Oregon

Lloyd Center before the fall

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There is an entire genre of photography devoted to the collapse of the United States’ consumerist structures, notably the shopping mall.

Malls in decay represent a specific type of schadenfreude in a country where consumer activity drives about 70 percent of our economy. The collapse of the venerable shopping mall, a landmark from the 1950s through the 1980s, in mostly suburban American, reveals deeper troubles in our economy and the promises we were told and believed.

The Lloyd Center, a major landmark in the Lloyd District in Portland, has been slowly dying for years. There were efforts to revive it as late as 2021, and it’s all but certain as of late July 2022 the final nail in the coffin appears to have been pounded in.

I made what might be my last visit to the Lloyd center in late July 2022, when I was working at the state office building nearby, on the hottest day of the year. The center was meant to be open as a cooling center. The ice rink was still being used, even as the thermometer outside was pushing 95F. Nearly all the stores were shuttered, and major retailers had closed their doors.

I for one will miss it because it provided an urban retail space to serve many residents who didn’t have cars and who didn’t want to drive to the suburbs. I imagine there are other photographers like me getting their final photographs before the death of yet another American shopping mall is formally announced.

Wild thing

Spring in Portland is now winding down its cycle of magnificent blossoms from the many ornamental flowers that adorn lawns and parks. Because of a cooler and wetter than expected spring, like we used to have before the onslaught of climate change conditions, flowers bloomed a little later than we have seen the past five to seven years. Tulips and daffodils have come and gone.

The last great entrant I am seeing now, on their final leg, is the Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). The iris genus, which has many varieties that are planted by gardeners, is among the wildest and sexiest of all flowers planted by gardeners on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, in Oregon and Washington. It prefers wet soil and shade. Most of all, it is delicate and crazy at the same time, with its sultry mix of delicate petals and bold colors. For me, it is a rare gift from nature, which marks the culmination of moisture, sun, pollinators, and of course the flowers themselves. And, dear readers, because I am not a gardener, please correct me if I identified this one incorrectly.

So, with that, here are a few words describing my reaction to seeing these beauties last night. It was the Jimi Hendrix version I heard in my head too:

Wild thing
You make my heart sing
You make everything groovy
Wild thing ….

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

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Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

Flowers work magic on long, long days

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I have not had a proper vacation in more than two years now. I have had some weekends off, and I did have five days off in February 2020 to attend to my mom’s passing.

But these pauses from my jobs do not amount to a week’s break from work. That means I am, at times, tired and at times less elastic than I ideally strive to be.

For the last five plus months, I have been working in Oregon’s COVID-19 response. My job requires long days and, I have to admit, not enough compliments to sustain one’s energy as a day drags beyond 12 hours, with no lunch breaks. The situation is fluid, because this is a pandemic. The nature of my job means that many people I engage may not be satisfied that their needs are not met to their liking. So there is frequently unhappiness that is directed at the person who provides them what they cannot get.

Some days my abilities to navigate this are tested. When that happens, I have been fortunate with longer daylight hours and the arrival of spring to stop and literally smell the flowers at the end of my workdays.

Portland’s flowers have brought me much joy the past few months. A flower does not criticize you or bear you ill will. A flower also does not harm human health.

Flowers simply bring joy and provide pollen to our insect pollinator friends. Thank you for making my life more joyful this spring!

Snowstorm in black and white

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It has been two weeks since a winter ice and snow storm hit Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, at times up to 350,000 people were without power, due to downed power lines when the freezing ice brought down countless trees and broken limbs. Some people were without power for nearly two weeks. I was lucky. My neighborhood had power out for just two days. I did not lose any food, and my life was not heavily disrupted.

The storm was a great reminder of the power of nature and the fragility of our electricity-dependent world.

I went for runs the first couple of days of the storm and took these shots when we still had a nice base. I love running in the snow. It is quiet and clean. Everything just feels more calm. I began to miss the snow of my old home in Anchorage for six winters. Well, almost!

Eleven Months in and 2 Million Lives Lost

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This week, the world reached a grim milestone since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan China in early 2020. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported the global death count from the pandemic had topped 2 million, and was growing daily.

Some days I feel like I have awoken in an alternate reality, seeing mothers walking by, wearing face masks and pushing baby strollers, like I did this morning. It was jarring. I never thought I would experience this, though I always deeply sensed something like this might happen.

I felt that uneasy feeling of disconnect just after the start of the new year in Portland’s Lloyd Center district. I had come there to visit a dentist around noon.

Ordinarily, the business and retail area on the city’s east side would be filled with people, particularly on their lunch hour. Instead it was eerily silent and devoid almost entirely of the site and sound of humans.

I stopped to spin around in a circle, and realized I was alone. We had already retreated, globally, to the safety of closed spaces, eschewing contact, to avoid catching the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

I took a few shots of empty urban spaces of my cellphone, to capture that moment. Looking at the photos now, they look and feel disquieting, just like the scene outside my window of the mother and children, masked out of fear and caution.

Late Fall Swells at Seaside

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This weekend, I took time out from other projects and headed to Seaside Cove, my normal go-to location for surfing in Oregon. Though waves were ranging from five to seven feet, the conditions were surprisingly calm for a late fall day on the normally frothing Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast this time of year.

I caught my requisite number of waves to put my mind in a state that is hard to describe.

For me, when I surf, I can think of nothing else besides waves, the weather, the current, and the ride that still may come. Surfing, which I started in earnest in 2016, has been a way for me to let go of stress. It was almost essential for the years leading to my mom’s inevitable death from Alzheimer’s disease in February 2020. I am grateful for that.

There are other things on my mind now, besides the pandemic: our economy, my nation’s divisions, global problems and conflicts, climate change, and so much more. Some of these concerns are entirely personal. So surfing remains a good check on the weight of life. It gives me a jolt of a good ocean feeling that can last long after I last surfed.

The last year I went out to the ocean less than half a dozen times. I hope to get out a few more in 2021. My job routine is now changing, so it might be possible if the stars align. For that I remain grateful.

I still find surfing to be a deeply personal sport.

However, sport also has downsides. As a commercial activity, it encourages unsustainable tourism. It also brings out human vanity—glorifying physical beauty as a commodity when it is an empty shell and basic narcissism—and turning an activity with deep cultural roots into a commercial transaction.

For me it remains what it has always been since I finally committed myself to start surfing in the cold Pacific.

Swimming Is Silenced

 

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I live about a half mile from the Sellwood Outdoor Pool. It’s a public swimming pool located in Portland, Oregon’s Sellwood Park that is loved almost to death by its patrons.

During a normal summer, it would be filled to capacity with screaming kids and their parents, many who are lower income, as public pools remain one of the most affordable ways to entertain kids and keep them healthy in Portland and most U.S. cities.

On a typical summer night, I used to pass by the pool and hear the kids’ yells, screams, shouts, and general pool noises kids make when they were being themselves in water. But not this summer.

The City of Portland, like nearly all major cities in the country, shuttered its public pools in the spring to prevent congregant spreading of COVID-19. This decision makes public health and human health sense. From the perspective of physical, social, and mental health, it represents a cruel outcome of the mismanaged national response that leads all the way to the situation room with President Donald Trump as the one who helped make our country’s pandemic the most lethal and worst managed in the world.

We are heading into Labor Day Weekend now. In normal times, the pool would still be open in the evenings and all weekend, particularly with temperatures predicted to be hotter than 90 Fahrenheit through Labor Day. The kids will have to find something else to do this year, and they will lose the chance to be kids and learn how to swim.

Closed pools and closed schools are taking on an air of dystopian reality, which we have seen created in unnerving films like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller Children of Men, where a strange disease had rendered humanity sterile, leading to all schools being shuttered because they no longer served any purpose. Oddly that film’s tension, pitting radical leftists fighting a right wing autocracy, seem to have predicted the spectacle in Portland. The people in the film even resemble the protesters here and the police forces that have engaged them in Portland for more than three months.

I am not fully confident we will be out of this pandemic by next summer. Even with the optimistic timelines given by the United States’ more credible infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, returning to normal is no guarantee by next summer. Right now I do not believe the pool will open next summer.

For me, the posted sign by Portland Parks and Recreation is another naïve promise that we will get back to normal, when everything going on now is entirely abnormal. The professed optimism almost seems insulting with the silence.

Summer Daisies

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Sometimes timing is everything. As a beautiful July 4 evening was winding down, i wandered around the campus of Reed College (on of my alma maters), and found this beautiful floral scene. Even with my mediocre camera phone, the blooming daisies captured the joy and beauty of nature at its eye-popping best.

Mid-April snapshot of COVID-19 shopper behavior in Portland, Oregon

We are now nearly two months into my photodocumentary project on the impacts of COVID-19 on ordinary people. I am doing this by taking snapshots on a weekly basis at one location, my Fred Meyer outlet located on SW Barbur Boulevard in southwest Portland.

Each week I visit aisles where high-value commodities that have taken on almost supernatural powers or larger-than-life powers are kept. The prevalence of those supplies give me what I’m calling my COVID-19 Portland shopper sentiment index.

The goods I have focussed on include: dry beans and rice, canned goods (specifically beans), pasta, cleaning goods (such as sanitary wipes and bleach), and toilet paper and paper towels.

I took these shots at the Fred Meyer, where I also saw that customer adoption of voluntary cloth mask wearing still held at about 35 percent of shoppers, the same as the week earlier.

Here’ is my breakdown for April 17, 2020:

  • Toilet Paper: high anxiety (worsen)
  • Dry Beans/Rice: medium anxiety (same, bulk containers were mostly empty, shelves 1/3rd full)
  • Cleaning Goods: high anxiety for sanitizers, medium for other supplies (same)
  • Canned Beans: low anxiety (same)