Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Faith and Redemption on the Restigouche River and on the Montana Prairie

Monday, July 12, 2010.

O what a nasty noose we wind / when we contrive to fall behind.

I was invited to go salmon fishing in Canada, see. On the Restigouche, said to be the best Atlantic salmon river in North America. The water was low and the fishing slow, but it was grand—good friends, splendid landscape, an old fishing culture, fine local people. Real maritime weather: The river forms the boundary between Quebec and New Brunswick, and debouches into the Bay of Chaleur, a place of fog, slant needle rain on upriver winds, a century, two centuries of conflict between francophones and anglophones, between the French- and English-speaking whites and the Micmac Indians.

It is a big river—the name means five rivers, and each of those fingers of its hand is prodigious—and the whole watershed has been ruined several times, by clearcutting and siltation, by horse-drawn scows dragged across the spawning beds, by Micmac gill-netting; yet magnificently, again and again, it has recovered. But will it survive climate change? high-tech factory ships on the deep-water feeding grounds off Greenland? I skimmed a book copyrighted 1852 predicting the imminent collapse of the Restigouche salmon fishery. It’s always comforting to find a text or metaphor for hope, however false the premise.

—The psychologist Martin Seligman has repeatedly shown that optimism gets results even on pretty flimsy predicates. Baseball teams win, marriages thrive, and of course religions prosper on faith. I vividly remember my friend the wonderfully named Episcopal priest Donald Goodness telling me that the most absurd, most unbelievable tenets of Christian doctrine—Moses parting the sea, the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection—were precisely those which had endowed the church with its durability, because they force the believer to abandon reason, to take leave of all that is verifiable, to hope for life in the face of undeniable, stinking, grinning death. Otherwise, what? We give up? I’d rather believe that the salmon will go on returning to the Restigouche.

The day before yesterday I finally hauled my ass out of the house—it seemed to have taken me some days to figure out that I was back in Montana for real—and went for my accustomed walk out onto the prairie. The godwits and curlews were gone—no, there was one pair of curlews, whirling and calling, not near. The only scolding nesters left were the upland sandpipers, burbling a protest feeble in contrast to that of their brawny oceanic cousins. And of course the flora had changed utterly in the two weeks since I had walked this land. The death-camas had all gone to seed, the little sunflowers, Helianthella, had disappeared, cheer-bright larkspur gone. But the grasses were tall and green, the summer ripening.

As I crossed a pasture full of what seemed to be contented cows and calves, I felt a presence behind. I turned to see a black cow pacing along, definitely following me. “Hey,” I told her, “wrong-o. You don’t want to follow me. Go away.” I waved my arms a bit and strode on, but I felt her still there. When I turned again, she was quite a bit closer. “Really,” I said, “this is too much. Get the hell away from me. What do you think you’re doing?” I mean, this was only a cow. In reply to my command she blew hard through her nostrils and started slamming the turf with a front hoof, hard enough to blast great chunks of sod loose and raise clouds of dust—quite the cartoon image, one might say, but her mien was entirely serious and so I took her to be. I looked around for my options. The nearest tree was about half a mile away and across a couple of barbed-wire fences. I also had no idea whether I could outrun a cow; I sort of doubted it. I figured I might just have to stand my ground and throw my daypack in her face if she really came charging. I looked forward again, along my originally intended line of travel, and this time I saw the problem: a black hump in the grass: her calf: dead. I was standing precisely between her and it. Oh.

It was, as Bertie Wooster likes to say, with me the work of a moment to change my bearing by ninety degrees and quietly, somehow without making a fuss, skedaddle, which also conveniently headed me toward a low ridge behind which I could take myself out of mother’s sight. Indeed, as soon as I was no longer blocking her access to her late baby, she was no longer in a mood to trample me into the dirt. I sprang eagerly over a place in the fence I could stretch low enough to do so, and made my way up into the wilder, cow-free reaches of the butte. In the shade of a limber pine, looking out across a hundred miles of Montana to the still snow-blanketed Beartooths, I had some lunch and collated my flower notes from the walk up:

Potentilla diversifolia: regular old cinquefoil
Potentilla hippiana: silver cinquefoil
Oxytropis besseyi: Bessey’s crazyweed (I think)
Lupinus sp.: I'll never get these straight
Gaillardia aristata
Eriogonum umbellatum: sulphur buckwheat
Phacelia franklinii
Agoseris glauca: false dandelion
Anaphalis margaritacea: pearly everlasting
Linum perenne: flax
Penstemon eriantherus: fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle
Cryptantha flavoculata: yellow-eyed cryptanth
Arenaria sp.: sand spurrey
Helianthella: little sunflower, the last few, up high
Campanula rotundifolia: harebell
Orobanche sp.: broomrape—amazing dark pink, turning to yellow as the flowers open; bright yellow center of fl.
mystery flower, small orange five petals, phloxlike fl., grasslike lvs.
Allium style
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum sp. (lanceolatum?): yellow flower, almost orange
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening primrose
Castilleja sessiliflora: Great Plains paintbrush
Sphaeralcea coccinea: scarlet globemallow
Achillea millefolia: yarrow
Gilia congesta: ballhead gilia
Solidago sp.: goldenrod
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless goldenweed—last few, hanging on
Eriogonum sp.: cream-white sparse balls
Gaura coccinea: scarlet gaura

The way home was through the goddam pasture with the goddam dead calf and the goddam mad cow. But before I ever had to face that music, as I swung my left, trailing leg over the same barbed wire I had crossed on the way up and which now I thought, without thinking, I had pushed down far enough, a barb caught my pants and, yes, my leg, tearing into both. I lost my balance altogether and fell headlong into the pasture, like—again a Bertie Wooster phrase comes to mind—the delivery of a ton of coals. I hit the ground hard. Nice hard rocks, too. Wrenched my back, cut my elbow in several spots. I sat up dizzily and had a look at myself and thought, Golly, this could have been an awful lot worse. For one thing, I was at least two or three miles from the nearest anything like another person, and I might very well have broken an arm, maybe a leg, I might have ripped open the vein that ran one inch away from my deepish puncture and cut. I was glad I had my trusty little first aid kit. I swabbed out the cut with a sterile wet-pad, and more or less stanched the bleeding with a couple of good tight bandaids, and started limping homeward, feeling like a moron. Once again—how many times have I had to say this to myself?—Why can you not keep in mind the simple maxim Be Here Now?

At first I thought the dead calf had been miraculously resurrected, but in fact it was still there, just not visible from uphill, and its mother had apparently finished mourning and returned to the sodality of the herd. So on I trudged. Halfway home, I realized that I had dropped my notepad and pen as I fell and had left them behind, that’s how rattled I was.

Once back in the land of indoor plumbing, I washed holy hell out of my cut, four or five times with soap and water, pulling it apart to get all the gradu out, and then went after it with alcohol, and then pulled it together with fresher bigger bandaids, and then went online to find out about barbed wire cuts. Mayo Clinic said if you haven’t had a tetanus shot in ten years, you should get one. But mightn’t I weasel past that somehow? For one thing, no way could I remember back ten years, and maybe I’d had one, what with my horse accidents and whatnot. I figured that if anywhere would let me tough it on through like a True Cow Boy, it would be the Pioneer Medical Center in Big Timber. I called. The nurse there informed me that tetanus lurks in the soils hereabouts and I ought to take it seriously. Online again, just to triangulate. A few highlights from
Tetanus is infection of the nervous system with the potentially deadly bacteri[um] Clostridium tetani.

Tetanus often begins with mild spasms in the jaw muscles (lockjaw). The spasms can also affect the chest, neck, back, and abdominal muscles....Sometimes the spasms affect muscles that help with breathing....Prolonged muscular action causes sudden, powerful, and painful contractions of muscle groups....These episodes can cause fractures and muscle tears.

Other symptoms include:

* Drooling
* Excessive sweating
* Fever
* Hand or foot spasms
* Irritability
* Swallowing difficulty
* Uncontrolled urination or defecation
I was damn well going to get the shot. The P.M.C. was on my way to Livingston anyhow. I was going to dinner at my dear friend Anita Pagliaro’s, where I was also going to see beloved Doug and Andrea Peacock for the first time since last summer. The Big Timber emergency room is a pretty calm outfit. I got my shot, which didn’t hurt worth a durn, and drove on to Anita’s, the coolest house in Livingston, in fact one of the coolest in the known universe. See and click on bungalow and see how cool.

The loss of that notepad kept bugging me. I had stuffed all my notes in my pocket except the last page, but I hated the picture of my lilac-colored litter fluttering across that untrammeled landscape. In any case Anita wanted to see the place, so she came over next morning, and out we strolled. We did not find notepad or pen. We did see the dead calf, but the mom didn’t seem to take notice of us. As we headed home after a fine lunch of egg salad sandwiches on supermarket bread, honest fresh cherries, and Fig Newtons (not the Paul Newman organic ones, which are greatly inferior to the originals, thank you very much), we came across another heap of calf, this one alive. Barely. It lifted its head, gave us a pitiful look, and wearily laid its head back down. This poor creature was far from any occupied pasture, and the one below was much too well fenced—my leg could tell you about that—for this little guy to have jumped out. A mystery.

I called my landlord, rancher Paul, to report, but he wasn’t home. He hadn’t, in fact, been home for some days, since I’d had various other ranch news to call in, such as the dead calf. Oh, and another mortality, that of a cow about the size of a UPS truck whom I had come across a couple of days earlier, rotting away by the side of a ranch road, the cynosure of half the raven population of Montana, her empty eye sockets boiling with maggots.

Anita had an appointment in the Paradise Valley, and I had some spareribs to heat up, as well as more Gravity’s Rainbow to crawl a little farther toward the still-distant end of. I had read it before, in 1972, when it was new, and it is just as impenetrably strange and gripping and impossibly unreadable yet unputdownable now as it was then. I’ve been reading the sucker for two months.

That brings us to this morning, 7:45. Paul pulls up outside my house, I go out, he asks if I wouldn’t mind showing him where the sick calf is. We head out in true rancher style, jouncing across the prairie on Paul’s indefatigable four-wheel-drive steed. Every God-damned wire gate that I have so assiduously crafted a (walking) route to avoid, I, as Mr. Shotgun, now have to open and, in mortal fear of another barbed-wire gash, then to stretch closed.

We stop off to visit the dead calf on the way up. Paul asks if I remember the number of the freeze-brand on the mother’s side. “Oh, sure, Paul,” I say. His thought is that if we can identify the mom, he might be able to get her to adopt the sick calf once we find it. His next move is to start kicking the dead calf around in the hope that that will attract the interest of the mother cow. Indeed one comes trotting. “See how tight her bag is?” Paul points out—the full udder of a mother who hasn’t been nursing. But then comes another cow, with another more or less tight bag. Then another. Within a few minutes we have about twenty cows all sniffing at the dead calf. “To hell with it,” says Paul. “Maybe we can do something on the way back.”

We grind on up the butte, steeper and potholier as we ascend. In due course we arrive at the place where Anita and I saw the sick calf. There is no calf. Paul and I start prowling on foot, and it isn’t long before I hear him hollering for me across the coulee, and there, sure enough, in a stand of limber pines, is the calf, grazing. Skinny, but not looking three-quarters dead anymore.

We mount back into the pickup, Paul plunges it straight into and out of the coulee—scaring the shit out of his passenger—and then we make a wide circle uphill from the calf. Paul thinks he has some rope behind the seat. I find a piece about seven feet long that looks like clothesline. He knots it into a semblance of a lasso.

Tom chortles; Paul shrugs. “It’s all I’ve got,” he says. “What I’m hoping is he’s weak enough he’ll just let me walk up to him and drop this loop around his neck. He’s got to be part of the herd that was up here three or four weeks ago. We thought he was lost, gone. I can’t believe he’s still alive.”

One very short, very quiet step at a time, Paul creeps closer and closer up behind the calf. With each step he takes, the calf takes one step away, but inch by inch Paul is gaining. When at last he is perhaps two feet behind, the calf bolts—pretty doggone zippily, too, for an animal supposedly at death’s door. Next thing I know, Paul is diving through the air, and with one extended hand has grabbed the tippy-tip of the animal’s tail.

Very quickly he goes hand over hand up the tail, and then in a blur he has gripped a leg, tipped the calf sideways, dumped it on the ground, and is sitting on top of it whipping his little length of rope, or clothesline, around its ankles. Just like in the rodeo.

The awesomest passage of this rodeo-cowboy scene is when right in the middle of the furious action Paul’s hat comes off and he pauses in his calf-tying-up to reach casually across the grass and put it back on. (I hasten to add that this is not a Cowboy Hat. Those are for official rodeos, in town. Ranchers at work wear regular old billed caps with labels on the front like half of everybody else in America.) Within a minute he has picked that scrawny little critter up like an attaché case and dumped it into the bed of the pickup.

“What would have happened it you’d missed?” I inquire.

“I damn near did,” he says. “We’d have had to chase him till he got tired enough to catch.” I look around: coulees, rimrock, scree, rock, down timber, badger holes. Nice place for a picnic with Anita and Fig Newtons, but broken, nasty country to be trying to run on. “We’d do it like coyotes. You’d run him awhile, then I’d run him.”

“Sounds like it might have taken some time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Paul.

“How close did you come to missing grabbing him by the tail?”


I feel like the girl in a silent melodrama: Oh, Paul! My hero! Also I’m thinking back to when I got in the truck about an hour and a half ago. The idea, as I recall it, was that I was going to show him where the sick calf had been. There wasn’t anything in the contract about chasing animals all over Porcupine Butte all morning at the risk of limb and life.

Never mind. All is well. My hero!

Ahem. The clear-eyed fact to be remembered, shoving poetic license aside, is that this was not primarily a precious life saved; for it is a life not long to be lived; what will have been saved, come a year, is a good thousand dollars’ worth of beef.

On the way back, Paul even got one of the moms to come alone to the dead calf. She did not seem inclined to murder him. Must have been his Air of Quiet Authority. He wrote down her number and said that from here on out it was going to be up to his brother-in-law to come get her and put her in the barn with her new stepson; she was his cow. I then learned that one of the ways you encourage a reluctant foster mother is to skin the dead calf and make a sort of sweater out of the cape, with four holes for the legs of the adoptee, so that he’ll smell like a blood relation.

I am so glad I am not a rancher.

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