Reclining in my favorite chair recently in vanishingly small Inez, Wyoming, I found myself close to tears. My wife Maria sat beside me to ask what was troubling me.
Suddenly tears flowed. “Geez, you could say I squashed a bug.”
I’d pinched a queen honeybee earlier that day while transferring a package of bees into a hive. I know better. I’ve kept bees my entire adult life. But I was contemplating other things as I substituted a little marshmallow — a temporary block that the worker bees can remove — for the cork confining her in her cage while in transit.
She popped out. I clamped my finger over the hole, but hit her instead. She staggered off among the 10,000 other bees of her colony. I feared I’d find her dead at the bottom of the hive.
I was raised to admire, not kill, the six-legged. I recall appearing before my draft board, applying for conscientious objector status with the Vietnam War in full swing. My mother sat beside me at the long table and told all those grey-headed World War II veterans, “This is who we are as a family. We don’t even kill yellowjackets.”
But tears? Maria, always perceptive, said, “Maybe that queen is just the straw that broke you.”
She’s right. The real weight is this pandemic, which should scarcely be a factor in my life. We live in perhaps the safest place in the Lower 48, a ranch in eastern Wyoming, where our nearest neighbors live over a mile away. As I write this, the Wyoming Department of Health lists fewer than 1,800 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the entire state.
Yet each day I read the news, and I mourn for this country and the world, ill-equipped to handle a virus ravaging us all. The college where I teach has gone online. The class I teach in Yellowstone National Park is cancelled. Here I am, unhappily home on the range.
Every morning by sunrise I am walking fields and cottonwood bottoms along the North Platte River. It’s not a painful duty. A bald eagle stands alongside its fledgling eaglet on an immense nest, as its mate fishes from a branch over the river. White pelicans sleep in snowdrift-like groups, oblivious to my passing. The dew reveals thousands of glistening orb webs strung between stalks of crested wheatgrass and rabbit brush. It brings to mind Tom Paxton’s song “Getting Up Early” that I sang years ago at my wasp-loving mother’s memorial service: I walk the long grass, get my legs all covered with dew, Getting up early, remembering you.
Songs in my head have always provided a background rhythm on these ranch walks. Until now, they were often tormenting earworms from my youth, tunes by Herman’s Hermits or Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Now the songs are melancholy, brought on by John Prine’s death from COVID-19: Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon, Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.
Even Prine said he couldn’t sing “Sam Stone,” that desolate song of drug addiction, very often. But it’s with me every morning and it echoes through the day. Even though I’m privileged, fortunate so far in my experience of this pandemic, I seem to be climbing walls from my recliner.
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I miss teaching young minds in the classroom. I miss bumping into friends in town. I already miss those unwritten songs that Prine still had in his complicated brain, full of snakes and bluebirds.
Hell, I still miss my mother. I worry about friends and family, all in more vulnerable situations than I am. I fret over the legions of unemployed, the professional caregivers and factory workers. I worry about topics I’m teaching: unabated carbon release into the atmosphere, the planet-devouring human population.
Every morning I watch the sun rise on the prairie. I can almost feel the Earth turning to embrace that distant fireball burning away the dew.
Today I checked the beehive. The queen is alive. I find her busily seeking empty cells where she can deposit her eggs. She has a noticeable lurch in her walk. Maybe that’s the best even the most sheltered of us can hope for.
This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.
Thank you, Will., for finding the right words. John Prine has a lyric for everything and unlike the folks in “The Accident”, we DO “know how lucky we are.”…to live here …to be sheltered. Yet another privilege we have – to mourn in such beautiful and abundant space.
A hundred miles beyond the point, the farthest point, the most distant point on the horizon. Out beyond the Buttes, bear clawed and furrowed like the twin brows of an old mans eyes creased and wrinkled, the corners stretching out in crowsfeet into the alkaline dust of stock tanks and magpies while a dead something does the backstroke on the rippling water.
“Walking in balance is the hardest dance you will ever do. Dance well.”
Scott – I loved this piece so much. Beautiful writing, poignant sentiments, deeply felt. Thank you, thank you. Also, glad to hear the Queen is well (enough).
Nice piece, Will. Great to hear from you. Gifts sometimes come from dark places. Light is close behind.
I enjoyed this piece also, and hello to you Tom –
Wonderful column, Will–thanks!
Same album, remember? John Prine, joked about leaving the regular world:
She was a level-headed dancer
On the road to alcohol
And I was just a soldier boy
On the way to Montreal
Well she pressed her chest against me
About the time the jukebox broke
And she gave me a peck
On the back of my neck
And these are the words she spoke:
Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Move into the country, build you a home. . .
Whoever thought that road would lead to this odd, COVID highway?
Tom, don’t forget perhaps the best folk-song line of all time from that same song you are quoting:
“I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve.”
That’s one of the bluebirds I’m talking about.
What a surprise to have positive words jump out on Facebook. Just when I am so angry at the ignorant babble that faces us daily. Your essay makes me feel good and hopeful
Thank you do much
Everyday I walk my yard admiring my flower beds.i spend time transplanting flowers to every nook where there’s room including my ditch. The salmon are starting to return so time to take a break & hit the river full of beautiful fish below the jade green waters of the Kenai River & eagles perched along its banks. From South Dakota originally. Can relate to wonderful essay. Love it! Take care. God bless!
Just finished reading your column in the Glendive Ranger-Review. You have perfectly described what I have been feeling since March! I love music, I love reading– I’m finding it difficult to do either. Being outdoors does help, whether for a walk or just enjoying my yard. It’s not just the pandemic-‘- it’s a perfect storm that leaves me grieving for a future I’m not sure is there. But there is comfort in knowing I’m not feeling it alone!
The responses to your evocative essay seem to echo a poignant sense of our belief that in these weird and worrisome times, there is the possibility of our being alone, together. For all the awful things that the pandemic imposes, this is the first time in decades (perhaps as long ago as some of those songs in your head were first sung) that the nation, even the world, is keenly aware of sharing an experience. Let’s remember this sense of “being in it together” as we turn to deal with other shared challenges–climate change and social justice.
Appreciate the musings, W. S.! Glad your queen is ok and looking forward to a time I can visit Inez again.
Wow, a beautifully written soul searching reminder of the really important things in life. Thank you Will!
How do I not know you, person who thinks and behaves like me? Someone who has a constant stream of music in their head (mine is Jason Isbell right now and his new album “Reunions”.). I don’t have hives but I visit my wildflower garden every morning and listen to the hum of honeybees. Bless you!
Thank you for the lovely essay, Will. We all have a little hitch in our get-along these days…
How could I have ever thought that I was alone in this? Thank you for starting my day stronger.
Thank you for the comfort.
what a lovely essay. Thank you!
Wonderfully descriptive piece of the land out there in the early morning that helps others escape through reading this narrative. Also appreciate the contemplative thoughts of concern for other places in our nation hit so hard by this pandemic season. Thanks for writing this and best wishes to you and yours.
Those tears may burn, Will, but it’s another sign of how the pandemic, for all the painful toll it’s taking, instructs us how to be more intimate with the natural world, and more deeply human. Thanks for writing this.