Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Stephen J. Lyons

"Just a minute. I have to put my wig on," Etta yells from somewhere deep inside her wood-frame house. Well, not exactly yells. Some of her voice and all of her hair -- which I assume is cumulus white -- have been taken by ovarian cancer. Iím standing on her porch, near a centuryís crop of yellow pines and dusty lilacs, imagining how this view has changed in the eight decades Etta has called this part of eastern Washington home.

When the door opens, itís not the grim specter of cancer that rushes forward, but, instead, the bright flame of a rich life. I see that Etta has placed her wig slightly off center; it dips crookedly in front. She is birdlike, her skin porcelain, her eyes as blue as a lazuli bunting, and she is shrinking. The top of Ettaís head barely reaches to the level of my chest. We shake hands and itís decided -- we will become dear friends.

Iíve come here because I want to meet the artist whose bird drawings are as evocative and graceful as flight itself. Except among local birders who covet her interpretations, Ettaís art is a well-kept secret. Only one gallery in town sells her works, mainly in the form of note cards and small drawings. In my living room sits a prized possession -- a handmade wooden easel that cradles a scratchboard rendition of a trio of baby barn owls. The drawing fits in the palm of my hand like a playing card. Staring out from tufts of hay, the dark eyes of the owlets follow me as I move around the room. Iíve come to believe they are trying to give me advice -- important advice -- urging me to get off the couch (if I still can), put on my boots, grab my binoculars, go outside, and look for them, or for anything flashing at leaf level. What is a life well lived? is what I imagine these owls are asking.

Just beyond Ettaís place is the sharp descent to the Snake River canyon. The river is often called "Snake Lake," a sarcastic acknowledgement of slack water shoved back into itself like a boiled cow intestine from the Tri-Cities, Washington, to Lewiston, Idaho. The distance is around 140 miles, one dam every 35 miles -- a Corps of Engineerís perfect wet dream.

The four dams are awesome if only for their testament to our Yankee-can-do industriousness and optimism. From 1962, when President Lyndon Johnson switched on the generators at Ice Harbor, until 1975, when the kilowatts began to register at Lower Granite, we believed anything was possible if enough manpower and cement were employed. Just as in the philosophy of "rain following the plow," we believed that after the completion of the dams, commerce would rush up river and the region would soon be buzzing with the activity of prosperous cities.

Most of all we proved -- again, as if we hadnít known -- that we possessed the power to alter nature, to stop a river in its tracks. No matter how shortsighted or destructive, this remains no small feat for a species that once dressed in furs and huddled in caves. The same double-edged, human curiosity may someday cure Ettaís cancer.

Today, the riverís electricity travels south to the boom towns in California and Arizona and the isolated dams sit like misbehaving children sent to their rooms, surrounded by silent, birdless hills of cheat grass, Canada thistle, and wild oats. These days, everyoneís moving to Portland or Seattle, Ecotopian cities with Thai food, flashy high tech action, and twenty-year-old millionaires on mountain bikes.

Ettaís 600-acre spread was a working dryland wheat and pea farm when her husband and county commissioner, Harry, was still cancer free and alive. That was almost twenty years ago. Now the home place has settled back into itself and the neighboring families are increasingly strangers -- non-farmers who work in town. Ettaís farm is in a state of reclamation: rusted equipment and leaning outbuildings sink into the decay; a tangled orchard needs pruning, and an indoor swimming pool has filled with black, leafy humus and colonies of mice. Someday the land will also swallow Etta who will probably be drawing in her studio or watching out the kitchen window for her favorite bird, the California quail.

Inside Ettaís house is ordered: Colonial furniture, an upright piano, her own framed artwork, photos of Harry and her two sons, and an immaculate kitchen, where she graciously prepares coffee, Melitta-style, dripped into china tea cups with saucers. We head to in the back of the house, to her studio, surrounded on three sides by windows that look out into a bird kingdom vibrating with quick movements.

Etta asks me to sit down. Like most men and women of her generation, she is embarrassed to talk about herself. Iím nothing special her body language tells me. But I describe for her what the owl drawing means to me, and the note cards that feature chukars, wild turkeys, Hungarian partridge, grouse, pheasants, herons, and a favorite card simply called "Coyote and Canola." Iím gushing with praise, but Ettaís thinking instead about the possibility of a dry winter.

She looks out at her yard, says "I will miss it if we donít have snow, but no snow will be good for the animals and birds."

I back off, but still have so many questions. Etta knows the natural history of this area well before the concrete was poured to submerge thousands of acres of habitat. A bridge from the past, she knows how little of that wild world remains. And her tenacious quest over a century to answer simple questions about her surroundings seems to answer the owlet question: What is a life well lived? Iím impatient with the feeling of time running out. A thousand people from Ettaís generation die each day in this country. With them goes the knowledge of birds and animals now extinct, the history of farm and soil, the ability to mend fences and keep knives sharp. When the last of this generation passes, who will tell us stories?

"Iíve drawn ever since I was in grade school. I would go through periods when I would draw only legs. Then it would be eyes. I must have used up a lot of paper. And I drew all over the margins of my textbooks."

Etta uses pen and ink, scratchboard, watercolor and pastel, and she carefully chooses her papers. Her stippled series of sandhill cranes is printed on sheets of blue marbled paper because "it resembles water clouds." She makes all her own hardwood frames, even the miniature easels. "Weíre a family of builders."

Tubs of pine cones, abandoned nests, rocks, wings and feathers crowd her tiny studio along with dried flowers, branches and "sticks with character." Wings, talons, and a head of a recent hen pheasant road kill spill across a shelf. "The whole bottom part of my freezer is full of road kill," she says. Stacks of National Wildlife fill her bookshelves, as well as Nature Conservancy, National Geographic and Washington Wildlife. Picture books on nature are everywhere: Water Prey and Games Birds of North America, The Wonders of Nature, and The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. A loaded camera hangs from a coat rack and directly outside her studio window stands a birdfeeder she hopes the juncos will discover.

Each day, Etta hikes alone in a small forest she planted long ago of blue spruce, willow, walnut, and honey locust. Quiet miracles occur, even in this transformed agricultural landscape. The miracles, she says, unfold in the curvy "eyebrow places," the old growth hawthorns, and overhead in the thermals with the red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures.

"You canít anticipate circumstances," says Etta, looking up at the sky, planning another sketch, another way of preserving loss.

Away from the dams and reservoirs, the fish ladders that donít work too smoothly, the Snake River narrows and regains its lively figure. Cottonwoods, mullen, and red willow bushes emerge alongside fists of bunch grass. Birds reappear. Not the usual magpie-starling- junco-raven-robin backyard mix we have up on the Palouse Prairie, but grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers, osprey, falcons, wood ducks, cormorants, and grebes. Baskets of oriole nests hang from the trees and barn owls watch and blink from the basalt rock ledges. From this point, to where 1,421 acres of riparian area are under water up river at Hellís Canyon, Oxbow, and Brownlee dams, the Snake somehow sustains life through its flora and fauna. In that precious stretch of rock and shore you can say the word river out loud and it doesnít feel like a lie.

In the book River of Life, Channel of Death, historian Keith Petersen writes, "In 1972 an estimated 22,000 pheasants, 57,000 quail, 20,000 partridges, 52,000 chukars, 120,000 mourning doves, 8,400 cottontails, and 1,800 deer lived within a half mile of the riverís edge between Pasco and Lewiston....By 1987, Washington Department of Game officials estimated that the lower Snake supported only 2,000 game birds...that the 95,000 wintering songbirds formerly along the river then numbered only 3,000."

In The Snake River, Tim Palmer writes of the loss of 14,400 acres of habitat. "The Army Corps estimated losses of 1,800 deer, 120,800 upland game birds and animals, 13,400 fur bearersÖ."

But these are just numbers. Loss of birdsong is almost impossible to record in writing. You need a human voice, preferably an older one.

"When I was small I built birdhouses and took care of injured animals," Etta tells me. "I remember on the farm I found an injured pig. I cared for it for three days; then it died and I cried and cried.

"Thatís when there were flocks of orioles and mountain bluebirds. Cedar waxwings, too, and the barn swallows in the spring. That locust tree used to be black with barn swallows. The power lines sagged with swallows. Now you are so glad when you see a goldfinch."

She blames the expansion of farming into bird habitats, the draining of wetlands, along with fertilizers, pesticides, and the dams. "A lot of it is because farmers farm from fence row to fence row. Iíve been soap-boxing for forty years about our use of chemicalsóthe dumping, the throw-away stuff. Rachel Carsonís Silent Spring had a tremendous effect on me. I became completely organic, hated at that time. I knew I was a pain-in-the-neck for Harry. No one would admit to being Ďorganic.í It was a bad word, like Ďliberal.í"

Salmon are the poster children of breaching advocates. In the endless yackety-yak of lost farms, extinct fish, and economic models, birds are rarely mentioned. When the floodgates closed and the water bloated hundreds of finger canyons and covered dozens of islands, all that was riparian became a memory, and only for those fortunate enough to have seen the river in its wild state. Soon we forgot about the river altogether as we ran our boats and personal watercraft across that calm surface. The few bones of recreation areas the Army Corps of Engineers threw our way seemed so welcome on those hot August days, when we laid down in cool Kentucky bluegrass under the shade of Russian olive treesósage and rattlers at a safe distance. Our lives were getting damn complicated and we deserved to rest next to soothing waters in green parks with flush toilets and full hookups. Oasies called Chief Timothy, Wawawai, Penawawa, and Boyer.

Despite our best efforts at amnesia, we still hear nagging voices. The riverís asleep, some say cautiously. Youíve been treating her like a woman in bondage. You canít tame her forever. Someday she will wake up and we will all pay. But it hasnít happened yet, and probably wonít for many generations to come, if ever. There are no guarantees; who knows if the salmon or birds will return if the dams disappear. Yet, itís certain that in a few thousand days of political gridlock the argument will be moot and we can all go back to sleep.

"A prudent people will not allow the endowments of nature to waste away," President Johnson said that historic day at Ice Harbor Dam. He was a big man and he loved big ideas. However, the endowment the president was referring to was the electrical potential of free-flowing water, not birds or salmon.

I have no relationship or special affinity to salmon. My opinions are mostly politically spoon-fed and lack any anecdotal substance. Iíve stood at the grimy fish viewing windows below Lower Granite, but have only seen bony white fish and an occasional steelhead. Using the small percentage of my brain that understands scientific processes, a salmonís journey resembles a fairy tale, defying belief in its magic. How could a fish ever travel more than a thousand miles, commence against the raging mouth of the Columbia River, survive hook, net, and turbine, to eventually climb several mountain ranges to tiny Redfish Lake deep in the chambers of Idahoís heart? What triggers such effort?

Birds and animals cannot prepare for political decisions. They can only respond to their instincts. Just east of Ettaís farm sits Dworshak Dam, a concrete monster which nearly stops the flow of the Clearwater Riverís north fork. Each winter dozens of deer, elk, and god-knows-what other creatures fall through the ice covering the deep water behind Dworshakís face. Hard-wired into the minds of these animals is a migratory passage which no longer leads them over the live river of rocks and reeds, but over a deep, unfathomable reservoir of controlled slack water whose bottom is filled with twisted antlers, bleached scapula, and fractured skulls.

Looking out the window at the only pecan tree in eastern Washington, Etta expresses her sense of loss, her gleaming, hopeful eyes a contradiction. "Itís so sad when you think about the creatures that have become extinct: The carrier pigeon, the salmon. It worries me that so many things are depleting now. Even the raccoons seem to be on the decline. They used to open the door on the back porch."

Over the next two years I see Etta several more times and once, she and her son, Alan, come to my house for dinner. After each visit she sends a long letter, written with perfect penmanship, usually with a story like this one about Lolo Pass.

"I couldnít believe what I was seeing -- a three-foot boulder with a perfectly formed bowl (or basin) on top, smooth as if chiseled on a lathe, and nesting in it a little walnut sized polished rock. Egg shaped. It was so obvious that it had to be the result of rushing water spinning in it for hundreds of years. It was awesome.

"That was 50-52 years ago and no one knew about that history. We were a group of eight -- the men decided to climb up the steep mountain, but I was the only woman and I struck out in a different direction so I didnít have anyone with me to verify what I found. I couldnít take that little rock for proof and break up that companionship after thousands of years. Do rocks have souls? The Bible says Ďeven the stones cry out!í"

I tell her of my birding adventures -- thousands of migrating sandhills in central Washington; the American dipper found at last winterís Audubon Christmas Bird Count; a migration of vultures at Idahoís City of Rocks. She, in turn, hands me her latest project -- sketches of herons, so perfect as if to suggest she once lived among them.

Our last visit is in early spring; the wheat is just greening up and crop dusters roar overhead and spill their chemicals across the hills. Iím moving to Illinois, where I will have to learn an entirely new batch of birds, along with rivers and trees. I donít even suggest Etta come visit the Land of Lincoln. Besides, she isnít going anywhere. There remains so much to learn on her small patch of earth, delicious questions that only art and birds can answer.

Against the greatest of odds, she has defeated one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Her hair has returned. White and thick. All those trips alone for chemo in Pullman paid off. About the chance of reoccurrence she says, "I donít worry about it. Iíve lived more than my share of years." Soon she will turn ninety. All gravy from here on out.

She puts her hand -- the same one that still moves so steadily across sketch pads, the fingers that so long ago repaired injured animals -- around my waist for one last photograph. Her head tilts and tucks under my shoulder like a grebe in repose. Who would ever want to let go?

Am I dreaming, or are there more birds this year than last? A flock of white-crowned sparrows work the shrubs near our shadows and a lone black-capped chickadee divides his song into a two-part cadence. Down in the canyon, deep within tepid waters, salmon pick their way through the fish ladders, and, like Etta, cling to life, to beauty, to unanticipated circumstances. Seen in the right light, through Ettaís eyes, all of it is a miraculous gift.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here