Homesick for nowhere

An Oregon man finds his sense of place in the Zumwalt Prairie.

 

Richard LeBlond is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. A former inventory biologist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, he grew up in Oregon.


There’s a place in the northeastern corner of Oregon that I’ve come to love: Zumwalt Prairie, between the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon. It supports one of the largest Buteo hawk breeding populations known on the continent, and contains the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America.

The prairie is a nearly treeless expanse of low hills, plains, and swales. Wildflowers are abundant among the grasses, and in early summer there is an excess of color, as if some sloppy god had spilled his paints. The grasses sway not only to the wind, but also to the scurrying of ground squirrels, badgers and gophers, and to the predatory swoops of hawks and eagles.

This fecundity appears to make no sense. The soils are poorer than dirt. Euro-American settlers found the rocky earth too difficult to convert to cropland, so they put it beneath the hooves of cattle. Though not native, the cows mimicked an essential natural process. In pre-Columbian times, the prairie likely was maintained in an open condition by fire and grazing elk. (As far as is known, there had never been bison on Zumwalt Prairie.) Elk were nearly extinct in Oregon by the end of the 19th century, and cattle more than adequately filled the role of primary grazer.

The Zumwalt Prairie is a cold white expanse in winter that bursts to life in spring.
Katie Rompala/Flickr

Crucially, some ranchers learned that restricting when and where cattle grazed maintained the prairie’s health. On several large tracts, no area was grazed during the same season in consecutive years, allowing the habitat to recover. Elk were reintroduced in the 20th century, and they now share the prairie with the cows. The Nature Conservancy reintroduced fire on its portion of the Zumwalt in 2005. The combination of grazing, manure, fire-created nutrients, nitrogen-fixing plants — and, ultimately, life’s tenacious ability to wrestle nutrition from the most meager of soils — has produced a marvelous diversity of plants and animals.

During a visit in early July 2008, I saw one of the most beautiful and prolific wildflower displays of my life. About five minutes after I got out of the truck, a coyote started yipping at me from a low hill about 300 feet away. He or she kept it up for about 10 minutes; no doubt I was messing with its dinner plans.

Corpulent ground squirrels were everywhere, and I kept stepping into badger holes — a disconcerting experience. It seemed impossible to scan the sky and not see a hawk or eagle. To the east, the prairie dipped down into the complex of gorges heading to Hells Canyon, and to the southwest I could see the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains over the shoulder of one of the Findley Buttes.

And the wildflowers were stunning. As I got down on my knees to try and identify them, I spontaneously said, “This is home.”

That afternoon, I went to the bookstore/espresso bar in the nearby town of Enterprise to browse and hang out. During one of my brief conversations with the owner, I mentioned my experience on the prairie earlier that day. She handed me a chapbook titled The Zumwalt: Writings from the Prairie, a collection of essays, poems and historical accounts. In an essay by local resident Jean Falbo, I found a passage that resonated with my experience on the prairie that morning. The essay is titled “On Becoming Native to Place.” 

“Before us was a herd of elk, perhaps two hundred animals. They stood tensely still, eyes on us and ears radaring in our direction. Some voiceless decision was taken and the herd moved down slope like a brown mudslide against the dark yellow green grass, gaining momentum as they went. A more distant herd on Findley Butte caught the message and started its own slide over the undulating land and disappeared from view. A bright evening star appeared. ‘This is A’gamyaung,’ one of my friends, a Central Yup’ik Eskimo, said. After a pause, he went on to say, ‘It means “I’m homesick for nowhere.” ’ Seeing we didn’t get it, he explained that at moments like these, his people said, ‘A’gamyaung’ — meaning to be at one with the universe, no matter where one might be physically.”

I know that feeling, and I am now a prairie volunteer. After 55 years of voluntary exile, I can now give something back to the state that raised me.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.