Category Archives: Environment

Hiking under and on the autumn leaves

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Autumn is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, which means the return of plaid, empty patios, chilly mornings and beautiful, dry fall evenings.

Well, that’s what it’s felt like this year. And the season feels even more wistful when I think of what’s around the corner: rain, rain and more rain.

To fend off thoughts of winter we’ve hiked, strolled, sat and done just about anything else we can outdoors in recent weeks, before the short nights and soggy mornings arrive.

The highlight this year has been hiking in Forest Park, the 5,000-acre public area minutes from downtown Portland (and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.) More specifically, hiking the busy Wildwood Trail from Macleay Park up to Pittock Mansion, a five-mile round trip with 300m of elevation.

While the lower part of the hike is populated with runners, dog walkers and families, once you’re up in the hills large sections of the trail are empty, save for the shafts of fall light, the sounds of the undergrowth and your year-old miniature dachshund’s panting breath.

And leaves, countless leaves, of all depths of burnished yellow and orange and rust and brown, either fallen or falling or else making up part of an astounding seasonal canopy. It’s an incredible sight and an incredible landscape to hike in – a transient natural gift which we’ll have for another few weeks.

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My end of the world nightmare sounds like this

"I shuffle along an empty beach...ash in the air". Pic: Cormac Looney

“I shuffle along an empty beach…ash in the air”. Pic: Cormac Looney

When I picture the aftermath of a catastrophic event – a nuclear attack, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the “Big One” hitting the Pacific Northwest – I’m rarely focused on the soundtrack.

In my mind I picture something not unlike the closing scenes of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel: I’m shuffling along an empty beach, polluted waves washing ashore, ash in the air, everything a tundra brown. It’s raining, I’m hungry, I’m terrified. I hope my loved ones are safe, if not near. There’s an acrid scent on the shoreline breeze.

This is how I think the apocalypse would look, smell and feel. For a while I’ve wondered what it would sound like – having listened to the new Low album, I think I know.

Double Negative” sounds like an album recorded in the basement of the last, dilapidated house on that shoreline in my end-of-days nightmare. Huge, static bass, martial drums, vocals half heard, creeping in and out, broken radio transmissions, fragments of melody – it’s exactly what I’d expect to hear as I boiled my last leather shoe for soup.

The lyrics may be more personal than ‘death of civilization’, but the themes of disconnection and doubt fit the vast, jarring eruption beneath them. It’s the sound of something gone badly, hugely wrong, and the sound of its fallout.

I try not to think of a slow, tortuous Armageddon. But listening to “Double Negative”, challenging and, in equal parts, brutal and beautiful, it’s hard not to.

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Farewell sun, hello rain

Fall leaves, Portland

Autumn leaves, Portland

Autumn’s arrived in Portland, heralded by a dip in temperatures, the return of the rain and low, gray clouds in the morning.

Perhaps it’s the Irish in me but, after a summer of record-breaking heat and smoke, I can’t say I’m unhappy. I’m damp, but not unhappy.

If anything, I feel slightly nostalgic. Changeable, sunny/showery weather reminds me of Ireland, and Irish weather year-round. How many soccer games did we abandon at kids when a deluge erupted halfway through, blown in on blustery westerly winds? In July too.

Ask me in November and I’m sure I’ll give you a different answer, but for now the coming of Autumn has seen me look indoors and inwards, leading me deeper into my reading pile and back to my guitar, and allowing me to enjoy a cup of hot coffee without sweating (it’s the little things).

And forcing me to dig out my raincoat, of course.

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Waiting out ‘May gray’

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Spring is in full swing in Oregon, which means more light and heat and greenery.

The greenery is ever-present here, but the high, diffuse May light is not. The bright gray above reminds me of the Irish Midlands, where whole childhood weeks would pass under the off-white dome.

Back then it usually meant dry weather, which meant football outdoors. Now it’s almost oppressive, however, particularly when temperatures warm into the 70s and the heat seems trapped by the uniform sky – or lack of one.

Under the gray this morning my memory – which may or may be accurate – called to mind Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”, and the oppressive skies above the Lido that provide a backdrop for the main character, Aschenbach’s, fall.

While the absence, or concealment, of the sun worked as a metaphor for Mann, it’s also what’s most oppressive about ‘May Gray’ (as the Californians call it). Without the sun in the sky, there are no shadows, time seems to slip off schedule, there is no clear dawn or sunset.

Nothing to do but wait, of course. Until the end of the hour, or the day, or the week, when the clouds clear and high blue returns. And with it, hopes and memories of summer.

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In praise of rainy afternoons

Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon.

Grey and wet and cabin feverish – in my memory all the rainy afternoons of my childhood holidays merge into one.

Waking on a wet Saturday morning, usually at a grandmother’s house, we would wait and hope, through breakfast and the drizzly morning, over lunch and on into the afternoon, that the rain would stop. By 3pm, after hours of books and board games, and more than a bit dispirited, we would be dragged from the fireplace and out for a spin in my dad’s car.

If we were lucky, the deluge or drizzle would stop. But often it did not, and so another July weekend would be lost to the vagaries of the Irish weather.

The advent of the internet, and a longer concentration span, and my sheer bloody mindedness nowadays when it comes to getting outside and getting soaked, means that a rainy Saturday isn’t the complete write-off it once was.

After moving from one rainy city (Dublin – 29 inches per annum) to another (Portland, Oregon – 36 inches), I’ve finally got used to rain. It’s only taken 40 years.

Just as well, as my wife and I woke to hail, rain, thunder, lightning, and 55mph gusting winds last Saturday. We were visiting our friends’ beach house in Manzanita, Oregon, a very fine property located all of 200 meters from the (very loud and very windswept) Pacific Ocean.

We were away from home. There were no chores to be done, no emails to be checked, or calls placed. My phone was turned off. For the first time in years, I experienced a rainy Saturday on vacation.

What did we do? Well, the same thing I did with my family 30 years ago. We had breakfast, chatted, ate some more, read a bit, watched the fireplace, and read a little more. And ate a bit more. And then we bundled into the car and headed out to the village for a damp stroll.

Plus ça change, as the French say. And pass the sauvignon blanc. The only difference between a rain-soaked Saturday in 2018 and one in 1988 as the occasional adult refreshment, which eased us into the afternoon and, truth be told, into the early evening as well.

How wonderful it was, to sit and sip and chat and attempt another two pages of the ‘Nighttown’ chapter, and then nibble and sip and chat some more. On occasion, I’d even forget the raging tumult flinging torrents of water on the windows. Until the next thunderclap.

Could I do it every weekend? The 10-year-old me from 1988 would probably give you a short, sharp answer to that – which I’d agree with today. But once in a soggy blue moon? Let it rain.

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Out of season – and with good reason

Rain in Portland, winter 2016

Rain in Portland, winter 2016

As an Irishman, winter’s here.

It began on November 1, not December 21 – the incomprehensibly late date observed in the United States.

The timing of the seasons is something the Celts got right. The drenching skies, low clouds, and fading daylight of November mean winter, not autumn/fall.

Leaping into the hardest season on the morning after Halloween means that, by the time Christmas arrives, you’re halfway through. And the days are getting longer by then, too. How could winter just be starting at that time?

I picked up the ‘winter in November’ belief at school in Ireland, and I’m fairly sure that it’s a commonly-held belief there to this day.

So, it’s hard – as someone who now lives in Oregon – to accept that the forthcoming 48 hours of chilly rain is just another fall weekend. And don’t get me started on the other cultural divide that pops up at this time of year – the pumpkin spice latte.

Whether I’m living in the right season or not, I’m guaranteed to be doing one thing this weekend – spending too much time sheltering indoors. Which for me, means a lot of time listening to music.

And what better music to listen to in Portland, in November, than an album called ‘Winter Light’, by an acoustic jazz combo called ‘Oregon’.

Who says I’m not in tune with the seasons?

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Hiking the ‘geography of hope’

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Mount Hood. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

“We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

So wrote the novelist Wallace Stegner in 1960, in an appeal to a U.S. government official involved in a policy review of America’s ‘Outdoor Recreation Resources’.

Stegner’s point seems self-evident 60 years later. In 2017, after hundreds of years of human erosion of natural resources, the wild country in public ownership is clearly worth more than its simple economic value.

While this is clear to many – particularly those who’ve visited a national park – the country’s current president may take some convincing. Meanwhile, hope seems thin on the ground these days.

But, as Stegner argued, it’s still there – for now. With this in mind we recently travelled from our home in urban north Portland’s to the Mount Hood National Forest, and specifically to the Lolo Pass Trailhead, a waypoint on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

From there, my wife and I hiked the PCT for a couple of hours, before turning off on the Timberline Trail, which we cut away from to ascend Bald Mountain.

In the course of the hike we met a handful of people, who quickly passed with a nod; at times, we seemed to be the only people standing beneath the gargantuan west face of Mount Hood above us. The higher we hiked, the quieter the undergrowth sounded – even the fauna appeared to clear the way.

We felt, to borrow another phrase from Stegner, “single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals…”

After months in the cities, and traffic, living with ambient freeway noise outside our home and multiple screens within, the hours also felt like ‘sanity restored’.

On Bald Mountain.

On Bald Mountain. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

We ate our lunch yards from Bald Mountain’s summit, where the only imprint of civilization was the few stone remnants of a 1930s fire lookout, facing the huge hanging glaciers on Mount Hood. The scale of the view was vast and silencing; our meal over, we sat and breathed and just looked on, a part of the landscape ourselves.

Having hiked in Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland, I’ve long been familiar with the restorative powers of the outdoors – whether in a blizzard on Ben Nevis, crossing a sun-bleached glacier on the Monte Rosa, or on sunny moorland in the Wicklow Mountains.

I still agree with the elderly man I met when descending Croagh Patrick in heavy weather on a November afternoon, who shouted to me above the wind: “It’s good for the soul!”

It was, and it still is. The wild places – to borrow a term from Robert Mcfarlane – remain repositories of peace, beauty, and natural communion. But they’re also places of hope – regions that remind us that – despite everything else that confronts us in 2017 – we’re still part of something awe-inspiring. For now, at least.

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Just a little bit of rain

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.

It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.

Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.

This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.

And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.

Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.

Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.

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A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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