When I first met my friend, Elaine, I was a high school English teacher in a rural coastal town. She ran the office. Her daughter was my student. Maybe it was my black tights that fooled her or my bookish ways. Maybe because I can speak French.
Now she tells me that she still cannot believe that I garden, she cannot believe that I dig in the dirt, that I pull weeds, that I haul manure. Even more fabulous to her is that I then preserve, either by canning, freezing or drying, all that I grow. She loves my pickled beets and blackberry cordial.
“It just doesn’t seem like you,” she says. “I saw you growing up in a loft in New York, not in a quarter-acre garden in soil-encrusted jeans, an old straw hat on your head, a red bandana handkerchief hanging from your pocket, with sweat dripping off your forehead.
“You’re not carrying around a bucket full of hand tools and a bottle of water, a hoe and a shovel. No, in my mind’s eye, you have a bag from Neiman Marcus or Macy’s or Filene’s Basement and a bunch of flowers. Maybe a cheesecake from Junior’s.”
That she pictured me in a New York loft, so cosmopolitan, so cultured, makes me smile. That she saw old farm-girl me as a sophisticate pleases me.
Truth to tell, I no doubt could live that way, in a loft with books and art all around, good restaurants and even better theatre within walking distance. A place where I could find poetry and movies and stores providing every item I might want without driving two hours over treacherous mountain passes. Imagine the symphonies, the ballets, the lectures. And yes, the famous cheesecake might make its way to my hands and further yet.
A month maybe. If it were spring, maybe three. I could last that long. But then, oh then, my need for an open, flat valley with sun morning, noon, and night, a valley ringed by hills and evergreens, a valley full of pastures, crops, and animals, a valley of crossroads lined with turn-of-the century farmhouses and weathered barns, that need would overcome me. I would have to fly home where I could reach my arms out and not touch anyone; home, where I could walk a quarter mile and not touch anyone. Home, where I would not have to look straight up to find the sky.
We Northeastern Oregon women are like that. Our love of land is epigenetic, bred into us, I’m convinced. Elaine knows. She’s a Northeastern Oregon woman too. Even though we both live in Western Oregon now, as far west as you can go without falling into the sea, we chose a rural town in which to settle. We live on farms in valleys encircled by hills and trees, in places that look as much like Northeastern Oregon as we can get. Still, something is not quite the same. The sunlight year-round, the summer heat, the smell of dust and wheat? Sitting around the bonfire at night next to the slough catching catfish? The rustle in the grass that means snake?
Growing up when and where we did, we learned to be thrifty, to be gleaners. Instead of throwing things away, we saved things and figured out other ways to make use of them. We lived in a way that’s now back in fashion, now called “sustainable” and “organic.” Back then it was called making something out of nothing because nothing was what our parents had a lot of.
We Northeastern Oregon women can catch a chicken, chop off its head, pluck it, gut it, and cook it up, all in the same day. We can drive in snow up to the hoods of our vehicles and call it a good day outside. We can spend the day herding cattle and whip up a barbecue that night. We can sew our own clothing and have it win awards at the county fair. Our houses are decorated with natural treasures such as birds’ nests, rocks, and oddly-shaped wood. Moss and dried twigs, plumes of dried grass and cat tails.
We find our joy in other people. When you grow up living long distances from another human being, you cherish the times when you get together–dances, 4-H meetings, weddings and funerals. You care. You share, willingly, because you know each other. You come together because you want to, not because you are forced to by small or crowded spaces. Even if you move away, your Northeastern Oregon cells locate each other.
We find our joy in nature. We are poets and essayists, women of words, spoken or written. We are painters and musicians. We live where there is land between houses. We grow flowers. Don Gray’s paintings of Union or Cove or Joseph, rounded brown hills and bird-filled marshes, bring tears to our eyes.
That loft in New York would be nice and exploring would keep me busy. Just not for too long. I’d get nervous, needing my fix for home.
When we go home to visit, we breathe easier. We feel at peace. We may not live in Northeastern Oregon any longer but Northeastern Oregon is alive in us.