Middle Fork of the Powder River
is theft, we all know. It doesn’t take a Communist to figure it out. But if you are a thief, you can dream up a million and two methods to defend your right to steal. Everything we take from the earth, every drop of rain and every blade of grass, every bit of flower and fruit, the sinew and muscle of the animals we kill, we borrow these things for a brief time and we will pay them back. The records are kept from the beginning of time.
Now Antonio Mateo is ignoring what he knows. He is hacking down trees with a dull ax. The rough handle releases splinters into Antonio’s hands. He thinks these will be his only punishment for appropriating the earth for himself — small price to pay — and he proceeds as if nothing left behind will ever catch up. He builds several rough cabins and calls them a trading post. The cabins are his property, the first property in Wyoming, and he will defend his right to hold them forever.
That is why it is no surprise that the first wheeled vehicle — a haphazardly built carriage — to cross the mountains carries a cannon. And no surprise that the cannon is hauled by a team of mules — animals made from the unnatural crossing of the horse and the ass.
There are more events in Antonio Mateo’s life and they all serve to increase his property. Now, long after Antonio is dead, men own more things in Wyoming. There are thirty-eight species of mammals here and men own them. The state owns them. The state owns the elk, moose, black bear, grizzly bear, white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep. The state owns more animals than it can name. It owns the undiscovered insects and the fossils of animals dead before it was born. The United States Biological Survey owns the migratory birds — the ones that live part of the year in Arizona, in Sonora, in the southern states of Mexico, in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, all the southern lands to the burning tip of frozen Tierra del Fuego. It owns the coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, bald eagle, golden eagle, all the hawks and owls. The Forest Service, the Game and Fish Commission, and the officials of the various grazing laws share ownership of the ptarmigan, swan, sea gull, and bittern.
In winter the snow falls from the unowned sky to the ground. In spring the snowpack melts into creeks and streams, the runoff pours downhill into rivers and reservoirs owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Reclamation and Fisheries helicopters thwunk-thwunk-thwunk their way into the air and over water release a silver cloud, a sheen, sparkling and dappling in the air — fingerling fish of many kinds, and the bureaus own the fish. Bureau airplanes seed the clouds to see if perhaps the renegade sky might become property. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior own the trees. They own the sage and the wild raspberries.
Somebody owns everything. Everything is private property. This way no one — no person, no other animal, no plant, no rock or clod of dirt — owns itself. Everything belongs to someone else and will be used by its owner.
A magpie spins across an opening, black and white flashing, long tail whipping tartly behind. It is not so simple as saying that, like the sky, no one owns the magpie. The bird is not arrogant, not laughing, not craftily eluding the owners. No, the magpie is out of breath, nervous and running for its life.
Fort Phil Kearny
How often it seems that what was the center of something so quickly becomes its margin.
At dawn the wood train set out, the teams of mules hauling empty wagons, the armed guard heavy with loaded guns. A little firewood, poles for construction, larger trees for planks and boards. A mission of no ill will and all to make more bearable these days and nights of stunning cold when, at each hour, the temperature is called out until the mercury reaches bottom, settles in the bulb, and in solidarity with every other artifact of the season, freezes solid.
How like a holiday these little remissions, days when the sun fires its weakened arrows into the heart of winter and enough flame is made to bring a smile to the face of every man, woman and child, red or white. Today even the obligatory Indian raid on the wood train reeks of empty formality, a desultory commitment to a circus act whose banners are worn and faded and whose audience is yawning while dabbing its sweaty forehead with a huge greasy handkerchief.
Sweeping down off a ridge, the painted men on painted ponies cry out, but their cries seem more yip than howl. And almost before the picket can set off for the fort, it is all over. The bright December day’s silence broken only by the sound of ax and saw.
It is enough, that yipping feint, and Captain Fetterman sets off, mad for revenge, his mouth wide as he rides, the wind drying the saliva as it hardens on his chin. Fetterman leads himself and eighty men straight ahead, no hesitating now boys, no matter that the sun is shining in warning, and no matter that the Sioux fire their horses away in abandoned flight. It is the favorite act of invitation for these people desperate to relieve this land of the burden of the white man.
It is sacred land, every spot of it, every blade of grass and every chunk of frozen dirt, every rotten stinking louse and worm-infested dead dog lying out in a winter so cold the dog won’t disintegrate. It won’t disappear. It’s going to be there forever as if degradation, like loss, can go on endlessly, can go on until every animal — dog, Indian, or white man — who ever walked lightly on this earth so as not to bruise the heart of the sacred, is frozen dead, and snapped like a twig in half by a God ready to start a fire and warm his hands.
All that’s for later, all that loss and sorrow. Today Fetterman careens happily and blindly forward up Lodge Trail Ridge and beyond. For weeks he’s been whining that he has to get one Indian scalp before he returns to Fort Laramie. He and his eighty men are out of sight, but when the gunfire starts, it is clear they are not out of hearing. First a few shots, then shots uncounted, shots as many as the new leaves of spring. And then silence.
Adolph Metzlers, bugler, Company C, Second Cavalry, was standing up a moment ago. Now he lies on his back staring at the distant blue sky. The bugle remains in his hand and he ponders whether or not to put it to his lips, does, then ponders what to play. There are so many beautiful songs, even in the limited canon of the U.S. Army manual of bugle calls. The day becomes night and the sky is a theatre of shooting stars, brilliant and bright. On every star Bugler Metzlers makes a wish.
Those are not stars, Metzlers shrieks, sitting up like a knife. They’re arrows, and he begins to count — forty thousand arrows spinning through the sky as a river otter spins through water. The feathery guides barely make a wave. When the shaft enters flesh, its grooved edge will allow the blood to keep running, to stream down the arrow and out onto the ground, the way winter snowpack will melt and run into all the creeks and finally to the sea.
Those aren’t stars and they aren’t arrows either, Metzlers thinks, opening his eyes again, but this time he does not sit up. No, they’re not arrows but owls, twenty thousand long-eared owls. The owls fly, singing their hoots, whistles and shrieks. More beautiful songs arriving as gifts to Adolph Metzlers.
Everything about it is wrong. Long-eared owls are silent except when near their nests. And they are nocturnal. And they do not fly in groups. And even if they did there are not twenty thousand long-eared owls in all of Wyoming.
All the same the owls continue to fly and they continue to sing. Bugler Metzlers knows the best thing to do would be to play but he can’t. He can’t find his hand and he can’t find his lips. The owls plummet, their eyes fixed so that when they turn to look around their entire heads move. Their flight is silent song to match the shrieking. They are awash in a field of rodents and so they hunt.
Of some of these rodents the eyes are furiously ripped out of their heads and laid on flatrocks. Noses are bitten off; ears sliced away from heads. The owls batter their bodies against their prey, cracking off chins and bashing in teeth. Tiny fingers are broken at each joint. With sturdy beaks the owls split open skulls and wrench out brains. Entrails are threaded out into long chains and left to dry.
Twenty thousand long-eared owls fall from the sky like stones and crash against Fetterman’s eighty fellow mammals, small and weak. Frozen or not, now everything is disappearing. Bugler Metzlers’ hands are gone, and his feet. His arms are ripped from their sockets. His penis is cut off. His ribs are snapped in half. The muscles of his thighs, his calves, his breast, his back are sliced out of his body.
Painted ponies and painted men, the flags from a wood train fluttering on a warm winter day, over a ridge and down a draw. Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, calls the wind. And Fetterman responds. He comes on.
Twenty thousand long-eared owls, Metzlers thinks. Why would they help these red Indians? Metzlers remembers his childhood, the penny stories about the savage, and about nature. Oh, that’s it, he smiles, that business of nature. And he looks up again at the sky from which the owls fall. But there are no owls; there are no arrows; there are no stars. There are Indians on a ridge line. And like the ridge, they are silent and still.
The U.S. Navy recruiter in Gillette answers the phone, “Ahoy there, shipmate,” and concludes his conversation by wishing to all, “Fair seas and fresh winds.” Or else, “Fair winds and fresh seas.”
But the seas departed Wyoming millennia ago and in this land of almost 100,000 square miles only 366 are water. Of the Platte they say a mile wide and one inch deep. And the Powder isn’t named such for capricious reasons. Mostly, there isn’t enough water here to float a duck, and a battleship would make a nice windbreak for sheep. So eight recruiters sit in offices and polish their shoes until they reflect the sky a watery blue.
Far away in Puget Sound, the Navy attempts to train bottlenose dolphins. Never mind that these bottlenose are Atlantic dolphins unable to live in the North Pacific’s cold water. The blood vessels in the skin contract to retain heat, the skin disintegrates and sloughs off, and the dolphins are vulnerable to infection. And never mind the family and social life of the dolphin. Here, each animal is placed in a twenty-five-square-foot tank fourteen feet deep.
Dolphins can protect the Navy’s submarines from Russian frogmen; dolphins can learn to fire poison pellets, or CO2 cartridges, or bullets; dolphins can learn to kill.
But so far the dolphins have learned to kill only themselves. Some bash themselves against the walls of their pens until they pass out and, unconscious, drown. Some die of stomach ulcers. Some refuse to eat, starving themselves to death.
For those who do not kill themselves, help is close at hand. They are “destroyed.” The Navy says they only kill those who “go insane.” One dolphin is blind — she has been beaten across the face with a bucket by her trainer. Another dies of open wounds — he has been kicked in the head until he bleeds, and the bleeding will not stop.
No one knows how many dolphins the Navy has. No one knows how many dolphins have died, have been murdered, have committed suicide, have “gone insane.”
“Ahoy there, shipmates,” Ron says with a smile. And on the billboard above scrub desert the U.S. Navy jets scream sweetly toward the sea, toward the dolphins.
The U.S. Navy in Wyoming has eight sailors and an officer, all recruiting. When they snap to attention, dust flowers around their heads, obscuring their eyes. When they speak, dust billows around their mouths, and mixed with their saliva, muddies all their words. When they walk, dust rises from their feet and mixes with the snow to form a gray wall reminiscent of a fog bank settling on a dock.
In Wyoming the U.S. Navy is silly and superfluous but the world is small and one. Though the cottonwoods, the aspen, the willow, all the trees of this quiet dry land are rooted, though they would be terrified by the sea, though they have never felt the touch of a dolphin on their bark, though everything that a person could say of them about ignorance and distance is true, still, they know. The trees of Wyoming know the lives of the slave dolphins of Puget Sound. The trees refuse to fight so they weep. And in this driest of lands, we too commit that ultimate act of excess; we weep.