In the NE corner of Oregon in Wallowa County lies a little visited wonder known as the Zumwalt Prairie. I recently returned from a five day writing workshop in this remote place and still memories swirl in my mind like the prairie wind.
This 330,000 acre bunchgrass prairie remains largely intact as the high elevation averaging 4,000 feet, poor soils, and harsh weather conditions made it unsuitable for the plow. This was a summering ground for the Nez Perce tribe before white settlers and broken treaties ultimately exiled them from their lands. This land is still home to a plethora of wildflowers, elk, deer, badgers, bird, and insect species, many of them threatened.
The Nature Conservancy owns and operates 36,000 acres of this land. It’s a nature preserve but part of its mission is to work with the local ranchers integrating them with their mission of conservation work which includes biological inventories, ecological monitoring and preserving biodiversity. It’s a partnership with conservation and private interests. Careful grazing management is part of the picture. The Nature Conservancy field station was a farmstead abandoned years ago as the harsh conditions of hot summers, frigid winters, poor soil, and remoteness made it too difficult to farm.
I just returned from this remote place, one of the lucky few to be able to experience a week up at the Nature Conservancy compound as one of the participants of “Outpost” sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writer’s organization located in Enterprise, Oregon. Outpost is designed to connect writers to the natural world with a teacher who publishes in the same genre paired with a naturalist who has in-depth knowledge of the area. We were so fortunate to have Kim Stafford, author, and Oregon’s former poet Laureate as our teacher, and Janet Hohmann, our local Naturalist extraordinaire. After being canceled by the pandemic in 2020, we were all anxious to be there.
This was a summer camp for writers in love with the land. We left civilization and cell phone service for five days of magic. After pitching our tents on the prairie we began our time exploring our relationship to this place. At first glance, the bunchgrass prairie seems like an undulating landscape devoid of life but look closer and the wildflowers come into view among them penstemon, salsify, clarkia, and skyrocket. Butterflies were close by. Listen and the many sounds of birds will meet your ears – most notable the meadowlark and snipe,(I finally saw one) and in the evenings, nighthawks. A great horned owl kept watch from the hayloft of the barn. Barn swallows nested in the eves of the buildings and were ever-present overhead with their acrobatics.
Daily we were treated with walks in the morning with Janet Holman who decoded the landscape for us and then writing sessions with Kim. Kim is not only an amazing poet and writer, but he brings with him a mysticism of storytelling and wisdom I’ve never experienced, teacher or not. With a variety of prompts, we were encouraged to explore the stories of the landscape and mingle them with our own. He challenged us to go deeper and deeper into our writing by taking one phrase out and ask “so what” and write further about that- then repeat the process, again. Each of us was to find a special place and go there and write every day. I should also mention that our day was also punctuated by lovely meals prepared by our wonderful cooks, Ingrid & Emily.
In the evening we shared our writing in a circle. This workshop was not about finished work – just explorations. Critiques were not given unless asked for. We responded to each reading with just a “thank you.”
We also spent a fair time learning about the Nez Perce, the native peoples who once occupied this land, but later pushed off by white interests and broken treaties. On a field trip, we visited one of their summering areas, some of the ponderosa pines still bearing the marks where their hatchets dug into the thick outer bark to harvest the inner sap of the cambium layer. You could almost hear their pony’s tails swishing as they grazed in the meadows long ago.
This was such a special time of connecting our stories into the landscape of the prairie and connecting with the other participants all of kindred spirit. We are all back now in our daily lives. Kim encouraged us to spend a “prairie hour” when we could into our busy lives.
This retreat was life-changing for me, affirming the value of my writing, the importance of being a voice for the landscape, connecting me with others, and reminding me of the power of spending time alone with my pen among nature.
Leave the busy city of your life—
with its grid of street and calendar,
its parade of constricting comforts, calls
and messages, self-conferred imperatives—
to dwell for a time in refuge somewhere
out beyond the known world, at the end
of a dusty road, past the last sign, and find
your realm of sacred silence, whole days
in the hour before dawn to see your chance
in a fresh light, to finger Braille on a stone,
to watch a cloud glide slow to fade,
to saunter forth by whim, hungry for hints
in the swaying grass, tracks in dust, to savor
threads of song from the sky, and settle
for the night where stars can find you.
After, when they ask where you’ve been,
go there in your mind and let them ponder your far look.
The Voices of the Prairie Speak to Me
My eyes open to the song of a meadowlark
They close to a lullaby of coyotes
I ramble to the chirp of crickets
Two red tail hawks skyward
pierce me with their wild cries
the call of the wren
the swish of prairie grass
the sighs of defeated settlers
the beat of ancient drums
Photos courtesy Outpost 2021 participants