The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
I often return to the poets these days. From great translations of the Illiad and the Odyssey to Beowulf, from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas, and more frequently to the modern giants like Charles Wright, Richard Hugo, or Galway Kinnell. I find a touchstone in their visions that gentles my nerves. That ritual works for me because fine poets fire the language with precision, and stoke the imagination with what John Keats called “Negative Capability.” The world we inhabit is sorely lacking in appreciation for the mysterious or the levitating, and the airwaves are so rich with insincerity, so over-cooked with political certainty and righteous declarations, that the daily and endless caterwauling amounts to a kind of relentless propaganda bullhorn.
They have no poetry at all.
The world is too much with me. It isn’t the getting and spending so much, although there is always that. Rather, I’ve succumbed to a powerful notion that that the body of our republic is diseased, wracked with a Stage 4 cancer, and I am more or less convinced that all of the king’s horses, and all of the king’s men, will never quite be able to put her back together again.
It’s possible that’s just a morose mental conceit in a moment of weakness. Maybe Big America has just always been packed full of angry yahoos flogging their donkeys to death. But every single time I look at social media, or the news, or what passes for news, and increasingly the movies and even the printed press, I come away feeling used and used up, as though I’ve been sucked into a kind of human-trafficking nightmare where nothing I say, or do, or think, will help me avoid the fate of being repeatedly raped in a kind of digital backwater brothel. After a few minutes of looking or listening, just about all that’s left to do is to have my ignorant victimized corpse thrown into a landfill ala Cormac McCarthy’s excellent screenplay “The Counselor.”
This isn’t a new complaint. I once told Allen Ginsberg the same thing over a fruit basket. He pointed out that the problem with television is that you can’t talk back to it. This was a long time ago, and Ginsberg, the genius author of “Howl”, and other fine poems, had been giving me the glad-eye all night before asking me to stay over. It was raining. We’d already talked about Kerouac and Neil Cassady while Ginsberg ransacked the cupboards for utensils, so I passed on the offer because we’d covered everything I was interested in.
At any rate, that summation of the public conversation — and far too many private ones — is as honest as I can write it. Suffice it to say my tolerance levels for the brazen manipulation of information, and for the moral, political, and spiritual dishonesty on display nearly everywhere I turn are nearing all-time lows. I find that’s true across the board, by the way, regardless of the mouthpiece, the platform, or the means of delivery. There are just far too many opinions jamming up the air, and far too many expectations that we should all share them. And that covers just about every topic I can think of, from paddle-boarding to water-boarding.
The last time I hit such a low level of tolerance I jumped out of grad school early and hired on to the 10X Ranch near Twin Arrows, Arizona. I did that after telling the faculty graduate-student advisor that I was giving my students their finals early, and the University could just drop my diploma in the mail. That didn’t go over well with Geoffrey, a diminutive east-coast fraternity tart who ran his silo like a re-education camp. In reality, Geoffrey of Dartmouth was little more than a Soviet-style political officer, but my diploma finally reached me on the 3 Dot Ranch in northeastern California, in a battered and torn manilla envelope, many moons and many forwarding addresses later.
The 10X was a grand old dame that stretched from the edge of Meteor Crater up into the Mogollons, just south of I‑40 heading into Flagstaff. It was full of arrowheads and broken pottery shards come-alive with paint applied by some Navajo woman in the way-far gone. I lived in a shack in the mountains alone and rode herd for a barbed wire, lunatic ranch-manager from Newcastle, Wyoming, named Lee Morris. Lee was old then and I imagine he’s dead now. He loved Arizona and hated Wyoming. He said he’d never go back because he was raised taking cold baths in a wooden tub, and after riding with Lee I can only imagine something terrible happened to his child’s mind in that country.
Lately, I find myself spending whole days at this computer, trying to crank out some paragraph or a few pages that conjure up some kind of revelatory moment – mostly for myself, but also for the reader – and I’m frequently t‑boned in that effort by a hard desire to drop the whole damn enterprise, go outside, saddle the colt, and work on his lateral flexion in a hackamore. It just makes more sense.
Because, really, what solutions do I have for any of these intractable, exceedingly complex, and apparently irreversible problems of modern civilization? How deep into the goo do I really want to wade for some nugget of insight I can easily find jumping out at me from ancient poetry? Poets wearing animal skins and wolf headdresses have already done that work, and the farther we travel along the human timeline the complaints and anxieties don’t seem to change very much. Locke and Rousseau were on opposite ends of the modern political spectrum three hundred years ago. So what good is it doing me to read the latest WaPo revelation that General Kelly is shaving his eyebrows off in the West Wing? How is pouring over the record of the lies humanity tells itself, and reinforces by the pundit-pumped gigabyte, helping me do, or think, anything valuable at all?
Having horses around is helpful. I ride at least one of them every day. Mostly, I’m focused on the colt. When he and I are done working on simple things in the arena I like to open the gate and ride him outside into the world, stacking important miles and experience on his mind and body before the big winter freeze-up. Out there, in the woods and the canyons and on the scab flats, its just me on a horse, riding him close and a little firm — he’s still a colt after all — and watching the brush for deer we might ride up out of their beds while wondering just when Big America will find our secret patch of ground and stack a pile of condominiums on it. It does, after all, have some fine canyon and mountain views.
The world is too much with me.
Riding a horse outside often just feels so much more productive than hacking out some trite little column for the local paper, or slaving in service to a novel, because Remi and me aren’t trying to persuade anybody of anything. We aren’t calling out the various historical patterns of doom the nation is falling into, or trying to bring peace to the valley on the topic of wolves, or trying make a joke that can’t possibly offend anyone on earth, or worrying about what brand of shoes we aren’t supposed to wear. We don’t give a loblolly fuck about NAFTA, NATO, or OSHA.
Instead, we think about repetitions, about working for the right feel as a team, about what signals travel down the reins or through my legs that cue him to understand what I’m asking for. We worry about building a relationship on a bedrock of trust, a relationship that by some miracle draws together two wildly different species — predator and prey animal – and makes us into something magnificent, something wholly reduced when one of us is missing.
Out there in the trees and the brush, it’s just Remington — an extremely well bred three-year old sorrel with shaky ground manners — and cranky old Cowboy Copas — veteran, broncbuster, and steely eyed detective — riding a great saddle built with painstaking perfection on a Wade Tree by a saddle-making genius named Matt Plumlee in Eureka, Nevada.
Out there it’s just us kids, and we get the wind, and the sun, and the mountains looking down on our trail. We get the birds and the coyotes. We get a long conversation with each other without ever saying a word. And sometimes I sing to him. I sing just loud enough that his ears flicker and I know that he’s listening. And I also happen to know that he likes the songs and the way I sing them.
That kind of living is a closed and quiet loop and it feels just right, every damn time, because at the end of the day I can stand with my foot up on the rail of the corral watching him eat and feel dead-centered and rooted directly into the earth’s core. I feel balanced and strong as an ox. When we’ve had a good ride together, and I stand watching him roll in the dust, you couldn’t knock me over with a bulldozer or a runaway locomotive.
I used to carry my cell phone. I told myself I was doing it in case there was some emergency with my wife, or my daughter, or my uncle, or in case I get tossed into the rocks and break a leg. But really I brought it to take pictures and share them with the world because I like to brag about this young horse. But I’ve stopped doing that. For one thing, nobody cares. For another, I’ve stopped because carrying that obnoxious little slab of circuitry into the holy of holies seems like a violation of something I’ve been entrusted with. The point is, in case I’m not making it well, I really don’t want to “lay waste” my powers out there. I don’t want to haul the madding world around in my shirtpocket. If nothing else, Remi deserves a lot more from me.
And if there is some emergency, heaven forbid, well then, by God, people better figure it out.
The ugly truth is, I want the world to go fuck itself sideways while I’m building dignity back into my own life, and trying to pour some dignity into the life of a great young horse. I care more about that horse, and how he turns out, than I will ever care about the wild rantings of some sold-out representative in our retail Congress.
Charles Wright, in “Stone Canyon Nocturne,” wrote: “No one believes in his own life anymore.” I fear he’s right about that in a lot of ways, and there is plenty of evidence to support the theory. But we do, on the flip side, seem to have an awful lot of beliefs as they concern other people’s lives. And I’m really, really, just very tired of all that. I don’t know how, or even if we should, save the planet. I don’t have any answers for anyone else on overpopulation, pollution, racial bigotry, or just plain stupidity. I don’t have a vision that’s going to handle violent crime or illegal immigration. I don’t know if Trump is rampaging around the White House with his feet stuffed into knee-boots full of vaseline, or if the boardroom of the New York Times looks like the back room of the Second All-Russian Congress in 1917. Increasingly, I don’t even care. Because the truth is I am living so far downstream from all of that horseshit, both physically and mentally, and it is so utterly alien to my daily life, that having an opinion on it is like having an opinion on what’s happening on the back side of Saturn. How in the utter fuck can I know what’s going on there? And why should I take your word for it?
The truth is, I barely have any answers to explain my own little footprint on the planet, and after a couple of strong pulls off a bottle of Maker’s Mark on the porch — of a fine fall evening — I find that even those opinions are surprisingly flexible.
I sometimes wonder what happened to the guy who wrote, in his Daybook on 2 December 1995, this:
“Soldier Meadows Ranch, Nevada. Up early this morning to gather horses. Trailered north and west to Badger Mountain and found 7 cows, 5 calves, 1 bull sneaking through the sage. Herded them 10 miles to the Williams and then rode back to the truck. Very cold all day but no rain; wore my horse down pretty good. It’s good country up in there, a lot of feed and good water. I found the cows just west of the Sheldon, but I sure didn’t see any wildlife in there. Wonder what causes that. When I got back to the truck I had two flats, so I changed them as the sun set, my feet about to freeze off. Made it back to the ranch well after dark, where I learned that Jerry was rolling his bed. I guess he found a better job elsewhere. That leaves me here alone again. There are still four head up at Badger, and I will go get them tomorrow. Couldn’t get around them today. Nearly killed the horse as it was. All look to be dry angus-cross cattle. Some tourists passing through from Reno tonight, riding motorbikes on the desert. Obnoxious children. Weather cold, not too windy. Radio says rain in San Francisco which means snow when it lands here. Too tired to write much more.”
I like that guy a lot more than the jaded and cynical hunchback I’m evolving into. That guy had a different and, I think, better set of priorities. His mind was clear because the inputs were clear. It was simply a question of doing what needed to be done. And there was joy in it. Opinions were virtually useless, and that shows up in the writing. Moreover, the well of that kid’s heart was full because there weren’t too many buckets trying to draw from it. And I know that I need him back in my life even as I know we can never really close the circle once it’s broken.
I need the revenant of that young buckaroo back in my life as much as I need the poems I return to like some medieval penitent whenever I feel the walls closing in. Its true that I am a child of this Republic, and so I’m split the way all Americans are split. We are full of manias and violence and insane lusts and sometimes, despite our nature, we manage profound acts of kindness and love and commitment to things bigger than ourselves. I think we are more likely to find negative capability in that latter space, but it’s fleeting. We hold it in our hands for just a moment and then it dissolves.
In some way, all of this reminds me of my granddad’s outlook. He was a hard-bitten son of the Ozarks who joined the Marines to fight Japs, somehow survived, and then spent the rest of his life as a working cowboy. He’d tell me, when I showed up on the ranch wearing existential angst like a bumblebee costume: “Go tug on your balls, Copas.” That’s one half of America, I think, the older half that built a republic out of undeveloped wilderness, but there is another gift we can rely on too, and it shows up in little blessings like this bit from James Galvin’s masterpiece, “The Meadow”:
“Virga is when rain falls and fails to reach the earth, beautiful and useless as the vista it elaborates. Most angels aren’t allowed to touch the ground. We pray for real rain to save the pasture; when it doesn’t come we pray for rain to keep the timber from burning. Dry lightning pokes at the timber’s green dress. Almost every summer there’s a major forest fire somewhere near. Every year we don’t disappear in fire we pray our thanks. The summer Lyle died, fires in Yellowstone four hundred miles away smoked us in so we couldn’t see the barn from the house. The sun was gone for weeks. It never did rain, though all summer long flotillas of sheepish clouds sailed in and tried to look like rain. They turned dark and sexual. They let down their hair, like brushstrokes on the air, like feathers of water, like the principle it was named for, sublime indifference its gesture, its lovely signature over us.”
Today, the wind came up from the north with a little chill on it, and I walked down to the barn to put a ride on Remi. I’ve just moved him into a hackamore, which is like moving up from an orange belt to a blue belt in karate. I’m pressed now to use every day at my disposal before the snow flies, because hunting season is coming on and the hours of sunlight and warmth are growing precious. I threw him up in an eight-plait hackamore I picked up at Capriolas in Elko, with a mecate hand-twisted for me by an Apache I once rode with and continue to admire. Old Bert Lambert never did sell his saddle. He never moved to town because he never liked paved roads. Last I heard he was up in Idaho, avoiding town altogether. When I knew him, he used up his winters twisting horsehair into mecates, or making rawhide strings he braided into beautiful using gear — reatas, bosals, and quirts. These days, because I will probably never see him again, I like to think of him in some mountain camp, twisting the ends of his mustache with wax next to a two-dog stove, and making useful, wonderful things, deliberately oblivious to whatever the rest of the world thinks it is doing while the snow cakes in the corners of his window.
But the important part of all of this is that the colt did well today. He likes to learn. He has what horsemen call bottom. I need to figure out a few different ways to show him what I’m asking for, and put new things in front of him, but that’s the horseman part. That’s the blood part. This horse practically begs me to challenge his mind, to be creative in our conversations, and some days I think the horseman he occasionally draws out of my soul can do almost anything with him. He makes me feel a whole lot better than I actually am. And that will be true so long as we both keep learning.
And so maybe we can close the circle after all. Because right now, in some facsimile of that wiry, nail-eating young buckaroo back in the winter of ’95, I’ve had a great long day in the saddle. And right now, at this moment, the rest of the world doesn’t even exist. I’m inside with my slippers on, with the dogs at my feet, and two fingers of Stranahan’s in a coffee cup beside the keyboard. And I’m just too damn tired to write another word.