Landslide

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

The communities of Oso and Darrington were devastated by the recent landslide, in which around fifty houses and more than thirty people were annihilated in the space of a couple of minutes. It will be a long time before life can return to anything like it used to be, with Darrington’s main artery to the rest of the world cut off. Now commuters from Darrington have to head north, past our Sauk River cabin, to get to their jobs, shops and supplies. It takes a lot of time and gas. My son’s scout troop raised cash and supplies that we took to Darrington last weekend, and I’ve been watching the news about the landslide daily.

Pictures of the Oso landslide reminded me very much of the landslide my family and I used to climb around on when I was a kid. One of our favorite hikes was to the cliffs at the top of Saddle Mountain, where you can climb down to a ledge where sandstone exposures have been carved by the winds and graffito-ed by generations of local visitors. Continue reading

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

Beneath Our Feet

This giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

This Giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

Soon after Washington State College opened at Pullman in 1892, the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station kicked into gear under its auspices. Rennie Wilson Doane was appointed Assistant Zoologist. He began research on pests that were killing local sugar beets, gathering enough data that by 1900 he was able to publish a report identifying a new species of root lice, Pemphigus betae Doane, and he researched the use of large Atlantic oysters in the waters of Willapa Bay. His marriage in 1898 to Miss Elnora Cooper at McMinnville, Oregon, was front page news in the Pullman Herald.

Doane’s work kept him moving. As he followed country roads to farms and fields around Pullman, he began to notice what looked like the burrows of gigantic worms, sometimes fifteen to twenty feet down from the surface of hills sliced open by road cuts. Intrigued, he dug up several specimens of a huge earthworm, pickled them in alcohol and sent them to the nation’s leading earthworm expert, Frank Smith, a zoologist teaching at the University of Illinois. He assured Smith that the worms were abundant in the area.

While Smith admitted that Doane’s specimens seemed incomplete, he believed there was enough physical evidence to conclude that the giant earthworms represented a previously undiscovered creature, a giant earthworm. In a paper published in March of 1897 in The American Naturalist,  Smith announced the discovery of the worm he named Megascolides americanus. The name was meant to establish a somewhat sketchy connection between the Giant Palouse Earthworm and some truly immense worms from Australia. Continue reading

In the Wind

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards.

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards. It operated until 1987, the last of the plutonium producing reactors.

This image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Growing up near Othello in the 1960s, we developed a macabre pride over being so near an important target for Soviet missiles. We knew that something vast and threatening was happening just over the hill from our home—it was only eleven miles from our house to the nearest of Hanford’s nuclear plants. But we didn’t live with fear. Like Richland High School, whose football team was called The Bombers, and whose helmets sported a mushroom cloud, we took pride in having the world’s largest plutonium factory in our back yard. Truth to be told, we were even a bit jealous of the fact that most of the workers at Hanford lived in places like the Tri Cities and Sunnyside. On the other hand, rumor on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School was that, if the Russians took out McChord Airforce Base, Othello’s radar station would be in command of the entire west coast. Continue reading

Belfast Volunteers

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.   © Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The contemporary view of Ardoyne is cleaner and has more nice cars, but the long blocks of terrace houses look the same.
© Copyright Dean Molyneaux and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I woke each day in the blue room on the north end of the house, on what the Irish referred to as the first floor. As an American, this translated to the second story, since I climbed one flight of stairs to get there. In the back corner was a cold coal hearth. I don’t think I lighted the hearth all year long. It was dirty and drafty, contributing to a constant chill in the room. Moreover, beneath its scorched bricks was the hidey-hole for the house cash box. But through my window I could look out over neighboring rooftops to the heights of those vacant mountains north of the city and the outline of the Iron Age hill fort atop Napoleon’s Nose. It was a reminder that however bad things got in Ardoyne, the world beyond considered other things equally important.

I had inherited this room from the former house master. Now I held the secret of the cash box. Apart from me, the only other one who knew where we kept the Glencree money was Len, the American volunteer who had beaten me to Belfast.

He had taken a small room at the top of all the stairs, one that lacked a door, but was so high up it seemed inaccessible from below. Beside my room was the bathroom, equipped with the longest clawfoot tub I’d ever seen. It was cold as an iceberg in that room, too, and with the tales that the neighbors told, about the old woman who had died in that tub, taking a bath became a heroic exercise. I knew that if the bathroom was haunted, the old woman’s ghost would have no difficulty in passing through the wall into my bedroom. Never noticed a thing. Continue reading

Through the Iron Curtain, 1978

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

In 1978 I went through a number of Winter to Spring cycles. After six weeks in snowy southwestern France, the weather had just started to turn balmy when it was time to leave. We boarded a train to Paris, switched to another one that drove straight across Germany without stopping, delivering us to Warsaw on Easter weekend.

Our next train was a local, packed with rustic crowds returning from Easter celebrations in the capital. Not only was it impossible to find a seat in a compartment, but the aisles themselves were crammed Continue reading

The Swedish Loggers

A logging crew from Angermanland poses before the camera of an unknown but expert photographer.

A logging crew from Angermanland poses before the camera of an unknown but expert photographer.

They strike a pose in front of a cluster of tiny log huts, horses collared and chained to sleds for dragging logs out of the woods. One man slings an ax over his shoulder, another reclines on the ground, peering at the camera between the legs of his companions. Although they try to look heroic, there are those amongst them who can’t cover their smirks and laughter. Two teenagers prove their maturity by puffing on pipes. These are workers. The only shirt that boasts a collar out of the whole bunch belongs to a dandy with an upturned mustache and a watch on a heavy strap tucked into the breast pocket of his striped shirt. He also sports new suspenders.

It’s the man in front, with a fixed steely glare, who stands out. He clutches a rifle in the hand that doesn’t hold a braided leash. His open coat drapes over a six-button vest with a watch on a chain tucked into its pocket, reminiscent of Wild Bill Hickok. Continue reading