[As I go over this post yet again, July 21, the 80,000 acre Substation Fire is still burning across canyon and wheat country here. Included in the blaze are the 20 miles of the Lower Deschutes canyon down to the campground at the confluence with the Columbia. Much of this burned down to within 2′ or 3′ of the riverbank including the historic Harris Ranch buildings. So, when you look at all of these pictures, with the exceptions of where the fire hopped and skipped, everything is charred. The Oregon Wildlife Federation, formed in the 1980’s to purchase and protect this portion of the canyon, has stepped up with $100,000 to help the area recover. It will take considerably more especially if there is any intention of making headway regarding the spreading invasives problem.]
[Now, another 2 weeks later more massive fires continue to burn across the dried up West that has just experienced another record breaking month of heat, while the president goes on ‘bleating’ and blaming it on our ‘bad’ environmental laws and all of the water we’re diverting into the ocean! ‘F’ing! moron!]
The last time we came here was eight years ago in December. My memory of then is much like the experience on this evening…only it was clear and cold. The light was similar except that then the low angled sun was due to winter, with that season’s urgency, not a late Spring evening like this outing. This time it is warm, camp is comfortable and nearby and the greens are still gathered around the river and the still moist draws and seeps. On that day we’d gone to Hood River for my birthday, to get out of town and there was a break in the weather so we drove here to these trails at the mouth of the Deschutes, hiked along the river, returning on the upper springs trail. Winter or summer, green only sticks around a little longer than we do, before it retreats…life is shier here, tough, but shy. The starkness of this landscape should be read as a warning to visitors, this is no easy Eden. Life is earned here or at least requires a strength, patience and frugality that many don’t have. This is much the same for people as it is for wildlife and plants. Them that don’t, can’t. That’s why it may be surprising to some that such a place has a problem with exotic invaders. What could possibly look on places such as this as ‘favored’? Well, Central Asia, especially its Steppe, with its continental, cold and dry climate containing many species that see such a place as this as home, or even better, without the competitors they faced back there. The temperature can swing widely here on any given day while the seasonal extremes can vary as much as 125ºF from high to low. Relatively few plants can thrive in this. The dry summers with their very limited and sporadic thunder showers, combined with the ‘wet’ winters, total only 10″-12″ or so of precipitation, plus or minus, is another major limiting factor. Of course, near the river, the moisture problem is moderated and a broader range of invasives can find a ‘foothold’. We, as a people, have ‘brought’ these weeds here with us in our travels, often as a result of our commerce. Those that have made it here are spreading. Too many prosper.
Every year the cycle of the seasons repeats itself. Within it, plants follow their reproductive cycles, flowering, producing their seed and distributing it to receptive and unreceptive sites alike, germinating or not, cycling through dormancy and reawakening, growing or dying, following water and nutrient through soils that can sustain them, utilizing whatever advantages they may have over those that have preceded them. The resident plant communities may be healthy and intact or not, such does not always assure dominance. In the eight years since our last visit there have been significant changes to the plant communities here. Some friends compare our presence as a people here in America as ‘weed like’, seeking to survive without really understanding where we are or what our presence and course of action means for the life that preceded us. They would argue that we undervalue this place, that we’ve come to, that uprooted from our own ancestral homes, we have ‘forgotten’ what it means to be bound to and part of a place, and, because of this are unable to see the damage around us…but we aren’t ‘weeds’, we’re invasive, and there is an important distinction.
Weeds are able to occupy ‘disturbed’ sites, sites that we have effected directly, and sometimes drastically, as well as those where our disturbance may seem more benign and incidental, through the addition of irrigation or walking a path across a landscape. These are sites we have effected to fit our needs. Invasives, given the climate and soil, can invade and occupy even intact native plant communities, crowding them out, out competing them. They aren’t ‘better’ than those already here. This isn’t nature’s way. They are another consequence of our behavior…our own ‘out of placeness’. Our own self willed ‘refusal’ to see the consequences of our collective actions here.
The Deschutes River, as the major north/south corridor in this part of the state, drains the landscapes that comprise its watershed into the Columbia, down which also moves soil, seed, and, very often, bits of, or entire plants. In an undisturbed landscape, there are no ‘surprises’ in this. What moves down the river is what always has. The wind, the deer, all of the animals who move in and out of a landscape serve to help move seed around also, in a ‘supportive’ way. On the side of the canyon opposite us is the railroad, built here for the gradual grade and access to the interior country it offered. At the time of its construction another one was being built on this side. Both were ‘foreign’ incursions that disturbed the grades and drainage their entire length, providing open ground for occupation. The western bank rail line is the only one that was completed and put into service. Down this began moving the seeds of commerce, and the weeds that always accompany them, within train cars, on their undercarriage or on whatever else they could gain temporary purchase. Some inevitably land on the soil of this disturbed strip and from their begin the journey out into surrounding country. We brought in livestock, sheep once dominated this part of the country, and seed, for agricultural use, that often carried seed contaminants. This scenario has been repeated countless times along trails, fence lines and roads, irrigation canals and ditches in this arid country. We are vectors for the movement of plants, knowingly or not. Our activity along these corridors accelerates this movement and with it increases the frequency with which we bring in the seed of weeds and invasive plants. Very often, we provide a very minimal level of maintenance along these corridors, only keeping them clear of the plants that might obscure sight-lines or create safety concerns or interrupt flow, and we do this cheaply, often roughly and clumsily, maintaining them in a perpetual state of disturbance, conditions perfect for the inoculation of potentially more ‘virulent’ invasives. The edges of these corridors are always the first sites of ‘infection’ from which invasives spread to adjacent and outlying areas. You can see this as you float rivers, hike trails and, if you are observant enough, drive our roads. It is hard for people to see the damage at contemporary speeds.
The above photos are taken from the River trail that follows the Deschutes, just above the bank, and upstream from Deschutes River State Park. When we hiked this that December, 8 years ago, this trail wasn’t overgrown like this. Yes, it was winter and any Blackberries would have been defoliated, Yes, the Poison Hemlock, would have died back as a biennial and been less noticeable, but its dead stalks would likely have still been standing. No, I think these plants have spread considerably over this time period. As we walked it at the end of May it was clear that much of this portion of the trail would have been completely obstructed, by these two plants alone, if not for rough clearing work. As it was, a narrow path had been hacked open through them, burying, outcompeting, what ‘should’ have been there and reducing much of our view to cut stubs. Both were in full bloom preparing to produce seed that will be released in their never ceasing attempts to expand and consume. This kind of trail maintenance does nothing to curb the spread of these invasives. It is ugly and depressing and it is obvious that our political leadership and our society at large, neither recognize the problem, our role in creating it nor our responsibility to control it.
The Poison Hemlock will be more limited in its spread being naturally confined to those areas near the river that can meet its requirements for water…that still means that much will/can be lost. The Blackberries are more widely adaptable as a scan of the rising hills nearby attest, where they have begun occupying seeps and swales, wherever enough moisture can be held to support them through our long dry summers. Birds consume their berries and spread their seeds in flight or from where they perch, possibly the sheltered locations that best suit their germinating seeds and young seedlings…it only takes one of many thousands to succeed, to gain a ‘root-hold’, to then serve as a center for further spread.
The State Parks are charged with the care of this piece of land and a great many more in similar or more degraded condition. They do this with inadequate staffing levels and a shockingly small budget. Yet the public expects them to take care of it. It is, after all, their job. On this matter the public is wrong. ‘Our’ grasp of the scope of the problem and its ‘solution’ is an embarrassment for a so called modern society. ‘Our’ understanding of what is being lost and what is at stake is possible only because of our willful ignorance that blocks possible alternatives and solutions. This is a unique and astoundingly beautiful place and we are in the process of losing it as it loses its capacity to regenerate itself. The canyon itself will remain of course, with its steep muscular shoulders, accented with arcing cliffs of basalt, stacked up layer upon layer, with softer rock worn away. It is the covering plant communities that are threatened, in transition, from what held for many centuries into broad simplified ‘scabs’ of exotic invasives covering the wounds of our continuing disturbance, bleeding out into surrounding landscapes from the infection, exacting its cost in the form of species loss. These are changing the nature of our experience when we come visit these places as well as the conditions themselves that support the life in them.
As a people, Americans have a tremendous ability to compartmentalize, which is understandable in such a complex society. Each of us is charged with and take on a particular set of responsibilities within our families, communities and our places of work, the rest being left to others to ‘deal’ with. This is how we structure our work and our play. Places like this, public lands, are where we often go to ‘recreate’ and there is a very hard line between that and the work required to protect and maintain such places. We ‘play’ here. On recreational private lands, we pay a fee directly to the operators to provide the service and It is their job to maintain it. Anyone who works in land management knows that these two things must be kept in a balance, that human activity that works at odds with the landscape will inevitably lead to its degradation if its effects are not ameliorated, if those activities are in conflict with the health of the landscape, that much, should be obvious. Recreation involves an ‘exchange’, a consideration, that must be made, between the benefits of the activity we enjoy and the costs incurred by the landscape. The landscape is a living system and to continue in its existence this economy must be recognized. Activities that are supportive of an economy contribute to its health. Activities which are consumptive in that economy must be compensated for in other ways. That certain ‘activities’ are inherently in conflict with the economy of a place must be recognized or that place will become so compromised that its supportive systems can neither sustain itself nor bring it back into a state of health once ‘pushed’ out of balance. Such places will degrade, losing the value that we once sought there, requiring that we go elsewhere to look for it. ‘Where’ will that be as the years pass if we continue to ignore this problem?
It is not chance that has separated the concept of economy from ecology. Both share the greek root, ‘ekois’, meaning home or place. Ecology is the study of ‘home’ in its entirety as a system. Economy goes to the functioning of that system, the exchanges, all of them, that sustain one’s home, place or planet. In modern understanding economy has been reduced to discrete business transactions and exchanges, not including the other impacts and costs that those, outside of the deal, may incur. The system within which our economic transactions occur today is limited, by law and practice, to the parties making the deal, those paying for the product or service and those receiving it…no one or no-thing else. All else is ‘externalized’, beyond the transaction, and is not accounted for. This allows profit to be made by participants without needing to account for all of the actual costs resulting from the transaction. It allows us to ‘recreate’ as we see fit, for our bit of fun, without being bothered with the consequences of our activity. It specifically ‘excludes’ all other parties, putting them on their own. Legally, parties outside of the transaction are not recognized, and have no right for compensation and no voice in the transaction…unless law makes them a rare exception…. This is entirely consistent with the problem of the landscape. The landscape, the species and systems that are integral to it, have no legal or economic right to compensation or consideration. Public lands, available to recreation or open to resource extraction by private companies or across which easements are granted, are only minimally protected or maintained by public dollars. Society as a whole does not recognize its responsibilities to’ parties’ outside of the deal. Private organizations, advocacy groups, are allowed to argue for the betterment of others, or, if they have deep enough pockets, to purchase and set up trusts, legal structures to protect those limited pieces of land. In fact the burden is often, in practice, left entirely on them. Private companies and utilities are often granted special access under law that allows them to conduct their business as they see fit.
Politicians and land managers tend to see public lands as set asides dedicated to either recreation uses or the extraction of their resources, timber or minerals, all assets to be ‘utilized’. Landscapes are less valued for the ‘secondary’, but essential, benefits they provide as natural ‘systems’ to the wider world, the invaluable natural ‘economy’, the water, the fish, oxygen, carbon sequestration, their role as ‘banks’ that preserve and support species and genetic diversity. If they think of these benefits at all they tend to think of them as unlimited products of the landscape, no matter how degraded. Those that are ‘lost’ are considered inconsequential or, ultimately, non-essential. Nature is considered much like a business, a contributor that becomes absorbed or lost once it becomes inefficient, unnecessary or redundant…but nature depends on its richness and ‘redundancy’ for its required stability.
In the current political climate there is often pressure to finance management costs with user fees. This is a very limited source given the political and social climate within which we live. It can also encourage over use as users press for lower fees and land managers, trying to maximize revenue, often over ‘program’ sites, leading to over use and degraded sites. The politics often ignore the needs of the land, which without legal standing or income of its own, has no way of either advocating for itself or paying for the management it requires. Users tend to pay fees that are inadequate to support necessary maintenance, putting negative pressures on it.
Similarly, private places, with the exception of a few legislated proscriptions, are almost entirely dependent upon the interests and resources of their owners, and their resources can be sharply limited if they pull their land out of ‘production’. Their one possible advantage is that as private property other users can be excluded and this can protect them to the extent, again, that the owners wish to and have the resources to commit to this. On the other hand as smaller, disjointed properties, these are effectively islands, that for many species may be unable to support healthy viable populations, regardless of the owner’s intentions. It can also be incredibly difficult to coordinate effective programs on them due to their size and private ownership. This can be compounded by owners who are either ignorant of or opposed to taking actions that would benefit the larger landscape.
Institutions and government agencies are generally charged with very specific responsibilities and have a long practice of ignoring what is not their primary charge, for example, road departments generally neglect the landscapes on which their roads and routes are built. Businesses including railroads and utilities are much the same. Their budgets are limited, they have ‘fiduciary’ responsibilities to their shareholders, which are enforceable, and they can be penalized when ‘expanding’ their responsibilities to do what is not directly within their purview. Managers lose jobs over this. Budgets may be cut in response while ‘opposition’ leaders and the public criticize them for such ‘wastefulness’. All of this combines to create an atmosphere of mistrust and a view of civil servants and corporations as incompetent, uncaring, or irresponsible, and private owners as narrowly self-serving, adding to an atmosphere that makes meaningful changes in our relationship with the landscape much less likely.
[Consider this a warning. You need not read this. I’ve used the Deschutes River as bait, a hook, to draw you into an unexpected direction. But this is, at least in part, what I was thinking about when I walked these trails, taking in this country’s beauty and fragility. What follows are my thoughts about the problems that are at the root of this and many others today. We are often taught that these can be solved one at a time, that we can tweak a system here and there to get a satisfying result…but many problems are systemic, they are intimately connected to others and the way our world functions, the rules of the game that have been put into place. In this world we have to look at these ‘rules’ and change them if we have any hope of a genuine solution rather than an endless series of band-aid fixes. It requires courage and a belief in the value of life, in its countless forms, that when we pick and choose between species and individuals we compromise the entirety. We are taught that the market and our economy are sacrosanct, that certain actions ‘must’ remain beyond us. These prohibitions have been pressed upon us by those who seek to limit and control us out of the fear that we might find our own voices and take action. We have been divided and set in opposition to one another for so long that we often do not see the larger ‘game’ at play here, that uses us to reach its own ends. We need to change how we live in the world and base our decisions upon what and who it is that we love, not who or what we may fear or hate, rise above our baser selves. It is upon this difference that the world crumbles around us.
Everything is Political
Politics is the conscious wielding of power to influence the direction of society, from how and where we choose to live, what and how we buy, eat, work and play, to who and what will live and what they must endure. To simply go along, is to relinquish one’s power, is to empower those who would decide for us, an acceptance of the status quo. When we choose to put such trust in our ‘leaders’ we should do so with our eyes open. Societies take on an immensity and momentum of their own. They become ‘givens’ and we learn to look no further than them, no matter how dire our situation may be, and we too often fail to see the ‘behemoth’ itself and what we have given up to be a part of it.
In this country we have made a ‘cult’ of individualism and turned it into an essential element of what it is to be an American. To be that idealized American is to model one’s self after the Old West caricature that was John Wayne, strong, standing alone, one man against all odds…and persevering in spite of this…or to die trying; or, like Horatio Alger, who through his unceasing and narrowly focused effort, becomes a ‘success’. We celebrate ‘self-made men’, industrialists, who’ve allowed nothing to stand in their way to keep them from their fortunes. At one point in our history we labeled them ‘Robber Barons’ because they took so much while amassing their fortunes, becoming an American aristocracy…and we came, in many cases, to idolize them. We have modeled ourselves either after a Hollywood creation, one that never actually existed, as a true and heroic figure, or after single minded individuals focused on little else than building wealth and power. This has had consequences. Yes, there have been many such strong individuals, but if they persevered, built something lasting, then it was also because of their abilities to work with others, to take advantage of what came before them, including the supports that their communities and nation offered along their road to success. The Lone Ranger is a myth.
America’s political and industrial giants succeeded because of their ability to read the times and to influence others, to rally them to their cause or mission, to find kindred spirits and link their interests together, and, in many cases, to change the ‘rules’ to favor themselves putting themselves in position of advantage while sometimes denying it to the rest…it was not just a matter of bending others to their will…they became expert at playing the political game, buying key actors off, bullying others into submission. Success has never been purely a competition, intimidation has played a role, playing on fear, appealing to individual greed…regardless of how it was done, and the wider community had to be considered as well. The ‘rest of us’ had to be brought along. Cooperation, coercion, manipulation, whatever its form, of the wider community, has always been necessary to martial and control the ‘troops’. To solve any ‘problem’ we must see it clearly and understand the ‘forces’ at work that have produced it. We must understand our own roles in the problem so that we can change our own behaviors in support of ‘healing’, of life, because no society no economy can continue indefinitely while compromising or consuming the very life it is dependent upon…such is the path to collapse. We must work together, building supportive relationships, to assure success. We must ‘own’ our actions, good and bad, supportive and destructive.
Today we do not see ourselves together… we have been ‘taught’ not to. We are divided and suspicious. We see differences in terms of opposition. We see ourselves first as alone, which is an easy thing in this world of individuals…we see ourselves as possessing too little power to make a difference. We have selected leaders who profess the belief in the fictional strength of the heroic individual, while they work with others to divide us, because a people who are not linked into community and associations, are malleable and vulnerable. It is a purposeful strategy. Too often we’ve chosen leaders who lack integrity, the maturation to admit this over reliance on the individual, as a weakness, who have agendas they’ve hidden behind guile and seductive words, leaders who are so caught up in their own self importance that nothing else matters, who have become blind to the rights and value of others and the solutions that are available to us. Theirs is a world of narcissism and selfishness. It has become the disease of our times and whether we want to save a particular landscape or species, make this a more beautiful and secure world for our children or create a more sustainable future for us all, we will have to understand this, because until we do we will continue sacrificing others, and they us, for short term, selfish, gains.
Our so called free market economy is built on a consumptive, selfish premise, that if we each ‘freely’ pursue our own self interest, the cumulative outcome will provide the ‘best’ result…but this both ignores the value of others, of the whole, of the ‘system’, of the landscape, of any notion of ‘health’, as well as ignoring the fact that the rules, whereby we individuals make our ‘free’ decisions, have been written in such a way as to limit our choices, assuring an outcome that authors of the rules intend…. Such a system, our so-called ‘free economy’ cannot therefore produce the ‘best’ decisions, because the outcome has already been chosen. We cannot make the best decision for ourselves, because its option has been eliminated from consideration. In such a system Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, which he describes in his book, “The Wealth of Nations”, the foundation upon which our economy has been built, puts life outside its consideration. It is a system that must constantly be tweaked to protect life, because life is naked and unprotected. In our world the ‘Invisible Hand’ has been steered and directed in ways that, ultimately, undermine our economy, as politicians and lobbyists write and rewrite laws that distort and pervert, the economic playing field, steering and limiting choice.
In today’s ‘game’ of economics we make choices from a partial list, a list that benefits, increasingly, a richer and more influential few. Our system, as currently conceived, is committed to the production and concentration of wealth, driven by the twin powers of greed and scarcity, into the hands of the few, whose ability to wield power, to determine the legal rules of ‘play’, assures that they will win in this limited game of a rush to wealth. Other values are only considered to the extend that they don’t diminish the production of wealth. Social costs, as well as environmental, are excluded from this calculus unless societal pressures demand their inclusion, another reason for the promotion of individualism over community. Such a system discounts the many values it refuses to accept and assures the short term success of those in power, of those able to define priorities, until the broader system, upon which we all depend for life, is so compromised, that it collapses. Until then wealth will be distributed to those who wield power. It is a system that is willfully blind to its own excesses and impacts on the world within which it operates. To this end it is willing to sacrifice any ‘other’ part, any individual, any population, to the fulfillment of its own goal, which is exclusively the accumulation and continuing concentration of wealth and power. Under no conceivable alternative can this system ‘succeed’ while protecting the healthy functioning of either the society that has created it or the environment which provides the place and the resources it requires to prosper or even survive. The only way out of this conflict is to redraw the parameters within which the economy and our political system, which governs it, function…to bring inside of its calculations the health and value of the people, organisms and systems that in fact have both created and supported them.
To believe otherwise is to believe that life, in its broader terms, is not essential to society, that technology can replace its functions, is a supreme arrogance…and to embrace a grim, nihilistic and apocalyptic, future. Today we are only offered palliative alternatives, that allow us limited hope for progress, for a healthier future, but none of these ever consider the essential changes to a system that will otherwise continue to ‘devour’ itself… we are fed a rhetoric that argues that the concessions we want are unrealistic and destructive of a modern society and, further more, that such concessions would plunge us into an economy of despair as jobs disappear, that our concerns about the environment are unreasonable…and so we attempt to maintain ourselves on a diet of bread and circuses. Life on this planet is becoming ever more precarious. Our margins of survival are thinning as we push all of the natural systems upon which we depend to the edge. Any system forced into such a position will at some point collapse. The only question will be how severe will it be? This is on all of us.
We do not get to hide behind our helplessness as individuals in the face of such an overwhelming problem. We are each instrumental in the solution. The answer lies with us understanding our connection to the world and the problem, doing the right thing and basing our actions on what is truly supportive of life. ‘Our’ problems as a society are upon us all. We need to understand that we are not alone and the responsibility for fixing them is dependent upon the actions of the whole. The solution will be found to the degree that each of us chooses and behaves ‘rightly’. If we want to do this, do what is best for our children, our families and the places that we love…then we must make sure that each of our decisions, each of our actions, if not taken in support of others, our families, our communities and the ‘life’ that supports us, that they are at least not inflicting more damage. We need this…our economy needs this ‘correction’, this change of direction, if it is to truly fulfill our needs, not the greed of a few.
We should recall the oath, often attributed to Hippocrates, rightly or wrongly, ‘First, do no harm!’ We must move away from the world that we live in, in which anything is ‘permitted’ and harm must be ‘proven’ before compensation or proscriptive action is taken, to a world in which we commonly work in support of the whole, toward a goal that supports health in every sense of the word. We need to embrace an environmental ethic, which recognizes that life, and all of the complex of species, cycles and energies that support it, are essential; that we fully consider this so that our acts as individuals, buisnesses, communities and as a nation, strictly limit those actions that diminish it. The health of the whole must be recognized as paramount. We do in fact already have such an ethic, the Precautionary Principle, which requires just that…and it is about as unpopular to speak of as is socialized medicine and is rarely talked about, but we must. We must ‘imagine’ a world in which action is expected to support health and life, in which the onus of proof is on those who do damage, to ‘prove’ that what they do is in fact supportive or benign, or at least acceptable given the long term benefits to society and life. The accumulation of wealth by a relative few individuals cannot alone be sufficent. Ultimately the health of the individual relies upon that of the community, a community that respects each individual. It is not either/or, but both/and. If we fail to do this, then there is no politician, no other one person or organization that can save us and make up for our accumulative individual failures. We are all individuals, but…we are all bound to each other and everything else. We must simply begin acting as if it were so!
Our behavior collectively as a society has consequences in this world, just as it does for us as individuals. It is these consequences that make our every act, or non-act, political. It is not possible to be non- or apolitical. To claim this for oneself is foolishness, and an abdication of one’s power and responsibility…a refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions. It is the choice of a child. As parents we try to instill this understanding in our children, that the consequences of what we do, or choose not do, are inescapable. Some of us may be able to shunt them on to others for awhile, but someone will always pay! Isn’t it better when we act with this understanding and thus avoid the painful corrections and fixes that we otherwise are forced to undertake?