The bear feels his own fat
Sweeten, like a drowse, deep to the bone.
Bemused, above the fume of ruined blueberries,
The last bee hums.
The wings, like mica, glint
In the sunlight.
He leans on his gun. Thinks
How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.
–Robert Penn Warren
There is a family of mountain bluebirds that nest in a birdhouse in our yard every year. They come in spring, take up residence just long enough to raise other mountain bluebirds to flight, and then they are gone. They leave about the same time the blue-green swallows arrive, with their manic and dazzling flights. This year the bluebirds came when I was having my morning tea and devouring great scoops of Robert Penn Warren–who wrote so brilliantly about cypress swamps and southern pride as a damaging curse, and of course about those nearly Jurassic birds that stretch their necks and scull the swampy southern air for lift.
I am always delighted when I see the bluebirds back in their box because I take it as sign, from somewhere, that we are doing something right. I don’t know if we are doing anything right but the bluebirds still feel like a message. I also don’t know where they go when their chicks finally take flight. Berry patches, maybe, somewhere out on the juniper flat. I’ve never been there when they emerge because I don’t like to intrude. I give them room to be bluebirds. They make me feel like a guest in my own house which, let’s be honest, is all that any of us really are.
We are backing into summer here, with incredible rains. It has been raining off and on, mostly on, for the last couple of weeks. This is unusual on this side of the Cascades. We are the dry side of Oregon and the drought here has been severe—even looking at a tree sideways might cause it to burst into flames. I live in constant fear of fire, and have a vision I cannot shake of our barn engulfed. So we welcome the rains even if, underneath it all, we know it won’t be enough. Wells near us have run dry, and more will run dry this summer. There isn’t enough water to support the number of people who want to live here but we aren’t meant to say that out loud. The growth economy is running on fumes across wide swaths of the world, and in our local case it’s a sunshine daydream fueled by water vapor. Rain does not follow the plow. But they still want to build 400 new houses in Sisters and a resort out on the desert where there isn’t any water.
The bodies and the cars and the old boats are floating to the surface of Lake Mead, which should offer a warning but the larger conversation in America is about whether or not we are allowed to use the term “breast-feeding.” The latest directive from national thought headquarters is that the appropriate term is “chest-feeding.” This is more inclusive because some men think they are women. Or is it women who think they are men? I’m not sure.
Which isn’t why we decided to sell our place and move on. That’s part of it, but there is more. The cowboy part of me is ready to roll my bed, to ride some new range and, as Ian Tyson would have it, to learn some new knots to tie. That’s at the heart of it, though it is true that Sisters is changing in ways we don’t like, and that central Oregon is just getting too full of people for the way we want to live. The growing season here is only 60 days which–as a guy who likes to grow food–is something I’m also weary of. I want more vegetables, and more time to grow them. Every spring it feels like we are digging out from a Grad rocket attack in Luhansk. The mind feels bunkered and bruised. Winters here are hard, and long, and I’m ready for something else. We have our sights set on Texas but it may not be Texas. I don’t know. We misjudged the market here by a couple of weeks and may not sell as soon as we had hoped.
None of this is helped by the inescapable conclusion that there are children running the country, bottlenecking their ideology into the system and hoping for forced conversions. The theory isn’t working for anyone who isn’t a billionaire, and the President of the United States, let’s be honest, is a mumbling, shuffling, ass-clown.
Still, we have the rain. This morning I fed the horses in a lovely downpour—they love it too—and stood for a long time just breathing the air, listening to the rain batter my hat, and watching them eat. And just now there is a squirrel outside my office window, motionless on a tree branch, a soaked and desperate looking thing, his nose aimed into the raindrops. His tail is curled back over his head and he’s wearing it like a hat. Squirrels don’t sit still but he is frozen in time and alone with his squirrel thoughts and it is something interesting to see. The last time I saw a squirrel sit still this long I also watched a hawk dive-bomb through the branches, crash to the ground with dinner shrieking in his talons, then carry it away through the ponderosas. But I think this guy will make it. Combat sorties are grounded today. I see excellent things from this window and the next one will have to offer something just as good to keep me interested in the main.
They are calling it an atmospheric river, this rain, which is a kind of poetry I can get behind, particularly when most of our national atmosphere looks more like the Shit River in Olangapo. Even in this life-giving rain my thoughts can run dour because as a young boy, playing with stick guns in the sagebrush, I had higher hopes. I thought the world had higher aspirations. I trusted adults. Nobody ever taught me to hate other people. I came up with some other vision, closer to what Giono wrote about in Joy of Man’s Desiring, which has been well-summated as a “revolt against industrial materialism.”
It would be hard to know that was an abiding principle based on the sheer amount of consumer shit we discovered while readying this house for sale. We’ve sold or given away a lot of it and that has had an actual physical effect, like quitting drinking or losing forty pounds. Some days I just want to set up my nordic tipi in the back forty and live out of it.
This morning came news of an arrest in Idaho, a U‑haul van full of nitwits wearing weird costumes and allegedly in town to disrupt some kind of gay pride event. They all got zip-tied and put on their knees. They hadn’t done anything, yet, and before the hatchets come out let’s just stipulate they were nitwits. They’ve been described as white supremacists and extremists but those terms have lost much of their meaning and from 30k feet it’s difficult to know if that’s true. If those things are true, then, naturally, I condemn their stupidity and ignorance with prejudice. But it was interesting that they hadn’t done anything yet and the charge was a “conspiracy to riot.” Which sounds more like a thought crime than anything they actually did, given they were apparently circle-jerking in the back of a rented van when they were arrested.
I don’t know what to make of most things, these days. I feel like Chichester sailing the Gypsy Moth through the Roaring 40s. At night. In a storm. The main thing is: don’t fall overboard and pray the mast doesn’t snap.
There are reasons to stay in the fight. Here’s one: a couple of weeks ago I was grilling meat on the back porch and looked over at the little creek in our yard. There was a bird there I had never seen before. His colors, yellows and reds, were so vivid and so bright I thought for an instant somebody’s tropical pet had escaped. I stood there like an idiot absently clutching a meat-fork and watching this bird dip his head into the water, mesmerized by a bird made out of sorbet. He was only there a minute, on his way to some-place else. When he was gone I ran up the stairs into my office to research what the hell I had seen. Turns out, it was a western tanager. In the lore, a yellow tanager is meant to symbolize joy, and good luck, and fortune to come.
So I hold onto that. I write, and I read, and I wait for the clouds to part, for the brilliant sun to come out, and for the rain we need so badly to finally stop. Which is when I know the squirrel will budge from his branch and birds will come out of the forest again, conspiring to riot.