Smoke is quite an insubstantial thing, having little more substance than a cloud, yet it can dramatically alter how a familiar place looks and feels.
And, of course, smells.
Just recently a thin pall of woodsmoke propelled me, as if by some magical force, from mid spring straight into late summer.
The effect was so convincing as to be a trifle unsettling.
It was late in the afternoon of May 10 and I was walking on a forest road in the pine woods between Elk Creek and Washington Gulch, several miles southwest of Baker City.
The day was rather warm for early May — the temperature topped out at 76 at the Baker City Airport — and I was relishing the sense of lightness, peculiar to spring, that comes from ambling outdoors without being encumbered by multiple layers of fabric and heavy insulated boots.
Yet as I crested a ridge I noticed that the sunlight wasn’t so brilliant as it had been when I started walking, and the green of the forests was slightly smudged.
Smoke from the Forest Service’s prescribed burn, a couple miles to the north, had drifted in. Suddenly — or perhaps the change was gradual and I only remember it as otherwise — what had seemed like a typical spring hike was something else altogether.
The diffused quality of the light is a characteristic I associate solely with a day in late summer when wildfire smoke has settled in, a heat haze that makes me crave a nap and an ice-choked glass of lemonade.
The warmth of the day, and the film of sweat on my forehead and the small of my back, heightened the illusion.
So did the hard dirt of the roads on which I walked, baked by the previous three weeks of dry and warm and frequently blustery weather.
And the tang of burning pine.
I had the queer feeling that I had somehow misplaced the greater part of summer, that I ought to start preparing for football season and the refreshing chill of autumn mornings.
As I continued on my way, though, I recognized that this artifice was but a veneer, the fiction betrayed by the grainy snowdrift sheltering in a thicket, by the blooms of avalanche lilies and grass widows, wildflowers that at this modest elevation will fade long before Independence Day.
Before I got back to my rig a scattering of cumulus briefly blocked the sun. The temperature dipped in a pleasant way that it would never do in August, and the vestiges of the subterfuge fizzled.
The scent of the smoke lingered, though, clinging to the cotton of my shirt and becoming stronger once I climbed into the driver’s seat and put the window up.
It’s a pleasant smell, mainly. And I appreciated that its source was not a destructive wildfire, one that was siphoning millions of dollars from the federal Treasury even as it blackened swathes of public forest, but rather a controlled blaze intended to keep summer skies blue and bright.
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As I stood in the hay barn and listened to a May rain shower pound its percussive rhythm on the metal roof, I realized that I was sharing this agreeably dry shelter with four generations of a remarkable Baker County family.
The setting was the historic Defrees Ranch in Sumpter Valley. I was there to write about a group of officials from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service who were touring parts of the ranch to learn about the Defrees family’s techniques to protect their land — and in particular the soil — while growing both beef cattle and ponderosa pines.
The Defrees Ranch has become a popular destination for this sort of group. The family’s reputation for creative and sustainable management is of long standing, burnished most recently in 2016 when they, among 74,000 other tree-farming families, were named America’s Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year.
They deserved the honor.
When the Defrees family bought its 1,227 acres of forested ground in the 1930s what they acquired was a swath of stumps rather than a sturdy stand of trees.
The acreage had been heavily logged during the first decade and a half of the 20th century, supplying millions of board-feet of prime ponderosa hauled to a Baker City mill by the famous Stump Dodger — the Sumpter Valley Railroad.
The loggers, as was the common practice in those days, sawed down the biggest and best, and thus most valuable, trees.
“It was basically clearcut,” Dean Defrees told me in 2016 when I interviewed him about the family’s tree farmer honor.
Moreover, the trees that remained to supply seeds for a new forest were of the poorest genetics. It was a challenge on the order of trying to field a modern NBA team with players of modest stature and the vertical leap of a corpulent tortoise.
But over the decades the Defreeses persevered. They employed sound forestry — another way of saying they invested quite a lot more time and money in the woods than they reaped in profits — to create a forest that began to resemble, albeit in adolescent form, the stand of broad-bellied, widely spaced ponderosas that rolled down the Stump Dodger’s long-since-removed narrow gauge tracks more than a century ago.
The family has run its cattle herd with the same dedication to ensuring that their land will not only consistently yield valuable products but also serve as a refuge for wildlife.
And the Defreeses have done all this with the kind of humble grace that I’ve noticed in many farmers and ranchers.
All of which goes to saying that I was pleased to have a chance to learn more about the family’s operation.
I was not as pleased with the weather, however, and so when Dean suggested that the group repair to the barn rather than continue to stand outside and drip, I was glad to go.
We stood on a soft and fragrant layer of hay and straw and listened to Dean describe their cattle-grazing system, with his dad, Lyle, adding an occasional insight.
Dean’s wife, Sharon, was there too, along with the older of their two sons, Nathan, who is a medical doctor practicing in Baker City.
This scene struck me as significant — three generations of a family whose roots, if you’ll pardon me the indulgence of a cliché, plunge deeply into the Sumpter Valley.
But it was more than that.
Because scrambling about in the straw was a member of the fourth generation — Nathan’s three-year-old daughter, Sloan.
It was a poignant scene, and a memorable one.
Such moments make this job seem worthwhile. And they remind me that there will always be families to admire, and stories to write.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.