And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.
-Mathew 6:28 KJV
No telling how many gallons of pesticide I’ve mixed up and sprayed. At the Cooney Brothers ranch, on the East side of the Crazy Mountains, they had a pickup that was outfitted with a tank, it must have held nearly 500 gallons. It’s pernicious, locoweed, a drug livestock get addicted to; it doesn’t always kill them but drags them all down. Those who get a taste for it will search it out. They’ll go back to spots where they got it before, eat dried up leaves and dig up the roots to knaw. It messes with their minds, they get dull eyed, lose their luster, and go emancipated. Even before the plants die back the junkies will be withering away.
Some of the Cooney’s pastures are a full section and I would get assigned one to spray and fix fences before we herded in the pairs. Zig zagging my way up through a pasture, on the south side of a ridge in the spray rig, I doused all the patches of weeds and felt upbeat about how quickly I was knocking this one out. At the ridgeline before noon, I looked North over into a wide coulee that was blanketed, as far as the eye could see, with locoweed. Their anxiously beautiful white and purple flowers bobbing in the wind. My body slumped; it seemed utterly impossible. I had no idea which way to go or what to do from there.
The owners didn’t like to spray chemicals much down on the Hyatt Ranch on the west side of the Big Horns. That’s where I was working when I got that bit of crazy advice, “Just don’t think so much.” My then wife and I had differences. We drove the 56 minutes into town to meet up with a therapist found in the thin yellow pages of our regional phone book. The outside of the building was forgettable but the sensation of sitting uneasily on that stained, off white, loveseat that had impressive tumors bulging from the cushions is branded in my brain. To get this opportunity, I also had to take half a day off work and shell out a co-pay.
I felt penned in before I stepped into that pinched office converted out of a single room in what might have been a defunct mom and pop motor court. I can still envision the youngish counselor sitting behind a bulky steel desk that was likely cast off from some institution decades before she was born. Behind her, in a small draped window, sat a wilting cactus. I came here hoping on hope we could save this marriage. The “counselor” knew she was talking to two people who recently graduated from seminary at a posh school back East. Our minds were keen and sharp and dead set on analyzing everything. What kind of sorry country bumpkin therapist tells you to just “don’t think so much” when you go to them and spill your guts out for over an hour about serious problems and then they just lob a tired cliche toward you as your pulling yourself together and eyeing the door? I left her office disgusted and never once thought of going back. For years I recounted this story, full of lively disdain and contempt for this therapist and her refrigerator magnet council.
Years before that happened, between undergraduate and graduate school, I was working for an outfitter on the edge of the BigHorn Mountain Wilderness Area. Can’t remember how I fell into disfavor with Bill that time, but he shifted me down to the packing crew with Ian. Hunters didn’t tip packers the way they did guides; none of us got paid much, a few hundred dollars a month on top of our room and board. Ian came from England. He dressed like the rest of us up in the high country, a felt hat, snap button shirt, Wranglers, and cowboy boots. We were close in age and being even-keeled and good natured made him easy to like even in our tight living situation. This was a kind of working holiday for him. He was having an adventure in the American West before he got on with his real life. One of the regular hunters at this camp had shot a good size mulie the evening before and he desperately wanted the cape off this buck to recover a monster mount he had stuffed in his youth. I desperately wanted to get back on the guide crew and this cape, in perfect condition, was my ticket.
I could see my horse’s breath in the low morning light as we wound our way up through the timber to High Park. Never liked holding reins with gloves on but winter settles in early when you stay above 9,300 feet, and my fingers were already going stiff with them on. I was feeling antsy, waiting for my ice block of a saddle to warm up and hoping the sun would come through the clouds by the time we got out from under the lodgepole pines. It’s hard to ride through that penetrating scent, when traveling through those pines as the horses’ hooves crush inches of duff, and not take note of where you are. But my mind was dialed into the problem at hand. Ian broke in whistling some overly peppy tune. It was early, cold and we were in relegation. I snapped, “What are you thinking about, Ian.” After a brief pause, he said in his sing-songy way, “Oh, I was just admiring what a lovely morning it is with the dappled light on the trail and how lucky to be out on a horse riding through the woods in this invigorating weather.” “No!” I shot back. “ You are to be thinking about how we are going to get that buck on the pack horse with zero chance of messing up his cape.” As the thrust of my displeasure ebbed, I grasped at it again snorting, “And we don’t call them ‘woods’ we say ‘timber.’” After another quarter mile or so, Ian broke my concentration again with, “But it is a rather fine morning, isn’t it,” he chimed cheerfully. “Yes,” I clapped back, “It is a fine morning for us to get back with that deer and a perfect cape. So quit enjoying yourself quite so much and focus your mind on how the hell we are going to pack that buck out!”
That night there was a lot of laughter and whisky around the hearth of the oversized fireplace in the lodge. People were dumbstruck when Ian and I came riding back with that buck’s hind legs straddling my pack horse. He looked like an old drunk sitting slouched over in a saddle, antlered head bobbing and rocking with my pack horses’ gate as we sauntered into camp with night creeping dangerously close. All the hunters and staff who were there filed out of the lodge and insisted on taking a bunch of pictures before we transferred the deer to the meat cabin. I devised this onerous rigging system, after several failed attempts, to get this buck back to camp whole. There was no way I was going to let anyone but the West Virginia hunter who’s tag was rolled up in the ear of that animal take a knife to him and risk ruining the cape. This story got added to the greatest hits of tales, the old outfitter who would spin for the waves of guests that flowed in and out week after week and year after year. It was a fun story, you could count on getting a good chuckle out of folks.
Until just recently I assumed everyone was laughing with me at Ian for his nievietey, and just going along for a ride like a tourist while I did all the work. It’s been 30 years of telling and hearing this story before I’ve been able to think differently about it. It’s been 20 years since I first laughed with friends recounting my dim witted counselor in Worland, and her ridiculous quip to “just don’t think so much.”
But stories are how we think. Stories, like locoweed, can hook into us. Some stories we find so captivating we go back to them time and time again. We can come to think we are those stories. We mistake ourselves for the thoughts that come and go. We end up with a mouth full of dust and withered roots after devouring all the leaves and flowers of this habit. We can make ourselves crazy. Our stories have the power to leave us dull eyed, lusterless, depressed and emancipated. We dry up a little each time we retell these kind of stories in stale conversations and as they scratch out, hour after hour, like dirty cassette tapes on loop in our minds. How many beautiful mornings have I totally missed because I was ensconced in my head working out some problem, replaying the past, or gaming the future?
Don’t get me wrong, our minds are a treasure trove that have given many gifts to humanity. People are amazing. Creative thought, analysis, imagination are all incredible tools. They help us immensely but they aren’t everything. I’m not even sure they are helpful most of the time. Seems like sorting out when and how to pick up these tools and when to lay them down would be a real gift.
The Psalmist wrote, “be still and know that I am God.” Coming later in life to Quakerism, I started dousing my mind with mixtures of silence, meditation and prayer over the last decade. I’m pretty late to the game of learning how to not think so much. Reining in my runaway mind is taking considerable practice. As I look North from this ridge, I can see some old stories in a new light. Things get less twisted up when I can stay in with my practices and, in fleeting moments, it can feel like I am deepening my relation to what is Really Real.