We were following a long river into the mountains.
– Gary Snyder (“Journeys”)
On the outskirts of the backcountry,
the foothill hem of the Great
we head upstream, drifting closer to
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