A Sense of Place

Living at the mouth of the River of Life

One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
Originally published in Summer 1983 on page 26
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

THE RIVER OF LIFE has branches and streams reaching for many days into the interior of the land. The water in the River is a pathway for energy, both in from the great ocean, and down from one-third of the North American continent. The mouth of the River is the focus of this energy, the brain of a Great Being.

The people living at the mouth of the River of Life were a wealthy people. They had no written language, no smelted metals, no iron work, but they prospered with a complex culture, slaves, and an abundance of food, fuel, and leisure time.

They lived in permanent villages built in the natural clearings along the rivers and streams in a land covered with a living velvet of trees 200 feet thick. With shell, bone, fire, and stone, they fashioned their boats, paddles and houses out of the dead giant trees washed up on the shore. They had no axe or saw with which to conquer the forest.

Fish swam thick in the River, oysters grew in the shallow waters of the Bay, and clams filled the sand where the River flowed into the ocean. The people would say, "When the tide is out, the table is set." Berries grew along the shores of the rivers and streams, edible roots along the bays and sand bars, and game in the woods.

With their copious leisure time, they played complex games combining both skill and luck. With their cornucopia of material wealth, they held elaborate feasts for the ostentatious display, distribution, and destruction of surplus goods.

When the first traders arrived to do business in furs the people at the mouth of the River of Life controlled the native side of the business. All furs from many miles around had to be traded through them, and their language was the basis of the trading language up and down the coast.

The white men came in, first for the furs, then for the fish. They were so good at catching the fish, catching so much more than they themselves could use, that the great runs of fish became shadows of their former profusion. They scooped up the oysters from the Bay, and sent them on ships to faraway cities, and soon the Bay was barren of oysters.

The white men also wanted the trees. They felled the giants with their steel saws and axes, and sent the logs down the coast to California, and up the River to Portland to build the houses of the growing cities. The entrepreneurs built steam engines, fired by trees from the great forests. There were sawmills, shingle mills, canneries, and creameries. Coopers, and ship builders, butchers and bakers lived in the villages built along the edge of the River.

The cut over hills bled their soil into the streams, filling in the gravel beds where the great fish were spawned, further reducing the runs.

The loggers cut as though the forest had no limits. They sold the trees to buy food and clothing. The depression of 1890-1891, with the collapse of the timber market, was very hard on the settlers near the mouth of the Columbia River. "You can’t eat a tree," and they were just beginning to make the pasture land needed to grow the milk, cheese and potatoes they were used to eating.

The farmers cut down even more trees, not even to sell them, just to clear the land. They would bust them up with dynamite, burn them, dump them in the rivers. Anything to get rid of the trees to make pasture land in the flat bottomed valleys and eat the food of a foreign land.

The cut over hills gradually healed themselves, growing up first in alders that restored the fertility of the soil, and then in the conifers native to the area and climate.

Another depression came, but this time the villages were able to swim with the tide. There was no money, but no one went cold or hungry. The land of abundance was again abundant, this time with the imported culture of the white people.

The summer pastures were naturally lush and green. Most everyone with a little pasture land kept a few cows, and sold the cream for butter making. Butter and cheese were made from spring to fall, and stored for year around sale. Pigs and chickens were raised on the skim milk, buttermilk, and garden surplus. When the cows were dried up in the fall, and frost hit the gardens, the pigs were butchered or sent to market. There were fish in the River and game in the forest that the people caught and canned for their own use.

Far away, east of the mountains, the settlers were doing less well. With no water they couldn’t farm. Grand Coulee Dam was built across the River to pump water into the great interior basin for irrigation, and to generate electricity. The cheap water for the sunny interior region made dairy farming possible in a larger area, creating a surplus of milk, and depressing prices. Margarine became available, and depressed the price of butterfat. New health regulations requiring stainless steel tanks increased the capital costs of running a dairy. With higher costs and lower prices, a family could no longer make a living on 20-30 cows, and most of them quit milking.

More and more dams were built across the River to provide electricity for business and industry in the growing cities. The last remnants of the great fish runs diminished even further, threatening to become completely extinct.

All the trees were cut again, and the hills sprayed with poisons to keep the alders from healing the land. The timber companies gradually closed down their operations and laid off workers. The pasture land was being used for low yield, low labor, low profit beef cattle.

The bottom fell out of the real estate market. Gradually, new people moved into the old homes on some of the old homesteads. The new people were looking for an area with low overhead and abundant natural resources. A listener sponsored radio station started in the area. Several small businesses joined together for trading with the Orient. A small sawmill, a chop sticks and boxes factory, and a dried fruits business shipped goods to Japan via the port of Astoria.

The farmers gradually realized that there was a connection between the poisons being sprayed on the hills, and the mortality rates for the cows and their calves. Feeling the pressures of the public’s concern, the county commissioners banned the use of the chemicals in the county. More young people were attracted to the area by the job of hand clearing the alder from around the young fir trees. Land owners rented equipment from the state to wash silt from the gravel in the streams, and reestablish natural spawning grounds. Soon there was enough return of salmon to the local streams to support a local business in fish smoking and canning.

Under the increasing pressure of budget cuts, the army corps of engineers did a cost analysis on the dredging of the Columbia River, and decided that considering all the costs involved, that it was more cost effective to barge things to the port of Astoria for deep water shipping. The population of Astoria grew to 100,000 and attracted a tofu factory, another bakery, a cooperatively run arts and crafts gallery, and several truck farms that specialized in winter produce for the cities in the colder interior.

Gradually, as the reservoirs behind the dams filled in with silt, and ceased to generate their full capacity of electricity, the coastal region was able to fire steam generators on a sustained yield cutting of the alder trees. The pollen release and leaf fall from these vast alder forests added tons of nitrogen to the local farm land and pastures. The local dairies thrived, and supported new cooperative creameries and cheese factories.

The people living at the mouth of the River of Life were again enjoying the natural wealth of their area. When we learn to steward these natural resources, to receive and use what is given instead of manipulating and taking more and more, then this area can be a garden of Eden to live in. When we return to our village roots, to a system of processing our natural resources locally before we trade with other areas, then this vision will become manifest.

Elaine Myers is a potter who lives on a small farm in southwest Washington across the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon. She had two articles in the last issue of IN CONTEXT (pages 6 and 59) describing her life and community.

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