Jim Harrison and missing horses

Michigan novelist Jim Harrison’s  mystery novel The Great Leader  moves along with Midwestern machismo and polish that his readers expect from him; there’s always hunting and fishing, hard drinking and guns, washed in literary and culinary culture. Poems and carefully prepared dinners are important in Harrison’s fictional world as they must be in his own life.

Finally, at the end of The Great Leader, as at the end of a small-town Fourth of July parade, come the horses. The scenes at the end of the mystery story depend on horses, reminding me of horses that have appeared over the years in some of Harrison’s other books.

For example, the third section of The Road Home from the late 1990’s opens with a scene outside a Midwestern country school in the 1950’s. Naomi, of the story’s main family, is the school’s teacher.  She recounts that on clear and cold winter mornings, while it was still dark, she would assemble her students to look at the stars through her binoculars, recalling that…

…a rather limited farm boy named Rex would bellow out, “Jesus H. Christ, what’s going on up there?” I didn’t chide him for swearing because he was so shy over his lack of intelligence that he’d rarely say anything. After passing the binoculars and vigorously shaking his head Rex would go over to his tethered horse, Dolly, lean against her for comfort, and stare at us until his world regained its shape.

That passage reminded me of a scene from Farmer, another Harrison novel, published in the mid 1970s. The main character  is Joseph. One month after his father’s death, Joseph came to the painful decision to sell his father’s draft horses, Tom and Butch. He could not bear to keep them. They reminded him too painfully of the recent past:

When the truck came and he loaded the team for the buyer he was unable to talk. The man noticed his discomfort and walked over to the fence pretending to look at the corn. Joseph spent a few moments pressing his face to each neck, then moved quickly off the track and walked to the house.

These horse passages strike the same raw chord in me when I read them again, even though the only horse I have ever known as my own was Lucky, a Shetland pony who kept my brothers and me company throughout our childhoods.

Before I was five years old my father moved our family from a two-bedroom home in our small Minnesota town to a larger house that seemed to me then a prairie palace  set on six-acres of lawn and fenced pasture, a half-mile out.  Lucky shared the pasture with the sheep my father grazed there. Occasionally the pasture was let out to farmers for their livestock, other sheep and horses and, for awhile, a team of mules.

Summer evenings my father would fit Lucky with a bridle and western saddle, and my brothers and I would straddle his wide back and ride. In the fall, accompanied by our family station wagon, I would ride Lucky the few miles out of town, on the gravel roads, to the Erickson’s farm for winter.

I recall one late summer day, a young boy a bit older than my brothers and I was visiting with his parents, classmates of my father from the northern part of Minnesota.  As we played in the yard, the boy was drawn to the pony in the pasture.

“Do you ride him?” he asked.

We said that we did, once in awhile, with a bridle and saddle.

“I’ll show you how to ride him,” he said.

He walked up to Lucky, hugged the pony’s neck and threw his leg across his bare back.  With his head pressed against the horse’s mane the boy spurred Lucky hard with his sneakers. Lucky bolted off in his stubby gallop, the boy whooping and bouncing on his back.

I stood amazed at this boy’s daring and remember feeling worry for Lucky, unaccustomed as he was to carrying such a reckless rider, and envy of the kid’s carefree approach to riding. Through the window of our house my father and his old classmate witnessed the ride.

Later my father’s way of describing it sent a shiver of envy through me. Lucky was our horse, our ornery, plodding friend. If unbridled wildness was in him, we never brought it out. Yet there it was.

After Lucky, there have been for me a few trail rides, a few rodeo shows, the frigid choreography of the Lipizzaners in Vienna and a party wagon pulled by Clydesdales on my oldest son’s fifth birthday. Beyond these I have had few experiences with horses. Yet I believe I miss them.

For a long, long time horses’ strength and endurance combined with human ingenuity and will to sustain life on the land, but for generations now we have needed our partner the horse less and less.  Most of the people I now know live miles and worlds from the ground and life in which men and horses were partners. Still, somewhere buried in the cavity of my chest, in the evolved and adapted folds of my brain, I miss pressing horseflesh. I miss the smell and the patient quiver of horses, their deep-eyed, load-pulling presence, their dignity and  heroic, helpful potential.

As we ride a thrilling wave of technology and communication advances higher and higher we lose a certain human gravity, a spiritual home place. No doubt we will find it again—in virtual pilgrimages to the Milky Way perhaps—until then there must be something in many of us which will continue to miss horses and the sense of ourselves that they gave us.  In his poem Horses Wendell Berry writes about the replacement of horses by farm machines:

Our minds received
revolution of engines, our will
stretched toward the numb endurance
of metal. And that old speech
by which we magnified
our flesh in other flesh
fell dead in our mouths.

Once horses carried us, powered us, sheltered us and waited for us. They ran wild on mesas and stood still to plows. Then we ran wild, and were more patient, too. May the memory of our horses be kept, the shape of their flesh and the spirit of their hearts be remembered and noted with honor.