Camille Corot: The Burning of Sodom (formerly "The Destruction of Sodom"),1843 and 1857
" … one pair of boots I'm sure grateful I remembered to grab before I left."

Around the time I first moved to Portland in the mid-seventies, the Feds changed their policy regarding their Northwest forest land. They'd previously subsidized a vast rural economy. Cut-rate logging leases encouraged an extractive industry that funded schools, roads, and other government services along with high-paying rural jobs. The locals complained that the damned EPA regulations suddenly protecting small owls and tinier fish caused it, the downfall of entire regions. People were understandably pissed when forced to move into cities or settle into lives as the suddenly working poor. They remembered their grandparents' stories about being poor back before The Dust Bowl had brought them here to the promised land. It had been every bit as good as promised to them up until then. Proud traditions were summarily disrupted and the victims usually blamed for their shifting fortunes. They'd age into a bitter conservatism still remembering when and their children would join a local underground militia, fomenting for similar to their own disruption at the top. The same sorry game played out on the other side of the country in the rust belt, as over the following third of a century, jobs evaporated with little recourse. We'd entered a deliberately disruptive time. Now, of course, Oregon's known as The Silicon Forest, though few ex-loggers work in high tech. Many remain up to their necks in debt from barely surviving and still live in once-thriving but ever-shrinking small towns that hardly seem like towns anymore; slightly wider spots along the road over to Bend or K-Falls.

The surrounding woodland was always good to these people, a genuine wonderland of scenery, recreational opportunity, and game.
Folks fished like they breathed, took their elk, and split their two cord of wood before first snow. They'd drive into Portland a couple of times each year to see the grandkids and marvel at the unnecessary excess, maybe take in a basketball game. They'd gratefully slip back off I-5 to slide back up the Santiam or McKenzie to where they felt more at home, grateful to have gotten away for a spell, but even more grateful for coming 'back home.' Home had always been a matter of going back for them, not forward or away. They'd chosen to stay where they felt most grounded, near where they were originally planted, sprouted, and sunk roots, though the local grocery seemed to sit very near the end of every delivery route, judging by the prices and the looks of what passed for fresh produce there.

The Feds could have continued supporting the lifestyles they'd earlier encouraged, replacing lumbering subsidies with something equally locally lucrative. They could have supported displaced workers, who were not so much workers as citizens. Those people were never displaced citizens and were always worthy of their government's care and attention. They were never merely factors of production to be retrained to support more modern methods of distribution, pawns to the inexorable forces of disruption. Somebody nearer the top had lacked imagination and worlds crumbled. There's absolutely nothing creative about willful destruction, whatever the Viennese economists abstractly insisted. These were largely sins of inattention affecting relatively small minority populations, presumed to become more or less automatically corrected for over time. Nobody wanted it to be their dime someone else depended upon. They'd be fine in the long run. They'd be fine.

After a few frantic decades, the inconvenient truths became a backlog, aching for retribution. A bungled election landed a showman in the top job with an agenda to deliberately disrupt the obvious corruption that had been stifling local liberty for decades. A "reality" TV star, well-connected and rich, became their ally and they, his fervent followers. Those blessed forests grew shabby with inattention and the climate started shifting moisture somewhere else. A random lightning strike or some joker dragging a tow chain starts a chain of events nobody could possibly counter. Another once-in-a-century wind storm screams through, providing flue draft. Was that the third or the fourth one in recent memory? The whole world starts burning and the cell phone chirps in the wee hours of a weekday morning, delivering a single text message commanding you to bug out, and you feel grateful that you thought to grab your boots before you left. The drive to nowhere ringed with burning windfall and smothering beneath blinding ash fall, the exit from the promised land feels distinctly unpromising. You manage to make the way station, a fair grounds set up for something other than the usual seasonal celebration. No corn dogs or tilt-a-whirls this night.

The Burning, some distant expert will insist, was a natural phenomenon, not evidence of any sort of curse on the land or its inhabitants. Forests grow back over time, but over someone else's time, not yours and mine. That little place, isolated and safe just above the green river's bend, won't be habitable again in any of our lifetimes. Home's not back there anymore, it's forward and away, like it had been for the grand folks back in Dust Bowl Days. Which Steinbeck will tell this story? Which Rose A' Sharon might co-star? We're still collecting fresh wounds and cannot even think about healing yet. We're still trying to wrap a smoke-dazed brain around the idea that we might have just become dependent Joads, short one promised land, displaced to some shabby suburban trailer park somewhere, where we won't know a goddamned soul, where we'll be put out to grow old with our green memories and this one pair of boots I'm sure grateful I remembered to grab before I left.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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