The Land that Heals
A month into quarantine, I begin to feel the walls close in. I need to stretch my legs. I crave the scent of pine underfoot—the brush of wind against my face. “Let’s go for a run,” my husband calls. He knows my heart and mind need outdoors and exercise.
A few short weeks before the stay-at-home orders, I woke from a dream where I flailed for my mom as I fell off a cliff, and I knew. I was losing the life growing within me. Staring into the bathroom mirror, I whispered to myself, “You come from a long line of strong, mountain women. You will get through this.” But I wasn’t sure if I believed it. The pain of my body’s betrayal was too much.
My husband was concerned. I told him I needed time and tried to hide the hurt. It wasn’t working. Laces tied, he won’t tell me our destination, a place even he’d never been. Cautiously we venture back out into the world together.
Five miles up the road we find the entry point. No other cars. We step out and wind our way through the narrow gate. What we find inside may well have resembled Mary’s first look at her secret garden—miles of roads being reclaimed by the force of nature. We spy apple blossoms and cherries too, once planted with purpose, lining newly paved streets. Now, their overgrown, wild branches stretch out to brush whomever may pass by.
We ramble through streets once bustling, now a highway for slugs, our path an obstacle course aimed to protect the vulnerable. On a brushy side trail, a rabbit hops across our path. Birds call overhead. White towers tucked behind a stand of trees, a beekeeper’s handiwork, the only sign of current human inhabitants.
This. This is what our souls missed. The moment everything else fades and there is nothing but the chimes of leaves.
Over the weeks, we watch fruit form and ripen. I think about the 40,000 lives who once called these streets home. We ponder the healing power of nature. The roots and herbs used by my husband’s Indigenous people. The mountain healers my kin sought out. How modern medicine is informed by this ancient knowledge—nature heals.
I marvel that earth and body, when given time and a chance, will heal.
—Shelby D. Zacharias, Corvallis
Reconnecting with Nature
I’m a native Portlander, retired Adult Protective Services Investigator, and full-time Realtor. Like most Oregonians, I love nature. Unlike most Oregonians, I don’t always feel welcome or even safe outdoors in nature. Black people and other people of color sometimes experience verbal abuse, threatening behavior, and even physical attacks while enjoying the outdoors. As a result, going outdoors to enjoy nature can feel like a potentially dangerous thing to do.
People of Color Outdoors (POCO) is a Meetup group that I started in July of 2017. I had just stepped down as the leader of Outdoor Afro Portland to take a break. Rikeem Sholes, a biologist and enthusiastic Outdoor Afro member, offered to volunteer to lead hikes if I would start a new group. I decided to take Sholes up on his offer, and POCO was born. pdxpocoutdoors.com
POCO is a welcoming community where Black people and other people of color can explore a variety of activities. POCO has hosted a vision board party at Camp Collins. Members might learn about the geology of the Sandy River at Oxbow Park. POCO has hosted educational events about local history, the environment, and outings that introduce members to new outdoors skills such as rock climbing or canoeing.
Generations of people of color have become disconnected from nature due to displacement, environmental pollution and destruction, and exclusion. As a result, there’s a lack of internal wellness in the community that can be at least partially healed by reconnecting with nature.
POCO intends to help to facilitate the reconnection. POCO reminds members that being in nature can and should be a daily part of their lives. Regular time spent in nature leads to healthier, happier individuals and communities. It’s more than important for people of color to connect with nature. It’s critical.
—Pamela Slaughter, Portland
I flew to my parents’ house for fall break of senior year, from my Portland liberal arts school to our Hispanic California suburb. I found myself outside, at Grizzly Peak. My body hung over its lookout precipice, water and lights glimmering underneath my dusty Converse. I watched fog settle in a lazy half-hug around the East Bay’s gently sloping mountains. A hard heat was pressing onto our neighborhoods while winds roared overhead, igniting four wildfires within one week.
As I was breathing a sigh of relief for being home, the winds over the Bay were loosening and rediscovering themselves too. Strong gusts swept over northern California with unprecedented speed, as if someone had released their own sigh of mammoth exhaustion over us. The thick swirling heat and PG&E’s collapsing power lines rolled angry fires all around.
Each year my family goes to Blue Lake, a small figure-eight-shaped basin hidden among the hills of California’s Lake County. Two summers ago, the Mendocino Fire raged across the area. Its flames edged only yards away from our lake, devouring the hills around. Last summer, in 2019, I rested on the water’s shore while its surface shimmered with early-morning leaps of young bass. The burnt, ravished gray of the surrounding land grew clear and stark in outside’s dawning light.
Mendocino was the largest wildfire complex ever to lick our state down to its skeletal core, to raze our prized pride and comfort to literal ash. Knowing this sometimes summons a grotesque sense of belonging, like I’ve secured a tenable thread in the fabric of state history.
What are our stories if not flammable lists?
A patchwork of eucalyptus forest and broad plains sweep through my parents’ neighborhood, El Sobrante, a golden hug: beauty engenders breakability.
During last fall’s wildfires and power blackouts, I saw the same quote repeated from some now-irrelevant newscaster. Now it’s seared into me, like blackened scars scoured into land by the flames themselves:
“These places we love have become tinderboxes.”
“These places we love have become, essentially, tinderboxes.”
“These places we love have become tinderboxes.”
I go running in the hills behind Blue Lake and approach a patch of blackened trees, burnt nearly to death but still standing. I brush my hand over the branches. Their fine dark soot imprints itself across my palm, like the soft stain of vulnerability, of impermanence, of rebirth.
—Jacey de la Torre, Portland
But Will We Learn Anything from This
Will we be better people after all of this is over? While we all wait for this “thing” to be over and done with, the natural world seems to be recovering just a little bit—the skies are bluer, the grass is greener, and the oceans . . . well the oceans are still pretty fucked up. I keep reading that animals are showing up in “unexpected places.” If by that we mean that animals are showing up where they would be living had humans not taken over their habitat then sure, animals are showing up in unexpected places.
Speaking of showing up in unexpected places, people who clearly have not run outside since they used to have recess and drink chocolate milk for lunch are now exercising outdoors all of the time. They are overcrowding our parks and our streets with their Nikes, New Balances, and Adidas. I was worried the first couple of weeks. I hadn’t seen that many red-faced sweaty white people since . . . well, since last summer here in Portland. It hasn’t been pretty, but God bless them.
I, on the other hand, spent half of my paycheck on a brand-new bike that stays in place and goes nowhere. Yes, I bought a Peloton and yes go fuck yourself! I love it! I’m one of those people who looks in the mirror and isn’t thrilled with what they see. This is because I judge myself against impossible to achieve movie star and sports figure body types. Things were getting pretty bad inside of my head before the Peloton arrived last month on my doorstep. Its name is Black Thunder—that’s right, you get to name your bike. Black Thunder came into my life at the perfect time. Since my right knee is trash (football) I am unable to join those sweaty-ass white folks running all over this city. Oh, how I would have run among the whites. My beautiful black skin glistening with sweat and salt, my face never betraying my fitness level because no matter how aerobically out of shape I am, the red splotches will never come. Is this why they fear us?
Ahmaud Arbery was a twenty-five-year-old Black man who was murdered in Georgia in February while jogging through a neighborhood. Two white men saw him running down the street while they were inside of their house. One of them decided he looked like someone who had broken into a house earlier that week, so he called the police. These men then grabbed a pistol and a shotgun, jumped into their pickup truck, and drove after Ahmaud, who was exercising. Shockingly, an argument and a struggle followed, which resulted in Ahmaud being shot twice and dying. He was murdered fighting for his life against two strangers who interrupted his run.
I imagine that these two men were red in the face and sweating with anticipation as they hurried to their truck, guns at the ready, prepared to hunt a human being. I can’t help but wonder if they will be convicted. Maybe, maybe not. Will something like this happen again? Most definitely. Do I think about this story when I’m doing activities that take me away from my house? Yes, I do. It’s carving deep crevices inside of my mind.
There was a time in this country when, if you were white, you could do whatever you wanted with Black bodies. You could cut them, you could kill them, you could torture them, you could sell them, you could rape them, you could blame them for your crimes and for your failures—the list of what you could do was long. How much shorter is that list today?
These are some of my pandemic musings. I have sad days. I have days when I’m frustrated about everything that I read and hear. I have days when I feel overwhelmed and I have days when I don’t want to do a damn thing. I also have days when I feel grateful just to be alive. I have days when I can’t stop laughing and I have days when I pretend like my dog can speak to me and we solve local crimes together. Regardless of the kind of day I’m having I keep coming back to the same question. Will we be better people after this is over? Maybe, maybe not, but hopefully so.
—Chris Williams, Portland
Quarantining With My Noxious Friends
As late spring rain bears down on us in Wallowa County, the impatient dog and I sit side-by-side, chins atop the windowsill, gazing longingly out to the wet grey landscape. Outdoors, the grass shoots up overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk, and the weeds thrive in every nook and cranny around the garden with unparalleled abandon.
The monotony of quarantine life has reached peak routine. Morning coffee, evening wine, same time each day, sometimes out of the same mug to avoid unnecessary dish-doing. Old ways of doing things long forgotten, replaced by the new. The dog has lost memory of what it’s like to spend a single moment alone, clinging like we are conjoined twins. I have forgotten what it feels like to zip up a pair of jeans, favoring these stretchy jammies day in, day out.
Each day a facsimile, the only surprise comes when Mother Nature dictates a change in the schedule. It is a microcosm to the macrocosm that we are all living in right now.
Occasionally, a break in the rain is accompanied by the sun peeking out for a few brief flashes. Seizing the moment, we drop what we are doing and race outside to tend to the verdant jungle that is taking over the yard, weeds spreading at their own viral rate. We pull as many as we can before the downpour begins anew and we must retreat again to dry isolation.
In these rare alfresco moments, bent over in coveralls, my typical annoyance at the incessant myrtle spurge starts is replaced this year by the resilience of this powerful life form that prospers, again and again, despite daily plucking. Relishing the feel of the cool breeze and the percussive sound it makes rattling the quaking aspen crown, I enjoy the invigorating flora around me.
The former ennui of pulling weeds has become a joy, a lucky break in the routine where I am blessed to fill my lungs with pure mountain air, while filling bucket after bucket of my noxious friends. In stark contrast to the spring seasons before, I have nowhere to be this year and I can think of no better use of my time than to revel in the fresh growth and enduring survival around me. Summer on the horizon, the weight of the world lifts a bit as I carry out my chores and feel hope for the resilience of us all.
—Ann Siqveland, Joseph
No comments yet.