Creating a Cowboy Poem: How Buzzards Turned into Priests

vultures2010

Vultures on a neighbor’s barn.


In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week, April 19 to 25, I’m looking at how I created one of my few rhyming poems, “Priests of the Prairie” (2004).

My first intention was to write a poem about vultures— or as we call them here, buzzards— in the style of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote free verse similar to that written by Walt Whitman, and narrative poems in traditional blank verse. Here, for example, is a segment of Jeffers’s poem “Vulture”

And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice.

Since Jeffers died in 1962, I should make clear that I was not imitating his poem; I had not read it until I went looking for examples of his verse to include in this essay. I like the central idea of Jeffers’ poem, however: the poet tells the buzzard he’s not available yet.

Often, as soon as I start writing about a subject, I realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I started this poem with research into vultures to supplement what I had learned in 60 years of observing them on this prairie.

Here are a few of my notes:

— nest in cliff overhangs, rocky cavities, badger holes!!
— Bank hollows, caves, tree cavities, abandoned buildings, among rocks; nest sites always dark and well concealed; no actual nest is constructed– eggs laid on substrate
— 2 eggs, rarely 1 or 3; dull to creamy white with various-sized spots and blotches of pale and lighter brown; incubation 38-41 days
— young birds will disgorge their food or bite when approached
— long wings allow them to soar
— groups often seen in high spots with wings spread wide in the sun

I love the idea that they may nest in badger holes, and will have to pursue that thought sometime.

Then I wrote “are vultures in the Bible?” showing that my mind had already decided on a religious connection with the poem.

The answer is yes; I found several references in my Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and looked them up in the Holy Bible Helen Painter gave me in 1953 when I joined the church. In Chapter 11 of Leviticus, for example, the Lord lays down The Law to Moses, telling him what the children of Israel may not do if they want to stay in His good graces. Among those rules is that they should not eat vultures— or ravens, owls, nighthawks, swans, pelicans, storks, herons or bats.

Since I had no intention of writing poetically about eating vultures, I went on to Job 28:7, a lovely and mysterious passage: “There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.” This is a terrific metaphor for the search for knowledge, clearly written by someone who understands vultures. If a vulture can’t see the path from his vantage point, it’s hard to find. Ornithologists had wondered if, since a vulture’s sense of smell is so acute that it can track the odor of rotting flesh in only a few parts per billion of air, there might not be a corresponding decline in its eyesight; if you can smell your food, maybe you don’t need to see it. In a fascinating study in 2013, however, it was determined that the vulture’s eyesight is “very good.” The folks who created Job already knew that. I abandoned the Bible as a source of insight into vulture habits.

On my drive to Windbreak House from my home in Cheyenne, WY, on September 21, 2000, I thought for hours, following connections without any regard to their relevance. I jotted a few words on a yellow tablet in the passenger seat of my vehicle.

— enfold you in his black and feathered cloak
— sharp beak severs connections to the world, slices sinew
— words for priesthood he calls: father, clergy, ministry, cloth, eminence, reverence, confessor, pilgrim, holy orders, consecration, ordain,
— black cloaks spreading, blotting out the sun
— to settle in a circle, a choir
— warm flesh to cold, chill, snow, icy eyes?
— truth, soul
— rending of garments and gnashing of teeth
— CHECK REVELATIONS

I was narrowing my focus, strengthening the religious connotations for the poem.

Buzzard/priest images:
— his symbol: curve of beak and talon, curve of earth and eyeball, belly, cheek, nostril
— bald as a Pope
— whisper of rough cloth or smooth wings
— hands hidden in sleeve: claws in feathers?
— click of rosary: beak on bone
— play on HABITS

Once I reached the retreat house that day, I wrote more notes, this time focusing on what I know of buzzards from watching them clean up dead cattle in our pastures for years.

– Head turns to focus eye
– beak vivid yellow, know they’re dipped first in the eye of a dead calf
– soaring in spirals down the field, up over trees, past buildings, always with that steady regard of the ground, never flapping
– Wingtips splayed like fingers
– never flap in breeze too light to stir the fine hair on a baby’s head.
– They soar, bare, wrinkled necks hidden
– shoulders hunched.

Three days later, I began to carve some rough lines from my notes.

Brother Buzzard circles overhead, feathered cloak
shining in the sun, the air so sweet and clean
beneath his wings he rises over fluffy clouds and mountain peaks.
He drifts above the stink of diesel trucks, the SUVs,
the sporty jobs and family vans, above the asphalt deaths,
the stink of twisted ropes of flesh along the interstates.

His eyes see to eternity, and beyond.Until he spirals downward past the clouds,
calling others of the priesthood to worship at the feast.

This version had some interesting details, and I liked some of the rhythm, but it focused on what the buzzard saw, rather than the bird’s actions.

The poem soared around my head for days, while I considered the possibilities of making its rhythm iambic pentameter. This is the most familiar of the cowboy poetry rhythms, some say because it echoes the sounds of a horse walking.

One iambic foot is “ta DUM”, consisting of one unaccented and one accented syllable. As I aimed for a smooth tempo, another version of the poem landed on paper on July 4.  By this time I’d decided that I wanted to use iambic, but not iambic pentameter—5 iambic feet to each line—because it is the very most common cowboy poetry format. In my draft, each line had seven iambic feet—until I reached the last line.

BROther BUZZzard LEADS a CLOIStered LIFE when HE’S at HOME. (7 feet)
He pairs for life and builds a nest secluded in some hollow (7 feet)
deep within a rocky cliff. Mrs. Buzzard lays (7 feet)
two eggs, creamy white with blotches. Brother Buzzard shares (7 feet)
the incubation chores, but every afternoon he sits (7 feet)
in sunshine with the others of his kind to preen and spread (7 feet)
his mighty wings, his feathered cloak of black (5 feet)

I liked the rhythm, but noted on the draft that the poem was “less interesting.”

I printed the poem out, and kept it near my computer, sometimes moving it to the dining room table while I ate, or putting it beside my bed so I could read it first thing in the morning. Keeping the poem close to me meant my subconscious mind would work on the poem even as I conducted a retreat and ate and slept and conversed like a normal person.

Doing more research, I had discovered that “to meet in choir” meant “to settle in a circle.” It’s unlikely that many of my listeners or readers will know this fact, but the term “choir” adds to the religious mood, and is correct, which pleases me greatly.

More lines began to emerge. These, however were not in iambic pentameter but in dactyl: DUM da da DUM da da, a meter that resembles a horse cantering instead of walking.

WHISpering PRACtical PRAYERS for the DEAD,
the BROtherhood MEETs in CHOIR

That’s a long line, with seven dactylic feet, so I read the line aloud to be sure that in a performance I could complete it in one breath.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
they gather at high noon to pray.

This line, too, has seven dactylic feet. But could I find a word that made sense and rhymed with “choir”?

In order to decide how to revise the line, I had to remind myself why the buzzards are gathering. I vividly recall when I found my favorite heifer dead, with a half-dozen vultures standing on her corpse feeding. Of course— the buzzard-priests are not just devouring the dead animal, but celebrating a funeral! So I changed the line.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

To be strictly accurate, funeral pyre means combustible material burned to celebrate a death, but the rhyme makes sense in context.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones
as shoulder to shoulder they stand

Whoops— rhythm and rhyme both fell apart in the next line:

from tonsured heads erect on scraggly necks
to bony ankles backs to the sun they

By now, I had begun to realize that I might be able to construct the poem with some respectable rhymes, and began thinking of it as an homage or thanks to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where I’d been invited to perform several times. So I concentrated on making the rhythm perfect and the rhymes logical. If a poet intends to rhyme, the standard is very high. To remind myself of the best, I read the poetry of Wallace McRae. Writing poems is not a competition, but if you plan to write and recite the poem in exalted company, I think it’s smart to read the very best.

My work on the poem after this consisted of changes that would seem minute if I reproduced all the drafts. Over and over I read and recited the poem, beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel as I drove, or on my desk as I typed. I looked at my rhyming dictionary and wrote lists of words that might fit the meaning of the poem. As I worked, I also discovered some humor that seemed to fit the occasion.

I think the finished poem carries considerable poetic weight, portraying accurately how a group of buzzards looks gathered on the 80 pound body of a dead newborn calf, and the philosophical humor of a rancher who knows the sight represents loss of nine months of a cow’s life as well as the year’s profit from her at the sale ring.

Priests of the Prairie

Whispering practical prayers for the dead,
the brotherhood meets in choir.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones,
shoulder to shoulder they stand.
Tonsured heads wobble on scraggly necks
as they pray in the pastureland.

From out of the West, the priesthood has come,
cloaks shining black in the sun,
to gather around this altar of flesh
until their communion is done.

Their eyes see forever– and somewhat beyond;
eternity, and a square meal.
The Brothers of Buzzard are worshipping lunch,
devouring the finest of veal.

(c) 2004, Linda M. Hasselstrom

The poem was first published in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, Gibbs-Smith, in 2004, and I have read it several times since then in Elko, home of The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I enjoy beginning to read the poem in a deep voice with great solemnity. Almost immediately, I catch audience attention because the dactylic rhythm suggests humor rather than seriousness, and thus contrasts with my tone of voice and attitude. On the final stanza, I gesture to the sun from which the priesthood descends– and intone the final two lines with a smile.

But there’s more. Re-reading these drafts and writing these comments, I’ve noticed some lines and ideas that didn’t make it into the final poem. I gave up on writing about the bird’s actual life, but those details are significant, since the bird forms an important role in prairie ecology, cleaning up carrion. I’m fascinated again by the phrases:

– warm flesh to cold
– bald as a Pope
– click of rosary: beak on bone

Since I look forward to the arrival of vultures every spring, I don’t doubt that I may write more about them. And now I’ve reminded myself that I have these unused notes, my subconscious mind has already begun working on what else I might say about vultures. This is surely another good reason to keep early drafts of poems. On a computer, it’s too easy to rewrite without saving those drafts, but it’s equally easy to date and save them. I’d forgotten those images, and have rediscovered them only because I looked up the poem’s early drafts to write this commentary.

That’s how poetry develops. I can’t show you every step I took, or create a set of rules that will lead you to your own rhyming poem, but remember it’s important to read the kind of poetry you want to write, and then set your standards high. Revise again and again and again. Save each draft, and carry the newest with you to read as you wait at stoplights or for meetings, so the lines will begin to reverberate in your subconscious mind where so much of the work of poetry occurs. I think of those depths as a deep mine where I occasionally hear the clink of a miner’s pick as my brain finds the gold of a new piece of writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

My Writings About Vultures:

“Priests of the Prairie” appears in the book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

My previous writings about vultures include an essay simply titled “Vultures” appeared in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1991) pp. 193-201, and was reprinted in that winter’s edition of a wonderful magazine I still miss, Northern Lights.

Another buzzard poem, “A Venue of Vultures,” was published in my poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Dirt Songs, 2011.  Listen to me read it in a recording made by Barry Wick in June, 2013: http://www.windbreakhouse.com/files/Venue_of_Vultures_by_Linda_Hasselstrom_EQ_Selection_2_Vol_up.mp3

National Cowboy Poetry Week:

April 19-25 is the fourteenth annual National Cowboy Poetry Week. The best history of the art form I know is “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?” by Rod Miller on http://www.cowboypoetry.com.

He exposes the myths and traces the truths of this mostly oral, lyrical, often-rhyming form, mentioning its earliest and best practitioners. He notes its rediscovery in 1985 by folklorists and its subsequent leap to prominence in modern-day America. On the same website, he asks, “What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?” and answers:

“The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.”

If you are a would-be cowboy poet, this should be just the beginning of your study of Rod Miller’s comments on the form.

If you are already a cowboy poet, you could probably still learn from reading Rod’s series of articles on the website.

If you are a scoffer who sneers at the galloping rhythms and sometimes hobbled rhymes, you should read the articles to understand that not everything you hear recited as cowboy poetry is the best the form has to offer. Look for the work of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, Badger Clark; read Wallace McRae. Look for others that measure up to the standards those writers set. And don’t miss the work of Paul Zarzyski; not all good cowboy poets use rhyme.

For a more complete discussion of rhythm as it relates to cowboy poetry, see Rod Miller’s essays “The Rhythm Method” and “Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?” at the cowboypoetry.com website. That will give you a start, but in order to write poems with smooth rhyme and rhythm, you need to practice. (Find all of Rod Miller’s essays mentioned here at www.cowboypoetry.com/rmwhatis.htm.)

If you’re interested in keeping track of where cowboy poetry is going, attend The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, always scheduled for the last week in January. In 2016, poets, artists, and musicians from the Northern Plains will be featured. You can learn more about the Gathering, hear recordings, and buy tickets at www.westernfolklife.org.

++–++–++–++

Advertisements

The Cloak of Visibility: Foofaraw, Jangles and Clanks.

LMH jacket 2015--1-13 small

Linda M. Hasselstrom, January, 2015 all tricked out in her fringed jacket.

The fringed jacket that I wear to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was a gift from my partner, Jerry, and has become a weighty, but necessary, part of my performance, my Gathering armor.

The jacket was made by Double D Ranchwear as part of a collection apparently inspired by Western and Indian styles. In its original form, the jacket was probably inspired by military action on the Northern Plains. It’s heavy blue denim, cut like a military jacket, but decorated with fringe and a bead breastplate.

The beads down the front echo an Indian hair-pipe breastplate. Hair-pipe beads are tubular, and may be from a half-inch to as much as four inches long; mine are three inches long. Usually they are tapered at the ends, with a center hole.

???????????????????????????????Nobody seems certain when and where hair-pipe beads were first used and made, but archaeologists have found shell ones nearly 4,000 years old, probably made in coastal regions and dispersed through trade. After about 1624, hair-pipe style beads were made of glass, brass and silver, as well as horn and bone, mostly in the eastern part of what is now the U.S. The beads were particularly popular between 1880 and 1910.

By that time, the hair-pipe breastplate had been adopted by Indian tribes west of the Rockies and were also worn by tribes in the northwest. They are still used in powwow regalia in chokers, breast plates, earrings and necklaces worn by both men and women.

Little information is available on how the beads were made, but they were probably drilled with a rotary, belt-powered drill and shaped on a lathe. Some beads are still made of horn or bone, and may be black, white, or decorated in a variety of ways.  Cheaper plastic ones are also available.

My jacket may recall the fact that Indian warriors sometimes picked up military clothing after a battle, and adapted it to their own use; the hair pipes down the front would function as both a shield and as decoration.

Fringe also adorned the buckskin clothes worn by fur trappers and traders in imitation of Indian clothing, but it wasn’t solely decoration; it helped shed rainwater, as well as helping a garment to dry faster because the fringe acted as a series of wicks to disperse the moisture. A buckskinner might also use a piece to tie up broken gear.

So the jacket’s original style is a combination of American Indian and military influence, which appeals to me as symbolic of this prairie where I live: occupied by Indians who were chased off by the military, and then adopted by people like me who don’t fit willingly into a particular mold.

When I was in buckskinning (reenacting the beaver-trapping era of the 1830s with muzzle-loading rifles) with my second husband, George, we collected a considerable number of accoutrements. I have muzzle-loading rifles, clothing of the era, and plenty of what we buckskinners called “foofaraw”—jewelry and other decorative objects.

Jacket Items 2015

Some of the foofaraw tied in the jacket fringe– George’s tobacco box made of horn, George’s grizzly bear claw earring, a couple turtles (of course!), a tiny dream catcher, and a Harley Owners’ Group pin in honor of Jerry.

I realized the jacket wasn’t quite “cowboy” but I’ve never considered myself to be purely a “cowboy” poet. I like and respect many cowboy poets, but have many other interests, including the historic era of the beaver trapper where a white woman would not have been welcome or comfortable. I own western clothes—boots, hat, boot-cut jeans—but don’t wear them full-time. Depending on my task for the day, I may dress like a rancher or like a professional businesswoman. So in a spirit of irony, I began turning the jacket into something that was neither cowboy nor buckskinner attire: a War Shirt to bolster my courage when I have to stand up in front of people to speak.

I realized that without George, I wasn’t likely to attend many buckskinning rendezvous, so I tied souvenirs from my buckskinning life onto the fringe. I wore the jacket the first time as armor; nervous, I wanted familiar things around me. I also wore my buckskinning hat, a broad-brimmed felt with a beaver fur hat band, and talked about being one of the muzzle-loading reenactors.

I was also curious about the reaction of these cowboy folks I didn’t know. Would the folks at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering be offended by my failure to adopt cowboy attire?

Scalp Lock and Bells 2015

The tiny imitation scalp lock is made of deer bone and horse hair. Brass bells and tin powwow jingle cones add to the jacket’s jangle.

I tied on several metal cones of the type used to make jingle dresses for Indian powwow outfits. The first ones I saw were made of the metal discs from the top of chewing tobacco cans—Indians recycling–but now they are manufactured for powwow use. Several brass bells add their tones to the sound. A friend made imitation scalp locks from tiny deer toe bones and hair from horses’ tails. A grizzly claw set with turquoise was George’s earring. His horn tobacco container hangs from one fringe. I tied my jaw harp close enough so that I could play it while wearing the jacket

???????????????????????????????

The Warrior Woman pin.

To honor Jerry, I placed a HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) pin at the shoulder. As balance, on the other shoulder is a pin featuring a woman with a horned headdress holding a shield in one hand and a sword in the other: a militant feminist symbol. Somewhere is a miniature dream catcher given me by a former student when I visited him in the penitentiary. Among the fringe hang several millifiori glass trade beads made with flower designs in Venice, and Chevron glass trade beads, watermelons, and other beads that have been used for several thousands of years as trade items. Some of my beads are old enough to have been used during the fur trade days of the 1830s on the plains. My Cloak of Visibility carries memories I can’t even articulate. The jacket jangles and clanks, and carries symbols of many different parts of my life.

???????????????????????????????I’m not sure how the average cowboy poet views my jacket, but at least one man understood and appreciated its humor and symbolism. Wally McRae, the greatest living cowboy poet, raised his eyebrows the first time we were onstage together and said with a smile, “That’s quite a rig.” I wasn’t entirely sure how he meant that until the next year, when he brought me one of his cufflinks to tie on.

When I mentioned the cufflink while performing, the Western Folklife Center archivist asked if I’d will the jacket to the Center when I’m finished with it.

I suspected he was more interested in Wally’s cufflink than in my jacket.

This year, when I mentioned the cufflink exchange onstage, Wally told me that he’d lost a tooth at a recent gathering. He promised to bring it to me next time we meet, and if he does, I’ll find a way to wear it. More good memories will follow me.

Afterword:

???????????????????????????????

Wally McRae’s tooth now hangs next to his cufflink.

I wrote this blog on February 13, soon after returning from the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  A couple of weeks later the mail contained a small envelope with Wally McRae’s return address. Inside was this note:

This is the tooth I, like a three-year-old cow, shed at the Gathering a few years back. It appears I should have been more dedicated to brushing and flossing. So—hang it on your war shirt as a token of the good medicine we seem to develop while sharing a program.   —-  Wally McRae

The Wally McRae Fang now hangs next to the Wally McRae cufflink on the jacket’s left side, where my heart is.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

To hear the jingle jangle of this jacket see my YouTube clip:

Cowboy Poetry Gathering

LMH jacket 2015--1-13 small

Ready for the Gathering in my fringed jacket.

A week ago, on February 2, I arrived home from the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center.

A trek to the Gathering from South Dakota requires a serious investment of time; Elko is about 800 miles from Hermosa. I left home Monday, January 26, to drive to Glendo, WY, to meet Nancy Curtis, who had agreed to drive from her home, and Yvonne Hollenbeck, who, like me, was an invited performer.

I consider the financial compensation for this gig to be perfectly adequate, especially considering how poetry is valued in this country, but I suspect nobody goes to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering just for the money.

So why do we go, I’m asked every time. I always think of an old cowboy song I hear on every visit, “The Night Rider’s Lament.” Part of Michael Burton’s chorus to this song is:

He asked me why do you ride for your money
Why do you rope for short pay
You ain’t getting’ nowhere
And you’re losin’ your share
Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.

Perfectly defines the attitude of a lot of folks about writing cowboy poetry! If I’m crazy I’m in good company. One night I sat under the spotlights on the stage of the G3Bar in the Western Folklife Center in the company of Wallace McRae, Paul Zarzyski and John Dofflemyer. I was marveling at the fact that 300 people had paid $30 or $35 each to hear us read and recite our poetry. No musicians, no other attractions shared the stage—just poets.

CPG LMH John Dofflemyer Barbara Bernstein 2015--1-30

With John Dofflemyer at an autograph session. (Photo by Justina Bernstein.)

But the audience doesn’t necessarily have to pay to hear the greatest cowboy poets and musicians in the nation. During every day of the Gathering, many sessions are free in the convention center. If you’d wandered into the Turquoise room last week, you could have spent an hour with me, John Dofflemyer, and Elizabeth Ebert, from Thunder Hawk, South Dakota, who was a closet poet until 1989. In 2005 when she was 80 years old, then-Governor Mike Rounds proclaimed February 24 as Elizabeth Ebert Day.  (Learn more about her at www.cowboypoetry.com). Her work is hilarious, honest, and bone-deep true.

I admire the hard work the staff does to name the various sessions, especially since they know the writers will interpret the titles any way they darn please. This year we had titles like:

Love of the Well-Crafted Line

Living the Deep West (a prose session with me and Wally McRae, hosted by Texas poet Joel Nelson)

And We Shall Ride

Stories in Verse

Best Laid Plans

Southwest Song and Sonnet, and

Dames Don’t Dally, among many others.

Or you could wander up to the high school building behind the convention center where volunteers kept the music going all day long– some of it open mic and some from respected and well-known musicians. One of the highlights of this gathering was listening to the music of Baja California Sur played by residents of that lonely place, who also set up an exhibit showing how they live.

Besides all the poetry, there are sessions on a variety of other subjects. The early part of the week is usually devoted to workshops on writing, rawhide braiding, silversmithing, ranch tours, talks and discussions about conflicts between ranchers and others. Students from Owyhee Public School and other filmmakers worked on videos about the Deep West.

One of my favorite musical events at this year’s gathering was watching Glenn Ohrlin, 88, play guitar and sing with Brigid Reedy, 14. The two shared a real joy of music, and it was a joy to watch them tease each other. Watching Glenn was painful, because he was so thin he looked like a walking skeleton, but his voice and mind were clear and strong, and he played beautifully. We heard that he drove to the Gathering with a passenger who was not happy with his driving. Ohrlin always preferred to travel by pickup truck. His rule was that if there was more than one way to get somewhere, he always took the road he’d never traveled, even if the distance was longer and the road narrower. Glenn lived in Mountain Home, Arkansas, where he operated a cattle ranch and lived in a stone house he’d built himself. As I finished writing today, I got word that Glenn has died.

Keynote speaker Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-known nature writer, food and farming activist and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. He has been honored as a pioneer in the local food and seed-saving communities by a half-dozen magazines, and written numerous books. (I was once fortunate enough to dine with him at one of the local Basque cafes and immediately became a fan, though he’s been writing books faster than I’ve been reading them.)

Gary spoke about the work on conservative conservation being done by a group of ranchers and environmentalists loosely organized as the “radical center.” Groups like the Quivira Coalition (quiviracoalition.org), founded by two environmentalists and a rancher, aim to “build resilience by fostering ecological, economic and social health on western landscapes through education, innovation, collaboration and progressive public and private land stewardship.”

Nabhan quoted Aldo Leopold on a fact much of our society has forgotten, “People starve when land and water are degraded and forage declines.” But he had good news too: the market for grassfed beef is growing faster than that for any other commodity, as 60% of the farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have made changes in their methods that lead to better conservation of resources that belong to all of us. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering always features keynote speakers who challenge and enlighten.

Another pleasure of going to Elko is eating Basque food available several places that originated with the Basque sheepherders of the region. My favorite meal this trip was a pork chop at the Toki Ona Basque Diner, accompanied by salad with a zingy dressing, soup, spaghetti, and Potatoes Ana. Our waitress, Kelly, happily described how to make Potatoes Ana, and I’ve made them twice since I got home. If I make them any more before July, I won’t be able to fit into my jeans.

LMH and YH Bonneville Salt Flats 2015

On the road to Elko. Yvonne Hollenbeck and I on the Bonneville Salt Flats with the Silver Island Mountains floating on the horizon. (Photo by Nancy Curtis.)

Another important part of the travel to the Gathering, at least the way I’ve done it fairly often since my first invitation in 1993, is the companionship of the trip. Driving can be a challenge, but it allows for long and deep conversations. Some of my best friendships have deepened and matured as we rolled along I-80, through Rawlins, Rock Springs, Evanston and the Three Sisters– the three long hills truckers hate. We slide through Salt Lake City and pass the great lake and wheel along the broad flats where travelers stop to arrange rocks in messages and symbols. In Wendover, Nevada, the casinos are always lit and very few people notice the shabby trailers and shacks housing the folks who keep those games spinning and those motel rooms clean. And then Elko, which I am told is surrounded by beautiful mountains and desert; I’ve rarely gotten outside the streets and sites of the various programs.

And in Elko, we are hip by haunch with folks who come to hear cowboy poetry. In some cases, the clothes they are wearing would buy the ranches of the folks who are reciting on stage.

I always admire the togs, but I’m there for the company of people who were writing about rural western life long before cowboy poetry began to attract crowds.  As Badger Clark remarked, we just love “slingin’ ink and English” among other folks who understand the job that we’ve taken on: telling the truth about our rural western lives.

Linda M. Hasselstrom

Windbreak House

Hermosa, South Dakota

#  #  #