One of the best ways to get to know a place—if you can't live there and immerse yourself in its textures, rhythms and tastes, the cycles of its seasons, its sounds and smells, its characters and their stories—is to find a reliable guide. Not necessarily someone who has studied the place and can discourse exhaustively. Someone who has come by their knowledge by experience, some of it perhaps hard-won, some ruminated over for years, some in a burst of light as brilliant and deadly as lightning spearing down from a summer thundercloud.
Ellen Waterston is that kind of guide. In Where the Crooked River Rises, she paints a portrait of central Oregon's High Desert country, one of the West's "great empty places," a sea of sagebrush most people drive through in a hurry, eager to get somewhere (else). Waterston knows the high desert country as a rancher—that "eastern" girl who came west with her husband and ran the old Hackleman Place on the Crooked River of the book's title for nearly three decades; as a mother who bore and raised her children there; as a "desert rat" who eventually came to see the desert as teacher, as she writes in the Prologue:
I have found this Great Basin to be at times, a harsh teacher, but it has also been compassionate, humble, loving and in love, straight up and forward, all the things I strive to be in any given day. ... This high desert land repeatedly reminded me that my trajectory is one among many, not to take it too seriously. To hang out somewhere between the intention and the outcome, between the updraft and the down. To frame every wish as a prayer. To say thank-you more than anything else, no matter what. The sermon is not new, but the preacher, in a cassock woven of pumice and rabbitbrush and bunchgrass and volcanic rubble, is unexpected.
Waterston's breadth is unexpected. This collection ranges from an elegy for the ranch she and her former husband owned for many years, a place still resonant with her memories of "the joyful pell-mell of my mornings there, ranch hands at the breakfast table, a baby on my hip, a toddler and ranch dogs underfoot, my stomach swelling with new life, the sizzle of bacon and eggs" to "The Church of the High Desert," which encompasses UFOs, the tiny and simple country church that Waterston revived when she lived on the ranch, sweat lodges, and a Soto Zen center. A piece called "Cows Kill Salmon," explores the danger of not seeing the complexity of the high desert and its cultures. A poem honoring a famed coyote trapper and his wife is juxtaposed with a portrait of the founder of the conservation-minded High Desert Museum. If there's a flaw in the book, it's that very diversity: the transition between different pieces is sometimes abrupt.
But despite the diversity, through all these pieces runs a thread of regret, of pain, of loss—of home and voice—from Waterston's own history in this high and harsh and unexpectedly beautiful landscape. Regret is not the main subject of any of these immensely readable pieces, but it shapes her approach, her writer's voice. There's a sense that she's not finished turning the story of her contribution to the place and its culture over in her mind, not quite finished rubbing the rough edges off. That need to ruminate in this way on her own story is one of the gifts that makes this collection so thoughtful, so deep and so wide.
Ellen Waterston is the author of two collections of poetry, Between Desert Seasons and I am Madagascar, both of which won the WILLA Award for Poetry in 2009 and 2005 respectively. Her memoir, Then There Was No Mountain, was selected by the Oregonian as one of the top ten books of 2003 and was a finalist of the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her poem "Designed to Fly" was read by Garrison Keillor on Writers Almanac. She is founder and president of the Writing Ranch and founder and director of The Nature of Words. She ranched in Oregon's High Desert before moving to Bend, Oregon. Visit her website.
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