It was a gold mountain. The gray lodgepoles of the corral sorted it into altitudes: hooves and pasterns, the flaring column of muscle and bone above the knee, the glossy wheatfield of chest, and under a mane of cloud, the great, soft planetary eye. At four, I learned a trick. I would scoop double-handfuls of oats into a rusty pan and carry them out to the corral that held the draft teams: Grandpa's Belgians. The horses would raise their heads and sniff. I knelt and poured oats onto the hoof-chopped ground, just inside the lowest rail.
It seemed to me that it
was always the same horse. It moved like a shifting landscape. The
eye examined, the nostrils flared and the head came down, down,
down. A gust of breath blew a little crater into the heap of oats.
The lips bloomed and the teeth met. I climbed the fence, the rails
too thick for a four-year-old's grip. I straddled the top rail and
then hooked both heels on the inside of the second one, and - this
was the hard part - I jumped. The air parted as I went through it,
arms in a half-circle, legs half-bent, and lit on the horse's
Was it the same horse, each time? It would
stand and raise its head and snort. It wouldn't shy. The hooves,
broad and cracked and bound with ivory, stayed put. I could see the
ears pivot and flatten, then relax. Then the head descended, and I
was safe. I crept down the withers to straddle the ribs, and
lowered myself until my head rested on the swell of the rump, broad
and bright as central Asia. I turned my head, pressed my left ear
onto the skin, and closed my eyes.
I could hear
it, traveling up the massive spine: a ground bass, the oats between
the teeth, the work of the great jaw grinding like the edge of a
continental plate, the oats becoming horse, gold into
I could hear muscles gather around each
swallow, the plucked-cord note of their release, the soft clutch of
oats traveling the throat and its arrival at the stomach, which
gurgled and popped. When the oats were gone, I could hear the
whuffle of air as the horse sniffed the spot where they had been,
and then the settling of the horse's body into the slow alterations
of heart and breath.
I could feel heat beneath
the glossy hair, and smells enclosed me: the neutral scents of
stacked hay and binned grain, the tang of resin from a new pine
rail, the drift of linseed from freshly painted wood; the brewery
smell of oats and piss, rich and sour; the dried sweat and the
dust; the green wealth of dung, crushed leaves and flowers, faintly
sweet, blended with the strength of horses. It was my first grasp
of how one thing can become another: trick into ride, oats into
horse, gold into gold.
I fell asleep. The horse
raised its head and joined the others, moving slowly, so as not to
spill the sleeping innocent. Head loose, rolling easily on the
broad rump, I slept above the work of lungs and heart, the touch of
hooves to earth. For a while, we were a single beast. I was the
part that slept. The great horse stayed awake, watching the clouds
and the changing shadows, drifting slowly with the other horses. I
dreamed that some of that larger life was mine, that I absorbed it,
like heat, where our bodies touched. At four, life and dreams are
A yell woke me. My grandfather charged
through the gate and dragged me from the horse's back. He was more
scared than angry. I sensed it, even at four, but he held me high
by one wrist and spanked me, and the horses shied to the farthest
corner and milled uneasily there.
"You could get
killed ... those hoofs are bigger than your head ... dangerous ...
Jesus H. Almighty Christ ... if you ever try this again ..."
So I did. I tried it again, and again, and
again. It was my first religion.
When I try to
explain myself in terms of any greater thing - the entirety of art,
or of earth itself, I remember this: my insignificance, a mere
point of sensation, with the massive body in support. I trusted
that horse, as I may never have trusted anything
Do we trust the earth? Trying to grasp the
notion of stewardship, I think of the horse and how I feared and
yet trusted it. I thought of it as Grandpa's horse, but the great
hooves, the rainbow arch of neck, the watery break of the mane, the
secret, glossy organs, those powers and movements were all its own.
It would serve, drawing the hay-mounded bobsled, but it was also
dangerous, huge, self-possessed.
I would learn to
harness that power. It would help me, but only after the necessary
tasks had been done. I learned also to curry, show, doctor, comfort
and reassure. I would drape the reins over my palms and look down
from a creaking hay sled on those same broad backs, muscles playing
like the Gulf Stream under the gleaming skin. The horses pulled the
sled. There was something of a trick in it, and also something of a
marriage. I had learned not how to force them to do it, but how to
make it good for them, a part of their lives.
hate the word steward if it is applied to how I feel about horses.
A steward is a hired hand, a groom, a gamekeeper, a houseboy, a
caretaker for the consequential. Likewise, it sums the horse - or
earth - as something owned. If that's true, our role is one of
obligation not to earth itself, but to the landlord, the absentee
owner whose property values we are to guard. Yet, between me and
that horse, or any two living things, or any living thing and the
earth, there is something other, something else less easily
defined. To keep the notion of our power intact, we will see that
greater power as a greater owner, and ourselves, at our most
selfless, as stewards.
In our culture, ownership
is the center upon which the lives of most people turn. The more
property one commands, the greater one's right to everything: food,
respect, mates, moods, selfhood. Yet in this worship of possession
there is a weakness, for it must be recognized, whether in chapel
or in a thunderstorm, or at the point of death, that our possession
does not move the earth.
Horses are dangerous.
Middy MacFarland's horse reared and fell on her, splitting her
pelvis. Kenny Becker's horse rolled on him and nearly crushed his
skull; he spent half a year in hospitals. George Davis, who rode
the Pinion Ridge country, shoving cows out of the clearcuts so the
seedlings could grow, was killed last month when a horse fell on
him. The earth shivers and the Nimitz Freeway crumbles like a
cement sky, on the drivers under it. The earth is dangerous,
beautiful, rich, hungry, incomparable.
trouble when we try to understand earth in terms of ourselves. Is
it property? Does it belong to some absentee father? Perhaps not.
But what is it to us? The golden mother in whose lap we buried our
earliest faces? The heavy-breasted goddess, dancing with fists full
of corpses, rattling a necklace of skulls?
can't think of the earth as my mother. I have a real mother, a
woman I love, equally flesh and spirit. She is neither large nor
dangerous. I can think of it as a grandmother, perhaps, so massive
and old and full of life that she's grown into remoteness: one of
the oldest who looks over the country of death and into life again.
But the metaphors clash: Can I be the steward of my grandmother's
body? Only if she is weak, incompetent, addled. Or if she is
I can tell you what lies between
my eye and the horizon: our garden; the strawberry patch; the muddy
country road; haymeadows; willows; the long planes of sage and
rabbitbrush; the boulder-strewn moraine beginning its one brief
month of green; the far hill toothed with granite; and then the
great, scoured sweep of silvery rock that rears up to the Divide.
I've walked it, worked it, climbed it, hunted it, and studied it
through the years by dawn and midday glare and moonlight. Yet, if
you asked whether I know it, and I had time to think, I'd answer
no. Not yet.
Maybe the earth
is hard to talk about, too great and various to be known by one
word or image, too big to love all at once. I've seen the
photograph taken from space, that jeweled island in the black sea.
The image is supposed to grip me with wonder and also with fear:
that our blue-green sphere spins through so much darkness and cold.
Which I accept. Yet at that scale, it is a stranger, an abstract. I
can't see faces, can't hear voices, can't discern the landmarks of
the place and time in which I live.
Can you love
humanity? Can you love women without loving a woman? Can you love
men without loving a man? Earth itself may be too great and various
for what we call love, except as good intention. There may be no
meeting, no consummation with the whole of it. When someone says "I
love the earth," I ask: Where do you live? What do you do there?
Tell me the color of the soil, the names of trees, the way the
water flows, how the wind goes through.
a mystery of places and things: specific, singular, inexhaustible.
This is the scale on which we live. To love the unknown apart from
this is a ceaseless, bodiless hunger. The trick is to love what's
familiar, the almost-known, what you've touched and endured. When I
was four, I knew a horse. All horses, horsekind. The Horse, I have
yet to know.
I'm not struggling with the earth,
which I can't presume to save, which simply is, beyond all
argument, but with how to see it, how to think of it, and how to
speak. It's a struggle with words and images, and with the history
of words and images, the shifting currents of mind. This is the
poet's burden, and joy, and gift.
The wind has
changed. Looking out the east window, now, I see willows and sage
under lowering cloud, greens fading into wet spring snow. If I
change the names of things, call the willows love and the sage
grace, the things themselves will not change. But my feelings
toward them may. It may be harder to uproot love or to bulldoze a
thicket of grace.
Willow and sage, love and
grace. What can I do? I can't change the color of my eyes, or my
right hand for my left, but I can sing. This work is like a garden,
in which I grow the names of things. This is how I change my heart,
and mind, and ways. In time, I may be able to say the word earth in
the same tone, with the same bone-deep assurance, as I say horse.
Yet, if you asked me now, and I had time to think I'd answer no.
Not yet. But I have hope.
Rawlins is a poet whose book, Sky's Witness: A Year in the Wind
River Range, was published in