Bird Language

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

One fine day, after exhausting my meager means and concluding that my hopes of being struck by financial lightning were as ungrounded as Ben Frankin’s kite, I found myself yielding to exigency.

“Exigency”, as far as I can tell, is from a Latin word meaning “out of money again”. So for exigent reasons, I hired out to work as a cowboy on a cattle ranch up near the California-Oregon border. Caught a ride with the boss out to the spread, put my gear in the bunkhouse, and went to work. I was eighteen.

old time cowboy

Figure 1. This is not the cowboy you are looking for.

Now cowboy movies, and folks like Gene Autry, and dime-store novels, and bad TV shows, have convinced recent generations of Americans that cowboying is some kind of romantic deal. They imagine babes on horseback in checked shirts with bandannas around their necks, and lots of riding and roping cows and shooting rustlers. Which only proves that recent generations of Americans have mostly not been cowboys. Cowboying does have those things sometimes, but most of the time you’re not on a horse following the chuck wagon, or singing songs around a campfire. Most of a cowboy’s time on a cattle ranch is not on a horse at all. Instead, it is spent fixing fences and ditches and roads and buildings and the like. You start at the top of a long irrigation ditch with a shovel, work your way to the bottom clearing out a month’s worth of silt and twigs and grass and leaves, in an on-again, off-again rain. Or maybe you start at the bottom corner of the pasture and walk the four-mile fence line around the section with a fencing tool and a bag of staples and a sandwich in your pocket, deep in the brush in the crushing summer heat, where no breeze penetrates. Half the time wet, the other half dusty, and the remainder just resting up for tomorrow. Before dawn until after dark, live in the bunkhouse with a bunch of guys that smell like … well … just about like you might expect cowboys to smell who view bathing as a somewhat unproven modern notion … no, cowboying is not real heavy on the romantic …

The old man who lived in the bunkhouse with us half dozen younger cowhands was romantic, though. Born around 1880, he wasn’t sure of the date. When he was a kid, his parents had moved from Sacramento to work on that ranch on the border. They had come by Conestoga covered wagon, 240 miles (400 km) to the new ranch. Around that time, the final war of all the tragic, senseless wars between the Early Asian Immigrants and the Later Melanin-Deficient Immigrants occurred not far away from the ranch, the “Modoc Wars”, at Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a crushing defeat for a noble man and his mostly overlooked people … but I digress, what I’m trying to say is that he was one of the last of that band from the faraway time of the real cowboys and Indians …

The old man been a cowboy all his life on that ranch. When the new owners had bought the ranch five years before, part of the deal was the old man was put out to pasture in the bunkhouse. It was his domain until he died, he ate in the ranch house with everyone else.

Us young bucks all idolized the man, of course. I’d brought my guitar with me, it went where I went in those days. We’d sit in the evenings and sip whiskey and exaggerate our deeds. I didn’t have any to exaggerate, but the older men did. One night I was singing some old cowboy songs. The old man liked those. I started to sing “The Old Chisholm Trail”, about the trail first used by Jesse Chisholm right after the Civil War to drive herds of cattle from Texas to the railhead in Kansas. I bravely stepped in …

“I started up the trail October twenty-third
Started up the trail with the “2-U” herd
Come a ky-yi-yippie-yippie-i-yippie-a
Come a ky-yi-yippie-yippie-a”

That went well. Then I started the next verse, which also passed without comment. I hit my stride on the third verse, I’d gotten as far as:

“I woke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail
A rope in my hand and a cow by the tail
Come a ky-yi …

when the old man interrupted me. “Is that the way you city boys sing it?” he demanded. “You call that a Gah-dam cowboy song? Here’s how we sang it in my time, gimme that git-tar”, he said. He grabbed the guitar and started singing:

“I woke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail
My —— in my hand and a cow by the tail,
Come a ky-yi yippee …

Without a pause, he went on from there for verse after verse, the most presentable of which was

“Got a letter from home said my girl was dyin’
I started back to Texas just a sh*ttin’ and a flyin’,
Come a ky-yi-yippie- …

As the old man sang, each new verse detailed another page of the cowboy’s improbable voyage along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas, which was a sequence of increasingly unlikely and anatomically doubtful accounts of said cowboy’s sexual congress with a host of shady characters including a horse, a rattlesnake in a pile of sticks, and an old woman who gave him nothin’ but hell. And a social disease. If my memory serves me correctly, it concluded with several verses about his ending up in what would now be termed a “long-term relationship” with a cow, and what the cow did when she caught him “puttin’ on airs” with a buffalo who “was no better than she should be”, but by then we were laughing too hard for me to remember much of anything. He sang away like the Arkansas Fiddler, watching us fall about laughing and sporting an idiot’s grin, the man didn’t have a tooth in his jaw or a care in his head, and when we’d all got our breath back, he handed me the guitar and said “Now, that’s a Gah-dam cowboy song, sonny boy, don’t gimme none of that watered-down stuff” and wandered off to bed.

Anyhow, at least that’s the version that makes the most sense out of how I ended up on another cattle drive. Other, less-favorable accounts bandied about in some quarters are far less probable, and besides, it wasn’t me. And that’s how early one morning I found myself rolling out with the boys at four am, breakfast in the ranch house with the foreman, drinking coffee from the big tin pot. Then out by four thirty to where the remuda was gathered, and we chose out the horses we’d ride. We were going to gather the scattered bunches of cattle from where they were hiding in the lower hills, and drive them to the summer range, moving them on horseback over two days, up the brush-covered foothills to the pastures at the mountain’s foot.

I didn’t have any leather chaps to protect my legs, I figured I could fake it, but in the morning when I was getting ready, the old man gave me his chaps to use. I was glad, I knew the brush would be thick. He pulled me aside, and showed me that on the inside of the chaps he’d stitched a pocket made out of blue jeans denim. It had a flap that closed with a string to keep the contents from falling out while riding. He opened it to show me a metal flask of whiskey he’d stashed in there for me. “Don’t tell the foreman”, he said with a wink, “he don’t know I drinks a little. It’s just for the cold mornings, don’t waste it.” I felt honored and proud to be the bearer of his secret, and I swore I’d keep the faith.

When us boys were all saddled and ready to go, the foreman came out and mounted up, and we headed towards the foothills where the cows would be found. As soon as we were out of sight of the ranch house and the old man, the foreman rode up beside me … “I see the old man give you them damn whiskey chaps of his”, he said … “Now, how about a drink for good luck?” and the boys all laughed. I handed the flask over, I hadn’t even opened it yet, it went once ’round the boys. When it came back, I swallowed the three remaining drops that were obviously meant to be my portion, enjoyed the burn at the back of my throat, put the empty flask back in its extremely secret pocket, and the cattle drive was underway.

Contrary to popular rumor, cattle drives are mostly dust and boredom. Young guys get the worst job, to ride what we called “drag”, trailing behind the back of the herd, chivvying the strays forwards. That means you eat the herd’s dust all day, a fine dust, you wear a bandanna to breathe through, it creeps into every crack and crevice of your body and lodges in the corners of your eyes . The only excitement was the cows who occasionally decided to make a break for it. Then one or two of us would ride full speed to get them back. We were moving constantly uphill through a fairly narrow valley, steep ravines branching off on both sides. Cattle liked to hide in there. We went down and up the sides of the hills bringing them back. For this kind of work we had the saddles rigged fore and aft, with straps around the front and around the back of the horse so the saddle couldn’t slip either direction in the steep terrain.

Given a choice, cattle will always take the worst path, and when I was working a couple of runaway steers back to the herd, they bolted up a steep ravine underneath a bunch of low-hanging brush, too low and thick for me to ride under or through. By the time I found a deer trail halfway up one hillside to follow them, they were far ahead, out of earshot. I followed them slowly, working up the ravine along the trail, halfway up the lefthand slope, with the hill on my left, and the dropoff to the ravine and the far hillside on my right. Not a place for a horse to step wrong, we moved easy.

As I rode along in silence, I heard a ground-squirrel give an alarm whistle, the kind of whistle that sounds almost like a scream, the whistle one of them gives give to warn the other ground-squirrels of danger, with different calls for different kinds of danger. I looked down and across to the other side of the ravine. A ground-squirrel was in full flight for its burrow, it had heard the message from the sentry, he was streaking silently for home across a bare patch on the far hillside. He was about at the same elevation I was, with the deep ravine between us, I was looking right at him on the far hillside. At first I couldn’t see why the alarm had been raised, but when I saw my horse turn his head the funny way they do when they look upwards I realized a small hawk was diving on the squirrel, the horse saw it first. Entranced, I stopped to watch, my horse didn’t complain, he was watching too.

The animals all speak a common tongue, what some call “bird language”, a metaphorical term for the transmission of information by tone and intensity, by the presence and absence of the background noises, by all of the various calls and shouts and grunts and whistles and screams that animals make, by smells in all their varieties of meaning, by silences in a hundred different forms and substance, the silence of surprise, the silence of alarm, the silence of contentment. And the ripples of the bird language roll outwards in circles, one bird squawks funny, a squirrel down the way chitters the message, the woodpecker on the far side of the hill stops to listen … bird language links all of the forest dwellers throughout the course of their lives, they swim in it, they listen to each others warnings and see who shows up, it’s how news gets around in the forest. And even the domesticated horse knew that was a warning of danger falling from above … all horses have an instinctive fear of airborne danger from big cats dropping on them out of trees, they do not like danger from the air, he got the message, he saw it first. And we both stayed silently, mesmerized.

I thought the squirrel would make it, you know how you root for the underdog, he sprinted in silence, but just before he got to the burrow, the hawk struck it, and to my great surprise he snagged that squirrel right off the ground on the fly, using that snatching stroke with the Y-shaped talons, the clamping cruel talons that pull closed automatically when weight is on them so the hawk can just relax and let the prey hang and save every bit of energy to gain elevation.

When the hawk hit, that ground squirrel screamed, not the scream of warning I’d heard before, more a scream of anger, the frightened fury of any creature cornered and caught, even the worm turns, and the squirrel was turning and screaming and clawing at the hawk, but he was in the implacable, inexorable jaws of the talons. After catching him on the wing, the hawk first dropped deeper into the ravine below me to pick up speed, straining under the extra weight. In between the squirrel’s screams, I could hear each labored oar-stroke of the hawk’s wings, the wind whispering through the feathers as it pulled with all its might, first to stop losing altitude, then to hold altitude, and then finally to start to rise.

Rising, sweating hard for each additional cubit of altitude, the hawk rose above my elevation up on the hillside, and slowly toiled on higher and higher. The squirrel’s screams weakened, and then stopped. The hawk had caught a thermal, it had circled back over my head, not far above. The silence of the ground squirrel was ricocheting off of the corners of my brain, every creature heard it and knew it of old, the silence of an animal too far gone to even scream. I shook my head. The sun was hot, the flies had congregated without my noticing. A warm, earthy smell of spring, of things born while others were dying, oozed out of the brush on the slope.

I was getting ready to move when I heard another scream, but this one didn’t come from the opposite hillside, it came from high above. The horse shuffled uneasily and tilted its head, searching.

I looked up again, and from the corner of my eye I caught a big red-tailed hawk, stooping on the small hawk. Red-tails are a good-sized, big-chested bird, much larger than the small hawk. The red-tail was in a power dive, and as it neared the small hawk it screamed, that raging keening triumphant scream of the successful hunter when the kill is in sight. Every living creature within earshot felt it, that vocal harbinger of aerial death, it blasted through their earbones and raged up and down every spinal telegraph, even a young fool like myself didn’t need a translator for that bit of bird language … and neither did the small hawk, it snapped a quick look over its shoulder and called for all speed on the main engines …

But the extra horsepower didn’t help, the red-tail knew its business, it came fast in from high and behind, and flared its wings. The small hawk had been watching and calculating the angles, and when it saw there was no chance it did what the red tail knew it would do—it dropped the squirrel and fled.

And the silence shivered and fled as well, as the squirrel screamed, a new scream, not a scream of warning, nor of rage and defiance, but a scream of terror beyond endurance, the grating, piercing sound of the squirrel’s mental gears stripping as it fell toward the earth far below, getting louder and louder as it neared me. I waited for the splat.

But the great red-tail just pointed its beak straight toward the ground, and it took two or three breath-giving, sky-grabbing sweeps of its wings to drive it straight downwards, then it folded its wings and rocketed towards the earth in silence, no scream, all business this time. The screaming squirrel and the hawk met in mid-air directly in front of me out over the ravine, just above the ground as the hawk spread its wings and stuck his feet straight out in front of him, I heard his talons as they struck the squirrel in midscream, right in front of me, with an almost hollow, deadened thump.

The squirrel died instantly, its lungs crushed, never to expand again.

The resulting burst of silence crashed over the hillside around me with a palpable absence of sound, and every creature echoed and deepened the silence, the silence rolled out in circular ripple, the distant voices of the forest stilled as the wave of silence whispered past them ’til it seemed the earth was listening, the afternoon heavy, even the flies droned low, they all knew that silence. The hawk was still losing altitude, approaching the ground. The hawk was dead silent as every other creature was dead silent because it was the silence of the dead and every being knew it, I could hear the wild air whistling through the hawk’s wings as it struggled to pull out of the dive, I could hear my horse breathing, my horse watched the hawk, I watched, all the I’s in the forest watched.

The red-tail just managed to pull up, barely in time, with the body of the dead squirrel skimming over the ground, and then slowly and majestically it rose to wing its powerful path towards a distant disappearance. It shifted its grip on the dead weight of the squirrel to hold it the streamlined way, fore and aft, picked up a thermal up along the ridge line, stopped moving its wings and glided regally into the far afternoon …

I watched him go in awe. The ravine was still quiet. I heard the cows up above us. The hawk dwindled against the hills, blueing into the distance. I looked after him, long and hard, my thoughts strangely unmoored …“C’mon, boy”, I finally said out loud to my horse, “let’s go find those cows”, and my voice was a geological anachronism after the silence of the bird language.

We found the steers, my equine friend and I, and disputed their path with them until they saw the logic of returning to the herd. So it was back to the dust, riding drag again, but I didn’t care, the wild joy of youth was upon me and I had hawks in my heart, the rest of the ride to the summer pasture was full of golden afternoon sunlight, I never saw the dust at all.

With the herd together on the summer pasture, we stayed in the bunkhouse up there and did the branding and the castration and the shots and the pills. I couldn’t do that now, I couldn’t use a red-hot branding iron to scar and mark a cow. No way. I’m a reformed cowboy now, at least somewhat reformed, the Betty Ford Clinic handles it for all the celebrity cowboys, they made a special exception in my case. I did most of the 12-step program, although I cannot deny periodically backsliding to my old cowboy ways after I left the Clinic, but they told me that’s what Lohan and Sheen and the big celebrities all do, so I guess it must be OK.

So I couldn’t do it now, but back then, no one thought anything much about branding and the like. We cut off the scrotums of the young bulls and castrated them and painted the wound purple with gentian violet, with no anesthetic, nothing. If the scrotum was variegated in color, say white and brown, those were prized. We stretched those over the horns of our saddles, and they shrunk into place when they dried and looked flash. Guys in the city put chrome hubcaps on their cars … we put multicolored bull scrotums on our saddle horns. Go figure, you got to be stylin’, you know, it’s the same everywhere.

When the work is mostly done, cowboy humor often came to the fore. For riding, everyone wore tight cowboy boots that usually needed a “bootjack” to get them off your feet, a board with a notch in it to hook your bootheel in. Sometimes the boys would give each other the “hotfoot”. Heat up a poker in the fire. Hide the bootjack. Lay the hot poker near another man’s boot when he’s not moving. By the time he feels it, the boot is really hot. He hops around on one foot, looking for the bootjack, and fairly stirring and discoloring the air with various warnings of what he will do to the man who hid the dang bootjack … everyone considers this to be high humor … cowboy humor.

Not long before the job was over, we were all sitting around on the wooden fence of an evening. A couple of the boys were roping the yearlings inside the fence, to give them shots. The corral was big, it contained a couple of trees. A yearling calf is strong. So if you can go on one side of a tree and the yearling goes on the other side and near to the tree, it winds itself round the tree until it runs out out of rope, and you can give it the shots.

One of the boys roped a calf and started for a tree to snub it. We were laughing and talking story, the whole drive was nearly done, none of us had noticed that the foreman’s young son, his only child, four years old, had gone inside the corral and was standing behind that very tree … except the foreman. He saw the danger immediately. There was no stopping the calf, the rope was assuredly going around the tree with a hundred pound calf going full speed, if it went under the boy’s chin it could kill his only son in an instant, snap his neck, choke his life out. He vaulted the fence and flung his body wildly forward. He arrived a half-instant beforehand and interposed himself between the child and the insidious rope …

And as the foreman knew it wouldn’t, the calf didn’t stop, no indeed, and before anyone could do anything, the calf had taken six or seven-teen turns around the tree and the foreman and the child between him and the tree, and had lashed him and his son very neatly to the tree in an upright posture. His son was barely scared, he was wondering what all the fuss was about. The calf looked unmoved. The foreman was turning the air blue with threats against … well … any and everything that would harm his son.

And once the shock had worn off, if that wasn’t the most sublime piece of cowboy humor any of us had ever seen. We dropped off the fence laughing and rolled on the ground. After the foreman stopped cussing, and we had cut loose the calf and unwound the rope, he started laughing too. Even his son joined in. Anyone seeing us, a bunch of grown men and a four-year-old boy laughing at the far-too-near-death-experience of a beloved child until the tears came, would doubt our sanity … but that’s just cowboy humor, and sometimes it works better than grief counseling to get you through the day.

Afterwards, we actually did sit around the fire, and after some coaxing the foreman and his wife sang “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza”. They sang it without accompaniment of any kind. Their son was alive. The squirrel was dead. Somewhere in a range beyond human hearing, the hawk screamed again. The foreman’s wife sang the “Liza” part, and he sang the “Henry” part, she had a lovely alto voice and his was a growly baritone and even now, their voices blending in the final verse still sound strong, and full of life and laughter, they still ring true inside me, still rolling out past the soft remembered firelight of another time and echoing around my inner darkness.

Because even after almost half a century, somewhere inside I’m still eighteen and scratching a living on horseback in chaps, helping push a dusty, cranky herd of cattle to the upper range, with the brim of my cowboy hat shading a blinding bright summer view that stretches out well beyond next payday and leapfrogs my petty cares, a view from where we stood on the high summer range, overlooking the winter pastures far below, and on beyond the cities known and unknown, my young heart sailing away past the verdant, distant hills, careening towards an unknown brilliant future … and now, like the old cowboy with his idiot grin, I find myself wandering that same path still, with that same young heart and those same illusions and foolish dreams.

So I come to deliver to you this story of the diamonds and the dirt of being a cowboy, and to bring to you that far vision from over those same hills, the fabled hills where the grass actually is greener on the other side, and to bear witness to you of the distant refulgence of that unknown brilliant future glowing beyond the horizon and patiently waiting for your own raging, ranging, unchanging heart.

I bring all of that and more … and as an honest watchman and a far-from-disinterested observer, I must also bring the ever-new reminder of unavoidable plummeting death, that ravening bird who comes diving out of the sun, with pinions of flame and titanium talons, to silence all of our screams, and to release us at last from our foolish, futile fear of falling … I bring these these disremembered visions of a lost time for no reason other than for you to drift and dream on, my friends, the stories are the wings of our spirits.

w.

 

…  from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …

About these ads

113 thoughts on “Bird Language

  1. Great story of a great memory. And to think, you never thought of what those cow farts were doing to our world! Thanks for sharing something that I would never have guessed about “punching cows.” The imagery left me wishing I could have experienced it as well.

  2. Friend of mine told me a story of his dad. (rural Newfoundland)

    Dad, in his retirement years, would feed the crows every morning without fail. As we were loading his casket into hearse for his funeral, a large crow settled on the roof of the hearse.

  3. Willis,
    Give it a rest – it’s like reading a parody of a bad and corny novel.
    Stick to sorting out the science and exposing the warmists for the idiots they truly are – you’re good at that.

  4. Stumbled upon wattsupwiththat because couldn’t help
    but wonder why science was settled. My spirit revolted
    because settled science denies wondering about ‘What if?’
    Always read the articles faithfully because I learned so much
    on this site for over 9 years.
    Never felt a need to comment, because true science happens
    here. The debates, the facts, and the logical discussion.
    This site always left me more informed, and full of laughter,
    tears, wonder, and yes, even frustration because
    I couldn’t understand the label ‘deniers’ applied
    to scientists discussing theories.
    But this article…..explains why I wonder
    about science. Science goes only
    so far into the mysteries of the earth,
    and decodes them so slowly – and
    this article is the one step farther the respect
    of the mysterious which leads to science –
    which leads to more mysteries.

  5. Willis, love your writing. I run a ranch in Colorado, small, but full of the work you describe. We use a rubber band for the scrotums, we don’t like the blood. I sold my horses, not enough riding to keep them around. Like good dogs, they need lots of attention and love. My Dads generation are the last of the men who worked like you describe…now there are only a few left. I miss the real men of that time, they were not afraid to question, took no crap from anyone. They would shove a consensus up someones ass.
    My best days were in the saddle till I was exhausted. Thanks for taking me back.

  6. Andy W says:
    February 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Willis,
    Give it a rest – it’s like reading a parody of a bad and corny novel.
    Stick to sorting out the science and exposing the warmists for the idiots they truly are – you’re good at that.

    Andy, I tried to warn you about that from the start, I said “This is not the cowboy you are looking for”, but did you listen? Nooooo … I fear that once you read past that warning, then you only have yourself to blame.

    Seriously, though, the Romans said “De gustibus et coloribus non discutam”, or something like that, meaning you can’t argue with tastes and colors. If you say you think blue is a terrible color, all I can say is “Hele on”.

    So if you don’t like my writing style, all I can say is, well, thanks for sharing … but why bother telling me? I am assuredly not writing for your approval, I write because I can’t bear to not write.

    As you can see from the comments, in not liking my writing, you are in a definite minority among the commenters. Does that make them right? No way, you can’t argue with taste and color, they are no more right than you are.

    But it seems they’re having lots more fun than you, they’re enjoying what they are reading … so perhaps you should go read something that you do enjoy.

    All the best to you,

    w.

  7. Thanks for the great rendition of a cowboy’s life. I heard many similar stories from old and young cowboys alike over many years. Unfortunately, they are all gone and with them a rugged way of life. May they rest in peace.

  8. Willis

    You remind me of my early youth and the writing of Zane Grey; the visions remembered from the Bar T Bar ranch in Arizona.

  9. Great to have you back, Willis.

    I’ve got a story, that needs a writer.
    None to be found, so here goes:

    It was a slow day of fishing , thoughts and vision began to search the horizon.
    Which brought into view a bird with a large fish in its clutches.
    It was a sight, never seen before.

    Then, came the bald-eagle chasing the burdened aviator.
    I knew something worth watching was about to happen.

    The eagle was closing, (I told my fishing buddies-watch this!).

    The over-burdened aviator dropped its prize, and the eagle caught it in mid-air.

  10. Great poetry. I recall some things similar to the scenes you described, especially the hawks. Getting them into words is quite an achievement. You gave the old man his due. Impressive. I would have snatched the calf to the ground – killjoy cowboy.

  11. Willis I have always been impressed by your writings on science, they seem so effortlessly created, I sometimes wondered how you did it, where it came from. And here you are doing the same trick with memories. I wonder if this demonstrates an important truth that is missed by too many people.

    Not only do you use a wide range of vocabulary, structure and pace, something one would expect from an accomplished scientist on top of his game, but also with poetry. You really are making use of techniques that are thought of as belonging to the arts not science; for instance I thought the story with the squirrel has reached it’s crescendo, but like a master of a classical music you had this new theme already in your mind to bring in from a new and unexpected angle (like what happened). It is delivered with panache, and then after the excitement, instead of stopping, you bring us back with a long slow movement.

    Of course poetry is about association, the bringing things together of far flung thoughts through association. It is the way our world is made and the way we think, and must be buried deep inside our brains, coming from a place far deeper than self-conscious thoughts which is mostly wrapped around our animal selves (neocortex round the limbic and brain stem regions). Our ability to reason is a fragile thing that can only contribute a fraction to what we are doing and thinking in our daily lives, and most of that is to do with constraining drives rather than instigating them. Tourette’s is said to be caused by broken pathways from the frontal lobes that are no longer enabled to constrain emotional drives that are constantly bubbling up from the deeper subconscious mind where almost all decision making and thought originates.

    Now I wonder, and I wonder this often, perhaps secretly and with a little bit of malice when I look at the CAGW crowd. Is there a breed of scientist, hack and activist that has no conception of poetry, almost distains its importance to our thought processes. I have to say there are artists who distain rationalism, self-control and logical thinking and in a mindless way worship emotional excess and self indulgence? I could also say the same of politicians who wrap themselves too deeply in their scheming and planning of society.

    Really for thought to be let free, whatever field you are in; the art, the sciences, religion or politics, you have to embrace you whole selves. Is this part of the secret of how you seem to achieve such breadth of achievement in such diverse disciplines? Michelangelo and Leonardo were architects and artists, Leonardo was also a scientist.

  12. This brings back memories of Will James, a favorite author of mine when I was young.

    Thanks for the break from science and politics and for reminding us of what magic resides in the human spirit.

  13. This gives me the opportunity to post one of my favorite cowboy poems:

    LASCA

    I want free life and I want fresh air;
    And I long for the gallop after the cattle,
    In their frantic flight, like the roar of battle,
    The mêlée of horns, and hoofs, and heads
    That wars and wrangles and scatters and spreads—
    The green beneath and the blue above,
    And dash and danger, and life and love —
    And Lasca!

    Lasca used to ride
    On a mouse-gray mustang close to my side,
    With blue serapé and bright-belled spur;
    I laughed with joy as I looked at her!
    Little knew she of books or of creeds;
    An Avé Maria sufficed her needs;
    Little she cared, save to be by my side,
    To ride with me, and ever to ride,
    From San Saba’s shore to Lavaca’s tide.
    She was as bold as the billows that beat,
    She was as wild as the breezes that blow;
    From her little head to her little feet
    She was swayed in her suppleness to and fro
    By each gust of passion; a sapling pine
    That clings to the edge of a beetling bluff,
    And wars with the wind when the weather is rough,
    Is like this Lasca, this love of mine.
    She would hunger that I might eat,
    She’d take the bitter and leave me the sweet;
    But once, when I made her jealous for fun,
    At something I’d whispered, or looked, or done,
    One Sunday, in San Antonio,
    To a glorious girl in the Alamo,
    She drew from her garter a dear little dagger,
    And—sting of a wasp!—it made me stagger—
    An inch to the left, or an inch to the right,
    And I wouldn’t be maundering here to-night;
    But she sobbed, and, sobbing, so swiftly bound
    Her torn rebosa about the wound,
    That I quite forgave her. Scratches don’t count
    In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

    Her eye was brown—a deep, deep brown;
    Her hair was darker than her eye;
    And something in her smile and frown,
    Curled crimson lip and instep high,
    Showed that there ran in each blue vein,
    Mixed with the milder Aztec strain,
    The vigorous vintage of Old Spain.

    She was alive in every limb
    With feeling, to the finger tips;
    And when the sun is like a fire,
    And the sky one shining, soft sapphire—
    One does not drink in little sips.

    ***

    The air was heavy, the night was hot,
    I sat by her side, and forgot—forgot;
    Forgot the herd that was taking its rest,
    Forgot that the air was close oppressed—
    That the Texas norther comes without warning,
    In the dead of night or the dawn of morning—
    And once let the herd at its breath take fright,
    And nothing on earth can stop its flight;
    And woe to the rider, and woe to the steed,
    That falls in front of its mad stampede!

    Hark! Was that thunder? No, by the Lord!
    I sprang to my saddle without a word:
    One foot on mine, and she clung behind—
    Away! on a wild chase down the wind!
    And never was the fox-chase half so hard,
    And never was steed so little spared—
    For we rode for our lives: you shall hear how we fared
    In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

    The mustang flew, and we urged him on;
    There was one chance left, and you have but one—
    Halt, jump to the ground, and shoot your horse,
    Crouch under his carcass and take your chance;
    And if the steers, in their frantic course,
    Don’t batter you both to pieces at once,
    You may thank your star; or else, good-bye
    To the quickening kiss and the long-drawn sigh,
    To the balmy air and the open sky,
    In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

    The cattle gained on us—and just as I felt
    For my old six-shooter behind in my belt,
    Down came the mustang, and down came we,
    Clinging together, and—what was the rest—?
    A body that spread itself over my breast,
    Two arms that shielded my dizzy head,
    Two lips that close to my lips were pressed;
    Then came thunder in my ears,
    As over us surged the sea of steers,
    Blows that beat blood into my eyes,
    And when I could rise—
    Lasca was dead!

    ***

    I gouged out a grave a few feet deep,
    And there in Earth’s bosom I laid her to sleep;
    And there she is lying—and no one knows—
    ‘Neath summer’s sun and winter’s snows;
    Full many a day the flowers have spread
    A pall of petals over her head.

    And the little gray hawk hangs aloft in the air,
    And the sly coyoté trots here and there,
    And the black snake glides, and glitters and slides
    Into a rift in a cotton-wood tree;
    And the buzzard sails on—
    And comes and is gone—
    Stately and still like a ship at sea.
    And I wonder why I do not care
    For the things that are, like the things that were—
    Does half my heart lie buried there
    In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?

    by Frank Desprez, written in 1882

  14. Thanks for another great reminiscence, Willis. I know it was more about bird-speak than cowboying, and I am not in any sense one (I’ve only been on a horse four times in my entire life!), but it did remind me strongly of when I first arrived in Colorado in late summer ’76, and of a few actual cowboys I happened to meet at the time, through a roomate who came from a ranching family in Wyoming. Never having been west of the Missippippi, I was eagerly touring around as much as a music student’s schedule would allow, and this roomate asked if I would like to visit a real working ranch some weekend. Would I?! When do we go?

    That weekend quickly disabused me of any romantic notions I may have had about the cowboy life (except that the ranch hands were every bit as laconic & wry-humored as I’d been led to believe). My strongest memory of it is that the cowboys had many cleverly improvised physical therapy machines, ranging from simple rope “nooses” hanging from the ceiling, to elaborate-looking cradles & slings. I asked my roomate, and she said “Yeah, f*cked-up backs are a way of life for these guys.” Now that horses seem to be on the way out, I’ve been wondering if riding around on an ATV all day is any better.

    I haven’t spent any time with cowboys since, but I did go to a Baxter Black poetry reading in the late ’80s, before “Cowby Poetry” became grist for cheesy PBS beg-a-thons.

  15. Una problema, amigo. If your buckaroo friend was born @ 1880, he wasn’t around during the time of the Modoc Indian War which commenced November 1872 and ended June 1873. I will now continue reading your narrative.

  16. I was mesmerized by your tale. You spun it with humor, grace, foreshadowing, and true knowledge of your subject. I’m in awe. As an aspiring writer, I hope to one day be able to capture all you did in a short story. Me? Long winded. Thank you so much for guesting, and I hope to read more of your work.
    Mr. Watts, my husband often reads your blog to me and I enjoy your sense of humor and sarcastic witticisms, along with your solid science. Thanks for a great read this evening.

    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-host, April 2013 A-Z Challenge
    @TinaLifeisGood, #atozchallenge

  17. I am glad Anthony lets Willis write those life stories on this website providing a nice reprieve from the normal here. I enjoy his writing style and sense of humor.

  18. Willis, very nice, thanks.

    You have quite a way with those words.

    As an amateur ornithologist (6 continents and > 2000 bird species) I have often seen a larger Hawk / Eagle harass a smaller bird and take its meal. Sometimes a few cheeky small birds will gang up on a large bird and cause it to drop its meal as well. If an owl dares to venture out during daylight a large mob of crows will harass the heck out of it. You can sometimes find owls in the daytime woods by following a loud mob of crows to their destination.

    I watched a python slowly swallow an impala once; the antelope seemed a bit distraught…

    Cheers, Kevin.

  19. Now you’ve done it, Willis. From now on, whenever you chastise commenters for bad manners, they’ll retort, “That’s mighty tall talk from a cowpoke who’s fondled bull scrotums!” :-)

    Kudos, Willis. I look forward to new chapters in your “book”.

    OT: While looking up the plural of “scrotum”, I ran across this:

    http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Detachable_scrotum

    Ya never know where a Willis article will lead ya!

  20. Thank you Willis I was raised on a NE Oregon Wheat and Cattle Ranch. My Pop was Cowboy and
    Indian Granma Being Cherokee and Choctaw. He was a true old time cowboy, roping riding running Rodeo stock and rounding up horses for the US Calvary. Yes the US Calvary. He last
    did that in 1939. When the Army saw that the day of the Calvary charge against Panzers wasn’t going to be very successful. Pop was asked by a Calvary Colonel if he would be interested in
    joining up. Pop said “sure “- he was about 27. bit old, actually ,Pop went to get a physical-
    the Doc said: “Mr. McCoy,it is a wonder you aren’t on crutches or in a wheel chair.”
    “You are not the first Cowboy I’ve examined in this shape, but we can’t use you.” Ranching
    and Cowboying can be a bit rough on the body-I know- I have the X-rays to prove it…

  21. Julian in Wales says:
    February 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    “Now I wonder, and I wonder this often, perhaps secretly and with a little bit of malice when I look at the CAGW crowd. Is there a breed of scientist, hack and activist that has no conception of poetry, almost distains its importance to our thought processes. I have to say there are artists who distain rationalism, self-control and logical thinking and in a mindless way worship emotional excess and self indulgence? I could also say the same of politicians who wrap themselves too deeply in their scheming and planning of society.”

    To compose poetry or prose poems you must have some skill as a musician or singer and a highly developed skill of listening (observing). If you draw upon your past, you must have something more than an excellent memory. It is a memory that is in touch with your deep feelings and with your whole self.

    Notice Willis’ guitar, his attention to the old man’s words, his joy in the calf episode, and his sense of who he was at eighteen.

    Start listing the so-called climate scientists and ask who among them has the characteristics that I just listed. Start with Ehrlich.

  22. Andy W says:
    February 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm
    Willis,
    Give it a rest – it’s like reading a parody of a bad and corny novel.
    Stick to sorting out the science and exposing the warmists for the idiots they truly are – you’re good at that.

    Son, you have no poetry in your soul. I pity you.

  23. Willis, thanks for writing this. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It brought to mind an unforgettable encounter of my own with a hawk. I was out on the lake in my speed boat, cruising at about 30 mph when I noticed a hawk keeping pace with us, and flying about 50 feet above me. I sat there for a minute watching the hawk when it suddenly folded its wings and went into a dive. I expected it to snag a fish out of the water, but what actually happened was much more remarkable. It pulled out of the dive at the last instant, and then proceeded to fly just a couple of inches above the water. As it flew, it dangled its talons in the water. I don’t think it was looking for something to catch, otherwise it would have positioned its talons in front and out of the water, but it dangled its feet in the water behind it. I suspect it was doing this for the sheer pleasure of it. After gliding for about a hundred feet right alongside my boat, it beat its wings and took off. An unforgettable memory of a wild creature doing something just for fun, just for the pleasure of it.

  24. Reminds of the day I nearly caught a Bald Eagle.

    About 35 years ago I lived for a while in upstate New York. One day, together with the son of a friend of mine, we hiked a fair distance up one of the creeks that flow south out of the Adirondak Mountains. We were fishing for trout using spinning lures. As we were fishing from the side of the creek, maybe 12 to 15 meters across, I heard the sound of a large bird in flight. I looked to my right and a Bald Eagle, rare in those days, was flying down the creek, about 5 meters above the water.

    Seeing such a large bird in flight, up close is mesmerizing, and I watched as the bird drew level with me, its wing tip just a few meters away from me.

    Then suddenly, when it was almost directly opposite me, it pulled in its wings and began to dive. It suddenly clicked in my mind that the eagle had seen my spinning lure flashing in the water, which I had continued to reel in. I immediately stopped reeling in and dropped the tip of rod. The spinning lure stopped flashing and the eagle pulled out of its drive and continued on down the river.

    It wasn’t until years later in the Australian outback when someone was describing what happened when a Wedge Tailed Eagle crashed through someone’s windscreen, and inflicted serious injuries on the driver, that I realized I had narrowly avoided a very dangerous situation all those years earlier.

  25. Willis, I appreciate your writing, aside from the scientific takedowns. One of the joys of riding the bike in the country is when a hawk flies along with you, eye high, almost as if it takes pleasure just cruising. When you put your stories into book form, make sure to let us know, it’s certainly been worth the reading. Certainly a great break from the goings on of the world today, they can be quite depressing. If you enjoy the cowboy songs, take a look into Michael Martin Murphy’s Cowboy Songs 1-3. Some good road tripping music there.

  26. Your words on paper are what Charles Russell’s brushstrokes were to canvas. We are greatly enriched.

  27. your stories about the cowboy songs reminded me of another great storyteller:

    “Three in the front seat they sat on each side
    That green-and-white 58 Fairlane it would glide
    Down farm roads past open fields seeming like no big deal
    As it was happening I never felt a thing

    But now looking back it seems like it was everything
    Singing with mom just so we could hear ourselves sing
    Stealing a drink from the cold can in daddy’s lap
    Protected by only a small thin brown paper sack

    And the wind blew the echoes of long-faded voices
    And they’d sing me a song that the old cowboys sang
    And I didn’t know what the words meant or anything
    I was just singing because I was supposed to

    “Sing Mother Maria watch over us please
    As we wonder around in this dangerous world
    Thank Mother Maria there’s nothing so sweet
    As the undying love of a South Texas girl”

    * from “South Texas Girl” by Lyle Lovett

    http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/lovett-lyle/south-texas-girl-22784.html

  28. Beautiful essay, Willis; beautiful poem “Lasca” by Desprez; enjoyed both. One of my favorite Renaissance composers is Josquin Desprez (1440-1521), a great composer of both sacred and secular music and a poet in his compositions. Thank you both!

  29. @Willis; Thank you for old memories of cowdust and sagebrush of my youth. While I have walked many of the same trails as you, my skills as a wordsmith pale. Keep up the wonderful word pictures.

    As to the Indian wars of that area. The last action was just east of Surprise Valley in Washoe County, Nevada in 1909. See “Frozen Grass” written by a young Paiute woman that was there. I went to school with grand children of 4 ranchers that were killed by a band that they caught butchering their cattle for food. A posse hunted them down over that winter so that was the “last indian war” so to speak. pg

  30. Someone mentioned the U.S. Cavalry, and your reminiscences of times past reminds me. One of my childhood friend’s father told me of his military career. He had joined the cavalry a few years before WII, skinning mules and such. Being of low rank, he took the opportunity to join the Army Air Corps. weeks before Pearl Harbor. He ended up piloting missions over Europe, eventually commanding bombers, and surviving unscathed, unlike the majority of his comrades who were killed or wounded.

    After the war, he became a commercial pilot, ending up at American Airlines. When he retired in the 1970’s he was flying the top airliner, the Boeing 747.

    Now that is to me an astounding career, from horse and mule to transatlantic jet airliner in 40 years time. The changes seen during the last century, from powered human flight to the Moon landing. I’m not sure we’re on the path of similar advancement in this century, unfortunately.

  31. Three thoughts:

    Thought one. Moving a herd with good dogs makes life easy. As the cattle move out you will always see something with its head up moving towards the edge of the herd. Hold them together with the horses as best you can, preferably until that first rush settles a bit. Even though you position yourself well some will still try to duck under the horse’s neck or behind, and with good dogs it’s better to let them go and set two or three dogs on. A rider might swing out wide too, but usually it is not necessary, and the beast will swing in a wide galloping arc with the dogs chewing its heels and head back to the safety of the herd. If it does bail up out there, ride out, call the dogs off, and head it back to the herd.

    The reason you need good dogs is you need to be able call them off as well before the beast hits the herd again, for if the dogs follow it in there, with a fresh herd just out of the yard, cattle are going everywhere. After the herd has settled (only about 15 minutes or so) you can get away with rougher dogs, and it’s not a bad policy then to just drop back a little and let those who want to hightail it have a little go. After an hour, you can nearly go to sleep on your horse, and even the dogs get bored and fall into trail behind the horses. But, the cattle keep watching the dogs.

    Thought two. I rode up a little creek early one morning, and up around the bank of an earth dam. As I did so two wild ducks burst off the water with that flurry of sound and activity that makes a freshly saddled horse shy away with flailing hooves and snorts. As I wheeled the horse back towards the dam I heard a strange loud sizzling, rushing noise above me and I looked up and saw a great eagle, wings tucked, diving on those ducks at about a 60 degree angle. The ducks veered a little and were gone over the trees in an instant, the eagle missed and swooped away between the trees. I was left contemplating the cool pale sky as the horse warily moved forward again, snorting indignantly at the ripples on the dam.

    Thought three.

    Andy W says: February 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Willis, Give it a rest …. etc…

    Now, for the record, I greatly enjoy these reads Willis so generously provides us, and I also realize Andy may just be trolling, and perhaps should be ignored.

    However, he may think he is imparting useful advice, so in return I feel he should consider some advice someone passed onto me at some stage (and which I don’t follow nearly closely enough):

    Before responding to anything critically, ask yourself three questions:
    1. Does this need to be said?
    2. Does this need to be said by me?
    3. Does this need to be said by me, now?

  32. Hmm. I still ride the high country. I speak “horse” better than human. I spent a good part of my first 20 years in the wilderness so I understand “bird language”. I also speak “engingear” (sic) Too bad so many in the Climate business don’t seem to have spent much time in the “real climate”. It might give them some perspective to understand what survival training is all about. Thanks for the story.

  33. Aaagh … typos!! (another thought, this problem comes with age and fading vision… once a typo would leap off the page and proclaim itself, but now even spell check does not always help me)

    Typos above… (and there may be more…)
    its = it’s
    herd = heard
    hodl = hold
    too many ‘even’s

    Reply: Fixed what I could. Didn’t see what ‘even’s to remove. -ModE]

  34. Well done.

    FWIW, I grew up in “Farm Country”. Not as poetic as your experience, be we had a few cattle on a bit of dirt outside of town. Grew up learning “Bird Language”, though we didn’t call it that.

    I’ve mentioned before, here, ‘talking to bunnies’ (and had Gnomish give me a ‘raft’ for it, as he doesn’t speak Bird Language). What I find particularly interesting is your observation:

    “The animals all speak a common tongue, what some call “bird language”, a metaphorical term for the transmission of information by tone and intensity”

    I came to the same conclusion about “tone and intensity”. Bunnies make a kind of ‘rupt rupt rupt’ soft sound when ‘grazing’ and things are OK and they are happy. I’d made my try at it a few times and gained acceptance with my ‘free range bunnies’ in the back yard. One day, I made it a bit too intensely and a bit higher tone. That, it seems, is the sound for “Predatory bird seen!”. “RUUePT RUUePT RUUePT”. ALL the bunnies tilted their heads sideways (eyes on the side, so to get a good look at the sky, they tilt one eye upward), didn’t see the bird, but looked at me, trusted my “warning”, and ran for cover in a panic. That was when I realized that “tone and intensity” were key bits, not just the particular consonants and vowels… more like Chinese than American…

    On one occasion, while catching some very young bunnies to ‘sex’ them and sort boys from girls (don’t want too many bunnies…) one “little thing” about the size of my fist, objected to being turned on her back. This little ball of fluff opened her little mouth wide, about the size of a kidney bean, and let out a blood curdling scream. It was LOUD, and I almost dropped her. It sounded remarkably like a human scream. When she ran out of air, she stopped. Closed her mouth and, realizing she was not being eaten, just looked at me. Don’t know which of us was most surprised. I put her, gently, on the ground, and off she ran to the hidey hole. I was never able to catch her again. ;-)

    Back at that first point, me ‘talking’ to the bunnies: In an odd turn (or so I thought at the time) the doves that live in the back yard too (and often scratch near the bunnies) also ducked for cover when I got my “rupt rupt” wrong. Making a quick flight from open ground to under the tree (where a diving bird can not penetrate). I’ve provided a lot of ‘top cover’ in the yard. (At times, we’ve seen a very large hawk of some kind or other – I can’t name the type on sight – fly over, even going so far as to land on the fence and ‘hop sideways’ along it looking for a snack on the ground. So I’ve made the yard ‘dive proof’ with ‘top clutter’ and provided a lot of places to hide. The bunnies have also made their own burrows in the dirt too.) So the doves knew to ‘get under cover’ and blend in with the clutter. Then froze and waited, watching.

    You are quite correct that they all speak “Bird Language”. Being multilingual is the natural state of animals. Horses seem to use more ‘sign language’ via body language / posture / looks and shakes. Bunnies respond to body language too. Walk in, upright, looking AT them with two front facing predator eyes; they run away. Bend over, using a hand near the ground to pluck at grasses and weeds, looking occasionally skyward, and to sides; occasionally glancing at them, but rapidly deciding they are not important and going back to ‘looking for predators’ while inspecting the greens… you are accepted as just another herbivore. A very satisfying moment.

    Just don’t get your pitch wrong or be too loud when you say ‘rupt rupt rupt’… keep it soft and low, like a chuckle to yourself…

    Spend some time around animals and you, too, can pick up some Bird Language.

  35. Thank you Willis. Here in California there are still women who ride and love the work that you describe. We are living our childhood dreams of horses and cowhands.

  36. Willis: this would make a fine chapter in your memoirs, which I (and many here) would love to buy and read.

    In the meanwhile: David Lavender’s “One Man’s West” — he grew up in Telluride, and ranched around the Lone Cone and into the Utah canyonlands, so you get accounts of both mining and ranch life. A great book.

    Ivan Doig’s “This house of sky”, ranch life in Montana, is also first-rate.

    Best regards,
    Pete Tillman

  37. WOW! I love these stories. Your use of word pictures is amazing! Its better than fiction!

    It forces me to read for entertainment, instead of my typical quest for infomation.

    JT

  38. “..Reply: Fixed what I could. Didn’t see what ‘even’s to remove. -ModE]..”

    Thank you, I greatly appreciate that. Above and beyond the call of duty indeed.

    And just for the record, re the ‘evens’, it was; “…and even the dogs even get bored…” \:-(

    Reply: You are welcome. Just I can relate to that ‘saw it can not fix it’ feeling ;-) Trimmed an ‘even’ now too… -ModE]

  39. Off-topic article, I reckon. The comments here remind me of the sycophantic “Little Green Footballs” culture, quelle horreurs.

  40. A happy youth among the cowboys, rattlesnakes, antelope, horned toads, hawks, ground hogs, fox, deer, owls, lizards, horses, cows, tumbleweeds, creeks and hills of the far west Texas ranch country all came flooding back to life in my old and cloudy brain as you told about your cowboy life. You bring it all into focus with great insights and near poetic structure. Willis, you continue to be high on my list of heroes. Thanks

  41. NZ Willy says:
    “Off-topic article, I reckon.”
    Most certainly.
    But it is a blog! What’s wrong with posting anything?

    ” The comments here remind me of the sycophantic” “Little Green Footballs”

    Not being familiar with “Little Green Footballs” I wouldn’t know.
    But to “sycophantic” ? You don’t read all the comments to WE’s post I assume?

    If you did you wouldn’t make that claim.

  42. NZ Willy says:
    February 10, 2013 at 10:17 pm
    Off-topic article, I reckon. The comments here remind me of the sycophantic “Little Green Footballs” culture, quelle horreurs.
    ============
    You can’t just say that.
    Explain, please.

  43. Willis,

    Congratulations.

    ….._____, Birth, _____, Life, _____, Death, _____,……

    Ahhhh, you’ve got the knack for filling in the blanks – a splendid exposition.

    My bird anecdote: In the early ‘70’s I was enjoying a stroll up a wooded, broad ravine on the CA coast as a young wanderling from Cleveland (soon after my former Ohio roofing foreman, and until recently my fellow traveler, and I were recently separated by the FBI when they wrongly and shockingly arrested him (a former buddhist Peace Corp (Africa) volunteer) for multi-state forgery and fraud when we visited a bank… another story.) at dusk when a Great Horned owl swooshed, within arms length away, by me at eye level before I could do anything but barely begin to turn my head to it’s path, then twice, powerfully beat it’s wings before it disappeared into the trees straight ahead. Amazed, and now, more alert I had something else to dwell on. The next morning something more was added to my “existential” experiences as upon revisiting the exact spot of the previous evening’s buzzing I discovered a very fresh, and familiar, great owl’s seemingly unharmed remains on the grassy floor.

    The owl seeming to naturally be as at peace on the ground as on the wing in it’s woods I left it lay, and still know only incompletely of it’s fate.

    Strangely enough shortly after continuing to my former companion’s friend’s family yam farm near San Bernardino I drove into a film shooting of a “Jonathon Livingston Seagull” scene – which turned into another somewhat troubling episode. To be brief, again at dusk, after the scene was deemed finished the crew packed up and left. However, the crew had taped what seemed like hundreds of gull extra’s wings to their bodies but did not free them. Myself and a couple other observers untapped as many of the birds as we could before it was too dark. It seems the film was, in fact, as much about Hollywood “animal cruelty” as any anthropomorphic story it attempted to convey. The next morning the others, locals, continued to attempt to find the rest of the gulls and free them. No one from the film crew had arranged for anyone to release the birds.

    After touching base and “helping” with the yams in “Berdu” and learning that the wheels were in motion to free my former foreman from the unforgiving G-men’s death grip and could offer no help I continued on my journey heading through the NIH/NYS High Voltage Electron Microscope imaging laboratory in Albany, NY. I learned later that Conroy had, in fact, been released and had prospered – phew. The “jail-bird” had risen as a phoenix.

    This, and that, has taken place in the mean time ending here, with Willis and his “Bird Language”.

    Thank you Willis (and Anthony!) for adding yet another dimension here, to this wonderful outlet for a disciplined freedom of our senses – within the focus of “puzzling things”.

    May all, sometime soon, realize this website opportunity for respect of consciousness and underlines human potential.

  44. NZ Willy says: February 10, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    “…Off-topic article, I reckon…”

    They make ‘em pretty bright in New Zealand, eh?
    Good catch, Willy.

  45. NZ Willy says:
    “The comments here remind me of the sycophantic Little Green Footballs”
    Why would an approving comment mean sycophantic ?
    Some don’t like it, would you call them hostile or hateful?

  46. As I thought, a few people (including Willis) weren’t too keen on my literary criticism – fair enough, as everyone’s entitled to their opinion on WUWT. However, if Joe Romm started writing up stories about his time as a cowboy we’d be rolling in the aisles.
    I won’t make any more comments about this piece as I’m definitely not trying to provoke an argument or be accused of ‘trolling’ by people such as markx.
    4thtech suggested I “go suck a lemon”. I prefer my lemons sliced and in a GnT, whilst I’m sat on the sofa, reading the solid science at WUWT and laughing at the warmists on SkS.
    Yours, sat in snowy London experiencing yet another ‘rare and exciting event’,
    Andy

  47. Dear Willis Eschenbach
    Great again !!!
    Les Miserables was published like this, before getting to be a book. And Les Trois Mousquetaires. There are enough tales of yours for a book, now. I hope you publish them , soon, ( together with your autobiographic piece ” It’s not about me “- I write the name from memory, as I can not fetch my treasure folder now – ) , and others with them too . The important thing about them is not just the tales themselves, ( the tales are great, though ) but the way you write them. As if you were just recounting them around a fire, without fuss or self importance.
    Is there anything you are not good at ?

    Thank You !!!
    Your old admirer from Spain
    María

  48. Andy Wilkins says:
    February 11, 2013 at 12:20 am

    As I thought, a few people (including Willis) weren’t too keen on my literary criticism – fair enough, as everyone’s entitled to their opinion on WUWT.

    Goodness, I thought I was clear. You provided no literary criticism, you just said you didn’t like my piece, which is fine. As I said, if you don’t like blue, you don’t like blue, no one can argue with that … but that doesn’t make your dislike “literary criticism”.

    I also said, what fun is it reading something you don’t like, why not go read something you do like?

    I repeat the question. As I said, no one can argue with your likes or dislikes, and I have not tried to. You don’t like it, others do, SO FREAKIN’ WHAT!

    I ask again, what is your purpose in being here? Because we’re having fun and enjoying life, and it seems you aren’t … which is OK, but why bug me about it? Either get with the party or go and party somewhere else. It’s fine with me that you don’t like my writing … but if so, why are you still here? Why not simply go somewhere that you do like the writing?

    All the best,

    w.

  49. Andy Wilkins says:

    ” However, if Joe Romm started writing up stories about his time as a cowboy we’d be rolling in the aisles.”

    Wonder what makes you say that?
    If Joe Romm is any good at story telling like Willies is, we’d be lapping up his every word.
    But no, not that kind of stories, sorry Joe!
    It’s not the man/woman that matters.

  50. Thank you Willis,
    Being an Australian as I am, us older generations are reasonably well read and the classical satirical history of the Mark Twains in your history gives us a wonderful insight into America. I have identified now two writers in America that need to catalogue all their murmurings for posterity. Yours for it’s historical content written as it is like prose and Iowahawk for his historical satire, if such a thing exists in your country as it does in mine you should both eventually be made national treasures. This would ensure your works are given to posterity and read by future generations. Write everything down soon mate, non of us live forever. Both of you are the equivalent the modern Mark Twains of America.

  51. Willis, thank you for this and other pieces from your life. I haven’t commented on the others, but, for example, your account of the parade of (what? thousands of) dolphins amazed me. For people like Andy Wilkins, I don’t know, but I interpret your pieces as a demonstration that we love life and the world, which is basically what environmentalism is about; we, sceptics about CAGW, are not destroyers of the world, we do not hate nature, we do not want to pollute and exploit; we simply question the exaggerated emphasis on CO2 and warming, at the expense of other problems which are really much more important and urgent.

    I’m quite radical about the rights of other animals, so some of the things that you did as a cowboy I don’t agree with; but as an account of the real life, what in fact happens, I admire it.

    You’ve done ‘wild’ things. The ‘wildest’ I’ve done is go camping in the sierra or by an extinct volcano outside Guadalajara (and drive my Cherokee amongst the maniacs here each day): you’ve done much more, and it’s great to read about it. It’s completely relevant to this site, and I always read your posts.

    Regards,

    Peter

  52. You aked “So freakin what?” in one of your responses.

    I’ll tell you what.

    This is an excellent article, and echoes some of the stufff I remember during the hot MS summers where my parents thought it would be good for me to spend the time “visiting” my cousins and working around my granddads farm. Nothing as picturesque as your story, but memories highly valued. Thank you for dredging them up from the dark corners of human memory.

  53. Willis, thanks.
    I was doing that work forty-odd years ago but I only did the branding and holding the calf’s leg while my husband did the cutting and ear marking pliers. The scrotum was not removed, only the testicles. It was all over in about 15 seconds – we never lost a calf and they had their mother for comfort. I agree about tailing though – you eat a deal of dust and the odd fly.

    Predator birds quieten the whole neighbourhood. Wrens and finches dive into thick bushes and shut up.

    Thank you for reviving my memories.

  54. Great story Willis.
    Have you read “Clancy of the overflow” by Banjo Patterson?
    Something tells me you will like it.

  55. Sir:

    I come here for the scrutiny of popular science-myth and, on mornings like this one, leave with an appreciation for those magicians who can crochet yarns into a warm blanket.

  56. Thanks again, Willis.

    I think there is no laughter more refreshing than the strange laughter right after a close call. To some degree it cannot be described, “you had to be there.” Pity is that we often have to nearly lose our life, or the life of a loved one, before we understand what a joy and honor it is to be alive.

    Your writing gives others a glimpse of that joy and honor we all are given, but many become color-blind to.

  57. I lived on a ranch in New Mexico when I was in the 5th and 6th grade. (early 50’s)
    I remember roundups, brandings, dehornings, and castrations.
    I was the boy that ran out and daubed medicine on the cuts and brands.
    The mounted cowboys roped the calves, and kept the mothers from attacking us during the process.
    Once, as I was tending to the calf, I realised I was by myself, I looked around, and saw a very angry cow coming to rescue her darling. I threw my bucktets at her, and fled to the safety of the pickup by the fence. It was a close thing.
    Seemed everything happened in total silence, and slow motion.
    After I gained the fence, all of the cowboys laughed at my close escape.
    It was a great time.
    Jerry

  58. Reminds me of a time I fondly remember cruising on the Yangtze river. We were navigating the Qutang gorge (8 km long, 150 metres wide at the widest, and enclosed by cliffs towering to 1200 metres). I was loafing on the deck idly watching some Chinese guys flying a large kite from the back of the boat. It looked like a large bird. Suddenly there was an almighty screech and this eagle came swooping low over the boat and then soared high into the sky directly at the intruder. It made several sorties and feints at the kite and finally realising that it was a phony gave another screech and flew up into the cliff tops. It truly was a magical moment.

    Many thanks to Willis for his wonderful stories and Julian of Wales, who I’m proud to say is a fellow countryman, for his insightful comments.

  59. Great reminiscing. Such stories illustrate that, contrary to common lefty/European myth, cowboy work is not do-it-yourself work, nor are/were cowboys loner shoot-‘em-up gunslingers (e.g., Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy”). Rather, cowboys must work well together or they cannot get the work done, and they live, eat, work, and sleep in tight groups – almost like small-unit military teams.

  60. Great reminiscing. Such stories illustrate that, contrary to common lefty/European myth, cowboy work is not do-it-yourself work, nor are/were cowboys loner shoot-‘em-up gunslingers (e.g., Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy”). Rather, cowboys must work well together or they cannot get the work done, they depend on each other, and they live, eat, work, and sleep in tight groups – almost like small-unit military teams.

  61. Willis,

    if you were ever looking for a title for your (upcoming, I hope) book – why not call it:

    “THE WORLD – according to Willis Eschenbach”

    because that’s what it is.

    Thanks, pal.

  62. wayne Job is right – we need an autobiography!

    really enjoy these pieces – keep em coming please

  63. Willis, thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I am in AWE at your wonderful grasp of language and the word-pictures you use. A sheer joy to read this _ and your “The Skunk” story!
    You rock, mate!

  64. Another wonderful story Willis. I have been coming to this site for two years and I have never enjoyed it more. Some might wonder how your stories could possibly add to the intent of this site. But I believe it is entirely relevent. Post modern science ignores and desecrates the soul and beauty of the human spirit and its purpose is to squash people like Willis. In that new world, people like him will not be allowed to exist. On Anthonys’ site, we seek those old time values of adventure, discovery and truth. Willis’ stories follow that same path but just another creative extension.

  65. I disagree with Andy W. Please don’t give it a rest. I love your stories and they are really thought-provoking. I’ve never managed to visit the States but you conjure up some amazing images with your writing. Thank you again, Annie.

  66. There should be a “Willis” tab in the Reference Page section to link to a repository of these stories. They are awesome!

    We’re all a product of life’s experiences and I once learned a valuable lesson concerning “bird language”, or something similar. It was the summer of 1979 and I was a young airman on temporary duty to Eielson AFB, Alaska. We were working outside and a nearby flock of Canada geese took off and flew right over us. I made a loud noise like a shotgun going off and the next thing you know it was raining goose crap from the sky. I still have nightmares…

  67. Ian from Oz @ 2:12 am:

    I enjoy “The Man from Snowy River”. We know someone in Victoria who can recite it by heart!

  68. Good story Willis.
    I would echo the point a previous commenter made about the good dogs.
    Greatly decreases the amount of work you have to do and the dogs treat it as almost a sport.

    The purple antiseptic you used is almost a miracle cure for most everything that breaks the skin.
    My vet friend tells me to not put it on cats as it is toxic to them and will kill them.

    Good tale though.

  69. “Commentary on puzzling things in life, nature…”

    Not puzzling, but very enjoyable, as Willis shares
    another story from his past. And the crowd goes wild.

    Well done, sir.

  70. The Green Tongue of birdsong, dragons, oracles, has a mythical provenance extending to the figurehead of Jason’s “Argos,” crafted of oak from Dodona’s fabled Grove of Zeus in northwest Greece where flights of black doves served as auguries. This ties in turn to immemorial motifs of Viridios, the Green Man of leafy visage, a Magus whose “masque feuilles” marks him as nature’s own.

    On another note, a notorious Rugby song called “Charlotte the Harlot” puts lonesome cowhands in context with drunken sailors and others of that Dionysian ilk.

  71. Another enjoyable reminisce by Willis . Brings back memories , thank you Willis and thank you Anthony and friends . I cowboyed , forked manure , fixed fence , pitched hay in the frozen winters , all the things involved in the life you described . Once saw two golden eagles kill a big redtail , they ate the head first . I didn’t and don’t think I need rehabilitating for the violence I perpetrated on any of the animals involved . It is as much a part of life as the actions of the predators . Man is a predator and a very efficient one at that .

  72. I’m reminded of the song “Dreamers” on “The Songs that got Away” by Sarah Brightman.
    Not sure if I can quote any of the lyrics here, but a quick search will show that Willis
    is indeed one of the “Dreamers”… and those disparaging his wonderful prose (synchophant
    my ….) fall into the “people who don’t dream at all…” category.

    Well done Willis. Tis rare indeed to be gifted as you are in science and art and to be able to
    use the one to convey the other.

  73. I thoroughly enjoyed the story from your youth. The business of life, some say, is to store memories for our old age. Those were some wonderful memories and I thank you for sharing them. Please share more of the same.
    Thanks in advance.

  74. Mr. Eschenbach–
    (Am I the only one around here who calls you “Mr. Eschenbach”? Is it because they all know you personally and I do not? Well, anyway…) I very much like your piece here–GREAT writing, in my estimation, and I should know: I have a daughter who is the Program Director for the writers’ workshop in Boston (Grub Street) and who is herself a writer–we talk writing a lot and I think I have a well-honed sense of literary aesthetic. So: Many thanks!

    About the cowboy life: My only encounter with a real cowboy was once when driving over the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming–it was raining and I saw a cowboy on his horse sitting there in the rain with his beasts, all by himself. Yessir, the glamorous cowboy life.

  75. William Larson says:
    February 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Mr. Eschenbach–
    (Am I the only one around here who calls you “Mr. Eschenbach”? Is it because they all know you personally and I do not? Well, anyway…)

    Most folks call me Willis, whether they know me or not, because they can’t spell Eschenbach any better than I can …

    I very much like your piece here–GREAT writing, in my estimation, and I should know: I have a daughter who is the Program Director for the writers’ workshop in Boston (Grub Street) and who is herself a writer–we talk writing a lot and I think I have a well-honed sense of literary aesthetic. So: Many thanks!

    Thank you for the kind words. In writing, as in much of my life, I’ve never had a lesson or a workshop, so the report of people who have done so is very nice to hear. I would love to hear your daughter’s opinion as well, for good or for bad.

    About the cowboy life: My only encounter with a real cowboy was once when driving over the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming–it was raining and I saw a cowboy on his horse sitting there in the rain with his beasts, all by himself. Yessir, the glamorous cowboy life.

    You bet it is … sometimes more than others …

    w.

  76. Thank goodness I’ve had no cowboying the last while, indeed, it is a hard earned living. Loved the depiction of the low men on the totem pole pulling up the strays and stragglers, eating dust. About branding, now there are GPS tags, which in a way asail the very need for quite so many cowboys. The next wave may nearly wipe them out by marrying the GPS with little high pitched sound generators worn near the ears that “herd” the cattle when they approach a “virtual fence.” Not only will that wipe out many cowboys you can also kiss the remaining small operations goodbye as only the biguns will be able to afford all the gear up front.

  77. James at 48,

    I don’t know much about cowboys, myself. Just what I learned from Gene Autry and John Wayne. But I do know they’re not paid squat, they work long hours, and they sure don’t belong to a union. I admire them.

    I also know that a Mexican cowboy is a vaquero, and a Hawaiian cowboy is a paniolo. The rest of what I know about cowboys I learned from Willis. For that I’m very appreciative.

  78. Mr. Eschenbach–

    I am pleased to forward your piece to my daughter in Boston–she and/or I will get back to you. Workshops are, I think, for honing and focusing. You have, as I read your writing, that something which cannot be taught.

  79. Modern cowboys, more frenetic than romantic … an Australian pilot on a home made gyrocopter with an on board camera giving a demo flight that will make you airsick. The maneuverability and the low level flight is amazing and the landing is slick.

    This guy IS the bird …. note the “protective” footwear, and that he’s got 5000 hours doing this and is still in one piece.

  80. It may not be as romantic as the old way, but flying is probably the only way to find cattle in the wild country that Birdy patrols, and it reveals the true beauty of the land: (best watched in HD if you have the speed, only one and a half minutes of it).

  81. My Grandfather was a cowboy in Montana. Taught himself engineering in the bunkhouse to get off the range. I love your stories….keep them coming.

Comments are closed.