Folks' Poems

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Ed Nesselhuf
rural Burbank, South Dakota
Ed Nesselhuf

Ed Nesselhuf in Kanab, 2002
Photo by Lloyd Shelby

One of

Lariat Laureate Runner Up
Recognized for his poem, Autumn Harvest



About Ed Nesselhuf:

Ed Nesselhuf is a baby-boomer born and raised on the prairies of southeast Colorado. He has been a Lutheran pastor for 30 years and is Executive Director of Prison Congregations of America (PCA). He travels considerably and began writing cowboy poetry because of his love of the West and of rural America and because he is terrible at crossword puzzles! He performs his poetry as a way or promoting PCA. He calls himself the Prairie Pastor/Poet.

He competes annually at the Cowboy Poetry Rodeo in Kanab, Utah as a means of honing his skills as a performer. (In 2004, he won a silver buckle as the top Serious Reciter.)

He and his partner-for-life, Diane, live on an acreage in rural Burbank, South Dakota. They have 5 children, 3 horses, 2 dogs, and assorted cats.

We asked Ed why he thinks Cowboy Poetry is important and he replied:

Cowboy Poetry is a way to link modern generations to a culture and way of life that gets beyond the romanticism of the "Western movies."

You can email Ed Nesselhuff.

Autumn Harvest

Oak leaves golden, shrubs of crimson, against ponderosa green
Open prairies, cured up grasses, autumn beauty, like a dream.

Sky of azure, fringed with fluffy, lacey clouds of white
Drifting gently 'cross earth's ceiling, shards of shining morning light.

On the edges of my vision, a shaggy carpet moves in view
Changing weather starts migration, the herd now moves south on cue.

Walking, grazing, stopping, lazing, as the sun climbs in the sky
Moving to fate's destination, Mother Earth whispers a sigh.

"Tatonka", life blood of the people, moving now to fill its role
An age-old drama taking shape, satisfying nature's soul.

The herd moves out onto a flat, tucked in between two hills.
A thousand hidden eyes watch from ambush.  Tension builds.

With the hunted in position, the chief of hunters sees
Now is the time to spring the trap!  "Hoka Hey" rings from the trees.

Up ravines and out of gulleys come the hunters on their steeds
Driving ponies to their limits, who will dare the bravest deeds?

The shaggy carpet lurches forward to avoid this new-found foe
Hides & humps & hooves & horns moving in one giant flow.

Thunder rumbling, thunder rolling, from hooves pounding on the ground
Running, jumping, bumping, grunting, a stampeding earthquake sound.

Clouds of dust begin to billow, til it blocks out half the sun
Hooves are plowing up the prairies, all of life is on the run!

Above the roar, the primal, piercing screams cut through the air
This harvest deadly serious to provide their winter fare.

Painted faces, painted ponies, feathers tied to hair and mane
Rapid riders, riding reckless, moving close for surer aim.

Having sweated, prayed, and fasted, so they might be purified
They're throwing caution to the wind.  My lord, how they can ride!

Running, chasing, dashing, feinting, pulling alongside shaggy beast
Arrow notched, bowstring straightens, gathering meat in for the feast.

Sharpened lance pierces a rib cage.  Carcass rolls across the earth
Pony lunges for the next one, horses caught up in the mirth!

With the herd now in a panic, leaders dropping to and fro
Bodies scatter 'cross the prairie with each twanging of a bow.

Thunder fades into the distance as the hunt draws to a close.
The mop-up is done swiftly, because every hunter knows

That game must be respected with no unnecessary waste
Prayers are said now 'oer the hunted, like a pilgrim saying grace.

And there's feasting, smoking, dancing as the daylight turns to night
Heroic stories told and re-told around campfires burning bright.

So, the working, feasting, bragging goes on for 'oer a week
Hides are being brain-tanned and meat is dried to keep

There is the gathering of berries to be pounded with the meat
Tons of wasna are the product when the harvest is complete.

And now the camp is packed and moving, travois poles sag beneath the weight
Winter camp must be established as the season's growing late.

But there's contentment in the labor, for the winter packs are full
Dogs and ponies are encouraged as they work and strain to pull.

This store assures the people of sufficient food supply
For the winter months when snows drift deep and storms block out the sky.

And seasons come and seasons go, fulfilled as life intended
A brief respite in history, when change has been suspended.

Before the cold wind blew across the prairie and the land was filled with food.
When the buffalo were plentiful and for the was good!

© 2004, Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


We asked Ed about the inspiration for this poem and he told us: The Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, spoke of a time, "...when a cold wind blew across the prairie."  He was referring to those 2 or 3 years in the 1870's when the hide hunters and the cavalry took the buffalo herds to almost extinction, eliminating the Indians' food supply.  This poem describes what a buffalo hunt might have looked like prior to 1870. 

I got much of my "vision" for this poem while attending the buffalo roundup in Custer State Park in early October, 2002.  It was a "drop-dead" gorgeous fall day on the eastern edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota.


Dances with Bulls

There are few sights as beautiful or as inspiring as watching a bullfighter in the rodeo arena move into a twisting, raging, catastrophe-in-the-making, move a bull away from a rider who is down and in danger, do this all at very close quarters, and to make it look easy, to boot!  This is a tribute to the rodeo clown.

A cowboy's guardian angel has now taken bone and flesh
A modern-day gladiator....product of the American West.

When hands from various spreads put guts and glory in their sights
At games to beat the boredom and to gather bragging rights

They'd wrestle steers, rope calves, and ride the bucking bulls and broncs.
Then...when that freight train that they're riding jumps the tracks & heaves & stomps

To stay away from hooves and horns when they have been bucked down
They need a friend to bait the bull....behold, the rodeo clown.

Someone quick with courage and the will to stare down fear
Who can dance a dance with danger every time that danger's near.

The dance floor is made of ploughed up earth, his slippers are baseball cleats.
This is a dance between life and death....someone dies if the dancer cheats!

His tuxedo sports suspenders, to hold up baggy pants
Cut off at the knee, so he won't trip up in the fine steps of the dance.

This is poetry in motion, like a choreographed ballet
Embracing danger in a dance, while moving a rider from harm's way.

His dancing partner has the disposition of a wolverine
A charging ton of fury with nostrils blowing steam

It's an adrenaline rush like nothing else when you know just what's at stake.
He gets high on life, the challenge, the danger, he'll do whatever it takes.

Locked in the other's rhythm....just inches away from death
Gliding in circles, eyeball to eyeball, they breathe each other's breath.

To the tune of a primal orchestra, beat out by pounding hooves
Jitterbugs Mr. Rodeo Clown.....the man who "dances with bulls."

© Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Bart's Freckles

Bart and Pat Blum were newlyweds, had bought a small cow-spread
In Fort Hale bottom, on the Missouri River, where Lewis and Clark had tread.

They had an old house with a shelter-belt to protect them from the north.
Up to their necks in debt they had no choice....they worked it for all they were worth.

They had no indoor plumbing, just a cistern in the back
So when they needed water, they'd walk a well worn path.

A big wash tub did for bathing every Saturday, late afternoon.
Being newlyweds, they bathed together.....somehow, they made room!

Now, one Saturday, almost sundown, Pat had the water heated up
Laid out the towels, shampoo, and soap and began to fill the tub.

Seeing the water was scorching hot, they would need to cool it some.
"Bartine, my love, will you see to it that this small task is done?"

"Take the bucket for some water cool....just....go in your birthday suit.
We're at the end of the road, no one's around, and look cute!!"

Naked as a jaybird, out the front door goes Bartine
Around the side and to the back to pump a clear, cool stream.

With the bucket filled, he starts back in, then stops as if he'd died.
From up front, he hears a car horn honk.....announcing company had arrived.

His retreat back into the house had now been intercepted.
Being modest and all, he dropped the bucket and for the shelter-belt he jetted!

Through rocks and thistles he is not deterred, he won't stop 'til he reaches cover.
His feet and legs are all scratched up but his reputation will not suffer!

The last ten feet he dove head first over a stand of lilac bushes.
Three broken chairs tossed in the shelter belt are what his body crushes.

He's bruised and scratched and scared to death, but he's safely out of sight.
He'll wait for Pat to come and rescue him...until then, he's sitting tight!

He vaguely remembers Pat mentioning that she'd found some poison ivy
By the lilacs in the shelter belt and that's where Bart now lay.

She had NOT, however, mentioned cactus, like the ones tickling at his nose
And arms and legs and sensitive areas not normally exposed.

To give relief to the sensitive areas, Bart inches up his midline.
Crouched in the weeds at the edge of the trees, he's determined to stay hidden.

But....with his middle raised, a white Blum 'moon' stuck up above the weeds
And it's the time of day that mosquitoes are thinking about going out to feed.

Bart's taking bites and giving blood to mosquitoes and horse flies.
This irritation to his delicate skin makes hives begin to rise.

His snow-white tush had been so smooth and previously unspotted
But with bites and welts arising, that tush is now becoming dotted!

His mind is momentarily distracted by the presence ants.
They would surely infestate his pants......if only he HAD some pants!

It's the time of year that ragweed pollen is filling up the air
So Bart's hay-fever is working overtime with his whole body being bare!

Casey, the dog, starts yapping and yowling like a debating politician.
He's barking and growling at the lilac away Bart's position!

His situation's becoming intolerable....Bart wished he'd stayed out with the cattle.
He's thinking, "I wish Pat would bring my bathrobe."...That's when he heard the RATTLE!

An ole prairie rattler had slithered in, looking for crickets and mice.
It sounds to be at about Bart's feet, so he didn't have to think twice....

He came busting through those lilacs like a grizzly run amuck!
With his rancher tan and freckled butt, he looks like a recently plucked duck!

He streaked for the house...his company will just have to close their eyes.
He grabbed the bucket for a fig-leaf.....then...much to his surprise

Wrapped in a towel, Pat let out a howl, at the picture he presented
And he was sure chagrined when it dawned on him that this could all have been prevented.

You see, when Bart was pumping water....naked as the day he was born
His darling bride had snuck was SHE who beeped the horn!

Now......I don't mean to embarrass him, or suggest that you should heckle
But if you want Bart to know you like him.....just ask him 'bout his freckles!!!!!

© Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



Pounding Hooves 

The rush was on when the cry of "Gold!" had sounded from Sutter's Mill
The west coast's population was growing fast.
Tens of thousands had immigrated, in '60 were coming still
But they kept a line of life into their past.

They wanted news from friends and family still in the motherland
By stage or ship it took a month or more.
A faster means of communicating now was being planned
From St. Joseph to the continent's western shore.

Five hundred horses will be purchased, fifty riders hired on
To run a relay for those two thousand miles.
Twenty pounds of mail in a mochila is the cargo for the run
And just the thought of it produced a million smiles.

The imagination of a nation will be running with the riders
Captivated by a dream that seems unreal.
April 3rd will be the starting date to try these mustang striders
And the young men who will ride with nerves of steel.

When the fateful day arrives, Johnny Fry will ride the first leg
It's said this boy can ride just like the wind.
And the thoroughbred beneath him takes off like a powderkeg
When the flag drops and the roaring crowd has dinned.

Across Kansas' northeast corner, through the valleys and the woodlands
It's flood stage for crossing the Big Blue.
The mochila moves from horse to horse as they heed the spurs commands
Racing for the next appointed rendezvous.

Into the valley of the Platte, they enter the Great Plains
Eating up the miles as had been planned.
The riders pass Fort Kearney and a hundred thousand cranes
And the pounding hooves are heard across the land.

Day and night across Nebraska, take the north fork to Wyoming,
Past the land marks of Scottsbluff and chimney rock.
Ponies lathered, lungs are aching and the latigo is groaning
As the orphan riders race against the clock.

Where a hundred thousand wagons left their track upon the plains
They ride ten miles for each two minute stop.
And climbing, ever climbing, every minute making gains
They top South Pass and then begin to drop.

Into the great Salt Lake basin, still a thousand miles to go
They cross salt and alkali of no-man's land
Where they outrun angry Paiutes threatening to stop this show
And the pounding hooves go racing 'cross the sand.

Through the Deer Creek Mountains into Nevada and across the sagebrush plains
No matter what, the mail must make it through.
Then it's up the high Sierras with their cold and snow and rain,
Then the break into California blue.

It's downhill for the last time, follow the River American
That leads to Sacramento, toward the Bay.
The city's spirit goes a'soaring as the final leg begins
And crescendos this equestrian ballet!

Eighty Sacramento riders gallop east to meet the Pony
And to join in riding anchor into town.
Three hundred twenty hooves are added to the 'welcome' ceremony
For the mailman who now wears the victor's crown.

There are banners, bands, and fireworks that line the length of J Street
There are hankies waved and hats thrown in the air!
The impossible accomplished by those who would not say, "defeat"
And opened up a continental thoroughfare.

And the waves of what had happened now went washing 'cross the nation
Doubts and dangers had simply been out-manned.
And decades later, we still look to this event for inspiration
When the pounding hooves went racing 'cross our land.

© 2004, Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Ed told us this poem is based on the first Pony Express ride (from east to west) on April 3, 1860.  He said "I knew very little about the Pony Express when I started my research.  The most impressive thing I learned is that the entire operation was thrown together by 3 businessmen in about 6 months time!  The opening ride was a couple hours late getting started but arrived in Sacramento 10 days later within an hour or so of being on schedule!  THAT'S impressive." 


The edge of the prairie, the edge of the Hills,
Home to creation, where the meadowlark trills

The edge of a meadow, the edge of the trees,
At dusk, shadows flitter, but nobody sees

The edge of a canyon, the edge of a cliff
Where ancient ones chipped out each petroglyph

On the edge of lonesome, where sky and silence reign,
Where choices are made with no need to explain

On the edge of adventure, and courage, and grit
Where circumstance dictates you lose if you quit.

The edge of a memory, the edge of a dream,
In a place angels dance on the rays of moonbeam

On the edge of reality, where my heart's content
On the edge, where life is most profoundly spent.

Life on the edge is life true and free
If I'm not on the edge, how will I become me?

© 2004, Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Ed told us that a New Year's Eve drive was the inspiration for the poem: "My wife, Diane, and I drove from Pringle, South Dakota to Newcastle, Wyoming, starting at 18 mile windmill on the Pleasant Valley Road and driving west and north, coming into Hwy 16 just east of the Wyoming line.  In this way, we skirted the SW edge of the Black Hills.  We drove on 40 miles of gravel, seeing 5 or 6 ranch houses, cattle, mule deer, turkeys, and NOT ONE VEHICLE! It's wonderful to know there are still places like that in the 21st century! It got me to thinking..."


Child of the Open


“Along with the largeness of the visible—too much horizon, too much sky—this land’s essential indifference to the human can be unnerving.”

“A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky.”

“Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.”
quotes from Dakota, by Kathleen Norris

“Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.”
Jose’ Ortega y Gassett


I recently drove from eastern South Dakota to Rapid City, crossing all of the open West River part of our state. I realized that living a majority of my life on the prairie had shaped my character and my outlook on life considerably. That led to this poem.

Child of the Open

He was a child of air and sunshine, when he was just a cub
He sprouted up, protected by the land.
And he grew to love the prairie and the life that it contained
Where his heart and his spirit could expand.

As he grew he rode the rolling waves of prairie grass and grain
Like a ship in a gently rolling sea.
With his vision uncluttered, his future stretched out endless
As he developed his High Plains pedigree.

He dared not voice his feelings, for fear of choking up
There are many folks who do not understand
The beauty of the empty and the music of the silence
From an orchestra conducted by the land.

The decades roll on by and the open is still empty
The horizon still races out in front of him.
Once again he’s blessed to be here, gets to ride these waves again
And see the sky and feel the sun and wind.

© 2008, Ed Nesselhuf
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



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