Years ago, a friend of mine moved to Guangzhou China to teach. In one of my (embarrassingly rare) emails to her, I told her I’d taken my son to the Air Museum that weekend. This was how we referred to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, which we occasionally visited to marvel over the Spruce Goose and various examples of aviation virtuosity. My friend, struggling under the worst air quality she’d ever experienced, didn’t know the reference and wrote back grimly, “We should have an air museum here in GZ to remind people what the air used to be like.”
This past week, when my small family fled Portland for Astoria, the air quality at its highest had been in the low 500’s. As we drove out of town Tuesday, it was in the mid-300’s – likely higher even than Guangzhou in 2011.
The Astoria Column sits atop Coxcomb Hill, one of the highest spots in Astoria. It tells the story of Astoria’s founding by whites, and from this vantage point, Astoria and surrounding areas – Youngs River Bay, the Astoria Bridge, and Washington State across the Columbia River – are all visible on a clear day. Garth, Luken, and I drove up to the Column on Wednesday.
It was not clear enough to see Washington, but while we tromped around, we discovered a trail that plunged into dense forest, presumably leading to a trailhead at some significantly lower point. We decided to do some research and, if we could learn where the trailhead was, we’d return with Kami the following day to hike the trail.
Years ago, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a book I loved called The Beginning Place. One day, the main character, in frustration and despair, runs aimlessly, trying to somehow escape his dead-end life. He ends up in a forest. He hasn’t realized he lives so close to a forest, and he’s deeply affected when he crosses into it; it feels so different from his uninspiring, urban home that he feels he’s almost crossed a threshold into a completely other land.
Le Guin wrote beautifully about this threshold, about the moment of stepping into a space palpably different, the air fresh and vibrant. This is what I felt Thursday, stepping onto the Cathedral Tree Trail.
It was like crossing into another world. Astoria’s air, while better than Portland’s, was still smoky, still requiring that I increase my intake of asthma medication fourfold. But the air on this trail was transformed. It was rich in oxygen. Even as hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land around the state burned, these “lungs of the Earth” continued to take in smoke and carbon dioxide and transmute it, exhaling oxygen.
For two miles, we hiked. A white and black caterpillar crossed our path and we watched it for a time. A smaller trail off to the side beckoned, and we waded through salal above our heads. Countless banana slugs, a small snake, many scuttling black carapaced beetles, made up the fauna amidst the essential flora.
Our future is secured by our noticing only this: in the presence of tress, we can breathe.