Category Archives: Books

All the Warning We’ll Get

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

There was a small earthquake centered on Frenchman Hill one day around 1972. When an earthquake scientist from the University of Washington called Othello High School to look for a reliable  student to tend to a helicorder they were setting up at the epicenter, they ended up talking to my mother, the counselor. I was 16, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. She told them she had a perfect match for them.

So my second job off the home place (the first one was changing sprinklers for my neighbor) was visiting a tiny trailer parked next to a plowed field overlooking the Lower Crab Creek valley and the ancient massive slide on the north face of Saddle Mountain. Six seismographs fed streams of data to a series of heated needles that recorded every tremble of the earth around the trailer. I had to changed the waxed paper they burned their message onto once a day and then put in a phone call to Colorado to calibrate the clock with the National Bureau of Standards.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this must have been a heady period for earthquake scientists in the Northwest. Endorsement of the theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy. Continue reading

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Volunteers

I woke 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. But through my window I could look out over neighboring rooftops to the heights of those vacant mountains north of the city. 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 hidden beneath the grate of the fireplace. 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 locals 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. Continue reading

Studying Russian

Although the rock I sat on was in direct sunlight, a brisk upriver wind kept me cool. The papers on my lap rattled in the breeze and the pages of the black-bound reference book chattered, but I was gazing out across a tiny inlet where the river’s water formed an eddy. It was the color and texture of desert-baked glass, slipping smoothly past me, drawn by the rush of the current beyond the boulder point. Across the river a sheer cliff of basalt loomed over me, soaring upward to a rugged crest far above.

It was the summer of 1977. I was studying Russian.

I developed this habit of disappearing when I had a day off work. I would wait for the heat to build until it was well over ninety degrees. Then I would borrow my dad’s gold 1970 Ford Maverick (a color that was marketed as Freudian Gilt) and I would head out. I kept the window cranked down for the natural air conditioning–the only type the car afforded. Higher speed meant better relief from the heat, but I was drawn to the old Corfu Road where I had to slow down. The dust that filtered through the open window was another price I paid.

I don’t know what drew me to this place the first time I went there. I had driven the entire length of the Corfu Road, turned left at Beverly and headed south through Sentinel Gap. I remember stopping on side roads that led to the river bank, but there the river was impounded by Wanapum Dam. Farther on I tried again, where the reservoir behind Priest Rapids Dam kept the current in check. I was just exploring.

I purposely avoided anyplace with people. I had my books and papers on the seat beside me with a couple of bottles of soda and some sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. I was working on the complexity of the adjectival endings Russian uses, and I knew Continue reading

The Parting of the Waters

The shattered remains of a bison leg bone, found in a bulldozer tailing near the Milwaukee tracks at Taunton. Fossil animal remains from this area are typically severely broken and disjointed.

Recently I acquired Bruce Bjornstad’s guidebook to the Ice Age Floods of Eastern Washington, On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods (Keokee Books, 2006). In fact I’ve been carrying it around in my briefcase and using it to fill in odd moments when I’m waiting for my son to finish his Jazz Band practice or to get out of school. It’s about time an interpretive tour guide like this was published! Because of the immensity of the subject, this book is a field guide only to a truncated rectangle of curious flood features in the Mid-Columbia Basin. But it is rich in detail and information. This year, Bjornstad published a second volume focusing on the northern landscapes where the flood began through the Mid-Columbia. He presumably plans to follow the water through to its eventual mixing with the sea.

An amateur only (have I ever made that completely clear?), I was excited to see that scientists had actually taken time to study the area I’ve been writing about. That gigantic landslide I mentioned in my post The Five Mile Slide actually has a name, quite logically the Corfu Slide…although it stretches from Taunton on the east to Corfu on the west. Bjornstad’s book spends a couple of chapters explaining the mechanisms that allowed the flood to create such a variety of unusual landscapes. The hummocky surface of this landslide had always seemed mysterious to me, but his book details precisely how the original topography slumped away in successive wedges. The feature I refer to as Column Crevice in my post To the Cliffs and Beyond appears to be one of the cracks in the earth where a landslide was developing, left exposed at the end of the flood, a landslide frozen in time. In fact a hike across this landscape would reveal successive events in the process of the collapse of the northern slope of Saddle Mountain.

And I was touched to see that Bjornstad refers to what locals around Othello refer to as The Bench has been named Parting of the Waters. Continue reading

The Crossroads

Lower Crab Creek provided water. In Eastern Washington, that was a godsend. Temperatures on the Columbia Plateau routinely soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, and rain is scarce. Cleaning irrigation ditches with a shovel west of Othello as a boy, many were the prayers I sent for even one scanty cloud to shield me from the overbearing sun.

The Sinkiuse Indians who lived there before me probably shared my distaste for the relentless sun. But they didn’t have the benefit of a well of cold water I could retire to, an air conditioner that cooled the house when I took a break. They were stuck with the weather the way it was: hot in the summertime, cold in the winter. They took a more basic approach to living on the Columbia Plateau: they stuck close to water, or if that weren’t possible, they found the shortest route from one water hole to the next.

Over centuries of migration and travel, humans developed routes that guided them along the most direct lines of travel from one pool or stream of potable water to the next. Continue reading

Gloom and Doom Report

When I considered doing this article I had a flashback to doing book reports in what we called Junior High, when I was a teenager. I remember in particular the seventh-grade English teacher with a mangled middle finger who started off the year telling each class his chilling tale. It seems that Mr. B had a terrible problem with anger. He carried sixteen penny nails with him to chew on when he got really upset, which was his anger management technique…it kept him from physically destroying the human object of his anger. Evidently, a student made him angry one day when he had run out of nails. To avoid bloody homicide, Mr. B claims, he shoved his own finger into his teeth. It left him with this mangled finger that he used every year to convince his students to treat him nicely.

So, on with the book report. Mr. B would want me to compare and contrast these books on a similar theme. The books I recently finished reading are two that deal with ways in which humankind deals with natural disasters and the natural rhythms of our world. In the order in which I read them, the first is Cascadia’s Fault, by Canadian journalist Jerry Thompson, and the second, Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer. What links the two books in my mind must be their common theme of the role that forces of nature play in determining human history. Continue reading

The Forgotten Train Wreck

News of the wreck was suppressed. It is not known how many GIs lost their lives when this troop train derailed.

News of the wreck was suppressed. It is not known how many GIs lost their lives when this troop train derailed.

World War II brought many changes to the bucolic way of life people were used to living in Eastern Washington. A huge chunk of sandy real estate south of Saddle Mountain had been condemned and occupied by the government, and nobody knew what they were doing there–and if you got too nosy, they’d shoot at you. On the north side of the mountain, the Yakima Firing Range had been extended into the Lower Crab Creek valley. Fighter and bomber pilots flew missions in the skies above the canyons and scablands that used to stand silent in the blistering heat.

Yet below the mock combat, farmers and ranchers continued to plant crops and herd livestock to feed the country. Oscar Danielson died early in the war, leaving the running of his Crab Creek ranch to his eldest son, Walter. Because he had a job farming, Walter was excused from serving in the armed forces. Not so the next younger sons.

George, the second son, joined the Army and received training as an engineer. His unit was shipped off to North Africa in 1942. Years later, George would tell me that he had “passed through Kasserine Pass about an hour before Rommel took it.” A year or so ago I read Rick Atkinson’s book about Americans in North Africa, An Army at Dawn. In it, I learned that the engineers had been left to defend Kasserine Pass against Rommels Panzerkorps. My uncle was too modest to admit the role he had played in buying extra time for the American retreat through Kasserine Pass.

Lawrence, the third son, also served in the Army in Europe in World War II. His stories I never heard, and indeed, his own family heard little about what he witnessed in Italy until very late in his life. War is hell, so they say.

Even the only daughter, fourth child in the family, was fated to marry a man who served as a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy during the war. But somehow, they all came home alive and whole.

My father told me once about the problem Crab Creek ranchers had with the flyers during the war. Bomber pilots trained with dummy bombs–casings filled with powder (flour, most often) so that their strikes could be noted from the air. But the fighter pilots used live fifty-caliber ammunition, interlaced with tracers so that they could see what they hit. Some of the pilots used to strafe cattle along the creek. Ranchers, howling their protests at Moses Lake Army Air Base in Moses Lake (later, Larson Air Force Base), were told that the pilots would be disciplined as soon as their plane’s tail number was reported. Of course, by the time ranchers Continue reading