"And one cannot claim to be native to a land unless they cultivate a reciprocal relationship."
Quand tu seras consolé tu seras content de m’avoir connu.
When your sorrow is comforted you will be content that you have known me.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince
Here, on the Ranch, the air smells bigger and the sky sounds bluer. The stars dance into constellations, and my feet know the bumps and curves in the road like I know the ridges of my own knuckles. The crickets are friendly, and the fire ants are foes, and we wage war on ticks with white vinegar that stings our legs in the bathtub. Sometimes, my hair catches on the fishing poles leaning against the corner of the living room, which always smell faintly of fish. And does poke their heads up from the grass as we roar past in the Gator, leaving behind us a trail of broken branches and the industrial scent of benzene.
I was not yet born when my grandparents decided to retire on 84 acres of land in the central Texas Hill Country. They fell in love with the property and with Fredericksburg, the quaint nearby town, despite having lived their entire lives in the steel-beamed industrial metropolises of the north. My mother, then newly wed to my father, suggested the area to her new in-laws after visiting Fredericksburg months earlier. So they packed up their lives from Michigan, everything they could carry, and for years now, they have been planting roots here, leaving behind nothing but the house by the golf course that took a decade to sell.
My parents laugh through dinner-party stories of my sister and I at one, two, three, exploring the ways the rocky landscape and brittle grass of the ranch differed from the asphalt and well-manicured lawns of my then-home, a sprawling city crisscrossed with highways like a jail cell. Five bland years spent beneath Houston’s standoffish skyscrapers — buildings bloody with white-collar crime or dripping golden with oil wealth or else a combination of the two: monuments to the fallen capitalist Icaruses of the aughts. I treasured weeks spent each year racing circles in the meadow behind the wheel of the Gator, or donning pilling work gloves to help my grandfather plant trees. Even as the lack of cell service grew more and more apparent, even as the single bathroom shared by three children seemed to shrink smaller and smaller, I felt safe in knowing, and being known by, this land:
The oak grove who tsk-tsked as I hopelessly stalled, again and again, the first stick shift I ever drove. I never had a chance, really — my toes barely reached the clutch.
The crumbling but stoic cliffs I used to peer off of warily, nursing a vague memory of an unfortunate tumble off of them that ended, tragically, in a cactus patch. Now I confidently climb their contours, get stuck out in a good ol’ Texas rainstorm one morning in college with a joint between my fingers and a book tucked in my pocket.
The longhorns who once listened as I serenaded them, in a fit of madness or awe, with David Bowie. They hmmphed through my creaky rendition of Five Years without ambling away as I thought they would. I didn’t cry. But I almost did.
The particular curve of the road connecting my grandparent’s house to our guest house. Thousands of my own identical footsteps have mapped themselves onto my muscle memory, so each night as I make this walk, I lift my eyes away from the familiar horizon to the stars, and allow the whispers of Orion the hunter to fall into my ear: Quand tu seras consolé tu seras content de m’avoir connu.
Before my family inhabited this land, it was left unattended, uncared for. Dozens of acres of dead trees, decaying branches and brush, and the cacti — countless plants, spread easily by wind, rain, and passing animals. In the early years, my father and grandfather spent hundreds of hours ridding an invasion of Opuntia: prickly pear. According to the Field Guide for Managing Prickly Pear in the Southwest, the plant thrives in dry, well-drained, gravelly to sandy soils in areas with high sunlight. The Ranch’s perpetually dusty landscape is a breeding ground. In years of drought, prickly pear spreads more readily than grass, so my grandfather had to remain tireless in his commitment to the land. To see it healed, to make it home.
I remember hours spent riding shotgun in the side-by-side. My bony arms would shake from the pressure of the water hose, which we used to water the saplings we planted after uprooting dozens of oak-wilted trees. In those memories my grandfather sits in the driver’s seat and sips a Diet Coke, which he has always kept stocked in the barn fridge by the pallet. He sets a timer for each tree, and as the minutes wind down and the water in the 200 gallon tank sloshes lower, sometimes he will pass the time by asking how my schoolwork is going, or what I am excited to do while I visit. Most of the time, though, we watch the numbers shift on his watch in silence while I try not to focus on the droplets of sweat between my shoulder blades. He can be a quiet man. This is a quiet place.
There are those who say ranchers were the first environmentalists. There is an element of truth to this, that those who call a land home are necessarily called to care for it. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist and author, speaks of being native to a place in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.
“Being naturalized to a place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit,” she writes. “To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”
My grandfather speaks tirelessly of entrusting the ranch to his grandchildren. An eternal home, a promise for the future. And one cannot claim to be native to a land unless they cultivate a reciprocal relationship.
A giving: thousands of cactus spines dug into the meat of our palms. Hundreds of burn piles twenty feet high, the flames fueled by the back-breaking task of ridding the land of dead trees. A garden: my grandmother’s fingers interlaced with the deep-reaching roots of the desert flora, on her knees each morning until the day they gave out. Love.
My grandmother once bottle fed a lamb for months before releasing him into the flock. His mother had died, or maybe, tragically, simply refused to love him. As mothers in my father’s lineage sometimes do. Every year after, when we would help to fill the feeder, Alexander got the first bite. I see his children in the flock still.
A taking: another house, another barn, another tractor. Another buck slain by my father’s rifle. At the single acre plots of land down the road which used to be uninhabited: more cars, more houses, more trash, more traffic. Another wine tour limo chugging down the road. One more hotel built in the next town over.
A giving: A dozen Thanksgivings, birthdays, Christmases. A graveyard where all the dogs we have loved will lie forever. Trees, so many they took three years to plant, which will twist their branches above the road in future decades. I picture myself getting married under them. A flock of sheep, a herd of longhorns, life reintroduced to the landscape. The reservoir stocked with fish, and a single snapping turtle we always try to spot from the edge of the water.
When we were young, my sister and I would catch bluegill in the reservoir and beg our father to cook one for dinner. The taste from the one time he did still lingers behind my teeth, triumphant. At eight, I chased sheep around the pen before sending them to the auction. To slaughter. At nine, I turned my face into my father’s chest as the veterinarian loaded a syringe with that deadly liquid and plunged it into the neck of one of our longhorns. His name was Hamburger, but we did not eat him. His head watches over us in the barn.
Thanksgiving break my first year of college. My grandfather, my father, my sister, and I form a circle among jagged trunks and peeling bark, this half-dead landscape. Under the surface are three graves marked by headstones now strewn with crackling leaves and dust.
We are here today to erect a sign. A plank of wood with the words Rainbow Bridge burned into it leans against a tree as my grandfather shows me how to use the auger, the machine which digs the holes in which we will put the sign. He struggles to articulate the steps, so ingrained into his neural matter as they are, so my father has to take over. Flip a switch on the gas engine. Primer. Choke. Throttle. Pull the cord. BRRRRRRR!
Four people is too many to operate the auger, so while my father and sister dig the first hole I crouch next to the graves. Gently wiping away drying yellow leaves with my fingertips, I read the names: Samantha, Abigail, Annabel.
I had not known this graveyard was here until the day before, though I had driven over the hill countless times, the road just twenty feet away.
My whole life, my grandmother has kept a rotating cast of Bernese mountain dogs as her closest companion. First, Samantha. At five, six, seven, I dug my fingers into her dense fur. We could only visit the ranch that my grandparents call home once a year, our one annual trip across the pond to my birthplace of Texas. Those days I still carried a thick Scottish accent, but it was Samantha’s fur I called home.
Abigail was the baby first. Then when Samantha died, she was my grandma’s main companion. Back then, Abigail accompanied her around the Ranch — picking cacti, burning dead trees, the small daily tasks that comprised maintenance of their land. She is the dog I knew best, those years — eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve — when we lived in Houston, only a four hour drive from the Ranch. Her sister Annabel was skittish, and forgot about us grandchildren between visits. Days at the Ranch were spent gaining her trust, crawling under the table to lure her out with crackers and wary ear scratches.
Now I read their names carved coldly into stone.
We have been working for twenty minutes when my grandmother drives up in the Gator, her current companion Sebastian, still a puppy, riding shotgun. They arrive in time to witness us attaching the sign to the posts. We all step back for a moment to join her — one hand trembling on the cane I never used to see her use, the other always curling toward Sebastian’s fur. The five of us, and the three of them, and the tears threatening to pool in my eyes.
After too many drinks, my father would admit that those dogs are the only beings she ever loved. I do not remind him of the time my grandmother’s Rottweiler snapped at him, then only a child. How she put the dog down the next day. A sacrifice he is not sure she believed in (but then, of the two of us, I have always had more faith).
Rainbow Bridge was destroyed in a storm that winter. My dad flew to the Ranch to re-erect it in the spring.
It’s always been this: sealed urns pressed into dirt and four pairs of hands holding the shovel. It’s always been the dog, and her hand, and the space between them. It’s been a difficult love, a long one. Passed down through generations because that is the only way to contain it all —this bursting, rose-tinted love. This fraying family-recipe-book-love, this callused love to guide my hand through the five chafing gears of my grandmother’s ‘97 BMW convertible.
So maybe I have been thinking about graves and dust and death and blood. Chainsaw teeth marks on too-confident branches. All this, and love, too. It smoothes the edges.
A plea, a practice: An autumn morning standing vigil at the window.
A morning when I nurse my coffee and watch out the window as my father cuts a practiced slit down the belly of a buck, and I imagine I can smell the slick coppery tang even from inside the house. It is a curious thing to see the inside of an animal still warm from its last breath. That heart was beating a quick badumbadum twenty minutes ago. Those intestines now slithering to the ground still contain his last bite of yellowing grass.
Before the ranch became something like ours, the hills more accurately belonged to the whitetail deer. They foraged the grasses so low that the deer themselves became a fragile, ephemeral species. Those early years, my father would sling his rifle across his back and take five, six deer each year. Squint one eye: a benevolent god, camouflaged guardian angel. Every buck one less ever-empty mouth to feed. Every doe one less womb fated for fruitless creation. Now the other eye: my father an insatiable devil wrapped in hazy double-vision. Every kill a slice of venison on his childrens’ dinner plates. A death. A murder.
It’s complicated, I say. It’s kindness, my father reminds me.
So this morning, like most mornings that begin with the scent of copper mingling with coffee grounds in the air, I serve my penance, a prayer of thanks. Only when the words are over do I remember that I don’t believe in God, not like that. But I think maybe if I did, He would be somewhere in the hot blood that is dripping off the buck’s antlers. Or in the soft caress my father gives the animal’s coat before he puts a knife to the delicate throat. Or maybe He is there on the days when he returns empty handed and says, simply, none of them felt right, today.
I continue to watch, allowing this morning to flow into the practiced motions of so many others spent at the ranch. When I finally turn away from the window, it is to walk to the cabinet and pull out a box of cereal. The milk I eye warily, not sure if it was bought the last time we visited the ranch or yesterday, when Dad went to H.E.B for groceries. I can’t find the expiration date, but when I tear the plastic ring off the top, it doesn’t smell sour.
Later, another identical morning, maybe, as I stir the last crumbs of cereal into sugar dust in leftover milk, heavy steps on the stairs announce my father’s arrival. Six and a half feet tall and stained with blood (though not as much as one would think — he is deft with a knife and knows when to step back) he cuts an imposing figure in the doorway. As he toes off his boots, I ask the obvious: Got one this morning?
Yep. He is exhausted, I can tell. He has probably been out since 4:30. Think I’ll only go out one more time while we’re here. He wants to get a deer for our neighbors across the street, a thank you for the beef they gifted us from their cattle (a new pair each year, always named “Lunch” and “Dinner”).
A taking. A giving.
A question: Mark is gonna help me take him to the processor this afternoon, do you want to come instead?
I don’t. I tell him, and he is not surprised. I do not often join him on the drive into town. The turkeys who run wild at the meat processor ceased to capture my interest when I was ten years old, and the skins on the walls make my stomach turn.
He knows that instead, each day I stand in the window watching the ground turn scarlet with blood, I give my thanks from a distance. I appreciate the hundreds of hours he spends swiping away spiders in the hunting blind. I give my love to the deer that spend the early morning hours swinging from the rack, but I do not touch them.
I did not know while standing at the window, what I lose by keeping my distance. I believe that I am clean, that I am closer to good, whatever that is. I have not yet realized that to cup my hands around the kidney without fear and smell its animalness, to trace the path of veins through his flesh with a gentle finger, is a form of worship more holy than my window vigil. It will take me many more mornings to understand this. But I am patient, and my father is patient, and the stag is patient, and so is the land, after all:
Quand tu seras consolé tu seras content de m’avoir connu.
When your sorrow is comforted you will be content that you have known me.
When your sorrow is comforted. To know that the connection between the prickly pear and these soft human hands is sacred, if one only allows the spines to break the skin. Just once. (You will be content.) Blood on the grass, blood on our hands. And new growth shining underneath.
The English translation of Le Petit Prince adds a clause to this sentence not present in the original French text: (And time soothes all sorrows.) Time, more fully encompassed by the centuries a stream takes to erode a new path than by the life of a leaf which begins to drip red with anthocyanin each autumn, finding its resting place on the ground come October. One day I will be cold and dead and buried in the familiar ground of this land still in its infancy.
And I will be content.
As the sun sets over the last whimpering days of November, my 20th year, I watch my father cut another deep rift down another buck’s abdomen. I understand all this now. I understand, or at least I know why tears well up in my eyes as I inch my arm into the swiftly cooling body cavity and tentatively scoop my fingertips under the kidney, chasing the words I wrote but did not yet feel. The kidney still warm, still gently throbbing with half-remembered life. I take the buck’s heart in my hands and I turn my back to his body, still swinging from the hanger pierced between his knee and Achilles tendon. I turn my back to the buck and look instead at the first bruisy purples of the sunset. The sun, which will set, and set, and set as it always has. And we will keep giving each other our hearts, as we always have.
Soon, my father will hoist the buck into the back of the car, wrapped in a blanket to soak up the last of the blood. He will ask me what I want from the meat this time. Breakfast sausage, I will say. What I really mean is I’m trying. What I really mean is understand. What I really mean is I love you.
For my whole life, the sign on the gate read “Wannabe Ranch.” After years of daily work: clearing prickly pear, planting gardens, burning the dead, and burying them. After years of hunting, building, leaving our human mark on this land. After years spent instilling love into every footstep I make on this ground, it deserves a new name.
It takes time to build this legacy, and effort to maintain it, says my father. This entire landscape is built on limestone. Ever the scientist, he tells me: Sixty-five million years ago, a snail lived and died here. Her shell sits on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, watching us care for her legacy. We were never self-contained.
Quand tu seras consolé tu seras content de m’avoir connu. (And time soothes all sorrows.) Sixty-five million years, and now: me. Here.
Here. Sixty-five million sorrows, and here: soothed.
To live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.
At Legacy Ranch, they do.
Clara Unger is an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, where she studies journalism, creative writing, and philosophy. She drinks copious amounts of tea and is currently planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Everyone is invited.