All the hermits and holy men of my formative youth
were alcoholic sheepherders in self-imposed exile–
left alone from year to year, from binge to bender
with none but goddesses of timber and sagebrush,
with a horse, a dog, and their unacknowledged longings,
their only visitors the camp tender
come to move the sheep wagon to new grazing ground
and bring more grub
and we, the rancher’s little girls
eager for adventure stories
expecting the gift of an empty Bull Durham bag—
unbleached muslin with a yellow drawstring
just right for holding little doll,
or an abrasive, thorned pet horned toad
that prehistoric pilgrim from another age
that could cling three-fingeredly to cloth.
A herder perfected something of the weaver’s art–
working the limitless yarn of thin, immaculate air
spun in the nearly-touchable sun
daily back and forth, in and out of the warp,
the confining sheep wagon
drab as slag, gray as February hay.
He chewed on this rhythm of contrast–
cloud-sheep in blue skies, his herd on green feed,
wood-stove grease on compartments
where his canned goods were stored;
daybreak eagle-racing his skittish horse,
warding off demon cravings of the moon-dark night;
climbing the heights, crawling into his bedroll;
the mountain to conquer, the cave to transform.
He was the shuttle and he wove his scratchy wool life.
These men held knowledge not inferior to any priest’s–
where the purest waters spring icy from the depths of earth,
the kindness of the star-flung night,
how to jacket a motherless lamb with the hide of another,
healing arts for scours or a maggoty sore from a shearer’s knick,
how to check yourself for ticks,
when to let sheep graze and when to bunch them
and where to send the dogs if some aren’t there,
ways of splitting logs, mounting bareback,
calling mountain gods to account,
beating the obvious odds at solitaire.
They showed us how to whittle pine,
turn quartz and limestone boulders
into monuments whose strange configuration
told rare passers-by
how we had spent long idle afternoons.
Beyond all these things, they taught paradox,
for what I sensed in them,
even as a child who had not learned distinctions,
was that they’d lived events so disparate
from the gentleness of sheep,
their sometimes ravings having evened out
the clean reliability of mountain sunrise.
They volleyed all their lives for balance
between responsible sobriety
and each year’s two-week drunk
when they’d spend every dime,
pawn saddle and rifle,
befriend all manner of gold-digging women,
perhaps sign my dad’s name
to a few bad checks across the state,
before returning humbly to our door
to dry out and go back to the mountains.
And there in the mountains year after year
they were my teachers and my friends,
each with his sheep wagon
in its predictable summer meadow–
matted as an artist’s print in blue and purple
by lupine and shooting star,
each telling tobacco-stained stories,
each spitting snuff or rolling his own
and saving the tobacco bags
for my sister and me.
Maureen Tolman Flannery has just released her latest book, Ancestors in the Landscape: Poems of a Rancher’s Daughter. Although she grew up in a Wyoming sheep ranch family,Maureen and her actor husband Dan have raised their four children in Chicago. Her other books are Secret of the Rising Up: Poems of Mexico; Remembered Into Life; and the Anthology Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places. Her work has appeared in forty anthologies and over a hundred literary reviews, recently including Midwest Quarterly Review, Amherst Review, Slant, Buckle&, and Atlanta Review.