Gun in the scabbard,
shooting with a camera,
the world stays the same.
Yearning is an easy look
backwards, a slow-moving canvas
colored to taste, shaded by habit.
Our war whoops but echoes
fading in canyons on trails of broken
brush long-overgrown, mocking
our wild-eyed blindness
since sharpened and tempered
by scars upon scars and time.
Now is the moment we begin
to be all we can—to revel
in its rich accomplishment.
When we quit questioning,
when darkness falls
upon the wilderness of wonder,
are we afraid
of our imagination,
of other possibilities
among the night songs?
How full and fresh the child
that asks and asks, that sees
the disconnected weave
a vibrant tapestry!
How stale is he
that wears the answers
chiseled in a cave
to recite by braille.
Never a straight line, we bend
with the channel of the creek
with or without water, jobs
shouting at every turn, begging
for attention. I love it now,
seasoned and with purpose,
place after place to pour my soul,
to get it right. Chances are
my fence repairs will outlast me,
gates will swing, troughs hold water
out of respect for the ground—
for the cattle and those around me.
Never a straight line, cows cut trails
on perfect grades, leave soft dust
to plod tomorrow without thinking,
make beds in shade for generations
they will never know. In the end
it becomes our nature to make
living easier on the uneven,
on the unpredictable and the harsh
that will eventually absorb us.
Chances are, no one will notice,
no applause for our best effort—
only the knowing a job well done.
I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.
– Wendell Berry (“Thirty More Years”)
I knew when I was young
and proud, I had found my place
on this ground—my limbs
could support me for as long
as they were sound—living
where the work was hard.
I was not afraid of time
and grinned at gravity,
rode the edges of ridges down
behind cattle, shaping me
to fit the landscape
eventually or die.
I scratch among the grasses now,
learn the language of birds
and flowers, the expression
of horses and families of cattle—
all the tattered glories of youth
bent closer to what counts.
The clichés rained
when I was young
like hollow outlines
I was destined to fill
with real details—
sayings tested with
bullets with agility
and dumb luck
to get old enough
to speak at funerals
of a few good friends
who rode with me,
or saw it all
from a distance:
no straight track
in the senses. But
no longer hackneyed
hints for youth,
they become fresh,
reborn with answers
at our fingertips.
You others, we the very old have a country.
A passport costs everything there is.
– William Stafford (“Waiting in Line”)
Circles mapped to save steps on sure ground,
well-worn routine from barn to mangers,
feed and irrigate with the right tools
to mend our presence along the way—few
loose pages nowadays, at the ready—gathers
to brand and wean replayed, filed by pasture.
I remember the old dogs refreshing scent posts
in the last of the light before they slept
into forever, and all the old horses in the dark
nosing buckets trying to bring the sun—
and my father’s careful words, after awhile,
you have to get used to not being first in line.
When the wind blows up canyon,
first light gray,
I am the old red horse,
twenty-five, bucking in place.
We never loose it, that wanting
stirred and satisfied—
to be wild again
when everything is right.
We feel his feeble effort,
hooves barely off the ground,
our whoops and cheers
howling on a damp wind.
I imagine that the young men
I went to school with have retired
by now, given up their desks
for free-wheeling possibilities
to coast downhill grades, collecting
their rewards and all the promises made
to themselves, over and over again.
I truly wish them all the best.
And I suspect the girls have become
wise grandmothers with practical advice,
keeping secrets in ceramic cookie jars
with noisy lids like I remember.
Leaving with Stafford, I retire
from a world too large to digest,
and go to that far place for the familiar
sign, those recognizable tracks
where wild makes sense of circumstance.
We are collecting short stories
like mushrooms in wicker baskets
before they fade and melt into the ground,
discussing how we’ll sauté them over fire
in butter and garlic to melt in our mouths
instead. Already we can feel their wild
flavor rage in our veins, like venison,
as we shed the old flesh, find keen eyes.
All the ghosts will rise beneath the stars
to gather at our fire, faces flickering
in the darkness to share the light.