Willamette Valley, May 6, 2014
Driving through Willamette Valley wine country on a spring day is a revelation of abundance. Everything grows in dense profusion. Grass greener than the Emerald City ripples in fields, closely packed as water drops in a pond. Great arcing vines of blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry loop over fences and tumble into ditches like spiny waterfalls. The narrow country roads are untrafficked apart from an occasional pick-up. Signs warn of slow-moving tractors. Agricultural area: drive carefully.
Clapboard dolls’ houses peek from beneath trees that rise three, four times their height. Huge spruce, fir, sequoia. Deciduous trees stretch their branches wide to allow every fluttering new green handkerchief of a leaf to face the sun. I want to know more about these trees: their names, their origins, the men and women who planted them (or failed to cut them down). A handful I recognise by their flowers – dogwood, both white and brilliant pink; magnolias with rich-looking blooms; hawthorn with its thick, fine blossoms like fistfuls of confetti. There is also Oregon white oak, alder, black cottonwood, ash and various maples, their leaves ranging in hue from oxblood to grass-green. I pass hazelnut orchards in full leaf, at once orderly and hinting at a riot of abundance.
Along the roadway and around the scattered houses are bursts of colour from rhododendrons, azaleas, snowballs, roses, lilacs, irises, and dozens of other species that go by in streaks of orange-yellow-cream-white-lavender-pink-purple-red-blue too quick for concrete identification. There are amidst them the human touches: post-boxes decorated with cows, flowers and American flags; miniature windmills; garden gnomes; a white plastic mountain goat; campaign signs hammered into the ground ‘Re-elect Bob Kerry’, ‘Vote Andy Duyck’. But these are mere specks in a landscape that belongs to plants and the small things that thrive among them: birds, insects and swarms of grey squirrels.
Oregon reverses the typical relationship between people and the land. Far from having to coax plants to life, Oregonians’ challenge is to carve a space for themselves amidst the profusion. Life bursts through boundaries here. It knows no restraint. The race is not to coerce a thin, bitter land into yielding a livelihood, but to find a way to cajole and curb the primal energy of earth and water into channels that feed human streams.
There is too much here, rather than not enough. The berries that local farmers cultivate – marionberry, raspberry, blackberry – grow more abundantly in hedges and empty lots. The challenge is to tone them down enough to make them approachable, profitable, predictable. Things want to grow here. I feel it when I step out of the car and walk along the road’s narrow gravel shoulder. Red clover thrusts itself up at my feet, conical burgundy flowers flickering like flames. Across a ditch, it has occupied an entire field, laying a red velvet carpet across a vibrant green under-layer. A solitary gold poppy nods in the sunlight. A bluebird hops past. A pile of cloud rests against the horizon like a giant meringue. Below it, hovering over the mountains, a multi-textured bundle of clouds ranging in colour from pewter to dove to ash to iridescent blue-white where the sun catches its upper edges. The mountains themselves sit comfortably in the middle distance. They don’t look far yet somehow I can’t imagine ever approaching them. They are the guardians of this luxuriant valley, standing like dark-jacketed bouncers, arms folded on chests, keeping a quiet eye on proceedings.
Oregon lays life’s challenge out in clear terms: Here is everything you could possible need – now, what will you do?
Seven years later the question remains. The challenges have changed
but it’s still up to each of us to choose how we walk this land.