06 May 2009

Another world

I'd been talking with my birder friends Maureen and Debbie for more than a year about taking a trip to Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon for some springtime birding. The three of us met on an Audubon outing to Sauvie Island in late 2007, bonded instantly, and have managed to get together for day excursions every few months since then. We finally set a date for about three weeks after the annual Migratory Bird Festival in Burns. The tourists were gone and the birding, along with the company, was excellent.

Maureen and her husband Tony own a ranch outside of Burns, adjacent to the Refuge. Her part-time resident status meant that we had a built-in tour guide as well as insider access to local folks, legends and lore. The ranch house, which sits on a rise in the midst of 120 high-desert acres, is comfy and -- luxury! -- we each had our own room. We spent the daylight hours tooling around Harney County, looking at birds familiar and un-, checking out various geological, historical and retail sites of interest, and talking-story with various residents. Each evening, we poured wine and threw together a simple dinner, then yakked until far past our usual bedtimes. Each morning (some earlier than others), we grabbed our binoculars and field guides and headed out for another day of birding.
Part of the reason why the area's such a birding hotspot each spring is that snowmelt from the mountains is channeled for agricultural irrigation. From the road we saw field after flooded field that will come under cultivation later in the season. But at this time of year it's all marshland, prime habitat for hundreds of species.

Deb has just put together a comprehensive list of the birds we saw. She counted 55 species. I won't bore you with the full edition, since this isn't a birding blog. But the new ones on my life list, if I kept one -- I'm not that formal a birder -- would be Wilson's phalarope, American avocet, white-faced ibis (so weird; who came up with that bill?), Loggerhead shrike, Say's phoebe, lazuli bunting, and chukar. I just like saying some of those names. We also saw bald and golden eagles, harriers and kestrels, redtail hawks, turkey vultures, ravens and crows (of course), sandhill cranes (above, on the wetlands; so lovely), egrets and herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, magpies, western meadowlarks, and a partridge in... no, a pheasant on the ranch house deck, who called out to us every morning (woot woot, like an Andean flute) and seemed to think he owned the place.
Harney County is Oregon's largest and, we were told, most sparsely-populated county. I was struck by the austere beauty of the sagebrush-dotted desert, with its classic "western" rim rock formations and distinctive peaks, most notably Steens Mountain, as a backdrop. The sky seems lower there; the horizon all around.

It wasn't all about birding. We also visited Diamond Craters and had lunch at the funky, charming Hotel Diamond, shown here with one of its surreally-irrelevant parking meters. We chatted with Dick Jenkins, a local historian, about the 19th century Round Barn that he looks after. We had breakfast (one of the best veggie omelettes I've eaten) at The Narrows, a restaurant, saloon and RV park down the road from Maureen and Tony's ranch, jawed a while with the proprietors, and bottle-fed the motherless calves -- a bull and a cow -- they're caring for on the property. Ron told us that kids staying at the RV park love to feed the calves. This kid did.

Socially, the entire county felt to this outsider like a small town; despite the distance between towns, the locals, with their deep roots, shared history and strong sense of place, all seem to know, or at least know of, each other. This is cattle country; ranchers rule. People dress like cowboys because they are. The Obama sticker on Deb's car was the only one I saw in four days in Harney County. I wouldn't want to live there, but I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to have spent a few days, in just about perfect circumstances, on a planet far from Portland.

April went where, exactly?

I want to talk about my birding excursion to eastern Oregon last week, but realized that more than a month has gone by since I last posted here. What the hell happened to April?

Well, I finished the coursework for my master gardener certification. The final was 65 questions, multiple choice, open book, with a week to complete. I, um, aced it. Now I'm focusing on logging the required volunteer "payback" hours. Besides my Monday gig at the Rhody Garden, I did a shift at the Hardy Plant Society's massive sale at Expo, which brought with it early (as in before the hall opens to the public) shopping privileges. I bought some shade plants to complement the hostas I've been plunking in to colonize the dim reaches of our backyard. My purchases included a tall, handsome Jack-in-the-pulpit, sweet woodruff in a 4" pot, two epimediums (epimedia?) to replace the one I killed last year, and a couple of species new to me, a brunnera and a pulmonaria, a.k.a lungwort. The latter is much prettier than its name suggests. It had an abundance of flowers, both blue and coral-pink, when I got it. I subsequently heard that the blue blossoms turn pink, and vice versa, when the flower is pollinated. Kind of like a home pregnancy test. That's it in the pic just below. The tiny woodruff specimen has already tripled in size, which is what you want in a ground cover, since I planted it three weeks ago.

Gail Langellotto, our OSU Extension online instructor, was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Multnomah County Master Gardeners, where they feted this year's crop of interns with a potluck, so I got to meet her as well as some of the local MGs en masse. Gail is much more petite and funny in person. She gave an entertaining and informative lecture that included weird facts about insect sex and great closeups of her favorite spiders, the Wolfs. The MGs seem like a friendly, down-to-earth (pun intended) bunch. I'll attend a couple more meetings, at least, and see if I want to get more involved with the group.

April was a good month for live music. We heard Arlo Guthrie in a magnificent venue, Beth Israel synagogue in NW Portland. Our tickets were for the very last row but, due to a screwup involving actual vs. theoretical chairs, and the fact that the expensive patron section down front was apparently not sold out, we ended up with seats in the third row. What a treat. He didn't do Alice's Restaurant, but it was a joy to see ol' Arlo (oops; he's younger than me) still ramblin' along. The following week was Portland's own Storm Large (who started out as a club rock 'n' roller but did a credible job last season as Sally Bowles in Cabaret) in Crazy Enough, her autobiographical one-woman show at Portland Center Stage. She was stunningly good -- funny, raucous, touching. The week after that we went to Carvlin Hall, the regular venue for the Portland Folk Music Society's monthly concerts, to see the Berrymans. We first heard them when they were in town a couple of years ago, and I promptly bought most of their CDs. Lou and Peter play accordion and guitar, respectively, and write some of the funniest, most verbally complex songs I've ever heard. I'm a sucker for clever lyrics; what can I say? A full concert is almost too rich, like eating a box of See's chocolates at one sitting, but I can stand pigging out on the Berrymans every once in a while.

Speaking of eating, although we've cut way back on expensive restaurants, we did manage to score some noteworthy meals out last month: the fun and funky Porque Non? on Hawthorne; the bunker-like Alexis at the corner of 2nd and West Burnside, which turns out to have tasty, reasonably-priced Greek food, friendly, efficient and adorable waiters, and an authentic but not over-the-top atmosphere; the big-deal Heathman, where we'd never been before but used the occasion of our 27th wedding anniversary to investigate. Another, unexpected, treat was dinner (at Pastini on NE Broadway) with John Bryans, my longtime publisher, who was in town for a conference and remembered, just in time to connect, that I live in Portland, now.

Toward the end of the month, my art quilt group went on its annual retreat. This was our third trip to the Tillamook area, which offers both beach access and ice cream for lunch. Our rental this year had a spectacular ocean view, with Three Arch Rocks positioned just so. Terry and Gerrie both did a great job blogging our stay; so just click on their names if you care to read all about it. They got some good photos, too.

Two days after I returned from retreat, Jer's daughter Lauren and her partner Annette arrived for a quick overnight visit. They were en route home to Michigan from Bandon Dunes, on the southern Oregon coast, where the movie Golf in the Kingdom -- in which they have, comme une dit, an "interest" -- is being shot. Jer got to hang out with them the following morning, while I reported for duty at Taste of the Nation. This was my second year volunteering for TOTN, a benefit at which some of the best restaurants, wineries and micro-breweries in the area (fewer this year than previously, thanks again to the wretched economy) dish up tasty morsels and sips. I'd told the organizers that I wanted to be kept busy this year; last time, there seemed to be too many hands for too few jobs. Be careful what you wish for; I spent hours wrangling pipe and drape (picture those curtained partitions in exhibit halls) to help transform a cavernous auto showroom into a warmer and more elegant space. I worked alongside folks a third of my age and three times my strength; it felt good, though, and I had just enough energy left to hook up with Jerry when he arrived as a paying guest and make the food and drink rounds with him.

April is income tax month, of course. The good news is that, thanks to faithfully paying estimated quarterlies, we got a chunk back this year from the Feds. It's not as if they gave us a gift, but it kinda feels that way. When my brother Larry was here in March, he allowed me almost unlimited playtime with his iPhone. Shortly after he left, a piece of trim fell off my own perfectly functional, if unexciting, cell phone, rendering it painfully tacky-looking. That, plus the prospect of a tax refund, was slim but sufficient justification for Gadget Girl to indulge in an iPhone for herself. I love love love it. If I were still toiling in infotech and traveling as much as I used to, I would have bought one "for the business" months ago. As it is, I had to work hard to rationalize the purchase, but (as you see) I managed. Jerry got a new phone, too, to replace the hand-me-down StarTAC I'd nominally reassigned to him five or six years ago. It's a plain vanilla generic model, but much easier to operate than his old one, and he's actually getting into the habit of using it. Let me know if you want his number so he can practice answering.

A small dinner party or two, an art exhibit, Frost/Nixon at Portland Center Stage, chats with neighbors, my usual weekly volunteer gigs... I think that about covers it for April. Sometime in mid-March my dear friend Libbi and I tried to find one morning that would work for both of us for brunch. The first possibility was May 8th, this coming Friday. That's the kind of month it was.

In the few days I was out of town this past week, our modest veggie patch burgeoned into edible-size spinach and butter lettuce, and most of the trees leafed out (the photo at the top of this post is our backyard pink chestnut, bare just a few weeks ago). Those so-called April showers are lingering into May. At this very moment, though, there's a sunbreak. I need to get out and garden. Whoops; rain again. I missed last Saturday's reportedly spectacular windstorm, but saw some of the damage -- a big elm down at SE 36th and Ogden (Jer was out the next day taking photos) and, around the corner on Knapp, a house where a tree fell and badly smashed a corner of the roof.

The mail arrived a little while ago, including a Penzey's Spices catalog labeled "Early Summer." Who are they kidding? I'm just grateful that spring has finally arrived.