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.
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.