Posts Tagged 'Ohio'

Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)

NOTE: This is one of a series of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. So far they include “Shooting Emma“, “High, wide and handsome” and “A family I knew“.

“That one’ll be trouble,” said Arden, pointing to a big, dark, beautiful bay grazing next to another, lighter horse. His voice was raspy and feather-soft at the same time — he was truly a hoarse whisperer. “That’s Champ. You’ll want to approach him slow.”

It was early in the year, just a few weeks after I’d arrived in Ohio, and Arden the old farm manager and I had gone over to Winter pasture to gather up the horses that were still wintering over there and worm them. The first task was to catch them. In my dotage now, I don’t recall precisely how this went. We wormed them in the lower portion of Farmhouse Barn, and I remember being in there with a good number of nervous horses — they weren’t tied up, just milling around — who were indisposed to having a tube of cold paste shot into their mouth. I don’t recall if we drove some of them in and went out to catch the stragglers one by one, or if we had to catch all of them individually and lead them in. I do know that we spent a whole day there, which leads me to suspect that few if any of the herd just walked into the barn, especially since they had been left alone in this pasture all winter and were a little sour.

Amy and friend, 1991. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

The day after I arrived at the ranch I was put on a horse for only the second or third time in my life. I was nervous, but this was why I had come, so I mounted up like they showed me. The horse was a large buckskin named Skippy. As is often the case with giants, Skippy was a gentle horse, the most gentle horse in the stable besides Thunder, who was even bigger. Arden assigned me to Skippy and put me at the end of the trail. “Trail” in this sense means a line of horses, not the earthen pathway. Each trail had at the minimum a lead, who rode in front; ideally there would also be someone at the back of the line called a drag and someone riding alongside the trail called a float, who moved up and back making sure everyone was in good shape. Amy, who was to join us that summer as a counselor and wrangler, was out at the ranch that weekend with her mother for a ride, and during the course of it we all chatted. When they learned midway through the ride that this was my first time on a horse as an adult, they expressed surprise and said you could never tell I was a greenhorn, I looked that comfortable in the saddle. Good, I thought. I was able to hide my fear. I felt very proud that day.

Of course, Skippy was the perfect horse for a a spanking newbie. Things did not go the same way when Arden put me on Scirocco a day or two later. George was leading a trail up the south edge of Ring pasture on the way to the gate into Lake. I was in back again, riding drag. Scirocco suddenly decided she wanted to eat grass and put her head down. She would not go. Transfixed with fear at the sudden realization that I was sitting atop a huge animal with a will of its own, a will that had suddenly gone orthogonal to mine, I became powerless. I could not keep her head up by any amount of yanking on the reins, and she eventually started drifting back toward the stable. I was extremely embarrassed at my situation, but I didn’t know what to do. There was no float on this trail. I called out for George, ever my rescuer, it seems. George left the head of the trail to ride back to me, which meant that instantly all the horses stopped and turned left or right off the trail a step or two to eat grass, deaf to the plaintive cajoling and rein-tugging of the campers riding them. It looked like a no-injury pile-up on the freeway, an endless fenderbender, everyone at crinkly odd angles to the path. From a distance this fiasco probably would have looked hilarious.

George yanked Scirocco’s head up and instructed me to be firm with her and keep her moving at the same time, the kind of impossible advice that you find oddly reassuring. He was basically telling me that there was nothing wrong with the horse, nothing wrong with me. This was what horses did. I must simply override her will. He then rode ahead to straighten out the line and get the trail moving again. I felt useless that day.

I learned quickly. One day a little while later I had another showdown with Scirocco while again dragging a trail. George sent me back to the stables to fetch something or deliver a message, I can’t recall now, but I was riding back through Lake and came to a place near the road where the trail crossed a little creek issuing out of a culvert in the hillside. It made a gurgling noise and Scirocco did not want to cross it, even though she had done so when we came the other way with the other horses. Now she had me alone, though, and she planted her feet. I made my butt heavier and clucked with my mouth, held the reins a little wider apart wide and taut so she could not turn away. She backed away. I used my weight again, as I had been taught, to drive her forward. It slowly worked. She whinnied and argued, and danced a little, but then she hopped over the trickle and we were on our way again. I felt elated that day. I had triumphed.

Soon I was floating trails, and within a short while I had learned the basic routes enough to lead them, even alone. I quickly picked up the phrases and assurances and bits of instruction we used to keep the riders from freaking out, or to get them going when they were stuck. There were still challenges to be faced — the first time a horse reared under me was a particularly educational experience — but I was over the initial hump.

Now Arden and I loaded our pockets with dry kernals of yellow corn and went into the pasture. The horses were grazing on the long sloping meadow next to the road. I had never seen these horses, in fact I did not know that the ones I had been riding and putting riders on for weeks were not all of the ranch’s horses.

He knew trouble when he saw it. Arden around 1999. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

At the time I didn’t think Arden thought much of me, and I thought this for two reasons. One, he didn’t give overt praise, and two, the very first day I had worked with him he had delivered himself of a speech — unprovoked as far as I could tell — about how people think they know a thing or two but they generally don’t know anything. (That is a summary. The actual speech took as much time as the saddling of a pony.) I took this to mean that he thought I was one of the so deluded. If so, he was wrong. I knew I didn’t know anything, and I rather resented his hasty judgment of me. What I realized later was that Arden had seen ’em come and he’d seen ’em go, and the odds, he knew, were that they’d come and stay for a while and then they’d see how hard the work was, or they wouldn’t be able to take orders, and they’d go. I don’t know how old he was — once when we were gutting a house I came across square nails in the studs, and he said that they used to cut nails out of square rod and pound them sharp, and when I asked whether he knew this from experience he grinned and said, “I’m old, but I’m not as old as cut nails!” — but he was pretty old. He had been a dairyman and had lived through hard times — the Great Depression at the very least — and he had retired from his own business to serve at the Ranch. I imagine he was grateful for a place to be useful and three squares and a roof over.

Arden was known for several phrases he used when he heard someone complaining. One was “Suffer, baby!” and the other was “You’ll be fine when you feel better.” Once while Arden was loading spring rams into his pickup truck to take to the market Geo came running into the kitchen of the ranch house with a look of astonished amusement on his face to inform George and me that we would not believe what he had just seen.  One of the sheep had dove out a side window of the canopy. Quick Arden had caught the little bleater and was wrestling him back through the same window when the ram kicked loose one of the old man’s teeth. With great facial animation, Geo showed us how Arden paused, still wrestling with the animal, to spit out the tooth and a spatter of blood, before shoving the ram back into the truck. It was events like this that made Arden a legend among us younger hands.

I also learned to read the subtle tonal changes in his commentary on our achievements. Sometimes he was offering encouragement or acknowledging a job well done simply by refraining from making us feel like an ass. Once while mowing a field in Lower Barn I drove the Allis-Chalmers into (what I now know was) a swamp, and had to go fetch Arden and tell him what I’d done so he could tow me out with one of the other tractors. I was ready for an earful, but he simply told me what to do with the chains and related a story of when he had performed a similar stunt. It was his way of telling me not to feel too bad about it, that if you didn’t drive a tractor into a swamp at least once you probably weren’t doing a thorough job.

Champ, at left, many years later as an old horse, standing at the rail with Sunny, whom I also knew. All but the youngest of the ponies I knew are gone now. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

I approached Champ slowly with some corn in my outstretched left hand and a hay-twine loosely balled in my right hand. He moved away a few paces and resumed nibbling at the sparse grass. I approached again and he trotted off pointedly, swishing his tail a few times and moving a good distance away. “Leave me alone” was what I read in this behavior. Arden worked on some of the others. Once a horse put their mouth to your hand to eat the corn, you gently put the hay-twine around its neck and that was that. As soon as they felt that encirclement — a secure feeling for horses — they were all yours and you could lead them away with just the twine. But getting them to your hand took patience. In some cases it took a very long time.

Champ ran away from me possibly a dozen, maybe twenty times that day, but horses eventually tire of this. You can win with the illusion of eternity. They don’t know that you’re hungry and tired and that you want to give up and that you really can’t afford to waste a whole day following them around a field. If they knew that, they would be indomitable. But their imagination is inferior to ours. I kept at it because I knew I would win eventually. Champ eventually gave in because — well, for Pete’s sake, I was following him around with a treat that he really wanted to eat, and for all he could tell it was going to be like this forever and he was starting to forget why he was resisting. I patted the huge, handsome triangle of his dark neck when he finally bent to nibble the corn out of my hand, and slowly dropped the hay-twine over the other side of him, then pulled the two twine-ends together and he was mine.

Once we had them in the barn, we put their bridles and lead ropes on and had to hold their heads still long enough to squirt a tube of something called Zimecterin into their mouths. This we did by working the end of the tube into the side of the mouth far enough back that they couldn’t push it out with their tongue. They weren’t frightfully keen on this process, and there was a lot of rearing and tugging. Arden and I both got knocked around in there quite a bit that day, but they weren’t kicking us, not even when the sky turned dark gray and lightning flashed and thunder struck loudly and rain started hammering the barn’s state roof and wooden sides. I learned a lot that day. Horses, like me, are avoiders. They could easily rear up and kill you with a well-placed kick to your skull, but it is not in their nature to do this. Their preference when faced with danger is to run away. God made them fast for this reason. They will only strike out if you put them in a situation where they can’t run and then frighten or torment them. They knew Arden, and while they didn’t yet know me, I didn’t threaten them. I held on but let them rear, used my hands as comforters and not threateners.

Farmhouse Barn back in the day. I hear it was later leveled by a storm. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

Arden was impressed by the patience I displayed that day, I found out later from Uncle Bill. He told Bill I had “a good way” with the horses. This came up weeks later after we had lost the volunteer who had been slated to be stablemaster for the summer. Her name was Tammy, and she knew a lot about horses, and she brought a singularly magnificent dapple gray with her, but when she saw how the horses were treated at F– Ranch, or maybe when she saw how the staff was treated, she bolted. (Bill did not pamper the horses, and in this I applaud him. It’s true they could have used more regular attention by a ferrier, and once or twice it would have been nice not to have to twist his arm to get a vet out to the ranch, but he knew that if you give horses plenty of room to run and graze, they pretty much take care of themselves.) Tammy’s horse was a show horse. Tammy stayed less than a week, as I recall. This left Bill wondering whom to put in charge of the stables for the summer. Rebecca was certainly capable, but she was only seventeen. George, at nineteen, might have been the next, or even the first, choice, but with his knowledge of both the herd and the trails he was too valuable in the saddle to be stuck in the stable putting kids on horses. So was Bonnie, a woman about my age who also helped run the office and worked with Judy and others in the kitchen. Arden was the default stablemaster, but he had the Ranch’s cattle and sheep to tend to and whatever other mysteries he was involved in.

Bill and Arden discussed whether they thought I could do the job and then Bill asked me if I would be willing. I demurred a little, because I knew Rebecca would have given anything to have that job, but I also knew it was a done deal. I was the least experienced rider and the least experienced instructor, so virtually all the other staff were more useful than I in the ring and on the trail, but I could keep my head in a corral full of large animals and small children, and I was old enough that Bill wouldn’t get in trouble for putting me in charge. That’s how I ended up being “master” of about 96 horses and ponies that summer of 1991. The stables were the occasion of many adventures I’ll tell you about later. I rode a horse for at least some portion of the day — sometimes eight hours, sometimes just a few minutes — almost every day for over a year.

There was a girl, I think her name was Janette or Jeanette, who would come out to the ranch with her father to ride. They didn’t go out in a trail with one of us leading. Her father was one of the very few customers that Uncle Bill trusted to take out the horses without supervision. She always wanted to ride Tandara, and they would call a couple hours ahead of their visit and request Tandara. One day in winter, a cold gray day when the fields were frozen, I got word that they had called and would be arriving in an hour or two. There was no camp going on, so most of the horses were off in Lake pasture somewhere, and we had not even kept any round-up horses in the night before. I bundled up, took Tandara’s bridle from its peg in the stable and threw a few handfuls of corn into my pocket, and headed out on foot through Ring. I would have to find Tandara, catch her, and ride her back bareback. Going up the far slope, I suddenly saw myself laterally, that is, I became fully aware of both the tactile details and the larger context of my existence in that moment. I realized how lucky I was, and how grateful I was to be doing exactly this thing. The cold air lashed at my cheeks and it felt good to be outside. There was grass crunching under my boots, not the click of dead pavement. The real leather of the bridle, oiled and well used, felt honest and purposeful in between my fingers. I was on my way to relate with an animal that I knew and could identify out of all her companions from two hills away, just by her size and shape and the way she moved and the company she kept, an animal that knew me, my smell and my voice. I knew, suddenly, deeply, that I always wanted to be doing this, that this kind of life was vitally important to me. I always wanted to be walking on bare earth, touching real things, relating with God’s creatures and knowing the weather with my face and hands.

It was not to be, or at least, it has not yet been. From the day I packed Little Nemo and drove away from the Ranch in May or June of 1992 until now, I have never put my foot in a stirrup.

Arden and Norma at home. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

As for Arden, he was still the farm manager until a year or so ago. George went back to attend his funeral. He told me that the old cowboy went for a walk to the post office one day, came home and lay down to rest and just never woke up again. He was plum wore out. Once George and I were heading home to the house we lived in when we saw Arden in a hillside pasture next to the road trying to help a cow give birth. He had his arm into the cow’s uterus all the way up to his shoulder. George stopped the car, we piled out and hopped the fence to help. She was lying with her legs uphill, which wasn’t working out, but she couldn’t help herself. Arden told us to rope her legs and pull until she rolled over. It took both of us all our strength. I’m sure Arden was relieved we’d showed up just then, but if we hadn’t, he’da just done it himself.


A family I knew

NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was “Shooting Emma” and the second was “High, wide and handsome“.   

“Company, company! Where would we be without company?!”

— Sir John Middleton in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

Up a little road from the ranch house, and then down a little road, less than ten minutes’ walk as I remember it, there sat a little farmhouse on the side of a hill facing west. It was one of several old farmhouses that long ago, before strip mining came to Ohio’s eastern hills, were the homes of independent farmers in the neighborhood, but were now the widely distributed holdings of the ranch property. The house had no running water (there was a natural spring outside, about twenty yards away), and it had no telephone. Its occupants were reached from the office of the ranch house by means of a citizens’ band radio. In this house, at the time I arrived in Ohio, lived David and Judy and their two daughters and their young son, a family that became very important to me over the year that I lived and worked at the ranch.   

I found myself more than once sitting at the table in Judy’s kitchen, taking refuge from the daily stress of the ranch house, trying to make sense out of what to me was an increasingly bizarre experience in my dealings with the ministry’s management. Judy somehow kept positive while listening sympathetically to my complaints about things down at the ranch house. She never, that I recall, contributed to the general murmurings of discontent — or the gossip — that pervaded the atmostphere of the ranch. And it wasn’t as though she was removed from it all. She worked in the kitchen of the ranch house, cooking huge meals — hundreds of pancakes or hot dogs or eggs — for dozens of camper kids and the staff, and cleaning up after them, which was more than a full time job. She often made sure there was a sheet cake on the counter, from which the wranglers could filch a slice between trails or other tasks. We had a young volunteer named Don who came to run the kitchen the summer I was there, but even with a person working full time, it still took the daily assistance of Judy and several other volunteers to keep the ranch house dining hall running smoothly.   

Judy, Joanna, Rebecca and the Small Man of God posing with Little Nemo, my car, 1991.

When she wasn’t working at the ranch house, Judy was homeschooling her daughters Rebecca and Joanna, whom she and David had brought to the ranch as young girls, and Jonathan, whom they had raised there since his birth. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was cooking meals for her own household, and canning preserves, hanging laundry, and making calligraphic posters for ranch events. All this, and she still had time to listen to my puny resentments with a smile. The refrigerator was a mosaic of faces of friends near and far, a photo gallery of people who had moved on but kept in touch. The shelf behind the kitchen table was lined with glass jars full of vegetables and fruits that Judy had preserved. I would say “put by”, but Judy didn’t use such rural colloquialisms. She was, I believe, a New Yorker by birth, and on one hot afternoon, while I sat in her kitchen enjoying some gespacho she had just made, she told me that she had been raised Jewish, had wandered to Buddhism as a young woman, and had finally found her spiritual home in the Church of Rome. She married David, an Irish Catholic, and I could see that the culture of peace, community, tolerance and service she wove around the family they raised together was made from the fabric of her broad spiritual journey.   

David was as rare as hens’ teeth. He mostly spent his days away from the madding crowd, gardening, splitting wood, praying, and having as little as possible to do with the ranch house. I sensed that like me, he had difficulty being around Uncle Bill, and I rarely saw him. I once sought him out in the woods where he was using a bow saw to cut rounds from a fallen tree for firewood, and he gave me encouragement over some matter that had clouded my vision, but that was one of the only times I remember speaking with him heart to heart.  

David and Judy had moved to the ranch from North Carolina in the ’80s, when Rebecca and Joanna were around 8 and 10. Their vision was not the same as Uncle Bill’s, but the ranch was large. I was frankly amazed that Judy’s smile and her generosity had weathered the ranch antics for so long. David and Judy were the kind of people that other people just wanted to be around. They embodied the idea of community. They were pioneers, and in some ways hold-overs, of a Catholic communal agrarian movement that had started in the 1960s and ’70s. The reason they had come to the ranch was because they had seen in its vastness and in Uncle Bill’s stated ecumenism the possibility of creating there the ideal Catholic community, centered around farming and traditional Church values. They lived in a kind of voluntary poverty at the ranch, using water drawn from the spring outside to cook and clean with. This lifestyle, and their attitude of hospitality to all who knocked upon their door, made them rather legendary among the local Catholic community that centered around a Franciscan university nearby. Catholic agrarianists who found their way to the university, where the movement was still alive and well, often were told the inspiring story of David and Judy, and how they happened to live not far from the city, and these seekers would end up driving up the long ranch driveway looking for these humble heros of the Church. We would direct them up the road past Ring pasture toward David and Judy’s house. I am not kidding about this; David and Judy have actually been written about several times before, and for years Judy was active in writing letters and articles for a magazine that celebrated and promoted the agrarian Catholic life. For the sake of their privacy, that’s all I’ll say about that. But for the academics and young students at the Franciscan university, David and Judy were the real McCoy. They were living the ideal.   

Joanna and her buddy Prairie King (a.k.a. "PK"). Photo by Amber MacPherson used by permission.

For me, David was a bit of a puzzle. When these visitors came, I saw a different David than the one that seemed so invisible most of the time. He would sit and talk excitedly for hours into the night with his fellow Catholics, many of whom arrived at his house complete strangers and left friends for life. I was not Catholic, and while David was generous to me in many specific ways, he saved his most enthusiastic fraternal energies for those who shared his Catholic agrarian vision. I only mention that in order to paint the full picture of the gratitude I felt when David accompanied Uncle Bill to the hospital while I was laid up with the pericarditis. I had agreed with myself that when next I saw Uncle Bill I would apologize to him for nearly a year of bad attitude; when Bill strode in — his cowboy hat undoffed — my courage almost failed me, but then I saw David coming in right behind him with a friendly, calm smile, his billed cap in hand and his wisps of red hair tousled, and my spirit was buoyed up again. I’ll never forget that moment. I spoke my peace to the chief, owned my part of the dissonance. Bill nodded and grinned in his way, a way that made me fear the leverage I was giving him (with good reason, as it turned out). But behind Bill, saying not a word, sat David, and his presence there made all the difference. David was my witness that I had done true, and his quiet support in that moment made it possible for me to go through with it. I imagine that that was a small and even forgettable moment in David’s life, but it was a large one in mine. We sometimes become angels.  

While I was there David built a small chapel not far from the house, with Uncle Bill’s acquiescence if not his blessing. A cardinal or bishop came out from the city to bless it, or consecrate it — I don’t know the liturgical term. I know it was an exciting moment in the life of David and Judy’s dream.  

One of my warmest memories of the little house over the hill was late in the fall (I think), when George and I and several others of the staff joined Judy and Rebecca and Joanna, and maybe even little Jonathan, around the table for a reading of Hamlet. Copies of the script were handed out as we sat in the dining room, and we all were assigned one or more parts. The mayhem and laughter was a release that we all needed. It was a chaos of un-Bardly illiterature. Lines were botched, or skipped, or said by the wrong person, or spoken with outrageous accents. I think we recorded it all, too. The wind howled outside while we howled within. As the little house enfolded us in our merry enterprise, all the stresses of the summer drifted away.   

No, we didn't take every single picture in front of my Bug, but I've lost most of my ranch pictures. Judy and her kids were at the center of the extended ranch community. Here most of the full-time staff of summer 1991 takes a break. Back row left to right: Jonathan on my shoulders, Judy, Bonnie, George, Joanna, Mary (a.k.a. "Myrrh"). Middle row: Geo, wearing my hat, Rebecca, crouching tiger. Front row: Julie, Amy, Mary McD, Fiona.

Rebecca and Joanna, at 17 and 15 years old, were bursting with intellectual fervor and youthful zaniness, almost unable to contain the boil of ideas in their heads. They were funny, bright and beautiful, and I felt priveleged being in the house when the family was gathered. Bonnie, one of the full-time, year round staff who was like an aunt to Rebecca and Joanna, bought them an old upright piano as a surprise for Christmas the year I was there, and we delivered it to the little happy house one frosty morning in the back of a pickup truck. Bonnie and Judy and David and George (and several others of us) led the girls off the porch and out to the gravel driveway, our hands covering their eyes. Thus “blindfolded”, they erupted into an impromptu reenactment of a blindfold scene from Return of the Jedi:   

Joanna: Han!   

Rebecca: Luke!   

Joanna: Are you all right?   

Rebecca: Fine. Together again, huh?   

Joanna: Wouldn’t miss it.   

Rebecca: How are we doing?   

Joanna: The same as always.   

Rebecca: That bad, huh?   

When not lines from the Star Wars movies, they recited lines of classic poetry or other literature. I couldn’t keep up with them, being by comparison ill-read and slow. Judy once told me that she had set out to raise “Renaissance women” out of them, and I believe she achieved her goal. 

Jonathan, who I think was seven years old, was usually outside hiding in a bunny hutch or chasing sheep, but when he was around I would hear David refer to him as “Small Man of God”. Once Jonathan and another, slightly older boy who had come with his parents to live on the ranch accidentally chased the sheep into the stables through the lower gate, which often remained open. It was a quiet moment when perhaps several trails were out, and I was up near the ranch house when I heard the worried bleating and sensed the alarm of the few horses that were tied to the rail in the stable. I saw this dirty cloud of sheep fume into the lower stable, which I knew they woudn’t do on their own.  Next I saw that Jonathan and Nathan were in there — Absolutely Forbidden without adult supervision — and I ran over and hollared at them to come up and out of there. They obeyed, nervously shouting back that the sheep “had gotten into the stables”. I went down, shooed the sheep back out and then came up to talk to the boys. They were worried. I think I would have presented a pretty grumpy spectre to them on the best of days, and they knew they were guilty. I knelt down to look at them on their level, and Nathan started chattering about what happened — all fabrication and dissembling. I interrupted and told them they weren’t in trouble. I wasn’t mad. Nothing bad was going to happen. They shushed. I told them I needed to hear them tell me what really happened, and they said they had been chasing the sheep, and then the sheep started going toward the stable, and they tried to head them off but only ended up making them run into the stables faster, and they thought they should get them out, which is the only reason they went into the stables. I wanted to laugh but instead tried to balanced a look of stern authority with genuine respect for their little drama. I thanked them for telling me the truth and reminded them that they were Absolutely Forbidden to go in the stables by themselves. Then I tousled their little heads and ran them off. 

Often one of the features of my visits, and the happy price of a slice of pie and some conversation and fellowship, was a trip to the spring with empty milk jugs, which I would fill up with the coldest, freshest water — a favor the family was extremely grateful for, since this was their neverending chore. Sometimes Rebecca would come with me, and we would sit next to the spring while the jugs filled and chew on sprigs of spearmint, but more often she opted out, since she’d filled them herself a crillion times. On those occasions I went alone and enjoyed the quiet. The family needed so little, and I owed them so much. Carrying the water was the only way I could show them my love. Once during winter when David hurt his back, I went over and chopped some of the wood he had collected by the front porch. The family allowed me to share their Christmas Day celebration with them that year, and I also remember one time when Judy made latkas, the traditional Jewish potato pancakes, and we ate them with applesauce after Judy covered her hair with a cloth and said a Hebrew prayer.   

Jonathan in the rabbit hutch, ca. 1991.

The first time I saw the the Aurora Borealis, the only time I have ever seen them, Rebecca and Joanna and I were walking along the road to their house after a darkness rich with the smells of hay and the bleating of sheep had descended on a long day of work. So far south, the “Northern Lights” were not phenomenally bright, but we paused to admire the green and violet strands at the zenith of the night sky. The sisters had seen them before. I have never forgotten that sight. The moment remains in my memory as one when I knew that everything was sufficient. 

The little family seemed eternally part of the ranch to someone like me, who only came for a year, but looking back I see how lucky I was to have been there when I was, because David and Judy (and Jonathan) left a few years after I did and established their own homestead not far away. Rebecca and Joanna had gone off to college, first at the nearby Franciscan university and then further afield. Both became and remain teachers (though Rebecca has returned, literally, to the soil of eastern Ohio and is also raising organic crops in a sustainable farm operation with her husband). They had served the ranch as camp counselors and wranglers — before they were 15 they knew every inch of the trails and the characteristics of each member of the herd (here’s a photo you’ve seen before of Rebecca) — and logged hundreds or maybe thousands of hours in the ranch house kitchen as well. Along with Judy, they had been an enormous benefit to the daily operations of the ranch house. I can’t imagine the ranch without them and I would venture to say it has never been the same since they left. For me, the little house just over the hill was the thing that kept ranch life from being untenable. More than that, it was a house and home to which the journey itself, for its own sake, was always worth it.

High, wide and handsome

Note: Might as well put the kettle on. I reckon you’ll be settin’ a while with this one.

“Lord my shepherd help me pray
Though I left my heart to stray
Though I left my heart untrue
I can follow
I do
I do”

— Hem

There are two young men named George whom I will never forget. I say young men because that is the way I remember them — youthful and energetic and with the whole world open before them, as they are pictured here — though they are now both much older than I was when I knew them, and I felt very old at the time. When I was turning twenty-nine and came to F– Ranch, they were both just nineteen. George P., whom I recently tracked down and heard from by email, says he is “a middle-aged dad” now. I have completely lost the other one, George T., whom we called Geo.

The end of a good day. Wranger George P. and Kernal. Click for larger.

I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today if it were not for George and Geo. In the cheerless middle of a cold winter night in the last century, these two friends practically carried me out of the dilapidated house we lived in and sped me to the ER of the nearest hospital. Turns out it was a good thing they did that, but I love them for other reasons.

George was from up north in the state and had spent his childhood summers as a camper at the ranch. When I arrived in March of 1991, he had already been at the ranch a few weeks working full time. There wasn’t much going on in the winter, but there were cows and sheep to be cared for in addition to all the horses, and there were repairs to make around the ranch’s 4200 acres — gates and fences, for instance. George was helping Arden, who had retired from dairy farming to work as the ranch’s farm manager. Come spring and summer we would be very busy putting kids on horses, taking out trails, and leading horsemanship classes, and in late summer and fall we’d also be making hay (really making hay, like mowing it, “bining” it, and stacking it in barns).

Always ready with a smile. George trudging back from chores on a winter morning. Click for larger.

Arden relied on George because George was reliable in that showing-up-no-matter-the-hour-or-the-weather kind of way, and in that tell-him-once-and-he’ll-get-it-done kind of way, the kind of reliability that an old dairyman found hard to come by in young men in the twilight of the twentieth century. But I relied on George every day in another way; I relied on his phlegmatic calm, his kind and generous nature, his willingness to share every good and bad experience and then laugh about it at the end of the day while we rubbed neatsfoot oil into our boots to keep them from cracking and drying out. He was quick to laugh, but there was a kind of sadness to him, I thought right away; it seemed as though George was hunkered down on the ranch because he didn’t know quite what else to do in life. His work history had been in restaurant kitchens, and in addition to all the other work he did he was sharing cooking duties in the ranchhouse at the time I arrived. He was a good cook, a natural, and he liked making and serving food. However, he was too valuable as a horseman to be in the kitchen during the summer onslaught, and there were others who would take up the culinary tasks during that time.

Looking back from the present, I see I had so much unidentified anger deep inside me then, and even though I willingly did the hard work and obeyed the rules as best I could, I remember always feeling that I was about to burst. Uncle Bill seemed to embody everything I felt it important to rebel against, and yet I also felt it was my duty not to spread bad attitude. George was the one who heard me grumble under my breath, or read the particular shape of the steam coming out of my ears after Bill would pass by barking some complaint, and he would find a way to make me laugh, or he’d just say “Come on, let’s run the horses out.” Playing guitars with George on the dangerously collapsing front porch of “the men’s house” at the end of the day — well, I think that might have saved my soul.

George T. ("Geo") on a rare break in the bustle. Click for larger.

Geo arrived a few weeks after I did. Geo was from Cardwell, Montana. At that time in his life he was experiencing a difficulty relating to authority. His relationship with his father he described as hostile. I seem to recall talk of punches having been thrown. I’m pretty sure Geo had done a couple years in the military (is that possible at so young an age?), which had done him wonders, but he did not want to go back to Montana. A pastor he knew who occasionally volunteered at the ranch and whom we called Pastor Willie had suggested he give the ranch a whirl.

That was a happy day for us, because the Ranch needed a personality like Geo’s. Geo was comic in bearing and buoyant in spirit. Despite being from a small town in Montana, he had urban hip-hop tastes. He had a habit of striking up what he called “beatbox” or “bebox” by using his mouth to imitate a heavy, sputtering rap beat. Very quickly, every member of the ranch began asking him to stop doing this, but he would only grin the big friendly grin you see on his face here and shout, as a d.j. would, “Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” He had an infectious laugh — hell, just looking at him smiling makes me laugh even now. He was indomitable. You couldn’t squelch his life-loving energy.

Geo, Rebecca and Joanna vaulting on horseback, another ranch visitor handing up the kitten for the finale. I think I was gone by this time. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott. Click for larger.

One thing I especially valued about Geo was that no matter how much he thought something “sucked”, and there were many things about the way the ranch was managed that quickly found themselves on this list for Geo, he seemed determined to make the best of it. I remember seeing him frown — the frown was always temporary, he just couldn’t be like that for long, and while he frowned you could see him struggling with what he considered unfair or outrageous. His heart was good. And he didn’t want to use his fists. Pretty soon, he’d be laughing again.

And he did amazingly well with the parts of the ranch that did not suck, like being with the campers. I escaped counselor duty all but one week of that summer because I was needed as stablemaster, and George was often assisting Arden with farm chores. But Geo served as a counselor for the most difficult age-group of boys, the back-talking, limit-testing preteens; you’d see them pile out of their parents’ cars on Sunday afternoon all full of beans, ready to cut loose and raise hell, but in less than a day they’d be marching in step behind Geo like ducklings, loudly repeating the boot-camp cadences he had taught them. And when they stepped out of line, he sat on them, but he laughed with them too and it was all a great time. They knew he liked them, and they loved being around him. By the end of the week, their lives were different.

Built at the beginning of the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War. We called it "the Mill". Click for larger, but watch your step on the porch.

We worked side by side every day. During the busy summer season, the day started before sunup with the drive in to the ranch house. We saddled up the few horses we’d kept in the night before for this purpose and rode them out to look for the rest of the herd in whichever pasture we’d run them out into the previous evening. Bringing the herd in was exhilarating. A herd on the move is a terrifying, beautiful thing. Being part of that motion is like riding some great raging river. We broke fast after round up, then we taught lessons in the ring and rode trails all day. I was the least experienced rider, so was not often needed as an instructor. Some days I stood in the stables, talking to the horses and making lead ropes out of old hay twines.

At the end of the day, a few of us would mount up, call for the dogs, and run the horses back out to pasture for the night, what we called “round-out”, chasing them through Ring pasture so they wouldn’t stop and eat the good grass there, and on into Lake or Thoroughbred pasture. We cracked little whips and shouted to keep them going, and the collies nipped at their heels and barked. When we’d herded the last pony through the gate, there was the pleasure of the five minutes or so riding back in the evening sun toward the stable, and toward dinner and maybe a shower. It was the best time of day. We never rushed back. The round-out crew was different every day, but very often it was George or Geo and myself and one or two of the older campers. In my memory I see us all riding back through Ring at a walk, with the evening sun turning the green grass gold.

One of the campers in the stable with Decapa, or maybe that's Julie. The ranch house is visible in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson. Click for larger.

As stable master, I also recruited a few souls to scoop the stables with me before they could go in to dinner. I’d hook the spreader up to the PTO (power-take-off) of one of the tractors and drive it into the stable, and after we’d loaded it up with poop I’d drive it out into one of the pastures, usually Lower Barn, and spread it. The spreader was a wagon with a kind of conveyor belt that pulled the manure back into a spinning mechanism that flung it out into the fields to serve as fertilizer. You controlled the flinger with a lever, and if you let it spin too fast you’d have horseshit all over your back in no time. Manure was greenest and wettest in the spring, when the horses were eating the new grass. Because of the proteins in the grass, this was also the time when the horses shed their ragged winter coats and their flanks started to shine and they fattened up. I enjoyed flinging the manure. The noise of the tractor meant I didn’t have to listen to anybody, and at the end of the day that was nice. I just drove around, looking back every once in a while to see the clumps of dung arcing beautifully against the setting sun.

Teaching classes in the ring. Photo used by permission of Mary McDowell Heidorn, standing center. Click for larger.

After spreading manure, there were flakes of hay to toss to the round-up/round-out horses in the paddock and whatever sheep or cattle might be in the barn that night. Most nights there were also hayrides, barn-dances, or worship services, depending on the day of the week. We returned exhausted to the Mill, as we called our house, played a little guitar or treated our boots before collapsing into bed in rooms where ornate wallpaper put up a century before was pealing, and got up before sunrise to do it all again. On Saturday mornings we had cattle round-up and a chuckwagon breakfast, which meant we had to get up even earlier. Through the fall and winter, the workdays were shorter but the work itself — fixing fence in the biting cold wind and snow — was more demanding. More often we worked alone then. In late summer Arden taught me to drive the tractor along steep hills so we could stay ahead of the haying while the weather was good. Or I’d hook up the brush hog to the PTO and spend days chopping back blackberries that were encroaching on pastures and hayfields. George and Geo were often using other tractors to set out those big round rolls of hay, especially in winter when there was no more grass for the animals. Arden did all the other things we younger men had no clue about, like taking the spring rams and calves to market. He came and went like a ghost, always smiling and crooning hymns. I liked those days, too, but I was always glad to get back to the ranchhouse, where a cup of coffee and some quiet conversation awaited, and maybe some cake, too. 

It wasnt’ that the work was hard and physical. That was the best part. We ate like hogs and slept like unmined diamonds. What was difficult to endure was the endless speechifying by the owner about how this wasn’t good enough and how that had been the wrong thing to do. And every complaint and edict was backed by a scripture reference — some parable ingeniously interpreted — so there was no arguing. There was a constant wearing down of one’s spirit, of one’s good intentions. The staff, in response to this subtle but constant abuse from above, closed ranks to support one another, which was the true miracle of that place.

Weekend visitors to the ranch heading out on a trail. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott, who is in the foreground at left riding what looks to be Sundae. Click for larger.

Geo left the ranch late in the year; just couldn’t take the insanity of being carped at incessantly by a man who was never satisfied, never gave praise and always criticized, pressured and wheedled. We all missed him terribly, even perhaps Bill, who was not happy about how Geo departed and expressed “disappointment” in the young man. Bill needed to keep a stock of people to villify and use as examples, and Geo’s hotheaded departure was convenient that way. The young women of the ranch, especially Rebecca and Joanna, the two who had grown up there and were homeschooled and more intelligent and better educated than any people under eighteen I had ever met, were constantly rolling their eyes when Geo first arrived; his beatbox noisiness and puppy-dog energy offended some sense of culture they had imagined for themselves by reading Austen and the Brontës. But when he left, the place had a hole in it. I think he went back to Montana for a few months, but it didn’t work out, and we soon heard that if Bill would allow it, Geo wanted to return after Christmas. After a speech in which he gloated about Geo having learned a lesson, Bill told us he was allowing Geo to return at the New Year. We rejoiced.

Though older, I was like both Georges. Like George P., I struggled with an inner restlessness, and like Geo, I had inside me a truculent resister against authority. I had almost quit and gone home after two weeks, having seen how things were there, but even in that short time I had developed a loyalty to the hardworking folks who would be left with even more to do if I left. Perhaps — no, certainly, I ascribed more importance to my own presence there than was due. The ranch was constantly attracting more volunteers who wanted to have a part of that beautiful life on the land with horses. But I stayed and I began, for the first time in my life, dealing with the contradictions, working out my salvation with fear and trembling. Like George. Like Geo. And my body began to come awake to the fact that I was a creature of earth, an awareness that has not ceased to tug at me for a single day since then.

A moment to unwind. Geo, George and Jonathan, the youngest member of the family that was living on the ranch at the time. Click for larger.

Meanwhile my heart began to implode, literally. I contracted acute pericarditis, no one every found out how. Bill discouraged doctor visits because they were an outlay of money that to him expressed the opposite of faith in God. (Yes, I know, these are the machinations that go on in a cult. And in some very real respects that’s what the ranch was. But I must be as charitable to Bill as truthful memory will allow. He was not amassing money and driving around in Porches and having ten wives. He was earnestly trying to communicate the gospel of Jesus, and give children a safe place to develop a sense of belonging and achievement in the process.) Insanely, I went along with the “have faith and it will go away” policy, as I was not fond of hospitals myself and at that time still had that young man’s sense of indestructability. But the sac around my heart had filled with fluid over the preceding weeks and I was approaching the point where I could not breathe without pain — it felt like someone was harpooning me from behind every time I inhaled.

As my internal organs began to be increasingly restricted by the accumulation of water around my heart and lungs, I failed to see that I was in what the Germans quaintly call Lebensgefahr — “life-danger”. And Ohio’s deep bitter winter cold, to which I was unaccustomed, seemed to increase the pain. Hearing of the trouble, my parents begged me to get me to a doctor. I did, once, and got some Erithromyacin for the swelling, and assumed it would take care of itself. But it got worse, and the breath I was able to draw became shorter and shorter and more painful with each day, even as I convinced myself that it would be okay, until I woke up one night when the cold was bone-breaking and the heat had gone out in the house and found myself rasping and shivering in my sleeping bag. I suddenly realized that something was dangerously wrong. I called out for George, noting even in my delirium how nifty it was that I only had to shout one name, and both of my housemates came running into my room.

The hospital was thirty miles away by twisty country roads. The boys helped me dress and loaded me gingerly, like a live torpedo, into the back of the Subaru, where I lay in fetal position feeling every bump and dip on the way. I believe George was driving. Calm. Assured. Fast. Since I did not die, Bill was able to claim later that this trip had been unnecessary, though I know and they knew that I might have stepped out with His Grimness (the Reaper) that very night had they dawdled. But I did not die. That was not the Plan. I still believed very much in a Plan back then. Nowadays I struggle with the idea of a Plan. Here’s what I remember, though: it never occurred to me at the time that I would not live, not even a month later when the symptoms returned and the cardiologist I was visiting took one look at me and called an ambulance and I was again hospitalized with acute pericarditis. I still remember lying in the ICU, knowing that everything would be alright. I knew that I was loved. For some reason, that made me feel invincible.

The bad ones always survive. I know this photo was taken after my hospitalization because I had never been able to grow a beard until after being on prednizone. I don't recall the name of the woman in the picture, but we could not have survived the days without the help of our weekend volunteers. Click for larger.

Like I said, I love George and Geo for reasons other than saving my life. It was because we were all there together during one of the most bizarre chapters in any of our lives, when we were young, strong and optimistic. It is difficult to talk about my ranch experience with people who were not there, because in many ways it doesn’t make any sense. People do what they have to do, and everyone’s journey has its own dark turns that seem inexplicable to others. The entire time I was at the ranch I wondered if I was staying because I was too afraid to leave, and through all the years since then I’ve wondered if I left because I was too afraid to stay.

Maybe we all wonder that, because the ranch had such great potential and to have been a part of it for any time at all was to breathe in that vision of an outdoor life with good people close by. Geo appears in pictures that were taken at the ranch the next year, but no one knows what became of him after that. I’ve just located George again after all these years, and this very day he wrote me that he left the ranch about six months after I did, but went back years later with a wife and young family and was helping to run the place as program manager for several years. He says he left only after Bill decided to quit paying the staff, (“After all, it’s more of a ministry than a job,” Bill reasoned), because he had a family to feed. George returned to the hospitality industry, where his efforts were appreciated, and is now managing a Bob Evans restaurant. Like me, he has gone where his journey has led him. But I know he wakes up from dreams in which he’s bringing the herd in, standing in the stirrups at a full gallop. I know he wakes up remembering the smell of spearment stems just broken by the hooves of running horses. 

Ready to serve.

 NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was Shooting Emma.

Shooting Emma

Note and Warning: This post contains a graphic description of a life ending and may be an uncomfortable read. I considered changing all the names here in case anyone might be hurt by this story, but instead decided to report it as truthfully as I am able and with an emphasis on my own experience, which nevertheless is only one person’s and told through the haze of nearly twenty years. For the photos in this post (don’t worry, the images are of other moments) I am indebted to Amber MacPherson, who was a camper at the Ranch before, during and after my sojourn there, and who, besides having turned out to be a photographer with a creative eye, had good horse-sense at the time and was a genuine asset on a roundup. 

Maybe it was breakfast-time, I can no longer recall, but at some point early in the day, before the horses and ponies had been saddled up for their day of well-intended abuse at the hands of Ohio’s youth, “Uncle” Bill approached me as I crossed the ranch house lawn and drew me aside to talk out of the hearing of the young campers. I tried to stay as far away from Uncle Bill, who was not my uncle, as my volunteer work on his 4400-acre F– Ranch would allow. It was uncommon, however, for him to approach in hushed tones; usually his complaints and pronouncements, however manipulative they may have seemed to me, were uttered plainly and openly. It signified something unusual.

It was Emma, he told me. Sometime during the night or that morning she had tried to push her way through the closed gate between Lake and Ring pastures, among the bent metal bars and the mesh of wire. She had gotten one of her hind legs caught and it was broken. Perhaps she had fallen on it. “She’s still tangled,” he said, and when he said this I turned my head instantly to cast my vision over the lawn I was standing on, over the near paddock next to the greyed barn, over the deep and mostly treeless valley of Ring Pasture to its far ridge, where I could see a pony-sized speck of stillness standing at the gate to Lake Pasture.

Ring Pasture. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

We would have to put her down, Uncle Bill said. He didn’t want the young campers, who were attending a horsemanship clinic at the Ranch that weekend, to even know about this turn of events lest they be upset by it, so he wanted me to divert the morning’s trails, which usually would be led through Ring Pasture, through Thoroughbred and Lower Barn instead. For lack of an applicant over the age of 20 that year, Bill had appointed me stablemaster, so it was my job to make sure things went smoothly in the stables and on the trails.

It was one of the rare moments that Bill and I were able to find any level on which to connect and meet. We disagreed about almost everything, but his furrowed brow and look of disquiet told me he felt this loss deeply, and what’s more, he knew that as a sensitive (he might correctly have thought “mollycoddled and entitled”) West Coast yuppie who had only learned to ride a handful of months ago, I would be crushed by the loss of one of my charges.

“We’ll wait until the campers are at lunch downstairs,” he said, looking at the ground. “I”ve asked Don to bring one of his guns. You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to.”

I hadn’t taken my eyes off of the little brown speck half a mile away. I stood on the grass between the ranch house and the barn, with the red cowboy neckerchief that Bill required all the staff to wear fluttering under my chin, my misshapen straw hat bent low in front over my eyes, which were always bothered by the brightness of the Ohio sky. What would F– Ranch be like without Emma?

The Ranch was a chaotic place, and you were always rushing around trying to gather up all your horses and ponies and get them saddled, and when a trail came back into the stable you got the riders off and put new ones on and sent them out again. You needed every single critter. I didn’t want to find myself saying “where’s Emma?” and not being able to remember because she had simply disappeared, had ceased to show up at her little spot on the rail in the stable. I felt that watching Don shoot one of my ponies was almost more than I could bear, but it would be worse to have to forever imagine it, to not have that moment of closure and finality.

“I’ll be there,” I said.

The thing about Emma was I didn’t like her. She was the pony I liked least of all. I don’t know if anyone actually liked her, although I and a generation of young campers respected her. She was a cute little pony that didn’t care much about the agendas of humans. Most ponies were that way, I found. Their short legs and general compactness enabled them to dig in and resist. They were like furry boulders. Emma was the worst of them. On a trail, with a child on her back who either was terrified to have an animal underneath them or was reveling in the delusion of communion with the animal world, she would stop suddenly and lower her head, jerking the reins loose from her rider’s hands, and eat grass. All of the horses did this whenever they thought they could get away with it, or if the trail had to stop for some reason, such as the opening of a gate between pastures. But Emma excelled at bringing the sweetest kids to tears. Other ponies had other vexing habits. Joshua and Velvet would actually hide in the ravine when we rounded the horses up in the morning to bring them into the stable. Emma was just stubborn and ornery.

All morning as we worked our horses in the ring I could look across Ring Pasture to the gate atop the opposite hill and see Emma — a small immobile dot — standing and waiting, probably in a lot of pain I thought, but standing nonetheless. It seemed absurd.

At lunchtime I set out on foot down through the deep bowl of Ring Pasture and up the other side. I wanted the short journey alone in order to pray and prepare myself for watching death, and because I knew I needed to cry. I also wanted a few minutes with Emma before the posse showed up. For once I was grateful for the stupid, feckless company of the collie dogs, which formed the satellites of a busy little solar system of which my legs, heavier each step up the far hill, were the center. I saw the station wagon circling around Ring Pasture at the front of a little comet of dust, heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels. Old Arden, who as  farm manager singlehandedly saw to the needs of maybe sixty head of cattle and as many sheep, followed a ways behind on a tractor, on whose front forks he had laid a large piece of plywood.

Co-wrangler Rebecca on Holly, a larger pony whom I never knew. Emma was about the size of the littler ponies in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

I had come to the ranch having no experience with horses or with the hard decisions and actions that a life on the land necessitates. Actually, I did have one childhood memory of being on a large horse in a covered ring. My older sister Jeni was on a horse in front of me, and we were in a line of horses, all with children of varying ages and varying abilities on their backs. I was young, inexperienced and terrified. We were all supposed to keep our horses standing still in the line and, one by one, when the instructor told us to, we were to induce our mount to walk forward around the perimeter of the ring and stop and join the line again along the opposite wall. Each rider complied. When it was my sister’s turn she moved off around the wall so that I was now at the head of the initial line. While the instructor followed beside Jeni and her horse, giving praise, criticism and encouragement, my own horse decided there was no reason to wait behind. It knew where it would be asked to go, and so it went. I froze in terror on its back as the gentle creature plodded around the edge of the ring, the huge muscles rippling beneath my legs. When Jeni had joined the back of the other line and the instructor turned around and found me already more than halfway around, she yelled at me, asking the kind of rhetorical questions that are pointless to ask frightened children, such as what I thought I was doing, and whether or not I had heard the instructions, and had she asked me to go yet. At that point I cried and the memory goes dark. I’m sure I embarrassed my sister.

It was perhaps that memory of being humiliated and (as I experienced it) terrorized at the hooves of a creature I had been led to believe would be my friend that made my gorge rise one day when Emma was pulling similar stunts underneath a little boy who had come to F– Ranch for the weekend with his school or church group or scout troup. We were in one of the lesson rings that give Ring Pasture its name, an oval in the grass with a fence around it. I had earned several certificates that supposedly qualified me to teach the first levels of Western saddle. I had my charges all lined up and was moving them through the basics of starting and stopping at a walk, but Emma wouldn’t go. The little boy could not make Emma go. I told him to use his heels to kick her sides if she would not respond to the clucking sound. Children do not like to kick ponies, or any animals, but this fellow gave Emma a gentle nudge with his heels, insufficient in Emma’s case to rouse her from her daydream. I told him “harder!”, and he was unable, and Emma stood still until the boy began to cry.

I am about to paint for you — in the very next paragraph — what I consider to be my worst moment as a human being. If you know me and believe that you can reference an instance when I behaved badlier, please let me know in private.

My head was boiling. I’d had enough of crying kids and stubborn ponies. Instead of sympathising and giving the kid a break, which would have been, in effect, forgiving myself for my own failure to control my horse all those years before, I repeated history. I ran over and shouted at the kid to get off of Emma. He dismounted directly (Emma was only two and a half or three feet high at her shoulder). I sat down on her and raised my feet off the ground and started kicking the heels of my boots into her sides. She started off smartly at a quick trot, no doubt alarmed at this strange behavior, but I pushed at her and yelled until she broke into a choppy little canter. Because I was the stablemaster all the horses knew me, my voice, my smell, my walk, and because of this familiarity they were able to trust me, but this behavior on my part was a breach of the contract. Some of the kids sat in quiet horror in their saddles, rightly perceiving that a terrible anger was at work in this place. Others nervously laughed. I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked, like an angry man beating on a tricycle. Emma tried to break the canter and slow down to a trot several times but I forced her on, kicking her thick sides until she had circled the ring at a run.

I got off and handed the reins back to the boy, who looked doubtful that this exposition would be of much help to him. If I had hoped to prove to him that Emma would go if you made her go, what I actually achieved was to shame him. Emma stood sweating and breathing hard. It was not worth her time to be angry at me, or even to figure out what my problem was.

She stood now enveloped in a calm. She could not walk or lie down, her cannon snapped and twisted and held on only by skin. She stood without a sign of pain. I petted her neck and looked into her eyes, brown and unfathomable, for the last time. Maybe even the first time. She was an old pony and had had as good a life as a pony can have. She was my least favorite, but I was struck by how any death, the loss of any life at all, must be such a grief to God as I envision God. In that moment the ten inches between our faces might as well have been the entire universe of space because each of us dies alone, apart from all other created beings.

I find death unacceptable. At these moments, some deep part of me resists belief in a resurrection and fears that this is all there is, this fragile life — mine and this pony’s — and that the only immortality we can hope for is to be remembered, whether ill or well. This is my most disbelieving and wayward self. But it is as real a part of me as the me that rises each day with a prayer on my lips. In fact, more real in a way. Because I pray for my own benefit, most often. If I know or am known by God it is not through any right doing or thinking or believing. If entry to heaven were guaranteed by the keeping of ten simple commandments, I would break them still. Or one commandment, I could not keep it. If my soul’s salvation were dependent on any action or restraint or effort of my own will, then were I surely hellbound. No, I never loved God or man or beast because I was told I had to. I cannot obey. I cannot do as I am told. I have only loved, and loved late at that, because the world is lovable. And it is only grace that has made me able to see this.

I could not help Bill and Arden and Lew, an old cowboy who had come for the weekend to teach advanced riding classes, and Don drag Emma quickly — roughly, it seemed to me — away from the corner she stood in to the board, on which she fell and lay still. They were not bad men, but they were not sentimental about ponies. Having grown up hunting game and dealing with instances of irreparable harm to livestock they regarded Emma as just an animal, which is what she was. And it was not they who had sworn at her and kicked her with all their might. It was I who had done those things. They were here to do her the service of freeing her from the mortal coil, because that was the job at hand.  

I hope that ponies turned out for the last time continue to move through our world just like this morning mist over Upper Barn Pasture. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson.

Still, I could not watch Don pull the trigger. I looked over my right shoulder, back over Ring Pasture toward the west. The shot pushed in on my eardrums, loud but with no echo — the report just rode the breeze away into the sky.

I looked then. I needed to see that she was dead. I acknowledge that my presence there was mostly for selfish reasons, some of which I may never be aware of. Emma did not need me for anything. She quivered after a moment or two, and then convulsed, her hooves clattering for a second on the board, and then lay still, and blood poured out dark and thick from the hole in her forehead. I could see in her glassy eyes that she was instantly gone, returned to nature, ungathered, turned loose into the flow, into the greater.

I walked back thanking God for the gift of life, vowing not for the first time and not for the last that I would never again waste any moment of my own.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt