BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today I went for a walk. It wasn't a long one, and it wasn't any different in path from the walks I take most days through my neighborhood. But it was the first walk, and the first time I left my apartment, in nearly 48 hours — all due to the dangerous air quality that has existed this week throughout the Portland area and of course throughout much of Oregon and especially the Columbia Gorge.
As I walked through my Southeast Portland neighborhood this morning, and as I looked out through my apartment's windows yesterday, flakes of ash were raining down from an overcast sky made not from clouds passing from the Pacific over western Oregon, but from the Eagle Creek forest fire and others burning our beloved landscape.
I've been one of the lucky ones. As air-quality indexes pushed into levels three times worse than Beijing or Mumbai, I could turn on my window-mounted air conditioners and breathe filtered oxygen. I also wasn't stranded in the Cascades, like some hikers were, or driven from my home like thousands in east Multnomah County have. (Which is to say nothing of the animals.) I'm even luckier than my mailman, who delivers mail this week while wearing a mask.
Yet I am in deep, deep mourning, like anyone who lives in western Oregon or who has visited here, because one of our greatest treasures—the gorgeous landscape of the Columbia Gorge near Multnomah Falls and a string of other waterfalls—is literally on fire. It's still too early to say whether built structures like the Multnomah Falls Lodge will remain intact, but even if it does, the woods in which the falls and the lodge exist seem to be combusting without any chance of being put out soon. We have tanker planes and helicopters that can't take off because there's too much smoke and wind. Our hoses and fire lines will only do so much.
It still seems so unfathomable, but as others have said, the Columbia Gorge we know seems to be gone forever.
I was thinking this morning of when a friend from England visited last year and we took him down the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway, first to Crown Point and then to Multnomah Falls. I thought back to other overnight guests we've had in recent years. A nephew and his wife we took to Multnomah Falls too. Before that, a sister and mother in law rode with us there. Same for a visiting college roommate. In other words, whenever a good friend or family members come to Oregon, that's usually the first place we take them.
It's not just about the area around Multnomah Falls, either. These forest fires throughout the Cascades in Oregon and Washington speak to a broader truth about life in the Pacific Northwest and its majestic landscape.
"Unless you’ve lived in the west, you can’t understand the role the landscape plays here," a friend wrote in a Twitter thread today. "When you live on the East Coast, you think you’re the shit because you have the political, financial and media capitals. But when you’re in the west, you know you’re not. You’re dwarfed by mythic landscapes, even on your commute to work. Volcanoes, a roiling ocean, geological upheavals (past and future): all remind you, on a daily basis, of your irrelevance in the universe."
"It’s humbling to know your place," the thread goes on, "but also consoling: an eternal reminder that whatever your worries, this too shall pass. It also consoles by showing you that you’re a continuation – a link in the chain. You’ve born witness to these mountains, these rivers, this life, as Native Americans did, as pioneers did, so on through the generations. In that way, the landscape not only humbles, but also exalts, connecting you to something greater than yourself. To be in Oregon’s vast wilderness is to be free – not just of people, but yourself, your assumptions, what you thought was your personality."
"This fire represents another humbling, elemental force, of course: destruction. We're looking directly into the American soul right now: wrecked, scarred, blackened, barren, stunted, stifled, hot with rage. We live in so much ugliness caused by random, willful, malicious, and utterly stupid forces laying waste to things that matter greatly. The fires are now at 32,000 acres and are zero percent contained. It will take a century to rebuild what’s been lost — what might be lost still. Sorrow and devastation at every turn. Nothing will ever be the same. Or, to borrow from Wells Tower: 'everything ravaged, everything burned.'"
I write about architecture for a living: houses, schools, office buildings, courthouses and city halls, restaurants and shops. I so deeply value and appreciate the urban fabric Portland has, from its most historic structures to its newest unveilings. I love seeing the cast-iron buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries that remain on our waterfront as I bike by the river. I love venturing to see midcentury-modern houses in the West Hills by the likes of Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon and Saul Zaik. I love what today's architects are doing, whether it's the new era of timber-framed buildings by the likes of Lever Architecture or Path Architecture or imaginative new concoctions like Kevin Cavenaugh and FFA Design's Fair-Haired Dumbbell. I love that Portland is a leader in creating a new generation of net-zero and carbon-neutral buildings that can help slow the climate change ravaging our planet. And that's saying nothing of our great parks and other public spaces.
Yet to live in Oregon is to live in the shadow, and in awe, of natural beauty: of mountains, rivers and trees.
One of my all-time favorite books has always been The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, which chronicles his time going between the mountains (of California and Washington) and cities. One passage, when two characters are backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas, comes to mind with regard to the spiritual way one often views great landscapes. Kerouac writes:
Now the mountains were getting that pink tinge. I mean the rocks, they were just solid rock covered with the atoms of dust accumulated there since beginning less time. In fact I was afraid of those jagged monstrosities all around and over our heads.
“They’re so silent!” I said.
“Yeah man, you know to me a mountain is a Buddha. Think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sitting there being perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waitin' for us to stop all our frettin' and foolin'.
Later, as they continue the journey, Kerouac writes:
But it seemed that I had seen the ancient afternoon of that trail, from meadow rocks and lupine posies, to sudden revisits with the roaring stream with its splashed snag bridges and undersea greenness, there was something inexpressibly broken in my heart as though I’d lived before and walked this trail…
The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.
Some of the best poetry about the Columbia Gorge isn't even poetry, at least not in the sense of it being text or verbal language. I think of architect and environmental activist John Yeon, subject of the Portland Art Museum's recent retrospective, and how he created a magical act of landscape architecture—known as The Shire—directly across from Multnomah Falls in order to frame views of it. There has been news of the Eagle Creek fire has jumped the Columbia, so The Shire itself could be in danger. I hope and pray that it's not, of course, but even if we assume Yeon's creation is safe, it pains me to think of Yeon, whose father led the construction of the Columbia Gorge Highway and who himself spent his entire life devoted to beauty, and who led the activism that led to the Gorge being declared a National Scenic Area with its attendant protections, seeing these flames roar.
Whether to The Shire or to places on the Oregon side like Bridal Veil Falls, it's not to say that I spend lots of time regularly going to the Columbia Gorge to hike or to gaze at the waterfalls. I'm largely a city person by nature. My dad, a conservative, once ridiculed me for being a tree hugger who doesn't actually do much tree hugging: no camping or fishing, and in fact waiting until a friend is in town to spend venture beyond Portland for maybe a quick hike and some pictures before venturing back into the air conditioning. My doctor often champions the need for more "Vitamin N," as she calls nature, and seems to spend as much time hiking beneath the evergreens as I do watching football games and tennis matches on TV.
Yet as an Oregonian, even if you don't become regularly immersed in the mountains and trees and rivers beyond city limits, that landscape is always a part of you. It is a kind of secular religion, or as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, "my church I put a capital N on Nature and go there."
Every time I return to Oregon from out of state, there is a moment—sometimes as the plane begins its descent, sometimes earlier—when the landscape becomes familiar again. Whether I'm coming north from California or west from the East Coast, over Idaho and then into the eastern part of our state, there is a moment when the landscape goes from brown to green. It's not just a color change, but a manifestation of moving into the nation's only temperate rainforest, where there are millions of evergreen trees and a string of snow-capped mountains that ultimately put any architecture to shame. It is the vastness of the wilderness landscape, that sense that you can lose yourself in it: that we as humans are ultimately small and vulnerable.
Maybe the damage won't be as bad as we fear. Maybe someday soon I'll be able to drive down the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway and to Multnomah Falls and be pleasantly surprised that the topography along the Columbia River from Crown Point heading east isn't all blackened and charred. Some video and photos I saw today gave me hope. It's not over, but in these images one could still see Multnomah Falls Lodge and, just as importantly, the old-growth trees surrounding the building and the trails to the top of the ridge. I'm sure plenty of destruction will be visible as any of us drive down that scenic highway in the years and even decades ahead. Those trees, the ones destroyed, will take a century or more to grow be replaced again by trees that are now saplings. My cousin, a biologist, is also far less alarmist than I: she reminds me that fire is part of the natural cycle.
Even poet Gary Snyder, Kerouac’s companion hiking the Sierras in The Dharma Bums, reminds us in a poem from his seminal collection Turtle Island called "Control Burn" that if Native American tribes were still ruling the land, they would "...burn out the brush every year, in the woods, up the gorges, keeping the oak and pine stands tall and clear."
"Fire is an old story," Snyder writes. "I would like, with a sense of helpful order, with respect for laws of nature, to help my land with a burn, with a hot clean burn."
But call me selfish: I just don't want this landscape to burn. I want to embrace it, by walking its trails with my own two feet, or even by just knowing it exists a half-hour's drive away. I want to be humbled by that majesty, and to be reminded that I am an Oregonian: an inheritor of wonder.