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 back.
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 gold.
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 one.
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 since.
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.
I 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.
We have 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?
I 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 chattel, owned.
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.
There is 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.
C.L. Rawlins is a poet whose book, Sky's Witness: A Year in the Wind River Range, was published in 1993.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.