Through the cerise redbuds and wildflowers awaiting sunshine to fully bloom, our slow hour’s drive up Dry Creek, then descending a curvy 245 to the entrance of Woolley Canyon, we arrived to brand the last of Kenny and Virginia McKee’s calves yesterday, despite concerns of Covid-19. Social distancing is virtually impossible in the branding pen.
Virginia had soap and wipes available and Kenny had prepared a concoction of 90% alcohol and witch hazel to spray on our hands that I used several times. It took the dirt off as well. Though apprehension varied among us, there was none of the normal hugs or handshakes, most keeping a noticeable distance when possible. But when it came to the groundwork and vaccinations, the work was necessarily close.
My separate apprehension on my 72nd birthday centered on a horse that I had roped on only once before. Robbin and I have outlived our dependable mounts, and I have had to borrow horses to get through this year’s branding season. By the end of the day, “Twist” was beginning to overcome his cutting horse breeding and he and I were having fun. After a couple of more brandings next year, he’ll be reliable at brandings.
Though everyone was given the option of not participating, we were there to help our neighbors, a cultural exercise we all prescribed to despite the risks. Not unlike workers tending and harvesting crops, it’s what we do this time of year. Not branding is not a viable choice in Woolley Canyon.
Working together with neighbors for a few hours on a beautiful day was a luxurious diversion from the news as we await a forecast rain.
I am traveling with a crowd on foot,
steep country new to me.
Arriving at the summit early
I follow the long ridge east
before returning to see the group has left.
I track them west to catch up
in a strange new world of wonders
where they are eating in a huge room,
cafeteria-style, but with glittering celebration,
streamers and bunting.
Across the room I see a familiar face
I thought was long dead
and hurry towards him, a short man
more full of energy than I remember.
He wants to show me around
and I follow, dazzled by all I see—
landscapes carved with care, misty
waterfalls and rivers running trout.
Growing weary, I can’t keep up,
and see him last descend a cliff
of loose dirt, brush and rock
like a young buck. I am afraid
and choose the long way ‘round
until I’m lost in the expanse
of a modern metropolis
of gray skyscrapers and elevated
thoroughfares from one horizon
to another. I stop blank-faced strangers
to ask directions to the place
where we first arrived, to family
and friends, to where I met him.
When I awake panicked, I am full
of his energy, stepping lightly
on the carpet instead of plodding
in the dark, tossing another stick
into the woodstove without pain.
Yesterday, Robbin and I began our 26th year together by making a loop through Greasy to look at the cows and calves, assess our feed conditions and put out salt and mineral. The cattle look great! We got an early start to the grass with November and December rains, but with a dry January and February, we lost our feed at our lower elevations on the south and west slopes. To date, we’ve only received three inches since the first of the year, but the grass at the higher elevations has just begun to grow.
A Border Collie at five months, it was Tessa’s first extended ride in the Kubota away from the house. Channeling her energy has been a challenge, but she’s smart and willing to please. It was good for her to be completely lost away from home and dependent on us for over four hours. Tired before she went to bed last night, she was sitting in the Kubota waiting for another ride.
Not much has changed for us, despite the Coronavirus pandemic. Normally, we do our best to stay out of town anyway. Before we have to get our Wagyu calves in for a second round of vaccinations, we’ve been preparing and planting our garden for the past couple of weeks—it’s what we do this time of year—that in turn will help us stay out of town later this spring.
However, we are not immune to the news as we try to imagine millions of people shut in their living quarters in a big city environment. Our hearts go out to them as we realize how fortunate we are to be free to move around the ranch to get our work done. Having something to do during this crisis is indeed a luxury.
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken dumbshow.
– Allen Ginsberg (“Memory Gardens”)
Chill in the dark,
the day before forever—
before eternity slips
into twinkling space.
Alone with ourselves,
we have no secrets left
to bury, only seeds to sow
for summer fruit.
Two owls are talking
across the yard:
promises of spring.
Dogs bark at the scent
of coyotes near—
neither know, neither care
It is our moment
to find diversions
in search of awe,
the small and the majestic—
to do the work
to ease the pain of living.
All the rest
Not with a bang but a whimper.
– T. S. Eliot (“The Hollow Men”)
A belly I may shed
before I leave this end—
my father wizened,
spending his before he died.
I yield to time,
to the absence
I feel ambition
and all its diversions
wane in the soft dirt
of familiar trails:
habits I cling to
so as not to get lost
in the grandstands
to watch the war
and any hope for peace
expire until I leave
the poetry to others—
the exultant songs
of living things
we may finally become
with a little luck
to be among them.
There is a knack to stacking wood
and wrapping packages in brown paper
you learn with time.
A metal pail for White King D
saved for picking blackberries
beyond the clothes line.
A drawer-full of safety pins,
balls of string with rubber bands
and paper clips held us together
in emergencies. She survived
the Spanish Flu of 1918
birthing my father, youngest daughter
of an Edinburgh schoolmaster,
arrived in Fresno to teach the Indians
English—and me the poetry of Keats.
Gasoline makes game scarce.
– William Stafford (“From the Move to California”)
A honk in the dark under clouds,
a lost goose circles the canyon’s walls
as it listens for an answer,
as I listen to the creek
rush instead of gurgle
since the rain.
Turkeys gobble over the rise
I cannot see, pausing like tree frogs
to join the chorus.
Not a car on the road
with headlights dancing
between posts and barbed wire—
there are no bounds to the black,
no interruption to the sounds
as if we and our machines
have abandoned this canyon
to its own devices.
Mid-afternoon, after-rain beneath cottony cumulus
with sails set north trailing the long-awaited storm,
a lone coyote’s husky bark, cows and calves
across the creek frozen alertly upon the green—
I must assume the feral pigs now have had their fill
of the young bull I had to kill two weeks ago
with broken leg sunk deep into a squirrel hole
while sparring with his mates passing idle time
with unemployed testosterone awaiting the long,
hog-truck trip home to a feedlot in Idaho.
Stiff hide and disconnected bones don’t care
having filled the bellies of our sanitary engineers.
Reading this, you
have survived the wars
by wit or luck
to suffer more.
It is our nature
that eternal dark emptiness,
remains the same—
Inside my rabbit hole:
last spring’s late rains
killing quail chicks
while turkeys thrived
This spring dry
a carpet of golden
beneath hard hills
Beyond my hide-away:
a scuffling of men
(and women, too)
changing places in line—
some running for election,
some running for cover,
some running in fear
to empty shelves
to stay alive.
It is our nature to endure.
She didn’t stay long
or leave much in the way
her fine gray mist
to brighten green,
and relieve the pain
for a well-begged rain—
a sniff and taste
to lure us closer
toward our reward
like this cold dawn’s
flat to the ground,
February 23, 2020