Cowboy poetry

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Remember that controversy a year ago when Harry Reid made a speech about the budget bill, and decried Republican cuts against the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts? And all people talked about was…cowboy poetry?

Yes, Reid had mentioned a yearly festival in his native Nevada made possible by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Unfortunately for him, the festival was a gathering of cowboy poets. Unfortunately for the cowboy poets, they were suddenly the butt of every joke on Fox News for the next several days.

I mean, c’mon, what’s up with tough cowboy dudes doing something lame like writing poetry? Surely there’s no way to legitimize a century-old American tradition. I’d like to see you try, Western Folklife Center!

  • Our work is a touchstone for the past, yet grounded in the present with a vision for the future of the West.
  • We provide a sense of belonging and connection for both a local and a far-flung audience, and we bring together people with a similar sense of personal meaning and interests.
  • Our efforts to research, document, present and preserve the expressive culture of the people of the West are vital to the region and the nation.
Oh, I see. You do have a purpose. So let’s pour one out for the good ol’ days when cowboys could ride around and write as much poetry as they pleased without provoking any patriotic ire. What do you say to that, anonymous cowboy poet?

When I think of those good old days, my eyes with tears do fill;
When I think of the tin can by the fire and coyote on the hill.
I’ll tell you boys, in those days old-timers stood a show,–
Our pockets full of money, not a sorrow did we know.
But things have changed now; we are poorly clothed and fed.
Our wagons are all broken and our ponies ‘most all dead.
Soon we will leave this country; you’ll hear the angels shout,
“Oh, here they come to Heaven, the camp-fire has gone out.”

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Wyoming Stories

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For the 17-hour road trip to Wyoming starting this Friday, I got out a few audiobooks to pass the miles. I was particularly looking for something by Annie Proulx, author of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which are chillingly beautiful, dark, and desolate. She is perhaps best known for the short story Brokeback Mountain, which can certainly be described by all of those adjectives. So this is what we’ll be listening to as we drive through the gorgeous mountains, past oil rigs, and broken shells of barns:

How to be a cowboy

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What you’ll need: boots, chew

Songlist: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Further reading: Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.

Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.

When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.

On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.

We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.

I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.

It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.

Save the Dolphins

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Either by watching the most incredible documentary ever, The Cove, and taking action:

Or by bringing back Dan Marino. Amiright?

Playful intelligence

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Dolphins are regarded as some of the most intelligent animals…is it any wonder that they’re also some of the most playful?

They play with bubbles:

And dogs:

They like hanging out with surfers:

Oh, and they’re vain:

Happy World Oceans Day!

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Ok, so technically World Oceans Day happens every June 8th and I’m off by 2 days, but we can honor the oceans every day, right? These dolphins are totally ready to celebrate:

How to be a dolphin trainer

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What you’ll need: whistle, wetsuit

Songlist: The Dolphin’s Cry by Live

Further reading: Behind the Dolphin Smile by Ric O’Barry

The Minnesota Zoo recently shocked the populace by announcing that the dolphin exhibit will soon close permanently and the remaining two dolphins transferred to other social groups. So great was the outrage that several hundred people signed petitions and joined a Facebook group called “Save the Dolphins at the MN Zoo” (ah, grassroots movements at their finest). The Minneapolis Star Tribune article quoted several disappointed patrons, who were confused about why the zoo would close one of their most popular exhibits and hoped they would reconsider.

I am somewhat conflicted about this decision. When I was a kid, the dolphin show was the highlight of any visit to the zoo. Watching the brightly ponytailed trainers in their wetsuits signaling tricks to the dolphins and patting them on the nose afterwards, I thought there could be no better job. You get to be pals with the coolest mammals out there, and all you have to do is wave your hands around (and feed them fish–I wasn’t as excited about that part).

When I worked at a local school two years ago, I chaperoned a trip to the zoo with a group of third-graders. Some of them were already to the point of not being impressed by anything, and yet they couldn’t help squealing with excitement when they got splashed by a back-flipping dolphin. Dolphins somehow seem totally chill while also being awe-inspiring. You can’t not love them.

Which makes it even more difficult to hear that 6 dolphins have died at the Minnesota Zoo in the past 6 years. It’s not that the Minnesota Zoo has intentionally mistreated their animals, it’s just that dolphins don’t do well in captivity. As many have noted, a dolphin enclosed in a tank is equivalent to a human being trapped in a hall of mirrors–they navigate primarily through sonar, and thus all of their echolocation bounces off tank walls and back to them. Just imagine how crazy you’d go if all you ever saw was your own reflection.

I probably would not have given any thought to the plight of dolphins in captivity if not for the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. The films centers around Ric O’Barry, progenitor of all dolphin trainers-cum-marine activist. O’Barry trained dolphins for the 1960s show Flipper, and was profoundly affected when the primary actress, a dolphin named Kathy, swam into his arms and ceased to breathe. Since dolphins need oxygen to live but are not involuntary breathers like us, O’Barry took this as an act of suicide. From that moment on, he has devoted his life to freeing dolphins in captivity.

So, as much as I would love to have dolphins nearby to go hang out with, I hope that Minnesota’s dolphins find a better home elsewhere.  For all those “Save the Dolphins” protesters: moving them elsewhere might be doing just that.

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