The Virtuous Woman of Makah Bay

Hannah's mission in life becomes clear: another Tale From The Far West

I surmise the reason that we find many bad guys attractive is that we are all sinners at heart. It is comforting to know most folk are fallible just like us. It depends of course on what kind of sins we are dealing with. But the general point is that serious goodliness – let alone saintliness – can be difficult to cope with.

Our little township takes its name from the local Native Americans who still reside around here. We are not in their territory, though we are respectful of our adjacency and glad to be part of the Olympic Peninsula community. As the name suggests we are a sea facing bunch and the halibut season means a lot to us.

Small places are often described as ‘close-knit’ by those who don’t know them. That’s only true because we don’t much care for outsiders prying. Inside, of course, we are riven with disputes. Enmities and alliances govern our daily discourse. Given our geographic position we have our share of vacation homes, retiree incomers and a few rentals. There is a store cum café run by an Indian called Mr Misra, a bed and breakfast place that describes itself as a hotel, and an art gallery specialising in found wood carvings.

Hannah Pye had been with us about five years. She rented a small holding on the land side of the highway that ran through the township. She was a pleasant person, about 5’ 4’’, with an open, smiling face and a ruddy complexion. She dressed in the sort of determinedly outdoor clothing you can only get from specialist catalogues. From the off she began to look after the community. She picked up litter from the highway and took soup to the sick. In season she would make and distribute cordials made from one or other of the many plants and berries that grow round here. Her salsify and cloudberry cordial was much praised and went well with a shot of vodka (but we never let her know about the liquor bit). She would also distribute produce from her garden – beans and potatoes mostly. This didn’t go down too well with Mr Misra but we told him ‘it’s a few bucks, and it’s a nice gesture.’

So she became part of our lives and we liked her well enough. That said, she was an earnest sort of person. She never talked about herself, but would look into people’s eyes and ask ‘how are you?’ in a meaningful and discomforting way. Someone said they thought she had been a nun. It was a plausible explanation and made it easier for us to treat her with a circumspect but genuine courtesy.

We never found out how the road plan started. We suspected one of the incomers but in truth it was more likely the Rural Advisory Committee and the Parks Service. There was nothing much wrong with the highway, but it divided the township and led to occasional small accidents as residents went to and fro. There was, too, a big kink in the road that tended to slow down logging trucks.

Whatever – the town council got a letter advising that a by-pass was under consideration and surveyors would be sent to check out route options. Opinion was immediately divided. Some folk were concerned that this would divert business from the town. Others, who lived further out that their homes would be devalued or threatened by greater proximity to a highway. Mr Misra was totally in favour. He pointed out that the town would be easier to access and proper use of signage would divert travellers into the business center. Eventually a letter was sent to the Advisory Committee that we had no objections in principle, depending on the route chosen.

The surveyors came and went. Months passed and the proposals were published. A town meeting was held. There were a handful of objections, mostly written in from vacation home owners whose properties would be affected. Hannah Pye came to the meeting. She was understandably upset because her place was in direct line of the by-pass. We had never seen her emotional before. In breaking and angry voice she said ‘It’s not just about my home, it’s about all the trees that are going to be murdered.’

The only other tree hugger we knew of was the guy who ran the folk and wood art gallery. He was in favour of the scheme for commercial reasons. Hannah shot a tearful look of rebuke across at him and we guessed she had already broached the issue and been rejected. None of us wanted to be unkind to Hannah so our chairman gently told her the council were in favour ‘for the future of the community’. Hannah snorted derisively and, with a previously unsuspected asperity, snapped, ‘You haven’t heard the last. I shall fight you all the way,’ and left the room.

She turned out to be a feisty campaigner as we knew she could be: shortly after she had arrived she had picketed an adult video store that operated next to a gas station on the highway just beyond the town limits. The store closed but we figured it was more to do with the internet than Hannah’s disapproving presence.

In this crusade she got many of the vacation home owners on her side. Notices started to appear pinned to trees along with a home-made billboard on the highway all exhorting ‘save our trees’. She managed to attract the support of a state conservation group and in turn made appearances with them on local TV. She also wrote a long letter to the Town Council (copied in the town newspaper) in which she courteously but firmly and clearly castigated them for putting mammon before nature. The one group whose support she failed to get was the Makah leaders. They expressed sympathy but pointed out the road was not on their lands and they had no sacred places in its line.

Winter came and with it a cessation of hostilities. Luckily, the affair had blown up in late fall so the vegetable distribution had taken place. We missed her cordials though as she ceased bringing these round and we hardly saw her other than when she did her marketing. At those times exchanges would be polite but distant.

In spring the Council received a letter confirming that budgets for the by-pass had been approved. The roads department and forestry commission would be sending surveyors to assess the proposed road work in terms of tree loss. A few weeks later three panel trucks arrived and the assessment teams began their work. They were very thorough so far as we could tell, walking the mile long route, photographing trees and making copious notes. Hannah followed them at a distance, making notes of her own. She was told she could not take photographs of the personnel.

May brought the publication of the route confirmation with a start date of early June: the paperwork included a detailed map with significant tree locations marked. At the beginning of the month the construction equipment started to arrive. The next thing we knew was Ms Pye had chained herself to a Sitka spruce at the side of the highway where the cutting and bull-dozing was to begin. It was a pretty splendid tree as it happens and Hannah had used a lot of chain. In the beginning the crew pretty much ignored her. Hannah remained virtually mute, except on occasion chanting ‘woodman, spare the tree’. One or two of us showed up and tried to persuade her to stop her protest. She ignored us. Evening was coming on. Someone offered to bring her a cup of soup but was unkind enough to snigger as they said it. Hannah ignored them

The crew left. Their foreman said ‘try to get that crazy woman out of the way by tomorrow morning.’ We stood around pleading with Hannah to let us unchain her. We pointed out that it was not feasible for her to spend the night chained to the tree. ‘If you died, all this would be pointless’ one of the Council offered. It seemed to do the trick. She told us the keys to the three padlocks she had used were in her coat pocket. ‘You made your point’ she was told. It was debated whether we should take the chains and padlock with us. It was argued that would be anti-democratic, an abuse of her rights to protest and arguably, theft.

So we went away and left her to her own devices. We didn’t feel good about it, but Hannah’s response to the enquiry, ‘You OK Hannah?’ was, ‘I’m fine. How can you live with yourselves?’

Next morning the crew foreman is knocking on the Deputy Sheriff’s office door at eight o’clock saying ‘the crazy lady is back and chained to the goddamn tree again.’ The Deputy got a set of chain cutters and went to the site and cut Hannah free and drove her back to town where he locked her in a closet and phoned the sheriff in Forks for advice. The upshot was they found a judge to make a restraining order. It took a couple of days during which Hannah was confined to her home under the supervision of a female state police officer.

The by-pass went ahead without any further problems. It didn’t take too long and was open by winter. Shortly after work started Hannah packed her bags and possessions and left in a U-Haul. She told one of her neighbors she was returning to Seattle where she thought her community and conservation mission would be better appreciated.

For the rest of us, life has changed for the better. Business in the town has picked up. Mr Misra has expanded his store and now also runs a franchise for a burger ‘n’ ribs operation. The bed and breakfast place and the next door neighbor sold out to a motel chain. The art gallery is now doing online business in collaboration with the Makah for Native American handicrafts. Property values are on the up.

Hannah Pye’s smallholding was demolished as planned. The Sitka survived. This was due to the Forestry Commission deciding its age warranted preservation. There was a minor alteration to the route and the tree now stands proudly at the fork in the road where the main highway and the side road to the town divide. We miss Hannah’s cordials, but the tree is called Hannah’s tree and we have a small plaque at its foot to commemorate her role in its survival. Our town internet fan posted a picture on Facebook.

We didn’t expect she would come back to see things, but the following Christmas there was a seasonal wreath laid at the foot of the Sitka. Nobody claimed credit for it.

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