Archives For Oregon

[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.

 

 

“This is a Pagan event” a visiting California-based Pagan exclaimed to me at Faerieworlds this weekend, and she was not wrong. I replied as I have often replied: It’s a Pagan event, but it isn’t a Pagan event, which allows it to become something unique and special. Over the years I’ve been attending and working at the little faerie-themed mythic festival in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon many have tried to sum up what makes this event so special. How it isn’t a transformational festival, or a Pagan festival, or a music festival, or a fantasy festival, but contains elements of all of these. Perhaps like those magical fairy markets depicted so often in literature, it is the undefinable collision of everything that creates the liminal magic.

Fox Firemaker at Faerieworlds.

Fox Firemaker at Faerieworlds.

Though Faerieworlds has traveled to a few homes in its history, I have only known it existing at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, in an area dubbed the Emerald Meadows. Due to NIMBY-motivated political fights that I won’t get into, all large-scale events were forced out, and this past weekend would be the last year Faerieworlds would create its special magic in my “back yard.” Though I knew the festival had found a new home outside Portland for next year, and that Faerieworlds would rise again, I couldn’t help but feel a certain melancholy of an era ending. Here, I had encountered a new community, new friends, new family, and had been blessed with the opportunity of opening the doors to this realm to others.

Raven and Stephanie Grimassi at the Faerieworlds opening ritual.

Raven and Stephanie Grimassi at the Faerieworlds opening ritual.

While Faerieworlds is not an explicitly Pagan event, and is open to all who want to enjoy it, there is so much there for the Pagan soul. The opening spiral dance ritual, the workshops this year by individuals like Raven Grimassi, T. Thorn Coyle, LaSara Firefox, Morpheus Ravenna, S.J. Tucker, and Lupa, the main stage altar, the music of bands like The Wicker Men, Woodland, and Omnia, and much, much, more. All part of a liminal creative explosion of color, sound, and intense creativity.

T. Thorn Coyle and Stephanie Taylor Grimassi

T. Thorn Coyle and Stephanie Taylor Grimassi

I mention the bands and workshop presenters, but really, the spirit of Faerieworlds is how it inspires those who attend it, and how they create an event the goes beyond the easy borders of classification. There are very few passive viewers here, and instead, everyone is a part of the show. A cascade of costumes, wings, horns, fabric, and hide that can make you wonder if you’ve truly stepped through a gateway into another reality. Attending Faerieworlds, and then, being a part of the team the helps make it happen, has changed me, and my expectations of the festival experience. Faerieworlds is the flowering of thousands of souls that feel safe together, and that is powerful magic.

Spiral dance at Faerieworlds.

Spiral dance at Faerieworlds.

I know there are other great festivals out there, but I also know that the energy and excitement built here is unique. So, until next year, when the Realm rises again, please enjoy some photos I’ve taken in my travels through faerie this year. You may also want to read my coverage from years’ past.

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.

[The following is a guest post by Zay Eleanor Watersong. Zay Eleanor Watersong is a teacher in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, community organizer, and law student.  She got her start in Reclaiming with the Ithaca Reclaiming Collective and the Pagan Cluster, sharing priestessing roles in Pagan circles internationally and Reclaiming circles nationwide since 2003.]

“Anthro-arrogance is not an option,” stated one of the law student organizers for the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the University of Oregon in Eugene as they opened the conference on February 27.  “This conference, this planet, expects action.”

PIELC-Website-Banner-1024x332

University of Oregon students took this to heart and continued a long history of protest at the conference with a 100-person walkout shortly thereafter during one of the keynote addresses, protesting the speaker’s anti-transgender stance.  It was an interesting echo of the controversy at PantheaCon in 2012.  Hopefully PIELC too will learn from the experience.

photo (1)This conference, now in its 32nd year, has a long history of bringing together legal scholars, lawyers, activists and organizers to discuss the pressing issues of the day and weave synergistic relationships to address them. It brings together so many who are working at the leading edge, whether in blockades or in the courtroom, to protect the earth which we hold sacred.  There is a deep magic in being able to see the web of laws and policies that hold the current system in place, and seeing the points where if we push just a little bit, things can shift.  Practicing law and practicing spellwork are not that different.

This year’s theme was “Running In to Running Out”.  It could be easy to come away depressed by power of the oil and gas industry, which is extracting resources as fast as it can and using more and more extreme ways to do so, with absolutely no consideration for the impacts on the environment, and very little reigning in by the government.  In fact, it turns out this industry is exempt from most of our environmental laws. And as former NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen explained, if the oil and gas industry is allowed to extract and burn all that they wish to, we are looking at a 6° C increase in global temperature, blowing past the 2* C limit that scientists and governments worldwide have agreed is the absolute upper limit to prevent catastrophic climate change.  What was that we were saying about anthro-arrogance?

There is no doubt we are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put the current situation into perspective with a baseball analogy: “A player taking steroids increases the chances of more and bigger home runs.  You can’t point to any one home run as caused by steroids but overall, you know where the credit lies.  The climate is on steroids now.”  The weather is getting more extreme, more frequently.

"Outlaw party" during PIELC.

“Outlaw party” during PIELC.

Yet, the conference was a testament to the deep hope and commitment to action of the environmental movement.  The camaraderie and energy was palpable at the “Outlaw Party” thrown on the outskirts of Eugene by the Cascadia Forest Defense, where anarchists, organizers, and lawyers alike danced our love of the earth in the mud and rain to excellent bluegrass and let our primal nature run free around a rather spectacular effigy.  As the Pagan Cluster and Free Cascadia Witchcamp know, a little bit of ritual goes a long way towards feeding the soul and avoiding activist burnout.  These direct action activists -such as the 398 arrested at the White House on Saturday protesting the Keystone XL pipeline- who put their bodies and freedom on the line to make a statement about the failure of the administrative process deserve our thanks, and our spiritual support.

Just as important are the lawyers, advocates, and citizens that watchdog the bureaucracy, read and digest long tomes of environmental impact statements, and spend their days paperwrenching with public comments and lawsuits.  Theirs is an effort of endurance, particularly when environmental laws no longer protect the environment.

Mary Christina Wood

Mary Christina Wood

“At every level, agencies have turned environmental law inside out,” explained Mary Christina Wood, professor at the University of Oregon and author of the new book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age.  Her keynote address Saturday evening followed Dr. Hansen’s dire predictions and painted a visionary method for the profound legal paradigm shift needs to happen.

“We’ve been running around putting out all these fires,” Wood explained, “but what if we can stop the pyromaniac?”  Wood is one of many legal scholars around the country re-invigorating an ancient judicial concept known as the Public Trust Doctrine.

It’s a basic idea: that there are certain natural resources that are so important for society as a whole that the government has a responsibility to protect those resources for everyone’s use.  The key case that brought this doctrine from ancient Roman law and English common law into U.S. Federal law is Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois (1892), where the courts determined that the shoreline of Lake Michigan was held in public trust by the states and could not be given to a private railroad corporation.

A more recent case was Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (2013) where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that legislation removing many regulatory hurdles for the fracking industry violated the public trust doctrine, which Pennsylvania voters amended into their constitution in 1971.

Wood and others are taking the public trust doctrine one step further, with atmospheric trust litigation, arguing that the atmosphere itself is one of those resources that must be maintained for us all.   Youth are filing lawsuits in every state, to hold the states and federal government responsible under the public trust doctrine for developing carbon recovery plans to meet the 6% annual reduction in carbon emissions that scientists agree is necessary to stabilize the atmosphere.  They’ve put together a wonderful video explaining the idea.

Is it a coincidence that so many of us have heard the call of Goddess at the same time that the earth, air, and waters that we honor are so threatened?  Gaia is calling us to action.  Our descendants are calling us to action.  What has been done in your state?  Does your state constitution include the public trust doctrine?  Do you have children who want to be part of the fight for their future?  When it seems like government at every level is failing us, and failing the climate, the positive action of the people working on atmospheric trust litigation is truly a breath of fresh air.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whoville camp as seen from the street

The Whoville camp as seen from the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The View From Above

Alley Valkyrie —  December 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

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

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning.

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

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

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

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

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background

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

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

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

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

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

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Christian House

Daniel Christian House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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