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Even with help from space, I can get led astray

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

From 12,000 miles up in space — a place I’ve never actually visited except in a figurative sense — I can plot my course with ease and precision across a goodly portion of Baker County.

On the ground, though, I get fouled up after the first intersection.

Give a bunch of brainiacs millions of dollars and they can toss satellites and cameras and other cool stuff into orbit.

What they can’t do is iron out Baker County’s topography, which is as rumpled as Charlie Sheen’s shirt after a hard weekend.

Although the two things, so far as I know, aren’t otherwise alike. I doubt Charlie ever smells strongly of sagebrush, for instance.

The risk in exploring the nearly tree-free hinterlands along the divide between the Powder and Burnt rivers east of Baker City, an area that includes a section of the Oregon Trail, isn’t that you’ll get lost.

The scarcity of trees, and the expansive views it affords, makes this unlikely except perhaps in a pea soup fog or a blizzard.

What I’m talking about is the navigational purgatory in which you never seem to get where you’re trying to go because there’s always a ridge or a knob or a draw between you and where you want to be.

It’s the place where you don’t trust the roads, which veer about in an unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable, way.

This wasn’t such a problem, years ago.

You figured on taking a lot of wrong turns, except you didn’t think of them as “wrong,” exactly, because even if you brought a map you knew better than to rely on it.

But these days we have GPS satellites, which follow us around like a crew of attentive butlers (complete with a snooty British accent, on some models.)

Moreover, we have Google Earth.

And in part because its photographs were taken from the middling height of a few hundred miles — much closer than the GPS satellites — the detail, as anyone knows who has sampled this program, is stunning.

Especially out on the Powder-Burnt Divide, where only an occasional juniper interferes with the orbiting cameras.

Take a tour of the area on Google Earth and you’ll see that the roads, many of which consist only of a pair of tire-width lines through the sagebrush and grass, show up as distinctly as a six-lane freeway.

Even fence lines, which involve considerable pounding but little in the way of excavation, are pretty easy to pick out.

The result of which is that it’s easy to convince yourself, after taking the interstellar bird’s eye view from Google Earth, that driving from one place to another is as simple as making it through the sort of maze they print on the side of a McDonald’s Happy Meal box, the sort any competent first-grader can finish without having to go back even once.

All you have to do is stay on this tan squiggle and you’ll be fine.

It was with this sense of confidence that I set out on a recent Sunday with my father-in-law, Howard Britton.

Last spring we drove from near Pritchard Creek west to the White Swan mine and then across Virtue Flat to Highway 86 near the Interpretive Center.

My goal that day was to stay on a road that I believed, after an extended study of Google Earth, stayed near the spine of the divide. 

I still think it might.

But I failed to find the right way last year.

This year I failed again, except in a different place, or, rather, places.

We were going along well for a few miles. Each of my navigational aides — GPS,  paper map, seemingly clear memory of the Google Earth view — was in agreement. But then we came onto a confounding boundary where several fence gates convened. We tried a different route, which led us to a windmill I was certain I had been to before, until it became obvious that I hadn’t.

Eventually we made it back to the “main” road — as I said, you have to work awfully hard to actually get lost in that country.

Still and all, I was, and still am, a trifle dismayed that a seemingly straightforward task devolved so quickly.

I’m no John Fremont, but neither has my inner compass ever let me down so completely that I had to spend a night hunkered under a tree, munching on pine needles and wondering how awful my own urine would actually taste.

I did gain a newfound respect, though, for those pioneers who came this way more than a century and a half ago.

Their maps, if they had any, were crude. Their version of Google Earth was to climb the tallest tree nearby, which along much of the route wasn’t very tall at all.

Yet they crossed most of a continent by a route that survives yet.

In fact the section of the Oregon Trail we followed must be unusual in that none of it has been paved over or erased by city or farm.

Someone with a more educated eye than mine could, I’m sure, still detect in places the rut of the wagon wheel from that of the heifer.

Probably get more use out of Google Earth, too.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

Obama’s bad week a cornucopia for his critics

President Obama has had better weeks than this one.

Pretty much every week, actually, including many when he didn’t even win an election, sign a healthcare reform law, or have Osama bin Laden killed.

First, the White House press corps has roused from its months-long slumber about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, reporters having detected the scent of scandal much as sharks recognize a splash of blood in the sea.

Second, with the revelation that the IRS has been acting the way the IRS acts in movies and novels but hardly anywhere else, the Justice Department is looking into whether tax bureaucrats’ targeting of tea party groups was illegal as well as politically idiotic.

Even by the lofty standards of the presidency, where public relations crises arrive with metronomic regularity, the two preceding blunders would constitute an especially troublesome period.

A seasonal invasion that’s turned more sinister

Spring has traditionally been the season for armies to attack, as soon as the ground is firm enough that their horses and field guns and tanks won’t bog down.

It’s also the season when invaders of a different sort launch their annual onslaught across the borders of my modest piece of land, which is in most respects a tranquil place where not much of a martial sort happens except between a little boy and his older sister.

I’m referring to weeds.

Vegetative vermin.

Photosynthetic scum.

This seasonal offensive includes the common culprits — the brazen dandelion painting its yellow graffiti across my well-tended lawn, the milkweed posing as innocent crocus, the ground ivy (alias: dollar weed) thrusting stubborn taproots a foot into the soil.

(I’m convinced that a ground ivy taproot could support the weight of a ’59 Cadillac if tied to the Caddy’s bumper.)

The past several springs, though, these familiar foes have been joined by ones more sinister — weeds whose ugly mugs show up on the sorts of “most wanted” posters once reserved for fugitives who hold up stagecoaches or rob banks.

“Noxious” is the usual adjective applied to these weeds, and it’s a word which to my ear perfectly captures the plants’ unpleasant nature.

(This is typical of words ending in “ous” — jealous, for instance, and unctuous.)

Their vanguard was whitetop. It crept in among the vinca vines on the west side of the house and I didn’t recognize it until one stalk had erupted in the white blossoms that give the weed its common name (it also goes by “hoary cress” and by a variety of vernaculars which are unsuitable for this publication).

When I realized that it was indeed whitetop, the most infamous noxious weed in Baker County, I felt violated — as if I had walked into my living room and found a stranger there, sprawled on my sofa, eating my chips and drinking my beer.

A couple weeks ago I found a few whitetop seedlings poking through the red cinders on the east side of the house, they apparently having ridden in on the same evil wind that delivered others to the opposite side.

Fortunately, whitetop is relatively easy to confine on a city lot like mine, if you yank it before it goes to seed.

A more recent, and more insidious, invader is bur buttercup.

Whoever named this scourge got the “bur” part right enough — the weed’s tiny flowers, after blooming, turn into sharp burs.

But even though those blooms are yellow, as a buttercup’s are, I see no reason to impugn the buttercup, a perfectly innocuous plant, by lending its name to a nasty, foot-puncturing weed.

Sadly, and inexplicably,  the taxonomic authorities rarely consult me on such matters.

Bur buttercup hardly poses any great risk to the sanctity of my grounds, of course.

With a mere 9,000 square feet to watch over — that’s one-fifth of an acre, and much of it’s covered by a house anyway — eradicating a patch of weeds requires a bit of effort with a shovel or metal rake, none of it terribly taxing.

(And spraying herbicide is easier still — especially since my father-in-law owns the sprayer.)

But my skirmishes with noxious weeds have given me a new appreciation for how monumental the task is of trying to combat their spread on vastly larger scales.

Baker County, for instance, which covers 2 million acres, or about 10 million of my home lots.

Considering noxious weeds can hitch a ride on everything from a deer’s flanks to a heifer’s hooves to the tires on my four-wheel drive, it seems a minor miracle that the county isn’t overrun with whitetop and the like.

(Although in places the battle clearly is over, and the weeds have won.)

The word “weed” is a troublesome one in one respect.

There’s nothing inherently evil about a dandelion, for example. My aversion to the species is purely aesthetic and therefore not altogether rational.

A case could be made that I’d be better off growing dandelions than grass — at least you can eat dandelions.

You can even make wine from them, although, as I mentioned, I’m more of a beer man myself.

But there’s little to recommend weeds such as bur buttercup, which crowd out native grasses and forbs that wild animals as well as domestic livestock like to eat.

Besides which, many noxious weeds are toxic.

Government agencies and private landowners have been tussling with weeds for decades and, as with most wars, the momentum shifts, with counterattacks being mounted to reclaim hill and valley alike.

It’s a good fight, and one worth waging.

My part in this is negligible, with nothing at stake but my landscaping. But I keep at it, and relish the occasional ambush when I catch a patch of ground ivy unawares and get the whole root, straight from the rich soil.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

Law not needed to teach respect for flag, nation

When I was in elementary school in the 1970s we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, but one line always confused me.

Not the “under God” part.

My family wasn’t a churchgoing one — except for Easter — but I sort of implicitly understood about God.

He, or it, was up there, in the sky or possibly above it, and so obviously we, people and dogs and everything, were below, which is to say under, God.

The concept seemed to me quite logical.

For a long span of years, though, I didn’t fully understand the “republic for which it stands” phrase, and in particular what it had to do with the flag.

I came to recognize later that my trouble was that I took things too literally.

This is hardly uncommon among kids, of course — precious few 8-year-olds have moved past the most common definition of any word, if indeed they’ve gotten that far.

When I heard “stands” I could envision a person standing, or even an inanimate object like a house, but I couldn’t conceive why a flag would be standing for a republic.

Most of the flags I saw were flapping about in the wind.

Also I was a trifle foggy on what a “republic” is.

So far as I can remember, though, my uncertainty about the details of the pledge didn’t prevent me from detecting the solemnity of the exercise, or from taking comfort in what seemed to me its inclusiveness.

This was of course from the simplistic viewpoint of a child — I don’t mean to suggest that I grasped the notion of patriotism.

Yet I began to see that the flag and the pledge were symbols of America and that all of us, my classmates and the teacher and the principal, were connected by the significant bond of being Americans.

The pledge, like the flag and other powerful symbols, occasionally is employed for partisan political maneuvers, and from both ends of the spectrum.

The Oregon Legislature has taken up the pledge in a big way this year.

Recently the House, by a 42-16 vote, passed House Bill 3014, which would require public schools to put an American flag in each classroom, and to set aside time each day during which students could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

As I said I like the pledge, and it pleases me to hear a bunch of little voices repeating its majestic phrases.

But I don’t care for this bill.

I don’t see that the government ought to be enshrining in law an activity that’s not prohibited anyway.

I understand that the pledge isn’t nearly so common in public schools now as it was when I was a student, but I don’t believe this is because the Legislature has failed to patrol our classrooms with sufficient diligence.

If lawmakers are truly troubled by the rarity of a daily recitation of the pledge then they should approve a resolution or some other non-binding document which expresses their concern, and which encourages schools to reinstitute the noble tradition.

But passing a law is an altogether different sort of approach, and in my view it’s the wrong sort.

Proponents of the bill emphasize that although schools would be required to make time for the pledge, the actual recitation would be optional for students.

But this ignores the inherent problem with the very idea.

By making any activity a matter of law the government strongly suggests that to do otherwise is to go against what your nation thinks is the proper course. And although I’m no whiz with a map and compass I prefer going it alone, even if I sometimes lose the trail, to being forever nudged toward the prescribed course by a government which thinks it knows better than I do what defines love of country.

That the Legislature’s call for conformity is not mandatory in no way diminishes its fundamental flaw.

The true measure of America’s greatness, it seems to me, is not what our government does to enable or even to encourage patriotism, but rather what it does to ensure that no one’s beliefs, however unconventional, are tainted because they seem to conflict with the government’s preferences.

I’m sure that in any classroom where the pledge is said now, the vast majority of students participate, and likely all of them, and I think this is a good thing.

But it’s those few kids, who for whatever reason might decline to join in, that I’m worried about, and I don’t believe the government should adopt laws which make their plight more difficult.

I don’t mean to imply that any citizen has a fundamental right to never feel that he’s an outcast, or different.

This is plainly impossible in anything resembling a free society, and can in fact be achieved only in the kind of oppressive regime where everyone feels the same, which is to say equally oppressed, and bad.

House Bill 3014 could become state law, I suppose — certainly my objection to it matters not a whit.

And this wouldn’t be a terrible thing.

I find some opponents’ claims about the bill exaggerated, and a little silly.

Referring to the pledge, state Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, said: “To require little children to do this every day…is very sad and very frightening.”

Notwithstanding that the law wouldn’t require children to do anything, I don’t see anything frightening in the prospect.

Unnecessary, even a trifle patronizing, but not frightening.

Nor do I agree with Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who derides the bill as “all about posturing and preening. It’s all about getting videos of ourselves being patriotic.”

Too often, it seems to me, people instinctively equate patriotism with jingoism. It’s as if there’s something inherently wrong with demonstrating pride in our country by way of a group ritual.

Other critics argue that cajoling kids to repeat words they probably don’t understand in effect turns students into automatons, diminutive political pawns.

Except repetition is an integral part of education — the pledge, in a sense, is little different from the way kids learn to read, or to write. In the same first-grade classroom where I first said the pledge I also had to print each of the 26 letters, lower-case and capital (or rather, little and big) dozens of times until I could replicate, with some success, the letters rendered perfectly on a strip of paper that stretched above the blackboard.

Anyway, verbal expressions of affection, which the pledge certainly is, aren’t necessarily diminished by frequency.

My younger daughter usually says “I love you” when I tuck her into bed. And although sometimes she recites this in a sort of rote fashion that suggests she’s half asleep, the words never ring hollow in my ears, never fail to reach my heart. 

In the end I suspect more good than ill will come from the Legislature’s debate about the Pledge of Allegiance.

But if the bill becomes law I suspect I will always remember, when I’m visiting my kids’ schools, one clause in particular.

In addition to the flag and pledge, the bill would require public schools to allocate time each week when students could salute the flag.

The bill reads: “Students who do not participate in the salute provided for by this section must maintain a respectful silence during the salute.”

I think saluting the American flag is a fine thing to do.

And I’m all for students being silent and respectful. 

But I always figured teachers were quite capable of enforcing those standards, without assistance from the government.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

Blunders blemish media coverage of Boston

After watching, and reading, the journalistic blunders that blemished the otherwise commendable news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I better understand why many people distrust reports which rely on anonymous sources.

It’s a whole lot easier to accept anonymity, it seems to me, when the nameless person is at least, you know, right.

But the anonymous sources were wrong when they told multiple media outlets, both print and electronic, that a suspect had been arrested last Wednesday, two days after the explosions that killed three people and injured more than 250.

We don’t as a rule use anonymous sources at the Herald.

This isn’t to say we never will.

Sad, perplexed watching Newtown’s survivors

By Jayson Jacoby

I felt a queer mix of emotions Wednesday as I watched relatives of the Newtown shooting massacre join President Obama to lament that the U.S. Senate had rejected a bill expanding background checks for gun sales.

I was sad, obviously.

It’s impossible to feel otherwise when I think of the tragedy these people endured so recently. I doubt anyone truly recovers from such a shock. The pain subsides, numbed by the inexorable and terrible passage of time, but this cuts both ways. 

Every year thickens the cushion against that initial, seemingly insurmountable grief. But each year also lacerates the old wounds with a series of milestones, of birthdays never celebrated, of graduations and weddings that will never happen.

I was also angry.

I understand that no one forced these people to become symbols of a divisive legislative debate, yet it seems to me that neither are these victims fully in control, as it were.

It’s a natural reaction, of course, for people who have suffered so much to try to spare others from a similar ordeal. I admire the Newtown survivors’ bravery and their commitment.

But it seems to me unnecessarily cruel that, just four months after they lost so much, these people should stand before the cameras and witness another defeat which in comparison means so little.

The implication, or so it seemed to me, is that the bill might have passed if only lawmakers could have brought the survivors to Washington, D.C., while their cheeks were still wet with tears.

“If we’d have gone to a bill like this immediately, boom,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who helped write the legislation which would expand background checks for gun sales to include online buys and transactions at gun shows.

I’m certain that neither Manchin nor any of the bill’s other supporters wanted to use grief to garner votes. There was a tingle of exploitation here but perhaps it could not have been avoided.

Anyway I don’t believe that grief, or anger, ought to override sober contemplation in creating laws.

That said, the third sense I had on Wednesday was surprise.

I was perplexed that just 54 of the 100 senators believe all gun sales should be treated the same. That was six fewer votes than was needed to pass the bill.

To be clear, I’m a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. I find its wording admirably clear and its intent, as a result, equally obvious: U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to own guns.

But this right is not sacrosanct.

We have, for instance, as a society decided that people who commit certain felonies have forfeited their right to own a gun.

I think this is both a wise precaution, and a constitutionally sound one.

Even the National Rifle Association, which is, well, a trifle sensitive about matters related to gun ownership, doesn’t seem eager to give paroled murderers the run of their local gun shop.

Yet the organization, and nearly half of our senators, oppose the expansion of background checks, which is intended to make it more difficult for people who none of us wants to have a gun, to get one.

“Intended” is a key word, of course.

The bill the Senate turned down Wednesday is no panacea in our era of Newtown and Aurora.

Yet I refuse to concede that we are powerless. The notion that requiring background checks for all gun sales would foil some madman’s plans is statistically unlikely, of course, but it’s hardly implausible. If we prevented even one slaughter we would have reason to celebrate.

Moreover, I don’t consider background checks, whatever the sales venue, as an infringement.

A hassle, sure.

But that word, and in fact that concept, is conspicuously absent in the Second Amendment.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, called the defeated background checks bill “the first step in the erosion of my rights under the Second Amendment.”

This “first step” conceit is a popular one, along with its alliterative cousin, the infamous “slippery slope.”

But where Sen. Shelby seems to envision a long ladder, and presumably the kind of steep one with tall steps you only find in old buildings, I see, in expanding background checks, a barely perceptible pimple atop the minor bump that already exists when you buy a gun in a store.

That’s because nothing in my background prevents me from buying any gun I take a liking to.

(Which I might well do. I have just a few long guns now, and one revolver, so there’s ample space in the gun safe my in-laws were kind enough to buy for me.)

And I’m not unique. The vast majority of American adults — surely the figure must exceed 99 percent — are equally unrestricted from buying and owning guns.

For all of us in that group, the bill the Senate rejected this week would mean nothing but maybe another form to fill out.

You have to do that just to get your mail stopped.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

GMO labels: No heartburn, but what’s the use?

I like to know what it’s in my food, except for the calories.

And the grams of fat.

And the milligrams of salt.

I’d just as soon stay ignorant of all the stuff that’s wreaking havoc on my circulatory system.

Guilt, I’ve noticed, is not what you’d call a flavor-enhancer.

The difference between driving past, or through

Baker County has never been what you’d call a bustling place, but today it’s a trifle lonelier than usual, even though there are no fewer people about.

The recent closure of the only gas station in Durkee seems to me a minor milestone in a transition that started more than 40 years ago, when the freeway began to replace old Highway 30.

The major change, of course, happened as soon as the comparatively straight, four-lane swath of I-84 (originally, I-80) supplanted the ostensibly outdated two-lane.

Baker County became a place to drive past rather than a place to drive through, which are altogether different propositions.

March, the homeliest month, finally nears its end

March, in my view, is the least attractive month.

“Ugly” is a more direct description, of course, and nicely pithy, but I don’t believe it to be a fair description of March or, indeed, of any month.

Each of the 12 has its charms, its moments of beauty.

March just doesn’t have a surfeit of these, most years.

And often as not these interludes are so brief that they leave no lasting impression.

At the moment you glimpse the fetching buttercup, winking from beneath the sagebrush, you are forced to squint and turn away as a squall pelts your cheeks with icy rain and desert grit.

Listening to history, 40 years after it was made

Most of us who regularly read history books, I’d wager, have wished mightily at some point that we could actually witness the scenes we’re reading about.

I was able recently to listen to history being made — before I was born.

Which isn’t quite as compelling, I suppose, as seeing an epochal event happen.

But this experience, though purely auditory, was awfully interesting just the same.

The subject, I’ll concede, is unpleasant. But then much of what gets into the history books is like that.

I would argue that the Manson murders of 1969 constitute the second most notorious criminal case in America in the 20th century.

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