Malheur: an unfortunate misnomer

Imagine something like the southwest with large weathered bluffs rising from gentle valleys or plateaus, deep draws and basins and gorges, followed by the footsteps of glaciers that chiseled their way through this landscape like cutting into a rind of cheese and leaving cross-sections of gold, and orange and red and white rock, a geological fire that makes the burning sun seem cool in comparison. Yet, in the southeast of Oregon, more delicate than the harsh drought of Arizona, or New Mexico. There are still bluffs and gorges, plateaus and rivers that have filed down hills to create great gaps in the lines of hills, almost like the missing tooth in a scraggly smile.
In John Day, named for the river that passes through, an old oceanic crust (probably rather confused), left behind by uncompromising tectonics, has been thrust upward creating a set of hills of compressed sea mud and sand, perfect places to find fossils. Sepentinite a strange and uncommon mineral is found amongst these hills, where rivers have eaten deep chasm-like canyons, one can see serpentinite, a glossy, almost soapy-shiny-looking rock of forest and light green (like camouflage) with white paint strokes rubbles out of a hillside of mixed juniper and grasses. The light hay-colored grasses add a beautiful contrast to the dark colored mudstone (an apt name) like a warm, glowing, gold sea with floating rafts of dark blue basalt and glittering green sepentinite. As we moved along those canyons, the geologic vistas changed from mudstone and sepentinite to black blue basalt garnished with a pillow of white ash, occasionally emerging from the hillsides like frosted chocolate cake. The dominant environments here is ponderosa pine forests with dark orange bark streaked with tan and brown and it glows in the morning. The forests are more like parks in this area, well-spaced with few shrubs, but large spaces of grass. This quickly titrates off as one descends from the mountainous regions into a plateau of sage. Smooth, but for a few rolling hills, sage dominants this landscape with a small coiled curly look (like the hair of Togolese children). Rimming the sides are hills that slope upward only to crest like waves at the top with basalt columns, temples to immense lava flows that raged like Armageddon covering thousands of miles in fire and death and the seeds of a nutrient rich soil that millions of years later would give rise to fertile farmland and the sagebrush steppe.
Finally, following these shifting mosaics of the desert landscapes, one reaches Malheur. From ground generally more accustomed to the depredations of heat until the land itself becomes webbed in cracks, we encountered soft, boggy soil. Seeped in water from underground aquifers, snowmelt, wet clouds that hit the mountainous hills before us and we forced to shed some water weight in order to surmount them, the land has become a paradise for birds.
Greater sand hill cranes, Canadian and snow geese, swans, shoveler ducks (forced to exist under a misnomer when they actually look like spilled painter palates), buffleheads (small black ducks with large white heads), and even innocuous coots with their lumpy black bodies punctuated by a small orange bill. There is a profusion of birdlife, wings constantly flower open and lift small bodies and large ones, black bodies and white ones, into the air, soaring over the enigma of lakes in the desert.
This is a rugged land. Brown hills imposing with their desolation dominate a landscape that once held semi-nomadic tribes of Indians, the Wada’tika, or Wada eaters named for the seed they ingested seasonally. Now, their ruins have been plundered for publishing and scientific articles were written upon the pockmarked land, the trace only trace of their villages are depressions filled with wild rye and the rushing winds. The signs of native peoples are subtle, slight depressions that held tepees or huts, and the petroglyphs that meld into the rocks until one moves close enough to see strange symbols and pictures. We found images of lizards, owls, one of a pregnant woman with pendulous breasts, others of antelope or sheep, messages and communications that we can only guess at. Even in such an inhospitable landscape people survived and thrived and left their traces.
Walking in deep canyons the promise of discovering these hidden mysteries is tantalizing. Every turn one scans the red and yellow washed walls of the basalt cliffs and columns for a sign. Still, in the sunlight, the lichen speckled walls of the canyon remind me of children playing in paint, an unthreatening warm feeling, rather different from their appearance at a distance.
Walking through these intimidating hills we saw coyotes, pronghorn antelope in Heart mountain wildlife refuge (antelope are anachronistic because they evolved with the two species of American cheetah, now there is nothing that can catch them as adults), mule deer with rich tan coats and shy white bottoms, marmots who look fat no matter what time of year and jackrabbits with long self-conscious ears. Last night even, there were deer that roamed outside of the little cabin we had rented and we watched them methodically graze only a few feet from our windows.
But, back to the hills. In the hills, once one begins walking on the ground one discovers the flowers that were previously unseen, the wild heather, the desert parsley, the prairie buttercup. I love that. It’s like the closer and closer one gets to the hills the more beautiful and beautiful they become. It’s exactly how I approach my human relationships. Outside appearances may belie an overwhelming amalgam of minute beauty, carpeting the drab or ordinary exterior.
Looking out from our window I can see now the marshes and lakes that adorn this area each so incongruous, as if somehow a concentrated clutch of miracles spilled out under the sun. Before the lakes there are yellow fields of grass broken by paint strokes of blue-green sage, red dogwood and wild rose, and orange willow and brush. Finally at the edge the sage and juniper climb up the hill, the sage creating a wispy almost sea-like green fog wrapping around the base of the juniper trees whose small stature (for a pine-like tree) makes the sagebrush seem larger.
In a way the golden sands of the grasses seems to stretch until it collides with the dark brown jagged legs of the hills, the grass is soft, round and warm looking, where the hills are sharp and jut out aggressively. Yet, as one approaches the hills without comparing them to grasslands, or the forests, one realizes that they are beautiful, they are warm, and they have an indefatigable allure.


About wwmaier

Me, my guitar, and a funky little place called Togo.
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