We were following a long river into the mountains.
                                                  – Gary Snyder (“Journeys”)

On the outskirts of the backcountry,
the foothill hem of the Great
                                                            Western Divide
we head upstream, drifting closer to
                                                            the Kaweahs
where the Big Arroyo falls to the other side.

Ko said, “Now we have come to where we die.”

                    How many aged, hip shot horses finally look up
                    from dreams, asleep on their feet, not wanting
                    to wake into our fenced realities, recalled
                    to mountain meadows fed by Sierra lakes
                    and snowmelt? We saved her once, fallen
                    off the High Sierra Trail, but Jane escaped
                    and stayed the winter on the Big Arroyo
                    with only scattered bones to show.

We become the animals that have taught us
how to forage and gather for the future,
the fang and claw of predator and prey—
we relearn the language and how to think.
We hold no fear of death.

Two young black cows, calves trailing
a long steep bluff of trees and rock
to the sound of my Kubota with alfalfa,
a flat spot in a short canyon cove I own
where I’ve never fed before. Here
I am the interloper without a history.
A gray Prairie Falcon glides low
overhead, treads air to inspect me
in his territory, falls to perch on a clod
for another perspective as the cows eat,
then returns to the top of his oak tree.

When I was a boy, I might have shot him
for a closer look, like Audubon inspecting
the feathers of his handlebar moustache.

                    But now he is my totem,
                    both on journeys upstream—
                    “This is the way
                    to the backcountry.”

                                                  For Sylvia and Matthew

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