When they hired me to take care of their ranch in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, I told John and Mike that all I knew about the layout of the ranch was a map that Tex, the previous caretaker, had drawn in the dirt for me. Tex had to hurry on to another job, and he hadn't had time to show me around.
John said, "We'll come up and show you around when you get settled and get the water started." But they stayed busy running their home ranch, and I started work with what I could figure out about boundaries and irrigation. I repaired fences I knew were mine to repair. I irrigated meadow I was sure was part of the ranch. I worked by myself, and I felt very alone in a strange land.
I directed water into small ditches that ran down the meadow almost to the river. Down the meadow a way, the ditches were choked with grasses and dirt. They obviously hadn't been cleared for years. Since I wanted water to run down them, I figured I'd have to do a lot of digging. Late that afternoon, while my wife cooked dinner, my two daughters came over to the barn to see what I was doing. I sharpened my shovel and hazel hoe and told them about all the digging that lay ahead of me.
The next day, I drove down to Unity for gasoline and my monthly check. John and Mike put the map I'd drawn on their kitchen table. "This is the west boundary here," John said. "The log crib dam in the river, you been up there, yet? That's on Rico's ranch, but that's our dam, pushes water through the steel headworks for this ditch, waters the whole west side. Boards are piled right there. You'll need them when the river starts dropping.
"You find these springs, along the timber here? You take water there, and it crosses under the road, irrigates this part of the mill field. Main thing right now, Rob'll bring steers up end of this week and turn 'em loose in the field south of your house. You'd best get that fence tight before you do any more irrigating. We'll get up there in a few days and fill you in on anything you don't figure out."
For several days, I repaired fence surrounding the field south of our house. Water spread across and down the meadow in its own slow, sure way. It eventually spread far enough that it flowed back into the choked-up ditches. Cutting the grass, roots, and dirt out of the way was unnecessary - but I wouldn't have known that if fence work hadn't forced me to wait and see what the water did.
That taught me to slow down, steer water into a dry area, and leave it a few days to see what it did before I started "improving" ditches. The job of irrigating 700 acres changed from impossible to manageable.
Canada geese nest in Whitney Valley, where the ranch is. Snow geese fly into the valley for a sleepover and into the tall blue sky above steep ridges of conifer forests on their way somewhere else before sunrise. Ducks, cranes, herons, swans, and rails live in thick, tall-growing meadow and swamp grasses, among myriad wildflowers. Hawks, ravens, eagles, and owls fly high above the meadows. Coyotes, deer, elk, badgers, and many other animals live in or near the meadows.
I watched life in the valley. I realized I was an important part of a community, the man who irrigated meadows and provided habitat for many. I didn't feel lonely anymore. There were always many members of the community close enough to keep me company and share habitat with my human family and me. Mike and John didn't get up to Whitney Valley until I'd irrigated most of the meadow. I'd figured out the boundaries from their sketches and descriptions, and I'd repaired a lot of fences and knew which needed work next.
John asked me, "Did you get the irrigation figured out?"
I said, "Water runs downhill, right?"
They both laughed. "It sure does."
"Once I was sure of that, I was fine."
We talked and laughed a while in the summer sun. Then they headed on to their next stop, and I went back to work.