Oregon is burning, and we’ve now lost a month of summer to the smoke. Each morning I look out toward the barn, where it sits in a kind of primordial orange pall, and I can see the ash falling like snow in the offing. Inside the house, which is buttoned up, it smells like a campfire, and the back porch is covered in flakes of black and gray ash that eddy in the occasional hot breeze.
Satellite imagery of Oregon shows an overcast of smoke smothering the Cascades in a broad swath from California to Washington. It’s odd to look at, knowing we are somewhere underneath all of that.
Worse, we are seeing the effects of all this smoke in the garden now. The tomato plants are beginning to choke, leaves curling at the edges after weeks of bad air and limited natural sunlight. The tomatoes, by far the best we have grown thus far on the Figure 8, are large and lush and on the verge but hanging now in the acrid smoke, freckled with ash, and just when we need every last drop of summer sunlight and heat to push them into their final ripening.
I should be used to this by now. We’ve lost gardens to hailstorms in the middle of July, to waves of golden mantles, and my own stupidity, so smoke would be next on the list of unexpected and infuriating setbacks in our effort to grow good food.
To be certain, it beats living anywhere on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey, and we should keep our difficulties in perspective. When Krakatoa went off in 1883, it created a kind of nuclear winter, dropped temperatures in the northern hemisphere for several years and added record snowfalls to its planet-altering achievements. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo dropped global temperatures for three years. In 1815, Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, lost its temper, and is blamed for mid-summer frosts and June snowfalls across New England and the eastern seaboard in what later became known as the “Year Without a Summer.”
So we are, it appears, still winning.
Mixed into this strange post-apocalyptic life came word that John Kattai, a friend, mentor, colleague, and one of the finer police officers and men to have ever hustled a beat, anywhere, has passed away. John retired, not so very long ago, after 36 years of service to the people of his city. He leaves behind him a legacy of commitment, undomesticated humor, and an outsized heart that will be impossible to replicate or replace.
If there is any good news in this at all, it’s in the manner that he was found. It was supremely just and poetically appropriate that the men who found him, Ed Olsen and Danny McGrew, be among those who stood in the ranks beside him, whose shields bear the same unmistakable dents from hard campaigning in the barbarous forests of our American criminal wilderness.
It was important, I think, that this legendary warrior, who gave so much in so many ways, to so many people, be found by his tribesmen, warriors who once bled beside him in battle and who loved him for his devotion, his humor, his irascible wit, and his enormous sacrifice.
We can, all of us who loved him, be grateful for that, though I am afraid it will take its hard and inevitable toll on Ed and Danny. One learns early in police work that every call for service carries a price tag.
This morning, as I bumbled around the house in a state of hard mourning–and John’s death, coming so unexpectedly, has hit me hard–I saw a bird on our place I haven’t seen here before, and later identified as a Northern Flicker, a kind of woodpecker.
I was sitting in the kitchen, nursing a cup of tea, when movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. So I sat and watched the bird for a long time. He was perched on the edge of the porch, just on the other side of the window, close enough that I might have reached out and touched him. He stood out because of the beautiful red streaks, like warpaint, under his eyes. I watched how his little feet clung to the edge of the porch as he surveyed the grass below for ants, or beetles, or worms, with those fast twitching head-turns that only birds, it seems, have been gifted to master.
I watched him shake, then tilt his head and stare at the wisps of ash that fell from his back, and my mind, for whatever reason, drifted hard toward the real winter that is coming, and the passing of seasons–so much faster every year–and these friends we keep putting into the ground.
And then I thought of this passage from Wendell Berry, writing about a hill on his farm in Kentucky, and I remembered that fire and smoke, hurricanes and flooding, and the too-soon passing of our friends, the hard work we do in the middle to make something native and ours in this world, and to hold onto it against calamity, and loss, isn’t desperation against the inevitable. It is a kind of celebration of the hardships, the inescapable difficulties we endure together, and that celebration is rooted firmly in the beginnings, not in the ends.
“And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt at about the third button below the collar. At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence—that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstance, happened to be lying. The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history. Portent begins to dwell in it.
“And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay. Other leaves fall. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms. Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves. For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling—and then that, too, sinks away. It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.
“When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.”
Craig – Thank you for taking the time to honor John. You haven’t lived until you have been on the receiving end of a “Kattai 417” for saying something stupid. Years ago – I came across him in the back lot of the PD and he had tears in his eyes. I was aware he was investigating a serious sexual assault and had less than an hour ago, spoke to the young female victim.
I asked John if he was ok and he looked directly at me and replied, “Im getting rid of her pain.” After his response it was clear I needed to go – so I left without a word and thought about what he said to me. The next time I saw him he complimented me for working hard and said, “I like you, don’t do anything stupid today.” John meant what he said and it was always from the heart.
“I’m getting rid of her pain.” Good Lord. It just got very dusty in here. This will sound made up, but my very first call for service–right out of the gate with George Hanson as my FTO–was a hit and run involving a stolen car on, you guessed it, the east side. We rolled up and found John with three at gunpoint and holding a fourth one by the ear. I will never forget that–it absolutely blew my mind–and I thought: I have arrived in a strange land. 🙂
That made me laugh out loud Craig! I can see the look on his face and yours. Ok – I’ll see your FTO story and raise you with the time I arrested a local DUI defense attorney out of a traffic collision and as I walked him through the report room, I noticed John was at one of the computer stations. New and old officers there, records clerks, you name it.
John barely turned his head to see who it was and said as he continued typing, “I see they finally got you didn’t they, you a**hole” to which the attorney replied, “Thanks John.” Turns out there was lots of court history related to the thousands of DUI arrests John had made between them. The attorney never said a thing through the remainder of the investigation – no complaint – nothing because everyone knew John was on point. Again.
Thank you for this beautiful tribute to John Kattai, or Big John as we called him. He was a good man, a great police officer, and a wonderful friend to me and my family. I am in shock that he’s gone. I thought, of all the people I’ve ever known, John would live forever. I will always hold him close in my heart.
Thank you, Susan. I think one of the reasons it hits so hard is because I thought he might live forever, too. He was, and this gets said too often, truly one of a kind.
Thanks Craig, how fitting that I googled his name to see if any obituaries had been printed. Your blog came up right below his Guerry Award. Beautifully written.
My first memory of John was while I was working as a corrections officer in the jail reception in 88′. Dragging in of all people, Charlie Drake and three others. Back when you could stack them like cord wood in the back of the patrol car. He seemed to be having so much fun that I count that as my first reason to go to the PD. They seemed half mad but mostly relieved that it was John bring them in on Friday night.
This passing is strange for me. More than others I can recall, John creeps into my thoughts a couple times a day. Not grieving but more like thinking of a tree that was always on the horizon and now it’s not there. As if I can’t quite figure out what’s different about the view. I suppose that’s all we can hope to leave behind.
Thanks for the words.
Thanks, Jim. They are having a memorial at the Carriage House on the 15th, FYI. And I think you are right in many ways. If, when we leave, someone notices the landscape has changed, we have done good work. Hope you and family are well and happy.
The Estonian refugee community in the United States also mourns our old friend John (Juhan in Estonian). We had lots of good times together as youngsters. Rest in peace, old stalwart buddy.
Juri, thank you for reading and commenting here. John was a proud Estonian and a towering man of character and humor. He will be forever missed.
John and I connected several times in the Caribbean and I was thinking of him today, as it had been a few years, so I googled him, and your words appeared. I’m saddened. He was a good man, an extraordinary jokester, and a staunch defender. I’m left with some lovely memories and the privilege of having known him.
Thank you. This is how we keep his memory alive. All the best — C