Saturday, January 21, 2006

Uneasy in cattle country

I have it on good authority that a man walked into a Marysville café not long ago and asked the waitress if perhaps they served something other than hamburgers. He was tired of hamburgers, he said. He wanted something different.

A lull in conversation ensued. Heads swiveled. There was something new in the air, a hint of malice, and hard eyes all around.

The waitress opined that pork tender sandwiches were also available.

The man nodded and said he’d take one.

“It’s good he didn’t order chicken,” my friend said. “They’d of killed him.”

A tough crowd in a tough neighborhood? Nope. Anywhere else and the request would have gone unheard. This, though, was the sale barn, and cows were coming to market.

Now, my grandfather died before he was able to impart much taurine tutoring to the skinny little redhead who hung around his ranch in West Texas, and with his passing my ties to a lifestyle with ruminants were neatly severed. So young was he when felled by a heart attack, and so young was I, that for most of my life I assumed that male cows spouted horns and females did not. When decades later I was gently corrected, I felt rather sheepish.

Maybe that’s a bad term to use.

I’m not much of a cow expert, or I wasn’t until last weekend, but even my limited exposure to cattle and cattlemen sufficed to educate me in the irascibility of the former and the tetchiness of the latter. Had it been me waltzing into the sale barn, I would have sung out like a canary, “Beef! It’s what’s for dinner!”

Moving from the city to rural Kansas has brought me into a sometimes uncomfortable proximity to bulky cloven-hooved ungulates, usually when hiking on a certain rancher’s lands. On one such walk I had pushed through a weed thicket taller than my head when I came face to face with a massive black cow. It blocked the path and appeared in no hurry to let me pass, nor, as far as I could tell, did it entirely welcome my sudden presence. Any idea of sneaking around the bovine massif was summarily dispatched upon realization that others of its ilk had me surrounded. Fortunately, my training in cougar survival kicked in and I was able to slowly back away, eyes downcast, making myself as unassuming and non-threatening as possible, hoarsely crooning “Nice cow, pretty cow.”

This tension that develops when I’m around livestock can perhaps be explained by two incidents in my past. When our boys were young we used to camp on Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado. One morning our oldest son, then around four years old, wandered off into a broad meadow and was happily at play when I glanced over and saw a bull (with horns) snorting and pawing at the grass. It was several hundred feet from our son but clearly had its ire directed toward this interloper garbed in a bright red jacket.

Our shouts to Joel to get into the trees being ineffective, I told Lori to skirt the meadow and save our son while I hauled out a .45-70 rolling block rifle and laid it across the top of the car. If the bull charged I’d have time for one shot only. I thumbed back the hammer and centered the sights between the cross rib roast and the ribeyes. Luckily for the bull—or for our son, for my hands were shaking and I wasn’t that good of a marksman—the beast elected to do nothing more than stomp the turf and chuff imprecations.

On another occasion, after wandering far down the South Platte River near Fairplay while fly-fishing, I topped a low rise on my return and found several hundred cows scattered between me and my vehicle. Their number being too great to circumnavigate, I cautiously wended through them. One—there’s always one—took exception and bullied me along. If I’d had my buffalo rifle rather than a wispy nine-foot fly rod, my nerves would have been in far better shape upon arriving at my car.

I may be bullheaded at times but that doesn’t mean I understand how a ruminant ruminates. The reasons for their aggression are known only to them and their therapists, but I blame them for the quirky impulse I’ve developed of asking cattlemen if cows are as stupid as they look.

Such teasing may well be as dangerous as entering a sale barn café on cow day and asking for fried chicken, but I get a perverse thrill when seeing the shock on ranchers’ faces and hearing their voices rise a few octaves. After hearing of the man at the café, I posed this question to my friend, a good-natured soul with a finely-developed sense of humor.

“Cows aren’t stupid,” he stammered. “I mean, they’re not as smart as a horse, or a dog. But they can be trained. They learn to meet at a certain time to get fed.”

“So do most married men,” I said.

“Good point.”

While driving through the country east of town last week I put the question to my birding partner. She’s a rancher first and an accountant second, and eminently qualified to answer in layman’s terms. Though she refused to be baited, for the remainder of the day she provided identification tips on the bovine species of Marshall County.

By the end of the day I could readily ID shorthorn, black and red Angus, Hereford, white-faced and Charolais, and knew something of Texas longhorns and polled Herefords. (I thought it had something to do with elections.) But for all that, when viewing cattle I still saw T-bone, sirloin, porterhouse and tacos. She saw money.

My bovicultural education continues. I’m still more comfortable around cattlemen than cattle, but that’s easily understood by our crosscultural differences. Cows might attack when sensing fear, but cowmen tend to be more temperate. After all, they know bull when they see it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

On a winter’s night, waiting

When we look at the stars, we see the past. We see what once was, a very long time ago. So long, and at such unfathomable distances, that what burns through the night sky could be merely a ghost image, an echo of light.

Such things come to mind when standing in the dark, waiting.

Twenty feet away is my truck, parked dead-center in the road. I’m not too concerned about traffic; it’s four in the morning and this particular lane is little-used anyway. It forks off from the road to the cemetery and hugs the side of a ridge for a few miles before plunging down a narrow gorge to the river bottom. The road through the gorge has a name but I can’t remember it just now. Locals call it the “Canyon Road,” which is surely an abuse of the term. My idea of canyons is of redrock chasms graced with the descending notes of canyon wrens. But I’ve lived here long enough that I’m adopting the lingo.

The lights of Georgia-Pacific filter through a maze of hardwoods and wild plums. A steady clanking tolls, distant and faint, a repetitious tap as if some piece of machinery were counting down the seconds till dawn. The light reaches me in a fraction of a fraction of a second.

Not so with Dubhe, the dying star on the lip of the Big Dipper. While my ears adjust to the silence I trace an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe to Polaris, the North Star. My father taught me this so I would always know where I was. Unfortunately, the only time I was ever lost was in daylight, with Polaris masked behind a blue vault. The light of Dubhe takes 124 years to reach me.

Polaris is even farther. It’s possible that the Pilgrims were just coming ashore at Plymouth Rock when this beam first shone.

Other than the muted metronomic clangor from the mine, there is only an absolute silence. If I concentrate I can hear a high-pitched whine coming from damaged nerves in my inner ear. This tintinnabulation ebbs and flows like the gentle pulsing of a tide. I strain to hear over it.

Is that the whinny of a screech owl? It’s possible that my hearing is playing tricks on me, even as my eyes did earlier. When I first pulled into the cemetery and cut the engine there was a wink like the popping of a flash bulb, so brief I couldn’t decide whether it was real or my imagination. It didn’t seem to come from any one place but rather from behind my eyelids. And when I drove away lights followed in my wake, half-seen from the corners of my eyes, impossible to fix upon. Will-of-the-wisps or headlights reflecting off gravestones? I didn’t look back.

If there’s an owl it’s so distant that its call fades to a whisper of nothing. Tucking the spotlight under my left arm, I depress the play button on my little cassette recorder. A screech owl calls out, first a warbling whinny, then a steady trill. After two sets, I hit the pause button.

Owling, as this activity is known, is simple. You arm yourself with recordings of local owl species, a Thermos of strong coffee, some edibles loaded with sugar and calories, and sit in the dark waiting while most sane people are fast asleep in their warm beds. If your recording doesn’t elicit a quick response, you move on. Which is what happened back in the cemetery. It’s always been a good spot but this year I was skunked, other than being chased by fairy lights.

Now I watch the stars and try to imagine the vast distances between them. The trees rise stark and bristly against the pale light. A jet flies soundlessly past, visible only by its blinking lights and arc of movement.

I play the tape again, two sets. And listen, and hear nothing more than the clank-clank-clank from the mine.

Onward, a half-mile. An abandoned house looms ghostlike from my right. It always seems like such an owly place and yet I’ve never had much luck here. I try anyway. When the screech owl doesn’t work, I flip the cassette and let fly the amorous jabberwocking of barred owls. Towering Ponderosa pines spear the heavens. Deep woods and a rocky ridge block the hammering from the mine. Nothing.

I descend into the canyon and park near the end of the road. A hundred yards away the trees give way to plowed fields, and the river flows just beyond. Massive oaks form a gnarled canopy over me. Stars peek through the open weave of their winter branches. Cedars, invisible in the darkness, line the hillsides.

I start with the screech owl. Play two sets, listen. The truck engine ticks as it cools. The narrowness of the canyon mouth makes the night seem more intimate and, if anything, darker. The cold seeps into my bones.

When I play the tape again I detect an added voice. Closer, not ten feet away. It asks questions I cannot answer. I am a fake, I want to say. I am not who you think I am.

Another screech owl whinnies from behind me. The spotlight vaporizes the night as a million candlepower burns the trees into bone-white shapes interspersed with inky shadows that dance like living beings. An owl studies me from a bare limb, unconcerned with the sudden absence of night.

As if on cue, a great horned owl hoots from the fields and a black shape eclipses the stars, followed by the challenges of barred owls.

This is the moment when the blood sings. Here on this dirt road on a midwinter’s night, with the ancient light of stars wefting the past with the present, we creatures of the dark hold a strange and incomprehensible communion, and the echoes of our voices propel us toward the future. My waiting is over.