By Amy Hale Auker
Behind our barn, in the horse lot, is an oak tree. It is actually three oak trunks that rise from the same base creating a basin above the roots. When it rains or snows, the basin fills with water. It is a smart oak tree.
The first year I went to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 2002 I was amazed to see how many people were living lives similar to my very small wife-of-a-cowboy, remote-cow-camp existence, and yet they were writing poems and songs, creating art and crafts, bringing their lives from the ranches up onto the stage, sharing the work of growing food with a broad audience.
Since then, I have only missed one Gathering. I always come away inspired and encouraged. I come away with my well filled to the top.
This year, I began my #roadtriptoelko with a slightly negative attitude. Because of world and national affairs, I dreaded gathering with my friends. I dreaded hearing more divisive talk. Plus, I had been working with The Moth, a storytelling organization out of New York City, to tell my own story on Saturday night. It was hard. It was hard to work with the director, Maggie Cino, because I felt like I already knew how to tell a story. After all, I am an author! I tell stories on stage almost every time I introduce a poem. I blush to admit that I wasn’t taking direction well. Maggie persisted through many phone calls to hone my story, to help me tell it better. In the weeks leading up to the Gathering, I worked hard on that story as well as poetry and material for other sessions on my schedule. Andy Hedges and I collaborated to pull together a last-minute Guy Clark Tribute/Jessica Hedges Benefit, and the work softened me. The Western Folklife Center was generous in their help for the late-night tribute show, and I began to realize that my phone calls with Maggie, if I would lighten up and listen, might pay off in a better, clearer performance. Maybe cowboys have something to learn. Maybe a good hand is open to new things. Maybe that openness is what makes us better hands.
We arrived in Elko midday on Wednesday. Before the artists’ breakfast on Thursday, every shred of my concern about divisiveness was gone. And my pockets were full of gifts… honey, oranges, lemons, a gorgeous photograph by Jessica Lifland taken when she visited the ranch, a cell phone antenna booster, a bottle of Apple Crown Royal, a box of copper-plated horseshoe nails, a red suede coat from Jim Bone, a flowing blouse from Pam Brown, a homeopathic remedy to ward off the flu, and more hugs than I could count.
But the real sea-change for me was on Friday afternoon when I joined Teresa Jordan and the rest of The Moth storytellers for rehearsal. When I heard the other stories I realized that only by being open was I going to, once again, fill my well. The diversity of the stories was incredible. Teresa’s story was one of leaving the land so many years ago. We heard a story of the Oregon Trail from a third-grade teacher, a story of loss and healing from a Native American man with a strong sweet voice, a story of immigration and homecoming from a man from Guatemala. I told my story of leaving the land only to return to dig in deeper. I realized that one reason I love my community so much is that we are inclusive rather than exclusive. That when we open our doors, we all win. We tell about growing food and making art from agrarian roots. We recite the words of tradition. In that telling, we make room for anyone who wants to hold hands with us. To dance with us. And we learn from them just as much as they learn from us.
The keynote address written and delivered by Andy Wilkinson, spoke of reconciliation. Art, especially poetry and music and story, brings us together, makes us kinder to one another. The 33rd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was one of community and kindness. As I stood on stage on Saturday night, I felt the tiny rock in my pocket, the one given to me by Brooksie, the one shaped like a bird on a nest if you look at it from the right angle, and was flooded with love. I was flooded with hope. I recognized the beautiful strength in humans coming together to share, the beautiful idea of gathering. It is hard to be divided when we look each other in the eye and tell our personal narratives.
From folklorists who give dance lessons, to Butch Hause keeping the sound board going long past midnight during the Guy Clark Tribute, to a hat full of cash for Jessica and Sam Hedges, to old friends helping me when I almost melted down with nerves, to a song by Rod Taylor about turning off the news and going out of doors… this Gathering was my best ever.
The well in the base of the smart oak tree behind the barn is full from all of our winter moisture, and my well is full because we gathered, we came together in community, rooted together, growing up strong.