One cold September morning, I drove alone to a cattle ranch in the Sierra foothills, where one year earlier there had been a terrible accident. My visit that day may not have been possible if it weren’t for the tragedy, and forever I will ponder how the unfathomable suffering of a family can lead to things I know to be good.
I would pass by the field where the awful thing happened. At the time I didn’t realize the level plain of tall grass beyond the scattering of blue oaks was the place 11-year-old Evan Clay walked furtively alongside his grandfather on the opening day of pheasant season, raised his shotgun to the flutter of a bird, and shot his grandfather in the back, killing him. The hunt had been a family tradition for three generations. The field was used only for that purpose. Now it is grazed, and the few remaining pheasants hide in the narrow swathes of cover cattle are unable to reach.
I’d read about the accident in our local paper. In it, there had been a picture of Butch Clay, the grandfather who’d been killed. I remember staring at the weathered, lean face of a man wearing a sprawling cowboy hat, but who had the gentle eyes of someone who deeply loved his family, his land, and who, somehow, you just knew you could trust. I had met him once. It was a few months after I began my job as director of the Sierra Land Trust. I’d invited the owners of large ranches in the area to come to our office. My intention was to offer an olive branch and persuade them they had nothing to fear from our organization, that we were really on their side. Only a few of the ranchers came. Only Butch Clay actually talked to me after my PowerPoint presentation. He shook my hand and told me his name. Then, in his own way, he tried to tell me he understood what I’d been talking about.
“We’ve got 5,000 acres next to some state property,” he said. “Looks the same now as it did a thousand years ago.”
“Great,” I said. “Maybe I can get out there someday.”
Then, I remember, Butch looked around like a prey animal eating in the open. I suspected he may have wanted to tell me he believed in what the land trust was doing, but didn’t want to say it out loud in front of his fellow ranchers.
“Yeah, well…” he said. “We’ll see.”
Since then, I’ve come to know that Butch Clay talked to his wife about what he’d heard that night. It’s the only reason I got the call from Naomi Clay after Butch’s death, and the invitation to come out to the ranch and talk to her about preserving it.
Her voice was stiff and tentative over the phone. I sensed her call may have been an act with which others in her family might not have approved. My suspicion was partly confirmed when she said, “If what you have to say sounds reasonable, then I’ll bring it up with the kids.”
Though I’d not set foot on the Clay ranch before, I’d been to the neighboring state wildlife area many times. On those days, hiking, bird-watching, I’d gazed wistfully across the fence to the Clay place, which was as pristine and wild as the state property, perhaps more.
The Clay house had been built deep into the land, and on a small hill from where it would be impossible not to see the site of the tragedy out any window. Naomi Clay was standing on the porch when I drove up. It was early morning. The sun shone on a paddock of irrigated pasture. The rich green absorbed the brightness and softened Naomi’s image. She stayed still and watched me approach. Her figure came into sharper focus as I climbed the hill. More than anything, I noticed her long gray hair. It hung below her elbows. Since she was no more than a little over five feet tall, it seemed the hair comprised half of her. Her face was round and youthful and, at least from a distance, didn’t show the oppression of grief. Her mouth stretched into a weak smile when she saw me and our eyes met. Then she waved and came out to meet me.
She walked about half way to my truck and stopped. She looked at the insignia on the door, Sierra Land Trust, as if it were an insect that’d just stung her, but then let her expression retreat into the warmth and politeness she must have thought Butch would have wanted her to show.
She waited until I came to her and shook her hand. Her grip was strong. She looked appraisingly into my eyes. Sizing me up. She must have seen something she liked. She patted my shoulder. “I’ve got some coffee on,” she said. “Let’s have some.”
The age and integrity of the old house embraced me as soon as we entered. It was not lavish, but not small or crude or without elegance. And there was wood everywhere, it seemed: the oak floor, the pine panels and open beams and two great standing clocks. Even the giant wood burning stove, so black and chrome and ornate, overwhelmed me with the notion that this family was in touch with the land, and in their own way.
We went directly into the kitchen. It was a huge room with a vast counter and a cathedral of cupboards. There was a small round table in a windowed corner, a sort of bright niche in an otherwise overwhelmingly practical space. Naomi led me to it. A little book was sprawled there. I indulged myself to read the title, Jesus Calling. Devotions for Everyday of the Year.
Naomi picked up the book and moved it to a counter, but left it opened.
“Please sit,” she said. She pulled out a chair for me and went to get the pot of coffee and two mugs.
“You take anything in it?” said Naomi.
“No. Black is fine.”
She chuckled. “Okay,” she said. “But I hope you like it strong. That’s the way Butch liked it and I guess I’ll never change making it that way. Most people can’t drink it. So I hope it’s alright.”
I had some. It was.
She sat next to me. It was hard not to look at her hair.
“So,” she said. “Before we start on the ranch stuff, tell me about yourself. You have kids?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Got a girlfriend?”
“Well, not presently. No.”
“Ever had one?”
“Yes, but it’s been a while, I’m afraid.”
“Too busy with your work?”
Then she hissed and shook her head. I became a little angry, offended. She’d struck a nerve.
“Well, enough of that,” she said. Her voice softened. She topped off my coffee and waited to speak again. She knew I’d felt the jolt of her words.
“So…” she said, “before he passed, Butch was looking into ways to preserve the ranch. He got this notion of wanting to keep it the way it is forever, even if it never has cows on it. He told me he couldn’t bear the thought of the place turning into a housing development.”
“I understand,” I said.
She straightened herself in her chair. She gripped its arms as if she were about to be launched into space.
“He said something about putting a conservation easement on the land to protect it,” she said. “And that we can save in taxes and maybe get some money for that.”
“That’s right,” I said.
I waited before I said anything more. Naomi let me gather myself and quietly drink my coffee until I could do my job and explain things to her. Then I put on my executive voice and did the best I could.
“A conservation easement is a restriction for development, to ensure the conservation values of the property are preserved…”
I spoke for what seemed a long time. All the while, Naomi sat with her hands still gripping the arms of her chair. She looked directly into my eyes, sometimes actually studying them to detect any signs of deception. She asked no questions. I believe she knew much more than she’d let on, and had been simply testing me to see if what I told her matched her own knowledge, or maybe what Butch had told her. When I was finished, she thanked me and told me about her children who’d have to agree with the arrangement—if she decided she wanted to do it. She had two daughters who lived in the Bay Area. Their husbands didn’t care much about ranching. One of the daughters, Evan’s mother, acted as if she didn’t want to have anything to do with the property anymore, and had even urged Naomi to just sell the whole place after the accident. That would never happen, Naomi said, even if it meant hiring a ranch manager and some hands to take care of things now.
After she told me this she sat quiet for a time. I sensed her mind was burdened with too much to think about. Finally she said, “So you want a tour of the place? We can take the Gator.”
We left the house and I followed Naomi to an ancient barn. Naomi had put on knee-high rubber boots. They squeaked and groaned as she walked. We stirred some swallows.
“Wait here,” she said. “I’ll get the Gator.”
I stood outside the barn and looked out over what I could see of the ranch. Just then I questioned whether I was doing the right thing, if I was taking advantage of a family tragedy. Perhaps I was nothing more than a raw opportunist.
Then my thoughts were disrupted by the sound of the Gator starting, and the sight of Naomi emerging on it, somewhat recklessly, I thought, from the barn.
“Hop on,” she said.
Her crazy driving continued down the steep hill, across several rocky drainages, along the mucky edge of stock ponds, through oak thickets. There was one time when she almost tipped us over. She hollered “Shit!” as we teetered on two tires. The profanity belied the perceptions of her I’d gathered after seeing the Jesus book on the kitchen table. Or did it?
Finally, after yet another close call on a steep bank, we stopped on a grassy hill overlooking most of the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley. She shut down the Gator and we both got off. I followed her to a place I knew would be the best spot from which to see the Clay ranch.
“You can take in almost our entire place from here,” she said. She panted. Then she slowly lifted her hand and drew an invisible line on the horizon. She went on to tell me how they ran cattle, turning in cows around the first of November and keeping the herd on the ranch until early June, and then taking them up to the high Sierras on leased Forest Service land. Then she told me where there were Native American sites, places on the creek bottoms where the Nisenan tribe had ground acorns. She told me how she and her family and the ranch hands were seeing more mountain lions on the ranch, and surprised me a little when she said Butch didn’t like anybody shooting them. “He figured they’ve got a right to be here,” she said.
We stayed on top of the hill for a long time. During a moment when she was telling me something, we heard some gun shots in the distance. It was dove season. There were hunters on the state wildlife area. The shots were few and far between, but I could tell they made Naomi uneasy.
“Let’s move on,” she said.
She drove even more wildly on the way back to the house. Once again, we almost rolled the Gator. I wondered if she were aware of this, if it was always this way with her, or if the rough driving came after the accident because she didn’t care about being careful anymore.
Then we stopped again. It was on a piece of ground where Butch had planted acorns. He’d fenced the area off to keep the cattle out. The success of the planting was far greater than many of the expensive, government-funded restoration projects I’d seen on public lands. Naomi called it his “pet project.”
We drove on over the savanna hills until she stopped on the edge of the field where Butch had been killed. She turned off the Gator.
“So do you know what happened out there in that tall grass?” she said.
“You mean with the accident?”
“Well, yes, I do. And I’m very sorry.”
“We’re all very sorry,” she said. She waited to talk again, as if she were considering whether she could trust me with more of her thoughts. She went on:
“I loved Butch, but I know he’s in a good place now. I know he’s with Jesus. It’s my grandson, Evan, I worry about and pray for. He’s having a hard time. He hardly speaks now, and hasn’t come back here since the day it happened. He’s a sensitive and good boy. Every day I pray for him. Every single day.”
There was nothing for me to say. My silence seemed the best expression of respect, sympathy. I know she appreciated it. She smiled softly just before she went to start the Gator, but it wouldn’t go.
“This darn thing,” she said. She slammed the heel of her hand on the steering wheel. “She’s temperamental. But she’ll start. She always does. We just have to wait a couple minutes.”
It was the worst place to be forced to stop, to wait. The field became like some looming, inanimate bully. And then, of all things, the shooting from the dove hunters started again, this time in flurries and seeming closer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Naomi lean forward and look down and I could tell she was holding back tears. Finally she lifted her head and tried the Gator again. It started.
“Let’s get on back,” she said.
We didn’t speak until after she’d returned the Gator to the barn and we were standing just outside of it. Once again we riled the swallows. This time they swept closer and more brazenly near our heads. Under the storm of their wings, I gave Naomi my card and thanked her for the tour. She looked right at me.
“So I got something to tell you,” she said. “Butch didn’t really own this place. It’s been mine ever since I inherited it from my folks, who inherited it from theirs. Now don’t get me wrong, Butch’s name was on the deed and I always considered half of it was his, but he understood that this preservation idea was mostly up to me. He wouldn’t pursue it if I didn’t want it—and I didn’t. I didn’t want any part of it. I’d told him there was absolutely no way I’d make a deal with you environmentalists.”
She kept on. She told me all the reasons she had for not going through with what Butch had wanted. All I could do was stand there and listen. I was overcome with an internal command to refrain from trying to convince her of anything. And I sensed she had more to tell me, but wouldn’t out of respect for Butch. When she was finished she shook my hand. She gripped it even harder this time. Then she told me she’d be in touch, and instructed me to drive carefully on my way out.
It took a long time, but it happened. Naomi agreed to put a conservation easement on the entire ranch, and to donate outright another 500 acres to the land trust to own and manage as a nature preserve. The preserve includes the piece of ground where Butch had planted his acorns.
Since my first visit, I have gone out to see Naomi every spring. Each time, she asks me about my “love life.” Each time she is just as direct as the first, perhaps more. Each time she senses how much I’ve changed.
The last time I was there, Naomi told me her grandson, Evan, was on the ranch. She said he’d meet us on his horse at the tall hill where she and I had once looked out over the valley. We took the Gator. She drove just as recklessly as before. Once again she almost rolled the thing.
It was another clear day. We reached the hill before Evan. Naomi shut down the Gator and we looked out over the valley. We could see more of it this time. After a few minutes we heard the soft thud of horse hooves rising towards us. I knew it was Evan. I formed an image of the boy as I waited for him to appear. I pictured him as a sad and withdrawn teenager. Here, before me, I thought, would be the poor young soul crushed under the emotional weight of having killed someone he loved. But he was just the opposite. He sat high in the saddle on a roan mare. He was simply a boy on a horse, wide-eyed, happy. The mare could just as well have been a dirt bike or a skateboard. He wore a blue tank top and a San Francisco Giants cap, tilted sharply to one side. He rode like his grandmother drove the Gator, hurling caution to the wind, bouncing about so forcefully I could feel the tremor and sway in my own bones, as if I were with him in the saddle. He had to be about 15 now. He resembled his grandfather. Just sitting next to Naomi on the Gator, I felt the power of this undeniable fact run through her and fill her voice with delight. “Hey, Kiddo,” she said. “Have a good ride?”
“Yeah,” Evan said. “Real good, Grandma.”
He rode up next to us. He kicked up some dust. After it cleared, Naomi introduced me to him. Evan straightened his baseball cap and smiled and said he was pleased to meet me. He called me sir. Just then I wanted to tell Evan about all the good things that’d happened since his terrible accident. But I knew I didn’t need to do this. I knew all we needed—all of us—was to sit on that hill and look out over the Clay ranch, and carry on.
John Thomson has worked as a government wildlife biologist and a nature preserve manager for a land trust in Northern California. His stories have appeared in literary journals, and his novel for young readers, A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea, was published by Milkweed Editions.
Photo of Central California ranch courtesy Pixabay.