Place and Hope
What an honor to have the opportunity to share, with all of you, my deep affection for the high desert, for Oregon’s Outback, the sage steppe, the empty quarter, the cold desert, the back of beyond, cowboy country, the nothing but nothing, the sagebrush ocean, the great basin, the great sandy desert, the rolling sage plain, the Artemisia desert. Since the 19th century, us “settlers” have tried to name this place, and thereby, as is the fancy of settlers, to lay claim to it. But the enduring fascination of the high desert, and the reason its survival as a wild place is within reach, may well lie in the fact that this vast open can’t quite be named. It stays always one step ahead of the namers, luring us who would try deeper and deeper into its irresistible embrace. “Here” says Karen Shepherd, “it is possible to see a hawk and believe in magic.”
This desert, as some of the attempts at naming describe, is high and cold, because of altitude, desert because of low rainfall. As one old timer said: “Remember that time it rained forty days and forty nights? We got an inch and a half in eastern Oregon.” It’s a part of the world where evaporation exceeds precipitation literally and metaphorically, giving back more than it receives. The over eight million acre area in Central Oregon that ONDA is making its business includes the second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States, includes flora and fauna particular to and requiring this landscape, and affords some of the most remote locations in America, including the lower 48’s largest swath of roadless turf that should but doesn’t yet have federal protection. This according to New York Times’ reporter Tim Neville who will, apparently, never forget a trip he took with Brent into the Owyhee Wilderness Study Area last year. The high desert is a place of grace where sagebrush lives to be one hundred, hot springs, bubbling to the surface, signal earth’s molten center only 20,000 feet below. Though I come from a tight, stonewalled, densely wooded New England, I believe I was led to this desert because it could and would teach me what I needed to know. I was led to my personal geography of home and, as Wallace Stegner said, geography of hope.
This desert, thanks to ONDA, can avoid being one more region where “man carries on his old habits, makes his old mistakes until the naturalness of the place is demolished.” “Without wildness,” said David Brower of the Sierra Club, “the world is just that much closer to becoming a cage.”
I get that, do you? The feeling that more and more of experience is pre-packaged, wrapped in cellophane, interpreted, perfected, sanitized, and less and less is left to our imaginations, to discovery? The natural world reduced to Las Vegas-esque replicas of what was. Fake rain forests and volcanoes erupting under glass domes or, how about this, life-like video games operated by people who only have thumbs, as the need to chop and carry, to till and reap, has been replaced with the lone requirement to manipulate icons across a screen. Okay, I admit, I am getting carried away. And that kind of scare tactic, doomsday scenario is exactly what won’t accomplish what I believe to be one of the goals of those of us gathered here today.
We’re here because we love this desert. We have fallen in this particular kind of love because we know how. And we know how because we each have our own personal biographies of natural places, as Peter Forbes from the Center for Whole Communities refers to them, that taught us about falling in this kind of love. But just as wildness is an environmental endangered species, so too are those who have a close relationship with the natural world. How can we grow our numbers? It relies, it’s obvious, on engaging the next generation. Whatever you here today are armed with—pen, lens, brain, brawn— the task is to bring the next generation to the desert. “In the legends of the saints and the prophets”, Joseph Krutch writes, “either a desert or a mountain is pretty sure to figure. It is usually in the middle of one or on the top of the other that the vision comes or the test is met. To give their message to the world they come down or come out, but it is almost invariably in a solitude, either high or dry, that it is first revealed.” And we’ve got both the high and dry going for us!
What is the arc of your biography of place? Mine begins in Buzzards Bay and winds up on Twelve Mile Flat. Those places and all the points in between have shaped me. Had it not been for readily accessible harbors, woods and ponds as a child I wouldn’t have learned the vocabulary of stillness, contemplation, observation, the willingness to fall head over heels for something I couldn’t name. I wouldn’t have learned to look for the real and metaphorical understory in the forest or find the riverteeth, as author David James Duncan describes: the hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain after all else has been washed away.
Sure, everyone has a biography of place but increasingly for the young people of today it is the mall or video arcade, a paved-over playground or back alley, a carefully manicured soccer field or ski slope. The number of us with firsthand experience with the organized chaos of nature dwindles. And as the distance between us and nature grows, the less we care. Robert Michael Pyle’s now famous quote bears repeating: “People who care, conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known the wren?”
The Oregon natural desert. That it feels unnatural to so many who drive as fast as they can on Highway 20 just to get through it is the work of this gathering.
I live on the Deschutes River as it flows through Bend and every summer the river is full of people floating by. I’m asked: does it bother you? The noise and commotion? I was worried about the wildlife at first but given that a beaver removed three of my trees this spring and that an otter almost daily floats happily by on his back munching loudly on a crawdad, seemingly unfazed by the armada of rubber duckies, I think the wildlife is okay with the floaters. And my guess is that some of the groups and families with small children I see going by don’t do this sort of thing much—feel the pull of current, smell the water, speculate about things just beneath the surface. Sometimes, as they drift past my house, I notice they fall into a dreamy and reverential silence. That float is a short entry into their biography of place but an important one. So, no, I am not bothered by the noise and commotion. It’s a trade-off us recruiters have to be prepared for.
The next generation of young people. Peter Forbes advocates “a shift from saving places and species to saving ourselves.” That children are not in nature is, he feels, the call to arms, a motion seconded by the author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv. But how to do this? As a parent I learned the hard way. Demanding doesn’t work. Scare tactics don’t either. Story telling, Forbes and Louv and I agree, does. But we have to choose our stories carefully. David Sobel of the Center for Place-Based Education points out that all too often, “between the end of morning recess and the beginning of lunch, schoolchildren will learn that 10,000 acres of rainforest will be cut down. Then they’ll be told that by recycling their Weekly Readers and milk cartons they can help save the planet.” But will they want to? Not if, to paraphrase Sobel, they don’t know about the mysteries contained in the meadow behind their school and not if they’re repeatedly battered with bad environmental news from far away. They shut down. Avoid eye contact with nature. PTSD of the save-the-planet kind. They want to hang out where the electrical outlets are, not where a bull frog lives.
So if those of us here today first learn, as we have ample opportunity to do at this conference, then inspire the next generation through story and experience, there will be even more for ONDA to celebrate going forward. By giving children a biography of place they are simultaneously given a geography of hope.
Last April I walked a portion of the Camino Frances in Spain, an ancient pilgrimage route. People now walk the Camino for all sorts of spiritual and not-so spiritual reasons. For me it was a powerful experience on lots of levels, not the least of which was that my daily job was to walk through the countryside and look. Not only look, but see. Two quotes from Joseph Krutch I’d like to share: “What I am after is less to meet God face-to-face than to really take in a beetle, a frog or a mountain when I meet one.” And this: “The rare moment is not the moment when we see there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing.” Of all the ONDA projects, the Oregon Desert Trail, a 750 mile route through the Oregon Outback’s most scenic landscapes, excites me most. A high desert Camino, if you will. Whether hikers undertake long or short distances, each will be off on a walking meditation toward wonder, toward a deeper understanding of this beloved, unnamed-able place and themselves.
I close with a favorite poem of mine. Gary Snyder’s For the Children:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers