I was listening to Secretary of State John Kerry the other day as he explained why the U.S. is obliged to bomb Syria, and he seemed awfully sure of himself.
Confidence is valuable in a fighting soldier, to be sure — as valuable, sometimes, as a good rifle.
But when those who send others to fight wax rhapsodic about the moral imperatives of the coming battle, well, my instinctive skepticism deepens.
(See: Sir Douglas Haig’s diary entries before the Battle of the Somme.)
Kerry is certain, for instance, that Syrian president Bashar Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack on his citizens on Aug. 21.
A car’s sun visor, it turns out, makes for a pretty effective facsimile of a calendar.
I had a week’s vacation recently and so was afforded the great luxury, but for an occasional early-rising child, to tack on an extra hour or so of sleep each day.
And so it came as a surprise — not a shock, exactly, but in the ballpark — when I awoke on the Monday of my return in a bedroom that seemed to me as dark as a mine tunnel.
I thought at first that I had awakened a couple of hours early, a sort of overreaction to my reacquaintance with the working world.
But as I squinted at the clock radio, trying to bring its red numbers into a brief, blurry focus (I have the approximate eyesight, without my glasses or contact lenses, of a cataractic bat), I saw that it was 5:20 a.m.
Right on time, in other words.
(Or, more aptly, wrong on time. I’m not one of those people who literally jumps from bed, eager to attack the new day as though it’s an advancing soldier with bayonet fixed. My habits are more akin to those of a sloth. I emerge from the covers always slowly, always with great reluctance and, not infrequently, with outright dread.)
The reality, though, of how far summer had waned during my time off seemed especially acute a bit later, as I turned my car from 15th Street onto Auburn and headed east.
My left hand, acting in the rote way of a habit long-ingrained, reached for the visor that keeps the rising sun from temporarily blinding me and jeopardizing my fellow travelers on Auburn, including squirrels in the barrow pit and ducks crossing to get to Settlers Slough. (I don’t know why chickens cross the road, but the slough is why ducks, most generally, cross Auburn.)
At that moment I realized that the only light was coming not from 93 million miles away, but rather from my own headlights, which are considerably closer, though less bright.
(Our Buick, though a dozen years old, has several nifty features, including headlights that turn on, and off, automatically.)
There was a silvery glow on the eastern horizon, just enough to reveal the silhouettes of the Wallowas’ high peaks, but it was clear that the sun would not cleave the hills for another half an hour or so.
My hand dropped back to the steering wheel and I went on my way.
I relish this time of year because my favorite season, autumn, has begun to insinuate itself.
And its ascendancy is revealed in ways other than the lingering gloom of morning.
That Monday — actually it was this Monday, Aug. 26 — brought an autumnal chill as well. I briefly considered retrieving my light jacket from the bedpost but decided to leave it be, in deference to the forecast for a high of 86.
A couple days earlier I went for a hike on Black Mountain, just to the south of Phillips Reservoir. Although the day rode the border between warm and hot the air was also quite hazy, infused with smoke from the massive wildfire near Yosemite National Park, and it reminded me powerfully of late summers on the eastern fringe of the Willamette Valley where I grew up.
Farmers raised an awful lot of grass seed in those parts — indeed, they still do.
What they don’t do much of these days is burn the stubble fields after the harvest.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, though, seed-growers torched thousands of acres of fields each summer, creating a miasma that, on most days, turned my street into a scene fitting for shooting a documentary about Jack the Ripper.
(Except for the absence of cobblestones. And Cockney accents. And serial murderers.)
Notwithstanding the damage this pall must have done to my lungs (I had only a passing understanding of the respiratory system anyway) I enjoyed those murky days because they foretold, as reliably as the acquisition of a couple new pairs of Tuffskin jeans from Sears, the coming of the school year and the bracing days of fall.
As I stood beside Black Mountain’s cairn-topped summit I detected the old tang of distant combustion on the air and felt refreshed, as you do when a pleasant memory of childhood comes suddenly clear.
I don’t begrudge summer.
This year’s version, although more than a trifle dry and dusty, was rather a pleasant one, a bit warmer than usual but quite nicer than the torrid season Boise residents endured, where just a handful of days since the solstice haven’t reached the 90-degree mark.
But the smoke, and the slight chill before dawn, promised better times, hinted at those crystalline days at the edge of winter when the tamaracks gleam and the dusk comes early and cold and the light from a familiar window, seen at a distance in the gloaming, can bring water to the eyes.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
The U.S. Forest Service during the past half century lost much of its ability to explain what it’s doing, or what it intends to do, in simple words and pithy phrases.
Which of course hardly makes the agency unique among departments of the federal government, that legendary purveyor of documents sometimes measured in pounds rather than in pages.
I came across a yearly report from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest a while back that seems to me curiously quaint and innocent.
Even if the paper weren’t going yellow with age, and even if the year — 1962 — weren’t printed on its cover, you’d recognize after a few pages that this is the product of a vastly different era.
In that distant age, when few Americans could find Vietnam on a map, and writing “beatles” would drag down your spelling grade, the Forest Service needed just five words to explain its purpose.
That still covers things nicely, so far as I can tell.
Yet this admirable brevity was as surely doomed as the eight-track tape and psychedelic rock.
The syntactic unraveling had progressed quite a ways even by 1990. I chose that year mainly because it’s when the Wallowa-Whitman published its most recent forest plan, which is a sort of guide for how the 2.4 million acres will be managed.
In 1990, “recreation” had bloated into “Recreation Opportunity Spectrum,” a gain of two words and 19 letters but with no obvious increase in information.
If anything, the three-word version is apt to confuse rather than enlighten a reader.
“Wood,” which was understood in 1962 to mean mainly commercial timber but also firewood, had morphed by 1990 into such clumsy, impenetrable constructions as “maximum implementable levels of timber harvest under a nondeclining flow schedule.”
Now I’ll concede that the Forest Service’s task is considerably more complicated today (and in 1990) than in 1962.
In 1962 the National Environmental Policy Act was seven years in the future. That law requires the Forest Service, and other federal agencies, to study the possible environmental effects of everything from big timber sales to replacing little bridges, and then to publish the findings. The resulting tomes can run to hernia-inducing heft.
1962 also predates the Wilderness Act (1964), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the National Forest Management Act (1976) and doubtless much other legislation that has prompted the Forest Service to become such a prodigious producer of words.
And given that federal laws are the antithesis of lucid communication, it’s hardly surprising that the predilection for larding reports with jargon has infected the Forest Service.
Still and all, the Wallowa-Whitman’s 1962 report proves that federal employees can give an accounting of what they’ve been up to for the past year and to do so employing terms and statistics that any competent reader can grasp at a glance.
This makes for interesting reading, too, particularly as a comparison with current conditions.
The greatest disparity, as you’d probably guess, is in the amount of logging.
In 1962 the Wallowa-Whitman sold 178 million board-feet of timber, and loggers cut 117.5 million board-feet. Another 246.8 million board-feet had been sold and was awaiting the chain saws.
By the standards of the past 20 years, those figures seem almost mythical in their immensity.
Since 1991, the Wallowa-Whitman’s top year for selling timber was 1992, when the total was 79 million board-feet. The second-highest was 54 million board-feet, and in most years during that period the forest sold less than 40 million board-feet.
I think it’s beyond dispute that the 1962 figures, which actually accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s, could not have been sustained until now. The Wallowa-Whitman had cut much of the mature ponderosa pines that made those big volumes possible.
Yet it seems to me that the drastic decline in logging that started in 1991 was more precipitous than can be justified solely by the federal mandates that the Wallowa-Whitman protect salmon, steelhead and other species.
It’s as if the forest, confronted by an aggressive environmental movement flush with the success of the spotted owl protection in westside forests, was afflicted with a malaise.
But it’s a single photograph in the 1962 report, not the several accompanying charts of logging statistics, that strikes me as the most striking difference, in attitude if not actual result, between then and now.
That photo shows a logger putting the back cut in a old growth ponderosa, probably 30 inches or better in girth.
They don’t cut pines like that on the Wallowa-Whitman these days, or at least not often. And the forest certainly doesn’t boast of the practice in photographs.
The other section of the 1962 that I read with particular interest has to do with roads.
During that year, timber buyers built 130 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman, and the Forest Service constructed five miles.
Forest engineers also surveyed 170 miles of new roads, and designed 94 miles.
These days, as is obvious to anyone who has so much as a passing interest in the Wallowa-Whitman, the main issue is which roads ought to be closed to motor vehicles. The notion of building new ones, aside from an occasional short temporary road needed to haul logs, is at best an afterthought.
The 1962 report also rebuts the idea, which seems to me to be relatively common, that the Wallowa-Whitman’s network of roads is nearly as old as the Forest Service (founded in 1905) itself, that in the main we ply the same roads our forebears did five or six generations ago.
In fact, hundreds of miles of roads have been built during the past 50 years, a necessary part of the sustained logging during the first half of that period.
Roads, of course, as an integral part of one of those five words that constituted the Forest Service’s motto in 1962: “recreation.”
As the report from that year shows, Wallowa-Whitman users had reason to be optimistic about their ability in coming years to get around the forest in a rig.
This is what some people mean when they talk about “the good old days.”
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
The world’s automakers seem bent on making it easier for people to do everything in their cars.
Which seems to me a curious oversight.
Not so bad as forgetting the steering wheel or leaving off the lug nuts, of course, but curious just the same.
The most significant change in the automobile interior over the past decade is the proliferation of devices designed to help drivers communicate with people who are somewhere else.
(Like as not these other people are also driving, possibly in the next lane.)
Carbuilders boast of how “connected” or “wired” their latest models are. I envision Ricardo Montalbán extolling not “rich Corinthian leather” but “rich Bluetooth capability.”
I’m hardly immune to the enticing nature of this technology. I’m enthralled by the notion of someday owning a car that’s a mobile wi-fi hotspot. The concept of hooking up to Skype and having a friend’s or relative’s face show up on a video screen in the middle of the dashboard has a Star Wars flavor to it that makes me wonder whether the era of the long-awaited flying car is impending.
Except it’s dangerous enough to have people carrying on conversations, or Googling “road rage,” while they’re rolling along at 65 mph.
We don’t want them sharing airspace with 747s.
“Hold on, tower control, I can’t land until this YouTube video is over. You won’t believe how cute these kittens are!”
Carmakers, of course, tout their latest options as “hands-free,” which enables people to update their Facebook profile without taking their hands off the wheel.
This sounds like progress.
Except a study commissioned by AAA concluded that that’s not necessarily true.
In fact, researchers found that in some cases using a hands-free device to have a conversation or send an email can distract a driver more than holding a phone and talking into it.
This level of distraction has been compared — and this is the scary part — with driving while intoxicated.
Funny, though, you don’t see automakers installing beer taps — not even ones with a Camelbak-like tube that juts out of the headrest so you can guzzle brew hands-free.
Cars aren’t always in motion, of course.
And I’m not a bit troubled by a person sitting in a parked car, texting or tweeting or whatever.
Except this technology doesn’t turn off when the engine is turned on. And you needn’t be an expert on human behavior to know that if you can do something while driving, you will.
(McDonald’s probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.)
It would be a great pity, it seems to me, if our highways, which have been getting safer for the past few decades, turned more dangerous even as our cars are better able to protect us in a crash.
In 2011, a total of 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes on U.S. roads. That was the fewest deaths in a year since 1949.
Even more impressive than the raw numbers is the fatality rate, since the latter takes into account the vast increase in the number of cars and the miles traveled.
The most-used measure is the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The rate in 1949 was 7.13 deaths.
In 2011 it was 1.10.
This nearly miraculous improvement is due in large part to cars being vastly safer. In 1949 life-savers such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and crumple zones were more in the realm of fantasy than assembly line fact.
Back then carbuilders designed parts to look neat, and never mind that the stylish steering wheel hub, in any crash over 20 mph, would skewer you as efficiently as one of Vlad the Impaler’s stakes.
Today the engineers, having taken auto safety about as far as physics allows (roadside oak trees being rarely equipped with air bags) are turning their prodigious abilities to matters of convenience and utility.
This isn’t necessarily a disaster, of course.
I like mp3 jacks and USB ports as much as the next driver.
But I also cling to the quaint notion that piloting a vehicle with competence and single-minded focus is not merely the driver’s most important task.
It’s his only one.
Facebook can wait.
The little kid who just chased his wayward rubber ball into the street can’t.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
Trust, as anyone knows whose mother ever nabbed him filching jelly beans from the candy drawer, is far more easily lost than regained.
Baker City’s water supply, I’m afraid, is that little boy with sugar crusted around his mouth.
And all of us who rely on that water, well, we’re the mom with a scowl on her face.
This state of affairs, this suddenly rampant suspicion of our once-reliable faucets, saddens me.
It is no exaggeration to indulge in cliché and call it the end of an era.
He was a black child who prospered in a town that was about as white as a town can be.
They are a family which has raised six sons, each of whom has reached the pinnacle of Boy Scouting.
Here is a group of teenagers who epitomize the concept of handling guns safely, and with the respect such instruments demand.
Three stories we’ve published over the past couple weeks.
Each struck me as an example of how the people of Baker City and Baker County can achieve the highest standards to which a civilized society aspires.
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
There is a certain sort of cemetery which can make a visitor’s impending death seem rather less melancholy than is typical.
Rock Creek Cemetery in Baker Valley is such a place.
I don’t as a rule go around pondering my inevitable demise.
But of course cemeteries tend to prompt such thoughts.
As we drove past Rock Creek Cemetery on a recent sun-dappled Sunday morning (which is most Sunday mornings in July in these parts) I was so taken by the simple beauty of the scene that I felt, rather than maudlin, a kind of joy at the thought of concluding a good life, well-lived, in so sublime a spot.
The perfectly groomed, lush lawn reminded me of nothing so much as one of the military cemeteries that England constructed in Northern France and Belgium after the First World War.
The English affinity for gardens is well known, of course, and is reflected in their burying grounds.
Even if a preference for the pastoral were not part of the nation’s character, though, I suspect Britain’s war cemeteries would look pretty much as they do. There must have been a powerful need, after so much blood had been shed (the British lost about a million soldiers in the war, a terrible tally, yet compared with Russia, France and Germany they got off light), to not merely bury the terrible bones-and-steel detritus of mechanized war but to grace it with a veneer of the living and tranquil green.
Rock Creek Cemetery hasn’t such a tragic legacy, and anyway it needs no artificial embellishments.
It comes by its grandeur naturally, from its setting in a fine and verdant valley within sight of two imposing mountain ranges.
The nearer of these, rising steep and timbered just a couple miles to the west, are the Elkhorns.
Whether this is the grandest vista from any of our local cemeteries is of course a subjective question, lacking any definitive answer.
The nearby Haines Cemetery, for instance, no doubt has many admirers, and for good reason. Its location, atop a minor rise, adds an ethereal, bird’s-eye quality to the view which is lacking at Rock Creek.
Still and all, the sheer majesty of the Elkhorns from Rock Creek Cemetery, the soaring granite of Red Mountain, the forested eminence of Hunt Mountain, seems to me unrivalled.
Connie Brown, a lifelong Haines resident, has been taking care of both the Rock Creek and Haines cemeteries for 18 years.
They are part of a district, which includes Haines and parts of Baker Valley, in which property owners pay a tax each year to maintain the two cemeteries.
(They get a discount on burial plots, too, if they choose either cemetery.)
I remember when Rock Creek Cemetery was rather disheveled, the grass dry and high, the weeds rank.
Brown said that when she was hired, the considerable task of keeping up with the weeds and the wind damage and the occasional trespassing cow had become too much for the previous caretaker.
She set about putting things in order in the cemetery, which covers about 4ﬁ acres (Haines Cemetery is almost exactly the same size).
With help from co-workers, as well as inmates from the Powder River Correctional Facility, she tamed the weeds, had gravel access roads built and, perhaps most important, a well was dug to supply irrigation water to nourish the grass.
“It took a lot of work, and it still takes a lot of work,” Connie said. “We try to make it a little better every year.”
Connie said that when she started, about 75 percent of the burials at Rock Creek were traditional ones, with a casket, and the remainder were cremations, with an urn burial.
Today the percentages are about the opposite.
One of the main reasons for the change, she said, is that some years ago the cemetery district ceased selling plots for casket burials. Burying caskets is troublesome because the water table is high and there’s an old subterranean stream channel on the property.
Plots are available for urn burials, however.
I’ve not given any great amount of thought to how I want my remains dealt with. I have no objection to cremation — there’s a aspect of purification to the process that appeals to me — but I rather like the notion of being buried more or less intact, to gradually meld with the good earth, perhaps to nurture some worthwhile root with my meager contribution to the soil.
Better still if my final plot lies within the shadows of the great peaks, that I might retain a vestigial link with those high places I loved best.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.
Ryc Rienks’ foray into partisan politics started as a joke.
And although Ryc, who lives in Baker City, hasn’t lost his sense of humor, he’s pretty serious about his new role in the political system.
Ryc, 69, had been registered as an independent.
So had his wife, Penny.
But last year, feeling a trifle disenfranchised by Oregon’s sometimes restrictive primary election system, the couple decided to consider registering as either Republicans or Democrats.
There is no pleasure quite like slouching into the embrace of a soft chair, flipping to the first page of a book, and realizing, in that instant, that the whole of the tale awaits, as faithful as the best dog you ever knew.
It’s like starting a vacation.
Or standing on the front porch of the girl’s house who you finally forced yourself to telephone, and she said sure, she’d love to go to the movie with you.
This glorious anticipation seems to me especially rich when the book has to do with real places that I’ve been to, and plan to visit again.
I fought fires on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest for three summers, 1989-1991.
About the worst thing that ever happened to me was once I had to stay out overnight unexpectedly and I had little to eat except a package of Wheat Thins of the size the stores would sell for Halloween, if homeowners often handed out crackers as treats.
Which, fortunately, they do not.
There’s nothing funny about fighting wildfires, though.
They die in van crashes while driving to fires.
Trees fall and crush their skulls.
Helicopters and slurry bombers crash.
And, perhaps most horrible of all because it seems so personal, so terribly ironic, sometimes the flames, which are nothing so much as a tornado of combustion, turn and strike at those who would corral them.
On Sunday, 19 firefighters, members of an elite Hotshot crew from Prescott, Ariz., were overcome by flames while trying to stop a fire advancing on Yarnell, Ariz.
Firefighting gets into the news often, of course, and much of the public debate has to do with whether the federal government, which has been racking up billion-dollar firefighting tabs in recent years, is spending too much.
I don’t care.
A billion dollars is a pittance in federal terms.
What I wonder is whether we’re spending too many lives, most of them young lives, on this campaign.
My gut answers yes.
But the question, I fear, is too complex for simplistic answers based on emotion rather than reflection.
The Prescott Hotshots weren’t engaged in a dubious enterprise, weren’t trying to prevent flames from killing trees 10 miles from anywhere.
They were protecting a town, people and houses.
We won’t cease sending firefighters into such places, nor should we.
The real conundrum, though, is that it’s well nigh impossible to recognize, hours or even days in advance, which fire is likely to transform from merely dangerous to deadly.
When that transformation depends on factors as fickle as the winds of a thunderstorm, well, we’d as well consult tea leaves or goat entrails.
Tragedies on the scale of the Arizona disaster are exceedingly rare, to be sure.
Sunday’s death toll of 19 was the highest, for a wildfire in the U.S., since 1933.
Yet the balm of the actuarial tables is cold comfort, indeed it’s no comfort at all, when you’ve just watched a procession of vans carrying 19 bodies to the coroner’s office.
. . .
When the first drop of sweat slides into the corner of your eye before you’ve made even one full revolution with the socket wrench, you understand that you picked the wrong time for the job.
The wrong hour.
Quite possibly the wrong year.
I winced at the slight sting of the sweat. The socket, which I had been tugging on with considerable force, leaped off the nut with all the stupid suddenness of a tool (tools, I am convinced, do not like me, probably because I’m mechanically inept, and that they delight in every bruise, gash or puncture wound they can inflict).
I rapped my knuckles on the gate hinge I was trying to set straight so that it would latch properly. This hurt more than the sweat in my eye, and was infinitely more annoying besides.
It was scarcely past 9 in the morning. When I stepped outside wielding a wrench and a hammer, it seemed to me not terribly hot.
Warm certainly, but nothing like the inferno the forecasters were predicting for the afternoon.
I pegged the gate repair as a five-minute job requiring the two simple hand tools and, fortunately for my fingers, neither motors nor reciprocating parts.
What I didn’t count on was breaking out so quickly into that flop sweat.
This prompted me to consult my array of meteorological instruments, which is not so much redundant as it is ridiculous.
Anyway the devices told the tale: The humidity ranged from 55 percent to 75 percent.
These of course are figures more typical of summer in, say, Savannah, Ga., or St. Louis than in Baker City.
We suffer here from what’s known, with a certain affection, as a dry heat.
I’ve never much cottoned to that term, mainly because it seemed to me misleading.
But my painful experience at the front gate was something of an epiphany.
I used to bristle at references to dry heat because it implies that even when it goes over 95 around here that’s not so bad because the humidity, like as not, is less than 15 percent.
Well, that’s about what it’s like inside a lumber kiln, and I daresay there’s nothing pleasant about being inside a lumber kiln.
Or any kind of kiln, come to that.
But now that I’ve experienced, albeit in a brief and minor way, the combination of heat and humidity that’s endemic to the Midwest and the South, I concede that the defenders of dry heat make a pretty compelling point.
The older of my two sisters lived in Southern Virginia for seven years, returning to Oregon last August, and she tried to explain to me how uncomfortable truly sultry weather can be.
Her husband, Bill, told me about having to run his windshield wipers on clear days because the air was so heavy with moisture even though the temperature was in the 80s.
Try to fix a gate in weather like that — try to open a gate, for that matter — and you’d probably need to hook up an IV to ward off dehydration.
I stand by my belief that beyond a certain threshold on the thermometer — 90, maybe — it’s a scorcher no matter how low the humidity.
Death Valley’s even drier than Baker City, but you don’t see people frolicking around there on summer afternoons.
And I’m not talking about convulsions.
Still and all, I’m more respectful than before of the power of humidity.
It laid a few of my knuckles low and that only took a few minutes.
If I had to perform even my modest household chores anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, well, I’d be a repeat customer at the prosthetics store.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.