The Springing of the Year
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
—From “A Prayer for Spring” by Robert Frost
They gathered at the Upper Well every spring. Twenty or thirty of them returned every year on the same day like swallows with calendars locked in their genetic codes. They pulled up in trucks loaded heavy with horses, saddles cinched to the clattering racks, duffle bags and grub boxes and bedrolls strapped atop the cab. Rumbled right in, they did, and unloaded at headquarters which they called the Upper Well, a name accepted without question for the simple reason that this well was located a couple of miles up the wash from the Lower Well.
The Upper Well sat, and still does, at the bottom of Bull Valley Wash, a channel that runs dry most all the time except for those rare moments following a cloudburst. Bull Valley Wash pushes southeasterly, cutting a crusted gorge through a lonely, gray stretch of southern Nevada and crossing into Utah just before it forks into the much larger Beaver Dam Wash. There at the Upper Well the cowmen who wintered in the Lime Mountain country had rendezvoused for the spring ride for as long as anyone could remember. In the space of a week, those two-dozen cowboys could gather more than a thousand head of mother cows, many of them with slick new calves, from every corner of a vast, Joshua-studded range. From there they trailed most of the herd northward to summer pasture on Clover Mountain.
That was thirty springs ago.
Last spring you could have counted the entire crew at the Upper Well on one hand, and if they gathered two hundred head, they did well.
The old hands are gone now, those leather-faced, chappy-lipped, gravelvoiced old boys, all of them grandsons of Mormon pioneers, all of them living the only life they had ever known—extensions of the lives of their fathers. They harvested a modest livelihood for themselves and their families off the annual and perennial plants and grasses that miraculously sprouted between the rocks and the Joshuas and the meandering dry washes of the Beaver Dam Slope. On soft spring evenings they relaxed around the fire on threadbare camp chairs and talked of the cows they had brought in that day and of horses long dead. Men like Max Cannon, Waldo and Frank Simkins, Tal Lytle, Levi Snow, Aaron and Fay and Leo and Glen Leavitt. Horses like Chub and Brandy and Sox and Yeller. They’re all gone now—all of them except my father, my uncle, and a few diehards from town who show up whenever they’re invited. The rest of them sold out or faded away. Most of them are six feet under, ghost riders in the sky. Their sons lost the dream, or never dreamed it in the first place, and saw no useful reason to carry on. They became carpenters, accountants, and public employees in town. The range is still there, still covered with Indian rice grass, cicardy, June grass, blackbrush, gelleta, bush muly, spiny hopsage, Mormon tea, crested wheat grass, and squirreltail, but the cowboys are gone—most of them, anyway—and so are most of the cows.
I wrote the words above more than twenty years ago as the opening section of my book, Roping the Wind: A Personal History of Cowboys and the Land, published by Utah State University Press in 1995. In the fall of 2015, a 20th anniversary edition of the book was released, and as I revisited the text after two decades I was struck again by how much a culture can change in one or two generations.
It wasn’t so long ago that most homes in St. George had a barn with cow or two in the backyard, a large garden irrigated by water running down the town’s ditches, and in many cases a patch of alfalfa where hay could be cut and stored for winter feed. It was a time when even town folk approached the spring of the year already “thinking so far away as the uncertain harvest,” as Robert Frost put it in his poem, “A Prayer for Spring.”
These days, as spring arrives we’re immersed in the “pleasures of the flowers today,” and “kept all simply in the springing of the year.” And isn’t it wonderful that we are. What we might forget is that generations before us kept their shoulder to the plough, toiling hard in the spring, in hopes of a bountiful harvest in the fall. And over the generations they did it well enough to sustain the advancement of technology to a point where today we need give little thought to our future sustenance. Today, on any spring day, we can stop and smell the spring flowers, go for hikes in the parks, play in softball tournaments, shoot endless rounds of golf, hook up to the boat and head for the lake, or drop in on a half-dozen garage sales. All of this with little thought of the far away uncertain harvest.
I think the innate impulse to plant and harvest still swirls to one degree or another in our DNA. When spring breaks, many of us find ourselves out in the glorious morning rejuvenating the lawn (even though not one head of livestock will nip a blade of grass from it), planting tomato starts in the windowsill, or finding a corner in the lot where we can put in a couple of rows of beans and squash. It is good for the soul to know that we reap what we sew. And even though someone else, or something else, like any number of the corporate mega-farms and feedlots, are doing the sewing and harvesting for us, we can still remain connected in some way to the soil that sustains us.
Often on a Thursday, as I travel from St. George to my office in Zion National Park, a warm wave rolls over me as I pass several pickups pulling livestock trailers headed north to the auction in Cedar City. I see a lot more of those rigs rolling up the road in the fall of the year as some of the few ranchers who continue to operate in southern Utah haul their harvest to market.
To me it’s heartening to know that while I rake and mulch and plant my little grow boxes in the backyard this spring, there are still some folks saddling up and riding out across the winter range to gather a few head of cows and their newborn calves and trail them on to summer pasture – minds set far away on the uncertain harvest.