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 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.