Everywhere at once
Last updated 9/26/2023 at 10:07am
Each fall I throw together my saddle, bedroll, and bridles, and make a pilgrimage down to Lake County for the fall works - gathering, sorting, and shipping cattle - in the herculean effort to feed America. I do it to help my friends, but the rewards are mostly selfish. I get to cover the country horseback, in a way most folks don't anymore, and work with people whose shared sensibilities and sense of purpose are a balm against the industrial levels of friction found almost everywhere else - and increasingly here in Sisters.
But friction finds a way, and this year we were gathering cattle out of the Morgan Fire, watching sugar pines blow up like rockets, manzanita thickets roaring in flame, and wondering why ten million dollars of equipment was parked a half mile from the head of the fire - doing nothing - by order of the federal government. You can ask that question all day long, and you should, but good luck getting an answer out of anybody.
Things just don't, if they ever did, work that way anymore. So, with unusual speed and intensity, and gulping smoke, we trailed hundreds of cattle through a pile of bulldozers, skidders, and feller-bunchers parked like fossilized dinosaurs while the forest burned.
Like so many other aspects of life, it's often what gets left out that helps define what something is. In art they call it negative space, the space between the leaves that helps define the tree. That's true of cowboying, and ranching, and with something folks don't often see from afar - the ranch kids.
Sienna Cooper, for instance. Sienna wakes up at 4 a.m. like everybody else on the ranch, saddles her horse in the dark, and by sunrise is right there with us, chousing cattle up out of the sage and timber on a horse called Chief. She never complains. She's funny. She's smart. She looks you in the eye when she's talking. She raises market pigs and sells them at the county fair to build her college fund.
At 14, Sienna has more grit, drive, and responsibility than many people who claim to be functioning adults. She wears a big hat, is all-in for the life, and more than that she's a hand in a family that works together - that must work together - to build each other's futures against outside forces that are trying-by design or deliberate ignorance--to destroy their way of life.
Perhaps more is asked of Sienna - and her third-grade brother, Kylin, who rides all day next to his grandfather, watching and learning the ways - than other kids their age. What's clear to me is that they can handle what is asked of them, and that they are being trained to handle adversity, to tackle difficult challenges with reason and resilience. Watch Sienna chase a feral steer through the brush, swinging her rope and hell-bent for leather, and you might feel some relief that someday she will vote - that a kid like her will get a say in how the country shakes out.
Moving cattle through big and woolly country can be, and usually is, a contemplative exercise. I was feeling contemplative not long ago when I wrote - on a lark, not expecting a reply, an astrophysicist with some questions about the Big Bang. Turns out, you can ask an army of bureaucrats why they let a fire burn, with the means on-hand to put it out, and you won't ever get an answer. But you can query an astrophysicist about the Big Bang and get an answer back right away.
I was thinking about the reply while we chased after cows in the dark timber, pushing them up and down the cliffs, through the trees, away from fire, and into the big meadow at South Flat. I was enveloped by the woods and the sage, the horses and the cattle, the good working dogs, the kids, and the great people who live on the country because they love the life and what it has given them. What they love isn't money. There is precious little of that. Rather, it's the freedom, the responsibility, and the sense of utter satisfaction at the end of a long season of toil.
"Craig," my new favorite scientist, wrote, "The Big Bang did not happen at a single place in space. Rather it happened at a single time and, at that single time, the entire universe was born infinite in size. That is why we can look all around us to see the vestiges of the Big Bang. Light can only travel so fast, so when we look at light that has travelled 13.8 billion light years (light that is 13.8 billion years old), it shows us a picture of the earliest universe. Because we see that picture in every direction, we know that the Big Bang happened everywhere at once."
That wasn't how I thought of it, and that's heady stuff when you are following cow tracks in roadless country, can hear the crackle of fire, and know that a cow will just stand there with her calf and let the fire consume them both.
And then I remembered a photo I'd taken of young Sienna Cooper, on the shores of Summer Lake, when she seemed to represent, fleetingly and precisely, both the past and the future, which in the sudden sunlight seemed to be everywhere at once.