Feast amid ghosts

August 13, 2008

We sit at long tables, nearly one hundred of us, amid fields of bounty. It’s Sauvie Island, ten miles west of Portland. I can smell the earth, fertile from Columbia River floods. The sun eases toward the hills, setting aglow acres of vegetables sprawling between guardian white oaks half a millennium old.

To be outside in a place like this is heaven enough. The word nirvana comes to mind as we eat a chefs’ feast of food grown around us and elsewhere in Oregon, all washed down with Oregon wines. I ask myself: how am I here at this moment, pampered in a warm summer wind, my wife’s thigh pressed against mine, when the planet’s travails intensify beyond our view?

Talk with the couple across the table turns, surprisingly, to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an apocalyptic vision of the world that brims with love amid desolation. I chatter away about this fictional view of the future, knowing but not disclosing that doomsday happened where we sit less than two hundred years ago.

For centuries, Indians thrived here. Their diet included acorns from the white oaks, which they cultivated. Near the end of the eighteenth century, British explorers estimated that two thousand Indians lived on the island. Less than forty years later, white man diseases had killed the native people. All of them.

I consider bringing up the topic, but dessert’s arrival saves me from myself. As we crown the evening with vanilla bean pound cake and blackberries, the moon climbs above the jagged silhouette of trees peering down on us. There are no Indians to see, but they’re not gone.

(“Oak Trees on Sauvie Island” by Adam Waggener. See more of his art here.)