In the autumn, you dream of Huns bursting from the rubble that was the old milk house, and you carry your shotgun cradled ready. You follow the dogs, and they follow their noses.
But now the land is sharp green from rains that don’t seem to quit and when you go, you don’t follow the dogs, they follow you, and they don’t pick up scent, they pick up the bothersome beggars’ ticks burs from last years dried stalks of houndstongue. You go where you want and sometimes, you walk among the old buildings and think about a different time, a different era.
There’s a hand-dug well and fifteen feet down, water. It is rock-lined and covered with rotting timbers. Peering down into those depths gives a tremor in your soul. A dark, wet, fearsome cavern. You think about being down in there, digging the damned thing by hand, and placing each one of those rocks. You think about the darkness, but then you look up and above, is freedom. Above, sky. Lots of sky.
Once, you ran into the old man whose grandparents homesteaded the place. 1898. Part of the Desert Land Act of 1877 which quadrupled the Homestead Act’s woeful 160 acres to 640 if you could irrigate the place within three years. Up on the mountain, you have seen the evidence of this – old dams and a series of ditches dug by hand and a walk-behind plow. Tough men. Tough women. Tough horses. Grandpa died in 1919 and Grandma in 1932. The old place was burned down by teenagers on a lark before the Second World War.
In this early summer in this new century, before the cows come out on the land and before the grass really comes, you ride your best saddle gelding and fix fence to keep the cows in and the neighbor’s cows out. You ride and you think of homesteaders because it’s too early to think about Huns and when they start pairing up, you quit bringing the dogs because you want the Huns to marry well, be happy, and raise lots of children. Besides, you are tired of picking burs.
As spring comes, you watch it coming: pasque flowers at first, up in the timber edges and sage benches. Phlox next, then spring beauties then avalanche lilies, then marsh marigolds up on the edge of the crick where young aspen are budding and ready to burst forth like words from a pen. It is a cacophony of chlorophyll.
Each day as you ride past the old place, with its scattered rock foundations and its still-stout railroad-tie post and rail fence, you think about hard land and hard people and tough living. And then you find it. Ridden past it many times, but now, up in the saddle, it is obvious and big: a patch of homestead rhubarb, 100 years or more old, growing out there feral among the sagebrush and spike fescue. Untended and still growing, still going, still here long after the humans who planted it have left and been forgotten except only in the mind of an old man who once was a boy who remembers. Everything else, every companion plant in the garden, has been gone for decades. Save rhubarb. Still here, still growing. How long since a pie cooled on a countertop that was made from that rhubarb? How long has that plant been growing and waving its big leaves and bright red stems in the Montana summer breeze? How long since laughter of children? How long since it was watered by hand with water from a hand-dug well?
One evening as the sun tilts west and it is still daylight at nine, you decide to take a drive out there, out west of your place and you walk among the sage with a plastic sack in your hand and a doe antelope with twin fawns barks at you from the ridgetop and you bend to the plant and pull a few stems, enough for one pie. You don’t want to pull it all. It needs to survive, as it has for more than a century. You will tell the old man about that rhubarb and he will smile and remember. A survivor.