The morning is hot, smokey, with that odd blue light of a partial eclipse, but what’s being eclipsed is not the sun but the forest in far away New Mexico: my old wilderness haunts there in that high country are again burning. Perhaps some favorite old tree I once talked with in The Gila is now suspended in the air around me on the San Pedro, and I take into my lungs its very elements, absorb it into my body, dissolve it in my blood as it was absorbed already long ago in my mind and memory, woven into the fabric of my psyche. It is strange to see a Nighthawk come in to drink in this dimness at 8:00 a.m.–an unusual addition to the usual morning whirl and gyre of swallows and martins. Something big is up. A little more than a week has passed since Dia de San Juan, the 4th of July a little less than a week from now … one date looked to by Borderers with Hispanic, pre-Gadsden Purchase leanings as the start of Monsoon, the other by Borderers who might think in Manifest Destiny terms. Perhaps the two will fuse at last, when Monsoon comes between the two? That may be what today is.
At lunch a Black Phoebe alights in the six inch layer of dust on the roasting, sunny opposite slope of The Stockpond, flattens itself, spreads out its wings fully, hunkers itself into the dust, droops open a red-lined mouth and simply lies there. I think it must have died in the 110 degree heat, and I walk over in curiosity, but suddenly it wakes and flies off in obvious good health. There are no ants right there, so it wasn’t anointing itself with those insects that some birds work with to discourage feather parasites. I expect it was cooking out the cooties, from above by the sun, from below by heat being released upward by the deep dust.
This Mason Pasture cattle herd has since about that Dia de San Juan been a test of my talents at longsuffering. As our Ellison’s grandmother told him, “A cow will go where she wants to.” Every morning lately I’ve come along to find the portable electric fences pulled into pieces, posts broken in half, clamps neatly taken off battery terminals, beeves and bovinas and becerros scattered across pastures “where they’re not supposed to be” (yeah, I know–as if!) If the recently arrived from range members of the bunch aren’t going to pay attention to this modern method of controlling their grazing, we’re going to have a big challenge in grass management from now on. In the afternoon with the atmosphere pensive and the sky from a distance giving troubled growls, I walk one more time a quarter mile out across the wide flat bottom where I am the tallest thing around, give putting the fence system back together yet one more try, change out the battery, re-braid the fine wires that carry the pulsing electric jolts. Jimmy, Elna, Sue and Bob will arrive soon to watch the sunset-time bird showing at The Stockpond, where I’ve left lawn chairs and little tables for antojitos for us but the day now promises a different kind of show. Lightning bolts come down on the other side of the hills to the East, their thunder grows and it’s all I can do to keep my nerve from unraveling–concentration is put into the quickest re-set of the posts and the repairs as can be done without being shoddy, because the herd must go back into the area or be let into some place else that will demolish the next week’s cycle planned with careful hubris. It is work to stay calm, and keep to the chore; keeping panic from taking over takes a will I can’t be sure will last. If I run for the corner gate and the truck, it will surely catch the eye of the predator lightning and I’ll be toast. The last wires are woven back together to complete the fenceline, and it seems logical to expect lightning then to hit the wire at the other end, while I’m holding it. ((What am I doing out here??)), I think to myself, but it will be finished, has to be done, and there’s an end to it. Meanwhile the the herd has come along and sees me far out on the pasture, and they pile up at a far gate sure I’ll let them in there. They’re always cowvoyant about such things. I let out a Mexican whistle when I’m done, and get back a chorus of excited moos.
All is set, the fenceline and battery test out functioning, the cattle are whistled in and they run, skip and kick by chorttling, and then make a right turn and go directly towards the electric fenceline and the always more attractive side of the pasture with the always greener grass. They come to a sliding stop when they see the line all fixed up again … “curses!”, they whisper. Then … a howling wind of a sudden bowls into us, I have to hold my straw Resistol with both hands or it will blow over the River gallery forest, dust rises thick above the pasture, rises higher in sheets and tails, gets grit up in layers blowing sideways to sting all our eyes and rub out the sharp edges of the figures of the cows. In the moment that many of the herd edge their noses to the wire to check whether it’ll pop them this time, we’re all blinded by a stunning flash of lightning, the bolt hitting the ground between us and the pond, and the near-instant thunder boom scares every cow off their front hooves at the same moment, they’re into the air, on their back legs on which they spin a 180 turn, churn up more and more dust to fly over all our heads in brown curtains. Instead of blowing through the wire and posts as they had planned, they flee in a classic unstoppable stampede from the fence in the direction of the lightning bolt instead. Once I come back into human physical form from the quivering molded jello on a plate I was left in by the lightning and thunder almost on top of us, I myself madly stampede back to the cowboy gate and fiddle with the barbed wire and metal latching with a prayer that it’s got back up before that fenceline could be struck by the next lightning. Pat and Sue both say later, “Well that was a perfect moment–those cattle thought your electric fenceline did it all to them when they got their noses too close! Bet they never go near that again!!”
I flee back to the truck and get to The Stockpond where the folks down there are gamely sitting in the lawn chairs and pouring wine, within a quick jump of their own vehicles of course. Not much in the way of winged creatures ventures along for a drink in front of us what with the gale rising and a lightning-streaked wall of dark cloud towering up and coming towards us from the Sulphur Springs Valley to the East, and I fear that this Summer Stock(pond) Theatre of nightjars, bats and swallows is over for the year, and that these my birder friends will have missed it. We give it a few more minutes, but get religion when a wind blast clears glasses of wine off the tables, knocks over the open Free Range Red Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon $4.97 bottle on the ground, tries to fling the cheese, blows tortilla chips out of the bowls … and lightning sears the air in three of the Six Directions, North, East, and South. When a dust storm obliterates the view beyond the fence on the other side of the pond, and the big drops of rain come to mean real business, Elna and Jimmy mount up in their car and call out from the window, “Outta here before the washes run!” The rest of us get into vehicles with rain hammering on rooves–a sound all of us are in bliss over hearing at last. Bob’s car is closest to hand, and I sit in it watching for a lull in what’s now a deluge and for a break in the near-constant lightning to get across the lot and into my truck without being electrocuted. But–it keeps coming down, and coming down and getting louder, and I realize that maybe this will be the first time I’ll ever have seen washes and arroyos in torrents on a First of Monsoon. “Hey, look at that!”, I call to Bob, and point at an inch deep sheet flood coming out of the bosque and doing more than creeping across the parking area–it is swallowing it–around my truck, and towards Bob’s car. “We better get out of here. I hope Sue makes it to the other side of Hot Springs Canyon!” I cannot wait any longer, there’s another flash and boom as I myself bolt towards the truck and am soaked, but it’s hard then to engage the clutch with legs that have turned again to jello in reaction to such close lightning. But–it all says that now comes (ojala!) a time of green plenty, shimmering meadows of Summer Poppies, grand skies and storms, happy critters, happy people, Nature rejoicing in a special, much celebrated time that belongs to the Borderer and not to the Snow Bird. We drive up The Lane and come to the green metal ranch gate, and to open it and go through I have to steel my nerves and embrace the goodness of getting killed by lightning that could hit that gate or the fence that’s attached to it: this is just a fine way to go. Chaining the gate back in place on its post seems to take forever, but then, the gate is closed–on The Lane, and on Foresummer … […]