Thursday, February 4, 2016

On the Molalla

Fluted basalt columns wound into a nautilus
turquoise water 
moss covered trees
rain-licked ferns 
slick-capped mushrooms feeding on rich black soil
the scent of origin and rot

-Naseem Rakha, 2/4/16

Monday, February 1, 2016

Everything is Temporary

Walking along the Colorado River, RM 179.5 in the Grand Canyon, I see a twisted outcrop of columnar basalt. Pillars of hardened lava protrude right then left, up then down, a stark contrast to the basalt on its sides, tall and vertical columns—sentries guarding a renegade piece of the past.

Typically, columnar basalt is very linear, either standing upright or lying horizontally to the ground. Vertical basalt is formed by lateral lava flows, horizontal basalt, vertical flows. All of it very orderly. This twisted belt of rock, however, it speaks of pandemonium. Clashing forces. Disarray.

But even more compelling then this specific flow on this specific part of the Colorado River, is the question of how these blocks of stone settled into their distinct shapes. Most geologists believe columnar basalt is created by constriction; the cooling lava shrinks, causing cracks or joints similar to those seen on dried lake beds. Then you have others who think the shrinkage theory is, "too simple," favoring, instead an action they call, "viscous fingering," or what I think of as geologic foreplay. In essence, "vertical loading and progressive cooling and crystallization" work together to ease the basalt into its forceful forms.

Whatever the real mechanism for basalt's symmetrical semblance, geologists tend to agree it takes hundreds of years for the rocks to cool into these features, perhaps even longer. It's often that way with earth science. The Grand Canyon may or may not have been carved in 6 million years, the basalt columns may or may not be the result of viscous fingering. We can do field studies on the subject, write papers, have conferences, but we don't really know the answer for sure—not yet.  I think that's what draws me to the science—its tangential relationship with certainty.

RM 179. I leave the river path and scramble up a scree slope toward the chaotic columns, grabbing anything solid to boost my way. I brush a nettle plant, feel its sting, scrape against a fishhook barrel cactus, feel a spine embed in my leg. At the base of the outcrop I stop, catch my breath, then begin to climb the twisted and uneven stone.

Halfway up I find the perfect place to pause and eat a few crackers. There is a seat for me, a ledge for my feet, another for my canteen, and yet another for my backpack. Beside me, lying prone to the ground, is a dead and desiccated barrel cactus. The living one, the one whose spine is now lodged in my thigh, was striking with its yellow and magenta plumage. But this one, this dead one, also has a certain beauty. Its body is ashen and has collapsed in on itself. Its spines look like rusted nails. In this brittle environment, where decay is so slow, the cactus may have died a decade ago or more. I know from its size it may have lived eighty years, maybe one hundred.

I watch the river go by, thinking about it and the curve of time. A barrel cactus which lived longer than my parents, a series of lava flows which temporarily dammed this river well over a million years ago. Either one, eighty years or a million, they are infinitesimal compared to the age of the bedrock that surrounds this place: 1.8 billion year old granite and schist.

It's one of the reasons I come to this canyon. All those years piled on top of one another, a lexicon of what's been. What is my existence in all of that? All of human civilization would amount to barely a hairline in the these walls. The idea calms me, puts my own losses in perspective. All things are temporary. Heartburn, heartache, heart attacks. Politics, politicians, preachy puritans. Guns, laws, dams, disease. Bills. Wills. Addictive pills. All of it making the rounds, from germination to termination.

The canyon is an open book, giving me a glimpse of what was, what is, and what is yet to be.

-Naseem Rakha, February 1, 2016

Thursday, January 28, 2016

After the Oregon standoff: can lost goodwill be recaptured?

As the standoff in the Oregon desert draws close to a very American end—a barricade, a shoot out, one dead cowboy, several arrests—the conflict over western lands is far from over.
During the first week of the three-and-a-half week standoff, things were fairly amicable between the militants and local authorities. But before long, the out-of-state gun bearing cowboys were destroying property, and threatening local officials. All along, the police and FBI remained mostly out of site, not approaching the militants or commenting to the press about the situation, which left many across the country wondering what they were waiting for.
That changed on Tuesday night. As leaders were driving about 100 miles to a meeting with supporters, authorities stopped the militants on the remote snow-lined highway, and captured the group. In the confrontation, one leader, Robert LaVoy Fenicum, was shot and killed. With their leaders gone, many of the militants left the refuge, and presumably, Harney County. Still, five or six people remain, promising to stay no matter what.
Their continued resistance indicates that the sentiments which brought people to this cold and windy part of the country are not going to just blow away. While everyone may agree that public land has many meaningful purposes, it is the people who earn their living from that land that often feel left in the dust by state and federal regulations. 
To them, wolf introductions, wilderness proposals, bans on timber harvest and reduction in grazing units clearly prioritize environment over livelihood. Shuttered mills and feed stores, abandoned libraries, anemic public services are perceived to be a product of an overreaching, unsympathetic and aggressively arrogant government infrastructure lubricated by urban and urbane values, rather than what it really is: a symptom of an economic system gone amuck. 
For them, multiple use is often portrayed as a multiple menace, with the needs of wolves and fish and hikers competing with the needs of local people trying to feed their families.
The answer to this problem, however, is not the demonization of government nor in the privatization of land. Ironically, the answer according to Harney County rancher, Fred Otley, lies in just the kind of cooperative plans that he and other ranchers and conservationists helped create with the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and Bureau of Land Management in 2013. 
The landmark effort brought together all interest groups to develop a shared vision for the land which included economic, environmental and social needs. It took more than five years of hard work, long conversations and detailed biologic assessments to complete the project. 
In the end, ranchers signed a 30 year agreement with the government to protect sage grouse habitat on their private lands, in exchange for the continued use of public lands for well monitored grazing. 
The cooperative effort included 53 ranches and 320,000 acres of pubic and private land. In March, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Harney County, dubbing the Malheur plan, “the Oregon Way.” It and similar work in other parts of the west have been credited for the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to not list the sage grouse as endangered. 
sage grouse
“We started saying what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” said Tom Sharp, a Harney County rancher who helped launch the cooperative effort. 
Sharp, Otley and Harney Country community members are concerned that the militants illegal occupation of the refuge and their incendiary claims that the federal government has no right to own land in the state, will derail the goodwill that has been created in the county. After generations in the area, they know how quickly misunderstandings can lead to decade long feuds. 
These concerns were voiced to Bundy and his crew at a Town Hall meeting last week in Burns, Oregon. The meeting drew over 400 locals, most of whom called on Bundy to go home. At the end of the meeting Bundy and his friends got up and walked out, not saying a word to the group. 
And while it appears Bundy and his gang are on the way out, their God-loving, gun-toting, live-free-or-die message is not likely to go away. The reason Bundy and other leaders were caught last night is they were heading out to meet with more than 100 supporters in the next county over. Before he was arrested, Bundy said he been invited to attend another community meeting later this week. “We have a lot of support,” he told reporters. 

Unfortunately, he may be right. 

-Naseem Rakha, 1/28/16 for The Guardian

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A Year Goes By

This was Elijah and I on January 1, 2014 hiking Abiqua Falls. So much has changed since then—Dad is gone, Elijah is soon turning 16, Chuck is moving his office to Portland, and I am a disillusioned writer with little interest in the publishing world and all the calisthenics writers are asked to do to earn attention. My world instead is about trying to raise an independent son, support my husband, and still find my place and voice in the wilderness. It is where I feel most at ease with the temporary nature of everything I see, smell, love and touch. It is where conflict—internal/external—is sweetly silenced by the hum of indifference. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

First Anniversary

Dad, last Christmas
Last year on New Year's Eve, Dad took Shameem, Chuck and I to his doctor so that we could hear a sobering truth: Dad was running out of time. Shameem, Chuck and I listened as Dad pressed the man to talk numbers. Dad wanted us to understand that he knew his life was coming to a close and that he did not want us to do anything to prolong it.

At the time, we three—Chuck, Shameem and I—thought the doctor was talking months, possibly a year. Maybe even more. Dad was an escape artist when it came to the Grim Reaper. In his life, he had slipped from the clutches of Malaria, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, The Black Plague. He had been in two nearly fatal car accidents, had broken his neck, survived a brain infection, and had been living with end stage kidney disease for more than a decade without dialysis. If Dad's end was near, it would take its time. But my dad knew better. Off handedly he suggested he might be gone in two weeks. The doctor disagreed. Dad had much more time then that.

The meeting ended and we all shook hands and thanked the doctor. Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much. Afterwards, we went for lunch and watched Dad beam with the pleasure he always got from talking with his doctors. Dad's relationships with these men and women were anything but simply professional. He would attend each appointment armed with folders filled with graphs of his weight, his blood pressure, his heart rate. Dad was a scientist and his failing health was his own study. He would read every article he could find on kidney disease, bone marrow, drugs, experiments. He studied graphs which would give him some idea, based on the trajectory of the numbers, when he might die. Sometimes those graphs would depress him. Sometimes they would energize him, giving him a sense of understanding and control. Occasionally, he was scarred. But visits with his doctors would bring him back to a solid place. After talking about his graphs and his latest blood work and all it meant the conversations would become a free for all, with Dad and Doc talking about all things in the universe, including the universe, its stars and planets, the earth and its atrocities and beauty: war, god, poverty, politics, food, opera, gangs, guns, you name it, Dad could speak to it. And did.

After lunch Dad asked if I had plans for New Year's Eve, and I said no, we were spending it at home nice and quiet. We would listen to Portland's All Classical's annual countdown of people's favorite music. It was a tradition, typically ending at midnight with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a piece of music I was taught to love at an early age when my parents would take me to the symphony, or as I would fall asleep to the sound of the radio playing in the living room.

When I told Dad we would stay home for New Years, I saw, felt, heard a sound of relief. Dad rarely imposed his desires, but clearly he was happy to know we would be together. And it was a beautiful night, ending with sparkling cider and Beethoven's Chorale and Elijah and I conducting and everything—every little thing... being just right.

Then, two weeks later on January 14, 2014, Dad fell on the Portland streetcar. Ten hours later, he died.

And I think of all that today for obvious reasons. Anniversaries are sometimes a burden.

But I think Dad would be proud of his children: Naseem, Amir and Shameem. We have survived our first year of being orphans, and we have all come together for this holiday. We are carrying on the traditions that Mom and Dad started—the Catholic and Muslim agnostics who put up a Christmas tree not because they believed in a Christian god, but because they loved us, and what better reason could there possibly be?

Me and my Dad -- Mohammed Allah Rakha

Naseem Rakha December 31, 2015

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Benefits of Discomfort

“Direct experience is out best teacher, but it is exactly what we are most bent on obliterating, because it is often so painful. We grow more comfortable at the price of knowing the world and therefore ourselves."    Joe Kane, Running the Amazon. 

We are not meant to live our lives indoors, not meant to breathe caged and recirculated air or always be warm and comfortable. Discomfort builds callus and muscle and bone. It breeds ingenuity and community: a melding of talent and time. The Greek word for comfort is paregoria—the root for the word Paregoric—an opioid once given to children to put them to sleep. Comfort being a kind of drug that dulls the senses and leads us into a stupor. Living outside for 31 days reminded me of this. Being home, in front of the fire and feeling like I need a nap reminds me of it too.

Naseem Rakha -  December 26, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sun Worship

Kwagunt RM 56.5 - naseem rakha 

In winter, in the canyon, you worship the sun—seek it out like a moth to its flame. There it is—around the next bend, in that eddy, up that cliff. Once in its rays, you shed layers, and your face lifts and your hands are removed from gloves and stretch bare and free out toward the light.

It has snowed as low as the river, and in pre-dam times before the daily tidal shifts caused by the power needs of Phoenix and its outliers, parts of the river have even frozen. But we 15 on our river trip were lucky. The snow we saw was well behaved; sticking to the upper ledges of the canyon, spackling the Kaibab and Toroweep, icing on a 1.8 billion year old cake. After the sun set it was the fire we all huddled by, driftwood and laughter our fuel. Songs too, and chocolate bars. A little bourbon. We did wake to ice a few times, and frost on our tents and sleeping bags. But tea and coffee were quick to brew, and if it was a layover day the fire was re-lit and there we'd sit waiting for our sun: Helios, a nuclear fireball, massive and brilliant and blinding, and yet somehow, strangely, a life-giver, a sustainer, a distant yet giving god.

Naseem Rakha, December 21, 2015

snow falling in the canyon - naseem rakha