A winner in Oregon Quarterly’s 2016 Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.
Strange plants grow from poisoned soil. At first the stalks blend in with the native bunchgrasses and wild rye of the high desert, showing just a strange tint, a shade of purplish green never seen before. In the wind that never stops in Harney County, the stalks have an odd rustle, more like a hiss.
The taproots grow deep, stealing water from the tough, tightly interlaced roots of the native grasses. They suck up Archean poison from deep underground and younger poisons seeping in the marshes like oily slicks. Nobody knows yet what bitter seed these plants will yield.
When I lived in the high desert, I brushed against this poison. I saw how it affected native bunchgrasses and drained the life out of tule marshes. I sensed a deeper trouble. A reckoning was coming.
January, 2016. People in Burns are scared and angry, and they’ve come to a community meeting. The locals are wearing Wranglers, Lees, and Carharts, faded flannel, wool, and denim. Their faces are pallid like the hoarfrost outside, or chapped red by wind. The outsiders, reporters and photographers, are wearing Patagonia, North Face, and Columbia. Their faces, like their jackets, are shinier and less weathered than the locals’ faces. The county judge’s teenage granddaughter says, “None of us in Harney County should have to be scared in our own homes.” She gets a standing ovation.
In Harney County, feeling scared is for federal employees and their families.
August, 1994. On the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the manager and his assistant were putting up a fence to block cows from the neighboring ranch from their repeated trespass on refuge wetlands. The ranchers, a father and son, showed up and spewed obscenities at the refuge men. Eventually the older rancher moved closer to the refuge men and was arrested. After the arrest, the refuge manager’s family got death threats, including a threat to wrap their twelve-year-old son in barbed wire “and stuff him down a well.” Threats were made to other refuge employees’ families.
Local residents went to the streets of Burns and marched in support—of the ranchers making the threats. Nobody defended people’s right not to feel scared in their own homes. Charges against the rancher were reduced, then dropped.
The years of 1991, 1988, 1986, and back to the 1970s. Files at the wildlife refuge document death threats against refuge managers in all of those years. Nobody who made threats was ever charged.
In Harney County, threats, violence, and impunity for the aggressors are much older than disagreements over access to federal lands. The threats and violence are always cloaked in talk about “freedom for the people.” Unspoken is the narrow definition of who “the people” are.
December, 1897. Homesteader Ed Oliver shot and killed cattle baron Peter French in a fight over riparian boundaries and cattle grazing. The murder was the climax of battles between cattle barons and homesteaders. Although Oliver had shot French in the back as French rode away, Oliver claimed self-defense and was found not guilty.
The 1870s. After Lt. Col. George Crook’s brutal crusade to kill all Paiute men, the surviving people of the Paiute Tribe were moved to a reservation, which was too small for them to gather enough food for themselves. Although the treaty guaranteed the Paiutes the right to fish, hunt, or dig camas roots away from the reservation, white settlers shot on sight Paiutes they saw away from the reservation. No settlers were ever prosecuted for these murders.
In 1878, the Paiutes rebelled. By January, their uprising was smashed. The U.S. Army forced Paiute survivors to march hundreds of miles through snow to Washington’s Yakama Reservation, home of their traditional enemies.
Blood, hate, and injustice are poisons that grow strange plants like none ever seen before. Dark red and purplish blotches stain the stalks. Leaves are sticky with poison that burns when skin brushes against it. Flowers yield seeds encased in stickers that lodge in the throat, causing pulpy infections.
I know this poison. I felt the fever it brings when I lived in the high desert. My husband was a district ranger on the Ochoco National Forest, about two hours from Burns, and in this landscape of great distances, that’s next-door neighbors. When he managed the district’s grazing leases, some old-style ranchers grew enraged at having to abide by the minimum rules to protect streams and fish. They yelled. They made threats.
My husband got a concealed-carry permit, and he got it from the county courthouse at a day and time when people would notice and spread the word. At one point, he threatened to call in federal marshals, although he never actually called them.
I supported him one hundred percent. I believed in his commitment to protect natural resources and I knew he worked hard to resolve issues, not dictate terms. Even an outsider like me could see how the rangeland had been hammered by overgrazing. The few ranchers who raged at him were used to bullying previous district rangers. My husband stands up to bullies. I was glad the kids were grown up and not living with us.
Fall, 2016. In Harney County, a volatile aroma arises from the inflorescences of the purplish plants that fed on poison. The aroma attracts Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two brothers who are no strangers to wearing guns while they break federal laws and confront federal marshals. Along with an ally, the brothers case Burns and the headquarters compound at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
January, 2016. The Bundys are welcomed to a nonviolent rally in Burns on behalf of two local ranchers sentenced to prison for arson. After the rally, the Bundys and a few allies, all out-of-staters and all armed, drive out to the refuge headquarters and take over the compound, whose handful of employees are off for the New Year’s weekend. The Bundys’ few local supporters feel betrayed by the takeover.
The Bundy brothers say that God has spoken to them and told them to bring their rebellion against the federal government and the public ownership of large swaths of western land to this county. “We know it has to happen now,” Ammon Bundy says. “The place is Harney County. And you are the people.”
From the refuge headquarters, the militants demand that all federal land in Harney County be turned over to local private ownership. They frame that as reclaiming the land for “the people,” although the land is already publicly owned.
The militants say they will leave if local residents ask them to leave. At multiple community meetings, local residents ask, then implore, shout, even plead, for the militants to go home. The militants stay. “This is the place,” Ammon Bundy repeats. “You are the people.”
Another day, the militants say they are researching who originally owned the refuge lands before the federal government “confiscated” them. The Burns Paiute Tribe, which against all odds has regained a small reservation north of Burns, says it has the answer. The militants show little interest in the tribe’s reply.
Harney County was prosperous in the 1970s. Since then, all the sawmills closed and Monaco Coach went bankrupt. Ranching is left. Although beef costs plenty in the store, most of that money goes to middlemen. The rancher’s share of the beef dollar has plummeted since the 1970s. But the remaining ranch jobs and businesses are the last mainstay of the county economy.
I know you don’t fight poison with poison. You don’t heal a rattlesnake bite with more venom.
Others know this too. Over the last few years, refuge employees and ranchers worked together on a conservation plan. Ranchers and federal employees worked together on conservation measures for the sage grouse. The county was reaching an agreement that would get a small-diameter sawmill up and running.
But the refuge occupation has the whole county arguing with each other. I’m pretty sure that deep damage has been done to the cooperation.
County Sheriff Dave Ward is level-headed and patient. He takes a stand for rule of law that applies to everybody, not just whites and ranchers. He says, “There are people in this room I wholeheartedly disagree with. But you don’t get to threaten me because we disagree.”
Thank you. Finally it’s been said.
The occupation continues. People are on edge. One woman says, “Every gun in the house is loaded.”
The reckoning will be soon.
I’m sputtering mad about the armed occupation, like water droplets dancing on a hot grill. If I went to Harney County right now, I would bring anger, even hate.
Looking for wisdom, I turn to William Stafford’s poems and yes, he has one: “Malheur Before Dawn.” Dead more than twenty years now, how did he sense this coming? I read his poem and I feel it too. Just before dawn, on that cusp between night’s despair and sunlight, he stands on the edge: “So magic a time it was that I was both brave and afraid.”