingly. “There’s been nobody living up there since I bought the place,” she told me. “I told you that when you moved in. It’s funny, though… one of the other women down the block just asked me the same thing the other day.

V. The Green Goddess of Gentrification

I was walking towards the bagel shop next to the Brooklyn College campus when a panhandler stopped me at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Hillel Place. He pointed to the next corner over. “Look, missy,” he exclaimed, his voice equal parts excitement and sarcasm. “They’re building you a coffee shop!”

“Me? What?” I looked where he had pointed and my heart sank. The vacant restaurant next to the bagel shop had hung a huge sign in the window overnight, impossible to miss. “Coming Soon: Starbucks Coffee” it said.

“Yep, missy,” he continued. “That’s for you there, that’s there’s the honey to attract all the flies with money. Some are gonna say ‘there goes the neighborhood’ right there.” He paused, and looked down at his can, empty but for a few quarters. “But for me, I’m rather looking forward to it.” He grinned.

I walked off with a knot in my stomach, thinking about his words and how they had made me feel. You, he had said. That coffee shop is for you. Me, the gentrifier.

A few weeks later, the Starbucks was open for business. And sure enough, over the next several months, I watched with fascination and horror as the signs of gentrification became more and more apparent around the neighborhood. Businesses were opening where storefronts had been vacant. New construction projects started to break ground. “For Rent” signs appeared on phone poles and bulletin boards in English, where previously Kreyol or Patois had been the norm, and the posted prices made it clear that the landlords were marketing towards a more affluent crowd. While I had literally been the only female white face around the neighborhood until that point, over time I started to see more and more white folks in their twenties and thirties during my daily outings.

The Starbucks, a few months after it opened

And with that change, my relationship with the neighborhood changed, both with the people as well as with the place itself. In proportion to the signs of gentrification all around me, I started to feel a resentment that had previously been absent. While my presence in the neighborhood had been accepted or at least tolerated as an interesting novelty by most, more and more I felt that I represented something else, something that my neighbors understandably found threatening. I had moved there due to continuing gentrification of my old neighborhood, and two years later I was filling the position of the invasive gentrifier, through no fault of my own. I was once a casualty of the problem, and now I was on the other side, a part of the problem.

Just as the neighborhood beckoned me there, I strongly felt that it now coaxed me to leave. As the months passed, the feeling became unmistakable. The sidewalks, the trees, the buildings — everything subtly suggested to me that it was time to move on. In desperation, I abandoned my requirement of being within an hour’s commute of Manhattan. I found a barely-affordable place at the south end of Bay Ridge, trading the last stop on the 2 for the second-to-last stop on the R. It felt right, and I was just as confident in this decision as I was in my last decision.

But though leaving Park Slope felt like a mutually agreed-to breakup, leaving East Flatbush felt different. It was sentimental, painful, necessary yet sad. Never had a place taught me so much, lessons that centered on myself as well as what it means to be both Black and white in this “melting pot” that is Brooklyn and America. I was sad to go, but I felt satisfied with what I took away from this experience. I was supposed to move here, I thought to myself, and now I’m supposed to leave, and I completely understand why. I understand all of it, and I’m thankful for every moment of it, and I’m ready for the next chapter now.

Karl walked over when he saw me loading my van. “Good luck to you,” he said to me, with a bit of sadness in his voice. “I get why you’re leaving, but its been nice having you around. I know not everyone thinks so, but I do.”

“Thank you,” I said, and gave him an unexpected hug.

After the house had been emptied and swept clean to my satisfaction, I bid the house goodbye, and tipped my cap to whoever or whatever was upstairs. But as I started to walk down the porch steps for the last time, I was hit with an unexpected wave of sadness. I suddenly felt an urgent need to leave some small part of myself behind. I turned around back up the stairs, took out my knife, and hastily scratched my initials as a sigil-like design into the back of a set of vintage theater seats that sat on the front porch, seats that I had placed there when I first moved in and was now leaving behind due to space constraints. I placed my hand on top of the scratching for a moment, noticed the warmth of my flesh against the metal in the sun, and felt satisfied. I walked back down to the stairs and started up my overloaded van.

As I pulled away, I glanced back at the window on the third floor. Standing at the window, staring at me as I drove off, was a figure wearing a top hat.

VI. Afterword

According to a recently released report from the NYC Comptroller’s office, the average rent in New York City rose by an average of 67% in the period from 2000 to 2012, compared to a 44% rise nationwide. The steepest rise was seen in Brooklyn at 77%, with Manhattan rents averaging 65% more. The average low-income family in NYC currently pays around 41% of their income in rent, and the poverty rate in NYC currently stands at over 20%.

After moving from East Flatbush in the summer of 2006, I held on in Brooklyn for another year or so, but I finally accepted that I was fighting a losing battle in terms of affordable rent. I left New York for Oregon in the fall of 2007, and I’m now sadly bearing witness as Portland undergoes the same patterns of gentrification that took hold of Brooklyn a decade ago. The scenery is different, but the script is the same, and it’s painful to watch such a play when you already know how the story ends.

I met up again with the smallish man in the top hat once I settled in Eugene, and we made formal introductions and got to know each other that time around. He’s quite an interesting character. I still see him out of the corner of my eye on occasion, and his appearance never fails to have meaning within the context of whatever is occurring when I spot him.

Despite the gentrification that I witnessed and experienced in the area around Brooklyn Junction, which nowadays features a Target and an Applebee’s in addition to the Starbucks, the East Flatbush neighborhood as a whole is still around 90% Black, and relations between police and citizens are as tense as ever. In the spring of 2013, a Black teenager named Kimani Gray was shot seven times and killed by police on the streets of East Flatbush, resulting in several days’ worth of protests and rioting. The officers involved were cleared of all wrongdoing.

Although I have lived in ten different apartments since moving from East Flatbush in 2006, the house is still a frequent subject of both my waking thoughts as well as my dreams and visions. Last month, the initial-sigil that I had carved into the back of the theater chairs drifted back into my memory for the first time in many years, and it put me in touch with a very strong link that I still feel towards both the house and the neighborhood itself.

Out of curiosity, a few days before I finished this piece I looked up the house in East Flatbush on Google Street View, and it turns out that the theater chairs are still on the front porch of the house to this day, exactly where I had left them.

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

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.

forest defenders

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.