Home and Shop Companion 0136
Home and Shop Companion 0136

Rural Ramblings – Winter 1982
Ralph C. Miller

Half the people in the world, who have heard of Oregon at all, have the idea that it is a land where it rains all the time. That’s really not true – it only seems like it rains every day. Actually from April to September, or the first of October, most years we get less rain than Passaic or Peoria. Only thing is, here in the area of the state west of the Cascade Crest, we get our winter precipitation in the form of the juicy, wet stuff for five or six months. Yes, we live right behind that arrowhead aimed into the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska – North America’s weather breeders. Was it Drake or Cook or George Vancouver – one of those intrepid seadogs anyway – who named that tip Cape Foulweather. I have seen some beautiful days up there along the coast, but if you hit it at the right time it can be miserable – like today.

It’s the last part of October as I write this on the table at the farm. I’m behind with the column, because we’ve got so many other projects going and we’re only amateur jugglers anyway. I’ve got a few notes to myself and most of it is in my head, just waiting to spill out on the page. So this morning I was getting ready to sit and write them out, because it was raining too hard to get out and gather the last of the apples, the squash, the grapes and the Jerusalem artichokes. If you don’t like the weather in Oregon, we tell visitors, wait a few minutes – it will change. So just as I was ready to write, it changed. Five minutes of sun burst through and right there in front of my eyes across the pond was the bright-hued, sparkling end of a beautiful Oregon rainbow.

My notes, begun more than a month ago, are laying here before me on the table, headed by one word – Rainbows! Since this has been in my mind all this time as my topic, I took the appearance of the rainbow at the exact moment as a sign of benediction, and will proceed basking in the satisfaction of the approval of the wee folk. Oh yes, Virginia, I believe in Santa Claus, fairies too. Just because case-hardened realists can’t see them doesn’t prove a thing. I read somewhere that it is likely that man is the only animal who can distinguish and identify rainbows. But they do exist, don’t they? We can even photograph them.

When I was a boy, I loved the stories of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In most of them, you had to get to that end and find some wizened little elf who looked a lot like Barry Fitzgerald and was the only one who could point out the exact spot to dig. I don’t resemble him in any way, but I want to talk about Oregon, and if you’re seeking the end of your personal rainbow, I have to say that this is where I found mine. I haven’t located any literal gold, pot or otherwise, but figuratively, I find this land to bask in an auric glow. Even in the rain – and especially under rainbows.

You may have surmised from previous Ramblings that I have traveled somewhat and lived in quite a few places. I loved the misty, ethereal rainbows of Hawaii and the islands further south in the Pacific. I have experienced (rather than seen) rainbows on the plain of La Mancha – the Florida coast, in Mexico, Wisconsin, Canada and Kansas. I have seen as many as four distinct rainbows falling across the high plateau of Wyoming in four separate shower patterns. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of rainbows in a lot of summers, but the fall and winter rainbows of Oregon are like no others in my world.

I don’t know if it is the fact that they come out of season, so to speak, or, as I suspect, it has something to do with the clarity of the air here, that makes them so vivid. Of course that’s the mundane, pragmatic view. For us believers, it is the blessing of the fairies, or the promise of God, or a wonderful combination of both. We have a public broadcasting program that they run every once in a while here, just to remind us to be grateful. It consists of fifteen or twenty minutes of scenes of our natural countryside, flora and fauna, rivers, beaches, forests and mountains. With only subdued background music, it has no message except the title – “Hasn’t God been good to Oregon?” Rainbows are assuredly one way we know of His blessing.

I remember a particular day many years ago, when the SFJ Editor and his Father were driving north on the road where the SFJ Publisher now has a farm (does that identify it enough?). It was raining pretty hard when the sun burst out behind us, and we were as close to the rainbow as I have ever been. It had the most vivid colors of my experience. The iridescence lit up all the area right up to the front of the pickup. Of course it stayed tantalizingly just in front of us as we drove into it, but I was busy looking for the little man. The area lies just across the hill in front of my house and I still get an occasional urge to sneak over there with a pick and flashlight some dark night. Surely they were trying to tell us something?

Seriously, I do want to say something about this state. I’m not a native here, but many of our grandchildren are. I won’t say it’s the finest in the Union. Yours is of course – but this is a close second. (Fellow Oregonians, don’t take me to task – we do have to show pity for the rest of them, don’t we?)

About three or four years ago, we got a letter from a fellow in Cork, Ireland, asking about land, soil, prices, availability and the possibility of starting a small diversified fruit farm hereabouts, that would provide for him and his family. I wrote back some general information and don’t know what, if anything, ever came of it in his case. One thing it did for me was to send me back to the book Ten Acres Enough, which indirectly led to the publishing effort we are now engaged in. The other consequence was the glimmer of the idea that is finally resulting in this column. After all, if someone from the original land of the “wee folk” is interested, Oregon Rainbow Country is worth another look.

Oregon is more than one state actually. It’s divided into at least two by the famed Pacific Crest. We call it the Cascade Crest as opposed to the Sierra farther south, but it’s a part of the same volcanic chain. Mount St. Helens in Washington is currently the most famous of the peaks, because of the eruptions, but there are many such and several have the potential to start anytime from now through the next century. All that to the side, we are in no more danger of natural disaster than any other area on the face of the globe, and you must admit it makes us colorful. Besides, they got more fallout in Montana and the Dakotas than we did in Oregon.

The Cascades are mostly a blessing. Here on the Pacific side, we get the rain that they comb out of the clouds for us, as well as the run-off of their melting snows. It makes for relatively bountiful water most years, drives the hydroelectric generators, waters the fertile valleys and grows the magnificent fir forests on its slopes. The rainbow’s end does point to the gold in the ground, in the form of the many products we can grow as a result of thirty or more inches of annual rainfall.

The chief valley of the state, and the largest on the Pacific slope, is the Willamette (accent on the second syllable please and pronounce it -ahm-), named for the region’s major river. Except for the Snake and the Columbia, which border the state on the east and north respectively, Oregon’s rivers are mainly its own. The Klamath, and its tributaries, does pass the overflow on to northern California after the hay farmers of the Klamath Basin get through with it, but that’s on the east side of the slope.

Willamette Valley agriculture is a principal part of the industry that has just recently surpassed forestry as number one economically. In addition, Portland, where the Willamette flows into the Columbia, is a major seaport to ship agricultural and forest products to the world. From the standpoint of small farms, that last is also important. While not too many of them may be selling wheat in Russia or beef in Japan, the fact that the larger operations have a world market takes the pressure off locally. Incidentally, when I drop in on my friend, Homer Hart’s Feed and Seed Store in Florida, it is sometimes to pick up Willamette Valley Rye grass seed for Nephew Mac’s farm down in Starke. And one of the competitors J.R. Wainwright and his fellow pecan growers have in the nut market is Oregon-grown filberts from this same valley (more are grown here than anyplace else in the world). Like chewing gum, chocolate mints or Lifesavers? Chances are the mint that flavored them was grown and extracted right here among us. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I understand it is something like three-quarters of all mint comes from the Willamette fields.

Yes, for my Irish friend, the ample water, the good soil and most of all the ocean-influenced, relatively mild climate does produce some of the finest fruit anywhere. I will tip my hat to our neighbors on the north and south, Washington and California, but Oregon doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for the volume and quality of its fruit. Fine apples, peaches, plums, cherries – blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries do magnificently here. (My favorite ‘weed’ is the obstreperous wild Oregon blackberry. If you don’t succeed in eradicating it, your failure will produce delectable fruit.)

Purposely, I didn’t include pears up above in my list of tree fruits, although the Willamette does grow some of the finest. I didn’t want to offend our friends down around Medford where they are justly proud of their pears – peaches, too. It’s still western Oregon, and although the Willamette is the largest valley both in area and volume of agricultural produce, there are other western Oregon valleys that do have just claims to fame.

I drove up through one of my favorites this summer. We stopped in the Bandon Cheese Factory to taste the samples, make some purchases and watch them make the renowned Bandon cheese there. It brought back earliest memories, and afterwards driving on up the fertile Coquille Valley, this old Wisconsin Farm boy’s heart was warmed by the sight of all those Jersey cows belly deep in the lush meadows. If that doesn’t excite your taste buds, there’s something wrong. Maybe it’s my remote Devon ancestry, but cream turns me on. I have to avoid it as an alcoholic must avoid spirits, or I’d be sixty pounds overweight instead of only twenty-five.

Bandon is on the coast, but the Coquille River stretches back for miles into the coast range, and the rich, mostly Jersey milk almost literally flows down to the cheese factory. Perhaps equally famous for its cheese is the Tillamook area on the north coast. Although dairy cattle and products come from other parts of the state, those two cheese factories have attracted the greatest concentration.

You mustn’t think because we made a few side trips up lesser canyons and valleys that we exhausted all the bounty from the cornucopia of the mighty Willamette. In addition to grass seed that circles the world, the Valley grows numerous other grains, fine wheat and excellent barley and oats. Fat stock grazes in green pastures and sheep dot meadows and hillsides. There are thriving dairy goat establishments and all breeds of horses, draft and otherwise, can be found.

A couple of crops new and old are maintaining a foothold for the chronically thirsty. If you follow the 45th Parallel around the globe – Salem, Oregon, Bordeaux in France, Bologna in Italy and Bucharest on the Danube in Romania fall on about the identical line. That means good grape country. With its ocean-influenced mild climate, this area is in its infancy, but growing fast as a producer of fine wines. Climate, soil and terrain combine to make it ideal for certain varietal grapes, and one day connoisseurs may be making the trek to our valley just for the vintage.

The other crop I mentioned was once widely grown here, but some problems with disease, and a lately developed penchant among brewmeisters to opt for the European variety, have cut deeply into the demand for Oregon and Washington hops. There are some who hold on and maybe someday the wheel will turn again. They do grow well here.

Another crop line that has wide adherence through the valley yet, but has possibly passed its zenith, is truck crops. They come earlier from California to the south, but summertime produce keeps several canneries busy. Sweet corn and string beans probably top the list, but we do have cucumbers, potatoes and almost any vegetable which can be grown north of the Mason-Dixon line. Almost by mistake we planted a few okra seeds that we brought back from Florida last spring. They did set on the okra pods, but they weren’t very edible – too woody. We’ve tried crowder peas, peanuts, yams (all southern) and something as exotic as mung beans without success, but our soil isn’t too good, and up here in the hills even the climate is less salubrious than down on the actual valley floor. I guess enough does grow well that we should be satisfied.

Well, we’ve covered the geographic western part of the state pretty well, but a lot more than half of Oregon lies on the other side of the mountains. We have a curious anomaly (is that redundant?) in this state. Although Cape Blanco just down the coast a ways is the westernmost point of land in the contiguous 48 states, if we want to get to the real west – perhaps we should say the old west – we have to cross the Cascades to the east. The high country over there is harsher, drier in summer, colder in winter, but strikingly beautiful for all that. There are magnificent mountains, colorfully painted canyons, seemingly endless grassy plateaus and burning semi-deserts.

The other side of the mountain is mostly the land of the cowboy and the sheepherder, of the miner and prospector and historically of the Indian. One of the largest, most viable Reservations lies just across the Cascade Crest at Warm Springs. They run a magnificent resort, a thriving lumber business and various other commercial enterprises. Not all of the tribes or individuals have been so fortunate or so thrifty. The Klamaths, as well as the Modocs in the South, have had a hard time hanging on to lands. Shameful in a way, but stirring emotionally, was the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe. The Eden from which they first were driven was the Wallowa mountain meadows along and above the Snake River on the eastern edge of the State.

I have indicated that most of the agricultural pursuit of the East (Oregon’s old Wild West) is connected with the cattle business. What else would you expect with so much sage brush, antelopes, buffalo and wild horses. We’ve all seen enough westerns over the years to know Cowboy Country when we see it. Hay, as well as pasture, is a part of the beef business. The Klamath Basin exports hay, as does one other region from that side.

Actually the area along the Columbia all the way from the shadow of Mt. Hood to the Big Bend country where the river crosses into Washington state is a region in itself. It does support cattle raising, but much, much more. Along with the fine alfalfa and other hay crops, there is wheat and grain up on the plateau, and some of the finest melons of all kinds it has ever been my privilege to taste; they raise other truck up there with hot sun and irrigation, and they raise some fine apples too, south of the Columbia. Hood River apples command a premium. Hood River, Boardman and Umatilla could be likened to the Willamette, while just south of Hermiston around Heppner, Pilot Rock and over to Pendleton, cattle start to take over again.

It is difficult to generalize about such things, of course, because none of these areas or crops are absolutes. Oregon is a varied place. Up along the crater beyond the McKenzie Pass, you might think you were on the moon. Antelope, Hardman and a few other virtual ghost towns are out of early John Wayne. Some of our dairy or goat raising valleys could be Switzerland. Cattle on plains, fishing villages on the coast, vineyards stair-stepping down the hillsides, and over them all the forests – fir and hardwood to the west, pine and juniper in the east – more than one state, it is many and with people as varied. I sometimes think there is more affinity between people of like occupations and terrain than between those who simply occupy a common geographical or political region. Cowboys have things in common the world over from the Pampas, to the Steppes, to the Wyoming or Oregon plateau. Fisherfolk are akin around the globe. Swedish loggers might feel right at home at a lumberman’s ‘landing’ in the Willamette National Forest. New Glarus, Wisconsin; Brock-in-Waterland, Netherlands; Bandon, Oregon – these towns would surely find a common ground.

Oregon to me is all of those and more. Portland is a major city and seaport – Eugene is big enough and cosmopolitan enough to maintain an essentially urban flavor, but Oregon in the main is rural. We’re tied to all the nation and its people by political cords, as well as emotional ones, but here on the rim of the Pacific we aren’t limited to insular boundaries. The ocean halted the migration a few generations ago, but we have since forged strong cultural and economic bonds around the whole Pacific community. We cherish and take pride in our own peculiar character, but we readily absorb and sometimes adopt that of our newcomers from Mexico, Alaska, Asia or far-off Australia.

I’m sure there are those from the rest of the nation who cast a look at the weatherman’s map on the national newscasts in the morning, see an approaching Pacific storm and thank their lucky stars they don’t live in that wet and terrible place at the rim of the world. You should know that we are dead certain that in spite of where geographers insist on putting the poles, we Oregonians live in the pivotal center of the whole world. As far as the weather goes, it is the same weather you’ll be getting a week later, only we’ve taken what we want first.

And if you think it seems to rain a lot here, it does, but that’s how we get rainbows, and if the pots of gold have failed to line all our pockets yet, we carry the glow in our hearts. Meantime from one damp, green land to another, if our unknown friend (the last track of his letter) from beyond the Irish Sea is still there or still listening, I want to wish him the blessings of the wee folk and to thank him for the inspiration for this column. There have been rainbows since this morning, and on the whole it’s been what the Irish would call ‘a soft day entirely.’ I like the old toast – ‘May God hold you in the hollow of his hand – and may you be in heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.’ Oregon isn’t heaven, but I don’t mind waiting here at all.

Home and Shop Companion 0136

Home and Shop Companion 0136