Two Poems by Ellen Waterson

The Making of a Riverkeeper

Summer hatch on the Deschutes as it flows
through town: hordes of six-pack abs, pasties,
and thongs astride monster floaties; swarms, dizzy
on tokes and beer, adrift in garish vinyl lounges.

Boom boxes, F-bombs, and barking mutts pepper
the banks. Cans, flip flops, and tubes of sun block
tumble in the drink. Otters flee to den, kingfisher
to limb, fingerlings freeze, noses into the current,
until the crazies leave.

But a child, tied to his parents’ floating play,
tunes out the rowdies, dreams into the water
as cool liquid ribbons through his fingers. He feels
the pull of the current, smells the dank muddy,
breathes in a tiny midge and sneezes. He spies a gosling
safe in the reeds, tells the anxious goose; imagines yellow-
eyed dragons, riverteeth bared, laired in glistening caverns.

On his parents go, noisy and slow. But this quick,
young imagination runs the rapids ahead, needles
through canyons, spins in unknown eddies, stitches water
with white foam, pens early lines of a story dedicated
to the Deschutes’ forever startled to life on this day,
in this place, within the embrace of this very river.

Life Is Uncertain

All he wants, when surveying the windrows, the fresh bales,
when nursing purpled nail and blistered palm, is to know she’ll
be waiting for him at home in the evening and he can ask her,
Do you remember when … ?

last February’s record-breaking snow buckled
the barn roof, the melt flooding the fields and filling
the daylight basement? How he joked he had to swim to bed,
wear irrigation boots to shoot pool.

when the Pandora moth carcasses were so thick
last June they piled up like snow drifts under the streetlights
in town, the wings and antennae like frail dusky ferns
on the pavement.

or in August, when the swallows suddenly left, their acrobatics
and tart chirps no longer spicing the evening, their empty mud-daub
nests like featureless faces mouthing no, no? How bereft he was,
rattled, to see them go. No sign of them since or now.

or when the greasy smoke from the forest fires never lifted all fall,
the water in the swollen reservoirs and nursing rivers recruited until dry,
the sun an angry orange coming and going in the sky, throwing bloody
flames when eclipsed by the moon? How he’d shuddered at the sudden
darkness and cold.

or when the Pioneer stopped serving dessert, not even fudge cake.
How, without dessert, without anything sweet, the way the world
was going to hell in a hand basket, he didn’t know what to eat first.
He wasn’t joking anymore.

All he wants when surveying another season is to know she’ll
be waiting for him at home in the evening and he can ask her,
Do you remember when we couldn’t have said any of this?
She’ll take his calloused hand in hers and nod and say she does.

About Ellen Waterston

Award-winning high desert writer Ellen Waterston has published three literary nonfiction titles, including Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America Along the Oregon Desert Trail (University of Washington Press, 2020) and four poetry collections. She is founder of the Writing Ranch, which conducts retreats for writers, and the annual Waterston Desert Writing Prize. She lives in central Oregon. Visit www.writingranch.com and www.waterstondesertwritingprize.org.

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