LONGING FOR THE OUTDOORS


9 May 2021

 After leaving college, we spent several years living on national wildlife refuges, before I took a job in Portland, Oregon, in the Regional Office of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We liked the Portland area, and I liked the job and the people I worked with. Portland wasn’t yet a big city, so even the half-hour commute to and from work wasn’t bad. What was bad were the couple hours after 2 o’clock on many work days.

   It takes a lot of paper work and other indoor activities to run a wildlife refuge, and I was often “tied to my desk” in the refuge office. But I could take my “coffee break” by walking across the compound  to visit with Sally and the kids for a few minutes. If I found myself falling asleep at my desk in mid-afternoon, I could usually think of a legitimate (or semi-legitimate, anyway) excuse to hop in the truck and drive around the refuge. Refreshed, I could come back and finish up the day’s office work.

   It didn’t work that way in the Regional Office. At 2 o’clock, there was no refuge to drive around, and home was a half-hour away. I was a prisoner at my desk until quitting time, and some days it really felt like that. I got used to it, but it took awhile.

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     Louis B. Akin must have been feeling the same as me when, in 1901, he wrote his poem “Tantalus in Town.”[1] Akin grew up in Portland, and made his living in a very busy, very demanding sign-writing shop. Still, whenever he could, he “escaped” to the nearby mountains to fish and hunt and hike and enjoy some solitude. He could come back to Portland refreshed, and ready to get back to earning a living.

   It was his personal choice in the late 1890s to leave the Pacific Northwest for New York City, to study painting and make a career of art. After several years of what seemed like little progress toward his goals  – while he drudged away in the city, making little money or doing much of anything he considered worthwhile – he must have longed for his mountains, daily. He pictured himself like Tantalus, that king of Greek legend, who the gods condemned to Hades, standing under a tree bearing wonderful fruit, that was forever beyond his reach. New York was his Hades, and his “forbidden fruit” was time in his mountains.

   “How’d you like to be a-hittin’ up the trail, instead o’ sittin’ at a desk an’ nigh forgittin’ that there’s any happy land?”

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[1] Published, with his own drawings, in Harper’s Weekly, Volume 45 (17 August 1901), page 815.


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