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Saturday, January 05, 2002

Jasper mountain

I have a handful of garden chairs stacked in the porch area of my country home, and from time to time lift the topmost from the stack, dust it off, and carry it through dew-spangled grass to a point below the fruit trees and above the garden, where a vista opens across the neighbor's field to a bluff, or ridge, locally called Jasper Mountain, in the distance.

The ridgeline has changed shape a bit over the years, due to human activity. There has been intermittent logging there over the last century and a half, beginning with the harvesting of giant Douglas firs, some over eight feet in diameter, which were cut with long two-man handsaws known as misery whips, and more lately of second-growth or even third-growth timber, efficiently reduced to second-grade lumber and "fiber" by highly capitalized and industrialized systems requiring generous doses of petroleum for their operation.

A few houses have appeared there also, no doubt built with lumber hauled from somewhere far removed from the ridge and its sometime groves. These homes are expansive, two or even three stories in height, with cupolas and dormers, with each a large veranda and no doubt a swimming pool in the back.

To get to these homesites, roads several miles long were added to the existing network of what were originally logging access roads, removing still more forest cover from the steep slopes, and adding to the burden of silt in the numerous rivulets working their way down from the ridgeline to the river below, which I cannot see from my seat by the garden, but which makes its presence felt by the line of tall black cottonwoods and Oregon ash that runs along the base of the ridge.

The river is stressed -- not nearly so much so as at Portland, a hundred miles or more downstream, with its three-eyed fish -- but where running water is concerned, such stresses are cumulative over distance. Wherever we find rivers, we regard them with interest.

I can also see changes in the massive promontory that gives the mountain its name.

The rock there is relatively high quality, a greenish basalt that makes good gravel for roads and construction sites. A quarry has been built into the face of the mountain, and a road, discreetly hidden among firs and big-leaf maples, provides access for huge dump trucks and wide-bladed dozers with gigantic diesel engines. These I cannot see or hear from my place, but from time to time an explosion gently rocks the valley, and for a few minutes the mountain resembles a small volcano, as the powdered stone drifts along the ridge and down to the long line of cottonwoods.

The quarry does not much spoil the looks of the promontory, because from this distance -- or even up close -- it looks like nothing so much as a natural scree slope somewhere in the high Cascades just east of here. But this, too, with its road and its heavy equipment, adds to the burden of silt, with trace hydrocarbons and heavy metals as well, in the watershed.

All too true. And as I look closer to home, watching the chromed and painted monsters passing in front of the house, breathing out their noxious fumes, and noting my own such beast reposing in our driveway, and thinking how soon I will be mowing the grass under these fruit trees with yet another poisonous machine -- and from here I can also see our electric meter with its merrily spinning kilowatt-counting disk -- I'm as aware as ever of my part in the curious web of capitalized destruction we have devised and substituted for what might have been Western civilization.

And yet I'm feeling remarkably cheerful.

That cheer, I recognize, is harldy justifiable. I'm the privileged, an American in a not-poor neighborhood, which makes me part of the most massively consumptive minority in history. Nevertheless, the beauty in the scene before me, of sky, clouds, trees, stone, and the neighbor's ewes and lambs, costs nothing; the price of viewing Jasper Mountain, which, with all that has happened to it, is well worth looking at, is zero.

Now, on the one hand, I have "bought" the right to look; the ad said, "country house with view." On the other hand, when I was younger, and had no land, no car, no family to support, and was living out of a backpack and my feet were my transportation, I saw just such views, and they were just as beautiful to me. So I do think that ownership is perhaps the most overrated concept in Westernism.

By sitting here, there are several things that I'm not doing that perhaps I should give myself a little credit for not doing. I'm not, at the moment, driving to the mall, not shopping, not eating a hamburger, or watching a car commercial. I'm certainly not tooling around in an outboard runabout, or on a jet-ski or snowmobile. I'm not attending a football game, auto race, or rock concert in some distant city. I could build quite a list here of "nots," but -- not to worry -- you can think of more of these, and never mind that yes, sometimes I do choose to do some of these things; attend a conference in Portland, say.

But I am actively choosing to do fewer things, and less consumptive things, not as avoidance, as in "oh, mustn't do that," but as seeking out activities that have the inestimable value that viewing Jasper Mountain has -- partaking of the quality of being that, because it has no price in consumerism, barely has a name, but which every person in the "third world" who is habitually freer and happier than I -- and there are many -- would immediately recognize.

Disengaging from the error of capitalized gratification by thinking of it as error, by focusing on the negative, is a project fraught with stresses, pitfalls, failures and depression.

We're too deeply enmeshed, many of us, to take the bravest positive approaches, exemplified, in recent history, by so few: Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Peace Pilgrim, Jane Goodall, Mother Teresa. These challenge us with their total commitment, and it's easy to focus on their commitment, conclude it is somehow unachievable for us, and drift back to our potato chips and our cable news, feeling vaguely depressed, wallowing in a grey fog of discontent with ourselves and our little self-defeating ways.

The good news is that none of them would condemn us for starting small.

A positive approach is not less positive for lasting for only a few years, or days, or even seconds. It is never a matter of scale. Every moment of viewing Jasper Mountain is its own eternity of getting it right, and no one can ever take that away from you.

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