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Red Willow Spirit: Working Metal, Saving Soles, Freeing Spirits

Water Up Close Resized

Planting season, and it’s time for work. Even today, it’s hard labor; much is still done the old way, and on a small enough scale that by hand is the only way that makes sense. These days, there are cast iron gates and plates, the occasional concrete drain or stray PVC pipe, and plenty of barbed wire to go around, but irrigation systems are mostly sandbags and shovels and sweat equity in the company of wading boots and blistered palms.

There has been no irrigation for us, not yet, anyway. It’s far too dry, too little runoff from a snowpack two-thirds its usual mass, in a deepening drought that gave us a winter more arid than any in more than seventy years. Here at Red Willow, only the eldest among the elders of this place recall a drier season. Mid-May, and the ground is ash and dust, and we have had to face the fact that there may be no irrigation for us this year, save that which the skies choose to provide come the summer rains.

And come they must, or we shall face a season unlike any in our lifetimes.

We have already abandoned all thoughts of turning over the hayfields; after all, with only two horses, neither of which needs the indulgence of rich alfalfa, allowing them to give themselves over to grass is only sound cost/benefit analysis. That in itself seems an indulgence now — there was a time, and not so long ago, when leaving the fields untilled and unplanted, the horses unpressed into service, would have been unthinkable.

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Wings still has his father’s old plough; tractor seat and harrow, too. His memories of their active use are vivid: Watching his father hitch up the horses, looping the heavy leather traces over his own shoulders, guiding the blade through the rich red-brown earth. My own father and grandfather did likewise in a land far north and east of here, working the land the old way, up close and personal.

Now, the ploughing has become plowing, and is mostly done by his cousin’s modern tractor, and then mostly to set the ditchlines for the season. He handles smaller jobs himself, such as harrowing the earth, hooking the old painted steel harrow up to the back of the ATV. In the winter, the ATV itself functions as a different kind of plow, one fronted by winch and blade to sweep the snow that this year refused to fall.

And the old plough? It sits upon the earth in the embrace of its own oxidation, iron rusted and wood weathered, at ease in its retirement. No longer needed to slice through winter-hardened ground, the share serves as a stand, a seat, a cradle for the heavy round stones like earthen eggs that weight it down. It has earned its rest, and yet, a lingering melancholy surrounds it, too, its lifetime of labor now no more than an echo upon the spring winds.

Shoeing 2Both of our families once had horses, but only within our lifetimes have they become animals largely of recreation or sport. Time was, people needed broader, deeper know-how: smithing, tack repair, lay veterinary skills. My own father’s stories of births and colic and deaths were not merely accounts of happy or sad events involving domestic pets; they were stories of that fuShoeing 1lcrum between life and death, that tipping point in a family’s survival.

Horses were at once valuable property and full-fledged family member: They pulled ploughs and carts and travois, hauled people and possessions, carried hunters after game and warriors into battle.

They might be one’s sole companion in the backcountry, whether the rider sought a deer or a dream.

In the old days, a man might repair his own plough, or even build it; shoe his own horses; stitch his own tack.

Maintaining horses meant working metal, saving soles, freeing spirits.

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Now, our horses go barefoot; on this land, they have no need of shoes. The shoes, old iron turned from gray to red by generations of weather, sit looped over a hook, the collection a reminder of the relative ease of our world now. In a time when our horses walk upon neither road nor rocks, they have no need of shoes.

The tack, too, is different now: all woven bridles and nylon ropes and padded saddles. Even the saddle blankets are lined with synthetic sheepskin. In these days of pleasure riding, spurs are an affectation — although in truth, they always were. For those for whom the horse was family, a touch of moccasined heels sufficed, no need for blades or sharp objects.

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And so the spurs share space with the shoes, hung up as ornaments, reminders of a history not really past but also no longer present. Wings hung them all, tiny paired wheels and spokes and radii whose only impression now exists in two dimensions: shadows cast upon a wall; shadows cast from a not-so-distant past.

The same is not true of the saddles — not entirely, at least. We have the contemporary saddles, in no wise new but still in use and useable, heavy, solid, substantial, simple. They are nothing fancy, no adornment or artifice, just good solid tools for transport. But he has never quite been able to discard the old one, despite its slow disintegration. It had so long been subjected to the vagaries of weather and time that he eventually consigned it to the out-of-doors, where it now seemed to have become one with the land.

The Saddle

The leather is curled and peeling, the stitches frayed in places . . . and yet, where it counts, the stitches hold. A product of an older time and older ways of creating, no amount of rain or sun or wind has managed to turn it to dust. It rides no horses now but the weathered poles of the fence, and yet it seems alive somehow with the spirits of the horses who once walked and ran beneath its weight.

So, too, with the spirits of the men who once sat it. Like them, it is old, and yet its center stubbornly holds.

There is wisdom in the leather, in the stitches, in the horn.

Now, though, what in recent years has seemed a choice, one among many options presented by modernity’s great luxuries and privilege, seems somehow a loss. Not “somehow”; it has always been human nature to want what it can no longer have, to appreciate what is only after it is no more.

The Hat

Superfluous spurs notwithstanding, the boots are still worn, and so are the hats. In a place of hard-hammering sun and blustery winds like battering rams, where the earth gives cover to snakes and sand as hot as molten glass, it’s only common sense to keep head and feet well-covered.

For now, though, there is no ploughing to be done, no hauling, no irrigating, no endless days of hard labor beneath an unforgiving sun. The horseshoes have been turned into hooks, nailed on the four sides of a post to hold tack. The post itself once held a vise, now a tool of smithing of another sort. The hat, still serviceable despite being worn at the crown, its edges curled and frayed, is tossed atop the post at day’s end, there to catch the eastern shadows and the western light.

The metal is still worked, albeit in other ways. The soles are saved now, and safe, without being shod. The hat, though . . . the hat belongs to a spirit still insistently free.

~ Aji

 

 

 

 

 

 

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