Oregon is a large state made up of a gradient starting with the huge pine forests on the west to sagebrush steppe on the east. I can tell from observing the reactions of visitors to the area and those who look at my photos from Lakeview that the bleakness of the high desert in fall is not attractive to everybody. The majestic beauty of pine stands impresses the average person, while the stark beauty of the high desert may be lost upon them. This time of year it is especially easy to dismiss the splendor of southeast Oregon, when everything but the shrubs and junipers have said their goodbyes and turned a hopeless shade of blonde. Maybe because I grew up on the prairie, making me partial to empty horizons, but the beauty of the high desert continues to amaze me everyday.
The sagebrush steppe may seem like an endless homogeneous ecosystem, but upon closer look there are numerous distinct micro-ecosystems. The extremely varied geology of this area creates semi-isolated pockets with their own specific soil types, and microclimates, allowing for an array of unique places to develop.
Among these unique places is a formation called Mahoghany Butte. At first glance there is nothing remarkable about this compared to the other buttes it is nestled between. It is a large, regular, butte-shaped, covered in grasses, rocks, and sagebrush. However, on closer inspection of the very top of this butte one sees a dark patch. This patch is a very old mountain mahoghany forest that crowns the butte at 6800 ft, and barely spills over the edges. This shrub has grown to 12 to 15 feet making it the tallest thing for miles. Looking out over the area, one can see nothing similar to it, and the recruitment for new mountain mahoghany seedlings lower on the butte seems to be quite low. The isolated forest is one of Mother Nature’s mysteries. I am sure that with a little soil and climate inspection the forest could be readily explained. But on top of the butte, surrounded by the twisted mountain mahoghany limbs and the feathery seeds, shimmering in the sun, the place feels almost magical.