Cowsmic Justice

Cowsmic JusticeI’m running through a high pasture north of Nederland and east of the Indian Peaks. There are thirty or forty brown cows up here for the summer. If I were of an agricultural bent, I could name this type of cow, but to be truthful, one cow is pretty much the same as another; they are simply ambulatory meat delivery systems to me. These aren’t exactly “show-quality” cows or even “companion-quality” cows. You know what I mean, like those insufferable light brown bovines in Switzerland with absolutely clean coats and brass bells hanging from their necks. These are just a bunch of scruffy, raggedy-looking cows.

This brute with a line of drool hanging out of his mouth is standing next to the trail. He stares directly at me and asks: “What you looking at?”

“Who’s asking?” I counter.

“Fred Praeger.”

“That’s your name?”

“Yeah, what of it?” asked the cow.

“That can’t be your name. Fred Praeger was a self-proclaimed genius book publisher. Besides that, how did you learn to talk?”

“It is possible that you are simply imagining that I am talking,” suggested the cow.

It is at moments like this when I carefully review my mental and chemical state. There are a good number of benefits to trail running. In my case, sanity is one of those benefits. Should I not run for a week, I tend to get grouchy. A clear indication that I need to go for a trail run is when Blue Eyes moves my moccasins up close to the front door so that she doesn’t have to look around when she wants to toss them out into the front yard.

I’ve been running for an hour or so. I had a full charge of oatmeal with maple syrup and fruit for breakfast. I’m well-hydrated and most of my parts are painless. So I pass the mental checklist.

The chemical checklist is a tad bit more vague. Endorphins from running can do some fairly strange things to my chemical makeup. They tend to make me smile and act unreasonably cheerful. However, they don’t usually tend to allow me to hear a cow talking.

Full disclosure requires an admission of youthful experimentation with known controlled substances. There is the possibility that this talking cow is due to some level of flashback. And then again, this is a mountain cow, he could actually be talking to me. Stranger things have happened up here.

Not one to ignore the possibility of a new experience, I stop running and talk to the brute,

“I can’t believe you are the same Fred Praeger. He would have at least come back as a bull.”

“How about Ambrose Bierce?”

“No way, he had to come back as an eagle. You are just a steer.”

“Great, you don’t even know me and you’re making fun of my sexual orientation,” he says and starts to walk away.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, “So who are you really? And how did you end up as a steer?”

“Okay, so my real name is unimportant. I’m here because I invented the Master of Business Administration degree.”

“Wow, tell me more.”

“It’s not a pretty story.”

“So how did you come up with the idea?”

“There were these moderately smart kids at the university, not smart enough to be engineers or dentists, even though they thought they knew everything. We needed to do something with them to increase our enrollments in the business school.”

“Yeah, that sort of makes sense.”

“We knew that we had to put their arrogance to work, so we started telling them that they could become masters of the universe if they would apply a few simple principles to their work.”

“Yeah, let me guess what the principles were?”

“OK, give it a try.”

“You taught them that optimizing profit at any cost was their sole reason for existence.”

“Right, you are almost smart enough to have an MBA,” said the steer.

“You taught them that that lowering the quality of a product, demanding greater productivity from the workers and thinking only of short-term gain were all roads to success.”

“You got it,” said the steer.

“And you taught them to treat all their colleagues with sarcastic contempt, as if their ideas were useless.”

“You could have been a dentist.”

“Wow, that’s amazing. And for developing the MBA, God turned you into steer?

“Yup, she did.”

“What about all these other cows? They are just cows, aren’t they?”

“Nope,” he said looking around. “They were all professionals at one time or another.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. See the cow over there with the really short legs?”

“Yeah, he’s a weird-looking cow.”

“That’s Steven Nordski from Seattle. He was the engineer for Boeing who invented the middle seat.”

“Wow, and who was that cow over there who looks like he has lost most of his hair?”

“Oh that’s Sam. God gave him a permanent lice infection.”

“What did he do?”

“I think he was the insurance executive who came up with preexisting conditions, but he might have been in charge of policy cancellations,” said the steer.

“What about the cow with particularly big ears and eyes?”

“That’s Darryl, who came up with playing three-minute ads in movie theaters. I could go on and on.”

“Please do.”

“Okay, the cow over there with the really big tongue, he got here for his work on industrial tomatoes. The cow who looks like a pig and has really ratty looking ears used to be a Senator.”

“You’d better explain,” I say.

“Earmarks,” said the cow.

“And the cow who is sitting down and doing nothing?” I asked, “Let me guess.”

“Go for it.”

“Okay, I’d bet he had something to do with starting public employee unions.”

“Good” said the cow. “Take another guess. How about the cow who is moving his hooves all over his own body?”

“Easy,” I said, “he obviously invented TSA screeners.”

“And the cow who is on fire? What did he do?” the steer asked.

“Piece of cake, he invented suicide bombers.”

“More?” asked the steer.

“Yeah, who is cow up to his neck in a huge puddle of his own shit?”

“He was a partner at Goldman Sachs,” said the steer. “Any other questions?”

“No, I get the picture. What profession is most represented in this herd?”

“I was mistaken,” said the steer, “You’re not smart enough to be a dentist. Any fool would know that most of these cows were lawyers.”

“Oh, yeah, right. How could I forget that? What about women? This herd is all steers from what I can see.”

“God doesn’t turn professional women into cows,” said the steer.

“But there are a good number of professional women doing dumb stuff.”

“Professional courtesy,” said the steer, who then ambled off.

Senior correspondent Alan Stark is a principal of Boulder Bookworks. His blog, “Mountain Passages,” can be viewed on mountaingazette.com.

The Lost Art of Treating Animals Like Animals

Charles Clayton's Great Grandfather and neighbor butchering a cow in Fraser circa 1918 or so.
Charles Clayton's Great Grandfather and neighbor butchering a cow in Fraser circa 1918 or so.

We think, perhaps rightly so, of our animals as extensions of our families, and we treat them like people. For my entire life, family dogs have slept on the beds, the couch and the recliner, never spending a single night outside unless we were camping. They licked the dinner plates clean, gobbled expensive dog food and occasionally received thousands of dollars in veterinarian care, even when they were approaching the natural end of their lifespan.

Such attitudes would have been almost unthinkable a century ago. My Grandma grew up with a series of dogs named Shep, short for “shepherd” of course, which is what they were used for. Shep, all of them, slept with the animals in the barn; the very same barn where cows were slaughtered, strung up by their hindquarters and butchered; the same barn where elk hunted in surrounding mountains were turned into steaks; and where thousands of local trout were cleaned — knife in the asshole, slit the belly, guts thrown to the dogs. I’m sure the family loved Shep, and they certainly valued the vital role he played in keeping the cattle in line, but they still made him sleep in the barn.

There were horses in the barn as well, used to supply HORSEPOWER: the power of a horse, which, for thousands of years, was how people and goods moved upon dry land. It sounds idyllic, until you remember the brute animal force needed to pull tons of freight, drag the plow, the hay rake, the logs — and the crack of the whip required to get the beasts to carry your burden. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have been too soft hearted toward animals in those days, because you would have been in tears much of the time — during the late-19th century, for example, 700 horses were worked to death in New York City every day just to pull street cars.

When I was eight years old, I had a friend in Tabernash, a tiny town not far from Fraser. There were a number of Hispanic families there who had come up from southern Colorado decades earlier to work on the railroad. Many of them still kept chickens, and slaughtered them, cut their heads off right in front of us. I had never seen that before, haven’t seen it since — the chopping block, the sharp hatchet, the frantic fluttering, and the final crazy dance of a bloody headless chicken. Later that afternoon, we happened to have chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. I ate my sandwich, reluctantly, but not without pondering, for the very first time, the animal I was chomping between my teeth.

Not long ago, customers of Whole Foods market decided that the live lobster tanks behind the seafood counter were cruel, and they successfully demanded the tanks be removed. Just imagine what those folks would have thought of my Tabernash chicken experience. Had that chicken been slaughtered in front of a Whole Foods market anywhere in America, especially in front of children, irate customers would have called for a boycott of the chain, and the ouster of the CEO. Just like those poor lobsters suffering in the tank — peering through the dirty glass, claws banded shut, waiting to be boiled alive — the sight of a headless chicken would have ruffled some yuppie feathers. Blood. Guts. Death. A terrible tragedy. Yet those same consumers, vegetarians notwithstanding, have no problem snapping up shrink-wrapped free-range chickens, ground-up grass-fed cows or filets of various fish, not to mention a bit of lobster tail when it suits their fancy, provided they don’t have to see the actual living creature beforehand.

My daughter and I recently watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” — a horribly cute movie that features a surprisingly harrowing scene where dogs are kidnapped and forced into an underground Mexican dog-fighting ring. It was a short scene, with no actual violence, but it made my daughter cry and her daddy cringe. I think we can all agree that folks involved in that sort of thing are among the lowest scum of the earth, and in my mind there is a special place reserved for them in hell, but at the same time, on some bizarre level, I have more respect for blood sport spectators gambling on vicious pit bulls than I do for sensitive do-gooders trying to ban live lobster tanks from grocery stores: at least the dogfighter vermin are witness to the carnage they’re responsible for.

We smugly think we’ve evolved into a kinder, gentler people, who treat animals in a civilized way, but really we’ve simply relegated the killing floor to some unknown place far removed from our daily lives, out of sight and out of mind, leaving the dirty work to immigrants whose names we’ll never know, and whose lives are as abstract to us as the meat that ends up on our plate. We don’t whip horses anymore — now we use refineries to whip energy from barrels of crude oil, and the trusty sheep dog has been replaced by soldiers (backed by billion-dollar weaponry), who herd petroleum into secure stock pens. Not to mention related externalities: drowned polar bears, poisoned groundwater, failed blowout preventers … we’re not kind, and we’re not gentle — we’re in denial.

Perhaps we need some blood on our hands. Not metaphorical blood — we’ve got plenty of that — but actual blood, warm and fresh from the animal we’re about to eat. Or maybe a whip in our hands, a mule in the driveway and an urgent need to get to work on time. Not so we can be cruel to animals, but so we can remember how utterly dependent we are on them (and their TEMPORARY petroleum substitutes) for our collective survival. Life feeds on life, and, for now, we’re at the top of the food chain, which makes us the biggest feeders of all. It would behoove us all to remember this next time we’re snuggled up on the couch with the family dog.

Frequent contributor Charles Clayton, a native of Colorado’s Fraser Valley, lives in Taos, NM. His last story for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.

Gun Control: Reflections from the Shooting Range

Gun Control: Reflections from the Shooting Range
Lexi Tuddenham takes aim. Photo: Lance Waring

The burled walnut stock of the shotgun feels cool and smooth against my cheek. Flexing my knees slightly, I shout, “Pull!” From behind my right shoulder, Josh releases the spring-loaded trap, and an orange clay disc squirts across the horizon. I track it, swinging the long gray barrel in an arc. At its apex, I squeeze the trigger. The report echoes, but the clay pigeon’s flight continues uninterrupted until it bounces into the dirt.

“You were behind again,” says Josh. “You’re not leading it enough.”

“How can you tell?” I ask as I reload the trap. “Do you have special buckshot vision?”

“Sure do,” he grins, cradling his 20-gauge Ithaca Featherlite in his arms. “Pull!”

Quick as a snake, Josh uncoils, the gun roars, and clay shrapnel drops out of the sky. “It takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says. “Here, try again.” “No thanks,” I reply. “Let Laura or Lexi have a turn.”

Shooting skeet wasn’t our original plan. We had left town that morning intending to meet for a day of rock climbing. But when we arrived, Josh was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip and proposed an alternative expedition. Rock climbing seemed humdrum compared to the novelty of firearms. Now my Subaru, full of unused climbing gear, is parked a few miles up a dirt road at an impromptu firing range in the national forest.

When we pulled up, it was obvious this was a place where people came to shoot guns. The bare ground was littered with spent cartridges, empty shells, broken glass and other shrapnel. Josh gave us a safety briefing and showed us how to load his double-barrel shotgun. Then we popped in earplugs and took turns blazing holes in the sky.

Josh was a crack shot. Even when we filled the trap with two skeet, he brought down both with ease. We three newbies were more hit and miss — with heavy emphasis on the “miss.” After we’d burned through a case of clay pigeons, Josh produced a couple of pistols. While I watched Laura and Lexi merrily plinking away at bottles and cans stacked in a dirt berm, I considered my uneasy relationship with guns.

A couple of years ago, I joined a friend who works in law enforcement at the shooting range. Under his tutelage, I learned how to shoot in various positions — standing, prone, etc. — but I never mastered the essential element of accuracy. For him, firing a gun was a form of yoga: Breathe in … squeeze trigger … BANG! Breathe out. For me, the anticipation of “BANG!” always made me twitch. I reckon the twitch was a result of a childhood experience.

My father owned two firearms — a single-barrel 12-gauge Winchester shotgun that he kept in the back corner of his bedroom closet, and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that he stored in his dresser drawer under his T-shirts.

My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, was pretty tame in the 1970s, so Dad wasn’t worried about nighttime marauders. He didn’t store the guns loaded and he kept the ammunition in his basement workshop. Dad didn’t own guns to dole out vigilante justice; he used the guns at work. Dad wasn’t a police officer or a mercenary. He was a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Waring used his guns for scientific purposes in the field. The shotgun served as a tree-trimming tool, bringing down branches from the tops of the tall evergreens in the Cascades. He subjected those trimmings to a battery of tests, and the results revealed the overall health of the tree and thus the surrounding forest. Early in his research career, he’d determined a shotgun was the best — and perhaps only — tool for the job of harvesting samples high above the forest floor.

Dad didn’t carry the revolver in the mountains; he only wore the big iron on his hip when he worked on Oregon’s dry eastern slope during the hot summer months when the rattlesnakes were active. The pistol hung in a holster on a heavy leather belt studded with shiny two-tone bullets. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated. The six-shooter spoke to all my boyish cowboy fantasies. But before I could draw down on the family cat, my father nipped my Wild West dreams in the bud by taking me out shooting.

I was too young to recall now exactly where we went — somewhere deep in the Oregon woods, I know that much. I remember we hiked together for a long while, and Dad’s voice turned very serious when he took the pistol from the holster. He broke open the chamber to show me it was unloaded. He showed me the safety catch and told me never to point a gun at something unless I was ready to destroy it. With those words ringing in my ears, Dad plucked six bullets from the loops in his belt and loaded the pistol. “See if you can hit that tin can on the stump,” he said.

Shooting the gun was easy. Aiming it was not. I finally knocked the can off the stump with a lucky shot. Watching it skitter across the dirt, I felt my young life had reached an apotheosis. I wanted to ride off on a horse named Silver and enlist in the army as a sharpshooter. I felt an unfamiliar surge of power, of strength, of control.

Looking back, I realize that moment was a rite of passage. Holding a loaded gun was the first major responsibility I’d ever been given — one with far more ramifications than remembering to feed the hamster or mowing the yard on a Saturday morning. Handling a gun required gravitas. For the first time, I held the control of a deadly force over all the creatures around me. In return, I had to exert absolute control over myself. Handling a gun forced me to behave like an adult instead of a child.

Dad holstered the pistol and picked up the shotgun. He broke it open to show me the firing mechanism and explained how the red plastic shells were filled with tiny pellets that created an expanding pattern in the air.

“See if you can bring down the highest branch in that Douglas fir,” he said. I lifted the heavy gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Like a right cross from Mike Tyson, the recoil dropped me to the ground. Slightly concussed, I rubbed my bruised shoulder and decided that guns weren’t so enticing after all. My father, in his wisdom, was probably counting on this outcome.

My relationship with guns has remained distant ever since. I understand their utility, but I want no truck with them in my daily life. Now, whenever I hold a gun, I find myself thinking about Columbine High School, about murder and suicide and war, about the terrible power and life-and-death responsibility a firearm represents. I’m not mentally unstable. I’m absolutely certain that simply holding a gun won’t cause me to lose control and become a homicidal maniac. But I’ve decided my life-and-death decisions should originate from choices made while climbing or skiing instead of from the flash from a grey-blue muzzle. And I’m content with that.

Josh’s voice rouses me from my musings. “Hey, you want to shoot a few rounds with the pistol?” he asks. “No thanks, I’m cool,” I respond. “Everything’s under control.”

Lance Waring is a ski bum with a writing habit. He lives in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. 

Navigating the Darkness

New Year, midnight, alone. Standing atop a 70-foot concrete arrow pointing west. The nearby revelry drifted in and out of my awareness on winter’s whispery breath. Aerial explosions suddenly illuminated my surroundings: rocky cliff, creosote, curve of the Virgin River. And the incongruous arrow. Surrounded by desert, apart from and a part of the celebration.

I stood atop the simplest of aviation aids, navigating this life on a wing and a prayer.

Early in our nation’s acquaintance with aviation, few navigational aids existed. Pilots flew with railroad maps and picked their course across the topography below. In the 1920s, concrete arrows were constructed 10-30 miles apart across the nation, offering childlike route markers for the daredevils of the ether. Though night flights were deemed suicidal, it was our need for connection, communion and correspondence that finally drove men to take to the starry skies.

The Postal Service sought to prove to a circumspect Congress that the air was the most efficient route for the country’s mail. This assertion was true only if pilots made use of the light and dark hours. So they did.

The first night fliers relied upon Postal Service employees and friendly farmers lighting bonfires and torches on the ground, illuminating a path across the Midwest and toward the dawn. The most rudimentary innovation carried our most advanced invention safely through the unknown.

The arrow on which I stood above St. George directed commercial and airmail flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. A steel post once held an oil lantern to illuminate the arrow in the darkness. A string of these lanterns spoke to pilots — this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … — a small, flickering prayer. Warmth in an otherwise empty sphere.

The early aviators flew on faith: that someone on the ground was thinking of them, that the lanterns would be lit, that morning would come.

The concrete arrow held my weight as I searched for the same assurances: that the darkness would end, that light would follow. The fireworks were my beacon into a new year, toward something more.

When I was a child, as the New Year crept forward, I would ritualistically comb my hair, brush my teeth, put on my pajamas and cuddle the cat — my last chance for the year — each act filled with great significance due to its finality. Every movement was slow, methodical, a way to draw out the final moments before the end, before I could never do these things again within the comfortable embrace of a known timeframe. As a child, I approached transition with such great care, putting the endings to bed and tucking them in before I could greet the beginnings. Hanging onto the befores until the afters left me no choice but to be swept along into tomorrow.

But this New Year, there was none of the care of yesteryear, none of the ritual or grasping. The previous months had been a time of hasty transition, reckless release and grand leaps into the unknown. In one fateful day, I found myself homeless, carless, jobless, penniless — divorced at age 28. Necessity dictated there would be no tenderness toward the finalities.

Instead, necessity dictated flying onward, alone in the darkness — on a wing and a prayer — toward an uncertain dawn, searching for navigational reassurances that this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … somewhere. Perhaps home.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last story for MG was “When In Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” which appeared in #183. Her blog, “Desert Reflections, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.

Out of Water

In the shadow of Homa Mountain, near the shores of Lake Victoria, long before I called the San Juan Mountains and southwest desert my home, I saw a tree shaped like Christmas and approached it.

Elijah, my Kenyan host brother, stood atop a distant ridge waving to me vigorously. “Hallo,” I shouted back to him, waving cheerfully. On this bright day filled with horizon, it seemed such a fine idea to bring a little taste of American Christmas to my host family, a parting gift for their year of generosity.

The tree was small, maybe five feet in height and three inches in diameter, so I cut through its trunk with little effort. Dragging the tree half a mile to my home was also easy, since I was very fit, walking miles every week that year to bus stops, the lake shore and the homes of distant friends and relatives.

My host sister met me at the opening in the dense wall of euphorbia that surrounded our compound of huts. Elijah stood behind her, shaking his head and speaking in Luo, a language I had not mastered. No matter. The sentiment was clear.

“Laura Adhiambo,” Mary Auma said sternly in fluent English. “Did you not see that this was the only tree of its kind?”

During my year out of water, I had committed many errors, cultural and otherwise, but, from her tone, I knew this one trumped all. Calm and disciplined, with an inner strength I admired and coveted, Mary Auma had become a hero to me; her disappointment hurt like a slap.

The tree I felled was likely Callitris robusta, which to the untrained, eager eye looks like cedar. Starting in 1950, Kenyan agro-forestry programs distributed several types of trees in South Nyanza, my family’s home province. C. robusta was especially suited to the climate and land and would provide generations of timber and fuel, both of which were in short supply. With visions of a better future, my host family had secured one sapling and planted it near their garden of groundnuts. I deserved the slap.

Later that day, someone leaned the tree in a corner of my host parents’ hut. Embarrassed but relieved, I honored the gesture of conciliation. Pieces of wood and other found items became ornaments. Sheets of notebook paper became stars and snow.

“Tell me about snow,” said Mary Auma, and so I described snowflakes, cold air, wet mittens, white outs, snowdrifts.

As we sat in the mud and dung home with no running water or electricity, contemplating the resource whose life I’d just cut short, everything sounded ridiculous. “We pop corn kernels then string them together with a needle and piece of thread. Also, there’s this silvery metallic stuff, long strings of it, that gets draped on the tree limbs … and red and white candy in the shape of canes … oh, and strings of green and red electric lights … ”

Out of kindness, I believe, my host family did not ask what happened in America to the venerated trees once the holiday was over. How would I explain trees lying curbside waiting for the garbage truck?

Ten days after Christmas, my year in Kenya ended. Our focus now was on the year past, the friendships formed, the miracle of bonds that transcend culture and distance. But when my host father delivered the traditional pre-travel prayer in his shuttered hut, the decorated tree still occupied its corner.

In Kenya 1979, where old tires became sandals and scraps of clothing were endlessly reinvented, I can hope this Callitris robusta had multiple afterlives. Over 30 years later, I imagine Elijah’s capable hands creating a small statue or new handle for the door of his mother’s hut. In Mary Auma’s hands, a branch or two may have helped boil a pot of morning tea, enjoyed then by the entire family while they swapped stories and laughed about the odd American girl who was very sweet, though a bit simple, and so very far out of her home water.

Laura Kerr is a fish in water where the Santa Cruz and Animas rivers flow. This is her first piece for MG.