EcoPunk #78

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Covet thy Pathogen
    It was the morning after the seventh winter storm in eight days blasted down from the Gulf of Alaska. The East wind, seeking out the path of least resistance, was blowing out to sea with gusts up into the 50 knot range. Thick clusters of rain the size of 00 buckshot assaulted the region with roof rattling force. Dark armadas of warring clouds seered across the sky undoubtedly enroute to some assault. It was a perfect day to go for a hike.
    Belladonna and I drove up the Willamette for a few dozen miles and then swung East at the Santiam and followed that ancient river up another four dozen.
    The semi-deserted logging towns along the river stand in solemn testament to the lies of Manifest Destiny and the resulting white poverty. Most buildings sit silent; boarded and broken as though awaiting the resurrection of the American Dream, or at the very least, the tender touch of a fresh paint brush. Old automobiles and machines with tattoos reading SKAGIT, LINKBELT and CAT decompose in front of dilapidated trailer homes. Fences bow and eventually crumble along forgotten pastures. The dreary rain adds additional pounds of ambiance only Bruce Springsteen would fully appreciate.
    As the towns grow smaller and fewer between and the land begins to creep upwards towards the Alpine passes and over into the Pines of the High Desert, the River too begins to transform. At just above sea level, where it copulates with the Willamette, the Santiam is a slow moving hulk of brown, sediment filled waters half a mile across at points. At 1500’, the river is narrower, the water faster. At 2500’, as the forest replaces farms, homes and prisons as riverside attractions, the sediment filters out of the water and the river grows clearer, faster and still narrower. At 3000’, where we turn up from the river, it is a roaring gorge of crystal blue water that if calmed down, laid out flat and stripped of its huge drift logs, would look perfectly at place in any tourist brochure from the Caribbean.
    We head South a few hundred feet and park. As soon as the tired Japanese engine quiets, the sound of water overtakes our ears from all sides. The raging Santiam choruses up with the sound of unseen, but very much present  waterfalls. The rains cursed by so many in their denunciations of the Northwest, breathe life of renewal into the land. The streams, resurrected from their subterranean summer homes, pour through the ground every ten or twelve feet on their way lower and lower. The licorice ferns, feeling the tender flirtations of the water, unfold their majestic wings from every bare inch of soil. Even the stubborn riparian trees, the alders and ash, look relieved that once again the rains have kissed the land.    
    We hike along a small shelf and into a small grove of trees marked with red and white flagging. TIMBER SALE UNIT BOUNDARY announces the sagging paper tags. We are here to survey a timber sale drafted up by the Oregon Department of Forestry to help salvage marketable timber from a 126 year old stand of Doug Fir, Hemlock and Alder. The reason for the cut? A small fungus called Phellinus Werrei  that feasts on the roots of firs. Of course, not only do infected trees begin to die from the top down thanks to the annihilation of their food collecting toes, but patients with advanced symptoms tend to fall and blow down, squishing cars and hunters and scaring the living fuck out of resource minded forestry professionals.
    I was here cruising this sale not only to see if the more egregious parts of it could perhaps be circumvented by some eco-forestry elbow grease, but also to challenge my own belief systems.
    See, I’m a tree geek. I know the names and surnames and feeding habits and sex lives of every native tree in the Northwest. I work with trees every day and I dream about them most every night. And yes, I confess, I hate to see trees die.
    After tromping around hundreds of old growth forests and seeing how big and majestic trees can grow if given but a fighting chance, I have come to erroneously believe that something is wrong in a forest if every tree isn’t as wide as I am tall.
    So here I am on my knees in wet duff, fondling the eight inch long, rock hard genitals of a Phellinus fungus. This fungus has been here in this ground longer than any of these trees have been alive. It’s relatives were here back before the parents and grandparents of these fat trees were even twinkles in a gynosperm’s bole. It plays an essential role not only in the maiming, killing and consumption of Firs, but in the life of the forest as a whole.
    So why is it that I have a hard time walking into a forest infected by Phellinus or Annosum or even bark beetles and appreciating the lives and effects of these naturally occurring species? Why is it that old growth forests suckerpunch me right below the rib cage and make me gasp in awe while “destructive” fungi and bacteria that are far older and just as important ecologically as the oldest Juniper or Redwood in North America make me cringe?
    I reckon the answer is a combination of two things. The first, a mental conditioning thanks to an education in resource based forestry and shallow, tree centric ecology piped into my head by urban dipshits like Arne Naess and Starhawk.  The second, and perhaps most potent thing, is the good old human fear of death.
    Aside from war and golf courses and pollution and all that other nasty stuff, civilization has given us a deceitfully evil breakdown of metaphysics where life and death are seperate entities. Death is a dark, malicious force that should be avoided at all costs, even if it means deluding entire cultures into believing a fairy tale of immortality most children would find laughable.
    But here, with no priests or doctors around to distract the human mind, we can see that the distinction between life and death is complete bullshit. Here in the woods, in the world outside religion and dogma, nothing truly dies. This huge fir I’m leaning against will be killed by the root rot whose genitals I’m fondling. But in the death of the fir, billions upon billions of other living things will find life. From the mosses and lichens that will thrive on its decomposing bark to the salamanders and bats who will use it as a home to the tiniest cellulose dissolving bacteria, to the eager roots of hemlock seedlings who will nurse off the corpse, this fir’s demise represents life, eternal life, for the forest.  There is no such thing as waste in a natural ecosystem. Every living thing consumes until it is eventually consumed itself. Even though language and books and the new Tom Waits album try their hardest to convince us otherwise, these natural laws stand as true to us as they do to all other living things.
    I walked away from the hike feeling content with the perfection of nature. The next morning I got the call. The next weekend I was at the wake. The weekend after that I watched the ashen remains of my dear friend Craig Benneville tumble into a hole underneath a six foot thick Doug Fir.
    Anyone who’s ever been around an Earth First! Rendezvous or ELAW bash, will remember Craig as the loudmouthed, funny guy who’d disrupt sober parties with whiskey driven covers of MISFITS, DESCENDENTS and CIRCLE JERKS songs on his acoustic guitar.  He was also a dear friend and coworker of mine who was not only the punkest EF! rowdy in history, but a sweet, caring man who loved the land.
    When Craig fell from that tree to an instant death, everything  I had gleaned from the forest and sea came into direct conflict with the lingering traces of my Christian past. Part of me wants to believe in the eternal life promised by Jerry Falwell and company. Part of me wants to believe Craig’s up there in heaven somewhere playing guitars that are always in tune and rafting amazing rivers where you never gotta go back for your car. That someday, when I take the plunge out of a tree or am killed by a falling snag or drown surfing scary reef passes, I’ll show up in heaven to find Craig and all my other dearly departed sitting around some hot springs playing old oi! songs on steel guitars and a bottle of middle shelf bourbon never out of reach.
    But these lingering Sunday school fantasies, as comforting as they are to my selfish ego who misses Craig and all the others so dearly, are false. Although those comforting arms of Christianity where nothing truly dies, are extremely attractive, I’d prefer to stay down here with my feet in the duff and my fingers on life. I look forward to a life of immortality in the woods where if some far distant scientist was to come out and analyze the chemical contents in a stand of young yews, they’d discover remnants from my own broken body. A few THC molecules here and there in the trees’ crowns, maybe some sulfites from bottom shelf imported merlots floating around on a slime mold, some cheap tattoo ink being used by annelid worms in their bizarre mating rituals, and maybe even some lingering LSD or PCP floating around to give the slugs new to think about.
    So now my bro’s ashes are feeding a big ass fir and the rest of us are left here trying to make sense of it all. But me, I’m gonna do what Craig would do. I’m gonna go climb some trees, drink some whiskey and enjoy the people and places who make my life worth living. Miss you bro...
—mike antipathy • 541.554.0922