Hungarian Drovers
South of Aguila we rode out horseback in the evening sweetness of early fall. The mountains north of the ranch jutted up like busted incisors. The ground was pocked with gopher holes and we let the horses pick and choose our route. A covey of Gambel’s quail erupted and sputtered into a mesquite thicket and overhead a Harris hawk hunted in the late evening light. The horses snorted and the creak of saddle leather hung with the ambient desert dust that helped make the sky a rosy tint. Along a rocky arroyo, palo verde and ironwood crowded against the edge of the wash. We rode the north bank and looked for a cow, absent without leave.
And that was the last time I tried to emulate a cowboy on horseback. Since those days, forty years ago, I’ve herded cattle on foot, been kicked in the groin by a frightened calf while sorting, herded cattle in a pickup, weighed truck loads of fat cattle, sat on the hard, splintery seat at the Roswell auction and bought calves, been choused up a sprinkler stanchion by wild-eyed Angus-Brahma cross; I’ve seen cow droving accomplished on four-wheelers that zipped around like bugs on a dung pile, but I’ve not been a real horseback hand since that time at Aguila.

In my youth, I wanted to be a cowboy, but over the years I drifted towards management first and then on to other industries that have nothing to do with cowboying.

Yet the interest still resides and that’s why Betty and I are here in Elko, Nevada, for the sixth straight year celebrating the 27th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the Western Folklife Center. There is always a lot of genre music and verse and art at The Gathering, and the camaraderie with cowboys, wish-they-were cowboys and curious non-cowboy folk. It is infectious and exhilarating.

The last few years, The Gathering has highlighted some global aspect of the drover milieu. They have honored the cowboy or herder or drover traditions from the Camargue region of southeastern France, the vaqueros of Mexico, the cracker cowpokes of the southeastern United States and this year, the herders of Hungary’s puszta—or plain—fifty-two thousand square miles of livestock land where pigs, sheep and cattle are all herded on foot, and horses are herded horseback.

Drover status in Hungary is apparently governed by a hierarchy related to the species one droves. Swineherds—or kondás—are at the bottom of the status ladder, followed by sheepherders—or pásztor—followed by cow herders—or gulyás. At the apex of this drover hierarchy sits the horseman, the horse herder—or csikós. The hierarchy reminds me of the sheep and cattle wars of the 19th century and the scorn I’ve often heard muttered between cowboys, sheep men, hog producers and the like here in our own country.

It’s easy for me to sit here and see these drovers from Hungary as quaint and interesting and not really relevant, but a fact that got my attention was that as early as the 12th century, Hungarian gulyás and csikós drove cow herds across Europe to Germany and Amsterdam and Spain in journeys that rival the droving exploits of the likes of Texans Charles Goodnight and Jesse Chisholm.

Along with Hungarian horsemen and cowmen, this year’s Gathering also features music from the puszta. It reminds me of Liszt and Bartok in the wild nomadic lyric that drives the tunes. I hear a bit of Classical, too, and for just a moment some Blue Grass strains, and then some fiddle work I recognize in cowboy music—not Country and Western, but American drover folk music. And of course there is the voice of the Magyar peasant. Fifteen-hundred years of elation and agony erupting in the wild violin tunes. The violin is important and it seems to me the craft of the puszta musician sits somewhere between Folk and Classical. Wild and frightening and sometimes sardonically funny.

Betty and I visited for a while with the string ensemble’s leader, Mr. Janos Csik. Janos lives on the puszta and travels to Canada and the US fairly often to share his music. He performs at schools to introduce children to Hungarian music. He speaks some English and he and I shared our likes and dislikes about music. We both like Bach and Beethoven, and B. B. King. One of Janos’ albums has gone double platinum.

Besides the music of the Hungarian puszta, The Gathering has allowed us to meet some of the folk who work in the livestock world there including a csikós and a gulyás robed in traditional garb. The photo that leads off this blog entry will give you an idea of how they dress. The hats and robes remind me of uniforms I might have seen in troop formations at Poltava, Russia when King Karl XII of Sweden faced off against Peter the Great.

Janos’ three-piece ensemble—his violin, and a viola and a bass that bump against each other in contrapuntal eruptions to form the bottom of the beat—played some Hungarian folk tunes as the herders danced traditionally with their female companions. They circled around and around and around, never missing a beat, never slowing or wavering and when they stopped, they seemed not to be a bit dizzy which I knew I would be if I were to dance like that.

As they danced and the music wailed, I closed my eyes and imagined back to 896 AD and wild Magyar warriors swooping out of central Asia, driving their high-horned cattle herds over the Carpathian Mountains and down into the broad, fertile puszta. I heard twelve centuries of agony, love and elation. I heard a little Bach and Beethoven, some Bartok, a little bit of Hank, and a little B. B. King.


This week we begin the first of our guest blogs on kennethrodgers.com with a little piece of dynamite by the Boise, Idaho dynamo, Amanda Turner.



Five American girls journey from Moscow to Schelkovo to see where I’ve landed.  English rises in me like champagne bubbles.  Native speak strikes me giddy, while my isolation shocks them silent.  We exchange stories, realizing that those with virginity to lose have lost, not a month into our stay.  Our tales lack romance, each plays down the brutality.  One weaves dreamy of her host father, pouring in pity for his wife and daughter.  Her story disgusts me, as does my own.

My Russian friends thrill to meet more Americans, but regret their town.  A grain next to the monolith of Moscow.  Schelkovo offers only rows of towering drudgery, the dwellings of communism, and squat shacks selling vodka, cigarettes, bubble gum and whole dried fish, some with eyes and some without.   

A gathering of adolescence forms, plans are laid, a day in the woods. We worm through spindly white trees, too silent for a natural nature.  No sign of life save for a hunchback and three goats.  I wonder if the trees are frozen, preserved and brittle. 

A clearing in the forest, a few hours of refuge from the looming of concrete.  The Russians build a fire, Alyosha strums a guitar.  Apples and potatoes nestle unadorned in the embers.  We scald our mouths on the fruit, Adam and Eve impatient, and crunch through starch, too greedy to cook them properly. 

I translate.  The Americans have each other in the city, free of force to learn the language.  My circumstances differ.  Vodka, for friendship, boredom and warmth.  More vodka, for tradition and novelty. 

Back to town and the Russians request every Beatles song we know.  We strike a drunken harmony, singing and smiling as we leave the silent forest for the quiet town.  I bid the Americans farewell at the taxi stand, too rich to trifle with the bus.  They depart the depression of Schelkovo, bound for the despair of Moscow. 

I return to the Russians, whose eyes cast back to the forest, just as ashamed of their nature as of their city.  I want to reassure them, but I don’t know the words. 

Amanda Turner produces and hosts “The Writers’ Block” on Boise Community Radio.  Learn more about her at www.RadioWritersBlock.com and www.AmericanEgo.net.  In another life, she studied Russian, hoping to one day become a secret agent.  Now she just wants to write. 

High Tech

I read a lot of blogs as a means of keeping in tune with what people I admire have to say about all kinds of issues, incidents and items: falling leaves, clean kitchens, the war in Afghanistan, New York City, global politics, ice fishing in Idaho—a multiplicity of info.

A lot of times I make comments to those blogs if they spur me to think about something related to their subject matter. But before you can add your two-cents, most blogs require you to pass what I call the “humanity”test.

The “humanity” test is a little box at the bottom of a blog entry where you, the reader, have to enter a set of letters that match a set of letters that the blog provides. Those letters often look like crooked ironwood walking sticks, a brisk wind in the limbs of a mesquite tree, water pouring over the edge of a basalt cliff. They never spell a real word, at least one I ever heard of. This is to keep internet spammers, I think, and machines from making comments or stealing info or names or identities or whatever data untrustworthy internet machines, spammers, hackers and hijinx creators are after.

For a long time, when I first started encountering these weblog gatekeepers (as I like to imagine them), it was hard to read the letters and sometimes I couldn’t get them entered right and found myself relegated to the same garbage bin as spammers, hackers and other nefarious characters. But someone must have, besides me, complained, really complained, because some time in the last year or so, these “humanity” tests have gotten simpler.

Simpler, but no less mystifying to me in regards to their place in our written word environment. The crooked-letter words we are required to enter into the weblog gates are usually not real words. They are almost words.

For instance, the other day I ran on one of these gate keys that I was supposed to replicate that read “cherd.” As far as I know, the word, “cherd” is not really a word. I know of a couple of words that are close to “cherd,” both chert and chard.

The vegetable chard is a dark, leafy green akin to bok choi, collard greens and the like. I could wax on about chard and its cousins, and how I learned to love them. But that is a tale of lies, deviousness, exposure, retribution and redemption that is long enough for its own blog.

Chert is another word with which I am familiar. Chert is a classification of rock with a number of varieties known by such familiar names as jasper, flint and agate. In ancient times chert was useful as the raw material for fashioning tools like spear points, arrowheads, awls, and scrapers.

When I was a young kid, my sister went to college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.  During summer school sessions, my mother and I would make the long trek up from Casa Grande in the heart of the Sonoran Desert to the high Colorado Plateau to visit her. Back then, there were no interstates in Arizona, so it took a long time to travel what is now a relatively short distance. Often we would stop in Black Canyon City, just north of Phoenix, for a head call and a Coke. There was a “trading post” there where the woman who owned the place traded Native American jewelry. My mother possessed a lot of old baskets, turquoise and silver squash blossoms, turquoise and coral beads and she was always on the look-out for a bargain. While the two women stood around and haggled and visited, I would slip out the back into the sandy bed of the New River, which never had any water in it when I was a kid. Just sand, and a lot of palo verde and ironwood trees along the banks. I would dig around the banks and the sandy bottoms and sometimes hit the jackpot with scorpions, centipedes or arrowheads made of the local chert, flint, or maybe red or purple jasper. Back then, arrowheads were common in Arizona. I found them all the time and looked at them for characteristics that might make them unusual and then tossed them back onto the sand if nothing really caught my eye.

Closer to my home, we used to go out along the banks of the old channel of the Santa Cruz river, not the new channel that runs south of Casa Grande, but the old channel that runs north. If you showed up in the evening on the west side of the road to Phoenix, artifacts from a native past glinted into your sight like pieces of shattered glass. But instead of silicon remnants from beer bottles, these remnants were much older, pieces of pottery from the locals, the Pimas and Papagos and Maricopas (that’s what we Euro-Americans call them). Often we found arrowheads there too, but usually tossed them. Big, painted pieces of pottery were much more to our liking. I was around eight or ten years of age when I did most of this archeological work. Later I became more interested in sports and girls. Out there on the banks of the Santa Cruz, twice I found entire black-basalt metates (the implements for grinding grain or grass seeds or acorns) along with their pounding implements, the manos. I took those home along with any unusual pieces of pottery and if I found outstanding examples, chert tools.

The riverbeds and arroyos of the Sonoran Desert are not bedded in rock, but are bedded in sand and are in some ways ephemeral, so that after a big rain and the resultant flood, the course of the waterways will be changed and then you might find a new trove of chert tools and likewise, the places you mined for these artifacts might be buried in thick layers of fine clay. Kind of like life, the rivers and arroyos moving back and forth over the big mesquite tree flats like diamondback rattlers. The Santa Cruz is like a serpent out there between the Gila River Indian Reservation and my home town. Back then the wind, too, like floods, moved the sand much more than we ever did, hiding archeological artifacts. Back then the developers had no use for the desert flood plain. They were still tearing up Phoenix and LA.

Nowadays, all that Native-American stuff is generally protected by acts of Congress as well they should be. If you dig it up, you’ll be fined or jailed or maybe both, if caught. Nowadays it’s thought proper for those kinds of artifacts to be left alone in the spots that have special significance to the native peoples who survived the invasion of their land by Americans and Mexicans and Spaniards.

More than once, I’ve considered going to the mountains and finding some chert and teaching myself how to knap it into an arrowhead or a spear point. But though challenging and maybe fun and intellectually fulfilling, the work would be slow and trying and with one wrong blow, the chert would disintegrate and I’d need to start over. I have too many things to do instead; work on my computer: write, account, portray on my computer, computer, computer.

Three thousand years ago, in the desert, knapping flint and chert was probably considered pretty high tech. Now we have computers that control the tools that make our weapons and tools. We use computers to create art, create machines, fashion wood, help us think and make war. Instead of humans with stone-tipped weapons at the gates of our towns we have guards at the gates of websites and blogs with “humanity” tests, words (or almost words) that look like leafy greens, or like weapons.

Bertie’s Stammer

Betty and I went to see “The King’s Speech” on New Year’s Eve. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush put on quite a show. Based on the present Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain’s father, the film depicts many of the conflicts and roadblocks King George VI overcame to become monarch over the world’s largest empire. I liked being reminded that rich and famous people have problems that they, too, must surmount. One of the reasons I like to watch this kind of movie is to get the sense that “everybody has problems” as my father used to say to me.

This movie is short on bawdy and bodacious action and adventure, outwardly anyway, but is loaded with Freudian (or is it Jungian, or something else psychological) conflict that kept me on the edge of my seat. Some people may want more of a shoot-‘em-up and I’m not against shoot-‘em-ups, but sometimes portrayals of the battles fought in mind and will are just as engaging as a shoot-out in the hills of Helmand Province, Afghanistan or along the Rio Grande.

And of course, there will be questions surrounding whether parts of the movie really happened in such-and-such a way in real life. But in a movie, holding to the strict facts isn’t as important as the truth of the emotions and in that regard, the movie rings true. Whether George (or Bertie as his family called him—one of his names was Albert) really said such-and-such to his brother Edward (or David as his family called him) is not the salient factor to me. What matters to me, the viewer, is the emotional impact of the conversation, the interplay, what’s not said, what goes undone.

I hear people say things like, “That film had stuff in it that wasn’t real.” When I think about that, then I think that nothing in a film is real except the acting…acting, and the actual costumes and the DVD they put it on. The actors are real as themselves, but they act out the characters, and the words are someone else’s and they use props that are nothing more than props. Nothing in a film is real, nothing of substance when you get down to it. It is make believe. Even a biopic isn’t really real. A lot of stuff gets left out. What the director and screen writer choose to put in is what we see, not all the rest of the stuff that doesn’t fit with the movie makers’ sense of what is important, saleable, relevant to life. What is real—maybe the only important reality—is the emotional truth of the movie and if the film fails there, it will probably fail in the show house.

One of the big issues in the movie character Bertie’s portrayal is a speech impediment that he battles all his life. In the film, it takes on monstrous dimensions and becomes an enemy just like a German sniper might do in “Saving Private Ryan,” or that Ned Pepper might be in “True Grit.” The reasons for Bertie’s impediment appear multifarious, but they are based on fear. Bertie’s fear became his worst enemy and caused all kinds of embarrassment and folly for his movie character.

But back in the Depression and in World War II, fear wasn’t just Bertie’s problem, it was a lot of peoples’ problem. Remember what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when trying to convince the American public that the Depression was not of infinite length:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How true that seems. I have many fears that try to keep me locked up in a narrow space that funnels my efforts in predictable and boring channels, unless I take a deep breath, don’t think about the infinity of sad ramifications if I fail and move on to new and dangerous (at least for my pride if I fail) endeavors.

I recall the first time I ever spoke in public. It was 1953 and I was six. I gave a speech on the American flag to the local Rotary Club of Casa Grande, Arizona. I remember fighting to keep from peeing my pants. But I prevailed and in that prevailing, one would think, I had overcome fear, but I didn’t. My whole life I’ve had to battle that monster. All through school, in Vietnam (and man we had some fear there) and later in my life. But if I want to enjoy my time on this spinning blue orb, and experience an exciting life, I must keep overcoming, keep sucking in air and closing my eyes and leaping into the future without knowing the end result.

And often, the fear of what might happen is more dreadful than what does happen when the feared event arrives. The fear of giving that speech in 1953 was worse than standing up in front of those lawyers and insurance salesmen and business owners and actually speaking. Ms. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem to that effect and I quote its entirety here:

1277 [1]

While we were fearing it, it came –
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair –

There is a Fitting – a Dismay –
A Fitting – a Despair –
‘Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

Our private fears do not go away. To us they are often as real as the stew bubbling on the stove, the ice in the corners of the backyard fence. Fears lurk behind the door, in the alley, between the medulla oblongata and the cerebellum. We must continue to overcome them. That’s what is interesting to me, among a number of other things, about “The King’s Speech.” The truth of the movie lies in the fact that Bertie overcomes his fears; we must keep overcoming fear all the days of our lives.

[1] Emily Dickinson, “1277,” from the website : http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2004/12/10, 2011.