Three hundred some miles from home and I am standing in a desert, looking out into a pond filled with birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are staying for the summer, and others are just moving through.
It is the end of May and it already feels like summer in southeastern Oregon. Hot and dry. Dry enough that I feel the water escape into the air from my skin, my nose, even my throat when I say a few words about the birds to my friend. The sky is summer brilliant blue, and already, in the mid morning, a few white clouds are growing, promising to be thunderheads, heavy and black, by mid afternoon. The air is rich with juniper, sagebrush, and the funky wet smell of the pond and the nearby slow moving river. It is the Blitzen, German for lightning, which will come this afternoon. Already, thunder rolls from a black cloud growing high over the mountains, carried on the wind to the pond, promising a cooler, sultry afternoon and maybe even rain.
This is the Malheur wildlife refuge, which takes in Malheur Lake and the rivers that feed into it, from the north and the south. Malheur is French for "misfortune" or “bad hour” and probably some other not so literal translations. The lake lacks an outlet to the sea, and is alkali and, especially in low water years such as this year, a bit thick with minerals and the skanky algae that thrives in brackish water.
Yet, this is not "misfortune" or a “bad hour” here. The river runs with fresh snowmelt from the nearby Steens Mountain, a nearly 10,000 foot fault block that runs for twenty some miles. The mountain robs almost all of the rain out of the prevailing westerly winds, making the land east of the summit a true desert, where brittle alkali and borax run ten miles, paralleling the summit.
White snowfields shine bright even from my low vantage point, and the marshes are thick with cattails, willows, sedges, and thick grasses growing fast in the wet and the heat of the May runoff. In the middle of this desert, life explodes here. Birds eat fast and furious, fueling up as they build nests and raise their young, or pause to refuel in the midst of their migration. Alaska and Patagonia are not unknown destinations here, for many of these birds. "Misfortune" or “bad hour” is a place of good times, and every year, they keep coming back.
Birdsong fills the marshes and the river, and the flights of ducks, Arctic swans, white pelicans, red wing blackbirds and the rarer yellow headed blackbirds offer the viewer a constant show. As we drive along the now dusty gravel road that runs for forty miles down to Frenchglen, flocks of graceful avocets burst up from the ditches and the river grass, their arched beaks a shiny black, their backs a shiny coppery armor, and the upper side of their wings a subtle black green. If you see them in their normal pose, hunched over, their beaks working a muddy shallow, they look rusty, almost bronze. But now, in startled flight, the greens and the copper red give this bird more complexity than I’d noticed before.
And that is the message today. Out here in what looks like a dull, lifeless, sun-baked desert, there is complexity and richness that lies just below the surface, just a few minutes of patience before one answers the call of the road, before we move on. If one waits, then the Arctic tern will suddenly dive bomb into the pond, snatching a small fish or even a frog. Mr. Jackrabbit will bound out of the brush, looking startled with his big brown eyes, and giant ears turning to catch the latest news of the marsh.
In all this noise, this music of the birds and the slowly moving water, seeping north from the snowfields, through the reeds and warm mud, there is quiet. There is time to think, without the distractions of home, of city life and traffic. Here, there is hot sunlight, building clouds, and life. We are all visitors here, the birds and I just flying through, on our separate journeys. Even the jackrabbit and the ginkos are on the move. In a really dry year, this pond may not fill, and will lie fallow, the reeds sleeping out the season, hoping for more snow and rain next winter. Or, the biologists may close a gate, directing Lightning River to another field, another pond.
All of this country was once a series of ranches, homesteaded by hardworking immigrants, families who had moved West hoping for a bright future. They brushed up against Peter French, an entrepreneur who thrived on building the biggest ranch in Oregon, supplying California with beef. The other ranchers stood in his way, and he wasn’t much for honoring land claims and fences. He left his mark on the area. The Round Barn, the Long Barn, and the town of Frenchglen remain tributes to his legacy. He was famously murdered, and not all of his neighbors had regrets.
Then, later, the government took a stand, and began to protect the birds and the lake, and to manage the meager water supplies from the rivers, and the wildlife refuge grew. The ranchers and the biologists seemed to have little in common, until they realized they all loved the land, but just showed their love in different ways. Peace came slowly to this area; everyone finding that fighting over what they all needed wasn’t a good plan, not when they needed each other, just to survive.
And, now the great grandchildren of the first ranchers run the hotels and the visitors centers and the cafes where the birders come and spend their money. And cattle still graze and water still flows, and the antelope graze in the alfalfa. And, the birds still come every year, and feed in the fields and the marshes, and nibble a bit on the long rolls of hay kept by the ranchers in the open fields. And, the birders eat the steaks from the ranchers and the water grows the alfalfa and protects the nesting sites for the ducks. And, no one seems to have time to argue about any of that anymore.
I think of all this, running through my brain, as I gaze out into the marsh, taking in the richness of life here. And, in all of this, I find a bit of myself, and a bit of peace. At least in this far away corner of the world, life makes sense.