April 21, 2010

The Ranch

This last weekend, I drove to northern Wyoming to the ranch where I grew up. I was taking my mom to attend the wedding of my niece’s son. Today, I thought I’d describe my impressions of returning after so many years.

Imagine a place so dry you can tell where every raindrop falls because that is where a plant struggles to survive. Open sagebrush-, juniper-, and greasewood-dotted plains and hills surrounded by navy- to slate-colored mountains that hulk in the distance. One mountain looks like a dinosaur taking a nap on its belly. The dirt shades from deep black to gray, from brick red to pale tan, from brown to white. It’s as if someone took a paintbrush to the hills and streaked them with color and then dotted them with deep green bushes. Down valleys, irrigated farmlands of electric green skirt the cottonwood-lined creeks. If you close your eyes, you can smell baking dirt, sagebrush, juniper, willow, and the wet places down by the creek. In the morning, pockets of cool intersperse with pockets of heat, and rocks are chilly to the bare feet but the dirt in the sun warms your bare toes. You can hear the sound of running water, the twee of the birds, and the buzz of insects. Every once in a while, in the evening, you can hear the distinct call of the meadowlark or the bark of a coyote. There is so little light pollution that, at night, the stars sprinkle across the whole sky and you feel like you could make your way by starlight alone. The Milky Way cuts a wide swath diagonally across the sky. At night, the crickets, one or two or three, sit outside your bedroom window and chirp and chirp, and the creek tinkles in the background. The cool of the evening feels so good after the baking of the day.

While I was there, I saw 10 or 15 pheasant strutting on the road, a wild turkey, maybe ten hawks soaring in pairs in the sky, and a herd of fat deer who lazily moved off the road. Horses and cows graze in the fields, and in the mornings tractors pulling trailers of hay go out to feed, since it’s a little early for the grass to support the animals.

Due to various reasons, this generation of my family is letting the ranch go, and it feels like the wildness, which had never really left, is reasserting itself. What was once lawn grass ~ though never country club lawn, more watered buffalograss interspersed with koche and tar weed ~ is now bare ground with the startings of sagebrush. The buildings and corrals that our grandparents so laboriously put up are board-by-board collapsing and decaying. Trees I knew and loved and climbed as a child ~ the cottonwood with the treehouse behind the house ~ has grown and died and fallen and been used for firewood. The yellow rose bush and the lilac are nothing but hulking masses of dried stalks because no one tends them. All the tree startings my mother planted and nurtured are now like child’s sticks poked into the dirt.

I don’t know whether I should draw this out to the level of metaphor. Suffice it to say that I just kept thinking about Where the Wild Things Are (both the book and the recent movie).

What I’m Reading Today: Finishing Cheston Knapp’s wonderful One Story story “A Minor Momentousness in the History of Love.” How fabulous. It’s about a tennis match between Sampras and Federer and about the intricate relationships of the people who work the court. Great job, Cheston!

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