Until I landed on a farm and became acquainted with animals who had never been part of my life, I thought cowboy poetry was just a bunch of dorky rhymes. Living with livestock and the vicissitudes of country life taught me the value and power of this branch of the poetry of work. Bull riders, barrel racers, and cattle drovers all told their stories through the medium of poetry. They made me laugh and cry and took me into the deep rivers of a way of life I would never fully comprehend but learned to appreciate.
Though I never considered myself a cowboy poet, I did try my hand at writing some pieces about farm life. I had talented teachers in people I met on the cowboy poetry circuit, people whose written and oral expressions of lived experience shattered my stereotypes.
Rhyming poetry is still the norm in cowboy poetry, though many poets also write prose poems. What’s critical is what they express, not their meter. Still, the heart beats in rhythm. Songs rhyme. Dancing is rhythmic. We humans are attuned to rhyme, and I came to appreciate it in cowboy poetry.
This poem is one I wrote to tell the story of my first Christmas Eve as a small-scale farmer. I still feel the magic of that night.
Stock Talk Christmas Eve
One wintry night the relatives
Were gathered in our barn.
They’d all come from their city homes
For Christmas at the farm.
‘Twas Christmas Eve, and just before
The wassail was passed ’round,
We donned our coats and headed down
To hear the magic sound
Of animals at midnight,
For then the power of speech
Is given to all sheep and cows,
Or so I’d heard it preached.
My husband, he was skeptical,
The relatives amused.
They figured I’d gone round the bend
Since donning country shoes.
But to the barn they gamely trooped.
They’d humor me this time.
We flipped the switch and walked into
A scene that was sublime.
The sheep were calmly bedded down.
They looked, then turned away,
For we’d disturbed their peaceful rest
And hadn’t brought them hay.
I thought of tales of talking beasts.
“Let’s sing to them!” I cried.
Embarrassed silence met my plea.
“Let’s not,” my husband sighed.
No word came from those woolly heads.
I blushed and murmured low,
“They prob’ly talk when we’re not here.
I guess we’d better go.”
Then coming from a darkened stall,
We heard a little cry,
Soon followed by a throaty one
That pulled us to draw nigh
And watch a newborn struggle up
To reach her mother’s teat.
She crumpled, rose, and tried again
On tiny cloven feet.
While ewe and lamb crooned soft and low,
We cleared our throats and sang
Of friendly beasts and silent nights
And bells that angels rang.
Then all the livestock in the barn
Began to bleat and crow
And oink and quack and gobble
In the languages they know.
The relatives fell silent
Till one softly observed,
“That’s the closest thing to talking
This city dude has heard.”
So maybe friendly beasts don’t speak
In English or Chinese,
But if you listen close
You’ll hear them talk on Christmas Eve.
©11/94 Cathryn Wellner
This poem appeared in American Cowboy in November/December 2001. Since sheep are not a normal part of cowboy culture, I changed them to cows for that publication. But the real story features those woolly friends.
As Valentine’s Day nears, hearts are appearing everywhere. My favourite chocolate shop has brought out the heart-shaped molds. The card shop a few doors down from it is a sea of red. Just beyond those shops, a bakery is readying heart-shaped cookies.
So the timing is right for Folkheart Press to release a new e-book: LOVE Potions, Lotions & Lore. Download it from Amazon’s Kindle Store for your sweetheart, and send it as a gift to friends and family. At 99¢, it will cost you less than a card and offer more lasting pleasure.
The e-book is an anthology of essays, short fiction, poetry and art exploring the many facets of love. Like a box of chocolates, it offers a mix that will appeal to a variety of tastes.
It is likely a reflection of my decades on the planet that some of my favourites mingle love and loss. In “Circle of Life”, David Templeton shares his struggle to help his young children deal with their mother’s death. He stumbles onto an explanation that answers the most troubling question they pose to him—why their mother died when she promised she wouldn’t.
J. Dietrich Stroeh, who lost his beloved wife later in life, learned to embrace joy and love again. His experience particularly touches me because I think it could help ease the heart of a friend who lost her spouse and expects to spend the rest of her life in mourning.
Among the short stories sprinkled through the collection, I was particularly drawn to Karen Pierce Gonzalez’s “Dreamland Café”, with its intergenerational love between the narrator and Aunt Ellie. The art works of Sara Bell, Ron Petty and Pia Barksdale add touches more delicious than cherries atop a Black Forest cake. Poetry is the icing between the layers.
Karen Pierce Gonzalez weaves the folklore of love through the collection. Read them and you will understand why monasteries banned chocolate in the 17th century and what apple stems reveal about prospective husbands.
The other contributors add to the tastiness of the collection. As with any anthology, some readers will be drawn to the bitter chocolate, while others will prefer their choices sweetened.
Download the e-book before the day of love. Pick your favourites, and share them with loved ones. Less costly than a card, with fewer calories than chocolates, LOVE Potions, Lotions & Lore also offers love in another way, with proceeds going to the National Center for Family Literacy.
Long before I had a chance to become acquainted with animals other than cats and dogs, I fell in love with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story of “Zlateh the Goat” (Zlateh Goat & Other Stories). In the story the beloved goat no longer gives milk. With Hanukkah approaching and money tight, Reuven decides to sacrifice her. He sends his oldest son, Aaron, to sell Zlateh to the butcher.
The goat and her human companion are caught in a blizzard and quickly lose their way. They stumble across a hay stack. Aaron digs out a makeshift cave, and he and Zlateh snuggle together inside it for the next three days. Thanks to Zlateh’s warmth and milk, Aaron survives the storm. The grateful family never again speaks of selling Zlateh.
The story is full of love and warmth. When I was a school librarian, I frequently recommended it to children and their teachers.
Years later I had goats of my own, the angoras whose hair is spun into mohair. They were friendly and loving. When I was with them, I always thought of Zlateh.
Today I came across the story of Noel Osborne, an Australian farmer whose goat helped keep him alive. In October 2002 a cow butted him into a manure pile where he lay helpless, his hip broken. The fickle weather of a southern hemisphere late spring brought rain storms, hot days, and cold nights.
The goat discovered him the first evening. He had found a bottle and was able to milk her into it. Though she wandered off to feed during the day, she returned to his side every night, snuggling against him for warmth and feeding him her milk. Osborne’s dog,Mandy, brought him bones and comfort, but it was the goat’s milk that brought him through.
Five days later friends stopped by the remote farm to pick up a kid goat. They found Osborne, still in the manure pile, and called an ambulance.
Maybe Oscar Wilde was right: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
No one was more delighted with the stories of Mohammed bel Halfaoui than the storyteller himself. He had learned them from his mother, in the rhyming phrases of Arabic folktales. He would recite them in Arabic, then in French. Though the stories delighted me in the language I could understand, Mohammed always rued how much they lost in translation.
Still, the stories are layered and rich, even in English. This one seems sadly appropriate for the week after a crazed gunman in Arizona opened fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffins. As I type, she lies in a hospital, a bullet hole through her head. Six others died.
It’s the day of their memorial service. Sarah Palin is accusing her opponents of “blood libel” for objecting to her placing shooting targets, aka crosshairs, on a map of Democrats (including Giffords) who voted for health care. President Obama is flying to Tucson to attend the service. His 2008 election unleashed a flood of racism and rhetoric that heightened the pervasive fear broken open by the attacks of September 2011.
The tragic shooting is leading to a lot of soul searching in a nation where bombast has replaced rational discussion in all too many arenas. Mainstream and independent media are filled with discussions about mental health, gun control, political discourse, social justice, and the need for civility.
The simple tale of a mouse and a kitten is ostensibly about two creatures who are predator and prey by nature. Their coming to that realization is normal, in the scheme of things. However, folktales are never about the surface story. Children are not born knowing who is predator and prey. They are not born recognizing The Other as enemy. This little story points out the problem, not the solution, but perhaps it can lead to some open discussion about tolerance and accepting differences.
One day, a little mouse said to his mother, “I’m big now. Let me go outside and play on my own. It’s not fair to keep me cooped up in this hole.”
The mouse’s mother had always watched over him carefully. She feared the dangers that threaten small mice. Most of all, she feared the cat, who would pounce on her child and eat him.
But at last, seeing how much her son had grown and how keen he was to explore the outside world, she agreed. “Very well, but don’t stay outside too long, and, above all, beware of the cat. He is our greatest enemy.”
The little mouse was thrilled. At last his dream was coming true. He was going outside alone, with no parents to scold him.
He ran outside, cheerful and proud. He felt like a grown-up mouse. He could go anywhere he wished, all by himself. He scurried around. Sometimes he stopped and raised his head, looking to the left, then to the right. Then he ran back and forth, delirious with happiness.
He was full of his new-found joy when he saw a little cat. “Oh, hooray,” he said to himself. “I can have a nice friend if this pretty little creature will play with me.”
The kitten was also out on his own for the very first time. As soon as he saw the little mouse, he said to himself, “What a pretty, sweet little creature. If only he wants to play with me!” He approached the little mouse as softly as he could.
The little mouse was delighted. “Do you want to play with me?”
The cat replied, “Yes, I do!”
The two young animals began to play tag. They wrestled and rolled on the ground. They boxed with their paws. They bit each other’s ears. They ran around in circles, chasing each other’s tails, but always gently, delighted with their game.
They forgot everything else until the sun began to set. The little mouse said to the kitten, “That’s enough for now. I’m afraid Mama will scold me. Goodbye.”
The kitten replied, “I’m sorry we have to stop. Goodbye. But tomorrow morning we’ll meet again and play like we did today.”
The little ones returned to their homes. When the mouse saw her son, she was relieved.
“Where were you, my child? I was so afraid for you. You were gone the whole day. I was very worried. I was afraid the cat had devoured you. Never stay outside such a long time! It’s not safe.”
But the little mouse was full of the day’s fun. He was impatient with his mother’s warnings. Finally he interrupted, “Oh, if I told you everything… I made a friend. We played together all day long. Oh, Mother, if you could see how cute he is, how handsome, how friendly. I’m sure you would like him. From now on, when I go outside, I won’t be alone. Now I have a friend to play with, from morning till night.”
His mother grew thoughtful. “Yes, my son, that’s good. That’s good. But tell me a little about your friend. Can you describe him to me?”
“Oh, Mama, if you only saw him! It’s true he’s a little bigger than I am but not too much. And his head is a little large and round. And his fur is as soft as silk, so nice to stroke. And he is yellow, and his tail is about that long and thick. And he doesn’t talk the way we do. It’s so pretty to hear him. He says, ‘Me…ow! Me…ow! Me…ow!’ Or he says, ‘Me…ew! Me…ew! Me…ew!’”
Mother Mouse was no longer listening. She had nearly fainted. What she had dreaded most had happened. It was a miracle her child was still alive.
“My dear child, your little friend is a cat! Creatures like that eat mice. He must still be very small and not yet know that mice are his daily food. But beware. His parents will tell him. Don’t go near him again.”
The little mouse didn’t understand a thing his mother said. How could such a sweet little friend ever think of eating him? He turned to his father.
Father Mouse laughed softly. Finally he said, “My little son, cats are our most dangerous enemies. Listen to your mother. Stay inside, safe from the cat. We’re warning you for your own good.”
That was the scene in the mouse’s home. Now let’s see what happened when the kitten went home. His mother was also upset and asked why he had stayed outside so long.
The kitten said, “Dear Mother, if you’d only seen the little friend I met. He’s so handsome, so cute. We played together all day long. We pretended to fight. He bit me; I bit him. He made me fall down. I made him fall down. I’m so lucky to find a good friend. I’ll never be alone when I go outside to play.”
Mother Cat was delighted to see her child so happy. Finally, she said, “Tell us about your pretty little friend.”
“Oh, Mama, if you saw him! He is little, much smaller than I am. He has a pretty, thin little tail. His little head isn’t round like mine. But he has such a pretty nose, narrow and pointed. His ears are pointed too, and so small. And he doesn’t talk like us. He says softly, ‘squeak, squeak’.”
“Little fool,” said his mother. “And you didn’t eat him? That was a mouse! And mice, you little nitwit, are what we eat. Do you understand? Cats eat mice. Always. And you actually had a mouse between your paws and let it get away and are proud of yourself? I am ashamed to have such a stupid child. Tomorrow, you must look for him. As soon as he is near, pounce. Grab him and gobble him up. Do you understand?”
The kitten could not believe his ears. “Eat him? But why? And then who would I play with?”
His father burst out laughing. “My son, listen to your mother. Cats eat mice and have since the world began. Tomorrow we will see what kind of cat you are. As soon as the little mouse comes near, jump on him and devour him. Show us that you are a real cat.
When morning came, the kitten went outside in search of the little mouse. But there was no trace of the mouse anywhere. Not in the courtyard. Not in the street.
Then the kitten saw a tiny hole. He watched it carefully and recognized the shiny eyes of his little mouse friend, safe inside his home.
In his sweetest, slyest voice, the kitten said, “Hello. Come on out, and we’ll play as we did yesterday.”
But the little mouse cried out, “Never! Everything your father and mother told you yesterday, my father and mother told me.”
And so the story ends, of the mouse who learned about cats and the kitten who learned about mice.
A post script: In an opinion piece in the January 11th issue of the New York Times, Robert Wright has this to say: “The point is that Americans who wildly depict other Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.” His piece is aptly titled: “First Comes Fear”.
My thanks to Anne Marie, the friend who sent this 2010 version of the nativity story. If the holy couple and wise men had been texting, using social media, and searching via Google, this is how the story might have played out.
Here’s “The Digital Story of the Nativity”:
Whatever you’re celebrating during this season when the sun spends fewer hours shining on the northern hemisphere, we’d like to offer a small thank you for all the encouragement and support you’ve given so freely in the past year.
This e-booklet was put together by Karen Pierce Gonzalez of Folkheart Press. Contributions of poetry, tips, and gifts to create for friends came from Dr. Brandy McCans, D.C., Eddie Morrow, Teresa Morrow, Karen Pierce Gonzalez and Cathryn Wellner.
We all wish you a season of joy. Please feel free to share “Holiday Folklore & More” with family, friends and colleagues.
With American Thanksgiving happening tomorrow, the last Thursday of November, I’m thinking of all I have to be thankful for. Right at the top of the list is friends. I’m incredibly lucky to have a circle of the best possible friends right here in Kelowna, B.C. But having lived in a whole lot of places in my life, I’m also thankful to have friends scattered around the globe.
So it’s with a deep sense of gratitude that I turned to that quirky little program, Google Search Stories. It will never take the place of a longer, more complex, more nuanced story. But for sending a quick greeting to say how much I appreciate all of you who grace my life and all of you who read this blog, I’m grateful it’s available.
So here’s my thanks for your friendships. Maybe someday I’ll turn the dream of an around-the-world friend fest into reality.
Just in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t discovered the wise and whimsical world of Story People, here’s one of Brian Andreas’s animated stories.
“Broken Down” reminds me of my years on a farm (Vancouver Island) and small ranch (Cariboo). When something broke down, on our place or someone else’s, we had to stop, scratch our heads, and ask for—or give—help. There’s no doubt it increased our sense of community, and it gave us a lot of shared stories.
Some of you already know I’m a longtime fan of Story People. Brian Andreas’s little stories seem simple. But try to write a tiny story that says so much. Not as easy as it looks.
For Valentine’s Day this year, he created a couple videos with his whimsical, colorful, joyous illustrations.
This one reminds me of one of the delicious stories of the Mullah Nasruddin. One day he was riding his donkey backward. The villagers asked him why.
“I am not sitting backward on the donkey,” he said. “The donkey is facing the wrong way.”
The Mullah Nasruddin even has his own Facebook page now. You’ll find lots of his stories there. If you want more, check some of the other transliterated spellings, which can be found in the Wikipedia article cited above.
I first heard this folktale from Heather Forrest many years ago. In her version a peasant crosses the border every day for ten years. The border guard knows he is smuggling something but can never figure out what. Only when the official has retired does he learn what the man was smuggling .
Here’s a YouTube version of that same tale: