Archives For Portland

1930212_1044474605610182_2135655129642865778_nDENTON, Tex.– Eight months after a fire damaged its building, Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship came together in a newly constructed space to celebrate and recommit to its mission. As we reported in December, the Denton church was repeatedly vandalized by a single teenager, who eventually set fire to the building. At the time, Rev. Pam Wat said, “The damage from the fire is significant, but not overwhelming.”

Since that point, members were invited to hold their services in the First Christian Church, located across the street. As noted by Denton CUUPS chapter coordinator John Beckett, “They displayed the best of Christianity.” Specifically, the CUUPS group was able to hold regular Sunday meetings at the facility as well as seasonal events, including its “Imbolc, Ostara, Summer Solstice, and Lughnasadh circles.”

Meanwhile, the damaged building was being rebuilt. Construction was completed just in time for the annual “Ingathering Service” that the church uses to “kick off its year.” Beckett was an integral part of Saturday’s event, helping to “compose two of the liturgical elements” for the service, as well as delivering a “colloquy as the Act of Reconsecration” together with Rev. Wat. Beckett, who wrote in a blog post, “It was a perfect example of collaborative ritual, and of how a UU service can be truly multi-faith without being bland and soulless.” The colloquy is posted in full on his blog.

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cuupsSALEM, Mass. — In other CUUPS news, this weekend marks the start of Convocation, the organization’s annual gathering. This year’s conference event, themed “Awakening Our Tribe,” will be held at the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts. CUUPS organizers have scheduled three full days of workshops, rituals, lectures, and entertainment, inviting people to join them “for this special gathering as we return to the roots for inspiration.” The current schedule and guest speaker list is posted on their website.

Additionally, with the event being held in the “Witch City,” organizers have built time into the plans for attendees to get out and stroll the streets or take self-guided historical tours. Rev. JK Hildebrand will speak on the subject. “Why are there so many of us [in Salem]? When and how did it all come to be? What have been some of the lessons of religion vs. commercialism? How does CUUPS fit in?” There will also be a discussion and viewing of the documentary With Love, from Salem, which focuses on the practice of modern Witchcraft in the historic city.

Convocation runs from Aug 26-28.

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The Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) is stirring up controversy on social media after newly-selected Alsherjargothi Matt Flavel posted a short statement on AFA’s Facebook page. Sunday night, Flavel wrote:

“Today we are bombarded with confusion and messages contrary to the values of our ancestors and our folk. The AFA would like to make it clear that we believe gender is not a social construct, it is a beautiful gift from the holy powers and from our ancestors. The AFA celebrates our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen and, above all, our beautiful white children. The children of the folk are our shining future and the legacy of all those men and women of our people back to the beginning.”

While the post has generated some visible support for the organization and its new leadership, there has been a growing wave of protest and, simultaneously, calls to publicly denounce the AFA. One Facebook user asked for clarification, “Am I misunderstanding the message here or does this mean that if someone wasn’t white or if they were queer they wouldn’t be welcome in the AFA?” Flavel responded in part, with “You are not misunderstanding.”

No official reactions have come out yet from other Heathen or Pagan groups, or individuals, by the time of publication; nor has the AFA made any further comment. We will continue to follow this story and report as needed.

In other news

  • As noted in late July, the court case for musician Kenny Klein was due to start on Aug. 15. However, it has once again been delayed. According to the latest report, defense attorneys have hired a professional to analyze Klein’s computers and provide a report. They are also asking for copies of the photographs. However, prosecutors will only allow them to see the originals, rather than provide them with copies. With all the various motions on the table, the trial date has been pushed back to Sept. 29.
  • Hellenion, a US-based religious organization “dedicated to the revival and practice of Hellenic polytheism,” has opened a new ritual group, or “Proto-Demos” located in Southeast Michigan. The new group, called the Apple Blossom Proto-Demos of Hellenion, was formed in late spring and held its first ritual July 16 at the Pagan Pathways Temple in Madison Heights. Apple Blossom joins eleven other such Hellenion groups located around the US.
  • A new metaphysical store is coming to Oregon. The Sacred Well, located in the Bay Area, announced that it will be opening a second location in Portland this October. The Sacred Well employs and serves Pagan, polytheist, and Witchcraft practitioners with readings, ritual supplies, temple events, and classes. The new store will open at 7927 SE 13th Ave in the Sellwood neighborhood. To follow their progress, go to the Sacred Well Portland Facebook page.
  • Don’t forget it is Pagan Pride season. Denver Pagan Pride kicks off its local festivities on Saturday as do many others around the country. Pride events associated with the Pagan Pride project are listed on its website.
  • Everglades Moon Local Council (EMLC), the Florida-based affiliate of Covenant of the Goddess, released its 24th seasonal podcast. The 2016 Lughnasad edition contains music by Emerald RoseGinger Doss, and Mama Gina. Members discuss everything from tarot tips and Nervine Tea to “getting inebriated at festivals.” The regular seasonal podcast can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, or on the EMLC website.

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CORRECTION (8/24/2016 12:50 pm): The original article stated that an online exchange between a user and AFA leaders had been deleted. At the time of original publication, that short exchange was not publicly visible and assumed to have been deleted. However, it has since reappeared and is publicly accessible on the organization’s Facebook site.

Indiana-StateSeal.svgWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Two members of Indiana’s Heathen community were arrested last week on child molestation charges. David Hindsley and Nicole Leffert are being held “on felony charges including child molesting and conspiracy to commit child molesting.” Local news reports state that neighbors overheard the couple talking about “sex acts with children” and contacted the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Department. After an investigation, the arrests were made on the evening of May 10.

Hindsley and Leffert are both known within the local Heathen community as artisans and the makers of specialty kilts. Hindsley owns the Etsy shop and Facebook page Heathen Spirit. In a 2014 article published in Purdue University’s student newspaper The Exponent, Hindsley was interviewed about the health benefits of wearing kilts. Both Leffert and Hindsley are listed on Odin’s Children, attend local Pagan events and participate in online Pagan and Heathen communities. The Wild Hunt has also learned that the Hindsley and Leffert were trying to start a new kindred in the Lafayette area. We reached out to several local Heathens, all of whom were declined to comment at this time.

According to reports, “prosecutors are not yet identifying the victims in the case.”  The bond amount is listed at $500,000 for each arrest, and both have court dates set for May 19. We will bring you more on the story as it develops.

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[Courtesy Photo]

STOCKON, Calif. — It was announced this weekend that Scott Symonds, a regular and well-known vendor at PantheaCon, had died. Scott was originally diagnosed with cancer in January 2015.  As he wrote himself, “I was rushed to the hospital, bent over, all day, in pain.”  The doctor’s assumed that he had diverticulitis and pancreatitis, but after a colonoscopy, they found tumors. He endured many months of difficult treatments. Then, in November 2015, Scott was diagnosed as terminal.

Several weeks ago, Scott asked friend Eleina Ridolfi to set up a GoFundMe campaign to help his wife Amber after he was gone. He said, “I would like to build a fund that Amber can pull from as needed for the first so many years on a monthly basis to help cover costs that I am no longer able to cover.”  To date, the campaign has raised nearly $20,000 over a short nine-day period of time.

Along with donations, people from Scott’s various communities have been reaching out to post words of support for his family, express love, and share memories on his Facebook page. Chris Sanchez wrote, “Scott Symonds you will be forever in our hearts and thoughts. You will missed my friend. Thank you so much for your courage, your strength, and your inspiration to make us all better human beings. I wish I could find the words…..”  What is remembered, lives.

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11141331_129118137493653_3811564180993915340_nTWH – A new anthology, edited by author Dr. Mary Canty Merrill, is due to be released in June. The book, entitled Why Black Lives Matter too, is a multi-author work that includes a diversity of voices from around the country. One of the voices chosen for this work was Pagan blogger and activist Cat Chapin-Bishop. She said, “The writing I’ve done against racism, for the book and at my blog, has been from a spiritual root. It’s not an intellectual drive, the drive to speak out on racism–it’s coming from spiritual leadings (of the sort Quakers talk about, but which Paganism first taught me to follow).”

On her website, Dr. Merrill writes that the book is due to be released on what is known as Juneteenth—a holiday commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in June 1865, and more generally the emancipation of African American slaves throughout the Confederate South.  She added that all proceeds will “benefit the Sentencing Project, a leader in the effort to bring national attention to disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system through the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns and strategic advocacy for policy reform.” Chapin-Bishop is passionate about the effort and the book’s launch, saying, “I really, really want this project to do well. The Sentencing Project is [an] important tool in the fight against systemic racism.”

In other news:

  • On Friday, May 13, Leigha LaFleur, a Wiccan practitioner based in Portland, led a public ritual to offer support to the Bernie Sanders campaign. The story caught the attention of mainstream media, who expressed both curiosity and skepticism. The L.A. Times wrote, “There are lots of ways to support a political candidate, from making phone calls to donating money. Some turn to prayer, Christian or otherwise. Add Wiccan rituals to the list.”  According to the article, there were as many observers as their were participants. LaFleur, not deterred by the media’s attention, has planned a second ritual event, scheduled for Monday, May 16 at 5:30. As with the first one, the Ritual for Bernie Sanders 2 will be held in Woodstock Park in Portland, Oregon.
  • “Heathen at the Helm.” Wild Hunt writer and Norse Mythology blogger Karl E. H. Seigfried was elected to be the new president of Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago. Seigfried said, “I’m not sure how many interfaith organizations at major institutions are headed by a practitioner of Asatru, but I’m guessing not many.” As noted on the website, “Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago is an organization that hosts discussions on religion and spirituality, presents guest speakers, visits local places of worship, studies different religious traditions, and produces an interfaith journal.”
  • Normal People Productions has launched the trailer for the upcoming theatrical production Doreen Valiente: An English Witch. Based on the recently published biography, the play will run Nov. 21-27 at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton. Tickets are now on sale.

  • Three Drops from the Cauldron, a U.K.-based publisher, is putting together an anthology on, as it says, the “best writing we receive on Witches, rituals, and spells.”  The deadline for submission is coming up May 29.  The anthology will be called Full Moon & Foxglove (An Anthology of Witches & Witchcraft), and will be published in paperback. Not a practicing Witch? Three Drops has several other calls for submissions with deadline and requirements posted on its website.
  • And, from the blogosphere, Alison Leigh Lilly discusses the Shaman & Priest: How America’s Cultural Landscape Shapes Its Religious InstitutionsOn Nature’s Path, the Patheos blog dedicated to Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Lilly writes, “In a culture that still clings to the social traditions of agricultural society and dismisses hunter-gatherer lifestyle as inherently “primitive” even while adopting some of its characteristics, Druidry can find a place of balance and harmony, acknowledging everything priesthood and shamanism have to offer.”
  • The Wild Hunt is currently accepting submissions from Pagan, Heathen and polytheist writers from outside of the United States for its Around the World monthly column. For more details, contact editor at wildhunt [dot] org.

Send us your news tips and story ideas.

I. The Other

“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”Rev. Ivan Stang

Sitting on my patio, I looked up from the clay in my hands and was suddenly and immediately awestruck by the silence. For a moment, the entire street symphony was quiet: the birds, the cars, the workers on the Broadway Bridge, the pedestrians, it was though the volume had been suddenly turned down for dramatic effect. I looked around and down towards the street, surprised by the silence, and it was at that moment a truck came roaring by out of nowhere, hit the loose pothole right outside my building, and set off the car alarm for the fourth time that day.

I looked down towards the car from my third-floor balcony, enraged. I knew exactly which vehicle it was, license plate number and all, as I had been directing my anger towards that car on a near-daily basis for several months now. It was a beat-up black Honda, one of those late-80s models with the exaggerated black rear window louvers, and its alarm went off nearly every time without fail whenever a truck directly hit the lose pothole.

The view from my balcony. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The view from my balcony. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The car had been a constant source of my frustration and rage since the first week that I settled into this unit, having moved from a smaller unit upstairs at the beginning of last summer. Other than the constant car alarm, the unit and the streetscape that accompanied it were exactly to my liking, which in retrospect I realize only further aggravated my anger towards the car. It was the only nuisance in an otherwise ideal scenario.

The alarm stopped for a few seconds and then started up again. My mind started to rant, presenting the same line of questions that came forth every time I got aggravated over the alarm. How can the owner not know it’s going off all day? What kind of person acts so inconsiderately towards their neighbors and their neighborhood? I can’t be the only one pissed off about this.

I stood up and looked over the balcony, noticing as I rose that my instinctive reaction had become a ritualized routine at this point: Truck goes by; alarm goes off. I get up as my mind starts to rant. I look down at the car in anger; beam rage down from the balcony; contemplate filing a noise complaint; remember that it won’t have any effect; fantasize about having the car towed; silently curse the owner under my breath; and then get back to whatever I was doing until the next time the alarm goes off.

In consciously realizing the pattern I decided to interrupt it at that moment. Instead of stepping into the cycle that I had just identified, I went inside, closed the door, and turned up the music. My housemate looked at me quizzically.

“Its that Gods-damned car alarm,” I said. “Every time I hear it, all I want to do is throw a brick at that miserable excuse for a car. This has been going on for months! When’s it going to stop?”

He looked out the window towards the street below for a moment and then shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t even notice it,” he said. “I mean now I do, because you pointed it out…”

If only I didn’t notice it, I thought to myself.

I grabbed my jacket and went out for a walk, hoping that by walking it off I could drain the frustration out as well.

As I walked, the rant between my ears carried on. How does the owner not know that their alarm is broken? Can’t they disable the alarm? If it goes off here constantly, it must be going off anywhere they park. How does a person not figure out that it’s their car? I mean, they have to know, right? Which means that they’re just an inconsiderate excuse for a human being, and they don’t care that someone like me has to hear it all day. I hate people. Dammit, I hate people so much…

I allowed the stream of consciousness to fade out as I started to physically tire, and I could feel the anger had mostly drained away. After a few hours I turned back toward my building, making mental notes of the patterns and emotions that I had just experienced in the hopes that I could react more rationally the next time the alarm went off.

I was a half-block from my building, walking directly below my balcony on the sidewalk, when a car pulled into a space a few feet in front of me. I was so deep in my head that I almost walked past it when I noticed the telltale black louvers out of the back of my eye.

My heart and my stomach jumped at the same time, as my anger immediately rushed right back in. This was the car. And the driver is inside.

I froze and stared at the car, realizing that in all the months of anger and frustration and rage that I had never actually conceived of this moment in my mind, never thought that I would actually ever be face-to-face with the person responsible for the constant interruptions that had plagued me since the summer. What do I do? What do I even say?

The door opened, and the driver stepped out. I shifted immediately from anxiety and anger to bewilderment and shock. The driver that just emerged from the car was my former neighbor from across the hall when I lived upstairs – a sweet, elderly, nearly-deaf woman who I befriended and interacted with on a daily basis when I lived in my old unit.

Instantly, the entire situation explained itself, and my consistent internal questions were answered. Of course, I said to myself. She can’t hear the alarm from inside the building. She probably doesn’t hear it if she’s more than ten feet away. It then occurred to me that even if she did know that her alarm was broken, fixing it would be a great challenge as she lives on a fixed income and did not seem to have family nearby. As it was, she collected cans in the building to supplement her income.

She saw me, smiled, and waved. I waved back, barely noticing that I was returning the physical gesture as feelings of guilt and nausea swept over me. I immediately thought of how may times I had been tempted to call the police; how many times I had wanted to have the car towed; the amount of anger and hate and frustration that I had exerted towards an unknown entity, the ‘other’, who had turned out to be a friend.

She continued to grin as she walked toward me, and I had to remind myself that she was unaware of my internal transgressions. She had no idea that I had been wildly fantasizing for months about throwing a large object from the balcony onto her car. She nodded hello and I nodded back and, in my awkwardness of the moment, I offered to help her with her bags. She accepted, and we walked in silence up to her apartment.

After I dropped her bags off at her front door, I went back to my place and completely fell apart. It wasn’t just the immediate situation, but a much harsher feeling of hypocrisy and a failure to live up to my own standards. As someone whose work for years has been rooted in demystifying and breaking down ideas and prejudices around the ‘Other,’ I had fallen into the identical trap that I have spent countless hours of my life writing, teaching, arguing, and lecturing on. I had demonized the unknown based on a personal inconvenience, and spent months projecting my anger and rage onto that Other, only to find out that the Other was actually not only a friend, but one of the most vulnerable people I know.

While the car alarm had been a legitimate annoyance, one could argue that the homeless man who plays bucket drums on the downtown was a comparable annoyance – the man who I see being yelled at all day by working folks who scream “get a job”. And I have always stood as the constant defender of him and others like him, always conscious of the fact that the anger projected at him is much greater than the annoyance warrants, always aware that such anger is being displaced onto him because he represents the Other.

I sat with that hypocrisy and with that discomfort for what seemed like endless hours, finally passing out only to enter into a dreamland in which my conscience and hypocrisy were at the forefront.

The next morning when the car alarm went off, I immediately felt a guilty pang upon first hearing it but then found that I could almost immediately tune it out. Later in the day, when it went off again, I was instantly able to tune it out, which was relieving on one level but also made me even more uneasy on another. I thought of my housemate, who is able to tune it out every time, and I realized that my past overreactions and my prior inability to tune it out had everything to do with my displaced rage and little to do with the actual annoyance factor of the sound itself.

Against the other regular sounds that float in off the balcony, the alarm suddenly seemed no louder nor more prominent than anything else in the immediate sonic landscape. I knew deep down that it has everything to do with the fact that I now immediately connect the sound to a vulnerable friend who lives in poverty, as opposed to the unknown, horrible, mythically inconsiderate person that I had built up in my head. I could see clearly what had happened; I could see and understand and explain the trap that I had fallen into. But understanding it did nothing for my conscience and my anxiety.

In hindsight, at that moment I was in the midst of yet another repeat lesson that I hadn’t realized that I needed. For the rational mind can explain and justify and forgive, but it has little effect on the psyche as a whole if the emotional mind throws up enough roadblocks.

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A few days later, I met a friend down by the waterfront and spilled the whole tale.

“On a intellectual level, I recognize how powerful social conditioning is, I recognize that no matter how much work we do we can never root out that conditioning completely, and I know that to dehumanize the Other is deeply rooted in that conditioning. And yet despite recognizing that, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself. No matter how strong the conditioning, the fact is that I still caught myself red-handed not practicing what I preach, and when I look at how easily I fell into that trap, I feel like perhaps I haven’t embodied the lessons that I teach as much as I thought I did.”

She thought for a minute, and then spoke.

“Or maybe the fact that you can never embody it fully, that no matter what you do you will always be somewhat susceptible to that conditioning, maybe that’s the lesson you needed to learn instead.”

 II. The Self

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife.John Burnside

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life, powerful enough that it reverberates just as deeply over fifteen years later as it did the time the lesson first sank in.

“Go out for a walk in the park, make it a long one,” he instructed me. “And while you are out, concentrate fully on everything occurring around you, and assume that every single thing that you notice, that occurs in your presence, that falls across your path, is a message from the Gods. Absorb as much as you can, and come back to me when you can’t hold onto any more of it.”

And so I went out on a beautiful spring day into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and spent the next several hours divining my environment according to instruction, taking in everything I saw as a significant symbol or trail of meaning. As I made my way through the park, reading the swaying of the trees and the patterns of the birds, I hit a moment of what felt like enlightenment, a spiritual breakthrough, a place of true power.

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. Photo by Garry R. Osgood

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. [Photo Credit: Garry R. Osgood]

The entire park is speaking to me, I though to myself. I am in communication with the universe as a whole. We are one, we are connected, we can read each other’s thoughts. All the archetypal notions of woman as witch, woman as connected to nature, the universality of the divine – at that moment all were at the forefront.

I headed back to my teacher, intoxicatingly high on what I had perceived as the ultimate taste of power and divinity, floating on air and my own ego as I approached his house. He opened the door as I walked up the porch stairs, took one look at me, and his face immediately fell.

“Dammit,” he said, shaking his head while also trying to stifle a smile. “I should have known. This is just like when I gave my son the whiskey.”

“Wait, what? Whiskey? What are you…”

My voice drifted off as I stood there, my face reflecting my complete and utter confusion, a confusion that brought me down from my metaphysical high almost instantly.

He laughed. “When I was young, maybe ten or eleven, I was walking with my mother one day and we saw some of the older kids in my neighborhood drinking in a nearby alleyway. There was something about it that intrigued me as we walked past, I started asking my mother about alcohol and drinking and all of that business. So when we get home, she asks me if I want to try some alcohol. I was stunned… and confused, of course… why was she offering me something that was forbidden?

“So of course I say yes. She hands me a bottle and I take a foolishly big gulp, and it was the most horrifying taste and sensation I had ever experienced in my entire life. I immediately vomited and started to cry, and I didn’t dare try alcohol again until I was well in my college years. Meanwhile, those kids who drank in the alley all the time, they never made it to college. And of course as I got older I recognized why she did what she did, as unorthodox as it was, and I recognized how effective it was on me as a kid. It made me a believer in preventative measures.

“So when my son first showed curiosity around alcohol, I repeated the lesson. I handed him a bottle of cheap, cheap whiskey, the kind that tortures your insides no matter your disposition, and he took the same big swig that I did as kid. But unlike me, his eyes immediately lit up as it went down. He loved it, I remember him licking it off his lips. I remember standing there in horror – what had I done?”

He paused for a moment and then smiled. “My son, though, I raised him right, and he understood that his reaction was the exception to the rule, and that my intent was to keep him on the right path, and he internalized what I had intended in the lesson despite that lesson backfiring in reality. He stayed away from the troublemakers in the neighborhood and went on to finish college like I did.”

“But what does this have to do with me?” I asked.

He smiled again and paused to collect his thoughts. “Well, I basically sent you out there hoping it would have the same effect as a bitter gulp of whiskey, so to speak. But you reacted just like my son. I can tell that you loved it.”

I thought back to the intoxicating high I felt during my journey in the park. “I did love it. That was amazing. But I still don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”

He waved me inside and we sat down at the table, the tea already set out for two in anticipation of my return. I took a few sips and he started to speak again.

“The reason its like the whiskey is because I intentionally gave you an exercise that in a sense was supposed to make you sick. Not vomiting sick, but anyone else I’ve ever sent into that park has come back here either physically exhausted, angrily frustrated, or teetering on the edge of madness. But you, you’re happy and glowing like you just came back from a successful first date.”

He continued. “When one works with place, with the land, with the land spirits, its very easy to fall into the trappings of anthropocentrism. The connections forged in an ongoing relationship with the land, the ongoing process of learning to read signs and symbols, it can open up a dangerous space where we as the spirit worker become convinced that the universe and the gods and the spirits are speaking to us at every moment of every day.

“The universe is always speaking, yes. Absolutely. It is relaying messages at every moment of every day in every corner of existence. But neither you as an individual nor us humans as a whole are necessarily the intended target or recipient of those messages. And yet, many fall into that trap where they are convinced that every leaf, ever feather that falls in front of them carries a crucial meaning, and it is those unfortunate souls that tend to descend into either narcissism or madness.”

I nodded. I thought back once more to that feeling that carried me through the park, but this time I immediately recognized its potential danger.

“So yes,” he continued. “Again, the universe is always speaking, but the point is that its not always speaking to you, and the intended lesson was that opening oneself to the idea that they are the center of the universe does not end well. Sometimes the Gods are trying to get your attention, and sometimes the squirrels are just chasing a leaf and it has nothing to do with you whatsoever.

“And yet I feel that we both learned unintended but powerful lessons today. You are smart, as smart as my son if not more. And I have no doubt that you understand the lesson in its intent just as my son did. You’re just going to learn it a little differently in its application. Like my son, you will need to keep in mind how much you liked that forbidden taste, which may make resisting it a bit more challenging.”

You’re just going to learn it a little differently, I repeated to myself.

“Wait, going to learn it?” I asked. “I thought I just learned it. “

He laughed. “You have. But you’ll learn it again and again before you’re done, my dear. Lessons like these don’t begin and end, they hover constantly and tap you on the shoulder when you need another reminder.”

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I was walking home from downtown last month when I decided to take a detour, making my way down to the riverfront so that I could walk through Waterfront Park towards the Steel Bridge.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie.]

It had been one of those days where the planet seemed off and the land felt shifty somehow, as though the place itself was tense in expectation. I couldn’t help but internalize that feeling as I did my errands that day, feeling myself slip into moments of uncertainty and paranoia, and everything that fell before my path seemed to confirm or further validate what I was feeling.

I was nervous, started to quicken my pace towards home, when I suddenly heard a racket out of nowhere coming from the seagulls above my head. I looked up for a split second and quickly did a double-take.

The air was full of seagulls, but they were flying haphazardly through the air, swooping unnecessarily and chaotically as they circled the immediate area. They reminded me at once of stunt pilots, swooping through the air to dazzle and amaze the crowd. But these were birds, not airplanes, and in all my years of concentrating on the flights of birds, I had never seen birds act like this before. I thought back to the uneasy feeling I had been noticing all afternoon, and as I continued to watch the birds I slowly and surely became absolutely terrified.

I watched as two gulls nearly crashed into each other, and the one that was nearly hit responded by darting up and then nose-diving straight into the river.

My mind started to race. Are we about to have an earthquake? Is a meteor about to hit? A hurricane? I looked around to see if there were any other animals acting oddly in the vicinity. A couple was walking their dogs down the riverfront path, oblivious to what I was witnessing. Their dogs were also oblivious, ambling along and sniffing the path without a care in the world.

I looked up again. The seagulls were still flying around everywhere, swirling around without end, with some yelling while others bounced from tree to tree in bursts and fits. Did something horrible just happen? Was there a terrorist attack? I pulled out my phone and quickly pulled up the news headlines as my eyes kept focus on the gulls. I then glanced back down for a moment and scanned the page. Nothing unusual, just a few sports games and some kind of international conference.

I looked back up at the sky, my fear growing as I started to think back on all the signs, all the synchronicities, all the feelings that had drifted through and past and before me over the course of the afternoon. I watched as two seagulls landed in front of me, stared blankly at each other while yelling, and then quickly took off and started circling around the nearest tree.

Minutes went past, and I continued to stare at the sky in terror, having no idea how to proceed. I wanted nothing more than to walk away, than to pretend that I never witnessed this and/or that it was simply a random and easily explainable occurrence that held no significant meaning. But my fear would not allow for such a decision. What in the world is going on here? What does it mean? What are they trying to say?

A group of seagulls then landed in front of me, and as I looked down at them I also once again glanced around the immediate vicinity, hoping that someone else was at least witnessing what was occurring in the sky. As I turned and looked behind me, I noticed a group of street kids about twenty feet away, watching me as they were stifling their laughter.

I shot them an angry look. “What are you laughing at?” I pointed at the gulls, who had once again taken to circling around like stunt pilots. “This is not funny. There’s something seriously wrong here. Birds aren’t supposed to do this. I pay attention to the gulls every day and I’ve never in my life seen them do this.”

The street kids started to crack up uncontrollably. “They’re fine, I promise you,” one of them said through his laughter.

“No, they’re really not, they’re not fine at all,” I countered.

“Well, they may not be fine right now, but they’re acting as expected,” he replied

He looked back at his friends for a moment and raised his eyebrows at the group; a few responded with a nod and a shrug. He turned back to face me again.

“Seriously, they’re fine. We just gave them some acid, that’s all.”

I stared at him, shifting from disbelief to anger to relief back to disbelief. I looked up at the birds and then back again at him, and I knew immediately that he was telling the truth.

Suddenly, my fear melted away and an overwhelming wave of relief came over me, a wave of relief so powerful that the part of me that was horrified and disgusted that someone would give psychedelic drugs to seagulls was immediately drowned out and overcome by a feeling of safety. This has nothing to do with me. Not only am I not the intended recipient, this isn’t a message for anyone. This is not an omen, the world is not ending, the universe is not trying to communicate through the seagulls. They’re birds on drugs, that’s all.

I wanted to give the kid a verbal thrashing, but I found myself speechless as the sense of relief started to shift to a feeling of utter foolishness. I can’t believe I fell into that trap, I said to myself as I stood there in front of him. I looked up once again. Oh, gods, I thought. Those poor birds.

He walked back to the group, which was still trying to collectively contain their laughter. And as I walked away towards home, I thought back to the original lesson in the park all those years ago. I continued to hear laughter around me long past the point where the street kids were out of earshot. It was laughter that I admittedly deserved. I could almost hear my teacher’s voice in my head, his commentary slightly altered for the occasion:

Sometimes the Gods are trying desperately to get your attention. But sometimes, the seagulls are just on acid.

III. The Fabric

“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.” Walter Benjamin

My morning routine takes me up eighty-one steps to the top of the Broadway Bridge, then down the ramp past the rear of the Post Office Facility toward Lovejoy Street, my eventual destination being a coffee shop a few blocks further down the road. It is a half-mile stretch that I have walked near-daily for over a year now, and there is not an inch of the terrain that I haven’t either studied or committed to memory at this point.

It is that deep familiarity and intimacy with the terrain and its expressions within that half-mile stretch that allow me to quickly lose myself and tune in completely to my surroundings while maintaining enough of an awareness to engage in the varied rituals that have revealed themselves as necessary over the course of many months. Every block and turn in the journey has aspects and signifiers that demand specified attention and, while I go out of my way not to invest too much meaning into any given signifier, I cant help but to ‘read’ my daily walk the way some read the tea leaves at the bottom of their cup each morning.

A week or so after the Paris bombings, I was on the return leg of my daily outing, walking up the ramp that connects Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge, when I looked up at an instinctive spot and noticed an inconsistency in the landscape.

Pigeons on the light-post. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Pigeons on the light-post. [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

The light-post at the top of the ramp is home to a pigeon’s nest, and there is rarely a time that at least a dozen pigeons are not perched on the top of it. Passers-by often notice the pigeons the hard way as they are hit by poo as they walk underneath. After observing this a few times, I started making eye-contact with the pigeons as part of my daily routine, announcing my presence each time I walked under and asking them to grant me a poo-free passage.

On that day, however, when I looked up at the light pole from the bottom of the hill, I noticed that instead of pigeons, there were crows atop the pole, and they were all staring down at something below. There was not a pigeon in sight. I greeted the crows from a distance as I walked towards the pole, reaching into my pocket for some peanuts while looking around to see where the pigeons had gone.

A few steps closer, I was able to see onto the rooftop below the bridge where the crows’ gazes had been fixed for at least a minute now, and from a distance it looked like two pigeons were mating. I laughed at the idea of the crows as voyeurs, assuming that the other pigeons had the decency to grant the pair some privacy, but my amusement quickly turned to shock as the roof came into focus and I once again looked down.

Staring directly at me, less than twenty feet away, was a hawk with a pigeon in its talons, jumping up and down to smother the bird and smash it against the concrete surface while simultaneously squeezing the life out of it. I looked away in horror as I heard the crows editorializing above. I looked up briefly and observed them leering over, and I followed their eyes down as they watched the brutal display on the roof with a rapt fascination.

The hawk and I again locked eyes, and continued to stare for several seconds. The hawk maintained eye contact while continuing to squeeze the life out of the pigeon. I thought back to the seagulls in the park a few weeks prior, and then shifted to the brief and hopeful notion that this was a random occurrence devoid of any significant meaning. And yet I could not unlock my eyes, and the hawk seemingly read my mind and both his gaze and the motions of its talons intensified. At that exact moment, I heard the hawk in the back of my head.

Make no mistake. This one is for you.

I started to shake as once again terror came over me. I felt paralyzed, held there by fear and the realization that I was meant to bear witness, trapped in the gaze of the hawk as the pigeon screamed for its life. I averted my gaze for a split second and looked down at my hand, realizing that I was clenching the peanuts that I had taken out for the crows. I then turned back at the hawk, who was staring bullets through me, its head nodding in a taunting manner as the pigeon continued to struggle between the grip of the hawk’s talons.

At that moment the pigeon let out a horrible, desperate wail, and before I realized what I was doing I flung the peanuts in my hand onto the roof a few feet to the right of the hawk. As the peanuts landed on the roof, the hawk tightened its talons once more, snuffing the rest of the life out of the pigeon, and then took off with the bird in its claws while continuing to stare me down until he flew past.

The crows and the gulls on the light-pole immediately took after the hawk, and out of nowhere came a flock of pigeons, literally screaming for justice as they followed in pursuit behind the crows and the gulls, who chased the hawk under the Broadway Bridge and across the Willamette River.

I stood there, shaking, once again stunned at what I had just witnessed. I glanced around, hoping someone else had seen what I had, but this time there was nobody in sight. Looking down toward the roof, the only evidence of what had just occurred was a scattering of feathers in the exact place where the violent act had unfolded. I then scanned my eyes over toward the river in the direction of the birds, drawing immediate meaning from both the randomness and the significance of the incident as the birds disappeared out of sight.

I walked to the top of the ramp and crossed over toward the bridge and the staircase, briefly stopping to glance back at the path I had just walked. Unlike the other repeated lessons of late, this one needed no explanation, no reference, no external validity. I was all too familiar with what it meant to have a hole torn through the fabric of one’s routine, through one’s illusion of safety, and once again I recognized the value of an old lesson reinforced. I thought of the Paris attacks again and shuddered.

Heading down the stairs, a wild-eyed man was walking up toward me, and I could hear him muttering to himself as we neared each other. “Death, She speaks through the birds,” I heard him say as he brushed past me on the way up.

“Yes, yes, I know,” I muttered back.

*     *     *

Note: Columnist Alley Valkyrie, who has been with The Wild Hunt since 2013, has started her own Patreon account to help enable her to become a full-time writer and artist. 

*     *     *

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

[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. There are only 10 days left. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you so very much.]

I was headed toward a friend’s place for tea, on foot from my place to hers. I wove through Old Town, and then into the heart of downtown, climbing uphill toward the south and west. I followed I-405 as it snaked through the city center and up into the hills.

I first spotted her building from a few blocks away, perched near the base of a hill overlooking the interstate. As I walked across the overpass toward the building, I noticed how the road around the building winded back, seemingly defensively, as though it was holding the building and the hills behind it back from the man-made chasm below. I looked down at the highway for a moment and then back at the building again. The configuration of the streets around and the exits onto the highway were telling; the assortment of dead-ends and winding curves were suggestive of the historic layout of the area prior to the building of the interstate.

When I got to the other side of the overpass, I looked back for a minute, amazed at how what in actuality was the exact length of one city block felt like a much longer distance just then. It was as though I had just crossed over an invisible boundary, a ley line that felt as defensive as the curve of the road had suggested. The building itself, while obviously rooted, seemed to be almost holding on for dear life.

“Do you know how old the building is?“ I asked my friend as she let me in. “Does it pre-date the highway?”

“The building was built in ‘52,” she replied. “I’m not sure about the highway.”

I nodded. I was pretty sure the highway was built in the ‘60s, and the age and curvature of the street that snaked up past the building struck me as older than either the building or the highway. I made a mental note to do some research when I got home.

We had a lovely afternoon over tea and, after I left, I once again distinctly noticed what seemed to be an exaggerated distance and an energetic shift while walking back over the highway. Curious, I decided to follow the 405 again back toward home, but this time paying close attention to the specifics of the twists and turns; the blocks that were taken out; the houses that were obviously and sometimes awkwardly spared; the random dead-end streets that once cut through where the highway now runs.

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Fifty years ago, the planning, layout and building of this highway was an event of great controversy that permanently altered the downtown landscape. While every building spared along the route has a potential saga attached as well as a potential tale of power and corruption, it was the structures and blocks that were not spared that most likely carried the most tragic and quickest forgotten stories of them all.

But while those stories are forgotten, the present negative effects of the highway have been a source of local frustration since the highway first opened. An unforgiving scar cutting through the natural topography, the highway is universally recognized as a visual eyesore, a pollution nightmare and a cumbersome structural boundary that awkwardly splits the western half of the city in two. The idea of a freeway cap has been floated around a few times over the years, but as it stands the 405 is a canyon of traffic and white noise, harshly cutting through the body that is downtown while seemingly creating a vortex-like boundary at its various crossings.

As I followed the 405 north past Burnside, I briefly paused and turned down at a familiar spot – the intersection where the highway rises from the ground and starts to elevate. While the elevated highway creates an unwelcoming, imposing shadow, the underpass provides a rare source of shelter to dozens of homeless folks who have nowhere else in the vicinity to stay dry. I walked under to say hello, and to my disgust I found that it had been recently swept by police, most likely that very morning.

 

I-405 underpass, swept by police.

I-405 underpass, swept by police. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

And for the rest of the way home, my mind was preoccupied with patterns and histories of land grabs and displacement.

*  *  *

I-405 runs straight through the heart of downtown Portland. The highway branches off from I-5 just south of the city center, running below grade as it loops around and through the center of downtown, then rises in elevation and eventually over the Fremont Bridge, rejoining I-5 again on the east side of the Willamette River.

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. Image by OpenStreetMap

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. [Image Credit: OpenStreetMap]

It turned out that my friend’s building did indeed pre-date the highway, and I was able to locate an aerial map from the 1950s that showed the downtown core in its glory several years before they broke ground on the path of the 405. Tracing the current path of the highway over the streets and structures in the photo, I could see how the previous street grid combined with the natural topographic features influenced the eventual path of the cavernous interstate. As I suspected while standing on the overpass earlier that afternoon, the building was the last structure at the edge of the hill that was spared when the highway was built through the neighborhood.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

A few days later, I found myself at the corner of NW Glisan and 13th on my way to the reuse store, subconsciously anticipating a ritualized pattern as I hesitated for a moment and summoned my strength before heading westward across the street.

Its not that far, I said to myself, and yet I felt myself resisting, as though I was trying to talk my body into a five-mile hike as opposed to a destination that was less than five blocks away.

Its not that far, I said again, and yet there was something about this last leg of the journey that was consistently overriding my everyday sense of time and distance. It wasn’t just a one-off; I felt this resistance every time I was set to walk west of 13th Street. I looked up at the terrain before me, the small hill that led to the overpass that crosses I-405. Its just a hill, I said to myself.

It has nothing to do with the hill, I said right back to myself, as I realized that this psychic resistance had a counterpart: the walk that I had taken over the same highway on my way to tea a few days prior. It was not the distance, nor the climbing elevation, but the act of walking over the 405 itself that felt so fatiguing.

I walked quickly up the hill and onto the overpass, pausing halfway across. Staring northward at the 405, I closed my eyes for a moment and envisioned the layout of Portland, transposing the route of the highway over that image in my mind. The slightly jagged line, running directly through the center of the natural shape of the land mass, immediately brought to mind an often bare-chested friend who bore a vertical scar down the center of his chest from open-heart surgery. I opened my eyes and chewed on the layers of meaning that sprung from such an image; the highways ripping through the hearts of communities, of neighborhoods, of the city center, the visual scar that the highway leaves on the landscape to remind us of that brutal surgery many years ago.

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

As the traffic whizzed by me, turning downward into the chasm-as-highway, I remembered that the technical name for the road I was standing on was an arterial road, and the significance of the metaphor grew ever stronger as I stood there, watching the concrete arteries literally feeding into the heart, into the scar, into the highway

Suddenly the west side of Portland was a living being before my eyes, highway-as-scar torn through her chest, with cars being fed to the highway from the roads-as-arteries that cradled out and enclosed the land mass from all directions. The two halves of the west side took the shape of lungs on either side of the highway, and she breathed in and out as the cars circulated in and out from the highway and the arterial roads from every direction.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow. [Public domain Image]

I turned around and walked back, abandoning my destination, deliberately falling into and feeling each step that I took down and off the overpass. I was preoccupied with the sudden realization that the hesitance, the vortex, the skewed distance and/or perception made sense once I took into account that I was walking over a living wound.

I looked down as the cars sped past below, never-ending, through the arteries, drowning everything out for blocks. Everything, that is, except for the energetic effects of the wound itself, which could not be drowned out no matter how loud the white noise.

*  *  *

The next day, I decided to walk the length of the 405 as far as I could toward the river, and then cross over and follow the edge of I-5 going north, reading the journey along the way as though it were a story.

Where I-405 breaks off to route through the heart of downtown, I-5 runs over the Marquam Bridge and then north through southeast Portland. There, for the first few miles, it runs mostly on and over landfill, towering over patches of grass and fill dirt that extended the river’s edge by the equivalent of up to two city blocks.

It’s not until I-5 crosses Sullivan’s Gulch, just south of where the two highways rejoin on Portland’s east side, that I-5 creates an even more damaging effect than I-405 does through downtown. This time, the highway cuts through five miles’ worth of residential neighborhoods in north Portland up through to the Columbia River. The interstate cuts like a knife straight through a series of communities that were the heart of the Black community in the 1960s – a community that was already once-displaced a generation earlier as a result of deliberate racism and negligence.

Out of all the advances in urban planning over the past half-century, in not only technology and philosophy but policy and practice, the one true reliable constant is that eminent domain will inevitably be wielded against those who are the least equipped to fight it. Tucked within the overall story of any urban planning “achievement” is the suffering of those who were uprooted; their communities demolished; their homes taken for far lesser value than they were actually worth.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. Public domain.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. [Public domain Photo]

As I walked north, following the interstate just to the east of its edge, I started to notice lots and blocks where the continuance of the cycle of displacement was currently unfolding. Four and six-story buildings were going up in lots surrounded by single-family homes, and a noticeable amount of houses were undergoing significant renovations that indicated recent turnover. The same neighborhoods that I-5 sliced a wound through fifty years ago were now undergoing various stages of gentrification, and it appeared that many longtime residents were being uprooted nearly as quickly as those who lived along what became the route of I-5 were forced out all those years ago.

Walking along, taking in the details, absorbing the quaintness and the beauty alongside the construction and destruction, I started to alternate back and forth over each overpass I came across. The strength of its boundary felt even stronger here than it did several miles south on the 405, and with good reason. While the 5 in north Portland does not cut as deep as the south end of the 405 does, the 5, at the overpasses I was crossing, spans three city blocks as opposed to the single block-wide chasm that contains the 405 through the downtown core.

Each time I looked across at the houses on one side and then the other, I couldn’t stop thinking that what I knew were once pieces of a connected community seemed all too far away from the pieces on the other side. I thought again of the heart and knew I was standing in a place where the heart had truly been torn out, where two halves were permanently disconnected with little hope of reunification. I tried to picture the houses that once stood in the path of the interstate, tried to imagine what the neighborhood would have looked like without a giant canyon of speed and noise running through it, but contemplating the vastness of what had been obliterated quickly overwhelmed me. I thought of the heart and the arteries again, realized that I had fully taken in what I had set out to know for now, and I headed away from the interstate back down towards the river to process it all.

*  *  *

In the few weeks since I walked alongside the highways, I’ve gradually changed my routes so that I deliberately cross over the 405 on a near-daily basis. Each time I cross, I note the wound and the boundary. I greet the older buildings teetering at the edges, and yet I mainly focus on the warped perception of distance, often imagining that I’m pulling the two halves of the neighborhood closer together as I make my way across the chasm of traffic below.

And, while I can’t definitively attribute it to either a deepening of my relationship with the chasm itself or the effects of a deeper awareness and attention to specifics along my route, each time I cross with attention and intention I take away with me a little piece of understanding – a sign of some type, a detail that holds a greater meaning. Despite the eyesore despite the vortex, the arteries and the wall of sound, I’m finding that the chasm itself tells many stories from its edges.

It’s a fitting conclusion when I consider that the ‘story’ that originally focused my attention on the interstate in the first place was a building perched at the edge of the chasm as though it was holding on for dear life.

*    *    *

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

[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.]

“The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” – Herbert Marcuse

Borders and Fortifications

On one side of the post office sits Bud Clark Commons, a Housing First complex that also functions as a day center and a drop-in shelter for the homeless. Extending just eastward from Bud Clark Commons are both Union Station and the Greyhound station, anchoring one of the defining corridors of what little still remains of Portland’s ‘Skid Row’.

Portland's main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Portland’s main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

On the other side of the post office is the eastern edge of what is now known as the Pearl District, a neighborhood currently at the tail end of a twenty-year redevelopment plan that transformed the area from an industrial district to the most expensive neighborhood in Portland. Trendy shops, bars and restaurants and million-dollar condos now dominate the ten-block radius just west of the Post Office complex; a neighborhood which thirty years earlier was dominated by auto repair shops, warehouse art spaces, and various types of industry.

The post office itself is not only the city’s main post office, but also the main processing facility for all of Oregon and southwest Washington. The complex stretches from Hoyt Street to the tail end of the Broadway Bridge, spanning 14 acres and the equivalent of eight city blocks. The post office predates both Bud Clark Commons and the Pearl District by a generation, having first opened to the public at the height of the Kennedy administration.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

While the physical presence of the post office creates a delineating barrier of sorts in terms of its sheer size alone, there’s more to it than just that. It serves as a significant energetic buffer between two neighborhoods that are on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The post office stands as neutral ground, holding a space understood as commons at an otherwise volatile crossroads where affluent folks often feel uncomfortable two blocks to the east, while poor folks are made to feel uncomfortable only two blocks to the west.

It feels and acts as a fortification as well as a territory of safe passage. But the fortification is seen as an obstacle in the present day, as the eight blocks that the complex rests on is among the most valuable land in Portland. City planners and local developers have been itching to redevelop the land for years and, after many years of negotiations, the plan is finally coming to fruition. The timeline has not been set as of yet, but the complex’s days are all but numbered. 

I actually learned this news as I was standing in front of the post office itself, staring into the newspaper box at the headline. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I stood there digesting the moment when a older man tapped me on the shoulder – a man who I knew to frequent the area around the train station.

“You live here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. He continued.

“You know this whole place is done for, right?” he said, gesturing with his hand in an arc towards the complex. “According to the news, its going to be condos or some crap like that. The whole thing, coming down.”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking. I mean, I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking money. And it may make dollars but it makes no damn sense. Not to me, anyway. They want to take over all of it.” He pointed over towards the Greyhound Station. “All the hotels, all the SROs, straight up to Burnside, they want to take over all of it.”

“Yes, yes they do”, I said to him sadly.

“And where do we go then, huh? Where we all gonna go?”

He walked away without waiting for an answer, which was a small relief only in that I sure didn’t have one. The only thing I could focus on at the moment was that this was at least the third time that month that I had a nearly identical conversation in nearly this exact spot.

Vice, Temperance, and the Vanishing Commons

The term “skid row” originates from the greased skids that made up the roads that loggers would use to transport cut logs from the forest to the river in the Pacific Northwest. To be ‘on the skids” was to have no choice but to live in such an area, as the conditions of the roads were considered not to be fit for dignified habitation.

Portland’s skid row stretches down through Old Town Chinatown, butting up against the borders of downtown proper. It has unwaveringly held that territory since Portland’s early days when it was considered one of the world’s most dangerous port cities. The history of “vice” in Old Town is as old as the history of the city itself, and it is both that history of vice and the resistance against its proliferation that define much of the landscape and the historic nature of the area.

Portland's historic 'Benson Bubblers'. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.
Portland’s historic ‘Benson Bubblers’. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.

As a result of well over a century’s worth of blue-collar domination, much of the original infrastructure is still intact. Old Town and the northern edge of Downtown are home to an impressive inventory of Victorian-era commercial buildings, many of which are historic landmarks and have been kept up to their original glory. Others, no less lacking in history, have fallen in disrepair over the course of many years, but many still retain landmark status and due to the current real estate boom are newly slated for renovation and preservation.

Unlike the sidewalks outside of busy establishments, which for the most part are regularly controlled and policed, the sidewalks outside the tenant-less, abandoned buildings of Old Town function as a commons, not too differently than the the block which contains the post office. In the absence of anywhere else to carry out such functions, homeless folk of all stripes eat, sleep, commune, fight, bicker, barter, hustle, and otherwise claim territory throughout these uncontrolled sidewalks, which in turn only adds to the desires of developers to gentrify the area and displace such folk.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Those who displace and renovate also rebrand, and Portland’s rebranding on a national level of being a haven and destination for craft beer is starkly reflected in the newer establishments that have accompanied the recent waves of gentrification throughout Old Town and the surrounding areas. Hipster vice has replaced working-class vice as the area is slowly overtaken by drinking establishments that cater to the young and affluent. Meanwhile, bars that cater to the neighborhood’s historic population have all but disappeared.

Business owners and community members alike credit themselves for “cleaning up” the area, and while I’m sure they’re “cleaning up” economically, it becomes apparent after a while to those who live here that they’ve simply replaced one group of unruly drunks with another. Apparently it was not the presence of “vice” itself that was supposedly “dragging down” the area as much as it was the socioeconomic class of those who were partaking.

Ruins and Reminders

Before Portland had a source and the proper infrastructure for importing natural gas, it manufactured gas from oil in a process known as “coking.” The Portland Gas and Coke (Gasco) plant was built in 1913 on the NW riverfront just across from St. John’s, just north of where the Cathedral Bridge would be built nearly twenty years later. The plant refined gas from 1913 until the city converted to natural gas in 1957, and the plant was shut down a year later. An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated on the site over the years. Fifteen years later, it was covered with landfill when the site was sold, and most of the operational buildings were demolished.

The original administrative building, built in 1913, still stands and has been vacant for nearly sixty years. It is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic ruin that I have ever seen with my own eyes. A ghostly reminder of the past, it is one of Portland’s most photographed structures, and over the past several years a fence has been installed and a guard put on duty in order to discourage explorers and adventure-seekers.

In addition to the crumbling condition of the building itself, the land that it sits on is among the most contaminated areas along a stretch of the Willamette River through Portland that has been designated a Superfund site. A DEQ report from the late ‘90s states that contaminated water was detected up to 100 feet below the surface of the west bank of the Willamette. Any significant cleanup of both the Gasco site and the Superfund site has yet to begin.

NWNatural, who still owns the building, announced last year that the building was to be slated for demolition. A community group attempted to raise the funds to buy the building, but they failed in their effort, and NWNatural announced last week that the Gasco building is to be demolished next month. Its reasoning mostly centers around safety. But what is unspoken yet completely understood is that, once the site is cleaned up, the land that the building currently stands on will be quite valuable.

It stands on its own as a sentimental tragedy that such a beautiful structure is to meet the wrecking ball, but there’s something that hits deeper in the timing of the announcement, given that demolition and gentrification have dominated both media headlines and local conversations nonstop for the past several months. The announcement comes in the same wave as the proposed redevelopment of the post office site, further talks of an “urban renewal” plan for the adjacent Old Town neighborhood, and a record number of demolitions and no-cause evictions. While the destruction of the building itself is a significant historical loss, the timing, the symbolism, and the layers of meaning and crossover between the demolition of the Gasco building and the greater overhauling of the city and its denizens — these combined factors speak to a much greater collective tragedy than the loss of any one structure.

Confessions over Coffee

“I mean, there’s a part of me that feels like I did a bad thing, but at that price I just couldn’t say no.”

I looked over at the table next to me and saw two men in suits with portfolio cases at their sides, having what obviously was a heart-to-heart over some sort of business decision. Intrigued, I leaned in slightly in order to properly overhear the conversation.

“Are you crazy?” the other man replied. “You said yourself that you profited nearly a hundred times what your grandfather originally paid for that land. Every other house on the block had already had a date with a wrecking ball. How many hundreds of houses have you bought and flipped over the past five years? This is really no different.”

“It’s a little different. He built that house with his own two hands. That house was a Sears bungalow from the 20s… you know, the kind you bought and put together yourself. Three generations in that house. Mom’s still confused, still thinks we own the house or that she lives there, but we all agreed that she’s better off in a home… but still. It’s the house itself. Its this weird attachment, almost. Knowing they’re going to raze it. I feel like I signed its death warrant.”

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

“Its business, Tom,” the other man said after a moment. “You need to remember its just business.”

“I know. I need to stop. It’s just a house. But there’s something that feels nagging.”

I stared at them in disbelief as I realized that this man, obviously a wealthy real-estate developer, had sold his family homestead out from under his ailing mother, not out of economic need but purely for profit. Suddenly I felt sick, and I quickly got up and headed toward the door.

That nagging something that you feel is most likely your ancestors, I muttered under my breath as I walked past them on my way out.

The Yelling Field and the Green Cross

Anywhere I’ve ever moved to, I quickly seek out the abandoned parts, the empty lots and the derelict warehouses. I look for a place, hopefully with features that echo, where I can yell as loud as I need to and nobody’s close enough to hear or investigate or call the police. I call these places my ‘yelling fields’.

When I settled into this neighborhood, I found my closest yelling field a mile or so up the main drag from my building, just north of the Fremont Bridge. A series of abandoned waterfront lots, a few dotted with ‘for sale’ signs but no sign of activity, and nothing else for blocks other than an ancient-looking bar and a run-down strip club a few blocks away across the street.

I thought it to be a consistent landscape that wouldn’t surprise me with any significant changes, but I walked by one day and noticed two things at once. My yelling field was suddenly fenced in, with a sign from a construction company posted in the center of the lot. And across the street, the strip club had closed, and in the window covering the old sign was a new sign that stated “Coming Soon” above a picture of a green cross, which in Portland is the universal symbol for a marijuana dispensary.

I stared at the sign for a minute, thinking back. Fifteen years ago, when I watched New York City undergo a similarly massive gentrification, the “Coming Soon” sign accompanied by a Starbucks logo became known as the telltale symbol that an area was about to gentrify. I realized at that moment that this symbol in front of me was operating on the same pattern, that the green cross held the same symbolic power in this new chapter of gentrification as the ubiquitous coffee goddess did when that first wave hit New York.

And sure enough, I watched over what seemed like only a few months as not only my yelling field, but several consecutive waterfront lots, went from abandoned industrial frontage to high-end condominiums and townhouse apartments. The dispensary opened right around the same time that the first completed development did.

I lost my yelling field while developers created a cash cow. Meanwhile, recent signage indicates that more riverfront construction is to come.

Demolition and Migration

I heard them talking while standing next to the food carts waiting for my lunch.

Food carts in downtown Portland. Photo by Another Believer.

Food carts in downtown Portland. [Photo by Another Believer.]

“We’ve been living in that house for less than six months, and our landlord just sold the house right out from under us. We have less than thirty days, and I have no clue what we’re going to do. I mean, the realtor literally just knocked on the door, asked for the owner, and made an offer right there…”

Her friend nodded in acknowledgement, and she continued.

“Turns out that same developer bought three other houses on the same side of the street. Apparently if they’re approved for a zoning change, all four will be demolished to build condo units.”

“Yeah, that’s happening everywhere,” her friend said awkwardly, obviously not knowing what else to say.

“Yep, and so I’m just following the pattern of migration. I don’t know what else to do, so we’re all looking in way outer SE for a big house out there. But then the folks who already live out there are then pushed farther out once folks like me start moving in. So in following the pattern, I’m complicit in the cycle.”

They paused for a moment. “But my only other option is to go back to Arizona and there is absolutely nothing for me there. I have community here. I need to stay here. But I can’t stand the thought of being the gentrifier. I feel like I’m either I’m screwed or I’m screwing someone no matter what I do…”

I swear, this entire town is having the same conversation, I said to myself.

Remedies and Realities

I stepped out of Powell’s and saw a man with a sign.

“Rent Tripled, Newly Homeless. Need $28 for a Bed, Keeping My Job Depends On It.”

I gave him a dollar and walked down the street, looking up for a moment at a building just long enough to notice a green cross in the window. It didn’t matter where I went, what I read, where I looked, who I talked to. Everything, everywhere, from the people to the signs to the snippets floating through the air, a city in crisis that was broadcasting and reflecting its collective distress through every possible method of expression.

A few blocks later I walked past a man sheltering himself in newspapers. I stopped for a moment and noticed that the headlines that were covering his legs stated that Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced that he wants to declare a housing emergency, while the headlines covering his feet highlighted a proposed “demolition tax.” I’m not sure if the man was aware of the irony and symbolism contained in his presence at that moment, but the universal broadcast was suddenly much louder than I could really handle.

Walking home, mind racing, I realized that I couldn’t recall a day this month where the local headlines haven’t greeted me with displacement-related stories, whether its astronomical rents, multiple mass evictions of both tenants and artists, studies that stress that the national housing crisis is about to worsen, the impending eviction of a longtime homeless camp, ominous comparisons to the market situation in San Francisco, citizen calls for a renters’ state of emergency, and now the potential for a housing emergency actually being declared.

And yet the hope of a remedy provided no real or imagined comfort. It was clear from the level of the broadcasting crisis around me that most others weren’t fooled either.

*    *    *

bell hooks had it right when she described gentrification as “colonization, post-colonial style”.

Her words serve as an important reminder that the term ‘gentrification’ itself fools us into thinking that what is currently occurring in both Portland and in cities all over the world is a 21st century phenomenon and a “sign of the times.” In reality, this is only the latest round in a cycle of colonization and primitive accumulation that has been ongoing for hundreds of years.  And, it is a cycle that will continue its destruction unchecked as long as laws, policies, and sentiments continue to value and prioritize profit and property rights over human need.

In the meantime, I remain in search of and in service to the ever-vanishing waterfront ruins and yelling fields, consistently and helplessly bearing witness as the economic powers allied with the green cross and the wrecking ball seek to displace and devour every last square inch of this city.

And in those searchings and wanderings, my mind keeps going back to the displaced. I keep thinking of the conversation with the man in front of the post office. I wish someone had an answer for him. I wish I knew where he could go.

I’m not sure where I’ll go, either.

*    *    *

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

When I was in my early twenties I had a rabbit, a sixteen-pound French Lop that had free rein of parts of the house and succeeded in both equally fascinating and terrifying every houseguest I ever had. From her ability to clear a seven-foot gate to her skill in severing any cord or wire ever laid out in her path, Gwendolyn was much more akin to a troublesome toddler trapped in a four-legged body the size of a Corgi than what the average person pictures when they think of a pet rabbit.

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl...

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl. [A.Valkyrie]

Out of all her tricks and quirks, the one that still echoes loudest in my mind years later was her unfailing habit of excitedly charging any time she heard a sound reminiscent of pills shaking in a bottle. She would come immediately running at the sound, often at top-speed, obsessively expecting a treat. While it delighted friends and family, it was an accidental behavior that was an unintended consequence of my own naïveté in terms of how strongly animals can form associations with sounds.

Similarly to humans, rabbits have both quite the sweet tooth as well as a noted lack of self-control around what we would call ‘junk food.’ Carrots are the most popular example of this tendency, as rabbits crave them specifically due to their sweetness, but they will also obsessively seek out candy and other treats meant for humans, and will often make themselves sick if they gain access to an unattended stash of sweets. Animal trainers often take advantage of this tendency in rabbits by using papaya tablets as a reward, as rabbits are quick learners and will happily comply in exchange for the treat.

I did not know this when I called my vet about Gwendolyn’s digestive issues and she suggested giving her papaya tablets as a dietary aid. I bought a bottle of the tablets, shook it just for the sound and then opened the bottle in front of her and gave her a few, and put the bottle up on a shelf. A few hours later, I took the bottle off the shelf and shook it without really thinking, and she immediately came running at the sound. I gave her a few tablets, shook the bottle again, and she responded by jumping for the bottle. From that moment forth, every time I ever shook that bottle she immediately came running.

The association was advantageous in many ways. Any time I needed to find her, she would come immediately when I shook the bottle, which helped greatly at times for rabbits find great hiding spots. But over time I discovered that she responded in kind to the sound of any bottle, not just the papaya tablets, which is why over time everyone in the house took great care every time they opened a pill bottle. More than once, a guest opening an aspirin bottle in the bathroom was suddenly rushed by an enormous rabbit who would then occasionally jump at the exact source of the noise itself. This once resulted in a spilled bottle of aspirin and an immediately dangerous situation as the rabbit then desperately tried to eat the pills.

Its not that I hadn’t recognized the tendency in animals before. Nearly every house cat jumps at the sound of a can opening. But there was something about watching it click in the rabbit – the intensity and instantaneousness of the rabbit’s reaction, propelled by an addiction to sugar that I could clearly empathize with – that really opened my eyes to both the effectiveness and potentialities in how intelligent creatures of any persuasion can react to sound.

*    *    *

Two summers ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a sickly, four-week old kitten, having plucked her off the shoulder of a street kid after realizing that she would die without proper care. Although I wasn’t planning on adopting her when I first took her, I bonded closely with her as I nursed her back to health and after the first couple of days it was clear that she was my new cat.

A very tiny kitten.

A very tiny kitten. [A.Valkyrie]

My living situation at the time didn’t allow me to leave a kitten at home unattended, so for the first month that I had her, the kitten I ended up naming Squirrel stayed on my body for the vast majority of any given chunk of day, usually either on my shoulder or in the hood of my sweatshirt. Our constant state of mobility made me quickly realize that I needed a way of immediately calling her back to me if she was to jump off my shoulder in a public place.

I thought back to my rabbit with the pill bottle, and then to the way that a cat responds to the sound of a can opening, and decided to integrate those examples with minor changes based on lessons from the past. I decided on a glass jar rather than a pill-bottle, hoping that the sound was distinct enough so that the kitten would not conflate a bottle of aspirin with cat food. I filled the jar halfway with dry kibble, and the next time I fed her I shook the jar before doing so. It took only a little more than a day for her to learn that the shaking sound meant food. A few days later, she jumped off my shoulder at a busy intersection in downtown Eugene, but only took two steps before being coaxed back by the shaking sound.

To this day, no matter where she is hiding, if I want her to come out all I have to do is shake the jar.

*    *    *

I tried forming relationships with crows when I first moved to Eugene with little success. They didn’t actively avoid or scorn me as I know they do to some, but they never seemed interested in my presence or my words. I didn’t push the relationship, especially considering that there were many other creatures and entities in that town that were actively seeking my time and attention.

In Portland, however, the crows have been a constant feature from the very beginning, living in great numbers both throughout downtown Portland in general as well as specifically in the area near Union Station where I live. They made their presence very obvious to me from the moment I started to move furniture into my building.

Time has also been a hovering constant from the very beginning. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a routine, without a reliable daily activity, without a proper or useful way to spend my time. Time is a reliable foe in that too much and too little can both effectively destabilize and eat at the soul, and in from moving to Eugene to Portland, literally overnight I went from a situation where I had absolutely no time to myself to a situation where I had more time than I knew what to do with. I had a bicycle, I had a fresh terrain to explore, I had ideas and thoughts and urges, and yet without direction, time still stood as a presence in a way I had never experienced before.

And while I know that the idea was seeded in my head by seeing the crows fly around the Union Station clock tower so often, crows and time became strongly and immediately linked in my mind. It’s a link that over the past year has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as the presence and behavior of the crows eventually became my antidote to the ever-looming curse that time held over me.

tower

Clock tower at Union Station [A.Valkyrie]

*    *    *

I usually don’t remember my dreams, and I’ve learned from experience that if I am remembering my dreams, there’s something very important that I need to be paying attention to. Which is why a certain red flag went up once I started dreaming of crows for several nights in a row.

After the third or fourth night, I woke up at the crack of dawn, trembling, the images of crows seemingly seared into the darkness behind my vision. Without really consciously understanding what I was doing, I quickly threw on some clothes and stumbled down to the riverbank, seeking out a familiar dark and still spot on the water. Still half-asleep, still seeing crows when I closed my eyes, I stared into the water and briefly fell into a trance. The crows that were burned into the darkness of my vision were suddenly reflected in the water, appearing larger than life. I looked up and noticed that two actual crows were circling. They flew down at me, almost touching the riverbank, and then took off towards the west.

I followed them for as long as I could keep track of them. They led me throughout Northwest Portland, touching down repeatedly at corners and intersections that I tried desperately to mentally note while also desperately trying to keep up with the flying pair. I finally lost sight of them underneath the 405, and yet as I was headed back home I could hear them nearby and I had the distinctive feeling that I was being watched.

That night my dreams felt like a trap, a pull, a call, a maze of repeated imagery in which crows shifted into a dark-clad woman, who then shifted back into a crow. I recognized her immediately; we had been chatting on and off for years with no serious commitments on either side. And yet it was still all rather vague. I woke up not sure how to proceed. There were still too many pieces missing.

A few days later, when Rhyd Wildermuth posted a blog about bees and bestowing kindnesses towards ravens, I knew better than to shrug it off as mere coincidence. I made a mental note to buy a container of unsalted peanuts the next time I was out and to keep an eye out for crows.

And then a few days after the blog post as well as another series of crow dreams, my partner and I were on our walking down First Avenue just north of the Burnside Bridge, only a few feet away from edge of the buildings, when I noticed a crow standing still in the corner by a window. Thinking he was hurt, I approached the crow slowly and stooped down. The crow stared me right in the eye, less than two feet away, and immediately I could tell he was not actually hurt at all.

“What’s up? Are you OK?” I asked the crow, and suddenly I was flooded with a stream of thoughts and visions… from Rhyd’s blog about feeding ravens, to the crow dreams I had, to the crows on the riverbank the other day…and then thoughts and images of my old rabbit Gwendolyn and the papaya bottle, and of Squirrel and her glass jar of cat food, of myself on my bike riding through downtown, and then of peanuts and more crows. Suddenly, it all clicked.

I had meant to buy peanuts. I looked at the crow, feeling terrible that I had nothing to give to it at the moment. I thanked the crow for the information and apologized for my lack of a treat. I wouldn’t make such a mistake again, I said to myself.

Under the bridge, where I met the crow

Under the bridge, where I met the crow [A. Valkyrie]

Walking away, I looked back and the crow remained against the wall, watching me until I turned the corner.

I looked at my partner. “I think I get it now, I think I finally get it,” I said. “I’m supposed to be watching the crows, making friends with the crows. Like as a regular thing, a daily thing. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my time right now. ”

He looked at me and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.

 *    *    * 

Once you train your eye to notice specific features within the landscape, it’s often impossible to un-see them. The feature becomes encoded in both one’s conscious awareness as well as the subconscious, and creates a hiccup in one’s latent inhibition, unwillingly interrupting any given moment of observation in order to announce its presence. This tendency is why many graphic designers can’t help but to constantly complain about fonts, or architects about the eaves or arches of any given building. The graphic designer can’t not notice the painful use of Papyrus in the storefront sign, nor can the architect not notice the cheap and brutal travesties that are de rigueur in modern design.

This same tendency comes forth pretty quickly when one consciously decides to notice and acknowledge every crow that they come across. I poured some peanuts into a plastic box with a lid and started setting out daily, following the crows while shaking the box to announce my presence and feeding them whenever I got their attention. I was trying to attune myself to their perspective while at the same time paying close attention to what is taking place in my own world as well.

And within the space of a few weeks, I realized that I couldn’t not see a crow, I couldn’t ignore a crow, I couldn’t relegate a crow to a feature of the landscape anymore no matter how hard I tried. I’m not sure how long the sound of a crow prompted an immediate reaction in me before I consciously noticed that it was happening – but I know now that I can’t tune it out any more than a mother can initially tune out the cry of her baby. Every time I saw a crow fly above me, I couldn’t not look up. Riding my bike in downtown traffic presented a bit of a challenge.

Unlike fonts and arches, however, what’s different about attuning oneself to noticing crows is that the gesture is reciprocated, especially when you offer them treats. The crows start to notice you as well and, even in a dense urban area such as downtown Portland, one quickly starts to realize that they’re always being watched to an extent. I may be constantly looking for crows, but I also get the strong sense that they don’t have to look for me. They know where I am as soon I leave my building. They know where I am even when I have no idea where I actually am.

The more I think about the vastness of a crows-eye view, the more I start to think that the crows know this city much better than any of its citizens ever possibly could.

*    *    *

It also didn’t take me long to realize that the pigeon-crow relationship dynamics are at least as interesting and complex as most of the human relationship dynamics that I observe while downtown. Other than Canadian geese on the waterfront, crows and pigeons are the only two sizeable birds that inhabit downtown Portland, and they are constantly interacting with each other on nearly every corner or rooftop.

The differences in their pack habits and their mannerisms stood out immediately. Rarely do I see a solo pigeon, and rarely do I not see a solo crow. Pigeons generally go about their business in flocks on the ground, while crows often fly in pairs or trios. When foraging for food, they are usually on their own. The pigeons are braver and much pushier in seeking out food in the presence of humans, but not nearly as observant or sensitive to the subtle goings-on, as the crows are. A crow will spot a hipster discarding a sandwich from half a block away, while the pigeons often miss bread that tourists throw directly at them. The more populated the area, the more the crows hide in plain site while the pigeons bobble in a flock in the middle of the commotion. On the food cart blocks in downtown Portland, one practically trips over the pigeons in their path while the crows watch from the light-posts, unnoticed for the most part.

And yet despite their shyness and altogether lack of aggressiveness when compared to the pigeons, a single crow will fend off a whole flock of them in defense of his claimed prize, using a wide assortment of noises, dances, and aggressive gestures in order to chase the intruding birds away. On the campus of Portland State University, I watched a crow aggressively fight off pigeons for several minutes in order to defend a half-eaten burrito in the bottom of a take-out container that the crow had dragged out of an overflowing trashcan. At one point, the crow grabbed the fork out of the container with his beak and threw it towards the pigeons. After the flock finally left, the crow carefully and expertly tore the excessive pieces of tortilla off the side of the burrito before taking the remainder of it in his beak and flying off to a nearby rooftop.

Crow standing off against pigeons

Crow standing off against pigeons [A. Valkyrie]

I was interacting with a crow near PSU, shooing away the crowding pigeons, when I was approached by a rather grumpy, elderly gentleman.

“What you got against pigeons?” he asked me.

“Nothing, really. I’m just more interested in the crows, that’s all.”

“What, you think crows are better than pigeons?”

“No, it’s not a contest, but I’ve been working with crows, not the pigeons. Its nothing against the pigeons, I’m just not seeking them out.”

He seemed intent on challenging that. “Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I took a deep breath. “Look. I’m not in the mood for an argument about bird rights and bird equality, OK? If you think I’m being unfair to the pigeons, give them a little attention yourself. There’s nothing personal here. I just work with crows.”

He gave me a dirty look and walked off, himself shooing away the pigeons as he left. I was reminded that within a downtown urban landscape, even the subtlest of solitary activities are not really solitary. One always has an audience.

On my way home I took a longer route, up and around through the Pearl District. As I was riding through, it occurred to me that I rarely ever see a single crow north of Glisan Street, in the newer part of the Pearl. I thought about what I found distasteful about the neighborhood – not enough trees, too many boxy buildings, way too much construction, too many dogs, and very few places to deposit trash – and I laughed out loud, realizing that the crows most likely avoided the Pearl for the exact same reasons.

*    *    *

I feel like a Pied Piper of sorts, riding through the streets of downtown Portland every day around lunchtime, shaking the peanut box as I ride past corners where I know crows to congregate. After a few months, I find myself in a steady routine along a specified path throughout downtown, a path that was overall dictated by the crows themselves. What first started as simply following their caws quickly turned into a dedicated route with expected interactions on both sides, often taking several hours out of my day. I approach the location, shaking the peanut box, and more often than not a crow appears a short time later. I then toss some peanuts, back up a bit, and the crow usually advances and starts to snack.

I quickly find that there are subtle maneuvers and tendencies that make a world of difference. Tossing peanuts underhand is best – overhand startles the crows and they often fly away. They don’t appreciate my sunglasses much, nor the squeakiness of my rear brakes. But they very much like being talked to, and they make quite the show of knowing that they have your attention.

Without deliberately meaning to do so, I realized that I’ve started to give the crows nicknames in my mind based on the locations in which I tend to find them.

The “Bud Clark crows” hang out in the trees across the street from Bud Clark Commons, a “Housing First” shelter and homeless day center that sits a block from Union Station. The Bud Clark crows are noticeably both louder and braver than any of the other crows that I come upon regularly. I can’t help but to think that this is a very specific co-adaptation to their specific location, as the folks who regularly hang out on this block themselves tend to be noticeably louder and braver than what one would generally expect in this neighborhood. The crows have adapted to other the rhythms of the local residents, swooping in daily around the same time just after lunch to pick up the food scraps from the patio and the surrounding sidewalk.

The “yoga crows” are a bonded pair who live on the rooftop next door to a yoga studio a few blocks north of Burnside. At least one of them spends nearly every day perched above the studio, watching the action below while scolding and mocking random passers-by.

Yoga crow, watching from above

Yoga crow, watching from above [A. Valkyrie]

Next door to the yoga studio is a gift shop with a bowl of dog treats left outside. After a few weeks of visiting the yoga crows daily, I started shaking the peanut box on the sidewalk one morning when one of the crows came right out and swooped over my head, landing in front of me. He took a peanut, ate it, looked me in the eye, swooped over to the bowl of dog biscuits, grabbed one in his mouth and flew off to the roof. He cawed in celebration, looking at me while dancing back and forth with the biscuit in his mouth.

He was obviously showing off, and I was quite impressed.

The “parking lot crow” often acts as a supplemental security guard for a parking lot on an unusually deserted and empty block in Old Town. This crow paces back and forth at the entrance, warily observing the pigeons while keeping an eye peeled for any scraps that the flock may come across. When the actual security guard steps onto the property, the crow often jumps on the cars, hopping from rooftop to rooftop while cawing in a mocking tone. The parking lot crow was the very first to start to respond to my shaking the peanut box, and is the least timid of all the crows that I regularly interact with.

A few blocks from the parking lot crows are the “ODOT crows,” who hang out in the trees around the employee headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation. They scavenge for scraps dropped by employees on their cigarette breaks, and they frequently take over the parking lot once everyone has left for the day. Recently, one of the ODOT crows has taken to swooping above my car when I drive past the building, and he’s not the only crow to start flying past my car as I drive through the neighborhood.

When I go by the ODOT building at other times separate from my crow route, I often see one of two crows in the side-street, comically dancing and waving around twigs or food scraps while a passer-by stands and watches in amusement.

And if I shake my peanut box, they usually pause and look right over at me.

*    *    *

I had noticed the man watching me from the roof of the homeless shelter almost daily as I interacted with the parking lot crow. This time, he was standing in the middle of the parking lot as I approached on my bike, shaking the peanut box towards the parking lot crow who was perched on the pole. He watched us for a few minutes, and once the crow had his fill of peanuts and flew off, he approached me.

The parking lot crow

The parking lot crow

“Why are you feeding the crows?” he asked me.

I looked at him for a moment and decided to tell him the simplest version of the truth.

“Because a rather intimidating deity-type who came to me in my dreams asked me to and I couldn’t really say no, and I also really needed something to get me out of the house. I’m still don’t have a solid grasp on the entirety of the why part yet, but its making more and more sense by the day, I’ll tell you that.”

“Can you really make friends with crows? Why do you shake that box for?”

“If you want to make friends with them, just feed them. And talk to them. And be nice to them, and calm. They shy away from loud noises and yelling. They will learn to remember you quickly, and they will trust you the more you show kindness. I started shaking the peanut box with the idea that they would learn to respond to the sound, expecting a treat. At this point I’m pretty damn sure that it works.”

“Huh…” he said, his voice drifting off a bit.

I looked at him for a moment, handed him my peanut box, and pointed towards the crow. “Here, take this,” I said. “The crow expects me in the afternoon. I’ll bet you that if you start coming down here in the mornings, shaking the box, and scattering some peanuts, you’ll have a crow friend by the end of the week.”

I smiled at him and then started to ride off the long way towards my building. A block away, a crow flew above me and landed in the street ten feet or so ahead of me. The crow looked at me expectantly.

I pointed back toward the man from the shelter. “I gave him my peanut box, man,” I said. “You gotta go ask him. I’m going home to put together another one.”

I doubt the crow actually understood what I had said, but nevertheless I watched him look over and then fly to the pole at the edge of the parking lot. I shook my head, amazed at how vastly my perception of this city has shifted over four months’ worth of paying attention to crows, and I continued on my way home.

*   *   *

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

Public Domain / via Pixabay

[Public Domain]

Over the past seven months, a large group of people came together to craft a “Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” The idea was born after Covenant of the Goddess issued a similar statement in August 2014. John Halstead led the charge, coordinating the discussions within this “working group.” However, the statement itself was created wholly by the coalition of diverse voices from various communities, religious practices and regions.

Near the end, the statements reads, “We hold that living a fulfilling and meaningful life, and allowing the same for future generations, is only possible if the entire Earth is healthy. We will therefore strive as individuals, as groups, and as members of a global society to promote the current and future health of our entire Earth…”

Presented in draft form, the statement can be read at a newly launched website, where the public is invited to make comments and suggestions. Organizers add, “The Statement will be published in its final form on Earth Day, April 22, 2015, when it will be made available for electronic signature.”  They add, “The statement only represents you if you sign it.” 

*   *   *

state_seal_color2

Nearly a year after news of his arrest rocked many Pagan communities, Kenny Klein has still yet to be heard in court. Charges were filed in June but the process has been stalled with hearings scheduled each month, but then postponed for a variety of reasons.

For Klein’s ex-wife, Tzipora Katz, and her children, the delays have been difficult  and increasingly frustrating, as they are all seeking closure. Katz recently said, “The arrest and the past year have, needless to say, dredged up many old wounds and reawoken our collective PTSD. This has manifest differently for each of us, but the common themes are: second guessing decisions (especially about interpersonal relationships), feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth, nightmares and inability to separate past from present emotions, and feelings that we are on trial again as we have had to defend our statements of what did happen to us. And of course, an utter disdain for the slowness of the judicial system.” The next scheduled hearing is for the end of April.

*   *   *

Indiana-StateSeal.svgIndiana’s newly signed RFRA has taken center stage in the national spotlight, as well as in Pagan and Heathen communities. John Halstead published a blog post regarding the legislation. In “A Pagan Lawyer’s Take on Indiana’s “Religious Right to Discriminate Law,” Halstead writes, “The law allows Hoosiers who are sued for discrimination to cite their religious beliefs as a defense in a private discrimination suit.” Last week, thousands marched in protest and tweeted in outrage, including celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, George Takai, Ashton Kutcher, Ellen Degeneres, the NCAA organization and others.

Indiana will be joining the Federal Government and 19 other states, who all have similar “religious freedom” legislation. Over the past two years,The Wild Hunt has reported on a number of these laws or proposed bills, including those in Georgia and Arizona. Every state RFRA must be read carefully as they are all worded differently. As a result, each one raises different levels of concern and corresponding public reaction. For those interested in following the issue more closely, Americans United provides regular updates on the debates and actions specific to each state’s bill or legislation.

20 states with RFRAs as of March 27, 2015 [Graphic by: PiMaster3]

20 states with some form of RFRA, as of March 27, 2015 [Graphic by: PiMaster3]

In other news:

That is it for now. Have a nice day!

Column: Invisible Among Us

Alley Valkyrie —  December 26, 2014 — 6 Comments

“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” – Craig Stone, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness

I.

“Hi, do you have a moment for the environment?”

Very seldom could I get the entire sentence out. More often than not, my attempts at interacting with passers-by ended somewhere between “Hi, do you…” and “Hi, do you have a moment…” On the busy sidewalks of Manhattan, very few people were willing to grant more than a few seconds of their time to anyone trying to get their attention; let alone someone working as a street canvasser for Greenpeace.

Of all the thankless, minimum-wage jobs that I cycled through when I was in my early twenties, the canvassing gig was by far the most brutal. We spent four to five hours a day on the sidewalks of New York City, trying to convince people to sign up for a monthly donation subscription with a $15 minimum. We went out in teams of four, a different intersection every few days.  If we didn’t meet our quota of two sign-ups a day for three days straight, we were automatically fired. It was an uncomfortable, stressful, pressure-filed job, where one’s income, as well as their status as ’employed’ altogether, was completely dependent on an often hostile and skeptical public.

Prior to landing the job, I had spent lots of time on street-corners, both as a busker and a tarot reader. I knew full well that trying to solicit money from the public was often a frustrating and futile task. When folks would ask me how I fared as a street performer, I would usually tell them that if smiles were a form of currency, I’d be very well off. I never made much money, but at least I had the smiles.

I usually had the smiles as well while on the street corner on behalf of Greenpeace. That is, until one day a few months into the gig when our director decided to send my four-person team down to Wall Street, an area that had been avoided up to that point due to the perception of political hostility. She warned us that it might be tough. I thought back to my days reading cards and playing music on the streets and figured that I knew what I was in for. I can handle this, I thought to myself.

Oh, how wrong I was.

“Hi…”

“Hi…”

“Hi, do you…”

After the first hour, not only did I realize that I was probably going to have a zero day, but I was starting to feel desperate for even a smile. Very few people would even make eye contact with me, let alone stop. Over the next four hours, I couldn’t get a single person to actually pause and listen to my pitch. A few folks gave gave me nasty looks, one man even spit at my feet as he passed. A woman who worked for Exxon took it upon herself to scream at me, telling me that I should get a “real job” and stop trying to “destroy the oil industry.” But mostly, I was completely ignored. I couldn’t even get people to look at me, let alone open up their wallets.

For the first time in my life, I literally felt invisible to everyone around me. And by the end of the day, not only did I not sign up a single person for the first time since landing the job, I was so psychically numb that the only thing I wanted to do was go straight to the bar afterward. I had many unsuccessful days before but at least I got the smiles; I experienced human interaction and my humanity was acknowledged. But that day, I had never felt so invisible, and I was taken aback by how deeply it affected me, especially considering that I had only experienced it for a single afternoon.

The next day I was sent back to Wall Street again and, as I walked downtown toward my destination, I was overtaken by feelings of anxiety and dread; feelings that only increased over the next few hours. I stood there once again, completely invisible, and as the hours passed I felt every more desperate. Thousands of people walked by me, almost no-one would look me in the eye, and at the end of the day, once again, I headed straight for the bar.  At that moment, drink was the only thing I could think of that could possibly numb the indescribable feeling that grew throughout the course of the day.

800px-Lower_Manhattan_Aerial

Lower Manhattan [Public Domain]

By the third day, I knew as I was walking downtown that it would be my last day on the job. I was already so broken that I didn’t even try. At that point, I actually looked forward to name-calling and insults. The experience of being ignored for the past few days was so psychologically stressful that the insults at least served as a reminder that I actually did exist; that I actually was seen; that I was really standing there in the flesh and was not in fact an invisible spirit.

Toward the end of the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be fired anyway, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I felt I was about to break, and I abandoned my post on the corner and walked a few blocks away, looking for somewhere to sit with my emotions.

I walked past another corner and saw a homeless beggar sitting in a doorway, an older man that I realized that I had walked by dozens of times before, and yet I had never actually seen him. I stood there, staring at him, processing what I had experienced in the past three days. I realized that not only did this man experienced that same invisibility every single day, but for him it was a fixed condition, not something that ended when the work day was over. Had I always done to this man what others had just done to me? How could I not have seen him before the way I saw him now? He looked up and caught my eye, and I walked over towards him.

“How long have you been out here?” I asked.

“Thirteen years,” he answered. “I’ve been in and out of housing a few times, but those periods were brief. I used to hang out up near Times Square for several years until it gentrified, but I’ve been down here in the Financial District for a few years now, since the late nineties. ”

Thirteen years. And here I was, on the verge of a mental breakdown after only three days of experiencing what it was like to be completely invisible. I stared at him for a moment, and then sat down next to him and started to cry. He didn’t understand why I was crying, but he put his arm around me nonetheless. After a few minutes, I wiped my tears, stood up, reached into my pocket, and gave him every dollar I had on me. I looked into his eyes and started to tear up again.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

“You’ve done more than you think,” he replied. “Most people who hand me a buck or two don’t even look me in the eye. Nobody actually wants to talk to you when you’re on the street. You’ve just given me more of your time and attention than any stranger has in days.”

I thought about my prior interactions with street folks, and it hit me that I had usually done the same thing that he just described. I would give them a dollar or two, but never really look them in the eye. I suddenly felt like a horrible person for not understanding how dehumanizing it was to ignore the presence of the poor and homeless. It hurt me so greatly to realize that I had inadvertently made others feel the way that I had felt over the past three days. I stood there for another moment, looking down at the man, and silently vowed to the Gods that never again would I walk past someone who sought my attention in good faith without at least looking them in the eye and acknowledging them as a person.

To this day, I have never consciously broken that vow.

II.

I walked out of the grocery store with a croissant in my hand, and ran across the street to the corner where a man was sitting, back towards me, wrapped in a blanket.

“Hey, Sam….” I said softly as I approached.

He turned, our eyes met, and we both grinned at the same time in mutual recognition. Wordlessly, I broke my croissant in two and held out a half towards him. He took the half, and we both looked down at what we held in our hands and bit into our half of the croissant at the same time. We chewed slowly, enjoying both the taste of the treat as well as the moment itself.

I don’t know much about Sam’s life – I know he’s on the street due to mental illness and has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Over time, I’ve noticed that his lucidity and his ability to function varies greatly from day to day. Some days he barely seems to recognize me, which is why I always approach him cautiously. But despite the challenges, I make a point of breaking bread with Sam on a regular basis.

The corner where I often find Sam.

One of the corners where I often find Sam.

In a world of deep and painful socioeconomic divisions, creating moments of equality and communion wherever possible is one of the few antidotes I know of; one of the few ways that I can reach across the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots and reach out to those who have been failed by the system. Breaking bread on the street corner was a simple but powerful gesture, one that often creates ripples beyond the immediate reality of the two of us standing around munching on pastries.

“All day I stand here, but nobody sees me,” he told me once while we were sharing a donut. “It’s as if I don’t exist. But then you stand next to me for a few moments, and suddenly I’m real to them. Suddenly I’m standing here too, as though I wasn’t just before.”

I felt a powerful wave of sadness and empathy with an undercurrent of rage as I digested his words, as I knew that what he was saying was all too true. While I cannot personally cure or mitigate the experiences of Sam, and so many others like him, I keep them in mind in my actions and my navigations. When I break bread with Sam I always hold close the intention of fighting for a world where I do not have to hand a croissant to someone like him in order for him to be seen in the eyes of others.

III.

“Can I tell you something? I need to tell somebody.”

I nodded. It was a common request, more common than some might think. I had seen Daphne sitting on the ledge earlier that day, and ran back home to bring her socks and hot coffee, sensing that she was in need of someone to talk to.

“I think I see the dead. And on some days, they’re everywhere.”

I nodded again. Street folks who see spirits are also more common than one might think. Sam had told me the exact same thing only a few days earlier.

“I never saw them before I was out here, but now I see them all the time,” she continued. “I think I’m going crazy, but I know a lot of other folks out here who see them too.”

“You’re not going crazy,” I quickly answered. “I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who see similar things. What you’re speaking of goes far beyond just the street population of downtown Portland.”

She looked up at me, and I could tell by her expression that I had just greatly helped in validating her reality.

“I think that the more invisible I become, the more I see things that others consider to be invisible,” she said after a moment.

I stared at her, taken aback. She had just perfectly articulated what I had always considered to be the most plausible explanation. Being ‘othered,’ being cast aside, ignored and treated as though one doesn’t exist, inevitably drives one closer and closer to being in touch with all else that is invisible and unseen – that other world that many believe also doesn’t exist.

“Yes, I do think that’s the case, although you just put it better than I ever could,” I replied. “And even if that’s not the reason, you’re still not crazy,” I added. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I see spirits too.”

She suddenly grabbed me for a hug, spilling the coffee in the process.

“Thank you,” she said as she hugged me. “I needed to hear that.”

I returned the embrace. In a sense, I had needed to hear what she just told me just as much as she needed to hear what I had just told her.

Walking home, I passed by Sam, who didn’t even notice my presence. He was deep in conversation with something – something I couldn’t see but could definitively sense. I thought of what Daphne had just told me and simply shook my head as I walked away.

IV.

I said a quick hello to Sam on the corner and walked into the coffee shop. I was in a sour mood that day on top of an already stressful week. I had nothing left in me other than to grab a latte and sit at the window of the coffee shop, staring out at the corner where Sam stood with his blanket and a cup.

While trying my best to tune out the Christmas carols playing in the background, I couldn’t help but to keep my eye on Sam, partially out of guilt that I was too tired and broken to engage in either conversation or croissants that day. I sat and watched as he stood there, wearing only sandals on a near-freezing windy day, holding out his cup and trying to engage those who walked by.

Person after person passed without even looking at him. One man literally bumped right into him as though he wasn’t even standing there. A woman walked by with her dog, and her dog nipped and pulled at Sam’s blanket,. She pulled the dog back and scolded it without even apologizing to Sam.

After a while, my sourness turned to rage. I continued to sit at the window, visibly shaking in anger, watching him on the corner. Suddenly, I realized that everyone else in the coffee shop was starting to notice me. A few women on the couch behind me were staring and whispering. A man came up to me and asked what was wrong and if I was okay. I didn’t hold back in my reply.

“Right now, what’s wrong more than anything is that this entire coffee shop is more concerned about what’s wrong with me than the fact that there’s a man begging on the corner wrapped in a blanket who doesn’t even have shoes. No, I’m not OK, but that has nothing to do with my own needs. It has to do with the fact that someone else in such need is literally begging to survive in a community of great affluence and people are acting as though he isn’t even standing there. If you want to help someone, I don’t need help. He does,” I said, pointing out the window towards Sam.

The man just stared at me, as did everyone else within earshot.

“Tell me,” I continued, my voice rising with my anger. “How many times have you walked past that man out there? Have you ever even stopped to say hello? Have you ever acknowledged his existence? Have any of you?” I asked, turning towards the others who were listening. “Does his life even matter to you? Does his suffering affect any of you at all?” My voice had started to shake along with my body, and I was on the verge of tears.

The man nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “And you’re right. I’ve never said a word to him. And I probably never would have thought to do so. And I don’t even know why that is, but again, you’re absolutely right.”

I watched as he turned around and walked out of the coffee shop, walked right up to Sam, and held out his hand to introduce himself. Sam looked up, surprised, and enthusiastically shook his hand. They started to talk, and as they did, the two women on the couch also got up and walked out of the coffee shop. They went right up to Sam while the other man was still talking to him, and each of them dropped a dollar in his cup. As the three of them stood there with Sam, other people started to look over. Another woman then came and dropped a dollar in his cup. And then another. Suddenly, Sam was seen, he was visible, and people were reacting to his presence.

As I watched Sam talk with the man from the coffee shop, I thought back to that night on the corner down on Wall Street years ago, and how that interaction with the homeless beggar there forever changed my perception of and behavior around street folks. Perhaps he’s learning the same lesson, I thought to myself. Please, I silently wished, let him learn the same lesson.

V.

A day or two later, I was walking down that same block when I saw Sam on the corner again with his cup, but instead of sandals on his feet, he was wearing a sturdy pair of lightly-worn boots. I smiled, pointed to his boots, and asked him where they came from.

“The other day, a man walked up to me out of the coffee shop and shook my hand and we started to talk. He asked me what my shoe size was and then mentioned that he wore the same size. A few hours later, he came back with these, and wished me a Merry Christmas.” He looked down at his feet and grinned. “They fit perfectly. And he’s walked by a few times since then, and he says hello to me every time now.”

I grinned back. Not only was I indescribably happy for Sam, but my own wish had come true as well. I reached in my bag for the croissant I had bought a few minutes earlier, ripped the pastry in half and handed the bigger half to Sam. “Merry Christmas, Sam,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” he replied, and we ate our croissant on the corner together.

800px-Croissant-Petr_Kratochvil

[Public Domain]

 *   *   *

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

[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.

 

 

Today I will be at Multnomah University, a Bible college and Biblical seminary in Portland, Oregon, to talk about modern Paganism with several Christian seminary students. The class, on world religions, is taught by Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture, and author of  “Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths”.

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“This book promotes evangelism and dialogue, not one to the exclusion of the other. And as such it also promotes the need for thoughtful, sensitive communication during a time when our nation is reeling from the onslaught of the culture wars. The problem has not been our God or the Bible, but our approach to God and the Bible. As a result of our inauthentic witness, our God has looked all too common rather than as the uncommon God revealed as Jesus Christ. In light of this spiritual and biblical gut check, our witness in the twenty-first century will likely look very different.”

Normally I wouldn’t step into such a situation, but I thought that Metzger’s book was different from the many other books written by Christians that dealt with modern Paganism, as I noted back in May.

“Make no mistake, this is a book where all faiths are ultimately found lacking or incomplete in comparison to Christianity, but Metzger at least engages with what he sees as  positive manifestations of each religion he looks at, and argues that Christians should repent for the sins of the Church. Further, he actually lets representatives from each faith tradition he writes about get the last word. So Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell responds on behalf of her church, Prema Raghunath speaks for Hinduism, and Gus diZerega gives a Pagan perspective.”

So I will speak today about my faith journey, the basics of the modern Pagan movement as I understand them, the mutual challenges we face in regards to dialog, and hopefully have a constructive conversation that broadens the world of several future chaplains, theologians, pastors, and missionaries. I have no illusions that my testimony may be used to hone missionary tactics, but I also hope it will eliminate some of the sad and ignorant propaganda that is disseminated about our faiths in certain Christian circles.

I will be a Pagan among the Christians, and like a stone thrown into water, I hope the experience will create ripples in the lives of those I interact with. Pagans and Christians will always have a complex, painful, and sometimes hostile relationship with each other, but we must share this world, we must learn to live together in a pluralistic society that holds many faiths, many paths. I don’t expect to solve our problems, but I do hope we can at least have a dialog that doesn’t begin and end with tactics for my conversion.

The heart of interfaith is recognizing the common humanity of a believer you may have profound disagreements with. To find areas of commonality, to learn how to move past entrenched hostilities and prejudices. To build a world that is less violent, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I will walk into that seminary with an open heart, and an open mind, and I hope my faith will be rewarded.

If all goes well, I’ll update this post later today with some impressions, and perhaps some photos. Wish me luck!