On Melvin Adams:
Melvin Adams is a retired scientist and technical manager. His poetry and prose have been published in a number of journals and have won several awards. He is the author of Netting the Sun: A Personal Geography of the Oregon Desert and Remote Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide to Southeastern Oregon, both published by Washington State University Press. His book Atomic Geography: A Personal Geography of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, will be published by WSU Press this fall. Mr. Adams lives in Richland, Washington with his wife Onnie.
Stoning the Porcupine
“Stoning the Porcupine” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32
A few years ago, I attended the reunion of my small high school class. Seeing the faulted mountains, sage flats, and rangelands where I was raised prompted some reflection about how the geography of that place formed my concept of the sacred. Thinking back on some of my experiences growing up, I was reminded of the poetry of Rilke: the gods of nature are wild, some are beautiful and some are terrifying. There seems to be a constant tension between the terrifying and the beautiful in nature.
I grew up at a time in eastern Oregon when the hunting culture was even more pervasive than it is today. I remember hunting deer with my father, ducks and geese alone, and pheasants and quail with my friends. Often on the first day of hunting season, school was let out because so many of us would be out hunting. When times were hard my father, a sawmill worker, poached deer so we could eat. The economic culture was extractive. For a time during and after World War II, the Ponderosa Pine forests were overcut and were producing more lumber than the much wetter forests on the west side of the state. Since the settlement of the area by Irish sheepherders and cattlemen, the rangelands were overgrazed. Only the intervention of the federal government that owned much of the land eventually led to more sustainable use.
On my trip to the reunion I realized that my life on the Oregon desert was by turns extractive and violent, but I also realized that the beauty and mystery of the desert had led me to know a numinous dimension and impulse in nature that as a scientist I could not explain, but as a poet I could attempt to describe. Nature is in a tension between the violent on the one hand and nurturing, even loving, on the other. These two impulses are not in tension like two ends of a spring, but perhaps more like a symbiosis, or even a quantum entanglement where one atom can change its spin at any distance instantaneously when its original partner changes its spin. Maybe Rilke was right: are beauty and terror the same, two faces of the same reality?
One of the formative experiences I recall was the day when the cougar was a god. My father and I were fishing a small stream in a meadow. I was probably about ten years old. He was upstream casting flies while I stood near the bank with my pole. Suddenly my father dropped his rod and began pointing to the east while starting to run towards me. Out of the tree line I saw a large cat bounding towards me across the meadow. I do not remember being frightened at all, just curious. The cougar got to my part of the stream well before my father, suddenly veered and jumped clear across the stream between us. I am astonished that any living thing can jump that far. Later in life I asked my father what he was thinking at that time. He said that the cougar was beautiful but terrifying. The wild god of that day in the form of a cougar, for some reason I will never know, chose to spare me.
I learned about violence from another experience from my youth. The Forest Service had decided that porcupines were killing too many trees and offered a bounty on them. Never mind that a logger with a power saw could kill more trees in a day than all the porcupines in the county in a year. Our scout troop was driving home from a camping trip when we saw a porcupine at the edge of the road. The troop jumped out, picked up rocks and began stoning the porcupine. The porcupine began screaming and crying just like a human baby in distress. I will never forget the sound of the porcupine pleading for its life, or the sight of blood seeping from the mouth and ears of a helpless being.
Not long after that in the winter I went hunting alone in the grain fields north of Goose Lake. It was a cold, clear morning. I had put out the goose decoys and was trying to stay warm in my blind when just before dawn I heard flocks of ducks overhead flying north, the sound of their wings making a distinctive whistle. As soon as the sun rose, the geese began rising off Goose Lake and began flying north. The flocks were literally stacked up over each other and filled the sky from horizon to horizon. The racket was pervasive. A few flocks landed in the decoys, and I took a shot or two with my ancient single-shot twenty-gauge, but soon I just dropped the gun and stood there in amazement. It was as if the cold waters of Goose Lake had spontaneously generated thousands and thousands of living beings flying off into the clear sky of the brisk blue day in a vast proliferation of life, a release of energy from the primordial waters of cold, inanimate night. It was as if the Pleistocene had become entangled with the 20th century; vast flocks of the ancient lakes had returned once more. I have come to realize that there is no difference between the inanimate and the animate, between life and death, between the past and the present. They are simply different spins of the same fundamental atoms and fields in entangled connection. The gods of that day were geese, and they were beautiful. The day was an episode in the beginning of the end of my interest in hunting.
Goose Lake is a large, shallow, alkaline lake on the west side of the Warner Mountains on the Oregon—California border. It is a pluvial lake that formed from precipitation and melting glaciers during the Pleistocene epoch.
A frequency of a complex wave that is a multiple of a fundamental. Attuned and symmetrical vibrations. Living in peace with a place by caring for it. The harmonic chemistry of the periodic table relating elements to each other. Profound bonds as between parents and child.
I went to my buried mother and father near the wild plum patch overlooking Goose Lake where one hundred years ago the pioneers came out of the desert to find the Eden of the Goose Lake shore. I went to them and dressed their ground with paintbrush, agates, and purple sage. I offered them what I had, what was native to the place, what they loved.
The relationships between light, time, space, gravity, energy, and matter. A difference in viewpoint between two people looking at the same thing. Viewing the same thing from a different vantage point of time or space.
Walking home the field white and barren as the moon, bathed in cold light. My boots squeak in the snow leaving tracks for spring. The road blurred with drifts. No lights, skeletal trees show me home.
A barn bleats cold breath from huddled sheep. The sawmill burner throws sky sparks—temporary stars—the moon too bright for real stars.
Why do I remember the steppe now with childhood so far back, think of the moon before man walked it, think of the Oregon steppe, cold space, the dog, warm house?
How you loved the moon and hated snow. I left you without a choice beneath the snow bathed in the moon—your life always a cold compromise.
My father and I shared many trips into the backcountry of the Oregon desert. Some were eventful and even frightening: being caught on open rim rocks during a lightning storm, hiking through blizzards and drifts when a sudden front came in on a hunting trip, being flooded out of camping trips, having tents blown over by sudden gusts of winds on clear days, getting stuck in mud or breaking an axle far from any help, using pliers to pull porcupine quills out of our careless dog’s mouth, being startled by a rattlesnake on the next rock over. But there were times of inexpressible joy and peace: baking freshly caught native trout on a campfire, listening to my father play the guitar by a campfire many miles from any human light or habitation when the stars seemed to come down from the high dry air and hover right above our heads like a billion sparks, taking a nap under a quaking aspen grove with the leaves rustling in every desert breeze on a lazy summer afternoon, watching the trout come up for a fly on a beaver pond.
I remember one such evening of perfect bliss. It was on a desert stream on a warm evening. Nighthawks were darting and dodging overhead collecting insects in the warm air, the creek was murmuring as it ran over rocks and around boulders, trout were dimpling the water as they rose for flies, the Milky Way came down close, and a beaver came along and sat with us by the campfire. My father serenaded the beaver and me with his guitar and the Gene Autry songs he knew while the beaver just sat there taking it all in for the longest time. My father said later he should have offered the old boy a cup of coffee. Each of these days was a beautiful god—the god of beaver, the god of trout, the god of the Milky Way.
Chemical processes maintaining life by synthesis of needed biochemicals. The release of energy in cells and tissues by chemical decomposition of nutrients along with the release of waste. The energetics of life. The slow burning and oxidation associated with life.
Today is the god of orange and red, autumn flames of marsh grass and cattail.
Red flaming trees scattered on golden hills. Orange meadow armies,
crossed blades of red botanic swords.
The god of today is dying.
Summer photosynthetic green is burning away day by day.
The god today will die and lie in the snow.
The god today knows he is dying— knows he is beautiful.
He sees his hot image in the cool ponds.
He reflects back to himself, I am a god, I am on fire and I am dying.
I realize now that everything on the desert is in a sort of symbiosis, a communal metabolism, an entanglement of violence and death and life and creation and rebirth.
All living things are in a vast communion, made from the same template of fused atoms from the same suns, all embraced by the same gravity. But the mysteries remain. How could the lichens live on such exposed surfaces with the incessant winds and heat and cold, how could a tiny chub species survive in an isolate spring on a dry playa that was once a vast lake, how could tiny shrimp live by the billions in a lake much more saline than the ocean? How can the Ponderosa pines seem to glow when the light hits their orange bark? How can a whole grove of aspens grow from a common seep root? These questions tantalize me still, and they are all places in the geography of my soul.
These layered, high clouds form in the prevailing Westerly winds in the lee of the Cascade mountains. These clouds were visible at sunset in the high desert east of the mountains.
A symbiotic organism of fungi and algae. Considered a “pioneer” plant by its ability to grow on and form soil from rocks in dry, windy, and extreme conditions.
A discrete amount of light, energy, or charge in nature.
Standing on the bluff of the flaming autumn with red and orange dancing below,
in the grassy wind of the ice blue day,
stabbed by the shafts of the sun burning hills, amid the cold sloshing ponds
darting birds, circling birds in swirling columns of invisible air,
crying salty marsh tears, not wanting to leave but being called by far off cranes.
Lord let me come back here if only a mote of dust, a mole of wind, a quantum of light.
Let me crawl in the grass and be a feast for a red tail or speared by an egret,
even the howl of a coyote would be enough for me,
in this mystery, this sacred ground, this all.
Salty. A solution of salt. Ocean water. The water of an alkaline lake. A primordial substance critical for life. The medium for halophytes—salt-loving animals like brine shrimp. The basic composition of human blood.
I look back to you buried on a gold dredge pile, softening to trees,
look back to your sadness, too soft for a hard land.
I look to the salty lake where I will be next to Warner Mountain, at the end of Pine Creek.
I imagine the forever of ice and wind, the endless wetting and drying of the soul.
Can a speck of consciousness survive this elemental harshness?
Moonlight inscribes the lake in gold, a goose call ascends, my heart beats for you on the shore of night.
Lake Abert is a highly saline lake in the arid region of eastern Oregon. It hosts an abundant stock of brine shrimp and brine flies and is a major habitat for migratory birds on the Pacific flyway and for a variety of shore birds.
Weak or tired. Near death. Having a tragic demeanor. Wounded.
In the rigid blue sky of the dying year,
the weight of autumn sage on the deer’s body,
I saw in his black eyes the tragic pool beneath all existence,
like my father’s eyes in the end, his rifle never used again.
A ubiquitous species of deer on the rough Oregon steppe in eastern Oregon.
I remember the last time I went deer hunting with my father. I was finally able to write a poem about it. His hunting rifle is still in my closet and has not been fired in fifty years. I sometimes wonder what my daughters will think about it when they find it after I am gone. But I hope they will find the pictures of a young boy out in the wilds holding up a rattlesnake longer than he was tall or the picture of my father with his guitar in front of a tent on the desert or the picture of me holding up a large trout with the rim rock and a stream behind. Each day was a different god; some were beautiful and some were terrifying. The West of my youth was a tension between the frightening and blissful. But in the end, one cannot see god and live.
Petroglyph lake is a vernal pool—a lake that as it dries in the summer leaves rings of different types and colors of vegetation around the edge. This particular lake has a basalt rim rock surrounding the pool that is an important petroglyph site. The petroglyphs were made by shamans to depict various stages of their trance flights to the heavens. The plants in the foreground are sage and yellow rabbit brush. Both rabbit brush and sage brush are members of the Aster family.