To be a cowboy

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To be a Cowboy
Forum Communications

In a few short weeks, I will pack up my guitar and head for the desert in Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

It will be my second invite to this event that features cowboy singers, entertainers, makers and poets from across the country, each looking like the plains and valleys, mountains and foothills they were born to and all trying to answer and ponder the question — what does it mean to be a cowboy?

I close my eyes and I see him, my Great-Grandpa Veeder. I see him as a kid who came to settle this area with an ill father and a mother who had seven other children to care for. And so he took to it, helping to break up land, grow vegetables and raise horses for farming and threshing

I like to think that he was a man who, like the Badlands full of rocks and rattlesnakes, was not so easily tamed. And so he became the 50 mph winds, the biting, relentless horse flies, the dropping temperatures, the green grass and the rain that eventually fell with a promise that this all might work out if he was brave enough to endure it.

He couldn’t have known then that the work he was doing might someday be revered as sort of glamorous. He just took to it, like I said, and at barely 21, he bought his own place down the road and the rest is a history I walk by on my way to catch my well-broke horses or give my daughters a ride on their pony.

History like his old threshing machine that sits as a relic among the tall grasses and thorny tangle of prairie roses.

Threshing Machine .jpg

History like that humble red barn he moved in and rebuilt with his two sons, one of them my grandpa.

Barn in snow

Time has passed us by enough now that we are wondering what to do with it. Should we tear it down or rebuild it? Has there ever been a truer metaphor for this generation of ranch families?

A relic that reminds us we have entered another realm entirely. A realm where steel siding and roofing and concrete would serve us much better, just like the new tractors with GPS and Bluetooth connections that we will likely never be able to afford, no matter how hard my great-grandfather, and my grandparents and my parents, worked to get us to this place where we can ponder.

Are we cowboys? Not like him. Not like Great-Grandpa Eddie.

Cowboy

As a kid, I spent my winter nights sitting on the pink carpet of my room inside the walls of my parents’ house tucked in the hills and oak trees of a ranch that has now been in my family for over 100 years. Behind my guitar, with a pen in my hand, I would attempt to work out the mysteries of the place in which I was raised, and will myself to understand how I was meant to belong here.

guitar

I wasn’t strong enough to open gates on my own. I wasn’t patient enough to break the horses my father broke. I wasn’t gritty enough or savvy enough or ballsy enough or grown-up enough to do the very thing that I wanted to do, which was to jump in and be brave.

But I love the sound a horse makes when she’s clipping the green grass from the ground. And the smell of the clover and the way a hay bale rolls out in the winter snow behind an old feed pickup and the black line of cattle following it.

feeding

I love the creak of a saddle, the scum on an old stock tank and the bite of the wind on the hilltop and the weather that changes up here like the light and the seasons and how it feels to really be out there in it.

Knowing it. Working it. Caring so desperately about it.

winter barnyard

And so on that pink carpet, I wrote it all down. These cattle. These horses. This land and the big sky and this overwhelming sense that this might be our purpose, no matter how completely uncertain it is.

To be a cowboy.

See ya in Elko.

Click herefor a full line up of performances and where you can catch my dad and me performing.

 

Sunday Column: My great grandmother was Strong Man Johnson

A few weeks ago I gathered a group of women together for coffee and a visit at the pioneer museum in town. I was asked to craft a story that featured farm woman advice for city girls and, while I had a few ideas, I thought it would be wise to get the conversation flowing from  the minds and experiences of women of all generations.

So I called my friend Jan, who grew up with my dad on a ranch down the road, and she called her mother, the woman who raised her out there, and taught Jan enough about making chokecherry syrup and canning salsa that Jan could be of help to me in one of my  “canning emergencies…”

The two women joined me, my mom and another three generations of women to talk work and worry, weather and washing machines and what it was like, and what it is like,  to raise children and crops and cattle out here on the edge of the badlands.

Really, I could have stayed with them chatting all day and into the night. The history and knowledge, the fortitude and respect and connection to place was palpable. But so was the humility. They were all so humble when faced with questions about their accomplishment and hardships on a land and under a sky that could be so beautiful and so brutal all at once.

I asked them what they learned out there so far away from the conveniences of town, and what it was like without the help of today’s modern technology when there was so much on the line.

My friend’s grandmother, who homesteaded her place, and then helped her sister follow suit before falling in love with a town boy and moving him out to the farm with her, gave the end all answer:

“You just roll up your sleeves and do what has to be done. There is no other choice.”

And so this has been on my mind as I’m working to extract all the wisdom and lessons and strength in these women’s’ stories.

And I’ve been thinking of my own grandmother, and her mother, a first generation Norwegian immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island when she was only 16 and made her way west to Minnesota before marrying and moving out to their homestead in Western North Dakota when she was only 18.

She raised twelve children and lived well into her 90s.

I was a young girl when she died, but I do remember visits to her room in her nursing home, her teasing the grandkids with her cane and this photo that set on her night stand, the youngest on her husband’s lap added to the photo later to make the family complete. My grandma Edie, dad’s mother,  is the girl in the middle with the bow.

I wish I would have been old enough to ask her things. I wish I would have known her.

Now all I have is stories and other people’s memories, my dad’s particularly, of a woman who used to call herself “Strong Man Johnson” before heading out the door of the house and pretending to lift it off its foundation at the grandkids’ delight and horror.

So that’s what this week’s column is about. My Great Grandmother Gudrun, Strong Man Johnson.

Coming Home: Winters on the prairies took immense strength
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

And now, after it’s been published, I’ve received a few emails from those who knew her, one in particular from a woman who cared for her in the nursing home and remember’s Gudrun’s story of baking five loaves a bread every day.

The spirit of these women drives me. It inspires me and it reminds me that I am braver and more capable than I think I am. Because it’s in this heart that pumps this blood, the blood of strong women.

May we raise them. May we praise them. May we be them.

My grandma Edie. One of Gudrun’s five daughters