Fresh fruits, hippies, and ancient forests

As of today I have been in Oregon exactly one month, though as will all transition times it seems much longer than that. So long, in fact, that already this summer is fading into a warm cobwebby neural network of botanical names, bird songs, and evening dips in Lac qui Parle. Six months ago I was learning to work with fire on Minnesota prairies. Nine months ago I was sitting in a warm, mint-smelling warehouse packaging homeopathic remedies. One year ago I was hiking in the Tetons, reading Tolkien while soaking in hot springs, and applying to Cornell for ornithology. Eighteen months ago I was working on my interpretive arb guide and preparing for my comps talk while also brewing beer, taking field drawing, and singing with the A Cappellicans. Twenty-seven months ago I was studying marmots in the high rockies, developing a taste for quality beer, exploring the Elk Mountains, and spending at least an hour a day playing volleyball. Thirty months ago I was worried sick about having cancer, writing a thirty-page paper, and sitting by the Northfield train tracks doing my work. Three years ago I was banding birds in the high cloud forest of Ecuador, climbing trees to study ferns, and rising to the sounds of frog peeps on foggy mornings to make banana pancakes for our crew. Now I am taking classes in Corvallis, eating fresh fruits, contra dancing with hippies, and exploring the old-growth forest.

My life always looks better in hindsight – perhaps simply because moments of joy make memories that bring me closer to a clear experience of life when I think of them – while moments of fear or anxiety do not make memories and so fade into the unmarked and unfelt annals of past experience. My only negative memories are borne of truly unpleasant physical experiences – mainly periods of illness or bad air.

It feels a bit odd to be back in class, especially differential equations which has very little to do with my research. Physics is equally unrelated but more interesting, and biochemistry is both interesting and very applicable to my work. As for that “work,” I still have yet to do any work in the lab, and it seems that I may not be able to do much until I complete a year of coursework. Getting paid to take classes is fine, but I would like some sort of confirmation that I am “on the right path” in life, or at least that I can be happy working full-time with tiny photosynthetic organisms, and it seems that I won’t be getting that confirmation any time soon.

Looking back over the past three years, my happiness has been determined less by what I was doing full-time than by what I was doing the rest of the time. My overall satisfaction, on the other hand, is more connected to the meaning I find in my work. Thus I had a great time in Colorado but didn’t really want to do it again since the work didn’t seem meaningful. Working toward bio-solar energy seems to be about the most meaningful thing I could do, so if I can keep my work from eating all of my time and keep my extra-curricular life interesting, I should be able to craft a fulfilling life here in Corvallis. Especially with the fresh fruits, hippies, and old-growth forest.

Regarding the fruits. In Minnesota there are two varieties of grapes: red and green. They are both firm, sweet, and relatively devoid of flavor. Here there are about 20 varieties, ranging from deep-black Concords that taste like the beginnings of wine to delicious rose seedless Suffolks whose tart skins and sugary insides make for a real treat. Blackberry season lasts from May to October, and some folks are still picking blueberries. Apples and pears abound, and hardy kiwis (sweet little kiwis about the size of a large grape) are just coming into season. Add to these the hazelnuts that will be coming soon and the peaches that come earlier, and we have quite a selection. In the wet winter months there are fewer fruits but abundant wild mushrooms, many of which are quite delicious.

Regarding the hippies. In Minnesota we have very few hippies, and we tend to think of hippies as free-loving dirty drug-users who are somehow out of touch with reality. Oregon, on the other hand, has a very large population of hippies, and they make this area a much more enticing place to live.

Hippiedom, as I see it, is based in an ideal of authenticity. It is still somewhat a counterculture, in that it doesn’t embrace American consumerism. Hippies have a liberal attitude toward drugs, and many have tried more than a few, but overall they seem no more attached to their chemical friends than sons and daughters of Minnesota Christians. Hippies grow, sell, and buy organic produce. They bring drums and guitars to the farmers market and sing folk songs while people buy veggies. They plan contra dances and soak naked in hot springs. They enjoy good beer. A good many still live out of VW buses – primarily because they are willing to forgo the comforts of a home in return for less time spent earning money and a greater ability to travel cheaply. Without hippies, Corvallis and Eugene would be just two more St. Cloud-type small cities filled with big box stores and housing subdivisions, but hippies bring us bike lanes, contra dances, homebrew-supply stores, organic produce markets, cheap public transit, and a generally more interesting culture.

Regarding the forest. In order for me to feel true to myself, I need to spend a fair amount of time in nature. Working in nature doesn’t count, as I discovered whilst attempting to launch a career as a field researcher. I need to simply explore in a contemplative mood, allowing my senses to connect me with the uniqueness of the moment in one particular spot, and in doing so connect to the full experience of life that keeps me ever thankful that I chose, at one time, to inhabit a body on this planet. That, at least, is how it should work. Usually I am otherwise engaged worrying about what I should be doing or talking with others, or my mind is simply too tired or not in the correct state, in which case I still enjoy the hike but don’t feel the same connection. The good part is that there are millions of acres of beautiful public land to explore out here, so I will never run out of new places to explore.

Of course I had some of these things in Minnesota, and in particular I developed a deep attachment to a particular piece of land that I have not yet been able to replicate elsewhere. So even as I explore new places, I will still remember the tinkling rivulets of Bluff Creek on the first warm day in March, when I could stick my nose deep into the green moss and smell the living essence returning after the long winter. I will remember June sunsets atop my cedar tree, with the haunting tremolo of the wood thrush blending with the first sound of the whip-poor-will and punctuated by the sharp but fluid night song of the ovenbird. I will remember spring cleaning days, the scent of lilacs on the warm east breeze that speaks of rain to come, rugs and rags hanging on the clothesline, and hands lovingly tucking in the seeds that would soon be peas, lettuce, and tomatoes. When the oak leaves fall and collect on the cool damp ground, the smell will remind me of October weekends, when Ed would run the saw and I would load the truck with wood – oak, ash, elm, ironwood – that would keep us warm while affirming our connection to the cycles of life around us. I have, in truth, had similar experiences in Ecuador and elsewhere, but never with the same emotional intensity that comes from being intimately acquainted with the ways of the natural world in one particular spot, so that every wind switch and every rainstorm is significant and fits into the pattern – the intricate heartbeat of the land.

But I digress…

Providing I can keep my life in balance, I remember to spend time in nature, and my research seems to be moving forward, I believe I will like it out here in Oregon. God bless the hippies!

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