Sunday, May 1, 2022

Malheur Country: Birding, Historical Structures, and Views


"Wear boots. Knee high. It can be muddy around the ponds." Such was the advice of Steve, a gracious ranch-owner in the Malheur area of Harney County in Eastern Oregon. Steve had invited my friend Nancy and me to visit and bird on his property. (Yes, bird is a verb.)

The ponds on his property were host to several hundred American coots and various species of ducks. The birds moved from pond to pond as Nancy and I circled the dikes walking on dry alkali-coated roads. There was also some mud, but Eastern Oregon is experiencing a severe drought.  


Over the five days of traveling from Walla Walla, Washington, through John Day to Burns, Oregon, and then to our lodging in the town of Hines next to Burns, and back, Nancy and I counted eighty-two species of birds. This is the season of spring bird migration and we were not disappointed. We saw thousands of snow geese and dozens of sandhill cranes.

Do you see the two sandhill cranes?

Many birds were in surprising numbers: white-crowned sparrows, yellow-headed blackbirds (my favorite), black-necked stilts, and cinnamon teals. Some of our rarer birds were a Virginia Rail, a pied-billed grebe, an eared grebe, a common loon, and a fleeting glance at a burrowing owl.

In old homesteads in stands of cottonwoods, we saw great horned owls and even one nesting in the cliffs on Steve's ranch.

Our best sighting of great horned owls was in the Peter French historic round barn. To digress from birds a moment, this area became a ranching magnet in the latter part of the 1800s led by a man named Peter French. Peter built this round barn for winter use.

The barn is one-hundred-feet across with an interior wall of stone, sixty-feet across, punctuated by windows. Inside the interior wall foals were born, while in the outside circle wild horses were trained to pull wagons.

A pair of nesting great horned owls had taken up residence in the peak's beams. You can see one owl on the lookout in the upper left and the ears of a second in the huge nest in the lower right.

Wild horses are still gathered in the area. BLM has corrals where horses and burros are fed and eventually sold. It was difficult not to come home with a horse or a burro. 


It is impossible to wander Harney County and not notice evidence of old ranches and homesteads, many still running, but some abandoned. Stands of cottonwoods marked where houses once stood.

An orange basketball hoop attached to a tree was evidence of more recent occupation at this homestead.

Fences, some of woven sticks, mark old corrals.

There is beauty everywhere—sites of hardwork and tenacity.

Hines, where we stayed in what I thing was one of the 128 mail-order houses which were constructed for mill workers back in the 1920s, has its monument to ambition. Besides the carefully planned community of houses that still has an inviting neighborhood feeling, the mill owner commissioned an elegant hotel. Unfortunately, the timing was poor coming up on the Depression, so the concrete hotel named The Ponderosa never opened its doors. 

The Ponderosa

Our mill house lodging had been rennovated and was absolutely lovely. Tourism is the new mill work.

The drought is tough on ranchers. Everywhere we went, locals mentioned their concerns of drought, of low wages, or lack of help. At the Frenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen south of Burns, the restaurant was quiet. Nancy and I were the only lunch customers. The hotel is owned by the National Park Service and will be open for an operating bid this next year. The current operator has been there for decades and is retiring. Finding help has been a recent problem. Fortunately the Frenchglen Mercantile two doors down is expanding into a former many-windowed porchlike room. An energetic local woman is making it into upscale coffee shop with couches, a woodstove, and local art for sale. The hotel's eight rooms are nearly fully reserved from now into next fall. Might any of you be interested in relocating and becoming a hotelier? The position comes with a room of your own!

You could even be a cook! The Frenchglen Hotel has a kitchen for serving meals for the hotel guests.

The Mercantile had a good selection of attractive items. This is Nancy, my best birding partner. We both bought something pleasing at the Mercantile.

I certainly felt sorely tempted to stay in Malheur country. What I found appealing was the immense solitude and the long views. The beauty is at every turn from the panoramic to the macro. 

And of course the wildlife is intriguing. 

Not sure what this species is called. Steve, have you selected a name yet?

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Reflections of a Ukrainian Sky, Musings on War

As the earth rotated four times, Ukrainians saw the same sky seen reflected here in the windows of a Walla Walla building before those citizens looked up towards its early morning light and heard blasts and the whine of incoming bombs. Backing away from the glass of their windows, reluctant to turn away from the sight of their beloved buildings and neighborhoods, the Ukrainian citizens moved to their home’s windowless rooms or down to basements and designated subway stations—where they learned to make Molotov cocktails.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could see in the sky a reflection of what has happened in the lands over which it earlier passed. Or if at least, the sky’s atmosphere would carry in its breathe the holler, the whimper, the shimmer, and the dust of such tragic events as the miscalculations of men instigating wars. The sounds from elsewhere raining down on those of us here might just detour us from thinking we too can covet what is not ours.

The building in the photo above was constructed in the mid-1930s, post WWI and prior to WWII. Mostly it has been an unremarkable building, a car dealership on the back of Main Street. As it is being renovated for some new endeavor, it is looking good. Its western-facing plate glass windows clean and gleaming in the day’s “cloudy with sun” forecast. It hasn’t and likely won’t be blown apart. All of us have turned into and pulled up that asphalt drive to park in the back lot and visit the candy store, toy store, frame shop or the latest restaurant where Merchant’s used to be. The storefronts and restaurants flip occupants, but none violently like those in the Ukrainian cities which will change by necessity as they are overtaken or bombed by Russian aggression. 

There is much debate as to whether the relatively peaceful last few decades is an aberration or if the human race is moving towards a greater peace. I wonder if when we look down at our cell phone's news with the phone’s screen reflecting the sky above, the visions will contain the echoes and scenes sufficiently awful to convince us to be done with the necessity for those occasional internet searches for Molotov cocktail recipes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

My Word for 2022: Juxtaposition



Whoever placed the roof drain directly over the electrical boxes or placed the electrical boxes under a roof drain probably never heard of ironic juxtaposition nor expected a woman leaving her dentist appointment some decades later to be delighted with the humor and beauty of the iced version of their handiwork. The date of this color-infused photograph is January 4th, 2022. Perfect timing for me to choose a word for this year.   

I am responding to a challenge from The New York Times to select one word. My word for the year. As they point out, when you make a New Year’s Resolution, you are expected to try and complete it. A single word doesn’t have to have the same obligation. If I chose the word diet or heal, I might feel obligated, but there are so many words that lack any compunction to be doing anything. And yet be useful in all seasons.   
My inclination was to choose a word whose sound I liked. Amenable. Serendipitous. Intricate. Silly. Any of these would do, but with the alley view of a potential disaster in mind, I settled on juxtaposition. The Oxford English Dictionary describes juxtapose in this way: Place (two or more things) side by side or close to one another; place (one thing) beside another.

Although I could be compelled all year long to place things side by side (word by word, cocoa by cookies, pens by paper), the word juxtaposition implies that the placing has already been done. My only obligation will be to notice.  

My wry sense of humor encourages me to consider all juxtaposition as ironic. "Ironic juxtaposition is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, each commenting on the other.” according to Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools. I don’t intend to limit myself. After all, I am supposed to have only one word. However so far most of the things I have noticed in January are of an ironic nature. Like the cake and pastry containers above seemingly advertised with a Beer/Wine sign. 

And here are snow-layered heaters looking like elegant Parisian women modeling their hats out in front of the French restaurante Brasserie Four. Snow on heating elements. Score one for winter.

Natures placement holds so many possiblilites. Here is Eeyore on the run—ice laid on rocks. 

I’m set. I'm on the lookout for placements both intentional and serendipitous. Word placed by word, thought by thought, the footfall of one human by the footfall of another. The juxtaposition of things in time and the circumstantial placement of nature in all her ways.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Walking Alleys in the Time of Covid-19—Bizarre? Or Normal?

The Covid-19 pandemic—like every pandemic that has plagued humanity—has turned normality akilter, brought grief where none existed, and challenged man’s capacity to be generous in adversity. What on ordinary days might seem bizarre, becomes normal: quarantining in a parent’s basement with meals left at the door like it is a prison cell, the storing of bodies jumbled in refrigerator trucks with each corpse’s existence reduced to the accuracy of its identity tag, and some men proud to wear football helmets, gun holsters, and jock straps can’t find their own courage when it comes to pulling a scrap of cloth over their mouth and nose. Mothers, unlike my own who died in the polio pandemic when I was a one-year-old (only two years before the polio vaccine was available), stand on street corners with their children in tow, all mask less, waving anti-vaxxer signs, seemingly oblivious or pretending to be oblivious to the hazard of their ill-formed campaign—politically driven and opposing the very science their child is supposedly learning in school. Yes, the bizarre normal.

The photo above of buildings in Walla Walla, Washington, certainly has an eerie feeling. The pavement appears to be clouds and the words in the water’s reflection should be reading backwards. Bizarre, yes. That I have recently taken a break from walking my familiar wooded canyon (where I wandered mostly alone these past two years) and instead spent hours walking the alleys of my hometown, peering into gutters is both bizarre and normal. Bizarre, because who walks alleys? And normal because I have become accustomed to looking for the beautiful or unusual—slow-walking through a pandemic and welcoming what comes.   

On Christmas Eve day, the drive-thru lane in the alley behind Baker Boyer Bank saw a crisp business, so I dodged cars while stopping to admire the blue sky reflected in the runoff from a nearby building. I loved the authority of the white line, its certainty solid in an uncertain time. 

Examine this photo. Although it could be construed as a painting, it isn’t. Pebbles embedded in an alley’s pavement read through the water of the puddle as paint blotches. The ordinarily unnoticed electrical conduits attached to the back of a building act as an artistic element, guiding the viewers eyes up and back down. I’ve passed by this spot hundreds of times and never slowed to see the beauty at my feet. This is the bounty of pandemic time. 

One of my ninth great grandfathers immigrated in 1635 to Massachusetts from a village in England called Boxted. When one of the many plagues swept through the village’s borders and threatened to kill everyone, those who were not yet contagious moved a short distance and hastily built a new town they called Boxted Cross. Think on this. What if this had been the solution for Covid-19? Would Walla Walla have come to be known as Old Walla Walla, and the new “town” Walla Walla Crossed?

I appreciate that many of our old Walla Walla buildings have survived earlier catastrophes or waves of use and disuse, of people moving about for whatever reason. I enjoyed isolating these building’s beauty in a world of pooled water or windowpanes.

I haven’t shied entirely away from popping into stores. 

Or walking down Main Street past its iconic clock.

On this last day of 2021, I can grieve for those whose lives were upended by this pandemic and I can hope this next year brings both a greater sensibility for and appreciation of our medical capabilities, along with a more generous consideration for the well-being of others.  

Let’s all be looking for new tracks, normal ones like the railroad tracks in front of Safeway on a snowy day. 

Let’s gather warmth like from the colors of alley walls and from the kindness of strangers, their eyes twinkling from above their masks. Let’s find our way back to normal.



Sunday, October 24, 2021

Images of a Coastal Trip Stored for Winter Browsing

When there is snow on the ground this winter and its dark in the canyon by 5 o'clock, sometimes I'll picture the coast as I saw it in late summer. I'll remember the the smooth glide of the seals under their brillantly-colored toys in the tank at the Newport Aquarium or the silly-looking seaside telescope surveying Nelscott Beach.

I'll remember the feel of the cool sand on my bare feet on the evening walk on Nelscott Beach or the hip pain of trudging through the thick white sand on the Oregon Dunes—each step sinking deep while the dune grass shadows beckoned us onward encouragingly. 

At Agate Beach I had to stand on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of Yaquina Lighthouse over the sand dunes that were level with my head as I walked down to the water. The lighthouse appeared like a white pencil tip stuck on the hills over the top of a dune. Can you find it?

A lighthouse is a beacon for tourists like me. During an earlier winter, the memory of the red and white lenses at the Umpqua Lighthouse warmed my thoughts. This summer I got to climb up into the lighthouse's cap of lenses and was bathed in a pinkish light. It was glorious!

Who isn't moved by the perpendicular lines of a lighthouse?

My sister and I visited the old Coast Guard Station house next to the Umpqua Lighthouse. We wandered it's rooms, and read tales of heroism. What vision will stay in my mind from visiting it, might you ask?  I think it will be the light and brush of leaves against a window—in the women's bathroom. Not a particularly historic spot, but stunning nevertheless.

During this winter's gloom-filled evenings, I'll also recall the colors of sea-nurtured life in a tidepool below Yaquina Lighthouse. 

And I'll remember the brillance of jellyfish—those washed ashore on beaches and those blue ones, perpetually floating in the water of a tank at the nearby Newport Aquarium. The jellyfish tossed on the sand by incoming waves can't survive outside the water. They act as prisms until their water-filled bodies drain and their skins' dissolve or are reclaimed by the sea.

If those images are not enough, there is always sunset at Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach. 

Maybe I should think about reserving a room on the beach in the January or February. It might not all be the color of winter fog gray and certainly not snow white.