THE north fork of the Burnt River rose and fell all spring on the ranch we took care of in northeastern Oregon. The snow on the meadow and all the hillsides around began to melt, and the river came up. A cold night and a cold day stopped the melting process, and the river dropped again. Warmer days and nights followed each other for a while without interruption, and the river stayed high for two or three weeks. Eventually, most of the local snow melted, and the river dropped again. Then substantially war mer weather settled in, and the snow on the mountains above us started to melt, and the river rose again.
During times of low water, I rode the motorcycle down to the ford a quarter of a mile below the house and crossed the river to work on the ditches that carried water onto the meadow. I cleaned out manure and grass with a sharp shovel, dug the ditches deeper where necessary, and built up eroded banks. I built dirt dams to raise the water so it spilled over ditch banks and spread out across the meadow. Where the ditches were too big to build dams of dirt, I used plastic curtains, supported by long, thin lo dgepole pine. I changed the dams every few days, to cover different areas with water.
When the river was high, I rode another half-mile down to the bridge and crossed it. Then I rode up a rough, narrow road to the meadow. Or, sometimes, during high water, I rode up to the ranch, left the motorcycle on our side of the river, and walked on the log laid across the log-crib dam and worked on the irrigation at the top of the ranch.
I spent many hours working on the meadow, far from human company, but I was never alone. The meadow abounds with wildlife. Birds of many species nest on or near the meadow. Deer and elk come to harvest some of the lush grass. Coyotes, cats of various kinds, and badgers course through during their hunting.
I got the water spread across the meadow early and repeated the thorough wet-down three or four times. Then the time came, about mid-July, to shut all the water off and let everything dry so that we could get onto the meadow with machinery to cut, bale, and haul a hay crop.
When the grass started growing green and lush, I headed up the meadow to work on ditches, riding slowly and looking to see where water had spread and where it had not. A phalarope flew up out of the grass to my right, and claimed that she was so badly injured she could barely fly. She would be easy prey for a predator such as I. "I'm already past your nest, love, and I promise no harm," I said. But she insisted. She adjusted her flight directly in front of the motorcycle, and I said, "All right. Lead on, " and I followed her. I was not in such a hurry that I couldn't indulge her desire. Within 100 yards, her injured wing was quite all right again. She flew rapidly away from me, and I rode straight on.
That was about two weeks before I was caught out on the meadow in a heavy rainstorm and headed for home. I had to cross a ditch about three feet wide and almost waist deep. I stood up in it to measure its depth. I had a thick board for a bridge across that ditch. The front wheel climbed onto the board just as it should. But the rear wheel spun and slipped to the side instead of coming up onto the board, and the bike went down onto the board. I went down, full-length into the ditch. Not five miles away fr om being snow on the mountain, that water was cold. I stood up quickly and uprighted the bike, which was still running, and gave it throttle and hung on. I jumped on as soon as we were both on solid ground, and hurried home. The rain didn't bother me much. I was already as wet as I could be.
My wife, Laura, was delighted that I was home in time to go to town with our family and visiting relatives for lunch. But I told them to go on without me, and I heated bath water and myself, used the water, and put on dry clothes and watched the rain pour down from inside the warm, dry house.
The next time I crossed the river, the sun shone warmly. I shoveled several ditches clear of grass that slowed the flow of water, then rode toward the top of the ranch to see how the ditches there were doing. I crossed the ditch I had fallen into, this time on a dry board. I easily forgave the ditch, the water, and the board for the cold wetness of the day I fell in, because any unpleasantness was long behind me. Memories of the growing grasses glistening brilliant green in the wet day and the beauty of the rainstorm in the valley stayed pleasantly in mind. I rode off the board bridge and turned up the meadow, parallel to the biggest ditch of all, in knee-high grass.
An elk calf, whose mother had told it to stay flat, hidden in the grass, obeyed too well and didn't jump from cover until I was almost on top of it. There was only one way to avoid hitting it, by slamming the motorcycle flat to the ground, which I did, sailed over the falling handlebars, rolled, and came up onto my knees. The calf bolted about 100 feet, slowed, then looked around, obviously wondering why humans and motorcycles engaged in such strange antics. I was momentarily frozen with awe at the beaut y of this wild creature, red, with large, pale spots, long legs, and graceful carriage. It walked hesitantly toward the timber. I didn't want to drive it any farther from where it was supposed to be, so I picked up the motorcycle and rode directly away from it. I was sure its mother would find it soon, but I knew it would be polite to get out of their territory as quickly as I could.
I've never held title to a piece of land, but in the 8 1/2 years we took care of the ranch in Whitney Valley, I came to own the meadow in a way never accounted for in legal deeds. By my work on the meadow, by my knowledge of it, by my respect for all the wildlife that used the meadow and thereby held ownership for millenia before the idea of legal titles even came to this continent, I came to own the meadow in a way that few people own land. I and it and the life force that moved so abundantly on the mea dow moved toward being one to a degree that is rare in today's world of legal titles, bottom lines of profit, and the exigency of production for consumption.
To a small degree, I became part of the meadow. The meadow will always be part of me.