I watched a thunderhead build momentum over the Siskiyou mountains all day on Thursday. Up and up it went, 20,000, 30,000 feet into the sky, white, billowy protrusions folding and unfolding from its anvil base along a column that seemed to stretch from the earth to the high heavens.
The gleaming-white column softened and turned pink and then peach and then salmon in the glow of the setting sun. I drove along the upper Rogue River trying to think about fish and fat salmonflies, but my mind was on that cloud and its ominous intentions.
When the sun finally dropped behind the Siskyou mountains and into the Pacific beyond, the light in the column went out suddenly. Like someone flipped a switch and the clouds went from that soft salmon blush to cold blue-gray steele, and I shivered as I watched it happen.
I took a sip of cold IPA from a sweating glass inside a brewery in the industrial area of Medford where I went to escape the 96-degree heat. Some old football game was being re-run on the television, and a couple of people stood around the bare room where tables had been removed to allow for social distancing.
Even the bartender could tell something had changed. I could see the bartender’s reaction in the glass I was staring through as I watched the warm light in that column turn cold and gray. I’m not sure if she shivered, but I shivered again and put my glass down.
The beer didn’t taste good. Not because it wasn’t good. But because I had an acrid taste in my mouth the last few hours of the day. I worked all day on a project to help my department bring some awareness about increasing bear activity in the foothills of the Siskiyou mountains where the town of Ashland continues to creep up and up into the wild spaces.
While driving through the hairpin turns of roads and driveways that allowed people to access their houses perched on cliffs and precipices, I thought about how we push so hard invididually for so long without any thought about others or the bigger world around us.
I wondered why people would build their houses here on a hillside where a match stick or a dry lightening strike could turn their memories to ashes so easily. Up and up into the watershed we drove looking at houses like wounds carved into the hillsides as people jogged casually up the dirt roads that contained the little meanders of the stream that drained the mountains.
I used to say humans are funny creatures, but I’ve come to realize we are not funny or so easily dismissed. And simple pleasures like building wealth and then using it to do what we want with it, like plop a foundation, a roof, four walls and large glass windows into the wilderness so we can enjoy it while we slumber is not a dream so much as a disease we call freedom.
People are going to continue to encroach on wild spaces. I’ve come to terms with the knowledge that individual by individual, we will take up all of the remaining wildnerness in our quest for life, love and happiness, also known as freedom.
But something more loomed in my mind that day, which just agrivated my sense of frustration over the houses perched like little stacks of kindling right up against a national forest.
As darkness descended, I could see the lightening strikes like x-rays of the thunderhead revealing its bones and beating heart. The tendrils of fire, each with a billion-joules of energy, danced over the mountains for hours, the cloud sitting perfectly still as proven by a time-lapse I took of the storm.
Somewhere in the long evening, the storm dissapated and the lightening faded, and it was inky dark and black as I made my way to the hotel room at 2:30 in the morning.
I glanced briefly at my phone, my eye catching a couple of words in notifications before they closed from exhuastion. Riots, Floyd, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Covid, Trump, misinformation and then darkness.
But no sleep. I tossed and turned, thinking about the thunderhead that parked itself over the Siskiyou mountains all evening and thought about oppression and rage and helplessness and frustration at being unable to make changes happen and even more helpless that change seems to be going in the wrong direction, that things are growing worse by the minute.
I flopped around grabbing a new pillow every half hour to allow the cool side to temper the flames in my head as my thoughts raged unabated by the need for sleep.
Finally, somewhere in the earliest hours of a new day, sleep overcame me for a brief moment before the harsh scream of my alarm blew off the fog of it, and I opened my eyes to the sun washing my room with light.
I drove across the Rogue Valley that morning with the Siskiyou in my rearview mirror. The cloud was gone, the mountains showed green and full under a big, blue sky. Someone will watch those mountains for smoke for the next few weeks.
But the cloud had not moved on from over my mind, and as I listened to “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer on my way home, I was lulled into a temporary happiness by the wisdom and the deep knowledge of cooperative living expressed in the indiginous experience. This is why I read, or, more accurately, this is why I listen to audiobooks when I drive. For those moments when clarity comes clanging into my brain like a loud bell.
Two-hundred miles later, I turned the key off and walked into my office and sat down in my cubicle to organize the materials I had gathered in Southern Oregon. But on my screens there flickered little visuals of what a world ripping apart at the seams looks like. Little testimonials of inauthentic actors and agitators and Whitehouse dogs and indescribable weapons.
At 5 p.m., I switched it all off and plodded to the car like so much metal in a junk yard. Everything was heavy and rusted and hard to move. I didn’t want to go home to my family that I hadn’t seen in three days, because we would do, as we always do. We’d rehash each event and shake our fists at the injustice and pour our anger out into a communal basin around the dinner table.
And there it will sit, growing deeper and more stagnant and useless. Oh, I know it’s good to let it go, to let the kids fire off in their indignation and try to steer it ever back to hope as we parents learn to do. I know they need to come home and say the things out loud that they can’t even whisper in the workplace.
But I don’t know how long I can take it all in and then empty it into that bowl and do it again and again and again as I sit here and watch my country burn and my friends and family turn against eachother like pawns in a chess match.
There is a thundercloud that sits over my mind every day. High up in the columns the pressures build and the tempest rages. And white-hot tendrills move over me with a billion-joules of electricity, wild and uncontainable. I look out over the landscape of a country through the lenses of the social media accounts of the friends I have made in all the many places I have lived and visited, and I see that same anvil bottom and brilliant white clouds building and building and building above us all.