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 had 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.

I was reminded recently by a compatriot from those days that the old man had a classic cowboy name, “G. Bartlett Crabtree”. Everyone called him Bart, or GBC, which the boys said stood for “Got Before Christ”. 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” …

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Jim Hodgen

Poetry and truth. This is a good place to be.

Dolphinhead

10/10

Rosy's dad

Nice. Thanks for sharing!

Tom O

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.

Awesome stuff. Thank you.

clipe

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.

Andy W

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.

petey

Love your stories and the diversity of your experiences. Thanks. Are you related to the Gump family? : )

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.

S.Meyer

I am in awe.

Thank you Sir !
Alfred

Keith Distel

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.

Willis Eschenbach

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.

I love your writing, Willis. You capture the moment.

Pathway

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.

Just wonderful — in the truest sense of the word…
Keep them coming please!

RiHo08

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.

Philip Peake

Willis — thanks again for sharing.
For those that don’t want to read this stuff, then … don’t.
Keep yourself amused by finding out just far the influence of Global Warming extends (hint: watch it to the end):
http://www.mrctv.org/embed/119892

u.k(us)

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.

Theo Goodwin

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.

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.

Gail Combs

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.

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

PaddikJ

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.

Katherine

Thanks for sharing, Willis. That was so evocative, I could see it with my mind’s eye.

Eric in SOCAL

Very enjoyable and informative narrative. Thanks.

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.

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

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.

Dear Willis;
Thank you for this. It is truly a delight to discover literature at WUWT!

KevinK

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.

Gary Hladik

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!

tgmccoy

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…

john coghlan

Wow !

Theo Goodwin

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.

D. J. Hawkins

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.

Duncan

I hope you continue writing these; I love them and can’t wait to hear about your sailing days!

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.

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.

bikermailman

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.

Craig Moore

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

starzmom

Thank you Willis, that was a fun and thought provoking read. I enjoyed it.

u.k(us)

tgmccoy says:
February 10, 2013 at 5:54 pm
==========
Yep, carburetor icing vs panzer.
Same thing.

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

Dr. John M. Ware

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!

@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

Jim p

Willis,
Awesome story. Too many people fail to notice the details of life. I loved this example.

Eschenbach’s Eagle soars over a new continent.

j.pickens

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.