Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

One Poem by Elizabeth McLagan

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Replanting the Malheur on Denny Jones Ranch

for the volunteers of Oregon Natural Desert Association

This map has answers, but more questions.
East of Bend, still east of Burns, we think

we need one. Past the edge of Harney Basin,
where waters pool and flow inward, this spring’s

snow melt flooding almost gone: pond-light,
ditch-light, a fling of broken mirrors. Then climb

a pass named Stinkingwater, another, Drinkwater.
An immigrant route? The Malheur meets itself near Juntura,

and we turn east with it. More English names for mine
and woman, agency, grade and canyon. And who alive

remembers Sully’s Gap or Pete’s Mountain? Grasshopper this,
chukar that, Jones. And here we stop. The former Denny Jones,

the ranch this longest-serving legislator owned. His profits
spent on whisky and women, the rest, he joked, I wasted.

The loss of fish won reparations, and now this land’s
returned to Paiute, along an ancient route to Idaho

and old fish camps. Today the hills are little darker
than the clouds. The sky is bruised gray, the wind

a hard wet slap. Last winter’s storms thinned out
the deer, ice flooding scraped the banks. We plant

for failure, hope for success. Seven hundred riparian
natives in the ground: Douglas hawthorne, mock orange,

chokecherry, antelope bitterbrush, wood rose, blue elderberry.
Two Paiute youths tee off with rocks. We’ve volunteered

to work, and this seems right. The Malheur rushes east
to join the Snake. Its waters meet the ocean. Fish swim

back, and wait. In rocks, much layering and erosion.
In human generations, count back in thousands.

Of the old ways, I know nothing, yet I imagine
ancient gods among us. We light a fire at sunset.

The smoke drifts out and back like shadow, or a door.




Elizabeth McLaganElizabeth McLagan is the author of the poetry collections In The White Room (2013) and My Rothko, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Boulevard, Los Angeles Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

Header photo of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by William T. Smith, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.