April 2022, Issue 7 “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” — Zen Kōan
By Harper Klay, Shonkinite Founder
7 minute read
Click on the video below to hear this Sketch in the author's voice
I have skills, skills I realize are unfamiliar, even foreign, or downright alien to most.
But within the community I am from, they are normal. As a child, I dreaded acquiring these skills. Now, I appreciate them, and even long for them.
Hauling the slop bucket from underneath the kitchen sink out to a mound in the garden in all seasons, feeding the cats in the barn, milking the cow, and separating the cream that rose to the top were daily routines. I deferred to my dad or brother to shoot the skunks or the porcupines if they invaded our domesticated life.
I was on a horse before I could walk. And when I could walk I could saddle and ride. The trick to saddling a horse is to gently knee their belly as they puff up to avoid the saddle being too tight. It becomes a dance of patience. He puffs, I press my knee against his belly. He exhales, the belly retracts. I cinch the saddle. He takes a deep breath and his belly expands, but this time less so as the cinch is like a corset that won’t allow him.
Killing a rattlesnake with the back of a shovel takes some finesse, but that eerie sound of the rattle and the silky circular motion into a coil made me learn real quick.
I hated hauling wood, but hated being cold even more. There was no efficient way around the unloading of a truck full of wood. The only way was one armload at a time. I would hold out my left arm creating a ledge, and with my right stack as many pieces as I could carry, then walk down the stairs to the basement to order them neatly in rows. My brother and I once thought we could throw the wood down the stairs only to discover we broke a few of the stair steps, and back to the usual routine we returned.
Summer was chokecherry season. I would cut a plastic gallon milk jug halfway down, for the right opening, find a ribbon to make a belt, and lace it through the handle wrapping it around my waist at an angle where I could slide my fingers through the chokecherry branches allowing them to drop into the jug. It was much quicker than picking them one at a time.
There were many 4 am 10, 15, sometimes 20-mile cattle drives on my Appaloosa where I wasn’t awake until a few miles down the road, moving cows from winter to summer pasture or vice versa. I have many memories of branding days, the sear and slight smell of burnt skin, the large crew of people there to help rope, wrestle, vaccinate, castrate, and tag the calves. I did it all, along with helping my mom make the lunch for the branding crew afterward.
4-H taught me the cuts of meat as I fattened my steer.
I remember winters in the basement with dead beavers. I can still hear the sound of steel sliding against steel as my dad sharpened knives. The knife glistened as he slowly separated the skin from the body. I had my hammer and nails ready, and on top of a barrel sat a round board onto which he would flop the fresh hide. And then began my work. I would stretch the bloodied hide and carefully place the nail at the farthest possible edge, to nail through the hide and into the wood. The wet tans, now pelts, nailed to the round wood boards would then rest vertically against the cement wall, dried by the wood stove, and hauled to town to be sold. I was eight. Eight-year-olds are capable of a lot.
Fixing fences diminished the joy of summertime, I loathed this chore. The fencing truck, usually an old stick shift, would be parked in a coulee. I would walk mile after mile inspecting the fence, checking if a wooden fence post needed replacing or could last another year. Looking back on it, I think my size is what made me hate it so much. Fencing gear was designed for grown men, and as a young girl the physics of leaning, stretching, digging, and tamping were awkward, even uncomfortable.
I drove stick shift trucks at age nine.
Plucking the remnant feathers of butchered chickens, skinning rabbits that my dad killed with a baseball bat, or the summer-long weeding of the garden were normal seasonal tasks.
I crave the practices now as I reconcile my childhood with the present.
I was raised in the American West. I learned recently that Bozeman Montana will be the size of Minneapolis, Minnesota by 2065. I cannot reconcile how beaver trapping, fencing, or branding day will meet a metropolis.
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