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High Desert Journal fall 2010 issue 12


h igh d e s e rt j o u r n a l


fiction & nonfiction

Finding Frémont in Oregon: Loren Irving’s

9 John Rember. A Few Rocks from the Box: A Meditation 14 Laura Pritchett. Plan B 18 Scott Carrier. The Source of the Spell 29 Jay Bowerman. April 1 31 Anna Roberts. Without a Grave 37 Charles Finn. Yes, S**t 41 Robert Finn. From the Canyon to the Stars

photograph of a birch grove in the mountains 4

in eastern Oregon used by explorer John C. Frémont as a campsite on December 15, 1843. Using records from the 19th century explorer’s historic journey through Oregon, Irving has located and photographed all of Frémont’s 32 camps. Page 24.

High Desert Journal fall 2010 issue 12

Ellen McFadden Wallowa acrylic on canvas 24 ~ 36 inches


art & photography

2 Paulann Petersen. Gravity 3 Paulann Petersen. Bright Song Bred in a Dark Throat 8 Gretel Erhlich. Moon 23 Robert Michael Pyle. The Girl with the Cockleburs in her Hair 23 Robert Michael Pyle. Early Morning in Wyoming 23 Scott Siegel. rfp 32 Ursula K. Le Guin. Driving by the Butte on the Frenchglen Road 33 Ursula K. Le Guin. Rain All Day in August 33 Jane Carpenter. What a Blossom Knows 40 KH Solomon. Mile 615 42 Nathaniel Dunaway. Speak, harsh land 46 Lyn Lifshin. Moonrise 46 Jason Cassella. Maturation

12 Ellen McFadden. Paintings 16 Melissa Bangs. Baring Bones 24 Loren Irving. Finding FrĂŠmont in Oregon 33 Jeremy Lurgio. Water pipes. 32 Roger Dorband. Photographs 32 Ursula K. Le Guin. Sketches. 45 Ross Chambless, Ben Cromwell, Lindsy FLoyd, Meaghan McKasy, Katie Plumb. The Earth: Cost-Benefit Analysis


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Just this one dropped rock, this cloud, this balled up swelling come to shade our guarded separateness. Just this one light thrown down to link our disparities in a more-than-human-universe where corvid, canine, and equine minds reign. Just this one lunar phase which contains every phase: where new is full and the lopsided gibbous moon is the orange of something rising. Just this one unseen peak whose name we’ve forgotten, this one glacial lake whose felsenmeer has spilled its cold contents valleyward, this ice-carved place where nothing returns. There’s something I must tell you, something I’ve hidden something I’ve not quite known something that needed moonlight to see by: the Way has no front, no back, no before or after, is both hidden and apparent, open and formed. This too and from now on: the full moon will show itself only once, the tide will go out and not return, days will erase themselves. Think about what ocean water looks like when it’s dry, its vapors and salt, its bleached corals, dead fish, vents and trenches. Soon we will be banished to a lonely coast where the last uprooted tree has fallen down a sandstone cliff, where the circle of life as we know it, its bold timelines marked by tidal fluctuations, will be ripped apart and in that breach the world’s seas will drain and the great dry will cover our ability to touch and dusk will break into fine pebbles that look like 8

evening rain.

– gr e t e l e h r l ic h

photo: nasa



by joh n r em ber


In my sophomore year of college I enrolled in a course that had given generations of students a painless way to satisfy the liberal-arts science requirement. It was known as Rocks for Jocks, and the final exam was the easy identification of every rock in a box. If you wanted an A in science, you took geology. But the first day of geology class, a new professor announced Rocks for Jocks was over. The faculty of Arts and Sciences was determined to bring rigor into the geology program. We were now in a science class, and he was going to teach us science, no matter what had been taught in the past. The final exam had nothing to do with a box of rocks. It asked for a coherent explanation of the chemistry and resulting crystal structures of basaltic minerals under varying conditions of temperature and pressure. I had studied my ass off and was still grateful for the B-minus I received. Along the way I had been drilled on high-temperature physics and the dynamics of dissolved gasses, and how aluminosilicate, with its strong chemical bonds, makes country rock hang together. I can still tell you about the relationship between plagioclase and orthoclase, information I haven’t used in 40 years.



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Other aspects of the course have become more important over the years. The professor was the paleontologist Steven Jay Gould, who delighted us with lectures on why Godzilla and King Kong would die of heat stroke before they wrecked a single city, and why Mothra wouldn’t be able to fly unless the atmosphere had the density of water. Later, when I read Gould’s books, his sentences echoed the clear thinking that had brought the realities of classical physics into his paleontology lectures. In one of those books, Gould went beyond classical physics and applied chaos theory to paleontology and developed a refinement of evolutionary theory known as punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium, put much too simply, suggests that species stabilize for millions of years until something happens and most of them die. Each flowering of evolution is simply natural selection, operating in a world full of empty ecological niches. Ten million years after a mass extinction, the earth has a whole new zoo. The agent of extinction is climate, if climate includes asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, the sudden transformation of methane clathrates into atmospheric methane and the appearance of capitalist hominids. Punctuated equilibrium has been accepted by most evolutionary scientists, yet if Gould were alive today, he’d be subjecting it to his own scientific skepticism. He consistently used science to undermine pseudoscientific certainty, magical thinking about technology and the appropriation of scientific metaphors by non-scientists. He was particularly hard on people who tried to use science to enforce racist policies or determine standards for intelligence. But he questioned his own work just as much as he questioned the work of the more reckless and less intelligent people who also called themselves scientists. The scientific method is just a powerful way to process data, Gould told us. Anyone who makes a religion of science doesn’t understand it. Certainty isn’t the point. Asking the right questions is the point. Any hypothesis can be overturned by new data and there’s always new data. So in college I learned to believe in a method, rather than in the data it processed. My geology course made it hard for me to believe anyone’s didactic scientific pronouncements, especially when they posed as prophecy. If all this sounds deeply conservative, it is. To bring science into any controversy is to introduce shades of gray forbearance where once all was foam-at-the-mouth black and white. But while the scientific method is slow, if you’d like to see through the cloud of bullshit generated by bought-and-paid-for scientific experts, it provides some useful optics.

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so, 40 y e a r s l at e r. Stephen Jay Gould is dead of mesothelioma, possibly contracted from one of the large blocks of asbestos fibers that were used as teaching aids in college geology labs back in the day. I remember watching a geology lab assistant peel a long feathery fiber from one of those blocks and wave it at us while lecturing on crystal structure. “You can make clothes from these crystals,” he said. As a civilization, we just didn’t know. Or if we did know, we lacked the ability to name the idiocy and blind malice that underlay consumer culture. When the dying miners in Libby, Montana were presented with evidence of what working in the asbestos mines had done to them, some of them refused to believe it. The deliberate stupidity required to construct an asbestos industry – stupidity elevated to the status of evil – is beyond the capacity of human intelligence to believe in it. In his later writings, Gould demolished the cover that socalled scientific experts provided for lethal technologies, but that has not kept whole industries from continuing to employ science PhDs who will testify that dangerous and useless products and procedures are safe and effective.


afte r col l ege i starte d worki ng as a medical writer and had almost finished a book on heart disease before the company I was working for went broke. For six months I had read medical textbooks and peer-reviewed cardiology studies and talked to cardiologists, and I knew a bunch about the human heart and its maladies. But I also knew something about the impossibility of designing study parameters and interpreting results. Briefly put, you can never identify all the causes of a heart attack. You can never identify all the effects of a drug on a human heart or on the human life it maintains. So you can have the famous Framingham Study, which tracked 40,000 people over 50 years, identifying as many risk factors for heart disease as possible, and when all the data is in you’ll find that you missed a major risk factor or came to the wrong conclusion about a drug or procedure. Every postulated result is subject to argument. The data that the Framingham Study has produced will be mined for years by teams of people using ever more sophisticated methods of analysis to promote their competing hypotheses. If you want to see in how many different directions the same data can be stretched, take a look at Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If that book doesn’t shake your faith in the ability of science to know anything for certain, nothing will.


“by th e summe r of 2010,” is the opening phrase of a chapter in a history that will be written in 2020. I’d give anything to read the rest of that sentence right now, but the nature of future histories involves a tedious waiting for verification. But here are some guesses: “… world population was approaching seven billion humans.” “… atmospheric concentrations of CO2 had reached 394 ppm.” “… pollinator activity was declining over broad areas in the central and southwestern U.S.” “… it was clear that the U.S. Congress could not serve as an effective regulator of international corporations.” “… the rate of North Korean plutonium production was 10 times what it had been two years before.” “… Dr. Weltentod had been retired from bioweapons work for 10 years. Alzheimer’s was making it hard for him to function, and he was becoming more and more paranoid and isolated. But the freezer in his basement was still humming away, and the samples he had smuggled out of the lab decades before were still intact.” You can have fun doing this sort of thing, but you won’t be much wiser for it. The lesson here is that the present can’t reveal the truth of our lives, but future historians can. I’d like to talk to one of them. Preferably a human one, which limits the time frame we can talk about. There are plenty of exponential curves and feedback loops that humanity is sitting on. Common sense suggests a subset of them will prove broadly lethal. I’d like to know which ones they are. I won’t find out until it’s too late. It’s already too late.

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p h ot o g r a phs & discove ry by lore n i rvi ng

FINDING FRÉMONT IN OREGON On November 25, 1843, explorer John C. Frémont and his military expedition of 25 men – including Kit Carson and young Billy Chinook, 104 horses,

some “California cattle,” and a 223-pound howitzer canon – left The Dalles, Oregon and traveled south, staying east of the Cascades. He returned by

way of Sutter’s Fort in Mexican California. His report was printed just as James K. Polk became president, a time when expansionist feeling was

high; the 10,000 copies of his report increased Frémont’s heroic stature. Using Frémont’s readings of latitude, descriptions of topography from


Frémont’s daily journal and details from Charles Preuss’ map, Loren Irving has located and photographed all of Frémont’s 31 camps in Oregon. Irving

is a man absorbed in the history and landscape of Frémont’s travels and his energy for the project is transcribed in the clarity of his images.


summer l ake c a mp december 16th, 1843 “Riding rapidly ahead to this spot, we found ourselves on the verge of a vertical and rocky wall of the mountain. At our feet – more than a thousand feet below – we looked into a green prairie country, in which a beautiful lake, some twenty miles in length, was spread along the foot of the mountains ... Just then the sun broke out among the clouds, and illuminated the country below; while around us the storm raged fiercely. The glow of the sun in the valley below brightened up our hearts with sudden pleasure; and we made the woods ring with joyful shouts to those behind; and gradually, as each came up, he stopped to enjoy the


unexpected scene. Shivering on snow three feet deep, and stiffening in a cold north wind, we exclaimed at once that the names of Summer Lake and Winter Ridge should be applied to these two proximate places of such sudden and violent contrast. ” – joh n c. frémont




Will Dr. Dennis Jenkins Turn Back the Archaeological Clock on America? “The first site to break the Clovis barrier will have to be utterly unimpeachable in all respects.” – dav i d m e lt z e r, c h a i r of anth ropology, south e rn methodist u n ive rsity

by c h a r l es fi n n

Archaeologists are like five-year-olds: A piece of a puzzle is missing and they send themselves scouring under the furniture to retrieve it. The lost piece can be anything from a tiny fragment of bone or chip of obsidian to – as you will see – a desiccated human turd, and the furniture isn’t simply a plaid Chesterfield with dubious floral pattern, but thousands of pounds and even more years of accumulated dirt and rock, which, according to the rules, can only be removed using a garden trowel and whisk. To make matters worse the missing piece is never lost in Aunt Mary’s living room, but hundreds of miles away in a remote corner of nowhere, an expanse of wilderness and desert chronically exposed to the vicissitudes of loneliness and weather. Despite such hardships whole careers are happily spent looking for a single piece, and while the process of finding it is hard enough, photos: kolby schnelli



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bringing it back to the table, fitting it into the puzzle and getting other players to agree it belongs there is equally, if not more, of a challenge. Five miles south of Paisley, Oregon (population, 200) Dr. Dennis Jenkins, senior staff archaeologist for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, is the eternal five-yearold: optimistic, adventuresome, playful to an alarming degree and possessed of an infectious and indefatigable energy. More importantly, he believes he has found a piece to one of the most contested and intriguing puzzles in all of archaeology. Up until now the question of who first inhabited the Americas, when and where and how they got here, was answered by something called the Clovis-First model, a theory that the first Americans crossed a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and migrated down an ice-free corridor along the coast of Canada to expand across North America and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. The theory dovetails nicely with what is known of glaciology and is based on the Clovis point, an easily identifiable stone point first unearthed in Clovis, New Mexico, and later found scattered throughout the Americas. In recent years, however, like a person working a stone tool, the model has been chipped away at, the mounting evidence piling up against it like flakes of obsidian at a flint knapper’s knees. Still, no one has definitively broken the “Clovis barrier,” a barrier which Dr. Jenkins when he publishes his findings could quite easily refute with a high degree of accuracy and no little amount of irony by simply saying, “Shit.”


arc haeological ly speaki ng, shit is referred to as a coprolite – desiccated excrement – and at Paisley Caves, Dr. Jenkins has been turning up some very old coprolites, human ones with genetic markers found only in Native American populations and radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago, some 1,200 years prior to Clovis. If this is the case, if the considerable care to which Dr. Jenkins is conducting his research pays off, it will push back the clock of Paleoamerican colonization of the Americas, reshuffle the puzzle and ask archaeologists to begin again. In July of this year, I went to visit Dr. Jenkins and his team of researchers at the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves. The caves are really a series of west-facing rock shelters, overhangs scooped out of a basalt cliff 21,000 years ago by wave action from the pluvial Lake Chewaucan, a body of water which rose and fell numerous times during the Pleistocene. The caves are located in the Summer Lake Basin, an expanse of sagebrush and silence 130 miles south of Bend, Oregon, and dubbed “the empty quarter” by some. Driving there on Highway 31 it seemed an appropriate appellation: turkey vultures circled above grazing antelope and the landscape was frugal with houses at best – and yet with each passing mile it felt like I was getting somewhere that mattered. Finally, turning east off the highway and approaching across the bed of the extinct Lake Chewaucan, the caves shimmered in the afternoon heat, mirage-like, wobbling in and out of focus as if somehow still trying to belong to a hazy and ill-defined past. 2010 marks Jenkins’ fifth summer excavating the caves (it is his 21st as Director of the University of Oregon Northern Great Basin Field School) and standing at the entrance to Cave 5 he looks much as you would expect. Jenkins is tan and lean, his face a stratigraphy of finely hatched lines, the bulk of which radiate out from the corners of his eyes, his eyes the color of the high desert sky, not straight above but halfway down, where it turns to a pale milky-blue. Jenkins calls himself “a dirt archaeologist,” a term meant to imply a lowly status but in reality a source of pride, and true to that pride he dons a sweatstained, dirt-encrusted hat, a near decade-old leather affair worthy of excavation itself. At 57, Jenkins sports a thick white mustache and the beginning of a potbelly, the latter an occupational hazard of the hot, dusty environment that surrounds him. Each year, Jenkins and his crew erect what they call a cultural artifact, “Beer Island,” a pile of stones in the Chewaucan River to house their cooler of beer after work. Beer Island is a much talked about and anticipated part of each day and given the nature of the work – at day’s end the crew can resemble a cadre of coal miners – it’s impossible to begrudge them its importance. Jenkins calls archeology “a monotonous process with every once in a while a few heart-pounding seconds of discovery.” His crew, made up of an assistant and seven college students, opt for a more heady interpretation, defining it as the smell (and then immediately amending that to be the taste) of rat droppings; a fine loess of which permeates the air, gets in your clothing and hair, even on your lips and tongue. College credits aside, after eight hours folded into a meter wide trench or sifting dirt in the sun, a cold beer to wash down any or all three of these definitions seems only the beginning of fair. The first thing Jenkins does is have me jump down in one of the excavated trenches. Sandbags from the sifted dirt that came out of it are stacked as retaining walls and slope back like an amphitheater. Jenkins is pointing out the different layers of strata. There is a thick layer of easily identifiable Mazama ash, volcanic spume set down 7,700 years ago, and pockets of “rat dobe” wood rat middens that go back centuries. Jenkins is radiocarbon dating nearly every layer of strata and when he’s done will have 200 dates in descending order, bottoming out where his Wolverine boot soles meet the bedrock. Jenkins’ research relies on a trifecta of data: radiocarbon and obsidian hydration dating techniques, dna from the coprolites and cultural artifacts found in situ, in place. In the late 1930s and early 40s Luther Cressman, founder of the University of Oregon’s anthropology department, stood where we are. Cressman had unearthed what he believed to be a hearth and at the back of the cave bones of extinct horse and camel – Pleistocene animals – as well as debitage from tool making. This was a different era, a time of pick and shovel archaeology, when speed trumped technique and technique was a strong back. That being the case, Cressman worked quickly, seldom placing his finds in situ and not mapping the dig for future scrutiny. photo: jim barlow

Profile for High Desert Journal

High Desert Journal #12  

The best literature and art of the interior West.

High Desert Journal #12  

The best literature and art of the interior West.