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30 August, 2009

Land of Wind and Wheat (and Water?)

(Photo: Sunset with Rainier and Power Lines)

Once upon a time, an agency had an adamant opinion about a historic place they had never seen, and were not interested in visiting. And so, on the Monday following a vacation in which I drove the family 800 miles around eastern Washington, I met with the agency experts ensconced in their Olympian fastness, and then got in a car to drive to the eastern end of the state. Blame my stubborn empiricism.

(Photo: Rolling Wheat Land Near Spokane)

People from the verdant, cosmopolitan Puget Basin tend to regard the land east of the Cascades with freely expressed condescension and fairly repressed apprehension. Dry open spaces where black turtlenecks and soul patches not only look foolish, but may get your ass kicked. Diners where quinoa would be sacrilege if people knew what it was (this is wheat country, dammit) and roads where a Prius is the stunted runt apt to be kicked aside for the buzzards.

(Photo: West Medical Lake, No Dam Required)

One of the false stereotypes concerns the climate. Sure, it can be hot and dry enough to reduce west-side hipsters to dusty husks, but the aridity is only in comparison to the moss-clothed Puget Basin. Instead of falling from the hundred kinds of clouds we have in the west, the water wells up under blue skies in pothole lakes and springs, it flows from the mountains and abounds in the impounds, along the Columbia and other dammed rivers of the region.

The dams are a dilemma. They disrupted natural systems, but also form massive settling basins, which is why the amount of toxic sediments entering the lower Columbia from the Washigton side is far lower than from the less damned Oregon rivers. They just about killed the native population, cutting off the annual upstream flows of fish, but they irrigate crops. [The dam pictured is the Chief Joseph; is naming the dam for him and finally--after years of lawsuits--coughing up some of the revenue to the tribes fair compensation for rendering salmon homeless and tribes hungry?] They drowned some settlements, but power millions of homes without burning an ounce of fossil fuel. So ambiguity may be the cost of my aging and society's 'progress.' When I read The Monkey Wrench Gang years ago, it seemed obviously righteous to go blow up some damns, but am I willing to unleash a flood of toxic mud and kill off agriculture and enable coal-firers?

(Photo: They Took My Land and Fish, and All I Got Was a Dam)

Now the talk is of wind, which eastern Washington has in even more abundance than water. Besides the generally wind-swept vastness, there are places where the Cascade passes funnel the flow, making ideal ground for wind farms. Instead of paying for water, fertilizer, and fuel to eke out a living, a farmer can kick back and collect rent from wind farmers while the land itself recovers (or maybe is grazed by cattle). Meanwhile, there's a cheap flow of electricity to the city; sounds as glorious and free as hydro-electric did when it arrived on the scene. But don't worry, the powers that be will find a way to wreak some havoc and cheat some Indians. (News that already this year two golden eagles have been killed by windmills jibes the near-future scenario in Sherman Alexie's story "Green World" in June's Harpers.

Between these musings, I did get to the work at hand, and found the historic resource to be less than met the remote eye. Will that affect the bureaucratic judgement? Maybe not. Walked a lake shore and found an old orchard, but no trace of more ancient habitation (which is not to say that it didn't happen, just that they didn't modify the land enough or create sufficient junk for me to see). Explored an abandoned dairy farm that was part of the state hospital established "for the feeble minded." Saw a fishing osprey, skulking coyote, and hordes of fowl. Smelled ammonia fertilizer, dust, and pond scum between blasts of fresh air. Drove until my clavicles ached.

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