The foundation crumbles—
the red, white and blue
states of dysfunction
for another victory,
chip away at truth and honor
just to play in the District
of Columbia. Poll-driven
word games, big dollars
for coffers drive the train—
O’ Casey Jones
watch your speed!
Unbelievably, only one wire is broken beneath the top of this Blue Oak, a victim of the drought and the high winds from the last storm on the Paregien Ranch. Kubota only, the roads are wet, water running in every crease. It will take at least a week without rain before we can get back in a pickup at about 2,400’, or before gathering horseback. The long-range forecast is for more rain at the end of next week.
Not a business to schedule by the calendar, the three major variables we must contend with are the weather, the market and politics. After four years of drought, we’ve found new extremes to our adaptability, thinking well outside the box of past-experience. Just how we will adapt will be interesting. Furthermore, the cattle market is off about a third of the prices received three years ago, and most producers have had to cull their cow herds so deeply that reduced calf-crops may not cover costs.
No one knows the impact of the current politics, other than markets for almost every commodity will probably not be stable. Additionally, much of the domestic beef business depends on exports, of late reduced by a stronger dollar. With existing global trade agreements under fire, there is perhaps less certainty about the market for beef since the fiasco of the first Dairy-Out Program nearly 40 years ago.
We have plenty of places to busy our hands and occupy our minds as we develop a near-term plan around all three variables of this business. Even though we are at the mercy of the weather, the market and politics, we do have job security, for a while.
a patient willing descent into the grass.
– Wendell Berry (“The Wish To Be Generous”)
Hemmed in silver moonlight, scattered
clouds linger over hills, no wet reflection
of the porch light. She has come and gone
without waking me with thunder, pellets
on the roof, not a leaky drip from the eave,
leaving nothing to remember her passing
by—not even her musty petrichor perfume
in the damp dark air to soothe my senses—
gone without a thought of waking me.
From a distance in the daylight, islands
of purple filaree look like dirt in graying
green, rolling dusty plumes follow cows
into water, yet they don’t seem to worry
into another winter without rain. Too
familiar, I read the signs with each synapse
shortened by the hard and dry. Too long
in the same place, I can see the weather
and the world have changed around me—
changed me as I retreat and try to adapt
like summer weed seed over time:
impervious to thirst and political herbicides.
After awhile in a place, the trees we plant,
fertilize and irrigate for summer shade
and privacy need to be pruned to see
the pasture between us and the road,
as cows and calves become autumn’s
evening entertainment waiting
for a rain beneath a waxing moon
and the ridgeline’s jagged shadow
cast across a canyon greening—
the phone rings inside
lamenting the election
and everything it means:
no more robot recordings begging money
and votes four times a day for candidates
and propositions I know nothing about,
yet sure of another set of rules and taxes
to pay for agencies and enforcement
to make the majority feel better
about this crazy world. I need to raise
the curtain, cut another limb to sooner
see who or what’s coming up the road.
I turn away, blinded by November’s
first light, Redbud hearts enflamed
with last season’s feed on green
burning yellows between dark shadows
with the news, with disbelief.
I retreat to calm counsel with cattle:
scattered pairs, calves fresh with life
finding legs to fly—buck and run
figure-eights without direction always
circling back, showing off for mom.
We will work the heifers anyway—
give them everything we can
to make them attractive to Wagyu,
their first bulls. And we will wait,
as we always do, for rainy days.
Campaigning for V.P.
of the Student Council
in the fifth grade:
I claimed to be half-horse,
half-alligator and a little attached
with snapping turtle
and have the fastest horse,
prettiest sister, the surest rifle
I promised to pay attention
and do the best I could. Enough,
in those days, to get elected.
Despite January rains and El Nino prognostications, we’ve hit a typical winter dry stretch. Instead of 2 weeks warm and 2 weeks cold sometime in February,
the month has been warm, half the days thus far over 70 degrees. Relative perhaps, the trend is dry with expectations of an early and short spring. Stock water resources have nearly recovered, with more grass than cattle after four years dry, we should survive the coming summer and fall well, a familiar concern more normal than not for spring. Our country looks good, wildflowers spreading like wildfire upon the green, snow in the Sierras 1,000-1,500’ higher than we’d like to see. It will change quickly if the mid-70s, without rain for the next ten days, come to pass.
Garnered from branding photos, my ‘looking spry’ has connotations reserved for the old, the aging and antique that startle me, yet somewhat gratified that I can
still rope and ride. I was the old man in the branding pen yesterday with Brent Huntington’s uniformly big calves. Once untracked, I roped well, probably better than when I was younger worrying about how my horse and I would perform in the corral. Nowadays, the challenge is to be some help. On the way off the hill looking down on Three Rivers, Robbin and Terri compared my ‘style’ to that of the old timers, the generation before me, a compliment. To have an effective ‘style’ is beyond any expectations of the last forty-five years of branding calves, what has become more of a mindset apart from just catching that favors first the horse and calf.
Now sorted-off with the elders in this business, what did I have to impart over steak sandwiches and beer instead of politics yesterday? Be grateful that you don’t have to punch someone’s time clock in town, or commute to work, or have to listen to the noise of human neighbors, sirens, traffic. How much of the politics of the world actually touch us here in these hills, change how we have lived and worked over the years? This is another world, a forgotten world we adapt to, and no matter what the majority decides, what laws it passes, it has to eat.
So yes, I have been granted a little luck, to ‘look pretty spry whether tossing a loop or wielding an iron’.
My other voice just beneath the skin,
its echoes muffled by convention
and chained from reason’s reach
to speak only to me, quickly and quietly—
my unholy voice of blatant honesty
I can neither temper nor ignore,
telling more than I truly comprehend,
amazes me: a brief non-sequitur
with a keen edge, blade like a mirror.
I have grown deaf to crowds chanting
simple mantras as demigods tremble—
I’ll keep my counsel with my wonderment.
The Big Casino, neon flashing with the sound
of coins in an empty bucket, we gamble
with the future, bet on multi-billion dollar
promises to win whatever philosophic war
of wills we don’t need to fire our passion
anymore. All the poor casualties, battlefields,
bombings and body parts we’ve seen
severed and separated from survivors
we ignore. We want an enemy to blame
here-at-home and over choppy seas
as if directors of movies made for profit—
played for our insatiable entertainment.
Posted in Poems 2015
I was so happy to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott last night after the full house, Baja California show concluded that I rather rudely interrupted his conversation with a young lady to shake his hand for a quick hello. I caught up with her later to apologize, only to learn that she was a reporter for Reuters looking for a real cowboy poet.
The Poetry Gathering won’t officially begin until Thursday, and few of us are here yet, but Robbin and I come early to acclimate and set up camp in our motel room. Looking at my Giants hat, she didn’t believe me when I told her I was one.
Try as I might to break free of the urban stereotype, the ensuing interview and conversation confirmed so many misconceptions about our livestock culture that I was somewhat dismayed, even frustrated at times trying to explain that we’re not all Republicans, not all isolated from the rest of the world in a mythical West — that there is a difference between dairy and beef cattle.
The interview concluded where it should have begun, that we, just like the livestock culture of the Baja Californians, are land based, our physical and mental health dependent upon the health of the land and our cattle. We are not looking to blame the current drought in the American Southwest on Global Warming or the tsunami in Japan, nor are we looking to US politics for drought relief. As a self-reliant bunch, we try to solve problems, working with the current drought the best we can.
I probably didn’t change her mind much, but that’s what the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is all about, offering varied perspectives to help bridge the gap between the range livestock culture and the urban majority — it’s not all in a hat.