Ellen Waterston's ONDA Keynote

The Oregon Natural Desert Association (www.onda.org) dedicated its annual conference to the celebration of the 50th birthday of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Invited to give a keynote the last day of the conference I chose to recognize this birthday by also acknowledging another birthday, the first year of the Oregon Desert Trail created by ONDA and "christened" by its first thru-hiker in 2013. I hope you find this talk thought-provoking.

Fall Desert Blooms Yellow

   (by Ellen Waterston)

 Monsterous jagged compound-fractures, undressed

wounds, bleeding titans, ghouls and gargoyles, 

their thousand rock mouths scoured round by wind and water. They whistle oooh in unison, as time 

passes across welded tuff lips, oooh to behold at their feet the display

of impermanent hue, desert blonde and dizzy,  

rabbit brush’s fall flavesence, canary song, lemon chiffoning trailside. How gay, these frilly Rockettes, in the morning mist 

a desert ruche of jonquil and cream; midday hawking their sere brightness of value to sluggish bees weighing their daytime efforts

against recent cold; and with the scrim of evening, chroma jazz, a riff  of dark

goldenrod in the gloaming. Soon this flaxen celebration will end, the telling pallor 

confirming this season’s blooms are past


Good morning everyone.  That poem was inspired by a hike I took, led by ONDA Board member Julie Weikel, through Leslie Gulch on the Oregon Desert Trail this time last year. Thank you, Julie. And thank you Brent, Corie and all associated with ONDA…for the opportunity to share some of the musings and questions that figure in High Road, the manuscript I am currently working on.

And thanks to all of you who gathered here this morning before heading out into the desert to “think like a canyon”, as Jarold Ramsey so eloquently writes, your minds and imaginations filled by Dr. Roderick Nash, Professor John Leshy, not to mention the illustrious members of each of Friday’s panels. And hey, I’m okay with being the caboose…really, I am… trailing behind the others. I am FINE…Actually I am because it is the subject of trailing, trail- making, the breaking, the blazing of trails (one in particular) that I’d like to talk about.  

Yesterday we sang happy birthday to the Wilderness Act marking 50 years of taking action on behalf of wilderness and its preservation. Today I’d like to change the birthday tune to one with simpler lyrics, not so fraught with contradictions, with oxymorons such as “wilderness management”, “experimental forests”, “commercial wilderness”.  Help me find my way out of this semantic maze.  Because I want to understand, to do the right thing, as we all do. Dr. Roderick Nash comes to the rescue, puts it into perspective (and I quote): “Preserved wilderness is a gesture of restraint on the part of a species notorious for its greed.” Praise be to the gesture and those who have struggled to articulate it.  Curses on the greed. Now we’re left to manage, protect, preserve what’s left.  Rationed wilderness. The zoo-ing of the wild. The safari-ing of the pristine. Enough access in a variety of forms to keep us inmates on this crowded planet from starving or rioting, enough opportunity to sip the nectar that contact with wild places provides our psyches, but not so much that what is left of the primeval is utterly devastated.  

Yes, after listening to the Wilderness Act birthday tributes I’ve opted to sing a simpler birthday song.  An uncomplicated one.  Straightforward.  Start here, go there.  Start humming in Jordan Valley, crescendo up and over the Steens, chant your way through the volcanic Badlands outside of Bend. Or the other way around.  Whichever point you choose to begin, you will be treated to vistas of canyon-lands, gulches, escarpments, playas; you will hear the warble of the meadowlark greeting the dawn, the gargle of the raven, the huffing of a startled antelope; you will smell the perfume of sage daubed on the wrist of the afternoon after a desert rain, the dank, fecund bouquet rising off the rivers at dusk.  

What is this other, simpler birthday song that I’m referring to? It’s the one that celebrates the first thru-hike of ONDA’s 800 mile Oregon Desert Trail by Sage Clegg in June, 2013. It took her 37 days. Trail made real. From concept to reality.  It just goes to show how dangerous a sleepless night can be…ONDA Executive Director Brent Fenty claims the notion of the trail came to him during a bout with insomnia and he started imagining the hike he’d like to do through the desert he loves.  No, he didn’t wake up with visions of the bo tree, or stone tablets…rather with the idea of O.D.T. The maps are now on-line.  Blog posts by subsequent thru-hikers (five so far!!) are available at ONDA’s site including Shane Von Schlemp’s who extolls, though doesn’t sugar-coat, the virtues of the month-long effort. Sage Clegg’s savvy and intrepidness is evident in her charming and matter-of-fact instructional video about making a camp cook stove out of a cat food can. Thank you for this trail, Brent! I think Adrienne Rich had you in mind when she wrote:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.”          

This notion of “restraint” that Dr. Nash describes.  Could it be that the inaccessibility and arduousness of this trail is another form of a gesture of restraint...that difficulty of access is a useful quality when knighting certain areas as wild and scenic. Could it be that, once introduced, the idea of the possibility of access to “new” wild areas wields an influence the value of which should not be overlooked? What do I mean?  Likely most of us here today won’t do the thru-hike, rather prefer only to explore, as I have, some of the more emblematic sections. And now that, as of the year 2000, we’ve entered the Digital Native generation, many will only experience nature virtually. Maybe that’s okay. That the trail—in fact and in concept—has been introduced has set something in motion, the gentle flap of the butterfly wing that results in a hurricane of change. Imagine the O.D.T. as a slight wave of the hand that ultimately propels the preservation and protection of wild places that the Wilderness Act advocates. Even if we never set foot on the Oregon Desert Trail, it has now been entered and filed in our imaginations and that it has, it’s my opinion, contributes to a greater awareness and appreciation of the need for wild things and places. That the notion, the concept of this trail has been brought into existence indelibly shapes our thinking, infiltrates our point of view, regardless of our age, our politics, of which arm chair we’re expounding from.  

I recently concluded a retreat at Playa on Summer Lake, Oregon and among other resident artists luxuriating in uninterrupted time to create was photographer Terri Warpinski.  She used her residency to complete a book of her images, to expand her portfolio of desert photographs but also, every day, either to keep her sanity or because she had lost it while so immersed in her art, she would walk out into the vacant stare of the playa adding a few more black volcanic rocks to a straight line she was drawing across the gray, brittle, cracked elephant hide of the dried lake bed. Those of us artists in residence paid it little mind…at first…but then, in conversations over dinner, this “trail” of rocks began to engage us. When I first noticed it I assumed it was a fence line. That didn’t make sense. Footprints?  Eventually we learned it was Terri’s creation. Did the line of rocks go to the far shore? Why was Terri doing it? How did she get the rocks there? These musings in and of themselves expanded our relationship with the playa whether we set foot on it or not. Although a few residents did, gave in to their curiosity, walked the Morse code of it as far as it went then turned around and came back; others kept going to assess the remaining distance to the far shore which, mirage-like, always remained a mile or so out of reach.  That’s what I did.  I walked past where Terri’s trail of rocks ended. Soon found myself running as though afraid, as though I wanted to get it over with, wanted to get to the other shore and then return to the security of the marked trail that had disappeared from view behind me. The absence of the rocks was unsettling to me somehow. No guide. On my own. Unmarked, uncharted, “wild” out there in the middle of that vast, inscrutable playa.  

Few of us, it turns out, are trailblazers. Most are willing to have an adventure, sure, but a handheld adventure. Most of us like to color, albeit wildly, inside lines someone else has drawn. That’s good news for the preservation of open and wild spaces. Wendell Berry writes in Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front “Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered…he has not destroyed.”  How about: Praise inaccessibility for what man has not accessed he can’t destroy. And limiting access is and will increasingly be the challenge…ATV’s are the least of it. Soon drones will carry our knapsacks… maybe even us, ingloriously suspended from a harness…to the top of South Sister.

When Sage Clegg finished her inaugural O.D.T. trek, she proposed linking some of the long hiking trails in the west. O.D.T. joins others such as Bigfoot, Idaho Centennial, Grand Enchantment, and Hayduke not to mention Appalachian Mt. Trail on the east coast and the Pacific Crest Trail in the west.  

Reflecting on this idea of an inter-connected network of trails, on Terri Warpinski’s line of rocks, on the Wilderness Act, on the need to protect wilderness from us, enforce restraint, curb the greed, I am reminded of an L. A. Huffman photograph from the late 1800’s depicting wranglers rounding up wild horses on Montana’s eastern grasslands…corralling the bucking, snorting cavvy within a single strand of rope suspended from temporary wooden fence posts: the suggestion of restraint, of corral, of holding, of containment, restriction.  As wild as the horses were, they respected it as though a five wire fence. The Oregon Desert Trail, all these trails, are like a single-strand rope corral, if you will, a metaphor for containment, for respectful conduct within an experience of wild places, preventing us from running willy-nilly through them. Keep us humans on designated paths, limit the scattering of the seeds of destruction we carry on our soles, within our souls .  

This zig-zagging Oregon Desert Trail is as long as it is in order to introduce hikers and sightseers to some of the most breathtaking areas of the high desert. Sounds simple enough.  Duly and grandly accomplished.  What renders this one year old’s birthday song less simple is when you realize the trail is also as long as it is because it goes to great lengths to avoid contact with privately owned land, to “avoid conflict with environmental and cultural resources, to avoid disturbing the soil of debate. 

It turns out O.D.T.’s birthday celebration is as fraught with challenges and contradictions as the Wilderness Act’s. The Wilderness Act and this fingerling, the Oregon Desert Trail, by their very natures run ahead of themselves, their creators, beg necessary questions, important and tenacious ones. As O.D.T. meanders through public and wild and scenic lands, skirting farms and ranches, this high desert camino touches on key concerns facing not just this sagebrush ocean but all wild places, concerns I would invite you to ponder wherever your hikes take you today: protection of sacred aboriginal ground, protection of habitat for endangered species, elimination of “predators” or invasive species, “wild” horse protection (a neighboring rancher on the Crooked River had a bucking string of horses and when they wouldn’t buck anymore he’d turn them out on the Steens…wild, alright), how about grazing “rights” for livestock, hunting “rights”, water “rights”, demand for recreational land for motorized vehicles and ATV’s as distinct from low impact recreational uses, what about drones? What about the commercialization of wilderness. Doesn’t it invoke the greed factor Nash referred to even if in connection with preserving wild places? One of the panels yesterday was titled “Wilderness, Good for Business”.  Wilderness as commodity, to be sold, consumed according to rules that “preserve” it, keep it wild? Just sayin’. And tourism…it doesn’t extract anything? Doesn’t degrade a natural resource?

These issues and others meet head-on at various intersections along the trail. Solutions that work for all concerned are elusive, charged, complicated. The O.D.T. touches literally on key concerns and excites broader philosophical musings. After all, what is wild? Who says grazing is a right? Who says it isn’t? What is the highest best use of public lands? Whose pet “narrative” is influencing policy decisions?  Is a trail (or wilderness area) the imposition of a particular point of view?  Is a designated trail, a designated wilderness a good thing, a natural thing…or a line in the sand, an intrusion, a disruption to a landscape?  Could it be an avoidance, a form of denial?  William Cronon, author of “The Trouble With Wilderness” cautions: “idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home.”  He encourages us to see wildness in our own backyards.  The mighty Charles Bowden, who died on September 3rd,  put it more bluntly, as was his wont. “Environmentalism,” he said “is an upper-middle-class, white movement aimed at absolution and preserving a lifestyle with a Volvo.”  In Bend that would be a Subaru. And finally, just what IS a weed? Are medusa head, carp (considered a food source by some but currently being buried alive in mass graves at the Malheur Refuge), sage rats all equal in the kingdom of weeds? In the end, aren’t we, as humans, given our exponential proliferation, our invasiveness, our devastation of air and land, the worst weed of all?  

 One candle left burning.  Before you blow it out, what’s your wish?

 I close with a poem titled 

The Next to Last Question

    (by Ellen Waterston)

It’s no longer hope

that gets me up

in the morning,

but the alarm

that sounds.


Do Eskimos have a right

to ice? Will my grandsons grow

gills to live

under glacial melt?


Does my pleasure

in this groaning

board require

my ignorance? 

It’s tithing time. Here’s mine.

With words for seeds

I’ll choose a plot of desert

and write it, write it back to health.


Thank you.