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JOHN WALKER
Bellevue, Idaho
About John Walker

 

 

 

Fences

Whenever I pound a staple into a red cedar post;
I think of my cowboy friends that fences have disturbed the most.
I'm dreaming of the good old days without wire from coast to coast.
Ten thousand head of cattle with eight different brands we'd boast.

Twenty years ago they finished it; they boundried our north side,
But they took much more than just the limit of how far I could ride.
My friends and I no longer spend our days working side by side.
We never see each other; behind posts and barb wire we hide.

That ain't near close to the worst that fences have offended me.
They turned me from a cowboy to a fencer, as you see.
It seems that once that you have got one without one you won't be.
Forever fixing broken fences; I never will be free.

The Gates of Hell must have one to keep the evilness within.
The Pearly Gates of Heaven must have a fence to keep out sin.
The last place that ain't got one is a place that I've never been,
But the moon's too far and it won't grow grass, sorry B.L.M.

I'm hitting my head against a rock; fences are here to stay.
It just breaks my heart when I think of that long forgotten day.
I just mashed my trigger finger! This poetry just don't pay,
But tomorrow I'll be dreaming while I'm putting up the hay.

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


John comments: I wrote "Fences" because I lived through the changes that B.L.M.-financed fencing programs brought to the buckaroo lifestyle. Before then, fences were built to keep the cattle out; then, fences were built to keep the cattle in. That changed everything. It used to take a well trained team of riders to share an open range; it takes less skill and less riders to bunch a single brand cow herd secured inside barb wire. I know that open range isn't as manageable, efficient, cost effective, or easily taxable as enclosed pastures, but I'm a knot-headed cowboy, not a bean counter. It has been a lot longer than twenty years ago, but it still breaks my heart to remember how it used to be, as if it were yesterday.
 

 

Fishing from a Horse

Of all the days that we are given to live on this ancient earth,
The few days that we spend for fishing does not count against this source,
It is as much a part of living as dying or creating birth.
I believe you get double time when you are fishing from a horse.

You would laugh to see those fishermen in their noisy fishing boats;
When the Blue and I go trolling for rainbow trout or yellow perch;
He won’t ask me for gas money, he prefers rolled corn and oats.
He can always fish on Sunday; he is not welcomed in the church.

The biggest fish we ever landed? That was on the middle Snake;
Using road kill jackrabbit and marshmallow for our sturgeon bait;
I knew we had hooked a big one by the size of that horse wake.
Because of me we almost lost him when I caught my dallies late.

Our favorite kind of fishing is fairy sticking mountain lakes,
I like the cool of altitude and the peacefulness of the place;
Blue likes the cold clear water and the jumping cutthroat that we take.
We are as giddy over a big one as drawing that fourth ace.

When our day off is over and tomorrow’s breakfast has been caught.
I kindle up the kindness due for him sharing his fishing spot.
I take off those sharpened Spanish spurs to experiment my tender thought;
Blue reciprocates the kindness by smoothing out his jarring trot.

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


John comments
: I wrote this poem using a fishing story as a theme, so that I could run unbridled telling the biggest whoppers I could think up and not worry that people would disrespect my poetry for not always telling the exact truth. Fishermen never tell the truth and occasionally cowboy poets can stray off center, too. And that is okay; in fact it was fun.

 

The Hard Winter of Eighty Nine

Idaho became the 43rd state of the Union on July 3, 1890 and the Eastern newspaper reporters and cameramen flocked here to document the unique beauty of the newest State to the rest America. What the press arrived to find was the largest single winter-kill die-off in modern history. Eighty percent of all the cows, horses, and indigenous herbivore lay dead; the number was in the hundreds of thousands; if not millions. Legend has it that you could walk the sixty miles from Mackay to Challis each step on the putrefying carcass of a dead cow. Every livestock range on the west slope of the continental divide from Canada to northern Arizona was the same. Idaho's brand new governor, George Shoup called in the Idaho National Guard to drag the carcasses far enough off the roads, so that getting our V.I.P. visitors from one eye-popping scenic wonder of the State to the next was even bearable, then he quit for a better job offer. The public was in an uproar.

The early paradigm of grazing practices was to stock a range with as many head of cattle as you could get there; leave them out year around, rounding them up in the spring to brand the new calves, rounding them up again in the fall to sort off the ones to go to market. Between roundups cowboys spent their time pushing the cattle around to new ungrazed areas to better fatten the cows and better utilize the range. They were imitating what the Great Plains buffalo did naturally. The beginning of the Western cattle industry, circa 1864-1886, proved profitable and Eastern bankers invested heavily in the developing the West's newest economy. Someone called it the Great Experiment. What is was was a recipe for disaster. The Western ranges had been stocked with tens of thousands of head of Mexican/Texas cattle, but the native grasses of the West, unlike the Great Plains, were not used to constant heavy grazing. The grasses became depleted; then there were three drought years in a row; then a rogue winter.

Afterwards the old ways were done. The new science of Western range management began with the premise that the cows were to be fed hay during the winter months and turned out to graze in the spring only after the natural grasses had gone through their seed cycle, so that the grass could regenerate before being consumed. Lower elevation grasses seed earliest, so the ranchers turned out on the lower desert first and worked the cattle to higher elevations as summer progressed. Natural wet spots were turned into hay fields, winter feeding areas became permanently inhabited communities. The Hard Winter instigated irrigation projects, distribution stations, farms, schools, churches, so, for better or worse, abruptly civilized the last of the wild West.
 

The Hard Winter of Eighty Nine

A cowboy in the cold western desert is reminded every year,
How it can be, the weather we see, the deep snows and cold winds we fear.
No winter’s the same, nature plays her game, we live with what she’ll beget.
Wet or dry, hot or cold we sigh; there’s nothing we can do about it.

When we speak of the cold, there are old stories told, Gothic cowboy lines.
The cattle died; the cowboy cried in the hard winter of eighty nine.
The eastern bankers were sad; three drought years we’d had; steers too poor to eat.
On the overstocked plain the grass needed rain; the summers had terrible heat.

It will be better next year, we’ll fatten the old steers; drought isn’t our fault.
Come this fall we’ll see a rain fall that will bring this long drought to a halt.
At snow melt time grass will grow in sunshine; the rivers will fill again.
Their forecast proved true, the spring grass grew, but nothing was standing by then.

The fall rains fell fine until December time, then snows covered the west.
The deeper it got; more cattle were lost; horses wade up to their chest.
It was the old way, cows’ grazed everyday; store hay for a milk cow, maybe.
The cold winds blow; trails block with snow, no escape to the white sage country.

At sixty below and covered with snow; an ax war for water raged.
Hugging rock cliffs; a top of snow drifts, the death scene of thousands was staged.
By the end some fed their thatch roof over head; kept alive a riding mare.
The easiest thing, turn away from the sting, when nothing was left to share.

Their sufferings untold; for the weak and cold, of those in charge of the lot,
When horse faces bleed from scraping for feed, cows moan for a mercy shot.
No matter how brave, their efforts can’t save; those left turn to face their curse.
Ignorance to blame, they stand with the shame, they learn better from the worse.

The dead cattle stacked deep along the creeks; when rains washed the snow away.
Maybe in time, March temperatures climb; a Chinook would save the day.
Then the warm rain froze to forty below, what’s left freeze to stone then dies.
Weather so cruel, just new comers or fools, predicting what’s next are lies.

The snow drifts stink; all the animals are linked, when together rotting they lie.
From Juniper limbs the dead cows dangling where they died when the snow piled high.
What’s left from before; twenty percent no more; roundup, imagine that ride.
The entire west lets the range grass rest; they add up; stack bones, then divide.

Crows recall and smile at that carrion pile; it ends the experiments length.
The grass of our west couldn’t pass this test; but thrives when we manage its strength.
Move on if you can; stay and we’ll plan a hundred years of family line,
But never let our children forget the hard winter of eighty nine.

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

 


About John Walker:

I am fifth generation Idahoan and I have had family in the livestock industry in south central Idaho since its beginnings in the 1870s. When my father died suddenly, my mother was left widowed with four kids. It was natural to the Depression era and WW II generation ranching mindset that when I was old enough, eleven, I was indentured to the Wells Livestock Company of the Three Creeks/Jarbidge area of southern Idaho and northern Nevada for thirty dollars a month plus board and room. That was in 1962. Looking back, that I survived is somewhat of a miracle. I remember one summer adding up the number of days from May 15th until September 1st that I had not been on horseback, seven; four because it had been raining or snowing too hard and three because I had been sent to town 70 miles away to pick up salt and horse oats, take one day off to visit my mother, and then drive back out and store the salt and oats. No big thing had I have known how to drive.

During those years my Levis wore out at the inside seams. Every summer I had bloody unhealed saddle sores on different parts of my inner legs from being a kid not yet grown to fit my man's sized saddle. I learned to eat a huge breakfast before first light when I was not hungry and drink a belly full of water when I was not thirsty because the rest of the day I may not have had a chance for either. Up every day before first light and very rarely getting to one or the other of several solipsistic cow camps before dark. I lived for months befriended only by the dogs, horses, wood ticks, and derelict buckaroos that made up this ranch life. And I could not get enough of it; it was all I ever wanted to be. That is what my poems are about. Of course life forced me to move on, but I can still be found on a spring turn out in Nevada or a fall round up in Idaho working with my friends.



 

 

 

 

 

 

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