America’s Portland Problem

Having lived in Portland for two and a half years, I am becoming more familiar with this quirky city, increasingly popular with millennials. Once a gritty solid working class community, Portland has become a favorite destination for foodies, craft beer and spirits fans, coffee drinkers, and save-the-planet types who brew their own kombucha, pickle their own vegetables, and recycle everything that doesn’t emit fatal levels of radioactivity. It’s a town of makers and make do-ers, tony little shops filled with artsy ephemera, entitled (and occasionally nude) bicyclists, sixties reboots who embrace culture sans couture. People tend to feel good about themselves simply because they have chosen to live here, choice of residence (it seems) being an indicator of a certain set of values; one which embraces Powell’s but disdains Amazon, whose residents proudly sport short pants in winter and consider Sasquatch an inside joke. It’s Portlandia as reality show, Twin Peaks without Bob.

Much of the above is a twenty first century layer imposed over the old Portland: the flannel shirt, double aught, fiercely independent, most-unchurched-state in the union and damn proud of it Portland. The used-to-be-the-most-racist state that’s trying awfully hard to be the reformed you-be-you-and-I’ll-be-me Portland. It’s LGBTQ heaven, a legally THC infused, house-flipping spot of manic interest in all things chilled out where property values and homeless camps increase daily. It’s roses and robberies, diversity amidst drizzle.

I like it.

The above description isn’t the problem, however. The problem is that Portland is located in the most temperate spot in the Pacific Northwest. Generally warmer than Seattle but with as much precipitation, closer to the ocean than the drier Oregon high country, nestled between two rivers that provide enough humidity to grow mold on laundry newly removed from the dryer, Portland is a place of explosive vegetation. One can plant anything in any patch of dirt and it will grow, assuming it isn’t choked by weeds before it reaches maturity. A passionate gardener, I arrived in Portland excited at the prospect of growing things that I was unable to foster in our last home, the high mesa of northern New Mexico. Soon after arrival, I measured our yard for garden plots, calculating the sunny spots in a plot of land overcrowded with trees.

A previous owner had been tree-crazy and planted a variety of fruit bearing trees, never thinking how they might look 20 years on. A quick census revealed that we had figs, Italian plums, persimmons, Asian pears, apples (three varieties), quince, Chinese chestnuts, Bartlett pears (three trees worth), a “dwarf” sweet cherry that had exploded skyward to a height of 40 feet, blueberries, raspberries, Corinthian cherries, a thirty foot arbor bearing Concord grapes and a variety of non-fruit bearing trees. Every space non-tree was filled with iris, allium, daylily, peony, half a dozen roses gone wild, Spanish lavender, fern, hens and chicks, rhododendron, four varieties of bamboo, mint. And blackberries. Everyone in this part of the country suffers from rampant blackberry growth, the scourge of the Pacific Northwest, thanks to the rapid alimentary process of berry-loving birds. Remarkably, I didn’t see the problem, only the possibilities.

There wasn’t much sun to be had in my yard, but I managed to construct a few raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. I planted my first starts come spring and awaited the bounty. It arrived the day after planting. My newly planted beds, pristine just the day before, had exploded with tiny little weeds overnight – dozens of them. I went to pull them out but upon being touched, they launched multitude of tiny seeds across the surface of my vegetable beds. Ever since, I have been involved in the daily task of attempting to tame the wilderness. The bamboo alone requires a full time nanny as it multiplies faster than rabbits and left untended will grow to heights of thirty feet or more. The vegetation in my yard grows faster than I am able to contain it: a seed arrives and it’s growth cannot then be stopped.

In relational terms we refer to such activity as promiscuity. In biological terms, we call it malignancy. So many of the things we fear the most are marked by unregulated growth – cancer, nuclear proliferation, environmental toxins, mob behavior.

And of late, I fear, the atmosphere in this America of ours has provided the perfect growing conditions for division, discord, blaming, antipathy. Like bacteria thriving in the perfect medium of a petrie dish, anger and antipathy roils, the preference for advantage over altruism is celebrated, the insistence on the self dominates like a carpet of weed that steals light and moisture from the more tender but nutritious planting. Aggression and avarice is clear and undisguised, both in the streets and in the halls of power.

I go to my garden daily to rake up and discard rotting fruit, to tear the weeds from my beds, often destroying the promise of produce in the process. In my more desperate moments, I am tempted to slash and level, to blanket my yard in herbicide but I have no desire to live on a plot of urban wasteland, and I know that the seeds of destruction are in the very air and will continue to invade despite any attempts to start afresh.

No, it is vigilance I need, vigilance and discernment – the ability to distinguish between things of value those that are virulent and opportunistic and the dedication to keeping a space clear of that which would be my garden’s undoing.