In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

2


ROCINANTE NOSES up the coast, stopping for a wine-tasting here and a view there, and hits the rains of Oregon in the middle of a socked-in, moonless night. Steffi nearly plows into a cliff on a mountain curve, which wakes her enough to find the turn-off, a right into a valley that has in it the smallest post office in Oregon (not much bigger than an outhouse), and about sixty houses, all scattered along about fourteen miles of noisy creek.

The road turns to gravel. The cut-banks, full of bedraggled last year's foxgloves, lean in to kiss the cab windows, and the dark turns almighty. Steffi realizes she's passed the last house and must have missed the commune she's heading for, so she begins a kay-turn on the road, jockeys back and forth about four times, and -- fa-doomp! -- sinks her rear wheels in the ditch.

Ah, well. Whaddya expect?

Can't just go to bed and deal with it in the ay em, we're athwart the road and a sign back there did say "Caution: Log Trucks" -- so this trip has gotta reorganize before dawn. Steffi digs out a flashlight and rain jacket, hikes back to where she saw the last window with light in it.

She gets her first whiff of wet Douglas fir, along with other smells she can't identify yet: western hemlock, western red cedar, red alder, bigleaf maple, sword fern, bracken, thimbleberry, and salal. She looks up into the canopy closing in far overhead of trees over a hundred and fifty feet tall, and on impulse switches off the light to let the rain fall on her face in silence, in darkness.

Delicious. Especially after Texas and its pavement of fried armadillo.

The house she comes to is covered, roof and walls, with cedar shakes and sticks itself out at the woods at odd angles all over, as if it had been built by someone looking over their shoulder. Raw alder smoke, full of half-digested creosote, pours out the chimney and drifts down to the creek across the road. Steffi coughs, then knocks. She hears activity.

"Whoa, hang on, somebody's out there."

"Yeah, I bet they're in a ditch halfway to Six Rivers."

The door opens, and Steffi looks up into the face of a really tall man, six-four or better, with long hair and a full beard and deep-set preacher's eyes.

"Hi, I'm Steffi Smith, I'm looking for the commune."

"Which one? This here's a commune, ma'am."

"Uh, Omega Farm, friend of mine lives there, guy named Dan."

"Oh, yeah, that's four miles down, you missed it. Four miles on the left."

Big Guy waits, hoping to close the door.

"Um, left my truck up the Forest Service road, it's uh, stuck, I'd leave it but...."

"Told ya!" someone calls out.
Guy chuckles. "Yeah, we'll help you out, actually we do that a lot, come on in."

Steffi enters the light from a kerosene lamp, which seems to her very bright after the mountain blackness. She knows lamps, and appreciates at once the skills of her hosts: no coloring dyes in the fuel, a clean chimney, trimmed wick. Real light, steady, easy on the eyes.

At once she takes in the interior scheme that she will see in all the homes of her friends for the next ten years: cedar paneling, a leaky skylight, spider plant in a macrame planter basket strategically hung to catch the drips from the skylight, shelves loaded with little brass incense burners and copies of Ram Dass's Be Here Now. An embossed iron stove sits on a brick pad in the midst, surrounded by six people and a yellow lab dog.

Three small women, with the long straight hair, no makeup, long floral-print dresses, small noses and freckles of hippiedom, such as Steffi had known in Georgia in the Sixties, and three large men, patriarchs in beards and suspenders, with ruddy cheeks and rough hands, look back at her from deep within smoky-looking overstuffed chairs. Nice folks all, really -- but Steffi feels she has interrupted something serious.

The man who has answered the door takes it on: "We, ah, we're White Star, oldest commune in the valley, but, uh, we're breaking up. Yeah. Hmm, couldn't agree on how to divvy up, so, uh, we're going to have a coin toss."

One of the young ladies looks up soulfully, tossing her blonde mane, and shows Steffi a Walking Liberty silver dollar. "Me and Jeffrey -- " she nods at the giant who spoke before her -- "have called heads, and the others here have called tails, and title to the whole place will go to the winners."

"We'll do that after I help Miss Steffi here," says Jeffrey. "Lemme get my rain gear."

Jeffrey clumps out to the mudroom. Steffi stands steaming before the solemn contestants, wondering what one says on such an occasion.

The coin lady tosses her mane again, and wrinkles her freckles at the visitor. "Where 'bout did you come in from?"

"Georgia." Steffi steps gingerly across to the stove, leaving little puddles as she goes, and spreads her hands to its warmth.

"Oh, you're a friend of Dan's. Yeah. He's really nice, hard worker and smarts too ... how come you gave up on Georgia?"

A lot just got said right here. Coin-lady's eyes add, He's taken, you know.

And Steffi's eyes say, S'okay, we're just friends.

"Uh, well, I felt like I kinda wore out my welcome, thought I'd see what it's like out here."

"I know what you mean, nobody is from here. I'm from New Jersey myself."

She seems to need to explain further. "Too many cemeteries."

Yeah, that makes sense to Steffi. All over Atlanta, all over the great snorting East, cemeteries, including the one she'd seen so many times, with its big stone lion sleeping over the mass grave of Confederate dead. Huge smokestacks of Cabbage Town's cotton mill for a backdrop. Generations sitting on top of each other, each doing things their forebears have already done, breathing used air, already know everybody they want to know, burying one another in long rows, right up to the stone walls along the sidewalks. Dilapidated gas station across the street, hollow-eyed old man leaning on the pump in the shade of a tin roof, sucking at a half-cold Nehi, too hot, too tired to curse a fate they 're only dimly aware of, outta there Steffi, Rocinante can go a pretty good ways in a straight line on a fill-up, look for a place to breathe. No wonder you turned up your face to the rain among those ancient fir trees. Even this room, with its friendly woodstove, seems too civilized for you right now.

Jeffrey comes through, a heavy-duty tow chain draped over both shoulders. "'Kay, let's go," he says.


Omega Farm turns out to be a collection of some twenty-odd hippies of the anarcho-Catholic-Worker type that dates back to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The men all look like Gurdjieff and the younger women look like Joni Mitchell. Steffi likes the setting: big white-and-brown farmhouse, a retired dairy farm amidst densely forested hills, smell of damp alder-wood smoke drifting through the omnipresent Douglas firs.

The meals are good, too: vegetarian fare, homemade bread, homemade tofu, fresh eggs, real cream. She half entertains the idea of joining this commune, but there's a commotion in the entryway. A new member has taken a notion to sweep the area, out of the goodness of her long-haired, willowy heart, and she's immediately surrounded by three or four of the regulars.

"No, no, you mustn't sweep the mudroom!"

"Why not? I feel like it..." Lower lip trembles.

"You're not the one scheduled to do it," says the first one.

"We each have our responsibilities, we had meetings, we gotta do it like we said in the meetings," adds the second one.

"There's a list. If it says on the list, sweep the mudroom, and your name is on it, you sweep the mudroom." This third one is tall and warrior-like, and says it with arms crossed.

The joy goes out of Spontaneous Sweeper's face right there, and she slumps and surrenders the broom.

Before the broom hits the wall in its corner, Steffi is already planning her getaway.

She catches up to her old Georgia friend, Dan, out pulling up yellow flowers in the pasture.

"Uh, Dan."

"Hey-ho, Steph'nie."

Dan, lanky, sandy-bearded, always wearing a cowboy Stetson and always smiling, is quite a few years younger than Steffi but has already seen much more of the world, and, having seen it, has settled in as the farm's gardener, the way medieval types used to join the monastery.

"Dan, I got to pull up stakes here and go to work somewheres."

"Tree planting."

"Um?"

"Yep. Pull up some of these with me. Bend your knees, lock your arms, then straighten your legs. They'll come right out."

The flowers are pretty, but Steffi notices she doesn't like the smell of her hands after pulling one. "What are they?"

"Tansy ragwort. Makes the cow's milk bad, and if she eats enough of it, she dies."

Steffi starts pulling. "Tree planting?"

"Yeah. I did that when I was first out here."

Dan begins weaving tales: how, when he first reached Oregon, needing work, he discovered a cooperative, the Hoedags, full of earnest hippies, that made bids on government reforestation contracts and moved, en masse, to the work sites to live in tents, buses, yurts, and pickup campers, sitting around campfires at night singing, then working like demons the next day. How the work is done, the terminology, the small-scale economics, a cross between migrant work and tribalism. How his crew took over an abandoned one-room schoolhouse and lived in it all winter, chopping wood, carrying water.

Steffi loves hearing that about the wood and water.

Yes, it brings up her favorite Zen story. The nun. She had worked so hard, carrying the water even by moonlight. The steps were uneven and mossy, but she was determined not to spill even a drop; this was her sign of mindfulness. And the bucket had simply, from old age, sprung apart and dumped the water. Big kensho! So she wrote a poem:
I tried, really I did.
I held up the hoop, then the strakes.
Busted! Wet feet.
No more moon water.
No more water pail!
Something like that.

"Best thing," continues Dan, "the crews take women. Nobody else hires women for tree planting."

"So, uh, Dan, how do the camp chores get divvied up?"

"Pile up the tansies; if you leave 'em all over the ground like that, they get any wet weather, they'll re-root. Oh, pretty much like in any family, y'know, them that are into it do it, and if they get tired of it, they stop, then if everybody else gets cold they'll get the hint and go pick up an ax, whatever."

"Well, yeah, but ... "

He knows what she's getting at. "The men do their share. And they're respectful."

"Sounds good. Where do I go to join?"

"Um, well, Lemmee see." Dan straightens up, grunts, puts his hands on his lower back, and swivels. "There are different crews in the co-op, about ten of 'em, and what you do is join a crew. I was in the Star Crew; most of the people from around here that are in this thing are on the Face Crew. I'll see if I can find out if there's a crew meeting any time soon."

"''Face?'"

"I dunno, that's what they called it. How about you pick up that pile over there, I'll pick up this one, and we'll dump it over the pasture fence."

Steffi gets to the meeting of Face crew at Slough Creek late on a Monday night. It doesn't look like a meeting, it looks like a party. People are handing around plates of big brownies, and one guy in John Lennon glasses with bushy gray hair and beard and a black felt crusher hat is belting out melodies on a gleaming soprano saxophone. His backup is a short, immensely muscular black man in a multicolored shirt and dreadlocks, working the head of a handmade conga drum. Steffi doesn't even know what that is, but it sounds good to her after a long diet of pages from a Baptist hymnal.

A bronzed greek-goddess type offers Steffi a brownie.

"Have a little milk to wash it down. But not too much." She smiles conspiratorially.

Steffi dutifully goes easy on the milk. She likes food, though, and especially likes chocolate, so she's back to the brownie plate at regular intervals, between snatches of conversation in which she apparently joins the crew and is introduced to various craggy, bearded men and broad-shouldered, weather-blonded women.

Suddenly she's thirsty, and heads for the kitchen looking for a tumbler and tap water. The sink unexpectedly balloons up before her eyes, and she realizes she doesn't remember how to get water from a tap. Very alien thing, this silvery, snaking device extending from the kitchen counter.

Steffi navigates slowly through a tilting living room, filled with undulating people who all sound as though they are talking under water in a faraway place, and falls, in slow motion, like a leaf or a bit of goose down, into an overstuffed chair that seems to be vibrating and shimmying though the colors of the rainbow. She eyes her hands. She can feel that they're holding still, yet they look as if they're rotating at the wrists.

"Cheeses," says someone nearby. "The new girl ate six brownies."

"Didn't she know what was in them?"

No, what?

A bushy black beard, flecked with silver and gold lights, looms nearby. "You better stay put for awhile there, gal."

"Help," says Steffi, weakly.

"No, just stay there. Breathe deep and real slow." A blanket, woven of a thousand glittering stars, appears across her lap.

Steffi feels her eyes widening and growing around to the sides of her head. She can see for miles, everything in focus: each tree, every leaf of salal and salmonberry, every fiddlehead glistening with the recent rains, every mouse scurrying along windthrown hemlock logs.

Uttering a croak of delight, she spreads her black wings and swoops from her favored perch, a dead branch near the top of a lightning-shattered old Douglas fir, seeking beetles, flying ants, or maybe an unsuspecting earwig. Beneath her, the shadows of small gray clouds, fresh from the Pacific, skitter across a patchwork landscape of old growth, clear-cuts, yarder landings, gravel quarries, and beaver ponds. Slowly the light around her fades, as though she has flown gently into one of the small clouds.


Next thing she knows, she's sitting in a cafe in a town she's never seen before. An empty cup is sitting before her on the counter, and her friend Dan is pouring, apparently, a second cup of coffee for her.

"Uh, where am I?"

"This is the Alderton Cafe, Omega Farm owns it. Today's my duty day. You were saying?" Dan's wearing some kind of long white apron with little stains of avocado on it. His farmer's fingernails are clean.

"I guess I forget."

"Something about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and how you understand it now." Dan looks her in the eye appraisingly. "It seemed really important to you."

"What day is it?"

"Thursday."

A guy, all bushy-beardy, comes in the front door. Steffi thinks she hasn't seen him before. Comes right over to the counter. Puts his finger almost in Steffi's face.

"Her! That's the one! Barfed all over my front steps and just drove off without cleaning up after herself!"

Dan interposes himself between them.

"What did you expect? I heard there was acid in those brownies, not just hash, and you expect a new girl, looking for work, is gonna know that? Did anybody bother to tell her? You start in on her and I will personally put you out on the sidewalk."

Dan's not a big fella, but suddenly he looks like a pro wrestler. "Well," says the dude, "whatever, I mean ya can't always look out for everybody, they gotta have some smarts on their own."

Dan glowers some more. "And ya know, that wasn't completely safe." Tips his head forward and looks at Bushy from under his eyebrows.

Steffi wants to say, "Well, hey, nobody would ... " but she doesn't say it because she doesn't know. She's led an unusual life but she's always patrolled her borders. Until the brownies.

The dude's sorry. He knows the crew is honorable in that way, but he gets it that Steffi might not yet know that. Not that she's given it a thought until this moment! He sees that too, but he's still contrite and apologizes like a gentleman. Twice.

"One thing at a time. So, has she joined your crew?" Dan picks up a glass and starts cleaning it with a dishrag, as a sign that The Crisis Is Over.

"I think so, yeah. And we need bodies, even a greenhorn." The big bear rubs his chin through the deep beard, turns to Steffi. "You got gear?"

"I've got my truck, clothes, food."

"Hard hat? Rain gear? Caulk boots?"

"What are 'cork' boots?"

Dan leans across the counter, smiling. "We have some at the farm that will fit her." He doesn't mention they are his boots -- but he knows her feet are as big as his.

The tall guy looks back and forth between them, settles his light blue eyes on Steffi. "Ok, meet the crummy at the Greenwood Creek bridge at four-thirty tomorrow morning. Bring your own lunch and water. We'll give yuh a dag and bag till the end of the contract. What do we call yuh?"

"Steffi."

"Right, I'm Burt." Shakes hands with a rough, supercalloused palm.

Four-thirty?

And what's a "crummy?"