An Unprecedented Waste

Things change and I am prone to change. I rearrange the living room once a year, and I want to move out of my house continually. I clean out and bring more in. It is a rhythm of the universe, perhaps. It is the rhythm of my body. Sustenance goes in and waste comes out.

But when waste leaves its source and enters into another, then what?

How does one balance the desire to call an early childhood precious and bucolic when the poisoning began so early, before a first haircut, a blonde curl affixed under cellophane in an old photo album yellowed long by age having moved from the front room to the attic, to south of the city in which I was born and then towards the ocean, through the air first class to a mountain town in Montana, and into a basement for safe keeping. That curl of hair had a secret all along. I didn’t learn it until 35 years later. It took a lab, a scientist, and a microscope.

I grew up near the confluence of the Clackamas and the Willamette rivers. The Willamette, a snake moving through a valley below the Coastal and Cascade Ranges, runs with run-off and wash-off, chemicals crop-dusted over ag-land for a hundred-plus miles, mills checkering and discharging along its shores, industry built along the hips and eddies of its curves before spilling into the city, a gas spill across its waters carrying the recreators, the boats the kayaks and the sternwheelers – even today, the barges full of grain and cars that come up the Columbia from the great Pacific Ocean, from the East and the South and everywhere that water touches. The Clackamas, a more pristine river, falls from the glacial cliffs of Mount Hood and subterranean springs that trickle into the Willamette, drips gathering from the canopy of the rainforest. I’ve been dewy with the condensation of the region from my beginning, my parents hiking into the wilderness with me on their backs, the Cascade’s streams our sunny day destination, the Clackamas river a quick place to take a dip, I walked as if on water behind my mother on the timber stacked back-to-back – ready to harvest – on the Willamette like matchsticks. As a teen I’d find my way to its banks by city bus to meet boys, to give ourselves a mud and sand scrub, and leap from cliffs we were told to avoid. We drank Boones Farm on the banks and made out by moonlight. Skinny dipped where we could, when it was dark and in light, made love in the rain once and in the sun again. I was in it and of it and it was in me. I was poisoned long before any of this, but exposed a little more every time I dove in.

The scientist who learned the secret before me was at the Willamette Valley’s southernmost end, in a lab at the University of Oregon. He delivered the results to an attorney in Seattle who called me in Montana to say, “we are so sorry to tell you this, but your exposure is unprecedented,” and even with an masters-level education in writing, even as a lover of words and a wordsmith, a researcher and a writing professor, I questioned what “unprecedented” meant, so I just kept on asking, now what?

“There’s nothing more we can do.”

“If you were in Washington or California, we’d have a case, but there’s nothing we can do. Not in Oregon.”

So this is my only way towards a sort of justice. I will tell you what happened in the watershed that ran into the Willamette and how its waters got deep inside me and found their way back out thirty five years later, taking with it so much waste.

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