Janet, the rancher I worked for in the late 1990s, called me out of the blue last week.
Janet Main is in her 80s now. She had been talking with her daughter the night before. Cas Main was the first rancher I worked for. Cas is a little older than me and she is surviving the unsurvivable – Huntington’s disease.
“Janet,” I said. “This is really, really weird.” (I said it just like that.) “Yesterday I was remembering that time when I came up to the calving field after midnight looking for you in that driving snow storm and I found you trying to pull that drowning calf out of the slough.”
“I was telling Cas that story last night,” she said. “How you got there just in time.”
“We saved the calf, Janet”
“Yes, we did.”
But then there’s another time when I didn’t save a calf.
Recently I was looking at a photograph I took during that same calving season. Why I was looking at this photograph had nothing to do with working at the ranch, but rather to do with my work at CDS, about desire paths, about wanting to be acknowledged and feel enabled. I don’t tell Janet this, although she would have listened deeply. Instead I describe the photograph to her and in doing so tell a story. She remembers…
It had been a hard labor. With nothing to show but “nose and toes” after two hours of pushing, I am forced to pull the calf in the field. Because the cow has been laboring too long in one position, the nerves in her hindquarters have become temporarily damaged. She can’t get up. She can’t nurse. I place the calf by her muzzle so she can smell her newborn, so she can lick it dry.
I return an hour later and tube feed the calf. He shivers as the colostrum enters his empty stomach. I check two hours later. The calf is up, but his mother is still unable to stand. Later, I check again. I check the other cows and calves and then go the bed.
Day breaks. I find the heifer standing but wobbly; however, the calf is nowhere to be seen. Fifty feet away I see the blood trail, about the length of a football field, zig-zagging red across the dry pasture toward the mountains.
Where the blood ends I find the dead calf, or at least half of it. Only the head is left intact. Coyotes. The pack likely chased the calf away from its invalid mother, attacked it, then dragged the struggling, bawling, dying newborn across the frozen pasture until finally they render it in half. I follow bits and pieces of scattered hide and hair another quarter mile. Across a draw I see the den and half a dozen pups gnawing on the other half of the carcass.
I return to tell Janet that coyotes have killed the calf. I tell her I’ve located the den in the draw behind the old homestead and that I want to do something.
Poison is not an option. Janet says it is too much of a risk to other animals, but Charlie, one of the ranch partners, has a Winchester 270 with a scope I could borrow. I had never ever fired a gun (except for the Daisy air rifle my dad bought for me when I was four, only to have him take it away forever a week later after shooting out our neighbor’s window). Charlie teaches me and within the day, whether standing or prone, I become pretty good at picking off cans and clumps of dirt from 100 yards. I’m told I need to shoot either the alpha female or alpha male. Then the pack will disband. I bring the rifle with me each trip to the calving field.
Two days later I catch a glimpse of a large male coyote, lurking around the abandoned homestead. I park by the corrals, grab the gun, and make my way through the various gates into the far west corral. I’m about 150 feet away from the old house and out of sight. I rest the barrel on a railing at shoulder height. With the gap between each railing about six inches, there’s enough clearance to accommodate the barrel and the scope. I’m calm. I’m thinking, "Clumps of dirt."
The coyote emerges from behind the house and trots unsuspectingly across my line of sight. He’s so close he nearly fills the lens of the scope. I have a clear shot. But my hands are starting to shake and I quickly break out in a sweat. My legs tremble uncontrollably. I begin to hyperventilate. I am scared to death. With my eyes closed and tears rolling down my cheeks, I pull the trigger.
The coyote glances up as the recoil reverberates through the aspen stand. He then calmly trots away as I crumple to the ground crying.
There’s another reason I’m telling this story, other than Janet calling out of the blue and me pulling out a photograph from my past for self-assurance.
I’ve been reading Barry Lopez. In his essay Landscape and Narrative Lopez describes two landscapes: the one we see – the clouds, the Front Range mountains, the dead-looking pasture, the crimson blood, the rough hued corrals, the light-footed coyotes – and the landscape within our own mind – life, death, and fear – and the intricate relationship between the two. He says that through stories, the storyteller “draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the interior landscape to create a harmony between the two, using all the storyteller’s craft of syntax, mood, and figures of speech.”
For Lopez and I agree, it does not seem to matter greatly what the story is about as long as the context is intimate and “the story is told for it’s own sake, not forced to serve merely as the vehicle for an idea.”
Lopez continues. “The tone of the story need not be solemn. The darker aspects of life need not be ignored. But intimacy is indispensible – a feeling that derives from the listener’s trust and the storyteller’s certain knowledge of his subject and regard for his audience. This intimacy deepens if the storyteller tempers his authority with humility, when terms of idiomatic expression, or at least the physical setting for the story, are shared.”
Stories told for their own sake are not so much making a point as evoking something about coming in contact with our surroundings that will never completely be understood.
The stories told as such leave us with an unexpected renewal of enthusiasm and purpose, and mystery.