Seattle writer and poet Paul Hunter’s new work is homage to a contemporary working West.
Ben Wilder is Paul Hunter’s main character that rides with us through each of the 18 stories that make up his new, contemporary western novel, Sit a Tall Horse. It is contemporary in that while we don’t know the exact year it is in Ben’s cowboy universe — there are pick-up trucks and the Internet — modern trappings scattered throughout give us a few hints of the time.
We follow Ben through a number of years and a number of jobs on Texas ranches with names like the Lazy B and the K-Bar. The book gives us a look at Ben’s life and some of the interesting people who enter his world on these big Texas outfits.
As Hunter described his story’s setting, “There are a handful of Texas ranches the size of the fictional K-Bar and several larger, from half a million to near a million acres, bigger than Rhode Island, that still employ cowhands on horseback, breed and raise grass-fed beef the old way. These are self-contained weather-beaten little worlds where change comes slowly, at the speed of mounted riders.”
We hear Ben questioning his career path as a cowboy and things around him. “…what kinda life is it anyhow, where you don’t own a thing but your saddle, the good hat you keep in a box, the everyday hat on a peg while you’re resting indoors, and the upkeep of a couple of pairs of boots? I don’t go home for the holidays because there’s nowhere that’ll have me but right here on the place entirely owned by someone else.”
Hunter’s writing celebrates the old ways of honor and virtue and his style uses an authentic and compelling voice that invites us into Ben’s world to the point that when we reach the book’s end, we frankly just don’t want to leave.
“Ben’s world is entirely imagined but I have met most all of the people that inhabit it,” Hunter says. His writing was inspired early on in his life by reading every Zane Grey novel he could find. If you are a follower of writing on small-scale sustainable farming you may have run across Paul Hunter’s books of poetry and prose on the subject, one he is obviously passionate about.
His first collection of farming poems, Breaking Ground, was published in 2004, and received the 2004 Washington State Book Award. A second volume of farming poems, Ripening, was published in 2007, and a third companion volume, Come the Harvest, appeared in 2008. A book of prose on the subject, One Seed to Another: The New Small Farming was released in 2010, followed by his fourth book of poetry, Stubblefield, in 2012.
Throughout his various writings, the land is a principal character and how we deal with it as human caretakers. Thoughtful sustainability is key to Hunter in both ranching and farming and helps steer his words — and in the case of Ben Wilder, how he approaches most everything. Hopefully in all our lives we know or have met someone dependable like Ben who would prefer to make a living horseback but is satisfied to have a job on an outfit that holds high the quality of an honorable man working for them.
Hunter is no stranger to the life of which he writes having “pitch-forked hundreds of tons of manure, strung miles of fence, and herded all manner of cattle as the weather circled and pounced.” Along with a Midwest upbringing, he worked on what he describes as traditional midwestern farms around animals large and small, studying their ways.
In a chapter called “Vagabundos,” two riders approach Ben in the home ranch yard one late afternoon asking if there was a place they could camp for the night. Hernan and Roderigo are two vaqueros simply passing through with a couple of dead chickens slung over one of the rider’s saddle horns. Ben found them at once interesting and suspicious but directed them about a mile and a half down the lane they just rode up. There they would find grass and water for their horses and a fine place to camp near the big bend in the creek.
Later that day Ben rides his mare Cindy down to visit his guests who asked him to share supper. Over the meal the three relaxed and got to know each other, appreciating their time together. The next morning, Ben bought the two vaqueros flapjacks and coffee and the conversation landed around the sketching that Hernan was doing spending time along the creek. What started for Ben as concern about these two visitors had evolved into genuine interest in their uniqueness. He spent some time with them and then rode off. The next morning when he rode down the lane to visit them, Ben recalls, “I got there and they were gone. Hernan left a drawing of Cindy and me, riding toward him that first afternoon. It was under the pile of cleaned pie tins, with a rock to keep them from blowing away. I didn’t know how I felt about it, though he wrote ‘Muchas Gracias’ on the bottom, and his name. The sketch is a moment from far down the road, spattered by the light and shade we rode through. Cindy seems focused on him in the distance, ears up, while I took off toward the creek, watching its flow through the trees. Here we are going the same direction, looking at two different things. Hernan had not even seemed to look up until we were close, and I swung down from the saddle. He might have looked more than once, but may have caught this all in in a single sidelong glance. I liked what I saw, what the drawing offered. Right there and then I got the notion that anything you did could be an art. That the art is what you felt about what you did, that just by doing you might somehow share. That even being some kind of cowboy, working animals without making them fear me, could be a craft or an art – traveling light as I could, with one pot for everything, that would always feed me, that in turn I always fed.”
Sit a Tall Horse is a fine read with fascinating characters and a centered pace. In Paul Hunter’s thoughtful cowboy world, less can truly be more.
Paul Hunter lives and writes of things rural from his Seattle home surrounded by books and musical instruments. He built his first guitar from scratch and plays Dobro, slide guitar and the mandolin. No longer a horse owner, he says, “I did know a tall, red horse early on that faithfully carried me far without a misstep.” A few other horses threw him, he said, but he got back on.
Sit a Tall Horse is available from the publisher Davila Art & Books and the usual places.