Monday, June 21, 2010

Portland to Portland

I'm done with travel for a while, hopefully for the summer. Thank heavens for that.

I don't particularly enjoy the part of my job that requires me to go to conferences and meetings. I never have. Other Unity College faculty, including my lovely wife, and most other professors I know, do often enjoy it. But I don't. I'm a serious homebody, and frankly if left to my own devices I probably wouldn't feel much like going anywhere except perhaps in the dead of winter.

The reason is, what place could be better than here?

All this "the grass is greener" stuff: I got over that long ago. As a young man I traveled an awful lot. Now I've settled down, I'm pretty glad to have this farm and this life and rarely wish to leave it.

The best aspect of this recent trip was not the conference, although it was fine as conferences go. It was the view out of the airplane window. Living in Maine and rarely visiting the lower 47, I'd forgotten how huge and well endowed with natural resources the American continent is. To get to where I was going, I flew from Portland, Maine to Chicago to Portland, Oregon. I couldn't see much on the first flight since I was in an aisle seat on an aircraft with six seats per row. But from Chicago to Oregon I had a window seat and likewise had one all the way back to Maine.

For those of you who've never seen it, the interior of the US is a wonder of human ecology. The first part of the Midwest, once the Chicago suburbs were past, is marked by rich flatland farms on a mile square, two or four or six farmhouses per section. The grid is completely regular. But but by bit, the central plains, where prior to white settlement, long-grass prairie was the dominant ecosystem, give way to the high plains and the short grass prairie. Yields decline too. the eastern Midwest is massively productive, with deep soils and enough water for corn and soy. The far western plains can barely grow grass, and bit by bit become a desert, except where bottomland glows green.

If we were on the ground, we'd smell the sagebrush and walk over bare rock and hear the western meadowlark and the red-winged blackbird.

Over the Dakotas and Nebraska the rich fat farmhouses thin out until eventually there's less than one per section, less plowland and fewer outbuildings, and the land becomes more and more penetrated by irregular natural features, unplowed ridge lines and tree-lined streams, slickrock and eventually patches of forest on the northern slopes of the higher ridges as the ground rises to meet the Rockies.

On this trip, we crossed the Missouri in northern Iowa or Dakota, I couldn't tell, and then followed a tributary up into the Badlands. The tributary was so heavy with silt as to be coffee-colored, and not black coffee, either, but more of a cappuccino or
café au lait tint. I thought it seemed polluted, but it may have been natural: "too thin to plow and too thick to drink" was first said of the Platte, but it's true of many western streams.

We saw the Black Hills and then the coal basins of Wyoming or eastern Montana with obvious strip mines, and then various "island in the sky" mountain ranges leapt out of the dry prairie. I was able to identify the I-90 freeway from Sheridan, Wyoming to Billings, Montana, and the Yellowstone River and then thickening cloud forced a loss of my bearings. The Rockies in this part of the world, as Lewis and Clark discovered, are several hundred miles wide, and one range after another would show itself beneath the cloud. I know the country pretty well, having lived there for ten years, but I couldn't figure out a single landmark after the Yellowstone. Still it was gorgeous. Thick forest on all but the steeper southernmost slopes, and plenty of snow.

I'd forgotten how late the snow lingers into the summer on the high ranges of the Rockies.
That winter snowpack is the water supply for all those ranches on the high and the Oregon plains.

The best view of the whole trip was Mt. Hood, a giant ice-cream sundae, which, at this point in our flight, towered above the aircraft itself, as we had begun our descent. Trapped in my window seat and unable to make it to my backpack for the camera, I just stared in awe, eventually getting a crick in my neck as the mountain was left in our rear. I never climbed Mount Hood, although I've been on Mt. Shasta to the south, a similar volcanic peak. The Williamette valley was rich with truck farms (market gardens to the Brits who read this) and orchards, and then we were landing in the Portland suburbs.

Flying back, from Portland, Oregon to Newark, New Jersey, to Portland, Maine, the cloud was thick much of the way. I was able to identify the Columbia River Gorge though one small gap, and saw the last ranges of the Rockies and glimpses of the high plains. Then nothing until Lake Michigan. Lake Erie was free of cloud, and I clearly identified Erie, Pennsylvania and what might have been the southernmost parts of western Quebec, with the classic finger-thin fields of the habitants. I thought I could make out the Adirondack region. The Catskills were obvious, as was the meadowlands where Newark airport is located. On the last flight home we saw the Hudson River, the Connecticut River and southern New Hampshire before landing in Portland.

It's strange to me that the rest of the folks on an airplane don't stare out of the window the way I do. It seems to me that there's something wrong here. When given a window seat on the panorama of creation, how can you choose TV or a book instead? I can't understand it. And is this deficiency in attention to the vital details of landscape also somehow kin to the wasteful urge we all have to travel too frequently from our homes in the first place? Aren't these too attitudes part and parcel of the same consumer conceit, that the world is made to serve us, not for its own purposes, and so we don't have to pay attention to it whether we're at home or abroad?

I'm not trying to claim any moral superiority here. I just don't understand why people don't pay attention to sights as stunning and fascinating as these.

Enough, though. Time to get some breakfast and feed the sheep and look at the state of the weeds in the garden. The sheep are definitely in the here-and-now, as are the vegetables, and I suppose with their help so am I.

Fetch wood, carry water. No more travel for me this year, I hope.

But mother is still very sick and in hospital, so I can't say that, can I?

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