Month: September 2017

The wolves of Rome

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This week, various media agencies reported that the most iconic of all predators, the wolf, had returned to areas surrounding the ancient and still great city of Rome.

Two wolf pups were photographed frolicking in a reserve area for birds. For centuries, the predators were hunted to near extinction in Italy. The iconic predator also is celebrated in Italy’s history in the myth of Rome’s founding.

Capitoline Wolf statue, Sienna, Italy

The Romans credited the creation of their city to the kindness of a mother she-wolf, who nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been left to die in the wild. According to the legend, the pair would go on to establish Rome. The wolf also is celebrated in many other cultures, through art, myth, and folklore.

Rome’s founding story is celebrated in statues called the Capitoline Wolf, first erected in Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. I saw several such statues, in Sienna and Florence.

At the most basic level, Rome’s creation myth is literally connected to sucking the breast of a feared carnivore. The almost primal connection to something feared and revered is woven into Roman identity. For anyone familiar with that history, Rome went on to conquer and absorb all other cultures and civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from the highlands of England to the hot sands of modern-day Iraq to the Nile valley, as far south as southern Egypt.

I photographed these statues in 2006 during my travels in Italy, mainly because I feel a strong personal connection with wolves. I had some of the most memorable encounters with wolves in the wild in Alaska, when I lived there between 2004 and 2010.

During one spring mountain run, I met a wolf mom and her pups. They approached me, curious as pups are. Their mom whimpered, trying to signal them back to safety. She was a loving mother. Humans fear them because they have, I think, more dignity than us in many ways in how they care for each other.

 

 

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Alaska’s fall colors win the prize, hands down

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I lived six years in Alaska. I loved fall more than any other season. In Anchorage, in southern Alaska, fall came fast and furious, anywhere from early to late August, usually through the first snowfall in mid or late September on the neighboring Chugach Mountains. We called that ominous first snow “Termination Dust.”

The colors astounded me. Blueberry bushes burned fiery red. Birch trees lit up into canopies of shimmering gold. The mountain valleys were colored with splashes of oranges and shades between all three colors.

I had many favorite destinations to hike and climb during the crisp weeks. My favorite short getaway was Eagle River, in Chugach State Park, about 30 miles east from downtown Anchorage. It’s one of the most magnificent valleys with a paved road in North America. I came here frequently, particularly during my first few autumns in the Great Land.

One can take dizzying hikes up the bear-filled valley to an overlook over the Eagle River that sucks one breath away in its dizzying beauty.

These shots all date from outings in September 2005. I still think about my time there this time of year. I do not think I will find a prettier place to spend a cool fall day in the wild, knowing the seasons are changing and the dark winter is about to descend. The colors are nature’s last gasp of brilliance before the cold dark of winter falls.

A year of exploration and surfing on the Oregon coast

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Rudy Owens on the southern Oregon Coast, August 2017

A year ago this weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Yesterday, on Sept. 16, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed an overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my 9-foot Stewart longboard.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

 

The new normal: fire everywhere in the Northwest

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This week, the majestic Columbia River Gorge experienced an unprecedented fire that spread to more than 40,000 acres in less than five days. Residents and experts in this region were stunned by the still-unfolding disaster in what should be a fire resistant and lush region.

The blaze was reportedly intentionally ignited by some teens on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, when temperatures were in the upper 90s. The group reportedly threw fireworks into the Eagle River Trail area, setting off a blaze that literally exploded in 48 hours, moving more than 13 miles and shutting down Interstate 84, a major transportation corridor, and threatening the primary drinking water source (Bull Run Reservoir) for more than 1 million people in the Portland area.

The blaze is one of many in the region. Nearly 170,000 acres are ablaze at the Chetco Bar Fire, near Brookings, Oregon. Fires have scorched more than a million acres in Montana. Many experts are pointing to climate change and drying conditions as the main driver for the now frightening new normal.

I have not had a chance to observe the wrath of the fire near my Portland home, because it is still an active conflagration, and the firefighters need to keep gawkers out. I will go in once it is safe.

In light of what has happened this summer, I decide to dig up some pictures I took of the devastating Carlton Complex Firs in the Methow Valley area, in Washington state, in 2014. Seeing what fire can do to communities and landscapes is a sobering experience. I expect the worse is still yet to come, if that is even possible.

 

The Murals of Cottage Grove

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In 1994 and 1995, I worked as a reporter in the small Willamette Valley community of Cottage Grove (pop. 10,000 as of 2017). The city is 20 miles south of Eugene, along the Interstate 5 corridor. When I was working there, the old economy based on timber production and milling was shutting down, and one in five residents was living near the poverty level. In terms of that grim statistic, not much has changed. Today, more than one in five live in poverty, according to the last Census count.

I reported on just about everything in Cottage Grove as a local reporter: crimes, sports, civic life, local government, police, fires, successes, tragedies, inspiring people, pets, redevelopment, land use battles, racism, anti-racism, and more. I loved how I was exposed to all of humanity by simply writing stories about people’s lives.

I paid a visit to Cottage Grove on my way through in early August 2017. I stopped at my old employer, the Cottage Grove Sentinel, and walked through the historic downtown. It is still a beautiful place, with old brick buildings and merchants working to keep civic life and that social place alive.

Some big murals caught my eye. One of the iconic Coca-Cola brand liights up an otherwise dull brick wall. The other celebrates the many covered bridges near Cottage Grove and the celebrated writer and local resident Opal Whitely, painted in 2001 by artists Connie Huston and Howard Tharpe. There are just some of the city’s mural art.

Whitely was born in 1897 and died in 1992. She was a child prodigy, and also schizophrenic. According to a Cottage Grove historian and writer, Stephen Williamson, at the age of 21, she traveled to Boston with her book, The Fairyland Around Us, considered one of the most remarkable blends of science and faith ever written. He writes, “The Atlantic Monthly turned that book down, but did publish her childhood diary. It quickly became a worldwide best seller. Presidents and kings read it. Mothers named their babies after her. Opal was an international star–at least outside Oregon. Opal’s diary describes the life of a lonely child from logging camps in the Cascade Mountains.”

Whitely eventually moved to Europe, where she spoke of abuse growing up and not being related to her family. Eventually her mental illness worsened and she was “committed” to England’s psychiatric system, where she was poorly treated. Says Williamson, “The gifted child genius from Oregon’s wilderness spent nearly fifty years buried in a tiny cell on a crowded asylum ward. In the 1950’s she was given a lobotomy.” She died in the place that imprisoned her for decades.

Today, however, Whitely lives on as one of the main tourist attractions for the community. If you are travelling down I-5, pull off. Travel to the city center. Take a walk. Shop. Eat at a local restaurant and see all of the murals. You can then pause and reflect upon one of Oregon’s most famous daughters who died in a virtual prison, whose only crime was being hyper-creative and afflicted with a mental illness.