oaks in the high desert

stand of oaks, Running Y Resort, Klamath Falls, Oregon

As a child on road trips south to visit extended family, and though we crossed the state line within half an hour, I knew we were in the real California once I could see rolling golden hills dotted with oak trees sliding past the car window. Now, many of those same hills are covered in identical drab brown two-story houses and ribbons of asphalt roads, the oaks and grasses long gone, paradise paved as in the Joni Mitchell song. California's international popularity, product of Hollywood, has been slowly, year by year, destroying the natural, wild landscape that drew everyone to it like a magnet—gold dust, gold light, gold hills stretching off into the horizon as in so many cowboy films. By the 1950s when my father's family arrived from Ohio-Indiana, exurban California was blanketed in irrigated orchards of oranges and almonds, since turned into housing developments spreading further and further into Central Valley farmland as population rises. (When the water runs out, California will be not just toast but burnt toast, and then people will flood north.)

half-pano view of Klamath Lake

scrub white oaks, Klamath Lake

Raised in the high desert of southern Oregon with sage brush, juniper, and ponderosa pine, I did not grow up around oaks, so they to me seem a foreign tree. Oregon's Willamette Valley, where I've lived for almost 10 years now, has oak trees, but they hide among all the pines and broad-leaf maples. While California's oaks stand apart, dotting the hills like ingenues at a casting call, Northwest Oregon's oaks blend into the background, a blur of green in the rainforest—extras, to continue the film metaphor. Medford in Southwest Oregon on the side of the Cascade Range opposite Klamath also has oaks and a drier climate more like northern California's (which is why I sometimes think about settling there, halfway between Portland and the Bay, restless, dissatisfied human that I am.) A little googling shows the Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) territory ranging from British Columbia all the way down to southern California. California has 20 native oak species, of which the Oregon white oak is but one.

Oregon white oaks, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon

oak leaf litter, Running Y, Klamath Falls, Oregon

Yet just this year my youngest brother, a former Eagle Scout, told me that the Klamath Basin once had oaks, but the farmers and ranchers found the trees bothersome and chopped them all down. As evidence, K knew of a section of oaks still standing out past Keno, which he'd found while looking at old maps. I asked to one day be taken to these oaks. Then this summer I found them in not just one but two places in the Klamath area—meaning, there must be more.

They are scrubbier white oaks with thinner trunks compared to most Oregon white oaks, but they are oaks—my favorite tree. I first tripped across these scrub oaks by accident while on the Klamath Lake side of the Running Y Resort, which in my childhood used to be a large undeveloped cattle ranch. Oaks in Klamath, really? We had white pelicans, bald eagles, and a crop of seagulls that hung out at McDonald's, a five hours' drive inland from the Pacific Ocean—but oaks? This for me was as if learning dragons were real and living in caves around Crater Lake.

oak leaf and acorn cap, Klamath River Canyon, Oregon

On another afternoon, my step-father and I drove down into the Klamath River canyon on a curvy gravel road and stopped at a turn-off park by the river, where we spotted an orange-and-black-and-cream-ribboned California King snake (further proof that we are not far from the California border in my hometown), winding fast into the bushes away from our cameras. Oaks stood above us and all along the canyon walls among the pines. I dipped my toes into the river, the clear water cooling my feet, looked up at the blue sky, and thought about how, regardless of what cynics say, there are hidden depths to the familiar. There is magic in nature all around, if only we're open to it. And so I fell a little in love with the place I always longed to leave.



orange flower behind chain link, Gladstone Community Gardens

When I first moved to Portland, I lived in an Alberta condo with no yard and a bare balcony. The ex, who was secretly plotting his escape, threw a tantrum when I suggested putting herbs in pots out on the balcony (one of many red flags I should have spotted but didn't). Then in the house in Brooklyn, free to develop hobbies again without guilt, I transplanted raspberry canes along a fence and tinkered with the shared raised beds in the backyard, developing a taste for gardening. But once in downtown Portland among the high rises, I didn't even have a balcony. Currently, the roommate's and my small rented front yard has just enough space and sun for some herbs—lavender, basil, thyme, rosemary, chives—and a few tomato plants among the wildflowers, but that's about it. So, depending on my living situation and access to rented dirt, I sometimes daydream about becoming a member of a community garden.

Gladstone Gardening Association sign board

Gladstone community garden

The local community garden here in Gladstone sits in a large field sandwiched between a ball park and the shady trees and grass in Meldrum Bar Park above the Willamette River, cordoned off with chain-link fencing and "members only" signs. Last night on a walk to the river at dusk, we saw dried-up raspberries, tall sunflowers, marigolds tucked between kale to ward off bugs, rows of lettuces, small orange pumpkins shaded by large leaves, a stand of sweet corn, trellised beans, sprays of cosmos, a patch of daisies, sprawling zucchini. A few gardeners were spotted throughout the field, bending over to weed or wielding hoses. Some of the plots were tidy, even overly manicured, others full of weeds.

plots at Gladstone Community Gardens

cosmos & blue chair, Gladstone Community Gardens

For $30 a year (plus the cost of seeds, starts, and tools), a community garden plot sounds like an inexpensive way to play with plants and dabble in basic permaculture methods like chop-and-drop mulching and sheet mulching—as well as the chance to spy on the neighbors and learn from others' gardening techniques. Since community garden associations typically forbid the permanent part of permaculture food forests—fruit and nut trees—in my annual plot, I would have rambling zucchini, lettuces, all types of kale, climbing English or Persian cucumbers, trellised heirloom beans for drying, staked tomatoes, bunches of basil, and flowers like nasturtiums, marigolds, and sweet peas woven between the vegetables. In fact, it would probably be at least half a flower garden. So at that point, would I be a gardener or a florist?

pink rose, Gladstone Community Gardens

(For anyone else interested in gardening and community gardens, I loved Tara Austen Weaver's memoir, Orchard House, in which she describes her transition from community gardening to a private family garden, using permaculture principles and philosophy. You can see evidence of me reading her book in this post from August 2015.)

Have you ever been a member of a community garden? How was your experience? What would you do differently? Please share!


the perils of breast reconstruction

vintage nightgown with black lace straps

One day in April after showering, I picked off what I thought was a piece of dry skin or an unabsorbed stitch along the scar on the underside of my fake breast and felt a sticky fluid dripping down onto my bare leg. Huh? It turned out I was leaking lymphatic fluid from a hole in the scar from surgery last November when the temporary expander filled with saline was switched to the "permanent" silicone implant that was supposed to make everything better, according to the doctors. Even though the silicone implant had a more natural pear shape and a softer external feel, my radiated tissue contracted internally against the implant, creating constant pressure, a tightness under the thin pectoral muscle. I could never not feel the presence of the implant. And the radiation treatment meant my scar wasn't healing properly.

I happened to have an appointment in my plastic surgeon's office the following day to talk about removing the implant. According to Dr. H. (petite, beautiful, vibrant, and strong), my body—like my mind—was rejecting the implant. She said a maxi pad would best sop up the mess until my insurance approved another surgery. So I wore a maxi pad in my bra for two-and-a-half months, waiting on insurance, while swapping out a soaked, yellowish pad every day for a clean, dry one.

Since my unilateral mastectomy in September 2015, I look with envy at women with breasts, no matter how perky or droopy, small or pendulous, young or old the breasts are, and hope the women feel grateful to have a normal-looking chest with two real boobs and a complete set of nipples, whatever the size or shape. (Breasts are so easy to take for granted until they're cut off.) And I feel sad for women with perfectly normal breasts who choose surgical implants, believing their own healthy breasts too small, too inadequate for the male gaze and cultural preference. I only wish I could have my own small, perky left breast back—only without the cancer.

vintage black nightgown with lace and pintucked bodice

Instead, I have this different, older, deformed body to learn to live with and somehow love—a body that is creaky and pained from lack of estrogen, lopsided from surgery, heavier from stress-related and hormone-related weight-gain, and altogether worse. In photos these days, I can barely recognize myself, my former body leaner and more symmetrical right up until cancer treatment and medical menopause. Everything has changed. And there is no rewind button, no access to a parallel track. This is what is. I should simply be grateful to be alive, glad to have one breast instead of none, but the feelings are more tangled: anger, fear, sadness, thankfulness, jealousy, and only occasionally a glint of hope.  

My oncological surgeon, Dr. C. (petite, beautiful, calm, and strong), says the implant removal "will not magically make everything better," that the next stage of the process is all about self-acceptance. In addition to being a surgeon and a mother approximately my age, she's a certified yoga teacher (Go women!), leading an occasional class geared specially for breast cancer patients and survivors. I'll probably sign on for the next class in the fall.

pink June rose, Gladstone

The past two years since cancer, I've tried anti-depressants, acupuncture, homeopathy, meditation, Pilates, art therapy, regular therapy, self-help books, protein shakes, more organic vegetables, extra vitamin supplements, two Fitbits, and periodical comedy shows on Netflix. I've had four surgeries, three surgery-related infections, a spongy vacuum machine temporarily compressing my chest wall, and three surgical drains. This winter's swimming felt right since I found myself growing stronger, if not lighter, the weightless suspension in water a boon for joint pain—yet swimming has been put on hold for months so I wouldn't leak into the pool. Yoga, something I once did for a half hour every day, never felt right with the implant always in the way (like a heavy balloon sewn into my chest) during any forward bend, though I suspect it will feel more comfortable again once this latest surgical drain has been removed—meaning I still look slightly bionic. It feels odd, post-surgery, as a woman to feel rock-hard bone—sternum and rib cage—under the skin where a padding of fat and milk ducts once were. (Maybe being a woman means being soft on the outside but hard on the inside. Women know how to endure, know how to win the long game.)

vintage nightgown with brown lace detail

Life will beat you down. (Youth never believes this.) The challenge is whether you can pick yourself up and start over, every damn time.

I own a handful of vintage nightgowns found mostly at Goodwill in the six years between divorce and cancer diagnosis. Lovely though they look, they are made of nylon that makes me sweat and lace that scratches sensitive skin. They invoke a sexual, romantic ideal that no longer fits. So they will be sold to women with life challenges that aren't breast-related. Instead, I wear loose-fitting cotton and linen, natural fabrics that breathe and lightly brush the skin.

Cancer, in my experience, is never win-win but only win-loss. The toll price for maintaining life—and that's if lucky—is often high. Though other women opting for breast reconstruction might have a different, easier experience, the choice with my own Barbie-boob implant was to look better (in clothes) but feel worse. I chose instead to look worse but feel better. Age prefers comfort over looks. And so life is training me, like it or not, to become a wise old crone.

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