After graduating from the University of Oregon in 2001, I moved to 20 acres of land outside of Tumalo, OR. I was joining my Cousin Marcus, to live out of our tents from April until November. Marcus had friends from Alaska that owned the property and in exchange for us moving around the irrigation pipes from time to time, they were kind enough to allow us to squat on their property. When I was leaving Eugene, a friend’s Dad seemed to question my decision, “So, you just spent 4 years earning your degree and now you are going to live out of a tent? What did you major in…camping.”
I remember thinking to myself, ‘Just trying to live a life so I don’t turn out to be like you.’ Even though this man was a Doctor, he represented everything I was trying to avoid in adulthood and camping for the next 6 months seemed like a great place to start! To Marcus and I, the place was paradise and we simply coined it ‘The Ranch.’ We had an outdoor kitchen that sat underneath a pair of Poplar trees that breathed like waterfalls in the wind. There was a small canal that bubbled through the back of the tree line and so we fell asleep to gurgling water every night. The hill that climbed behind us was home to dens of coyotes who would serenade us with their yelping howls when the sun went down. Our tents were carpeted, had dressers and beds in them, and were tall enough to stand in. To say we were roughing it would be a definite overstatement. We used the showers at COCC’s gym and kept the majority of our food at our place of employment, LL Bean. Life was simple and equally is beautiful.
During that time, I was driving back and forth to Eugene several times a month to visit with family and friends. I would follow HWY 126 along the majestic McKenzie River and to some extent, it started to feel like a commute. My friend once said to me, “You are so lucky to make that beautiful drive all the time.” My smug 22 year old-self chirped, “Honestly, I’ve seen it so many times that it kind of gets a little old.” She responded with wisdom that made me reflect, “In a place like the McKenzie, there is always beauty to be found.” She was right and from that day forward, I never took that drive for granted.
A couple of weeks ago, catastrophic wild fires erupted in my home state of Oregon. Here in Korea, we have experienced 3 Typhoons in the past month, which set a record for one season. Those Typhoon’s in Korea added an abundance of moisture to the atmosphere which then caused an air current to be pulled up to the artic. The essential backdraft that the rush of air caused led to the high winds that set Oregon a blaze. Lives have been lost, areas have been scorched, and homes were turned to ashes. One of the river valleys that has been torched, is the McKenzie.
Living 5,000 miles from home can lead to a certain level of detachment. The fires were well documented through news outlets and social media. I talked to my friends and family back home and even though I felt devastated, it did not feel entirely real. It did not hit me until my friend, Pete, sent me a picture of himself dressed in his fire gear, covered in soot and trying to muster up a smile with the backdrop of a smoky haze. Pete and I lived together in College, I was the Best Man in his wedding 18 years ago, he was at Mom’s funeral, and even though there have been times we have fallen out of touch, we have always stay connected. At the ripe old age of 40, Pete decided he wanted a career change and picked one of the most physically demanding and exhausting professions. The only person that would take that on, at that stage of life, is the same one who tries to maintain some semblance of positivity as he stands in a river of ash. Looking at that picture of Pete, was the moment that it hit me.
The land where I fished, camped, rafted, swam, biked, and hiked with friends and family for 40 years would never be the same. Trees that had never been logged, plants that had never been picked, and animals that had never seen people were wiped from this earth. I was brought to tears as that sense of loss that I felt for nature brought me to memories of when my Mom was alive and she and my Dad would walk along that River. Too many things that would never be the same. I have trouble imagining how the forest and all of its inhabitants will recover from a blaze of this magnitude. I’m reminded of the great wildfire in Yellowstone during the mid 90’s and the sheer devastation that brought to an entire ecosystem. And, how in nature, fire is a necessary part of the system for re-birth and Yellowstone has returned to its serene beauty.
My Parents on the McKenzie River
However, a fire of this size and force is not normal as there are so many human factors which have altered the world thus making it unnatural. Climate change is Science and to engage in a democracy, we must have some agreed upon facts, which include stuff like Science. If you are someone who does not believe in Science at this point, nothing I’m going to say will change your mind. However, this is one example of how interconnected we all are in this world and how are actions all have the potential to affect one another.
I have believed for many years that the natural world is one of our greatest teachers. There are lessons that we learn about ourselves when we interact with our biological environment that we cannot learn in a classroom, Church, or through Google. Since the last Presidential election, I feel like our nation has been set on fire. The egregious accounts of racism, sexism, and corruption from the highest office in the land have escalated to the point where people are ripping at each other’s throats. When I see the Police brutality that continues to occur in Black communities, the neglect and abuse that is taking place in ICE detention facilities, and when elected officials who are women are called derogatory names by self-proclaimed, ‘good men,’ I question how will our humanity ever recover. Some of the other amazing teachers we have in this world, are our youth. They have the relentless energy to fight for change with the power of immediacy. Following the last Presidential election, there was a racist event that took place at the school where I was working where a group of white students started chanting ‘Build a Wall,’ to group of Latino students. I found out 3 years later that one boy even pulled on a girl’s hair and sneered, ‘Go back to Mexico.’ The Latino students, who were on the brink of no longer wanting to attend that school because of the racism, had the power and grace to turn the hatred into something positive and created a club. The purpose of this club was for people of all cultures to come together and form a more welcoming environment at a school that had in fact, not welcomed them. The students from the Cross Cultural Club are graduating high school, now in college, soon to be parents, and social justice warriors. They march for Black Lives and when Federal agents show up to deport members of their community, they block the buses. When they see something wrong happening, they have the power to use their voice and cement themselves on the right side of history. Just like Nature will find a way to heal from the Wildfires, for me, our youth will teach us how to change, forgive, and help us to heal our humanity.
Some of My Teachers