First, a quick public service announcement: I got a temporary full time job over the summer doing mental health counseling at my old internship site, and so I’ve closed my art commissions list for the time being. You can read more at the link, but in short, I’m really excited about the job. It’s been wonderful working more in service with the non-human end of my community, but this will reconnect me with serving my human community (in more capacity than making artwork and writing things for them). Actually, let’s make it a pair of PSAs, since I wrote earlier this month about ethics and consuming animals: here’s a Kickstarter for those who want to support a more ethical approach to omnivorism. Now, on to the main event!
**********************So earlier this week my friend Emily and I escaped to the desert of Eastern Oregon to explore the John Day Fossil Beds. Neither of us had been there, and since my upcoming job will be keeping me in town during the week, I’m trying to get as much further-away travel done before it starts next month. We decided an overnight trip would be enough for this first excursion, and so she dragged me out of my apartment bright and early on Monday morning.
It would be impossible to describe to you every wonderful moment of this trip. We started our journey with a stopover at the Bridal Veil post office to give this ghost town survivor some much-needed business, and to stretch our photography muscles for the trip. Our journey through the Columbia River Gorge and then south into the desert was puncuated by windmills, abandoned houses, and many stops to marvel at vistas and break out the cameras. We managed to achieve the trifecta–we visited the Painted Hills, Clarno, and Sheep Rock units, and were able to explore each in some detail. We went to the Cant Ranch with its century-old house and rusted-out tractors, and we stayed the night in Dayville, Oregon in a little cabin guarded by two of the least threatening Golden Retrievers ever. We hiked in the Blue Basin surrounded by towers of azure-tinted tuff, and Emily watched as I scrambled down a river slope to investigate an elk skull a hunter had left behind. We thoroughly investigated the paleontology center, and each came out with a postcard adorned with fossil skulls. We came home on the 84 accompanied by a lengthy sunset in the Gorge and a half-moon surrounded by stars. In short, it was just about as perfect a trip as we could have hoped for.
People speak about the desert being lifeless. Those of us who have been there and who pay attention know better; it thrives, in clear and radiant defiance of the threat of scant water and harsh weather. We saw our first black-billed magpies and I snapped a picture of a Say’s phoebe. There were ravens and vultures and ospreys galore, robins and juncos and even a wayward Canada goose. I saw what might have been a pronghorn walking through the sagebrush in a dry creek bed. And the “alert” put into effect by the park–that we must be notified of the presence of wildflowers–served to introduce us to the local flora. Purple silky lupine and bright yellow balsamroot vied for attention among rabbitbrush and juniper berries, and as the days warmed up the piquant scent of the sage filled the air. Even a few hardy lichens flattened themselves against the rocks like dried crusts of paint daubed by an itinerant artist cleaning her brushes after completing the masterpiece of the Hills.And, of course, there’s the human life. Not much evidence remains of the original indigenous people who made a living in these exact spots, though we drove home through lands owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Picture Gorge is named for the pictographs left by some of the original inhabitants. The Cant Ranch exhibits, though mainly concerned with the primarily Scottish immigrants who settled in the area in the 1800s, did allude some to the people they displaced. Both populations are impressive in their own way–the one for having created a way of life here for such a long and sustained time, and the other for managing to thrive even when dropped into the harshest environment many had ever experienced. I admit, though, that I felt a lot of frustration for the proliferation of fences along almost every road, warning off anyone of any descent from crossing over into “private property”. All these mesas and hills to be climbed and explored, and yet we were limited to the few trails in the Fossil Beds units. The human story, it would seem, is punctuated by barbed wire, even in its most open and rambling pages.
What struck me most about our trip, though, was just how evident the geological story is. The Fossil Beds are unique in that erosion has bared the layers of millions of years, sedimentation and lava flows and ash falls and flooding. You can look at a high peak like Sheep Rock and read the strata like a prehistory book. When you realize the highest crags of mesas near Picture Gorge are where the valley floor was seven million years ago, and everything has eroded since, you can imagine how high the ground would have been above your head now, and wonder at the immense span of time that it took to build up those landforms in the first place. All those millions of years alluded to in books and documentaries are set into stone here.
I and others have often referred to watersheds as the hearts of bioregions. This is true; however, the (literal) bedrock of the watershed is the geology. Everything else in a bioregion–where the rain goes once it falls and whether it collects anywhere, what the weather and climate patterns are like, what flora and fauna can live there, etc.–all these are determined in large part by the geology of the place. The landforms in and surrounding the bioregion are the canvas upon which everything else there is painted. So it is in the desert. Forty-four million years ago, the places we visited were a lush rain forest, and the fossils from that time reflect that. The uplifting of the Cascade mountains to the west created a rain shadow later that began the process of desertification, compounded by multiple and varied volcanic activities in the area over time. From rain forest, the land changed to deciduous hardwood forest, then grasslands, and finally to the sage-and-juniper-studded desert of today.
Most of the time, the layers of ages are buried far beneath our feet, accessible only through the occasional cave or road cutaway, or the fieldwork of geologists (when funding permits). We don’t think about anything but the top layer, the part we think is the main player in our lives. But each stripe of soil and rock rests on another; it’s terra all the way down. Isn’t that the way it is with us, too?I hope the desert with all its layers, visible and hidden, survives us. I have never seen so much land with so few roads; even in the Midwest rural areas where I grew up the spaces between towns was netted by county roads all over. Here, there were thousands upon thousands of acres broken up mainly by the barbed wire, a few roads, and the occasional agricultural endeavor. I hope I never live to see the Fossil Beds surrounded by cookie-cutter houses and billboards advertising new subdivisions “for those wanting to escape the city!” Here there are more than just traces of wilderness, more than just a scant reminder of what the land looked like before humans exploded into seven billion. And yet even I fall prey to the shifting baseline problem–my baseline is of sagebrush scrublands cut with fences and two-lane highways, grazed by cattle and sheep, and encroached upon by cheatgrass and the invasive tumbleweed produced by prickly Russian thistle. Three hundred years ago, only the sagebrush was here; the rest were yet to come. What to me might seem like an impossible walk back in time would be, to others, not just preservation but restoration.
I leave you with a few more pictures (as with all of the, you can click them to get bigger versions); in another century will these represent something long-lost? Perhaps if most of us can visit the desert and then kiss it good-bye again, rather than insisting on cohabitation, there will be the chance of continued hospitality without being ungracious guests.