Thursday, February 25, 2010

The River Notebook Has Moved!!!!

The River Notebook can now be found @ http://leahwilson.com/wordpress
Check it out and please make a note of it

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Hubris of Western thought vs. the Wisdom of Indigenous Wisdom

Yesterday morning I came across a ‘global’ discussion regarding the ongoing climate change debate sparked after the weekend’s leaked emails from UK scientists that pointed toward manipulating information to support global warming in order to quash debate regarding the subject.  I’m not concerned so much about the topic of discussion – people can argue for or against the existence of global warming ad nauseum and arrive absolutely no closer to an agreement.  Instead what struck me was the manner of the discussion.

The first guest to be introduced was MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan Professor of meteorology, Richard Lindzen.  He clearly stated his opinion as a strong skeptic of global warming.  The second guest, England’s Christopher Booker, a columnist at the UK’s Sunday Telegraph used only the last decade or so to make his point about why everyone should be skeptical of scientific studies.  Another guest from Denmark chimed in with a view less skeptical, although not challenging.

The discussion progressed rather uneventfully as you would expect from scholars and journalists at the beginning of a radio program, that is until Kenya’s Michael Tiampati, a self-described pastoralist spoke next.  He explained that the people he works with don’t have PhDs in science, but they do have indigenous knowledge of the land that has allowed them to cope with the semi-arid conditions for generations.  He continued saying that they may not have scientific proof, but they have observed that conditions are becoming less hospitable and the people are no longer able to predict changing weather conditions such as droughts that they had been able to do in the past.  Then he made a most crucial mistake by saying that the pastoral people call this the ‘curse of the West.’

Lindzen’s reply was caustic. He accused anyone who says that pastoralists can predict the weather as being extremely dishonest.  He deemed Tiampati’s claims absurd.  He then said that no scientist that he knows of would ever say that climate change has affected the Kenyan pastoralists.

As Tiampati attempted to clarify his previous statements, Lindzen, chortling in disbelief, threatened to hang up the phone, an act in which he followed through before Tiampati could complete his thoughts.  Tiampati finally did finish by saying that they have wise people who have studied nature, who understand the rhythms of nature, and they need to be listened to.

Christopher Booker’s reply was to scoff and accuse the host of the show of choosing such a poor representative from Africa to speak.  He then began to list people he deemed as suitable for the discussion, all who have ‘spoken very eloquently’ on the subject.  I understood this to be ‘Africans who have a more Western perspective,’ and who would never advocate anything that would hinder Africa’s development, economic growth and chances to become more like developed Western nations - like solar panels and windmills which, according to Booker, are totally useless.

Next to enter the conversation was Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute Patrick Michaels, climatologist.  He dismissed Tiampati succinctly saying that it is impossible that any human actions could have induced climate change affecting pastoral people in Kenya and then proceeded in beginning a dogmatic lecture regarding the economy.

Tiampati was all but left behind in for the rest of the hour-long discussion.  I was appalled by the absolute hubris and disrespect shown by Lindzen, Booker and Michaels toward Tiampati.  Lindzen demonstrated that although he may be intelligent, he has no ability to communicate his views effectively with anyone who does not hold a PhD in science, and more importantly, to listen to their views.  Michaels dismissed anything that would not allow him to relentlessly drill in the point that capitalism appears to be his religion and the planet can regulate itself just as capitalist economies ideally should do.  And Booker, who claims that asbestos is no different than talcum powder and poses no human threat, claims that no science has ever shown that second hand smoke causes cancer, and defends intelligent design by saying that Darwinians ‘rest their theory on blind faith,’ demonstrated the saying ‘one should never try to argue with someone who knows that they are right.’

Tiampati is the only one whose ‘database’ extends further back than any data collected by Western science.  Tiampati is the only one that has been listening directly to people who have been intertwined with the land for countless generations.  I do not doubt that those pastoral Kenyans possess ‘observational instruments’ far more sensitive to the changes in their particular environment than those instruments that Lindzen and Michaels have ever been privy.  Yet Tiampati was laughed right out of the discussion.  The wise people he referred to were not given the voice that he requested they be given.

This, Paul, is why you are so important.  You have the PhD.  You have the Western science.  But you also have the type of wisdom that Tiampati and the Kenyan pastoralists possess.  You have the legitimacy offered to Western thinkers that even the (in my opinion) absurd Christopher Booker was allowed, although his claims are ridiculous.  (I for one have seen medical record after medical record after medical record regarding the links between 2nd hand smoke and asbestos and cancer when I had access to thousands of them when I worked at a law firm that represented one of the major tobacco companies.  It doesn’t take a PhD to see the connections… but that is an entirely different story.)

I may see connections in the environments that I have chosen to know intimately, but I, like Tiampati will never have the legitimacy that you have to speak to the scientific community about what I have observed.  You may have the desire to ‘abandon methodologies that have drummed into you through formal education.’  But please don’t.  As John Berry replied – don’t discard, add.  With the two perspectives you start to see a multi-dimensional view in a way that Lindzen will never achieve.  How very powerful and necessary that will be!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blue River and Cougar Dams

Recently I’ve been lurking around dams.  They make me feel uncomfortable.  There is something creepy about being so close to them.  It’s a visceral reaction that has no real correlation to intellectual understanding of what they are.  It isn’t a reaction to the history of dams or their environmental implications.  It’s that they are big and unnatural.  There is a lot of water blocked up behind them.  And what I know about water is that it eventually finds a way to deal with the things that block its natural flow.


I had already gotten the photos that I had come for.  I had found sites above the dam and below that gave me good information regarding the differences between the water in the two locations.  But on my way to search for the lower location on the Blue River, I saw a large wooden sign sitting in the saddle of the Y in the road that separated the lower route to the river and the high route to the top of the dam that advertised the US Army Corps of Engineers’ accomplishment.  The sign advertised a look-out point.  I couldn’t resist. 



A large U-shaped parking area cradled the top of the dam looking as if large crowds of tourists were expected to arrive to take snapshots of the dam.  One side looked out toward the downstream side showing a dry valley, a dirt road looping gracefully on the valley floor.  The other boasted a view of the bathtub ring of dirt of the low reservoir including tree stumps.  A road delineated the border between the two vastly different landscapes on top of the dam.  My truck was the only vehicle parked in the lot.



Driving down the road across the top of the dam didn’t seem right.  I walked.  On the other side a group of men worked above the gates to replace what looked like it could be a hinge.  I felt like I was somewhere I wasn’t allowed to be, trespassing to see what ordinary citizens aren’t supposed to see.  They all stopped and looked at me.  I waved and continued like I belonged there, carrying my bright orange Pelican case that holds my camera. My progress was stopped by a tall fence.  I stopped, placed my case on the ground, slowly opened it and chose my lens. 



I don’t really understand my unease.  I felt like I should be hiding.  I expected that someone was going to tell me to leave, that I couldn’t take photos of them or of the dam.  But nobody did.  It’s open to the public.  That knowledge, however, didn’t stop me from taking photos as quickly as I could so I could rush back across the dam to my truck.


The Blue River dam is an earthen dam completed in 1969 for water storage.  Its authorized uses are listed as flood control, navigation and irrigation.  (Navigation?)  Its other uses include fishery, water quality, and recreation.  (Water quality?)  Blue River dam is used in conjunction with another Army Corps of Engineers project, Cougar dam, to control the McKenzie River flows and, in turn, the flows of the Willamette river downstream.


The ‘navigation’ use is a mystery to me, and the ‘water quality’ use perplexes me.  First of all, how can water quality be a use?  But more importantly, how can they expect to have good water quality when native anadromous fish can’t pass the dam and flooding is not permitted below the dam?  Fish habitat is affected below the dam since the lack of flooding inhibits the creation of side channels and alcoves used by the spawning fish.  Gravel movement and deposition is inhibited by the presence of the dams, reducing fish habitat even more.  And, importantly, the dam affects the temperature of the water, making it less hospitable for the salmon.  For these reasons, and others, native Chinook salmon and bull trout have made their way to federal lists under the Endangered Species Act.


After leaving the Blue River dam, I drove to its companion structure, the Cougar dam.  This dam is even creepier.  Downstream of the dam are the remnants of the original fish passage plan.  It didn’t work and has long ago been abandoned.  Directly behind the ghost town of a fish passage is a flume of water that spurts out of a mouth halfway up the large rock wall of the dam.  I assume that this is part of the hydroelectric system.  It seems a mockery of the amazing Thunder River in the Grand Canyon, cold pristine water spurting out of the rock wall of the canyon after meandering underground for millions of years to dramatically appear on its course to the Colorado River.



Anadromous fish avoided Cougar dam because the water temperature was inhospitable.  The water released from the bottom of the reservoir was too cold and fish avoided it.  The summer sun-warmed water released from the top in the fall was too hot, triggering premature hatching of any salmon eggs that may be hidden in the gravel.  And so, an improvement to the 1963 Cougar dam project was authorized: the $52 + million Cougar Reservoir Water Temperature and Upstream Passage Project.  The 302 foot wall allows engineers to choose the depth of water to grab for discharge to control water temperature to make it more fish-friendly. http://nrimp.dfw.state.or.us/crl/default.aspx?pn=CRTCP



In the spring of 2009, a $9.7 million project was announced to build a fish ladder that leads to a capture area.  Fish caught in the trap will be sorted, then trucked around the dam to be deposited upstream.  As I arrived to take photos, the workers building the fish passage system were leaving for the day.  Once again I felt I were somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, trespassing and lurking around with my big orange case.



The US Army Corps of Engineers rushed to dam as many rivers as they could.  The dams provided more people-friendly habitat at a lethal cost to native animal species.  Human populations rose in areas where nature had historically kept the population levels low because of either flooding or lack of water.  Now that we have engineered our rivers so much, we are everywhere.  It appears to be an impossibility to remove the majority of dams we’ve erected unless we remove ourselves from the floodplains of our rivers.  I don’t see this happening anytime soon.


Since we can’t get rid of the problems that we have created, the solution is to engineer them more.  We didn’t do this well in the first place.  What makes us think that we can continue to do it now without adverse affects?  Sure, we know more now about ecosystems than we did before, but how much do we not know?  All of the reports I have read create the sense that this is the solution for the dwindling anadromous fish populations.  The fish will return!  All will be good again!  But this doesn’t hold true in many areas where fish passage has been engineered.  There is too much that we don’t know about these systems and the way everything is connected to create artificial solutions that are sustainable.


With that said, I don’t have anything to offer for a better solution.  We’ve created mind-boggling, complicated problems.  It’s a problem that I don’t believe can be solved by multi-million dollar band-aid projects to transport fish.  For the time being, all I can do is visit the dams regularly as well as the water above and below to get to know these interrupted areas as well as I can.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Leaburg Nets I


Minto Trap



Last weekend I paddled on the North Santiam River for the first time.  We put in below the massive Big Cliff dam and ran five miles down to Packsaddle County Park.  A few hundred yards above the take-out we needed to portage around a 12-foot dam, part of the Minto trap.  It’s a sloping dam, water sliding down at an even angle across the river, with a diversion for fish on river right.  At the time I thought the concrete wall was just an inconvenience, later an irony, and later still a generator of many questions.


There is no way for the steelhead and salmon to progress naturally upstream from the Big Cliff dam.  Technically speaking, the fish’s progress is halted five miles downstream of the dam because of the Minto dam and trap.  It’s actually there because the fish can’t get upstream of the large dam.


At least there is a recognition that the fish should be above the dams.  46% of the fish’s natural habitat is no longer accessible because of dam construction.  But to build a dam specifically to stop the fish in order to mitigate a problem caused by the dams upstream stopping the fish seems to be a rather ironic solution to me.


Minto trap is a satellite of Marion Forks Fish Hatchery.  The Minto dam is the end of the road for the anadromous fish that would like to continue upstream.  The trap doors are open in the spring and fall for the steelhead and chinook runs respectively, until the broodstock is collected.  Fish passing through the trap travel through a concrete maze that looks like a watery staircase in a parking garage leading to Minto pond.  Most of the fish arriving to the pond have been previously tagged, meaning they have already visited the hatchery.  The remaining fish are collected for a truck ride above the dams.  10% of unmarked fish are added to the broodstock, the remaining are released to spawn naturally.


We are still uncovering layers of significance regarding the necessity of anadromous fish in the watershed.  Science knows that they are necessary in the environment throughout all stages of their lifecycles.  If they cannot proceed upstream to spawn, countless deficiencies in the ecosystem arise.  The South Yuba River, the river of my previous hometown, lacked salmon in the part of the watershed where I lived.  Great efforts are currently being taken to return the salmon.  Although the South Yuba is beautiful and relatively clean, I don’t believe it can ever be considered a healthy river until it can support anadromous fish that had long been an integral part of a complex ecosystem.  There, a formerly healthy self-maintaining river system now has a complex problem requiring a very complex solution because of the existing dams and the effects on the river they create.


The North Santiam’s anadromous fish have been returned to the watershed above the offending dams.  But the way they are present is by no means natural, nor is it simple.  I have to wonder, even if the fish are present, is the river actually healthy?  By some measures you can say yes.  But is it truly healthy?


At Minto pond, eggs are collected and artificially fertilized.  As the eggs harden in water they get an additional ingredient to soak in – Iodophor.  The slow release of iodine from the Iodophor makes it less toxic to the eggs than it would otherwise be, and less infected.  The disinfected Iodophor soaked eggs are then transplanted to the Marion Forks Hatchery thirty-three miles upstream. 


In the hatchery’s crowded tanks, juvenile fish orally receive antibiotics to prevent disease and control bacterial infections.  Formalin is dispensed in water to control parasites and fungus on eggs and juveniles.  I can accept disinfecting eggs with Iodophor - it seems to be really helpful with disinfecting homebrew equipment without adversely affecting the beer.  I’m less inclined to be accepting of the antibiotics.  I don’t like putting them into my own body, let along the bodies of things that I may eat; or bodies that may eventually die and enrich the riverbed with their nutrients.  But I really don’t like the idea of Formalin.  Isn’t that the nasty stuff that kept the frogs and rats of my biology and anatomy classes from molding?


Yes, indeed it is.  Ruth Francis-Floyd at the University of Florida, in an article about the use of Formalin to control fish parasites, addressed some of my concerns:  Formaldehyde is a carcinogen – don’t touch it.  Formaldehyde is a noxious gas.  Fumes can cause eye and respiratory irritation – don’t breathe it.  Some people develop a sensitivity to Formalin – don’t let these people near the stuff.  And that’s just for the people.


It’s horrible for ponds, and I assume rivers too if it gets that far.  Formalin removes dissolved oxygen from the water, one of many indicators of a healthy river.  It kills oxygen-producing algae, and then the dead algae further decreases dissolved oxygen levels.  But I assume that the hatchery controls the oxygen levels in the tanks for the fish, and I further assume that the Formalin-enhanced water is not re-introduced into the river.


If the Formalin gets to cold, it’s so toxic it will kill fish on contact.  If it gets too hot, toxicity increases too.  What is the toxicity of Formalin when the water is ‘just right?’  This stuff is FDA approved.  Personally, I’d like to have nothing to do with it.


Eventually the young Iodophor cleansed, antibiotic fed, Formalin swimming fish are released upstream from the dams just in time to run the gauntlet of anglers who have been eagerly awaiting their return.  The Marion Forks Hatchery’s goal is harvest fish to mitigate the loss of the fish to anglers and to increase harvest opportunities due to lack of habitat.  All of these fish have gone through a rather extensive ordeal for the purpose of being in the watershed to be harvested.  Some of the young smolts make it through the anglers and the turbines lurking downstream and eventually to the ocean to hopefully return to complete the highly engineered hatchery cycle.


Is this a healthy system?  Is it the best we can do with the situation we’ve created with erecting massive hydroelectric dams?  I can’t believe that it is.  But maybe it’s all we’ve got for now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ghosts



It was one year and eight months after the first ghosts had been created. It was one year and a month plus a handful of days after the other ghost had been created. It also happened to be two years to the day that I met the love of my life. This is not coincidental, however indirect it may seem.

September 2007, late at night at Argo, our put-in for the Rogue, I met Tim. We spoke no more than the obligatory things you say to someone when you are introduced for the first time and will be working together for the next four days. Gigi, Jason and I arrived late, but Tim and Tyler arrived even later and there was work to do. We helped them unload their rafts and oar frames. All I wanted to do was crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep.

It wasn’t until the second evening on the river that Tim and I actually had a conversation with each other. I believe that the only reason that we did was because, in a way, we had to. We had just realized that we would be sharing a boat for 26 days through the Grand Canyon beginning in November. I figured that it might actually be a good thing to get to know who he was first.

Cat and her husband Tim, not the same Tim as introduced in the paragraphs above, but Tim nonetheless, had invited us separately to join them on their Grand Canyon trip. Unbeknownst to the two of us, we had both agreed to go. Cat and her Tim, Tim S., were students of ours at the kayak school. They had just learned how to kayak that spring to prepare specifically for the trip.

Fast forward to December. The Grand Canyon trip was over. We said our goodbyes to Cat and Tim S. after a breakfast in Flagstaff before heading our separate ways. I did not expect to ever talk to either one of them again. This is not the time or place to relay the gory details, but I will say that tensions rose, were cultivated and flourished amazingly well during those 26 days down the Colorado River. By the time we reached the café at the end, all we could see of the two that brought Tim and I together were the distorted versions of each that we saw through our filters of a long, stressful trip in the wilderness. I believe I can safely say that they saw us through similar distorted filters.

When you spend that much time with people in a setting as incredible as the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it’s impossible just to walk away like nothing ever happened. But that didn’t stop us from trying. It doesn’t help to have their images cycle through the screen saver on the computer over and over again. I welcomed in the first ghosts.

The ghosts wouldn’t leave. Sometimes they sat dormant for a while, but then they would reemerge when least expected, bringing with them feelings of regret and guilt. Ghosts thrive on regret and guilt. They grow stronger and more substantial on diets such as these.

Every once in a while I would open an email, address it Cat, and then stare at it blankly for a while before closing it. Once I looked Cat up on Facebook. That’s as far as I got. As time marches forward it becomes more awkward to say the things that are needed to banish ghosts such as those. I decided that there was nothing to be done but to accept the ghosts in my life as permanent residents.

The other ghost made its entrance in a much different way. The summer after Tim and I met on the Rogue River and propelled by Cat and Tim S. to our destiny, Jason, Tim and I returned to the Rogue for another kayak school trip. It was a new year and a new combination of people save the three of us.

Day three was a spectacular July day, the kind of day that makes you feel so happy that you are alive. The trip was progressing without incident, as expected. We eddied out to scout at Blossom Bar as usual. However on that day, there was somebody standing on a rock in the aptly named Picket Fence, the infamous sieve at the entrance of the long rapid. At the time I could not realize what an impact the words, ‘I’ll go,’ would have on my life. I had, without a second thought, volunteered to see what was happening below, in the Picket Fence.

When I reached the eddy below the rock where the figure stood, an image became burned into my brain permanently. A friend of mine from home stood on the rock looking at me with such horror in his eyes as he held a white arm stretched erect from the water. A hand the color of a ghost’s dangled from the wrist moving only in response to the shifting angles of his grasp. ‘Do you have a rope?’ he asked. That is how I found myself on the rock too, next to the limp white limb.

Our efforts to free the arm, as well as the rest of the body resulted in only recovering her PFD. As it pulled free of her body, the arm and hand sank from view and reach. She was gone as if she had never been there.

She has haunted me since. Although Tim arrived to help after she disappeared, she has haunted him too. He returned to the scene time and time again this summer as he guided trips, one after another.

But I did not return, at least not until last week. Only the river gods in cahoots with the Universe could have constructed the situation that presented itself September 2, 2009. However, the ghosts could have played a roll too. There is not doubt of that.

Since I no longer teach at the kayak school, I was not scheduled to be on the trip. However, since Tim still works for the same company doing the raft support, he was on the trip. I was able to join as his guest. How perfect since Gigi and Jason were working with me the trip two years ago that they would be on this one too! A beautiful reunion was to occur. I could never imagine how limited my view of the reunion would turn out to be.

I had a day to digest the full extent of the reunion before having to actually face it. Spending the day before the trip began with Jason and Gigi I learned that Cat and Tim S. would also be on the trip. If I could only have seen my own face when I was told this uncanny coincidence! My first thought was something akin to anger – how dare they show up and crash our perfect party?!? Of course, Cat and Tim’s now-nine-year-old son Rohan who had also been on the fateful Rogue and Grand Canyon trips of 2007 at the age of seven was coming too; as would Ray, a friend of Cat and Tim’s who was also on both 2007 trips. But it did not stop there. Another student, Ben, from the 2007 Rogue trip would also be coming along.

Tim and I sat in the company truck at the gas pump. We had a view directly into the Galice Resort café where Jason and Gigi were meeting with the clients. I could clearly see Rohan peering out of the window to see us. Tim asked how I was planning to get through this awkward reunion. I plastered a huge grin on my face. ‘This is my plan. After that, I have no idea.’

Later, talking to Cat, I learned that they had felt similar tensions when they were informed we would be there. But the grin worked its magic. We grinned at them. They grinned at us. We all must have had the same thought simultaneously – it’s going to be all right. The first ghosts began to flicker, unsure of themselves.

Reluctantly I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag on the third morning. I had to trudge to the groover three times because my guts felt like they were twisted into intricate knots. The entire trip left the beach and slid silently down the river leaving me still standing on the beach, not completely geared up to get into my kayak. I would have gladly stayed there all day to avoid meeting my next ghost that I knew was waiting silently below. If I continued I would have to come face to face with her. Of course, not continuing was not an option. But the ghost was not waiting below. It was already with me and had been the whole trip, the whole year in fact.

Cat asked if she could follow me down Mule Creek Canyon since following me two years before had been such a good experience for her. I agreed. But I couldn’t really tell if that was a responsible choice since Mule Creek Canyon is directly above Blossom Bar, the home of my ghost. I felt like I may need to follow someone through the canyon myself.

We stopped for lunch right above Mule Creek Canyon’s entrance. I met the ghost here a year prior before she was actually a ghost. Her name was Kathy and she was very alive and real sitting in her yellow raft with the rainbow windsock flag fluttering on the stern as if they were sitting on their front porch. I smiled at her and told her that her dog, an Irish setter, was beautiful. She smiled at me and thanked me. I remember thinking that her hair matched the dog’s coat.

Lunch didn’t seem appetizing. My stomach was knotted more than ever. But I made a massive deli sandwich. The year before we hadn’t stopped for lunch there. I was so hungry at Blossom Bar. I didn’t want this year’s experience to have any similarities to last year’s. I devoured the whole thing and sat in the sand with mayonnaise smeared on my face all the way up by my ear.

It was then that Cat asked me if she could also follow me down Blossom Bar. All I managed to do was splutter at her in response. Gigi turned her down for me. I couldn’t manage.

We sat in the eddy above the Mule Creek Canyon’s gates. Cat was nervous. I was terrified, although not for the same reasons. As we pealed out I asked her what our song would be. Cat looked at me quizzically. ‘Our song to sing. We need a song,’ I replied. ‘Oh yes,’ she comprehended. ‘I Feel Pretty,’ she stated. ‘What?’ Cat began to sing in her strong and lush voice:

I feel pretty
Oh so pretty
I feel pretty and witty and gay
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me today

‘You’ll have to teach it to me, Cat.’ ‘I feel pretty!’ she sang. I repeated loudly and very imperfectly. ‘Oh so pretty!’ ‘…oh so pretty!!’ We got louder and louder as we approached the entrance and even louder as we dropped in.

That trip down the canyon was probably the most fun I’d ever had. We were giggling and smiling at each other. At the end of the canyon I wanted to hug her as if she were my closest friend in the world. She had given me a gift that she had no idea that she had to give. For a short while, my mind had the task of trying to not sound so horribly off-tune next to Cat’s gorgeous voice as well as make sure that she was right-side up and in the right place on the water. This was a welcome relief to the impending weight that approaching Blossom Bar offered my mind to feed upon.

Yet, the song had to come to an end. Everyone got out to scout Blossom Bar except Gigi and me. Instead I sat in my boat, bobbing in an eddy at the base of the cliff wall that everyone was hiking up to look at the rapid. Gigi was waiting for them all to have a good view before she went down. I was waiting until she went down and was sitting in the eddy behind the Picket Fence just in case I had some sort of complete nervous breakdown. Gigi left. I was alone. Then slowly, I just let my boat drift downstream.

I paddled horribly, slapping ungracefully at the water. I almost chickened out catching the eddy, but at the last minute I turned my boat to the left and paddled. And then, there I was, sitting behind that horrible rock, hyperventilating. I ran my hands over the bumpy rock, still breathing erratically, then looked around. I positioned myself so I could see the exact spot where I first saw her white arm suspended in the air. My breathing slowed, but not my heart.

As I realized that I was fine, there would be no nervous breakdown, no uncontrollable gushing out tears, I allowed myself to begin to systematically study the currents and rocks that make up the Picket Fence, especially where Kathy’s body had been trapped. The water was much lower, so it was like I was studying bones that created the structure of the nightmare that I remembered. A piece of wood was wedged between the rocks where her body had been as if the river thought that I needed a wooden stand-in body to illustrate what had happened there.

Gigi and I sat there together for a long while before another boat came down. And then Meghan appeared. Her raft stopped abruptly with a sharp hit against the upstream side of the Picket Fence, just as I imagined Kathy’s raft had. My breathing stopped, my heart jumped. I looked upstream and could see Tim standing on the cliff watching, just like he had been the previous year. But then I looked at Meghan. She was calm. I tapped the top of my head asking if she was ok. She tapped back. She was ok. She was in control, and then I was calm, eerily calm. All I could do was watch to see how things unfolded. Eventually, the raft began to slowly slide along the rocks until the current grabbed it and the raft swung around the Fence and through the rest of the rapid, her passenger swinging her arm around above her head and whooping in triumph like she had just won a rodeo bull ride.

And then Gigi and I sat once again waiting. I looked back at the wood wedged in the rock. It was just a piece of wood.

I sat in the eddy long enough to see five more rafts and six kayaks paddle past the Fence with no incident, all having a good time. Without ceremony or even a look back, I left too.

We all met up in the eddy at the bottom on river right. I went straight to Tim’s boat. He reached down to hold me with tears in his eyes, telling my how glad he was that I was there. And so was I, I realized. And only then did I cry.

Cat and I had a long, overdue talk that evening. We hashed out the events of our Grand Canyon trip and beyond as only two women can do. The talking spilled out onto the river the next morning.

That last night, after almost everyone had gone to bed, I sat with Ben and Tim. We watched as the full moon rose, tracing a perfect parallel line against the dark ridgeline. Tim rose and wandered into the darkness. Ben, looking ahead said quietly, ‘Let go of some ghosts today, did ya?’ ‘Yep,’ I said. ‘I’ve done that before too,’ he said. And we sat in silence until it was time to wander our own ways into the darkness too.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Ode to a Black Bear

Driving out to the North Umpqua River brought me back home. The road looked as if it were a newly discovered route to Coloma through the rolling gold hills dotted with oak trees. It even smelled like I was approaching the valley. As I continued east it was if I ended up on some parallel universe’s idea of the North Fork of the American – a mellow version, lush and green. The Umpqua felt reassuringly familiar even though I had never been there before.

The river itself was not challenging. But that was ok. I was reveling in the beauty and the company of newly made friends. The sun was warm, the water clear and cool, but not cold. It felt so good to lazily cross the river from eddy to eddy, linking the currents and rocks, working harmoniously and easily with the rhythms of the water. It wasn’t the North Fork of the American, but the Umpqua I was on. It was a new river; a new process of gaining a new acquaintance had begun. It was an easy river to be present with, as was my new paddling partner, Stacia.

After the anomaly of a rapid, Pinball, a rapid full of beautiful big round boulders, we eddied out for lunch. Although we had been camping, lunch did not suffer. It was more aptly called a picnic. Fresh avocado, creamy goat cheese, white cheddar, crackers, fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, beets from the farmer’s market in Mount Shasta and apple was pulled from my boat and spread on the rocks. We pealed off our gear and stretched our bodies in the warm sun. This scenario, by the way, does not happen when paddling with men, an observation that both of us were somewhat smugly aware of.

Back on the water, we stretched out our time to delay the imminent end by making the easy remaining rapids as challenging as we could, playing with the river. We dropped into a long rapid, me following Stacia. Out of the corner of my eye, to my left, a large shadowed rock moved and rapidly revealed itself to be a large black bear in the middle of the rapid. My mind struggled to comprehend exactly what that meant. From my advantage, it looked as if Stacia was having the same struggles as I. She was frantically pointing, then paddling hard away from where she pointed, then pointing again, and paddling fast. It was hard to decide whether to keep an eye on the bear or on the fastest way away from the bear.

The bear was obviously also struggling with comprehending what it was seeing coming quickly toward it from upstream. It thrashed powerfully and erratically in the water. Much to my relief, it decided to flee to the opposite bank that we were trying to reach and leapt up the granite cliff face in a way that defied its impressive bulk and mass. It then took its bulk full speed downstream, keeping pace with us about ten feet above the water line, until it could find a path up to perceived safety. The bear disappeared into a dark hole in the rock wall. Clumsy grappling bent young trees back and forth as if they were experiences a very localized tornado. I fear that many small trees lost their lives to the escaping hulk of a beast.

Stacia and I sat together in the eddy, straining to watch the bear’s path as long as we could. It was like being in the presence of God. We wanted to hold it in our vision and presence as long as possible.

This is one of the many reason that paddling easy rivers is just as amazing as harder ones. We were relaxed and moving comfortably down the current with the ability to widen our awareness across the river to include a wide area. Direct focus wasn’t necessary. On a challenging stretch of river I may have shared the rapid with the bear and never have known it. On a challenging river my mind is focused and drops any extraneous and unnecessary information. If the bear was not in my direct path, it may have just been extraneous information – a funny thought to attach to a frantic hulking animal in such close proximity.

But instead, I was able to enjoy the bear’s presence in full awareness. Encountering it easily trumped the enjoyment of leisurely munching on fresh basil and goat cheese next to the beautiful clear river on a hot day. An easy stretch of river was transformed from a pleasant experience that would soon fuzz at the edges of memory, inevitably blending with countless others to becoming one that will hold crisp and clear definition in my mind for a lifetime.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Leah Wilson
Tropes

June 30 – August 29, 2009
Artist’s Talk: Friday, July 24 at noon

Opening July 3, from 5:30pm – 8pm July 24

Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts
110 West Broadway
Eugene, OR 97401
541-344-3482

Leah Wilson’s solo exhibition of recent work titled, Tropes will be seen at DIVA’s main gallery in Eugene, OR. The exhibition opens June 30 and runs through August 29, 2009 with a reception for the artist Friday, July 3rd from 5:30pm to 9pm during Eugene’s First Friday Art Walk.

Today every major river in Oregon violates water quality standards. Most of the pollution in Oregon’s rivers comes from urban and agricultural runoff. It is easily overlooked as it is not readily visible and the rivers maintain the illusion of health.

In this premier Oregon exhibition of Wilson’s work, she has created groups of paintings based on debris she has found in the rivers of Oregon and California. The waters claim the debris as their own, slowly changing it over time as if to appear part of the rivers themselves. Wilson views debris as a bridge between the natural wild areas of rivers and ourselves, markers that we have been here, leaving bits and pieces of our passing behind. She looks for the things that usually go unnoticed, the small things and the slowly changing things. She is drawn to the distortions created by the river on the debris and of our own perceptions of ourselves and the rivers.

Wilson received her M.F.A from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2003. Her penchant for traveling the world via whitewater kayak has brought her to many countries including New Zealand, Panama and Costa Rica. Guiding and teaching whitewater kayaking has allowed her to spend prolonged periods of time in a boat studying the subtleties of rivers. Wilson’s paintings have been exhibited at Julie Baker Fine Art in Nevada City, CA and featured at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in Nevada City, California, Los Medanos College Art Gallery in Pittsburg, California and the Oakland Art Gallery in Oakland, California. Her work is in the collections of eBay, Inc., Adobe Systems, Inc., Namco Inc., as well as other corporate and private collections, and her photography has been featured in Common Ground magazine. She currently resides in Eugene, Oregon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Incubating

Just now I’ve realized that my last post was over a year ago. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say – there has been a lot. It’s just that I haven’t known quite what to say. I’ve undergone some sort of an identity crisis. I’m living in Oregon now.

Life has coaxed some changes upon me. My shoulder is not in great shape. I experienced a death on the river first hand. I’ve moved to a city, albeit a small one. Because of these and other factors I don’t get out to a river very often anymore. Instead I’ve been incubating.

My sense of place has shifted. I have no places anymore that are loaded with meaning in my own backyard. Admittedly that’s my own fault. I haven’t created them yet. It’s like I’ve been resisting actually interacting with my new environment. I feel like I may get out and do that eventually. But I think it will be a slow process.

My sense of identity shifted along with my location. This is the first time I’ve scheduled anything that could interfere with the kayaking season. I have a solo show opening in July. That will keep me indoors, out of my boat for the next three and a half months painting. I’m more of an artist than a kayaker these days. In fact nobody here identifies me with kayaking. I’m an artist now that just happens to be working conceptually with rivers instead of a kayaker who happens to be an artist. There is something freeing about this shifting of identities. I’m settling into it. And there is not that much that I want to say. For the time being I’ll just keep incubating.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beautiful Trash

I moved from the city to the forest. Cities seem a prison to me. They are tight places where nature is either planned into boxes in the form of parks or it sprouts out of the cracks of sidewalks, trundles in vacant lots and gets squashed on the pavement. Nature is across the bridge, over there, somewhere else, separate.

I live in a neighborhood with minimally controlled landscaping. It is landscape au natural. It’s a place that I consider to be the antithesis to city living. Nature is right here, in my face, when I walk out the door.

Still I feel the need to go places where I cannot see traces of civilization to get closer to nature. And in these seemingly untouched places I find traces of us everywhere, albeit much more subtly than in the city.

In my quest to get further and further into nature itself I continued to carry the city attitude that nature is over there, separate, a place I needed to find. And when I got there I found that someone else had already been there too. There is no such thing as a separate nature that is over there, untouched. This is a fabrication of an ideal, of some better, purer state of the world than that in which I currently find myself.

One of my favorite very touched-untouched places is the floor of the Grand Canyon. It seems to me about as remote and far away from civilization as I can get. Yet thousands travel the Colorado River through the 200 plus miles of majestic canyon each year. We carry out all of our waste, we try to leave no trace of our passage, we try to preserve that remote wildness that we yearn to believe exists so the group a day behind us can believe that they too are in the wilderness. And while we do that we marvel at ancient Anasazi ruins, and their literal writing on the wall. We stop at a boat abandoned on the shore by an expedition in a previous century. We feel a sense of continuity finding evidence that someone else was here too. We leave the traces left behind by their presence and call them artifacts. They were and remain a part of the landscape that we are moving through as visitors, separate.

In my own place, in the Yuba watershed, I can go to places that look untouched until I look a little closer. And there we were, here we still are. Sometimes the evidence is overwhelming – A hillside blown away by hydraulic mining; sometimes the evidence is subtle – a piece of screen sitting on the cobble under the water; sometimes the evidence can be almost invisible – the seemingly pristine watershed with a coveted ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation is actually one of the most complicatingly engineered water systems in the state of California, and therefore the entire country.

We rely on this nature for our very survival and our every action affects the environment. There is no separation between it and us. We are it. It is us. The environment reflects our attitudes, our views and our values. To explore the landscape is to explore the workings of the minds, attitudes and psychologies of our civilization. There is no standing separate observing the landscape; the viewer of the landscape is as much a part of the landscape as is the river.

I spend time in the wilderness looking for signs of ourselves. I take photos of the evidence of our own presence, our own artifacts. Much of what I find are the discarded, unwanted things that nature has begun to change, making it seem once again its own. From these photos I create paintings transforming trash into paint on a panel – bringing things back to ourselves in the form of art.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Beauty

A friend posed the question - what do I get from interpreting beauty creatively? That’s a question I ask myself often. Beauty is one of those things that seems to cause all sorts of issues. It has been assaulted and declared dead over and over again by the art world (oh, mavens of the value of beauty). What is it in the first place? It seems to be a shifting and changing concept that relies on context for most people’s experiences. The notion of what is beautiful appears to be limited and arbitrary all too often. Cultures dictate what is supposed to be beautiful – young thin women get a yes while old wrinkled women get a no. A flying hawk – yes. A hawk squashed on the road – no. But these cultural dictates also shift and change from culture to culture and through time.

Beauty gives pleasure. It satisfies and pleases the mind. Satisfaction, pleasure, peace of mind: Isn’t that what everyone wants? If there is such a limited notion of what constitutes beauty then the mind is very limited in what will satisfy it. Most of one’s time is then caught up in not being satisfied. Therefore most of the time beauty is being sought out - this is not a beautiful thing or a beautiful experience so I’ve got to go find something else that is – something else that will satisfy me. Time and effort are spent trying to preserve and hold on to that beauty when it’s found. But the beautiful woman always grows old. A car hits the soaring hawk. That beautiful thing or experience will always change. Nothing stays the same. So the search continues.

But if the concept of beauty expands, then the searching can slow down and even stop. The mind can be satisfied with what it has, the eyes with what it sees. Why should there be such a separation of beauty with the changing of states? Why can’t the old woman be just as beautiful as the young girl? Really not much has changed: the old woman is the young girl. The same applies with the thing that has died.

While I was in New Zealand a friend took me with him to work. He was monitoring the penguin burrows. He would pull out baby penguins to show them to me. They were very cute yet I never photographed them. Instead, I was captivated by the cow. It had plummeted off the cliff above some time before my arrival. Its body began to assume the contours of the rocks on which it died. The brown and white markings of its fur seemed to echo its new rock contours. It lay there with its head facing the ocean with a certain serenity. I found it quite beautiful. My friend was irritated with me. He showed me what was supposed to be beautiful. And it was. To him that was what was worthy of attention. But the cow had a beauty just the same. There is a peace and satisfaction in not being repelled by what is not supposed to be beautiful, to see the beauty in what is not supposed to be beautiful.

Beauty can be found in anything by anyone. To see it one just has to do away with dichotomies and preconceived notions of what is supposed to be beautiful and what is not. This is one of the things that scouring the riverbanks with a camera has shown me. It was a strange and liberating day when I discovered that trash can be stunningly beautiful.

Beauty

A friend posed the question - what I get from interpreting beauty creatively? That’s a question I ask myself often. Beauty is one of those things that seems to cause all sorts of issues. It has been assaulted and declared dead over and over again by the art world (oh, mavens of the value of beauty). What is it in the first place? It seems to be a shifting and changing concept that relies on context for most people’s experiences. The notion of what is beautiful appears to be limited and arbitrary all too often. Cultures dictate what is supposed to be beautiful – young thin women get a yes while old wrinkled women get a no. A flying hawk – yes. A hawk squashed on the road – no. But these cultural dictates also shift and change from culture to culture and through time.

Beauty gives pleasure. It satisfies and pleases the mind. Satisfaction, pleasure, peace of mind: Isn’t that what everyone wants? If there is such a limited notion of what constitutes beauty then the mind is very limited in what will satisfy it. Most of one’s time is then caught up in not being satisfied. Therefore most of the time beauty is being sought out - this is not a beautiful thing or a beautiful experience so I’ve got to go find something else that is – something else that will satisfy me. Time and effort are spent trying to preserve and hold on to that beauty when it’s found. But the beautiful woman always grows old. A car hits the soaring hawk. That beautiful thing or experience will always change. Nothing stays the same. So the search continues.

But if the concept of beauty expands, then the searching can slow down and even stop. The mind can be satisfied with what it has, the eyes with what it sees. Why should there be such a separation of beauty with the changing of states? Why can’t the old woman be just as beautiful as the young girl? Really not much has changed: the old woman is the young girl. The same applies with the thing that has died.

While I was in New Zealand a friend took me with him to work. He was monitoring the penguin burrows. He would pull out baby penguins to show them to me. They were very cute yet I never photographed them. Instead, I was captivated by the cow. It had plummeted off the cliff above some time before my arrival. Its body began to assume the contours of the rocks on which it died. The brown and white markings of its fur seemed to echo its new rock contours. It lay there with its head facing the ocean with a certain serenity. I found it quite beautiful. My friend was irritated with me. He showed me what was supposed to be beautiful. And it was. To him that was what was worthy of attention. But the cow had a beauty just the same. There is a peace and satisfaction in not being repelled by what is not supposed to be beautiful, to see the beauty in what is not supposed to be beautiful.

Beauty can be found in anything by anyone. To see it one just has to do away with dichotomies and preconceived notions of what is supposed to be beautiful and what is not. This is one of the things that scouring the riverbanks with a camera has shown me. It was a strange and liberating day when I discovered that trash can be stunningly beautiful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Breaking the Silence

A year of silence on this site is quickly coming around the corner. I suppose I can call it a sabbatical. A shift needed to happen. Then it began whether I was ready or not - whether I welcomed it or not. The past months have been a time of change.

This past Friday I took my co-workers rafting. It was my day to teach the staff something for professional development. Let me backtrack to put this into more of a context. I am working at Coloma Outdoor Discovery School on the banks of the South Fork of the American River. Twice a week I dress in bloomers and a straw hat adorned with ribbons and bows (thanks Mom) to teach 4th graders about the lifestyle of the 49ers. The other days are spent hiking with them to teach them about the natural history of the area, taking them to Gold Rush related sites, and then talking to them about stewardship for the earth. Although we teach on the bank of the river, for most of my co-workers it has become a backdrop that they no little about.

I needed to show them the river. While on the river I stopped periodically to read some of my past writing for the South Yuba River Project – the dialog with Beatriz Terrazas, and, and a few other things to put that into context. Primarily the theme was learning how to listen to the river and the importance in doing so. I spoke briefly about the shift that happened to me twenty years ago when, at the age of thirteen, my dad took me rafting on the Kern River. I related that to the shift that happened to me this past year, first on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and again in New Zealand.

At the end of the evening, Sara was riding with me as I drove back to the put-in. She wanted me to talk more about the recent shifts on the Canyon and in New Zealand. Where they physical, mental, spiritual shifts? I paused. This was my answer: While I was in the Canyon, especially at Thunder River, the place reached inside me, shifting, turning and tweaking things so I can never see it again like I had before venturing into it. It’s something that I have tried to explain to others but it always comes out sounding like gibberish. Recently I read a book called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Two of the characters had been abducted from their world and whisked away into the fairy world. Daily, when they returned to the realm of humans and tried to explain their miserable predicament, nothing they said had any relevance to anything they meant to say. They used complete sentences that structurally made sense, but had no relation to what they actually intended to say. They wanted to cry for help but ended up telling the complete history of fox hunting in England instead. I feel like this when speaking about the Grand Canyon, New Zealand too.

Last year I realized that confining my work to the South Yuba River and the constraints I put upon it was far to limiting. Now I am expanding. I’m going to see if I can somehow untangle the gibberish.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Peeing on My Head

It’s the fifth day I’ve been home sick this week. It’s not entirely a bad thing, aside from feeling like the walking dead and speaking with a voice that caused my brother to ask me if I had been smoking for the past sixty-four years. Since there is no way I can deal with fourteen 4th graders I am excused for showing up at my current job as an outdoor education instructor and I can actually spend some time doing activities such as photo editing and writing that I can do without needing to speak, breath on anyone or move more than my fingers. I have also been able to pick up a book that I have been meaning to finish for about the past two years – Cadillac Desert, the quintessential book of the mismanagement of water in the West since the Mormons came traipsing across the land in search of God’s land. Since I have had a full time job and little time to do things, I am finding being sick rather enjoyable. When friends call me on the phone they comment that although they can barely hear me, I sound like the most joyful dreadfully sick person around.

I am also able to spend time in my basement dwelling – yes I have upgraded from the toolshed to a basement. The introvert in me is loving being sick. I rarely get full day at home lately, let alone DAYS. I’m getting to know my dwelling. Mostly this is good. I have realized I can’t fix my closet door - which is leaning inward, resting against my clothes. But I have been able to reason the logic of the light fixtures in the ceiling to replace three light bulbs that have been burned out for months.

However, I have become more acutely aware of some of the routines of the older couple residing in the house above my basement. They never leave. And they must stay really well hydrated. I know this because I have a loft bed which places my head less than three feet below the ceiling. My head placement and, much to my chagrin, their toilet placement are a bit too close for my comfort. I can hear every nuance of their streaming urine. Without a doubt I can tell you that trying to sleep in with regular peeing directly above your head is not a restful experience. In fact, it has become something of a pet peeve.

The peeing is always followed by the swoosh of the toilet flushing. As I obsessed about the unfortunate toilet placement, my mind started to wander to the flushing too. I began to hate the toilet flush almost as much as the peeing. I countered the irritation with my own harmless passive aggressive solution to see how hydrated I can keep my own body, even matching my peeing with theirs, but in protest - NOT flush the toilet (luckily I live alone…)

Interspersed between toilet flushes from above I read Cadillac Desert. I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to grope for words that describe how I feel when I read this book. Disgust, anger and guilt for living in the West all come to mind but don’t do the feelings justice. My obsession grew, thanks to the book, to wanting to know just how much water is flushed down the pipes above me in a day.

I found a website www.h2ouse.com to help me out. It states that 3.61 gallons are used per flush. 18.8 gallons is the daily capita use with an average of 5.17 flushes a day. These statistics do not come close to representing my upstairs neighbors. They wake around 6:00 AM to feed their 31 year-old pony Brandy, and go to sleep around 10:30 PM. On average the toilet flushes twice an hour, but to keep it consistent with my per capita statistics I will state an average of 1.2 flushes an hour during the day (sometimes there is a double flush). A few times during the night there is more travel to the toilet. Per capita we now have 21.6 flushes per day or 78 gallons per capita of water flushed down the toilet with an upstairs total of 156 gallons. (holy crap!!! As I write, this is the first time I had actually seen these figures.)

My first instinct was to become the environmental savior of the day and rip their toilet out and tell them to invest in a nice chamber pot. But instead I kept number crunching and discovered that if they only had a dual capacity flush toilet they may only use 66.6 gallons a day up there. During my recent trip to New Zealand I noticed that the majority of toilets I came across were dual capacity flush. And that is in a country that rains buckets of water and has very few people. If they can do it, can’t we in the West who, by water standards, shouldn’t even be here in the first place to flush toilets?

Most of the kids I work with, when I ask while sitting on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, have no idea where the water they use comes from. My most depressing answer is, ‘the gutter.’ I get this one almost every week. We are sitting by a river, kids, a river!

An average flow on the South Fork of the American River is 1,200 cubic feet per second (CFS). There is a rock named Gunsight in the middle of a rapid named Troublemaker directly upstream from where I sit with the kids. At this flow the top of the rock is not yet covered. In a long glance that equates to 2,487 toilet flushes passing the rock. It would take my upstairs neighbors 57.6 days to flush the flow of water past Gunsight. Sounds insignificant. But that’s two people. My town of Nevada City has approximately 3,000 residents. If everyone flushed like upstairs (daily flushings compressed to one moment of time) Gunsight would not only be covered, but the river would be in full flood stage with 31,271 CFS crashing over it. If all Nevada City residents flushed a toilet only once all at the same time it would take enough water to have a healthy flow of 1,500 CFS, higher than the average summer flow. That’s a staggering amount of water literally taken out of our rivers and flushed down the toilet.

I can hardly begin advocating always peeing by a tree or bringing back the chamber pot. But, if I ever were in such a position to build my own house, it would sport a composting toilet. Low volume toilets even seem to pale in comparison. Why do we need to flush everything away anyway?? Why not grow a garden from all of our shit and piss instead of sending rivers to treatment plants?