A Letter from a Darker Past

Article excerpt

Byline: Ken Kesey For The Register-Guard

Editor's note: This essay was published in The Register-Guard on Aug. 15, 1971, under the headline "A letter from the Coburg hills." On Monday, the Oregon Legislature voted to ban most open field burning in the Willamette Valley.

Last night (Aug. 2) I tossed my sleeping bag in the car and headed up McGowan Creek Road to a spot I've bagged out in now and then for the past decade, a nice place high up and solitary if you want to get away from things but not too far away. I parked on the western slope of the Coburg hills and rolled my bag out where I could lie and watch the valley twinkling miles below me, and the sliding moon, and the traditional August meteor shower whizzing through the high, clear night.

At dawn an early mist slid over the hilltop and moved casually on down toward the settlements sleeping below. In a couple of hours the mist burned off, and I watched a young hen grouse on a stump enjoying a fastidious first preening of the day, and on down the slope I could see our rivers winding like tinsel, and Fern Ridge sparkling to the southwest.

I read some of my Bible - Psalms - and had a hit of Strawberry Hill and went back to sleep. When I woke a scant hour later and sat up for another look down the slope, I saw an incredible sight:

The valley was on fire; I counted two, three, then eight or nine fields swishing into flame and smoke. But no distant fire engines could I hear; no warbling firehouse alarms ... On the freeway, the train depot and the mills, business seemed to be continuing as usual in spite of the manifold holocausts.

By midmorning the smoke was boiling from the scattered fields as though from so many great, and synchronized, funeral biers.

I watched in dumbfounded fascination: So this was what all that "Stop the Field Burning" talk was about. ...

The smoke rose into mighty murky pillars, into spectacular thunder heads all knobby and propenderous, like great yellow-brown puffed lips or punk knots swelling from an injured land, then all the separate pillars joined into one great bruise that began creeping the width and length of the valley.

No longer could you see Fern Ridge. Soon you couldn't see Coburg, or Highway 5, or the scruffy little foothills my granddad always warned me were the resthomes for rattlesnakes recuperating from their molt.

Finally it rose to the very summit where I was camped.

All the snags and berrybush 50 yards away were hazed by this creeping bruise. The young grouse stopped calling from behind her stump. …