North Coast Farewell

It has come: the day the nature of this blog transforms. Don’t worry, it will still be the same rambling thoughts on cornfield-inspired color scheme you’ve all come to love. But I need to push some things around in the masthead, because as of two days ago I no longer work for the North Coast Land Conservancy.

Most things are bittersweet. Getting stabbed in the face is pretty much all bitter, and a few hours’ privacy in a hot spring with the love of your life is mostly sweet, unless her fiancee is looking for you. But in between those two point spans a range of bitter-and-sweet mixtures that encompasses all of human experience. I’ll try my best to locate this one.

The bitter is easy. Although I lacked a vehicle on the Oregon coast, forcing me to hike marathon distances every weekend, and although I shared a room with mice, spiders, a not-insignificant number of bees, and intelligent mildew, I felt a place opening up to me in a way one hasn’t since my golden-hued summer in Wallowa County, two years ago. Everyone who visited me was transfixed by the setting in one way or another (I discovered after the fact that one of my friends saw the sea for the first time that weekend). Everything from the elk to the spruce forests to the fading light over Haystack Rock was insistent, drawn from some greener reality. I was sorry to see the back of it, and I’ll be soon to return.

I’ll miss the work, as well. This Wednesday I cut down six English holly trees which, according to their rings, were each more than fifty years old. I had no qualms about doing this–they were engaged in a slow-motion sack of Cottongrass Lake–reveled in it, in fact, when I thought about the forest in the long term. The conservation we did was done for eternity. I can’t imagine any job which would hold the same resonance for me.

But I have more work to do. That’s where the sweet will come from, what will keep departing the surf from turning too bitter. I have the experience I wanted: the other side of land trusts, so that I can now assess a property, identify pollution, develop a treatment plan, document my activity using space-agey GPS accoutrements, and reach out to a like-minded community. I have a rolodex of references, six thousand dollars in my bank account, and a stone on a string inscribed with a rune meaning patience: everything I could need.

Tomorrow, I officially begin my tenure as a starving artist. For the first time in a long time, I have an uninterrupted string of eight-hour days for a focused effort toward building my writing portfolio. My goal is to have a second draft of The Valley of Steel by the time I return to Walla Walla in early October, and hopefully to finish a cut version of The Glass Thief by that time, plus put the finishing touches on a query letter that doesn’t involve the whole lobster angle. When I’m back in Washington, in addition to shopping the two extant novels around, I want to write at least five more short stories (“The Morning Rose,” current project, draws on my NCLC experiences) and begin another novel, one of three. The Clockwork Raven, Archevis, and a project tentatively titled Rafter’s Rats, which I envision as Firefly by way of The Edge Chronicles.

Here is the only rule: if I don’t get paid for some sort of writing by 31 December 2015, I look for another real job. Each taxable salary earns me one more month. Go.

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Forever, Interrogated

Note: the following is an early draft of a blog post that will appear on the NCLC website at some point. Thus, it appears without the usual introductory frippery. Please hold your collective sigh of relief.

My top five North Coast Land Conservancy properties are easy to list. Necanicum Forest, for being relatively pristine, wet, and most of all shady. Bradley Bog, for hiding so many treasures in the midst of impenetrable brush. Circle Creek, an obvious choice, for hosting me and a herd of thirteen elk side by side, and for the way afternoon sunlight angles through the spruce in the swamp half. Clear Lake, for how the mist rises off the water at night, and for how its hornets eventually leave you alone.

Finally, Reed Ranch. Yes, I did favor the alliterative ones, but that’s not the only reason. Reed Ranch is part of the Clatsop Plains series of properties, grasslands succeeded from dune habitats, all featuring oceans of grass swaying in waves. It has a fine shady spot by the river. The real reason for its inclusion, however, is a conversation I had there in June, early in my tenure as a stewardship intern.

While eating lunch at that shady spot, I asked Eric, our supervisor, what would happen to the slope after we cleared off all the invasive scotch broom.

He thought for a moment. “The blackberry will probably move in.”

This weighed on me for the rest of the day. Why work so hard with saws and loppers, clearing away one noxious weed to make way for another, pointier one?

All summer, I’ve wrestled with the same question, in different forms. Why fight back scotch broom or policeman’s helmet or purple loosestrife when the neighbors of our properties let them run free, spilling millions of seeds into our lands? Why dig yellow flag iris when bits of its rhizome hide in the soil, biding their time until next year? What, in short, are Ari and Jason and Eric and I actually doing out here?

There are many answers. For me, the truth lies in one of the core ideals of a land trust: the idea that what we conserve, we conserve forever.

What does “forever” mean in this context? It’s a fraught term, especially in a world where laws change, where erosion by wind and water might change the very boundaries of our eternal protectorates.

Forever does not mean that we defend these plots of land from invasives and aliens and zombies and what have you until the end of time–although we will if we can.

Nor does it mean that when the sun expands to engulf the Earth, we will obtain a grant to strap rocket engines onto Surf Pines Prairie and launch it off to the nearest safe solar system to remind humans of what used to be our environment before we ascended to become six-dimensional beings of pure energy–although that would be cool.

“Forever” is a decision. It’s not unlike “sustainable,” a word lots of people complain about, but which has a strict definition: if you could do this forever, it’s sustainable. If you couldn’t, it’s not. You don’t have to be literally planning to do it forever. The key is to behave as though you are.

Environment is experience. It is that which we can interact with. This experience is polluted constantly with ideas as prolific as the scotch broom at Reed Ranch: that we have moved beyond the need for these open spaces somehow, that they are nothing more than museum pieces in a world full of modern convenience. Why cut, when the blackberry will just move in? What is it doing for us anyway?

When we, the stewardship crew, venture onto the land, we are rebelling against this worship of the present. To clear weeds from Reed Ranch, and to clear noxious ideas from our understanding of what Reed Ranch means, are identical actions. Yes, the blackberry will encroach, but that has no meaning against forever. The land will still be ours. So, we work it.

North Coast Land Conservancy is dedicated to a timeless premise: that each time one of these places disappears, we lose a part of our collective selves. The chorus frogs of Clear Lake, the hawks of Circle Creek, sing to our consciousness in a universal way. When one of us fights for the land, even expecting the same battle to recur unto oblivion, we all fight alongside them.

This is what animates me when I put my hat on every day. Each cut stump, each yanked root is a victory. So Reed Ranch joins the top five as a fine place to begin anchoring oneself to eternity.

In which Sam gets stung several times by an angry metaphor, then throws his pants at it

This has already been the best letter-writing summer of my life, and it’s only half over. Reading and re-reading all of them with a huge smile on my face in my usual Saturday writing spot, the Seaside Coffee House.

Writing update: As of this week, the first draft of The Valley of Steel is finished, and “A Tale of Rust Town” sent off, with a brief detour through name changes that all sounded too much like Edgar Allan Poe references (“The Night of the Raven” etc). The next order of business is to unite the first ten chapters with the rest of the manuscript, as there was a significant gap in the middle during which I edited The Glass Thief.

Speaking of that weighty tome: the “final version” might not be so final after all. I’ve managed to cut 3,000 words from the first seven chapters alone, so I’ve decided to stop querying it until I remove one of the major hurdles–I’m certain I can get the word count down to a reasonable level for debut fantasy. It will still be about lobsters, though. That’s non-negotiable. To prepare for the next charge unto the breach, I’ve taken pains to become addicted to Query Shark. The author is an agent who tears apart and rebuilds queries. Funny and educational.

Rewriting “Rust Town” was one of the more challenging tasks I’ve been faced with as a writer, and time will tell if I rose to the occasion. To go into exactly how daunting it was, I’d like to tell a work story.

Our work site for Tuesday and Wednesday was Clear Lake, a placid spot tucked away in the suburbs of Warrenton, up the coast from Seaside. The lake itself, nine acres across, is 4,000 years old and was formed in the last big earthquake. Clear Lake quickly shot into my list of top five NCLC properties for its wetlands, winding shady trails, abandoned dock, and reasonable invasive populations: only yellow flag iris is really a problem, and it hasn’t gotten away from the water. Even what happened Wednesday morning couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the place.

8:00 AM. We arrive early, planning to finish work early so that Eric, my supervisor, and my co-worker and roommate Jason can play in a soccer game in Cannon Beach. I’m always happy with an early morning, and I had my short story to work over in the afternoon, so I was on board. We had a “work party,” which would bring volunteers to tackle the population of scotch broom, at 10, so we set to work on the yellow flag iris.

Around 9, I volunteer to head into some standing water to tackle a small population of the odious fan-shaped leaves. Eric is on the bank next to me. Right before I hit the mud, I hear Ari, my other co-intern, shout, “Run!”

Let’s be clear: my lifestyle is not one that requires people to yell that at me a lot. I can’t think of whose is. Athletes and bank robbers come to mind. It’s also happened to me in a few Dungeons & Dragons sessions (although I set a swarm of snakes on fire last night, so who’s running now?). But not so much in the primary world.

That considered, I’m proud of my reaction time. About a second passed between Ari’s warning and my hoofing it up the riverbank. I’d like to get that down, but it’s perfectly respectable for now.

Another second passes before I understand what’s going on: Eric put his foot through a nest of hornets. He later told us that he thought a blackberry thorn was pressing into his face, before he realized the truth. I myself had already taken a stinger to the back of the knee when I registered that hornets were in play.

I want everyone reading this to know that my decision to throw my pants was made neither in panic nor in clouded judgment. I laid out my options, weighed the pros and cons of each, and decided that the most advantageous move in that instant would be to remove my trousers and hurl them no less than twenty feet to the south.

The second hornet that stung me had made its way inside my left leather glove, so I removed both of those and tossed them on the path. Eric had already removed his shirt and commenced slapping himself with it. Through some shouting combination of words I don’t entirely remember, Jason conveyed the information that hornets are attracted to the scent of things they have previously stung.

Interesting. While running, I recalled that first sting I took to my jeans. From this moment events unfolded as I have already related. As expected, the loathsome insects flocked to the pants, allowing me to beat off the remainder of the swarm with my shirt. We waited a few minutes for the pheromones to fade before trekking back along the yard sale we had made of our garments.

In the end, I made it out with only two stings. Ari took one, Jason got off scot-free, and poor Eric, initial disturber of the peace, got it the worst. Not only did he take seven stings, but later that day, he unearthed a beehive, and got another two stings from an entirely unrelated group of angry insects. To top it all off, the “thorn” in his face caused his eye to swell up, and he missed the next two days of work. His boss, Melissa, greeted us at Circle Creek on Thursday with a card bearing a  construction-paper bee and the message “Sorry we stung you.” We all signed.

So it could have been much worse for me. I made it out with an anecdote, along with some new outdoor knowledge, plus my pants, the real victim in all this. Sitting at the Rippet House that afternoon, realizing I had 125 words to establish my reticent protagonist’s inner life and growing love for the makeshift family he’d just met, I began to think of how I could apply the hornets as a metaphor for “the process.”

The common phrase is “kill your darlings,” attributed to some guy called Arthur Quiller-Couch, but until now I’ve preferred John Muir’s version, “slaughter your gloriouses.” I have a new version now, though: throw your pants at the hornets.

People like pants. They are, as the bard tells us, comfy and easy to wearThey protect your legs from thorns, and convey a certain professionalism the pantsless cannot enjoy. But they attract hornets. The pants are those large parts of a story that seem integral at first glance, hornets here are bloat and directionlessness, and the defeatism that leads to. So many times, writing that “cannot work” can get shot in the arm from the hurling of its pants. Because, when it gets down to it, sometimes pants are just a liability.