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San Rafael

From Brick 91

Brick 91

Just recently, last fall in fact, I had extensive spinal surgery for a condition called “spondylolisthesis.” If you can pronounce this you likely have it. To give the surgeon a better view of my interior carcass I was slashed from neck to tailbone. Recovery was slow and I had to go to the famed Mayo in Minnesota to help it. I loathed the Mayo, the vast Pentagon of medicine. I wouldn’t feed their food to a starving migrant. It was very hard on my tender empathy to see so many hopeless cases. There was a truly beautiful girl who was paralyzed for life. This meant that I could never take her camping, which girls really deserve.

My real desire for surgery was so I could resume walking my dog Zilpha every morning. When I was immovable she would stare at me with melancholy, never to know what was wrong. I have to take a little walk every morning to compose my mind for writing. This is a bit odd but necessary. Montana was not good for recovery because there was way too much snow so I made my way to our small casita down on the border. The chief neurologist at the Mayo had told me “you can walk your way out of this.” So that’s what I work on. I went through dove and quail season on my friend’s San Rafael ranch without firing a shot. The doves were in the thousands last year but almost none this year. We speculated that they had been killed by Muslim terrorists farther north. There were plenty of quail but I only shuffled along and couldn’t keep up with the dogs. My mood was always corrected by spotting an oak log to sit on and staring hard at the landscape. If you do this it will enter your dream life, which is better than your mom beating you or running from the grizzlies in Montana.

I made some notes on log sitting. There are Emory oaks felled by forest fires or weakened until they eventually fall. I worked so hard on this because I had lots of time stuck there in the near wilderness. Naturally I thought of franchising my concepts and touring the nation and Canada and making a retirement income. The problem is the oak trunks weigh tons and right away I’d have to use the very American method of faking it, creating a lightweight version to follow me in my travels. There were dreams of fame and fortune before I put on the brakes. Why not give my modest Brick audience the sacred technique for free? Besides I can no longer bear public appearances. Here goes perhaps nothing:

Approach the log cautiously with proper reverence as if you were entering a French cathedral or the bedroom of a nude girl or a nude man if you’re a girl. If it’s warmish, over sixty, inspect the lower sides of the log for a Mojave rattlesnake. They can kill people, horses, and cows. You don’t want that, or do you? Just recently I have been reading a natural history memoir of my friend Harry Greene, a herpetologist. An appalling number of herpetologists have been killed toying with these creatures. Vipers don’t want to be our friends. Now examine the log closely for the most comfortable place to sit, usually away from the sun. Sit down and stay for forty-five minutes to an hour. Empty your mind of everything except what is in front of you, the natural landscape of the canyon. Dismiss or allow to slide away any aspect of your grand or pathetic life. Breathe softly. Avoid a doze. Internalize what you see in the canyon, the oaks and the desert willows, the rumpled and grassy earth, hawks flying by, a few songbirds. When you get up bow nine times to the log.

Easy does it. Three logs a day is generally my maximum. When you get in your car it will seem as wretched as it is. A horse would be far better. For hours your mind will still be absorbed in the glory of what you saw rather than mail, emails, cell phones, TV, etc. Hopefully log sitting will allow you to change the contents of your life. You will introduce yourself as a “log sitter” rather than a poet, novelist, or mortician. You will walk more slowly and perhaps your feet will shuffle like mine.

There. If all Brick readers send me a nickel a month I’ll buy some life-giving red wine. Maybe they don’t have nickels in Canada? In that case if you see a poet stumbling down the street offer him some red wine. We are all brothers though I wouldn’t throw myself on a grenade to save any of them.

I have travelled widely and intensely in the west and the San Rafael is the most beautiful ranch land I’ve ever seen. It is five by seven miles, more than twenty-two thousand acres of good grass in an area without much good grazing, but then the previous owners, the Greene family, took care of it. Ross only runs about six hundred cows when the land could easily handle three times that. I was on the Grey Ranch, 321,000 acres, when they shipped out nine thousand cows. A previous owner had run nineteen thousand but that was too hard on the land.

Despite being from an agricultural family—my father was an agronomist and county agent—I have never been much interested in land, whether farm or ranch, in terms of productivity. Instead of following in my father’s footsteps I became a poet and novelist, so consequently it is altogether natural that my primary impulse toward land is aesthetic. I do make careless estimates on productivity. Up near Jordan, Montana, I thought on the vast Binyon Ranch that it would take more than three hundred acres to graze a single cow and at dinner in a local diner found out this was true. Ten acres of my farm back in Michigan would equal a thousand acres in many places in Montana in terms of available grazing. I had plenty of rain and rich soil. When I could only get twenty bucks a ton for my alfalfa I bought forty Scottish Highlanders and fed them at my neighbours’, who had good pasture cut by a creek. They were worrisome cattle. I built a storm shed for them so they could get out of the fierce Michigan winter but they wouldn’t enter it. They stood around shaggily in belly-deep snow trying to reach the ground for grass. They were tasty beef which I had never eaten before except in the British Isles. Some of the most beautiful farms in America are to be seen on the way west in mid-Minnesota, or out near Fergus Falls. There are both beef and dairy operations, the houses look comfortable in the rolling green land. There are often immense ponds, really lakes, with rowboats parked in the reeds, evidence that you have fishing to go with the fat cattle.

I can readily imagine buying a small ranch I’d call “The Log Ranch.” I’d truck in thirty-three logs and arrange them on the property like the Stations of the Cross. This could soothe me in my perhaps limited time in the twenty-first century which has been coarse indeed. I’ve been lately fixed on Syria which is like getting scalped every day. I also can’t bear that we’re in Afghanistan when next door Mexico so desperately needs help. We’d save a lot of gas money and wouldn’t have all of those suicides of men returning from Afghanistan.

It was quite interesting not to hunt. There was the thought that I’d killed enough game birds in my life. I missed eating them because properly cooked they are as good to eat as anything on this earth. I remember my mock hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an unknown part of Canada, toward the end of the season when I knew I should slow down my shooting. I’d let my English setter go on point. I’d flush the bird and yell “bang” and off it went to continue to live. The dog didn’t mind. It was all fun and after a long afternoon of mock hunting you felt good.

On my little log ranch there will be no livestock except dogs and one Jersey cow. I will have made a pet out of the cow and allow her to follow me in the house. Don’t worry, she’ll be toilet trained. As a child I made pets out of certain cows and they’d take walks with you hither and yon, including the dense woodlot. Cows don’t have a lot of fun before they’re shipped off to die so it was nice to give them some human companionship. Come to think of it I prefer the company of a cow to any literary festival or reading I’ve ever endured. They have such pretty eyes and think of you as a leader, a gross mistake. In my limited time in Washington, D.C., or the United Nations I made little sense out of these piles of ninnies. The U.S. Congress only had a 10 percent approval rating because they are largely malicious dolts and feebs. I’m all for making politics a “women only” profession to see if they can’t improve on our enfeebled condition. Back to cows. It is largely known that Jerseys give the best milk and the heavy cream I need for my French recipes, and which is not available except in a pasteurized form which ruins it. So there I am on Log Ranch sitting before the fireplace with my sleeping cow and dogs. Not surprisingly she moos loudly when she needs to go outside to the toilet, a little startling in the middle of the night or to a drunk girl stopping in for the usual love who did not notice the cow. “Holy shit!” they scream to the shatteringly loud moo. They calm down with more drugs and alcohol like they do in any country.

I’ve begun yet another novel and I find myself in a mood similar to my post-op trauma from spinal surgery. The sky has descended and darkness prevails. You feel like you’re driving an old used car trying to get out of China. You finally hit the coast and the Pacific only to discover there are no bridges to America. You turn around with difficulty on the beach, running over several swimmers but they are strong and can withstand the tires. You head east across China and Asia including Mongolia’s dreaded Gobi Desert. You earn gas money working in the fields and selling your body to the usual eager priests. You finally hit Cornwall in the British Isles but there is no bridge there. The English have lied about bridges again. You fall asleep in the filthy car with priests knocking at the windows. You wake up in Montana after the toughest trip of your life and you’re still only on page 145, about a third done.

With or without spinal surgery writing novels is brutal yet I don’t want an ounce of empathy or sympathy. After all I’m writing at our little winter casita in Patagonia, Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. Wonderful food is available in my home and at the Wagon Wheel bar cooked by Susi. Her enchiladas are the best I’ve ever had and she makes her red chile sauce from scratch out of big ristras of the peppers.

Also my logs on the San Rafael are a half-hour away for my delectation. Also the birds are ten feet away. One April my mother counted one hundred nineteen species in two days. This is a prime spot on the migration route.

We end with a serene still life with no names: a man sprawled on the rug before the fireplace with his beloved cow and dog. The dog is nestled against her tummy down near her teats, the warmest place, nestled the same way they are out in the yard where the dog imitates her, a friend, eating grass. The cow has unfortunately pooped on the porch. This is a cognitive problem in addition to being a clean-up problem. She thinks the porch is outside where she has freedom to defecate. But the porch is really half inside, half outside. How to teach the cow this nicety? The man is diverted from this animal complexity by his stirring appetite. The surgeon had told him to eat a lot to restore his strength and weight. Lately he had favoured Moroccan food including a recent lamb tagine though the harissa his wife made was too hot, causing him to weep sweet tears as he continued to eat it. One can’t chicken out on food. The day before at a Japanese restaurant he had eaten a spoon of wasabi through lack of attention. That will get your attention as you sputter desperately, “We won the war why are they doing this to me?” There is a world of food out there but some of it is dangerous. If you eat a square yard of roasted pig skin or the skin of an entire goose you’re going to pay for your crimes. The dog will also eat Saltines but what’s in a Saltine for a dog? She eats them because she sees me eat two every night to comfort my tummy. My friend’s dog eats live fish.

Jim Harrison (1937–2016) was an American writer known for his poetry, fiction, reviews, essays about the outdoors, and writings about food. His books include DalvaLegends of the Fall, and Brown Dog. He was a longtime contributor to Brick.

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