The seasons have finally turned here in the Cascades, which mostly means a ton of work. Spring in the mountains is a cranky bitch, like the old flatbed Studebaker I drove when chasing cows on the Fish Creek Ranch out of Eureka, Nevada. It took a full can of starting fluid every morning to get that motor to run but she would eventually cough and snort and whine and then finally crank over in a cloud of black and blue smoke. I’d let her warm for a while and sit in the cab sleepy eyed, freezing, drinking coffee from my thermos with a border collie pup named Gus on my lap. Gus was a good dog and some days I miss him terribly. I fed a couple of tons of hay every morning off that truck and it was sometimes cold enough that the cows were covered in blankets of ice.
Winters here on the Figure 8 can be long and sometimes brutal but this year we were given a break from the massive storms and super subzero temps that have pounded us in the past. I’m grateful for the layoff but the truth is we always need the water. This time last year we still had snow on the ground from a late storm that kept the bunchgrass green well into summer and, most importantly, greatly reduced our chances of catching on fire.
Spring here means getting the garden turned over, cleaning out the henhouse, burning acres worth of pine-needles, fixing this or that thing that broke in the wind and the weather, getting the irrigation up and running, re-staining the barn and the greenhouse, installing a new hive of Saskatraz bees, and best of all knocking the rust off the horses. This is all good work – next to writing and reading the kind of work a man wants — but I’m doing it this year in a pandemic and with an acute case of vertigo I’ve been hauling around for almost three months.
As far as the virus goes, from where I sit much of America seems lodged between the Bargaining and Acceptance phases in the Kübler-Ross grief cycle. I’m starting to see and hear a tremendous amount of “Struggling to find meaning”, mixed in equal measure with “Exploring options” — which is at least encouraging as a necessary to step toward “Moving on,” a thing we will finally have to do one way or another.
We are, it seems – at least most of us — now beyond the Denial phase which was really a few months ago when Trump and DeBlasio were both shrugging the virus off with contempt and encouraging people to attend mass gatherings — even as Covid-19 was clearly killing people and hopping continents. I have zero expectations of greatness from either man, and as a general rule I don’t get worked up over anything a couple of obnoxious New Yorkers say or do. For a kid from the Great Basin Manhattan might as well be on Mars.
Down at the bottom of the well Joe Biden has made a few desperate attempts to sound relevant but there is something altogether sad in his candidacy.
Elsewhere, a sudden proliferation of couch-bound epidemiologists are declaring the virus no big deal and finding conspiracies in every government decree, posting their revelations in mostly unwatchable and entirely self-indulgent BookFace rants or YouTube videos. They are homebound and mostly nervous so maybe we can forgive them, but the effort is wasted and unhelpful. The conspiracy theories are mostly dumb, although like any good conspiracy if we pan through them carefully we can still find a few gold flakes – which is precisely what drives conspiracies onward and is also behind the phenomenon of Gold Fever. In this case the flakes look like the requirement for extended vigilance.
Today I am more concerned with the long-term behavior of our government than I am with contracting Covid-19. Bad politicians and corrupted political bodies which, if you haven’t noticed, is the state of American government, like nothing more than control – especially without meaningful opposition. There seems to be precious little questioning — constitutionally — of some of the measures and decrees around the country, some of them both bizarre and wildly ironic. Ticketing paddle boarders or banning the sale of garden seeds is just plain stupid though I can see an argument for dragging an unmasked guy off a crowded city bus.
Here’s the rub: this virus kills people dead and each of us is charged with a high level of personal responsibility if we are to eventually win out. It would be far better to win with, ironically, some Gung Ho spirit and mass compliance rather than mass enforcement — but Americans have a deeply rooted suspicion of compliance and generally struggle to get beyond an inherited Senior Ditch Day mentality.
Some of that spirit is what makes us uniquely American, although it seems most of the hyper-suspicion I’m reading about and hearing from various corners is from the unfounded “lance-corporal network” of rumor and innuendo.
Whatever the case, playing with matches can start forest fires, and now more than ever we need caution over miscalculation from the various levels of “authorities” stacked overhead. I’m not ready to man any barricades or move underground but I am a trained and experienced observer, so I’m parked in the alley with my lights off and my windows down, watching and listening.
And I can say with both certainty and sincerity that one thing I will never consent to do is carry around an “Immunity Card”.
Many of our fellow citizens seem mired in the Anger phase, as if being pissed at insert public official here is going to help anything. Personally, I seem to have skipped over anger altogether. For a while, watching my investment odometer spin wildly backwards, I felt something akin to deeply involuntary concern because the prospect of becoming a late term greeter at Wal-Mart doesn’t hold much appeal. Most of the sell-off was panic-driven which has never been an engine for my decision-making, and so doing nothing ended up being a wise move.
My natural inclination is to fight something, anything, that comes growling at me out of the dark but one weird aspect of this whole pandemic is that doing nothing at all is the best way most of us – who aren’t tasked with essential services or mired in hot zone hospital emergency rooms — can fight it.
None of this has really helped my vertigo situation, which came out of nowhere. I’ve tried a course of antibiotics on the chance it was a bacterial infection of the inner ear, I’ve been to a physical therapist who performed a weird ritual called the Epley Maneuver – which is an exercise in helping middle-aged men feel helpless and spastic – but neither of those things fixed it. I’ve tried a chiropractor whose efforts relieved some badly pinched nerves in my neck and shoulder but didn’t stop the vertigo. At this point I’m something of a clinical trial with feet but I won’t bother any real doctors until the virus vanishes. Sometimes we’ve just got to play hurt, and not adding my little problem to the giant medical shitshow seems prudent.
I’m halfway through re-staining the barn which creates its own kind of wisdom, a thing Mr. Miagi tried to teach the Karate Kid in a movie my grandfather refused to watch. He went to-to-toe with the Imperial Japanese Army and thirty years later was still in no mood for the eastern wisdom of an Okinawan and his world-beating Crane Technique. For the barn I’m using some leftover Chinese paintbrushes I had in my supplies and the first one of those brushes actually fell apart after about five minutes. And yes, I’m using a goddamn paintbrush because I hate sprayers and also because I’ve read a lot of Wendell Berry whose piece “A Good Scythe” should be required reading for anyone claiming citizenship.
At any rate, I was standing at the top of the ladder, holding a bucket in one hand when the whole bristle end of the brush just fell off. I watched it fall 20 feet down in a kind of cartwheeling slow-motion. Through the anger and dismay I discerned an unavoidable lesson and that’s when I vowed that I won’t be buying Chinese any more. At least not where I have an alternative. This is another way I can fight and its not even abstract. Millions of my countrymen are now out of work and another row in my victory garden will be demanding American made products. That’s going to be a tall, tall, order, but I figure the louder and more insistent I get the more people might hear me. Maybe some will even join me. I’m okay if nobody joins me because, like I said, I’ve read a lot of The Mad Farmer.
Here’s some vulgar jingoism for a Monday Morning: Fuck China.
I’ve been thinking about the Fish Creek Ranch a lot lately, because I loved that desert country. When I worked out there the ranch was owned by a fellow named Luke Wise, out of Billings, Montana. Luke was born in Miles City, in 1920, and grew up trapping furs to help his family survive hard times. He went to high school in Lodge Grass. At the start of WW2 he joined the Army Air Corps and ended up in China with Chenault and the Flying Tigers. He knew Chenault intimately. After the war he went back to Montana and made a fortune buying and selling war surplus. Then, because there was money to be made there, he bought four Cattle Stations in the Australian Outback: Delamere, Benmara, Upstart, and Willeroo/Scott Creek. In 1997 he bought the Fish Creek Ranch in Nevada which covered portions of Eureka, Nye, and White Pine counties, which is about as outback as you can still find in north America. That’s where I met him.
Luke died in June, 2010, but I just found out yesterday when I stumbled over his obituary in an old post from the Billings Gazette.
Anyhoo, today I’ll be back out on the ladder, staining the barn one brushstroke at a time, working hard in some glorious spring sunshine. When I’m done with that I’ll get to cleaning out the stalls, and if I have time I’ll get to the irrigation which usually needs a replacement sprinkler or three. From time to time I’ll stop everything and just sit drinking coffee from my thermos, petting the dogs, and watching the birds in the ponderosas. And I’ll be thinking about Luther Wise who asked that any donations in his memory be given to his alma mater: The School of Hard Knocks. That joke from his obit is a perfect reflection of the man I knew. Luke was a good man and a great boss. He was a Flying Tiger for Pete’s sake, and here’s something else that I love: for as long as I punched cows for him I never knew he was a Flying Tiger until yesterday.
Those are the kind of men that win wars. And since we find ourselves in so many wars at once, just now, America needs every man of that caliber we can muster.