Monday, August 27, 2012
A Winning Essay
We're approaching that time of year here in Bend when The Nature of Words presents winners of its Rising Star competition with their awards. Last year I won first place in the nature essay category, and thought anyone still following this blog might enjoy reading it. It is very long for a blog post (about 1000 words), so please be patient.
The journey ended on a day of austere tranquility in Eastern Oregon’s rangeland, an ocean of land the color of cougar, resting in solitude under a cloudless October sky. From horizon to horizon in terrain unbroken save for an occasional clump of starved junipers, the bunch grass that fed sizable herds of cattle the previous spring and summer had been consumed, trampled, or frost-killed. The Black Angus and Hereford cattle that summered there, as well as their cross-breeds, were loaded onto rail cars two days earlier, heading for the Sacramento Valley where they would spend the next six months grazing on purple needle grass in a climate more hospitable than winter in the high desert.
A red-tailed hawk, surfing the wind currents overhead, was the last visible denizen of the season. As the hawk swooped low over the barren landscape, a steady wind dusted the surface of a paved but otherwise unremarkable road that sliced through the rangeland like a tarnished silver knife. Upwind from the road, a lone tumbleweed about the size of a bear cub bounded across the scant vegetation and over the crest of a gentle rise where it paused for a few seconds before leaping into the air and bouncing across the road. Strong-limbed, and with a few seeds left to sow, the tumbleweed rolled up the ditch bank into the waiting arms of a cluster of weeds with similar heritage, weeds stacked three feet deep against a barbed wire fence that shadowed the road as far as the eye could see. Though the thick pile of weeds made for a soft landing, when the thorny arms therein refused to let go, the hapless tumbleweed’s gypsy days were over.
It was a quiet demise, but what an adventure was had by this new member of the tumbleweed gang before losing its freedom on a sunny day that belied its fate. After blowing away from the Alfalfa, Oregon farm where it grew up, wind gusts sent the frisky weed rolling across a corner of the Badlands and down the western border of Bear Creek Buttes onto Highway 20 where it sat for less than a minute before a truck loaded with lumber hit it head on. Stuck in the truck’s grill, the tumbleweed was suddenly hitching a ride to who knows where, and it might have set some sort of tumbleweed distance record if the truck hadn’t hit a bump near Brothers and shook it loose.
The weed spent a day and a half, drifting or idling in what little remains of the community of Brothers, bouncing from place to place as the wind saw fit, finally rolling inside a ramshackle sheep shed with a door falling off its hinges and no way out. It remained in the dark, windless wreck of a structure for a week before a tourist ventured inside, and determined to go home with a memento from the old West, grabbed the weed by the stem end, carried it outside, and propped it against the side of the shed for a semi-authentic picture of a bona fide ghost town.
Free again after the fortuitous photo op, the tumbleweed somersaulted eastward, crossing patches of alkali, abandoned railroad tracks, half-buried boulders, and the dry bed of a creek with no name. When it passed a small herd of wild horses, a mare and her colt looked up, then lowered their heads again to feed on summer’s dwindling forage. The tumbleweed rolled across empty rangeland for another two days before bouncing into the weed pile that would turn out to be its final resting place—one of thousands of such tangles lining roads and highways in less-traveled parts of the West.
Although a nuisance to ranchers and farmers and an eyesore to many who drive through tumbleweed territory, these mounds of dried vegetation form an integral part of the high desert's ecological balance as shelter for lizards, quail, jack rabbits, field mice, spiders and other regional dwellers with precious few places to hide or nest. Coyotes, hoping to flush out a meal, can be seen sneaking along these stretches like hungry fence line riders, and snakes, camouflaged by the canopy of latticed shadows, will slither inside for a rodent snack or stop for a nap during the heat of the day.
A sympathetic passerby with an unfettered imagination might envision these long, lacy weed piles as huge crowds, anxiously pressed against the fence, even climbing on one another’s backs for a chance to catch a gust of wind and blow free; or dry old spectators, vying with one another for a better view of some titillating entertainment that plays in the adjoining field when no one’s around; or marathon runners, hunched at the ready, waiting for the signal to race with the wind like they did in their youth—try their legs again, see some new country, escape the confinement of their tightly-knit fraternity.
None of this happens, of course, and the piles grow deeper and longer with each passing summer, broadened by weeds blowing in and thickened by the plants germinating from the seeds they drop after they land. If the weeds in these piles weren’t lightweight and fragile, their encroaching mass might topple a fence and send tumbleweeds tumbling again; but with spikes not unlike those on the weeds themselves and strong enough to keep cattle in check, a barbed wire fence is a formidable barrier.
Over time, exposure to the elements and the harboring of tenants take a toll on the individual weeds in these piles, making them barely recognizable as the seed-spreading vagabonds they were when they snapped off their stems and started tumbling. Countless insect-infested summers and snow-laden winters eventually weaken their spines, and their sun-bleached branches become gaunt and barbless. After most of their spindly legs have been stolen for nests, the oldsters at the bottom of the pile collapse. They break up, turn to dust, and finally reach the other side of the fence in one last ride on the wind.