Oregon 2005 (2)

3. Vandalism and Pride

Thursday Sept. 15, 2005. I get into Portland around noon pacific time. After picking up a rental car, I make my way to the older, western part of the city, and  (in order to be sure I can find it later) drive down to Lewis and Clark College, which is where my niece Ari goes to school. Then I find a hotel and, a few blocks away, the Oregon Historical Society Museum, a handsome four-story building with a research library and several floors of interactive exhibits, well chosen to hold one’s interest while bringing out a firmer sense of the reality of other times. I am fortunate enough to be there on almost the last day of  the seven-month long exhibition, “A Fair to Remember: The 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition.”

In museums, I gravitate toward films. Film provides more information, in a shorter time, presented in a way that makes that information more meaningful, than does any other means of visual education. An old film shows you two things at once: How things used to be, and how the people at the time thought things were. These can be two very different things.

There is this film showing that had been made in the 1930s to show off Oregon’s wealth of natural resources, especially timber and salmon. Against a backdrop of spoken commentary glorifying production, I saw visuals at once inspiring and horrifying. Two men with a long saw making the final cut that brought down a tree that must have been a dozen feet wide at the base. Machinery in the forests hauling timber down to the river. Fishermen with nets hauling in harvests of salmon stacked as thick as cordwood, many of the fish more than three feet long. Canning factories cleaning, slicing, cutting, and fitting into cans an unending river of salmon. All of it against an unending litany of statistics: how many board feet, how many thousand salmon, how many hundred jobs.

Years ago I would have been able to join in that triumphant chorus, celebrating our victory over economic hardship and over the ever-resistant forces of nature. Today, I look at all that triumphant production and see organized vandalism. Nobody’s fault, really, unless it be that of the economic theorists who spurred it on – but we live in a shrunken, diminished, impoverished world, and we in turn have been impoverishing our descendents. Walnut is a beautiful wood, plentiful once. When was the last time you could afford walnut furniture? It is scarce today, never replanted in anything near the amounts that were felled. Oak, same thing. Maple. Ash. Mahogany. Elm. Redwood…. Read the litany. Species so abundant they could hardly be counted, and seemed to need no protection. All gone. What wasn’t destroyed is endangered. What isn’t endangered has been decimated. And it’s the same with animals, of course.

It didn’t have to be that way. Living resources – trees, whales, salmon, anything – can be harvested forever, if you do it intelligently and carefully. It isn’t difficult. It involves conservation, thoughtful use, timely replenishment. Mostly, it involves avoidance of waste.

Years ago I used to go walking and talking with an older friend, a Catholic priest, a native of Ireland who didn’t see this country until he was 20 years old – which gave him a different perspective on us than we have on ourselves. One time he said to me that societies can force an individual to share certain sins, and cited how difficult it is to live in our society without wasting. Every year, the truth of that becomes clearer.

The world we inherited from 200 years of exuberant, industrious, inventive, can-do American pioneers on frontiers and in factories has been vastly diminished. Where are the 17-foot wide trees to cut today? Where are the boundless salmon, the endless herds of buffalo, the sperm whales? They are scarce, or they are gone, and we are the poorer for it.

For fifty years, our rapid and accelerating impoverishment was masked by the energy released by oil in various forms: heating oil, diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, whatever. That day too is rapidly coming to an end. There’s little cheap oil left. We mostly wasted it, in a phenomenal spree that lasted less than a hundred years. What’s left is precious and as it becomes scarcer and more expensive, we are going to be in for a rude awakening – at least, I hope we’ll awaken – as we realize how much poorer we are because of all we once had, that we let slip through our fingers.

They weren’t bad men, those loggers. They weren’t bad women, those fish canners. They were feeding their families and getting by. And the factory owners, the timber cutting company, they didn’t set out to deliberately impoverish America. They were doing what everybody else was doing, and they were – they surely thought – serving Progress. Looking at their film that showed them in their strength and pride, I really want to share their pride, to share their feeling of victory over the elements. I understand what they thought they were doing, and I have no doubt at all that had I been there in that time, in that place, in that mind-set, I would have been enthusiastically among them. Indeed, when I was younger I used to feel that way myself. They were not in any way bad people, and the terrible result of their actions was never intended by any of them. But it is like watching organized vandalism.

I don’t have it in me to condemn them. I love those courageous hard-working Oregonians of another generation, but I can’t simply and fully share their pride. I have seen the beginning of what must follow from so much exuberant destruction. 

4. Chasing Smallwood

Thursday Sept. 15, 2005. Will of the wisp, probably, one of several. In 17 years of on-again, off-again (mostly off-again) searching, I have yet to come up with the least shred of external evidence for any of the “past lives” I have encountered internally, Joseph Smallwood not least. But for several of them there has been plenty of intuitive evidence, personal experience that would persuade no one except the only person it would need to persuade: myself

The story that I have gotten, from time to time over the course of more than a dozen years, is that Joseph Smallwood, born in Vermont in the 1820s, graduated Harvard College, met Emerson and Thoreau, and eventually came to Oregon, purposely following the trail of Lewis and Clark 40 or so years later. I had heard, as well, that he had met the young John Muir, and perhaps had inspired Muir with an interest in Indians. (This has always posed a chronological problem, but, given how little else I knew, I had just left it in among the other items as “to be decided.”) I had gotten the feeling, too, that Smallwood eventually served as a Union officer in the Civil War, perhaps getting wounded at Gettysburg. Of his life after that, no idea, though I had a sort of feeling that he had ended his days in Oregon, perhaps connected to a college that he had helped get started.

Can any of it be authenticated? The thought comes to me that, since I am  here in the Oregon State Historical Museum library, and since the library features volunteer researchers who are used to helping people with genealogical researches, perhaps this is an opportunity not to be passed up.

I hook up with a volunteer who is very friendly, very interested. I tell her what I think I know of Smallwood, but not how I think I know. I do tell her, though, that what I’m telling her is what I’ve heard, and I don’t know if any of it is correct. Apparently she is used to dealing with stories even vaguer and harder to pin down.

The society has ample resources. She tries the biography card file, and the pioneer card file and other things that I can’t remember. She gives me a list of places to look, including Vermont genealogy, Harvard and Cambridge genealogies and “Oregon Territory” genealogy. (And I realize with a start that of course even if the story is accurate, Smallwood may never have set foot in the state of Oregon, but may have been in what is now Washington state, instead. Strange that this had never occurred to me.) She suggests various ways for me to search the internet and, in short, comes up with more ideas in less than an hour than have occurred to me in thirteen years. Whether any of them will pan out? Well, we’ll see. One curious, suggestive, but indeterminate footnote to the story comes after I get to Lost Valley.

(more tomorrow)

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