Kim Stafford

Learning Oregon Desert  Autobiography             

Kim Stafford

Chris Harris

​Learning Oregon Desert Autobiography



Far from the car near Harney Lake, I stood with my father

to study a zigzag petroglyph tapered to a circle knob 

held high. “Is it lightning?” I asked. He pointed behind me 

where a rattlesnake slid slowly into a cleft. I pointed 

behind him where another unraveled its coil to sidle 

into shadow. By the prickle on the back of my neck,

I was learning to read.



As she wove willow sticks peeled pale into the dream-shade 

for a cradleboard, a desert grandmother told me how

when an infant sheds its umbilical knot, that nub is sewn 

into a tiny pouch of smoke-tanned doeskin and tied

to a juniper limb in the hills. “Then that child, growing,”

she said, “will always feel home, pulling.” In the silence 

after her words, I was learning to listen.



Far from the car I stood with my brother on a dirt track 

leading through sage toward Glass Butte. Something had 

stopped us, something in silence had spoken, and we turned, 

oblique to study the horizon. The whole circumference  

roved unencumbered by the human, and as I gazed around, 

stillness was so deep I could hear sinews in my neck 

crackle, as if we were already ghosts come back to learn 

this way of belonging.



I have been told in the time before, in the time before, in 

the time before, in winter a desert band might gather turning

around a piñon pine by starlight, woven into one ring by arms 

on each other’s shoulders, and dance that circle round and round 

all night singing a one-line song: Toward the tree with pine nut 

cone seeds in the mountains we move about. Toward the tree 

with pine nut cone seeds in the mountains we move about. 

From that story I hungered to know my way to bless.



Leaving the car, I walked out onto the bridge

over the Crooked River, the bridge where my brother

stood a long time, looking down, the morning before

he put a pistol to his head and left us. I walked 

onto the bridge to look down, to try to see what he

had seen, that hard welcome of killing shadow 

far below, luring him, promising rest from pain. 

A breath came up from the canyon, cold and blue,

his pain right there. I must keep learning how to live.



They say among some desert people, the Milky Way

offers the dusty trail to the other world a spirit follows 

after life. They say it is danger to look directly at a whirlwind, 

which might be a human spirit traveling. They say it is not polite

to point at a rainbow, nor wise to follow a butterfly. They say 

it is wrong to gesture toward lightning, not safe for young boys 

to be seen by too many stars, who are women, and might 

bring them illness, desiring them as husbands. They say thunder 

is a kind of badger who, when lifting his chin to the sky, and 

bringing it down, makes rain come. So to learn, I look closely

at little things, and bring my chin down.



Far from the car one night, sleeping near Fort Rock,

waking over and over to bristling stars, a bird singing 

tireless, thriving in the little Eden of its song, singing its

one line over and over as the desert people did,

dancing around the piñon pine. Small witness

in a big place: I was taught the sufficiency of the spare.



They say among the desert people a woman could be

shaman as well as a man. Her calling came through

a spontaneous dream. She was taught to forget 

her power between times that gift was needed,

and to lead an ordinary life. Like other desert beings—

whirlwind, raven, butterfly, coyote—such a dreamer

would travel in obscurity, until something required

the transformation to shaman, then the resonance

would come. By this I learned how from the ordinary

you must rise into helpful dreaming—as dry trees 

reach up eager into the storm, as the whirlwind rises, 

as coyote wails to the hard stars.



One time far from the car, southwest from Brothers,

as I followed a track old cars had made before they rusted 

into scrap and joined a heap to be forgotten up a ravine 

behind a ranch that failed, I came upon a post leaning 

with two arrowed signs, one aimed south and inscribed 

in faded script: San Francisco, and the other reaching north:

The Dalles. I looked south and north along that highway of dust, 

where dull green sage ached to close the seam.



Some desert people would say 

Don’t chase your soul, meaning Don’t go too fast. 

Or they would say, I will pay you when I die, meaning 

At my funeral you will receive gifts. Or sometimes 

to warn against outside tricksters, they would say, 

When Coyote arrives at a place, he speaks the people’s

language well. Or, When walking in the brush, don’t speak 

the name of rattlesnake. Instead say, Little Waving One

And If you don’t dance, the bear will bite you.

You say such things where only the stones listen,

but they listen with great patience and skill.



South from Lakeview, a badger facing me 

from a burrow, grey eyes dim with dreaming, not needing

to be fierce, so utterly in command. We stared, I the upright 

child, and he the old shaman shouldering earth, lifting his chin, 

then bringing it down as he backed into darkness, 

shoveling earth behind him to close the burrow door. 

I stood alone, as sudden rain began.



They say some foraging bands would range

over the land, radiating from a known landmark-hub

toward a shifting periphery. No boundaries, only a center—

a spring, a mountain, a place for ritual—under the Pleiades, 

Coyote’s Daughters, under the moon, Your Father’s Father. 

They brushed dew from sage tips with the wing of a duck 

into a willow bottle sealed with pitch, then ran to feed the children 

bundled in rabbit-skin blankets in a shelter of brush open to the south.



One time driving the Ochocos with my brother, 

a two-lane dusty track to descend the mountain,

a swale, a cabin sagging forgotten, we pry open the door:

tattered curtains, kerosene lamp dry on the table,

shreds of purple velvet peeling from walls. 

“How would it be,” my brother says, “to live here always?”



They say when the people hunted, they hunted for spirit,

a matter of focus, of concentration on exact details

that include whole stories—a piñon pine that gives

everything, a circling hawk that sees everything, a river

in dry country that gathers all creatures into one living web, 

rose hips beaded red and threaded on a stem of grass 

around a child’s neck for beauty at the dance.



North from Grandview, far from the road when I was 

seventeen, I sat all afternoon in the shade of an ancient juniper, 

remembering the many-legged petroglyph old ones pecked 

on that boulder near where the Crooked River slid into the Deschutes

before the dam buried that known center in deep darkness

and the sacred had to live in stories. Reaching arms around me, 

the juniper was teaching me, with twisted limbs, contortions 

I would suffer, reaching this way and that to obey the sun—

father gone, brother gone, night bird singing, badger 

bringing rain, whirlwind walking a spirit home, and all of us, 

all of us dancing around the pine tree chanting 

desert words of blessing.

Kim Stafford directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and is the author of Wild Honey, Tough Salt. In 2018 he was appointed Oregon’s ninth poet laureate.