Saturday, July 21, 2012

Season's Change: March and April

SPRING comes slowly to this high valley. The landscape reveals itself to me little by little, with new surprises every day: I didn't know that was there! My Holden is the village snuggled deep into white drifts; now I'm getting glimpses of the Holden most people see. Meltwater pools in the basements of a couple of central buildings (I am told this happens every year), while the French drains along the road run deep with cheerful streams just begging to be waded in. 

Snowmelt means more than just mud here. The village is powered by a small hydro plant, and in winter everyone is on electricity rations, with frequent power outages. When the waters rise, we get to leave off stoking the wood furnaces, use clothes dryers, plug the kitchen appliances in the dorms back in, and be careless about leaving lights on. Such luxury!

The most popular song at Holden at this time of year, a tune by frequent Holden visitor Josh Ritter, has a chorus that goes, "Been a long time coming/But now the snow is gone." It's not quite accurate by the time I leave the village in early May, but the reckless joy of winter's hold loosening is spot on. Holdenites revel in the sunny days whenever they happen, basking on the loading dock and soaking up the Vitamin D.

Lodge 6 and loading dock, April 20, 2012.

Still, it snows the first three days of May, and I'm not sorry; I didn't start this winter in November like the long-termers did, only in February, and I'm not quite tired of it yet.

* * *

AT winter's end, the village is poised on the edge of big changes. The toxic waste products of the old Holden mine (in operation 1937-1957) remain, and though hazy as to their whereabouts, I get the impression they are carelessly piled up on the hillside above the village. "Why don't they just remove the waste from the valley?" I ask friends back in Portland, when I first hear about the problem. "Oh, there's too much. You'll see," they tell me. But I don't see, not until spring melt reveals the rusty ridges of tailings left over from years of mining, massive landforms through which water seeps down to Railroad Creek, carrying toxic sludge with it. The tailings are the hillside, and the creek is poisoned, its waters blood-stark against the snow.

Rio Tinto, the company that has inherited responsibility for the Holden mine, has been in consultation with Holden Village and the Forest Service about the problem. On March 9, the village directors, Chuck and Steph Carpenter, met with all interested villagers to report on these negotiations. I took notes. The notes may be out of date, but I offer the gist here anyway, together with the updates I'm aware of.

Signs salvaged from the Holden mine.

Rio Tinto intends to halt the toxic runoff by constructing a barrier wall of waterproof (bentonite) cement at the lower end of the tailings, a sort of subterranean dam which will go all the way down to the bedrock (40 to 80 feet at the shallower end). The water that passes through the tailings will be redirected to a new treatment plant. The steep part of the tailings by the creek will be graded back, and the top will be regraded and recapped and contoured for runoff. This project could theoretically be completed in the fall of 2014, although it's too early to say with any sort of certainty.

Skeletal remains of the ore mill.

As you might guess, this is significantly going to change life at Holden for the duration of the project. Already, as I write this, the landscape is underscored with an orange safety fence designed to keep people (and deer) out of the path of heavy equipment, and the grumble of big trucks rolling past has become a part of the village's soundtrack. A new bridge is being constructed to divert traffic around the village, certain well-loved hiking paths are off limits for the duration, and efforts are underway to clear over 80 years' worth of junk (old appliances, scrap metal, building materials, abandoned equipment) off the "Third Level," the ridge above the village where the mine entrance is located.

Long-abandoned equipment on the Third Level.

The biggest change, though, will be the difference in the village population. This summer, 60-80 mine workers will arrive to prepare the site for remediation, and in 2013, up to 250 will show up for the task proper. Holden is a retreat center, economically sustained by its summer flood of enthusiastic guests, some of whom have been showing up annually for decades. In 2011, about 6500 people passed through (I'm not sure if this number includes staff as well as guests, but either way, it's a lot). Regular summer programming continues this year, but in 2013 they'll be cutting back on (if not eliminating) lectures and classes, as mine workers fill most of the guest housing. Mine workers will be invited to participate in village activities, though their demanding schedules may mean not many will choose to. "There will be no evangelizing efforts," Chuck says, but there will be ongoing efforts to show the same hospitality to the workers that Holden is known for showing its guests and staff.

Mine entrance in March 2012. Sign reads: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS KEEP OUT.

It's no secret that the Holden mine remediation is a PR move. As you might expect from the third largest mining company in the world, Rio Tinto has been called out many a time for environmental devastation and unfair treatment of workers. These cleanup efforts are something they can point to for years to come as a token of their environmental responsibility, while perhaps being less conscientious in less visible countries. That doesn't alter the fact that the mine cleanup is a very good thing for this corner of the world. Holden's directors are realistic about the challenges it will pose for village life, but very positive about the process nonetheless. Chuck describes it as "an exciting time... a time of new venture," and Steph says those who are here for the process will have "stories to tell your grandkids." In future years, she says, people will look at this as a turning point, with a "before" and "after", like the summer work camps of the early 1960s that renovated the village, transforming it from ghost town to retreat center.

As far as I can see, their optimism is well-founded. Holden Village is the most financially secure non-profit I've ever worked for, and from all appearances is treated as an equal negotiating party by Rio Tinto and the U.S. Forest Service. If they play their cards right, they may well find themselves better off after the remediation than before, with a new water treatment plant, fire protection system, water mains, road improvements, and who knows what else. This summer, the village celebrates its 50th year as a retreat center with weekly parades, in which a giant mine remediation worker is a regular fixture: environmental responsibility is celebration-worthy, too.

* * *

I don't want to sound like all the other folks who wax on about how magical Holden is, but seriously, what is it about Holden people? They all strike me as so uniquely loveable, so entirely themselves. During my time there, I sometimes wonder: if I had met some of these odd ducks and curious creatures elsewhere instead, would I find them so utterly charming, or merely awkward and obnoxious?

I mentioned this puzzle to a wise Friend (who has never been to Holden), and he remarked that you see in other people what you are inside. There may well be some truth in this, but I wasn't satisfied with the implied explanation that I think other people are wonderful because I, myself, am so wonderful. First of all, that triggers even my loosely-calibrated arrogance alarm, and secondly, there are plenty of people elsewhere whom I don't like at all. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Holden people are so loveable because they are so loved. Somehow, they've managed to implement this self-perpetuating system that makes people feel important, included, and cared for. It doesn't work for everyone, but everyone who sticks around, or comes back, is there because it worked for them.

* * *

MAYBE it's all the love that makes me feel so safe here, too. It's not just that there's no need to lock doors (and indeed, aside from a few offices, nothing is ever locked). There is something about this place and community that makes me feel secure enough to push myself, to do things that scare me. I teach myself to exult instead of panic when I lose-and-regain my balance on an icy walkway: "I could have really hurt myself!" becomes "Look what I can do!" I climb up a very steep hill and sled down it, face-first, yelping and laughing fiendishly. I take part in a "Holden flashmob," zombie-dancing to "Thriller" in the dining hall, an undertaking that nudges hard against a couple of my more durable insecurities. And I muster the courage to tell someone I think we should be dating, with very satisfying results.

Pairing off in such a close-knit community is full of paradoxical challenges. The community is what brings the two of us together, but the community also keeps us apart, filling our time with other commitments, leaving us little space to be alone. Inversely, at times I struggle to stay engaged with community when I'm yearning to focus on this one person. Yet the relationship also ties me more closely to the community. It's a strange balancing act, one I don't always manage to perform with grace, but I'm never sorry for taking that risk.

* * *

HERE in this blog, I tend to focus more on the positive aspects of a community than its flaws; I don't want to burn bridges or show disrespect to groups of people who have welcomed me in. But because this post is pretty mushy about Holden, I feel compelled to note that it's far from a perfect community. Every small community has its dramas and tensions, and during my time there, the village was still feeling the aftershocks of some pretty serious ones that occurred in the months before my arrival. Every small community passes colds and flu and other contagions around (especially small communities with regular visitors from outside). Every small community has its rumor mill, unresolved conflicts, personality clashes, and differing views on how it should be operating.

Under a recent administration, staff practiced consensus decisionmaking, meeting weekly to make sure everybody had a voice in each new change. Villagers who were here at that time have differing opinions on how well that worked. Currently, Holden has returned to its original model of "benevolent dictatorship," with decisions being handed from the top down. This is certainly more efficient, but, inevitably, the benevolence of the dictatorship sometimes comes up for debate in staff circles. I am grateful that my short-term minion status permits me a degree of separation from this particular area of tension. I have my own frustrations with other departments; many people at Holden are called upon to do tasks that their previous experience may not have prepared them for, and in some areas, it really shows.

The check and balance to this, I suppose, is the regular staff changeover. Holden has term limits: you can sign up for a year at a time, if you want to stay that long, and if all goes well you can renew for a second year. It's rare that anyone is permitted to stay longer, though there are exceptions, and directors sign on for a renewable period of five years. This staff recirculation creates "a community of people in transition," as another short-term volunteer put it. At Holden, people are forever arriving and departing, guests coming and going, staff beginning and ending their contracts. Lots of people come back -- it has that kind of hold on many -- but hellos and goodbyes are part of daily life here.

Staying three months, therefore, means a natural progression of relationships, from hanging out with other new folks, sharing in the newness, to feeling closer to those who've been around a while. My first week, I gravitate toward the two guests who showed up the same day I did: There will be time to get to know the others, I say to myself, but this is the only week I can spend with these people. When my new friends have gone (after several great conversations over dominoes), I find that nearly all the staff are very friendly and inclusive. There are many events scheduled for guests, but behind that is another layer of staff happenings, with constant invitations to participate: hootenannies and homebrew tastings, Women's Circle, Classical Music Night and Non-Classical Music Night, sauna time, book and audio discussions, hikes and movie viewings. As my time progresses, I try to keep in mind how it feels to be new here, and how other, newer volunteers and guests also want to be welcomed and included.

It's not easy to keep making new friends every week, and I know that it would only become more difficult if I stayed longer. The least friendly staff, I note, are winding up a contract of a year or more, burnt out and settled into their own comfortable circles. Holden's elementary school teacher, an employee of the school district (and therefore not subject to term limits), has been here for about 10 years, escaping each summer to visit family and avoid the crowds. The hardest part of staying, he tells me, is that no one else does; you can't maintain long-term friendships here, and that, he says, is probably what will finally drive him from this place.

* * *

I have to leave the village for a week in early April; my taxes are too complicated this year to do without help. When I return, I feel strangely out of place. Summer staff are starting to trickle in, mostly returning staff, several of whom don't seem to have any interest in getting to know me. I know I shouldn't take it personally, but the village seems to have changed so much in my absence, and I can't talk myself out of feeling insecure. Dejected, I write in my journal on April 17, "It's weird how the longer I stay in this place, the less I feel a part of things."

The Ark and Chalet Hill, May 4, 2012.

I try not to dwell on that realization, but it's true. The village is shifting toward summer: a new landscape reveals itself from beneath the snow; dear friends are leaving, summer regulars coming back; plans and preparations for the flood of guests and workers are underway. There are no flowers yet, but robins are everywhere, and a small flock of mine remediation planners flit in and out of vision, their plumage safety orange.

I could negotiate with Staffing for a longer stay... but the place is shifting, changing into something I hardly recognize, and I feel my new departure date, May 4, was well chosen. Whether I stay or go, I will still miss that which is past. I'd rather do that elsewhere, with new sights and sounds and people to distract me, than have a bad attitude about things here.

Lodge 6 and loading dock, May 4, 2012.

So I stick with The Plan, which is to continue this nomadic lifestyle for a good while yet, adding Holden to the rapidly growing list of places to which I'd like to return. My last weeks pass, slow and quick at the same time, and May 4 shows up on schedule. I cram my things back into my duffel and hug everyone and stare out the back window of the schoolbus as the villagers wave and wave (and throw snowballs) until we round the bend and lose sight of them. There will be time for tears later, but for now, I grin at the cluster of figures in the roadway as they faithfully signal their one-note semaphore: goodbye, goodbye.

My journal entry for March 16th describes my thoughts during one of the Friday night candlelit prayer services:

Gratitude. Overwhelming gratitude, for these loving and loveable people, for this beautiful place, for all my needs being met, for being comfortable and comforted, for this precious experience. All this goodness. And how it was all reflections of God's goodness, and how that's why I can let it go: because God's goodness is a constant that I find wherever I go, even though not always as obviously as here. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I said.

* * *

THERE'S a song called "Rivers and Roads" that has been performed by a group of talented Holden musicians on several occasions. The first time I heard it, one of them introduced it as "the most Holden song I've ever heard."

A year from now we'll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they're going to better places
But our friends will be gone away

It starts out quietly, voice and guitar, and the melody is calm, musing, detached.

Nothing is as it has been
And I miss your face like hell
And I guess it's just as well
But I miss your face like hell

But then the singer crescendos abruptly into a wail, and the piano crashes in, and finally you can feel the hurt behind the words:

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

And then there's nothing left to sing but the chorus, vocals raw and haunting, harmonies building through repetition after repetition to a painful richness, the waltz-time rhythm lifting up and pounding down, moving you inexorably toward the song's end. 

Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers 'til I reach you

The song is by a band called The Head and the Heart, a group which has probably never heard of Holden Village. When I returned to the Land of Fast Internet and sought out their album recording of it, I was disappointed. It's nice, but... it's nice. I hear they're better live, and maybe even in the studio they really felt what they were singing about, but they don't make me feel it, not the way those people at Holden did, singing their hearts out in that firelit room.


  1. Again, you leave me speechless.

  2. What a fabulous writer you are. I always look forward to these. By the way, I taught a watercolor class in the park to 8-10 year olds. They used duck feathers to paint with! Lol!

    1. Thank you, Kathe! Glad those feathers were put to good use. I display mine with pride!

  3. Lindsey--we met a couple months ago at Holden and you gave me your card. I've checked your lovely blog several times since and have been so impressed by both your writing and your adventures. I took a job as the para educator at Holden next year. Maybe I'll see you? Hope all is well.

    All the best,


  4. Also: I hope you don't mind but I blogged about your blog entry. :)

    1. Rachael, what an honor to be quoted by you! Thanks for reading, and for sending other readers my way. I'll follow your blog as I'm able -- I admire your writing and look forward to hearing more about your year at Holden. I don't expect to return there in the next 12 months, but Holden's got my heart, and, it seems, yours; it's very likely we'll cross paths there again someday.