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When the mountains were feared, not beloved

Like most towns Baker City lies in a valley, but this place, it seems to me, is defined by its mountains.

I use the possessive form here because cities tend to have a palpable pride of ownership in the peaks visible from their streets.

When you are blessed with mountains, and in particular with a truly imposing range such as the Elkhorns, you might as well flaunt them. And so we do, on T-shirts and postcards and coffee mugs among quite a lot of other items.

Nor is this trait peculiar to places of modest size.

Portland bills itself as the Rose City, but there can be no quarrel that its true icon is Mount Hood.

Hood’s volcanic sibling to the north, Mount Rainier, fulfills an equally symbolic role for Seattle.

Baker City’s affections are not so singular.

Our mountains more resemble the Rockies than the Cascades, which is to say there are long ridges from which an occasional peak juts, as opposed to the Cascades’ solitary, but spectacular, fire mountains.

We harbor perhaps a special love for the Elkhorns because they are so near to the west, forming a sedimentary wall that casts its shadow clear across the valley.

But we lay claim as well to the more distant, but indisputably magnificent, Wallowas, which sprawl over the whole of the northeastern horizon.

I have been thinking recently of mountains, and the way we feel about them, after reading Robert Macfarlane’s book “Mountains of the Mind.”

Macfarlane, a British travel writer and mountain climber, wrote the book a decade ago. I managed somehow to avoid the volume for all those years although I relish travelogues of all sorts, and in particular ones dealing with mountains and people who climb them.

(I would like nothing more than to be a travel writer but am afflicted by the insurmountable handicaps of never really going anywhere, or doing anything interesting when I get there.)

The gist of Macfarlane’s book is that modern society’s veneration of mountains, their purple majesty and all that, is, well, modern.

Until around the start of the 19th century many people at least feared, and in many cases acutely loathed, some of the world’s greatest mountain ranges.

Macfarlane, being a European, devotes much of his book to the Alps.

He writes of 17th century travelers whose descriptions of crossing Alpine passes bear a decidedly Tolkien flavor. These accounts, largely taken from contemporary diaries or journals, lament the frightful precipices, the awful blizzards, the utter absence of civilization.

You have a sense that these writers, if they actually believed such creatures as dragons exist, would not have been altogether surprised to come across one in the icy wastelands of Mont Blanc.

Macfarlane explains how science, and especially the budding field of geology, contributed to a wholesale reversal in our opinions about mountains.

Pioneering geologists such as the Scotsman James Hutton, and Charles Lyell, a Briton, came to recognize that by studying mountains and glaciers they could understand how the Earth’s surface had been formed — and moreover, reformed — over the eons.

Their writings encouraged people, most of whom were not scientists, to have a look for themselves.

When they left the sanctity of the valleys and they saw for the first time such awe-inspiring sights as the Mer de Glace or the Italian Dolomites, these visitors stopped worrying about ogres and started thinking about building chalets and cog railroads.

By the middle of the 19th century the Alps were, to the British aristocracy, what Vail and Sun Valley are to modern America’s upper class.

Writers and poets waxed rhapsodic about the sublime spectacles among the peaks.

Doctors touted the pure air as the ideal antidote for Londoners’ soot-stained lungs.

Alpinists, most of them Englishmen, breached summits long thought impregnable. In July 1865 Edward Whymper of London led a party to the top of the most famous peak of all, the Matterhorn.

(Although four of the seven climbers plunged to their deaths on the descent. Whymper and two others were saved when the rope connecting all the climbers snapped.)

Macfarlane’s book intrigued me because I can’t imagine standing in my yard, watching a snow squall sweep across the face of Elkhorn Peak, and feeling anything but ebullient at my good fortune to have such beauty so accessible.

That I might dread the mountains is a concept so foreign as to be beyond my ken.

Yet there was much in “Mountains of the Mind” that seemed familiar.

In particular I felt a kinship with those of Macfarlane’s subjects whose love of the mountains is broad and complex, who are equally entranced by sunlight exploding off a glacier’s surface and by the immensity of time represented in a band of layered stone.

Sometimes when I look at the Elkhorns I see them as objects to ogle. Science seems a minor matter in that moment when the alpenglow slides its pink brush across the slopes, at dawn of a January day when the temperature has plummeted below zero.

At other glances I am overwhelmed by the colossal scale, both in size and in time, that the mountains represent.

I ponder the forces required to move slabs of tropical seafloor thousands of miles — the great upheavals that elevated them and the ice that sculpted the great slabs into pinnacles from which, on a fair day, you can see parts of three states.

Mountains, to borrow Macfarlane’s title, are indeed often on my mind.

And, I hope, they will never be far from my eyes.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald. 

Letters to the Editor for Nov. 27, 2013

Early Learning Hub warnings a scare tactic

In reading Suzan Ellis Jones’ guest opinion in local newspapers last week, I’m reminded of the fairy tale that includes the warning, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling.”  So, what is the impending calamity?  Our children, Jones claims, are about to be ruined by Early Learning Hubs. 

It would be “irresponsible,” writes Jones, “to sell out our babies for a $50,000 grant” that would subject the little children to state interference “from birth to kindergarten.” Somewhere she read — she doesn’t say where — that early involvement has had a negative effect on kiddies’ lives in Russia, China, Germany, Austria, and Cuba. “Talk to anyone who experienced early learning in these countries and they will tell you it changed the family unit.” Yet Jones quotes not one person she’s talked to.

Jones boasts that the Baker County Republican Central Committee, of which she is chairperson, has “researched this issue for months.” 

Well, it took me just a few minutes online to discover that Oregon’s Compulsory School Attendance law does not require school attendance of any child under the age of eight (ORS 339.010). So, even if Baker County had an Early Learning Hub offering free services to children from birth to kindergarten, the state has no authority to require parents to use the services.  Even kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Oregon.

Jones will say her committee already knows all that, but shouts out another “the sky is falling” warning. Obama wants to make ELH’s “mandatory.” Yet she cites not one authority for that statement.

Nor does Jones tell the reader anything about the services ELH’s would provide. Nevertheless, she admonishes that ELH’s would “interfere with the bonding of the child with their (sic) family,” which would screw up “family custom and culture.” That scare tactic was used years ago by opponents of kindergartens. Well, we all know how empty that “sky is falling” warning was. In School District 5J, which offers non-compulsory kindergarten, there is almost 100 percent voluntary participation on the part of families with kindergarten-age children.

Gary Dielman

Baker City

A president’s death, and an uncertain future

Thank you for the commemorative issue on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Surprisingly, I read very little of it, since I was a college sophomore at the time, and don’t recall that 1963 date so much as an event but rather as part of an era.

My generation was the one where grade and middle schoolers were exposed to the “duck and cover” ads as a means of surviving a nuclear attack. We witnessed, via TV, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the UN and announcing that “We will bury you!” We saw the much touted American Vanguard missile, set to launch the first artificial satellite into orbit topple over on its launch pad, and a little later watched the Soviet Sputnik orbit high above our heads.

Then Kennedy defeated Nixon, everything seemed brighter and the world loved our First Lady.

The Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Strange news and unfamiliar names showing up on newspaper front pages.  Names like Madame Nhu, Viet Cong, Hanoi, Saigon.

We young college men, all of draft age, grew increasingly nervous. Loveless marriages were entered to avoid the draft.  The draft was universal back then and unless we were missing an arm or a leg and could prove it to the draft board,  or get a deferment, we would soon be marching, saluting and...dying.

Against this backdrop came Nov. 22, 1963. The first rumor I heard was that Bobby and Jackie Kennedy had been shot, but the truth finally emerged.  The president was dead.

Classrooms sat empty that afternoon and the next day’s finals cancelled.  It was standing room only in places with a television as we sorted through the seemingly unending reports from Cronkite, Rather, Huntley and Brinkley, and many more. We watched the funeral parade, witnessed the quiet dignity of Mrs. Kennedy, smiled at John-John’s salute to his father, as we fought back our tears.

We had a new president now, and we braced ourselves for a future we had not before envisioned.

John Sublett

Baker City

Homeless or not, kids need help

The word “homeless,” which conjures awful scenes of people shivering next to a sewer grate, seems worse still when applied to students.

A recent report from the state that counts 94 Baker County students — all but two in the Baker School District — as homeless is troubling to be sure.

But the situation is not as dire as the bare statistics suggest.

Most important, the state doesn’t define a “homeless” student as one who lives on the streets.

Full-day kindergarten a vital step

The Baker School Board has started discussing a vital topic — full-day kindergarten — and the board’s measured approach is appropriate.

All board members agree that full-day kindergarten would benefit Baker students.

Education experts say all-day kindergarten classes are crucial in helping kids read at grade level by the third grade. The importance of reaching that goal can’t be underestimated.

Personal stories the guide to one day in Dallas

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor 

I went back in time this week and what a curious journey it was.

My destination was a day rather than a place.

Nov. 22, 1963.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, and with the exception of the monumental events that attended the nation’s birth in the 1770s, it was perhaps the singular day in American history.

For many people, including some of those who served as my tour guides, I suspect that that day, when president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, retains its unique status in their memories even after the terrorist attacks a dozen years ago.

I talked with several people who were in Baker that November day. Most were high school students.

Fifty years is a considerable span, of course.

Call this period by its other name — half century — and it seems longer still.

The days when we truly unite

They are the days, some tragic and some triumphant, that make the “United” in “United States” more than a political slogan.

They are exceedingly rare, these days.

A compelling case can be made that America has experienced just three such days in the past half century.

One of those happened exactly 50 years ago today — Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

On July 20, 1969, the nation again watched, equally transfixed but this time by joy and awe rather than sadness, as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we looked on, incredulous, as the Twin Towers crumpled.

What these days have in common, besides engraving their scenes in our collective memory, is that each almost instantly suppressed the grievances and societal debates that characterize our free society.

We shared, however briefly, an experience that elevated our commonality as Americans above our party affiliations or political beliefs.

We get back to bickering, of course.

This annoys us at times, to be sure.

But would we really prefer a different system?

We rail against the seemingly juvenile obstinance in Congress, and wonder why we ever elected these bozos.

But ultimately we appreciate that we can replace the bozos if they finally exceed our patience, that we can influence the direction of our country.

It’s unfortunate that a monumental tragedy sometimes is needed to remind us of these truths.

But on days such as today, when we remember one of these terrible events — one now two generations in our past — perhaps we can muster just a bit of that national unity.

We can resume our important arguments about Obamacare and other matters tomorrow. But for today we ought to celebrate America, and Americans.

Letters to the Editor for Nov. 20, 2013

Early Learning Hubs: County, newspaper downplay threat 

The Baker City Herald’s editorial board has made the same mistake as Commissioner Fred Warner in thinking Early Learning Hubs (ELH) are a repackaged program with a new name and more money. They are not. These hubs do not replace existing services, nor do they replace the funds needed to run existing services. ELHs are a brand new layer of educational bureaucracy.

But then, the distribution of false information is how these hubs were sold to Commissioners Warner, Kerns and Stiff last March.

To set the record straight and correct Friday’s misguided opinion piece:

Obama’s belated apology

We’d be more inclined to accept President Obama’s apology for his empty promises regarding the healthcare reform law if he hadn’t dithered so long in making his mea culpa.

And even then it took another week for the president to make his apology meaningful by taking a tangible step to try to fix his mistake.

After admitting that his now infamous refrain during debates about the Affordable Care Act — “If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan” — was false, the president announced Thursday that the estimated 4.2 million Americans whose insurance policies had been or would be canceled due to provisions in Obamacare would be able to renew those plans for at least one year.

The president finally got it right.

Except the problems with his blunders persist.

Health insurance officials said the president’s reversal could disrupt the marketplace and cause higher premiums.

Considering that records from the Department of Health and Human Services written in 2010 noted that millions of people could lose their policies due to the healthcare reform law, neither the president nor Obamacare’s backers in Congress can plead ignorance. Little wonder the apologies ring hollow.

No conspiracy in learning hubs

Do you want all children in Baker County to be healthy, happy and ready to learn to read when they walk into a kindergarten classroom for the first time?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

Of course we all want this to be the case.

And yet a statewide campaign to achieve that goal not only has failed to gain universal admiration, but Baker County’s Republican Central Committee has passed a resolution urging county commissioners not to participate in that campaign, even though it could bring more public dollars to the county.

(Earlier this week a state board decided not to choose the regional hub, which includes Baker, Malheur and Umatilla counties, for a one-year pilot project. What will happen with the three-county plan is not clear.)

Letters to the Editor for Nov. 15, 2013

Don’t want health clinic in a grocery store

Upon reading the article in Monday’s paper that St. Alphonsus is opening an Express Care clinic within an Albertson’s supermarket, I feel this is the most ridiculous action that the store could have taken. They are inviting people that are sick with contagious conditions to enter the supermarket through the main entrance, and make their way through customers to get to this clinic. If that’s not enough, in the clinic if the patient has a wait to see the physician they are going to issue them a pager to do shopping while waiting.

Now I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t ill people in the grocery stores every day, but to invite them in to be treated for such conditions as the flu, strep throat, sore throat, lice, cold sores and many other contagious conditions. And then encourage them to shop while waiting to be examined, handling groceries, produce, meat, baked goods and other consumables that the public is expected to purchase, take home and feed to their families, is wrong.

In this day of MRSA and other such highly contagious conditions that are hard to treat, it’s bad enough having accidental exposure at medical facilities without having intentional exposure at the grocery store. I see this as nothing more than St. Alphonsus attempting to expose the whole community to contagious conditions as a means of increasing its revenues.

Therefore my family and I will no longer shop at Albertsons, intentionally exposing ourselves to every communicable disease that comes along through the purchase of intentionally contaminated grocery items.

This would have been a better situation if the store had installed an isolated entrance and exit to this clinic thus minimizing the number of contagious patients entering the grocery area and handling groceries.

Bruce Morrison

Baker City

Worried about putting more sick people in enclosed space

While I laud the reason for a clinic in Albertson’s I don’t like the practicality of it. I have a strong background in public health and the thought of pulling more folks into the store who are there only because of illness is a dangerous and potentially hazardous practice. I realize we meet up with ill folks all over the city and in any travels we may take, but this will be a purposeful increase in an enclosed space AND they will be given coupons so they may shop in “my space” while they wait to be seen.

Yes we meet them in clinics too but we are usually in a clinic because we too are ill. That may be great for Albertson’s but not so great for my health. I will shop at Safeway. 

Iva Mace

Baker City

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