Celebrating Oregon the best way I know — smelling the pine

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald February 13, 2009 05:19 pm

We drove down the middle fork of the John Day on Sunday, searching for a snow-free hike and the early buttercup.

We found mud, mainly.

And although there were no buttercups in evidence we did see a few sprigs of that other yellow bellwether, desert parsley, its bright new blossoms about the size of a nickel.

We left the parsley.

(Which, when I think about it, is the usual fate for parsley, whether it graces a Grant County hillside or a restaurant plate.)

We intended to leave the mud too, but a skim of clods clung to our boots, like barnacles on a long-beached boat, even though the last quarter mile back to the car we walked on a paved road.

No mud, I’ve noticed, is quite so stubborn as the mud that forms when the frost has recently gone out of the ground.

To our good fortune, Oregon, generous as ever with its flora and fauna, atoned for fouling our footwear by supplying a bald eagle that posed for one perfect instant against a patch of blue sky, and a brief but rejuvenating scent of sun-warmed ponderosa pine.

If the chemists who strive, with their nasty artificial concoctions, to conjure the full complement of nature’s aromas ever confine that particular essence in a spray can ... well that will be a company to own stock in.

I doubt that dismal day is near, though.

I’ve sampled laboratory pine and my nose, which I don’t believe is especially keen, knew from the first whiff that it was in the presence of a cheap fraud.

It’s a grim task, it seems to me, this putting in a bottle and selling to people ersatz sensations they could experience just by going for a stroll in the woods or a flower garden.

Besides which the stroll gets you out in the fresh air, and burns calories instead of cash.

I didn’t mean to go off ranting against the makers of air-fresheners. There is, I suppose, a certain nobility in trying to make a living room or a car smell like a forest rather than, say, a pair of sweat-stained sneakers.

Yet it saddens me to think that people willingly settle for shoddy imitations when Oregon is so rich in the real things.

The trip last Sunday, six days before my native state celebrates its 150th birthday, reminded me, as such journeys often do, just how wealthy Oregon truly is.

There is nothing much that’s noteworthy about the place where we hiked. We parked next to the bridge where Highway 395 crosses the Middle Fork. This is a main junction — the Middle Fork Road comes in from the east, and from the west the road that follows the meandering Middle Fork downstream to Ritter Hot Springs.

We climbed the ridge above the river’s north bank. The landscape is typical of Eastern Oregon, with a few ponderosas and junipers on the south slopes, dogwood in the draws and a slightly thicker stand of pine on the ridgetops and north slopes.

Even so, the forest seemed to me qualitatively different from, for instance, the ponderosa pine stands in Sumpter Valley.

I struggle, though, to explain this difference in a coherent way.

It’s a feeling, really, ephemeral rather than concrete, and one which defies easy translation into language.

I’m glad for this feeling, though, even if I can’t express it as well as I’d like.

There are other examples.

It pleases me that a mountain lake in the Wallowas is distinguishable from one in the Cascades, even though both are the handiwork of glaciers and are inhabited by brook trout.

Even the quality of the light at dusk can differ dramatically depending on where I am in Oregon, and no matter that it’s the same sun dipping below the horizon. The last dim minutes before a winter nightfall in Baker County, for instance, when you know the temperature will go below zero by dawn, melds blue and pink into a hue I’ve never seen west of the Cascades.

That Oregon should be blessed with such variety, even among apparently similar landscapes, seems to me almost more than any place deserves.

This is, after all, one of the few states in which a person can surf the Pacific and ski a volcano on the same day, or watch the sun rise above a rain forest and set against a backdrop of desert.

I don’t as a rule celebrate Oregon’s birthday.

I’ve never thought I needed to.

I can’t think of a better way to honor this place than to keep on climbing its mountains and watching its eagles and looking for its buttercups.

And reveling in that inimitable sense of peace and good tidings that refreshes my very spirit whenever, and wherever, a breeze brushes my cheek, heavy with the essence of good pine.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.