Editor's Note: The following preface and twenty-one poems are excerpted from Drum Hadley's Voice of the Borderlands (Foreword by Gary Snyder, artwork by Andrew Rush) published in 2005 by Rio Nuevo Publishers of Tucson, Arizona. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Preface—The Oral Tradition
In the early 1960s I left academia and got a job as a cowboy in the Southwestern Borderlands. I took these as given, as I do now: that we are created in the image of the Earth, and that we become what surrounds us. I wanted to explore the possibility that the language used by cowboys and vaqueros would reflect some essence of the rough mountains, mesas, and arroyos of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts in which they worked cattle and horses. I imagined that words might have an other-than-intellectual origin and understanding, that they might be rather of the body’s blood, the sweat and tears of loss and acceptance.
I was not interested in the definitions of academic folklorists, nor in the oral cowboy poetry tradition presently defined by rhyme schemes, but in the true poetic language, insight, and raw vitality that exist in the unself-conscious stories, sayings, songs, and humorous tales of rangeland cowboys. I was interested in the possibility of an imagery and sound not written primarily for other poets, fine as that carpentry may be, but written for anyone with eyes to see or the ear to listen.
When I worked as a vaquero, and later as a rancher, I was forced to listen in a new way to hear what I needed to learn, to hear poetry wherever it was. Of course this way of listening and the poetry it found are not at all limited to the vaquero-cowboy culture. Each trade, each people have their own language and a poetry that naturally emerges.
Listening to these Southwestern story traditions and oral frontier histories, trying to translate the trade of the cowboy with its particular use of language and imagery without losing the natural music and rhythmic flow of the words as they were spoken, has been a long bronc ride through a rocky but beautiful canyon.
When I cowboyed in Mexico in the late 1960s, it was evident that the vaqueros were part of a cowboy tradition that had disappeared shortly after the turn of the century in this country except in a few of the most isolated rangelands. There are several difficulties a sophisticated reader might encounter in reading the language of the vaqueros and cowboys. Not only is it a dialect in sound, but also it transmits an archetypal, mythological sense that is in direct contrast to what has come to be the trend of mainstream thinking in America. The knowledge and existence that the cowboy culture contains are as strange as a foreign language to the minds of city people used to the verticalities of modern life: flashing lights, quick moving cars, and truncated language and thought.
Among cowboys the prefix “old” is almost always used when referring to another person. It is a term of respect, usually adding presence to the person referred to. Of course, because it has to do with time, its use also involves an increased consciousness of beginning and end.
I have not altered language cadences that might seem repetitive. They are repetitive, as a chant is, as the throbbing of the heart is, as the sun coming up and setting each day. They are knowingly repetitive as an old cowboy who sits on his wood porch, who watches the sun set, and the stars appear, and the moon move across the evening, who gets up, stretches, and says, “Well, guess it’s time to go to bed again.”
from Book One: Cowboys and Horses
Now come hear these rough rhymes sing
Like sunlight on the ridgelines of far mountain ranges,
Range upon range of recognition in the dawn.
This book documents the settling of the Borderlands.
It is a weaving of humor and tears,
Of men and women grounded in the earth,
The livelihoods and folk knowledges,
The wisdoms fast disappearing,
The horses, the cowboys, the beautiful lands.
It is heard across these howling distances,
Of faraway mountain ranges,
Voices echoing across cedar breaks, arroyos, and mesas.
As far as the eye can see, the distances cling to each spoken word
As each word clings to the distances and tries to take them in.
But if you listen, you can still hear them
When you read these words slowly by the fire
And your voice becomes the people,
The lions, the wildlife, and the land.
“Hey Buster Welch,” says one of the young cowboys
Who is learning to ride a cutting horse,
“Why do we have to get up at four o’clock in the mornin’?
We never start work till six.”
Says Buster, “That’s when I do my best thinkin’,
Between four and six in the mornin’.”
“Well, why do we have to get up with you?”
Says the young cowboy. Says Buster,
“I’m tryin’ to teach you how to think.”
— Voice of Buster Welch
From a High Mountain Range
To Own the Land
Roberto and Drum are riding together.
They are on the highest mountain
In the Guadalupe Range.
They are looking way off into the distances
On the furthest horizon towards the mountain range
Called La Sierra de San José.
Roberto gestures in the direction
Of those faraway mountains.
“Para allá está mi tierra.
Over there is my land,” he says.
Roberto does not own the mountain range.
He is of the mountain range.
In that way he belongs to the mountains
And the mountains belong to him.
In the same way, vaqueros and cowboys
Belong to the lands in which they ride and work,
The big valleys and mountain ranges.
And those big valleys and mountain ranges
Belong to cowboys.
And if those cowboys act a little wild
Only once or twice
In the stretched heartstrings of a great while,
It is because they feel too much.
The shrinking loss of their lands,
The loss of their friends, the great loss
Of their deserts and blue mountain ranges.
A Primer for Cowboys
What a Cow Knows
Some fellers can ride through a rough country
And come out with most everythin’
That’s a-runnin’ there. Some fellers can’t.
Now a cow, first thing she’ll do
When she hears you a-comin’ is swing her head
Towards the sound of your horse’s hooves.
The next thing she’ll do is swing her head
In the direction of her calf.
She may hide that calf from you.
Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find a calf
With only a few scuff marks in the sands
To help you to know if the calf is dead
And maybe has been eaten on some.
Look at that thin skin that’ll cover
The calf’s little hooves, when the calf is first born.
If the skin is broken, it means that the calf walked
Before some critter started eatin’ on it.
If the skin isn’t broken,
It means that the calf wasn’t killed by no predator,
But was born dead.
If the calf isn’t dead,
And you finally get the cow together with her calf,
Then keep watchin’ ’cause after a while, even in brushy country,
Where you can’t see very far ahead of you,
You can find the rest of her partners,
Because the next thing that cow will do
Is swing her head in the direction of her partners.
And if you don’t push her too hard,
She’ll lead you to where all of her partners are a-runnin’.
She’s been in those mountains all Summer long.
When there’s been no rain,
She knows, and her partners know,
Where the sideoats grama grasses will
Stay green in the shade of an oak,
Or near a cool cliff on the North side
Of an East-West runnin’ canyon.
In Wintertime, when the ice comes
And the waters are froze, she knows the warm springs,
Where she reckons she can still drink.
In Springtime, she knows
Where the grasses will green up first,
In a corner of a rincón,
On the South side of a mountain,
Where two low ridges come together.
Dry times, she knows the springs
That’ll stay clear the longest,
And when they muddy, she’ll go away
And wait to drink till the water clears.
If you let her, she’ll show you.
An old cow, she knows where she’s come from
And she knows where she’ll go.
— Voice of Juan Bidegain
I stand here watching the light go by,
Like an old grey horse who stands in front of a gate
And watches the people go past,
And doesn’t know a way to go through.
You take trails men have been riding
Through this border country for years.
Somebody comes and puts a fence across ’em.
I made my own gates, I did.
— Voice of Walter Ramsey
Hell, it was so quiet,
You could hear the moonlight a-shinin’,
Burning calfhide in the dark.
from Book Two: The Mother Lode
We are the last “first” people.
— Charles Olson
The Borderlands was a time and a place
When men and women still knew
Where they came from and who they were,
And that milk came from off a cow
Instead of a supermarket, and meat
From the butchering of an animal.
They knew that under all the world’s paved places
There was earth, even under the grasses and maple trees
In Central Park in New York City.
They knew their cars and trucks
And how to repair them with a pocket knife
Or a piece of their belts, or with wire
From a roadside fence, till 1970,
When all parts, even of washing machines,
Became plastic, televised, transistorized,
And had to be fixed by the specialists in the big cities,
With lost computerized souls, jailed within the walls
Of all human creations around them.
Goin’ to Jail
Well, I guess I’m a-goin’ to jail.
They keep sendin’ me these government cattle census reports.
They tell me it’s law number so and so. I got to fill ’em out.
I guess I’m a-goin’ to jail, ’cause I just throw ’em into the wastebasket.
There’s already been two phone calls while I was at the ranch.
I don’t know how many while I wasn’t.
A nice girl called to ask how I could keep on ranchin’
Without the information in those cattle census reports.
I told her I didn’t know,
But I’d been doin’ it somehow, for the past thirty years.
I told her those cattle reports didn’t mean too much,
’Cause nobody ever wrote down anythin’ that was true in ’em anyway.
Why, if the cattle census taker, the banker, and the tax man
Ever got together in the same room,
We’d all be out of business.
’Course those cattle census reports
Never include the Summer nor Winter rains neither.
She said then, “Just what do you base your business decisions on?”
I told her, “What I got between my ears.”
I told her it wasn’t much.
I told her it was wrong about ninety percent of the time,
But at least it was mine.
She thanked me and hung up.
— Voice of Bill Bryan
By the Maidenhair Fern Springs
A spirit beside my body passing along a trail,
Greasewood and ocotillo blowing in the wind,
A fly buzzing, soft on the soft salt earth.
Time after time, we tie the stays to the wire,
The darkness of our shadows
Falling to the pebbles and sand on the ground.
Cows grazing on a grey ridge to the North,
The stems of our darknesses open and close
Like seeds lying on the ground before the rains.
Golden webs spun across the trail,
Riding East into the sun,
A grasshopper, caught on the barbwire,
And everywhere I look for them.
The wind is blowing the seeds of black grama,
And a cow bawling in the distance.
The horse pulls his reins against my hand,
And we move on across the flats.
The sun floating like the moon behind grey clouds,
Towns spread out along the arroyos,
The arroyos washing through the land.
The grass is green under the junipers,
The calves are ready for shipping.
When will she come home?
The years seem as though nothing were in them,
Passing along the West side of Leslie Canyon,
The road blasted into the rock and up across the divide,
The wind blowing down towards Douglas.
By Yonder Ridgeline
They’d come up the arroyo road to their old homestead,
Where they lived when they were married those fifty years ago.
“You sure been married a long time,” Drum says.
“It’s like yesterday,” says Ishmael. “It goes by like nothin’.
But Sunshine, she was wild then.
She used to ride this dirt road a-horseback.
She’d jump right over these cattle guards here.”
They walked off,
Went all over the canyons and ridgelines.
Went where they’d herded goats when they were kids,
Went where they were lovers,
Went where they were married here, those fifty years ago.
Traces of Ishmael’s ax on the scarred trunks of the cedar trees,
Crossing the canyons and winding arroyos.
One wheel of their daughter’s baby carriage
Still lies in the leaves by their old homestead,
A mound of adobe bricks melting onto the rocky ground.
They ran a herd of five hundred angora goats all over the ridges.
Sunshine and Ishmael slept with them at night,
To keep the lions and the bobcats from carrying them away.
Our paths cross again later in the day, by the edge of the shadows,
Drifting along the canyon road, under the cottonwood leaves.
“Sunshine found a coffee pot a hangin’ on the pasture fence post,
Way off by yonder ridgeline,” says Ishmael.
“She packed it all the way back here to the canyon.”
“I’ll take it home to put a bird’s nest in it.
I’ll hang it from the eaves of our roof,” says Sunshine.
They disappear, walking along the dusty arroyo road,
Old shadows drifting away between the patches of sunlight,
Mixing with the light wind in the cottonwood leaves,
Sunshine, and Ishmael, and a coffee pot.
— Voices of Sunshine and Ishmael
Cutting Loose in the Springtime
Billy Brown, being an old Texas cowboy,
Was a hard and fast tie man.
That means he tied his rope solid,
Or fast, to the saddle horn, as against dallying.
Dallying means to take turns of the rope around the saddle horn,
To hold an animal you’ve got roped,
So if something happens and you start to get into a wreck,
You can let your rope slide around the saddle horn,
Or take those dallies off the horn.
Billy only dallied roping little calves in a corral,
’Cause, he said, you had to learn it when you were young,
Or you couldn’t do it well enough to keep from losing
A finger, or a hand, or a thumb.
Billy carried a knife strapped to his chaps right above his thigh bone,
So if he had a cow brute, or some critter roped,
And he was tied hard and fast,
And was maybe riding a spinning, pitching colt,
With the coils of that rope winding around him,
He could pull his knife free, and start cutting loose.
Sometimes, Spring comes whirling up these desert canyons
From the South so strong, I’d cut loose and go a-prancing…
With one of these light seeds that flies up towards the canyon rim.
Sometimes, those sweet scents of the Springtime
Come whirling up these draws from Mexico so strong,
When the blood-weed starts greening up,
And the mourning doves start calling long,
Long into the beginning of the morning
When the Spring winds come blowing down the ridge lines,
And you feel them blowing along the creased lines of your skin,
Who would tell Springtime to be still,
Or to go away from the rims of these dry canyons and hills,
Till all the honey and all the humming bees,
And those light blue eyes are gone?
Who would tell the Springtime to be still?
from Book Three: Changes
Across the Stretch of These Desert Rangelands
The people will come to be with the light mesquite leaves,
Turning here in the Springtime they will come,
To be with the mesas, the valleys of yellow flowers,
Slashing flames of gold and red and green,
The stretch of blue mountain ranges ringing the breaks.
They will come to know
The voices of the desert, its peoples.
The horizons rising and falling again and again
Into those fabled blue cradled lands.
Out of the distances, valley upon fading valley,
Blue breaking range upon range,
Ringing forever, rising forever, again and again.
Each lion, each bear, each antelope, each jaguar,
Crossing the arroyo rock cuts of this land.
The still tilting wings of the vulture, the black hawk, the eagle
Crossing above the cliffs of the Cajón Bonito.
With that desert stillness ringing in their ears they will come
To know those shaded shapes of this fading old Earth.
Hearts mixing, stretching outward
In these healing flames of the desert rangelands.
The Tongue of the Lion
I. Going Home
Here, high on this mountain rim,
Beneath these green rock lichen cliffs,
I am an old grey lion, lying
Along the thin, clawed bark of a twisted cedar limb.
Slobber and saliva hang from my lips.
My right ear is in tatters,
My chest has white scars,
My left leg has bite marks from the teeth of a jaguar.
The howling black and tan hounds have bayed me.
The canyons stretch away below,
The arroyos, the yellow grass valleys,
The mesas, the distant blue mountain ranges.
I hear the sound of the hunters’ voices,
They look for me among the lichen ledges, the piñon limbs.
Their grey mules’ shod hooves
Click towards me, over the arroyo rocks and the sands.
Now the hunters are tying their mules
Onto the low oak brush, below my limb.
The curved tails of the black and tan hounds are wagging.
Their howling echoes from the ledge-covered cliffs.
Now they come to kill me.
II. The Quick Knives
The gun, a stick, is pointed towards me.
I feel the quick bullet as the rush of a wind,
Ruffling through the light grey hair of my fur.
It drives past deepness, into the throbbing,
The grey-muscled meat of my heart.
I fall, I fall. The hounds’ teeth grab my skin,
My eyes glaze, but I am gone.
Then my lion spirit lifts from this rim rock ledge,
From this last cedar limb, where I have been waiting.
But then, with their quick knives, when they slit
Into the soft fur above my heart and pull away the skin,
They will see the lithe lines of the limbs,
And the lines of each sinew will be clear,
And the blue mountain ranges,
And the long desert valleys,
The canyon deer, and the peaks,
And the snows, within my skin.
Where were they going, when they came to kill me?
— Voice of the Lion
So Quick, He Could Catch a Javelina Boar
We were horseback, a two-and-a-half-hour ride
From the canyon of the Guadalupe Ranch headquarters.
We met Don Josecito, coming up the country from Mexico.
He was afoot. He was looking for work.
We told him to come with us, that we had work for him to do.
The country was very broken—
Don Josecito chose to take a different trail than we did with our horses.
He arrived at the ranch well before we did.
I told this to Alfredo Bernal.
He told me Don Josecito was very quick on his feet.
“La gente, the people say he is tan ligero,
He is so quick, that he can catch a javelina boar.”
I told Don Josecito, thinking what Alfredo had said would please him.
“Fíjate, imagine that,” said Don Josecito,
“Imagine they say this about me,
Me, who does not want to be called an Indian.”
Then he told a story about a huge lion
That had been stalking him in the dusk light,
As he came up to his camp.
In the morning light he looked and he saw
The lion’s pad marks on top of his own footprints.
During a snowstorm, Laddie Pendelton found
Don Josecito huddled below a cutbank,
Trying to build a little fire to keep warm.
Laddie took Don Josecito home with him to the Cloverdale Ranch.
Over the next few days that they were together,
Don Josecito told Laddie of his life.
Don Josecito was somewhere above seventy years old,
As near as he could figure.
But of course, in those days, there were no records kept
Of when an Indian was born or died.
After telling the story of his life for a few days,
Don Josecito became quiet.
“Well, and then what happened?” Laddie asked.
“Pues, well,” said Don Josecito,
“Estuvimos civilizados, then we became civilized.”
—Voices of Laddie Pendleton, Alfredo Bernal, and Don Josecito
To the South
A Trembling Wind
The Backbone of the Sierra Madre
Me and Blue Horse are prowling the country.
We top out on a high ridgeline.
I lift only the weight of the leather reins in my fingers.
That’s all it takes, Blue Horse is glad to stop to rest.
A light wind from the South eases along that ridge top.
He perks his left ear, hearing the far sound of an engine.
We look off to the South into Old Mexico.
Two big, bobtail trucks move like red ants in the distances.
They crawl towards us, towards that place
Where there used to be a seep spring and a cottonwood tree,
Where the old trail used to come into the Puerta Colorada.
Now, there are bulldozed white rock slides.
They spill down the green mountain sides
To kill tall, stranded grasses left after the Summer rains.
In some empty pit in my chest, I feel the hollow ache.
Grey pavement through old mountain canyons and passes,
Road cuts where there were only trails and gramma grasses.
Vaqueros riding past soft adobe, lamp-lit houses.
Now the knife of this new highway called Mexico Route 2
Wounds the rock-rippled ranges of the high Sierra.
It slashes through the limbs of the stretching Animas Valley,
This new highway of jake brake roaring, diesel smoke choking loads.
The skeletons of turned-up truck bodies litter these mountain ranges
That red ants have ripped, blasted, bulldozed, and smashed.
Now, each fresh world of concrete, each new trophy housed high peak,
Slashes through the Earth’s old arroyo runes singing in our blood.
Each new subdivision clots the nerves and the cracks in our backs.
Each new highway scars the fingers of our bloody hands,
The wrapped sinews of our bodies, the ancient seashell sands.
But at night, when a trembling wind from the South is just right,
We can hear those last voices of these mesas and arroyos calling.
They still echo through that cracked backbone of the high Sierra Madre.
They still echo through those canyons of the Cajón Bonito.
They still beat through our bloody hearts along Mexico Route 2.
from Book Four: Eternity
Song of the Earth
Singings of the Earth, sing your songs into me,
Crack my head, break my bones,
Sing your songs at me.
Fire, teach me how to live like you burn,
Too much wood, and the flame goes out,
Too little wood, and we die away.
Yesterday is ashes, tomorrow’s yet to come,
Only today does the flame burn bright.
White flowers, teach me how to listen in the Spring,
Stems breaking up through the rocks and the earth.
Blue skies, drop your blueness down into my eyes,
Come, and I’ll hold you deep behind my eyes.
Arroyo waters, teach me how to run like you run,
Too much water, and your banks give way,
Too little water, and the stream runs dry.
Sunlight, teach me to live like you burn,
Too much light, and my heart gives way,
Too little light, and the flame is gone.
Setting suns, sing your shadows deep into my eyes,
Come, and I’ll hold you there deep behind my eyes.
Mesquite tree limbs, sway your shadows softly on my life.
Come, and I’ll hold you here deep inside my eyes.
Rippling creeks, sing your songs down into my ears.
Cut the earth, sing your stream beds
Deep into my whirling head.
Shining water, diamond water,
Cut your mirrors into my head.
Hide your mirrors behind my eyes,
So I won’t know where I’ve been.
Hide your eyes behind my eyes,
So I won’t know where I go.
A Man and a Woman
From this rimrock edge, two courting ravens
Dive, twist, fall outward,
Outward past white rock buttes,
Past scattered shards of mesas,
Shattered mountains beyond mountains,
The drop and fall of red cut ledge beyond ledge,
Sliding off towards the end of Earth.
Blue sky, white cloud, the wind, and emptiness,
Deep, deep down the rapids’ sounds echo,
Rim to rimrock roaring flows, of the old river,
A wind beneath two ravens’ wings.
A man and a woman stand together, watching,
Grains of sand, wandering towards the sea.
A trembling bridge to cross this emptiness,
Piñon trees and sunlight …
You and me.
The First Summer Rains
I am the soft wind blowing in through the open window.
I am the sound of the chickens pecking,
Peeping around the bottom of the screen door.
I am the old hen cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck,
Worrying about where the young chicks are going.
I am the rooster crowing at four o’clock in the morning.
I am the drops of water dripping off the tin roof to the honeysuckle leaves.
A white-winged dove watching from the cottonwood tree
Calling to another dove way off across the canyon.
I am the sounds of the children playing,
Doing the evening chores down by the corrals.
Says Sadie, “No, no, Sethie, don’t throw me into the water trough.”
I am the mourning doves strutting their tails,
Walking along the length of a swaying limb, waiting to fly away.
I am the momma doves heavy with eggs,
Planing along to some nest through the air.
I am old friends, gone, remembered.
I am the rough flow of a horse’s shod hooves
Running down some trail to nowhere.
I am what the new world throws away,
What the wind blows into the gulleys,
That blows into the fences on the edges of the towns
That sticks in the brush and the tumbleweeds and the leaves.
I am this day when the first Summer rains
Have come after all these months of dryness.
Arroyos, rippling, grasses growing, birds …
All the cow country singing a different song.
I am all that stayed waiting … after all that you wanted was gone.
“When I came here to Douglas,
Thirty-five years ago,” Bill Bryan says,
“They told me it was a-goin’ to rain.
But I’m still here a-waitin’.”
“Well, stick around,” says Old Man Ben Williams,
Lookin’ into those blue distances away off to the East.
“That’s a pretty good lookin’ cloud,
Driftin’ across the South edge of that little peak.
It just might come.”
— Voices of Bill Bryan and Old Man Ben Williams
A New Wind
Nothing but empty blue sky.
Go gamble with the high rolling earth.
Haul those yearling cattle
To Sonny Shore’s Willcox Livestock Auction.
Pale, rumbling twilight in Old Mexico has fooled you.
Only heat lightning, and you,
And the cattle, and the dry grasses, and no rain.
Droughty cowboys, still looking towards that empty skyline,
Listening to a blown range song,
Cowboy hearts in the dust have always known.
Waiting here for the rain.
Then one day, you feel a new wind come,
Blow cool on the sweat of your sun-baked neck.
Smell that wetness sweeping past the blue mountain ranges,
The lightning cracking. As old Walter Ramsey says,
“Dry times are always thatta way.
When you think what you’ve waited for never will come,
That’s what it takes, to bring you the rain.”
— Voice of Walter Ramsey