Edge of Awe

After decades of living amidst the rain and cedar sentinels of her coastal farm, a longtime friend of mine has just moved with her husband and her horses to the dry side of Oregon.

She called me up before eight o’clock one recent morning, too thrilled with her new home to wait any longer to tell me about it.

“There’s so much light and sky!” she exclaimed.

At last, she is living in the kind of landscape she has dreamed about for years. She’s even unperturbed by the rattlesnake at her doorstep.

That kind of consonance with place is echoed this week in a new anthology from Oregon State University Press. Edited by Alan L. Contreras, a fourth-generation Oregonian, “Edge of Awe” gathers together the writings of biologists, birders, tourists and locals who may differ in many ways, but who all share an intensity of feeling for the Malheur-Steens area of southeastern Oregon.

That region is a land of paradoxes – it’s high desert, for starters, yet it hosts a vast marshland that is an essential stop for migratory birds following the Pacific Flyway.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge administrators undertook the development of a new management plan by talking – for years – with local folks who had potentially competing interests. They eventually came up with an approach that everyone agreed upon – a model kumbaya moment. But for a time in 2016 the plan’s implementation was interrupted when an armed, anti-government militia from out of state took over the Refuge.

That occupation seems to be what the place is most known for now. But perhaps this book of personal essays and poetry will help to turn things around. More than two-dozen contributors offer their unique reflections on this corner of Oregon and what it means to them.

Ursula LeGuin frequently visited Malheur-Steens during her lifetime, and this anthology includes not only three of her poems, but also some of her evocative pen and ink sketches of the region.

The late William Stafford’s poem, “Malheur before Dawn,” is an ode to the manifold miracles of these desert marshes. Each line is a polished offering of praise, with this couplet perhaps the most wonderful of them all: “Frogs discovered their national anthem again. / I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.”

But the landscape is enough to stir more hard-headed scientists to their own brand of eloquence, too.

Ira Gabrielson, appointed as the first head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940, positively gushed that “I have seen many spectacular concentrations of wildlife in various parts of the world, but nothing that I have seen since has dimmed the almost physical impact that the sight of Malheur Marsh made upon me….”

And decades later, upon his first visit to Malheur, field biologist Hendrik Herlyn is moved to superlatives by the “vast expanse of sagebrush country,” the “seemingly endless marshland,” and the “sheer magnitude of open space….”

“Edge of Awe” may well beguile you, too.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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