Postcard From Malheur

by Scott Latta

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In the ornithologist’s lexicon, there are twitchers, and there are dudes. Twitchers are the hardest of hardcore birders. Myopic. Obsessive. Romantic. “Twitchers,” one birding forum says, “might cross half the country overnight to see one tatty brown thing sitting half a mile away on a bleak expanse of mud.” Even among birders they’re rare. Having recently returned from The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, essentially the Bonnaroo of birding in Oregon, I can recall meeting only two. The first was a woman I passed on a dirt road, staring tenderly into an open field. I could tell she had spotted something beautiful, so I followed her sight line. The field was empty. The second was a man I saw standing outside a high school, his hands curled lovingly around his mouth, making goose sounds up into the sky.

Those of us comprising the other end of the spectrum (despite that women make up the majority of birders in this country) are the “dudes,” a slightly derogatory label for those who could never spot a black-bellied whistler from a fulvous whistler, but who can just about tell you a duck from a goose. In the dusty lonesome exile that is southeastern Oregon, for a few weeks every year, there is a type of Ornothologia grossus for the dudes, when the spring migration along the Pacific Flyway brings millions of arctic birds home from Patagonia, right over the town of Burns, where they stop for a bit in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. There I went, a dude among the twitchers, to see what a million birds looks like. It was also there, three months ago, that a group of political extremists bearing assault weapons broke into the Refuge and stayed for forty-one days.

Burns is the largest city in Harney County, Oregon, which itself is larger than six U.S. states. That doesn’t mean much; cattle outnumber people there by a factor of 14. The city is so deep into southeast Oregon that I would say it’s basically in Idaho, but it’s still 133 miles from Idaho. It’s the part of the West where things are so far away that they reset your idea of what far away means. I’ve put off friends because a restaurant was two miles from my house; people go fifty miles to split the difference there. It’s so remote that the man who checked me in at the Silver Spur Motel described what he was doing there as “hiding out” (I didn’t press). Burns feels more like an outpost than anything.

The word I heard most often in stories about the Refuge was “occupation,” a word with more than one layer. There was the occupation of Malheur Refuge, which the country watched for six weeks with a sort of curious bewilderment. But there was also the occupation of Burns, which started earlier and felt more personal. For weeks leading up to the Refuge occupation, hundreds of members of various western militias moved into Burns. They came to support Dwight and Steven Hammond, two local ranchers who were about to go to jail for burning federal land. They took up residence and made themselves visible, threatening people who felt differently. They stalked the sheriff’s elderly parents home from a yard sale. All of them — wherever they were, at every single moment of the day — carried guns, especially to the public forums where residents suggested they go home so their kids could go back to school. Few of them, however, actually went on to the Refuge. The taking of Malheur was a fringe-y political exhibition of states’ rights that never had a chance. But the occupation of Burns took over a city.

I went, as John James Audubon put it, to exchange “the pleasure of studying men for that of admiring the feathered race.” In other words, I wanted to see some serious birds. Days before my arrival, a nice lady from the Chamber of Commerce told me over the phone about a place called Hotchkiss Lane. “Have you seen the video?” she asked. She meant the clip from Oregon Public Broadcasting where a blizzard of snow geese takes off all at once in this awesome goosey dervish. You bet I’d seen it. Three days later my wife Jess and I were there at seven on the dot, blowing into our hands and making bird jokes.

It’s peculiar, but the migration is a huge part of Burns. People get very excited — the lot at the Silver Spur was so full I had to park across the street. This year’s festival was the town’s thirty-fifth, a big year made even bigger by the subtext: It was the first chance for Burns to be its old self again, to forget those six weeks and just be a place where a man can make goose calls outside a high school. On our first drive out to Hotchkiss, we passed a farm that appeared to be growing huge rows of cotton in the backyard. Snow geese were all pressed together inside the chain-link fence. The farm looked out of place: why had this person put a house where all these geese wanted to be? We pulled off to the side of the road and just watched for a while. It ended up being a solid, if not spectacular first morning of birding — a few impressive flocks milling about in distant fields — striking, even meaningful, though not quite the O.P.B. video.

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The only sign something had happened in Burns was a row of orange ribbons tied to the streetlamps downtown. I first noticed them on the way to breakfast; they struck me as sad in that neglected symbolic way, like white crosses on the side of the road. A waitress at The Apple Peddler told me the ribbons were for “togetherness.” I pondered it for a minute, then asked if she was glad everyone had gone. Her eyes widened and she began to nod. “Oh yeah. Definitely,” she said, punching that last word as I took the receipt. In the parking lot, Jess was laughing as she got in the car. “There are two bullet casings by our tire,” she said.

For the duration of the festival, Burns High School served as Bird Central. Student bird art covered the walls, tacked with red and blue ribbons. When we got there, an arts-and-crafts fair was just opening up in the gymnasium; I bought some bookmarks and a red-winged blackbird ornament from a Paiute woman. A group called Friends of the Refuge had set up a table in the back corner, where a woman named Alice was fielding questions. She smiled kindly at me as I approached, a smile that knew exactly what kind of things I was about to ask.

“It was terrible,” she said, barely above a whisper, looking down at her hands. But then she looked up and found her voice, rousing herself into a pep talk. “Actually — our work is just beginning,” she said. She wasn’t talking to me. She wasn’t even really looking at me. “This was a bigger movement against all federal lands in the West. All public lands. Every nation envies our public lands. We have to protect that.”

Afterward, we took one more drive out to Hotchkiss Lane, but every field was empty. The O.P.B.-levels of snow geese, if they were ever there, were gone. Scattered pintails dotted empty fields. It was over for the day. I idled at a stop sign — it was quiet and we were the only car. Suddenly, a cloud lowered in the distance. “There,” Jess said. I gunned the engine.

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A half-mile ahead, a squall of snow geese screamed over the fields. The sky was moving with geese. Layers of geese, flanks of geese, V’s in every font — all of it. I skidded into the gravel beneath them. Goose shadows strobed over the pavement; it looked like V-J Day in Tokyo Bay. I have no idea how many birds there were. Ten thousand? Two-hundred thousand? It didn’t matter.

Earlier that morning, on our first trip out to the fields, I thought about what could lead a person to occupy something, to take it over. Cliven Bundy started a standoff in Nevada two years ago over land rights and what he saw as federal government overreach; now his sons and their militias had done just the same at Malheur. Dwight and Steven Hammond were about to go to jail over a land dispute; I wondered what it was about being so close to nature that made us want to control it. I spent a while looking out over the fields, wishing those early geese would all fly away. I was chasing the image from the video. Jess kindly suggested that something might come along and spook them a little for my benefit. “Maybe a car will backfire,” she said. I nodded, then the words slipped out of my mouth before I could catch them. “I wish I had a gun.”

Photos: Jess Latta