Seeking a Gentler Mythology of the American West


He was, by the time I knew him, in the years he was my grandfather, a gentle man. Perhaps I should say gentled.

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His hands, like the hands of all the taciturn, squint-eyed ranchers I knew in my growing up days out on the high plains of eastern Montana, were sun-darkened to a shade of burlap or dry river mud. They were thick and strong, my grandfather’s hands, and impossibly deft—I can close my eyes and see him grip the taut strands of twine and cleanly heave an eighty pound bale into the pickup bed; put his shoulder to the comealong and ratchet it down, the tightening wire fairly singing; now lift the rifle and in one motion full of grace firm the butt and fire.

When I was little and rode in the middle of the bench seat of the pickup, between my grandfather and my grandmother, the long black gearshift rattling between my bony knees, he would wait until I wasn’t paying attention—I was a dreamy, fidgety sort and often toying with this or that or lost in my own imaginings, roadwind wheeling dust and straw, sere prairie light sheeting down—and he’d pinch me on the underside of my thigh. His pinches hurt so bad, drew tears, though I tried not to let on. No, I tried to pinch him back.

And he’d let me get one in, then play-act how much it hurt, beg me not to pinch him again or he might start to blubbering and wreck the pickup. I’d dry my own welling eyes, try on a grin. My grandfather would grin back, then throw a thick arm over my thin shoulders, his wide hand gripping my bicep. He’d hug me to his side—line-dried cotton shirt, pen in the breast pocket, his scent of grass and sweat and sunlight—and let me go.

My grandfather pinched me and for a quick moment held me, and, yes, he often corrected me as well, admonished me and firmed me, set me once more to the work I’d shirked, the task I’d done poorly or only halfway. These things he would not abide. In plain language he told me so, then put a hand to my shoulder—the weight and strength of it, the hard promise—and showed me how to do it right.

Bookish and pensive, prone to sulking, I was not, as I have said, a boy built in my grandfather’s image. I was not someone who took to the work of ranching, who was built as if from a mold to fit this far, frontier place. Yet in all my boyhood memories, my grandfather shines. What kept me close to him? What let me so completely trust? What had me listening so that even now I hear his voice?

We need a new mythology—a myth more capacious and true, a myth that tasks us not with a swift hand and quick, certain judgement but the harder, slower, more necessary work of the heart, a myth that allows and sustains and gentles.

By our very lives we all do some harm, and the eastern Montana of my boyhood was a place—the landscape itself our portion and measure—in which you could not forget that fact, could not outsource that hard, necessary work (as so many of us in this country and culture have for going on two, three, even four generations), could not unsee the sometimes brutal truths of what it means to be a being, of what it means for you and yours to live and maybe even thrive another day. Many times as well I watched my grandfather bring the swift hatchet down on the hen’s neck, unzip the antelope and grip the trachea and rip out the guts, lever the plow blade down and down into the earth.

My grandfather was sharp and capable and strong, hard when he needed to be hard, quick to joke and laugh and pinch his grandsons, and all this mattered, all this made him for me a man among men, but what I remember most and hold closest to my heart—now that my grandfather is more than twenty years gone, now that I am a father myself, a man trying to be a better man—is the tenderness of his hands, how unbelievably gentle they were.

With them, you see, he birthed lambs.

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I have in the past fallen into the mythological trap and, when asked, called my grandfather a cowboy. And he was, for a time. He quit school when he was fourteen to go cowboy out on the Comanche Flats, yet not so many years later, at his new sweetheart’s urging, my grandfather left that cowboy life as well and took and passed the grain elevator operator’s exam.

He lived in town, then, which he did not wish to do, but managing a grain elevator allowed him to support a growing family and save enough money to, in time, put a down payment on a spread of his own, which had long been his dream. He ran some cattle early on, but by the time I showed up, he’d installed, at the threshold of our gravel road, a contoured metal sign with a scene of a man on horseback and a flock of sheep; the words below read: SHEEPRANCHERS BUILD THE LAND.

There were a few others who ran sheep in the valley, but most were cattlemen, and the stories, too, that swirled through our small outpost community were all of cattle ranchers and cowboys. I wondered why we were different, even felt, I think, a little embarrassed by it. My grandfather shook his head. He explained that you took two crops from sheep, lambs and wool, and, what’s more, sheep were less picky about what they ate and so easier on the land than cattle. Sheep were more work, though, especially during lambing season, when you had to keep the herd close, penned up, and then walk the corrals and the shed every few hours—all through the moon-washed or dark and starry night—checking for ewes in labor.

So many things can go wrong—a breach lamb, prolapse, a young ewe not knowing what to do, a runt not getting a chance to nurse—and it’s the sheeprancher’s job to care in all ways for ewes and lambs, to midwife and doctor, to deliver and gather, to feed and water, to feed the new mothers the good hay and let the young lambs out into the grassed pen to buck and play. You use no prods or whips ranching sheep, there are no hot irons or lassos; rather, on a bright winter day, my grandfather drives a load of good alfalfa hay out into the winter pasture and stands on the tailgate and gives his sheep call—I can hear it still, a sharp, loud, close-lipped sound made by repeatedly popping the tongue against the roof of the mouth; something close to prdrdr, prdrdrdr, prdrdrdrdr!—and here they come, the whole flock, baaing and huffing, clouds of snorty breaths billowing and lifting in the cold light. The sheep crowd in close, and the lead ewe, bell clanging about her neck, eats right out of my grandfather’s hands.

Sheep ranching was economically savvy, and good for the land, and so my grandfather would be a sheepman. Something in him let him listen to his wife. Something in him let him turn away from all the mythological hoopla. He wouldn’t be a cowboy, he’d be a shepherd. And despite his own poverty-wracked upbringing, his own wayward, vagabond father and all the stories he’d been told, he’d learn over the years to take care, to be gentle—even more gentle yet—to hold the wonder of a newborn lamb in his hands.

To hold, in time, the hand and trust and heart of his fragile-hearted grandson.

*

I live far from eastern Montana now but meet them still and everywhere, wanna-be cowboys, men who’ve fallen into dead-wrong thinking. It’s insidious stuff, and I think we would do well, as men, to look not to the cowboy but the shepherd. We would do well to remember the essential fact that we are wrought up in ecological systems, that by our very lives we do some damage, and so endeavor to lead lives that admit and mitigate that damage, make it less encompassing, less cruel.

We would do well to consider how we might build the land, make better and more whole the land we practice family and community upon. We would do well to apprentice ourselves to the sure, terrifying gentleness it takes to with your own hands touch all beings with care and clarity and honor, to deliver a bloody, wool-ribbed lamb and blow in its tiny nostrils until its own breath catches and nestle it, then, against the warmth of its mother’s belly.

I’ve been trying all my life to learn and relearn these lessons, trying to remember, always, the brutal truths, even as with my own hands I practice tenderness, especially with my son and the boys I help coach on the middle school basketball team and the young men I teach at the university. I try to practice that care with my friends who are men too. And with my own self.

We need a new mythology—a myth more capacious and true, a myth that tasks us not with a swift hand and quick, certain judgement but the harder, slower, more necessary work of the heart, a myth that allows and sustains and gentles. Always we would do well to be more gentle.

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The Entire Sky by Joe Wilkins is available now via Little, Brown. 



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