Signs of life


Warning winds blow down the hill
Clouds drop toward the valley floor
Poplar leaves rattle like a broken door
Amber grasses bow at their will
Still, the day glows in the autumn light.


The first Lombardy poplars, it’s said, were planted in the USA in the 1789. While the tree enjoyed popularity (or is that poplarity?) as a landscape tree throughout the country, it also became an iconic symbol of settlement in the West. It seems as if immigrants to this wilder terrain expected to tame the land with Lombardy wild breaks. Find a homestead out here and chances are you’ll find Lombardy poplar.

Traveling through rural open countryside west of the 100th meridian you’ll see the snaggy remnants of a tree or two or three with nary a soul in sight. Sometimes the eroded remains of a foundation or a withered wood shed remain as a clue to the settelment that once sheltered a family. In wind-swept gullies of the Columbia Plateau, pastures in the Palouse country, or alluvial fans of the Great Basin, clusters of Lombardy poplars still stand rebelling against those failed dreams.

In the Summer Lake basin below Winter Ridge such a poplar stand shades the porch of the old school-house. In this postcard valley, rim rock rises above the playa birthing juniper and sage. Wild geese come calling for forage in fall. Some are greeted by shotgun blasts, others find sustenance among the tule marsh and hay fields.  Black Angus cattle range freely here; living, breeding, dying (witness a bloated cow’s stiff legs in the air), but mostly putting meat on tables.

Yet, the schoolhouse is idle. What was once a community’s attempt to settle the land, and their children, is now fenced off and shut: transformed to historic landmark and not much more. The poplars witnessed it all. Though relatively short-lived, they likely witnessed the life and death cycles of the dreams, geese, cattle, and schoolhouse, alike. They carry on with their own dream of withstanding another storm brought in by the wind.