photo © Jessica Lifland; request permission for use
THINGS OF INTRINSIC WORTH
by Wallace McRae
Remember that sandrock on Emmells Crick
Where Dad carved his name in ‘thirteen?
It’s been blasted down into rubble
And interred by their dragline machine.
Where Fadhls lived, at the old Milar Place,
Where us kids stole melons at night?
They ‘dozed it up in a funeral pyre
Then torched it. It’s gone alright.
The “C” on the hill, and the water tanks
Are now classified, “reclaimed land.”
They’re thinking of building a golf course
Out there, so I understand.
The old Egan Homestead’s an ash pond
That they say is eighty feet deep.
The branding corral at the Douglas Camp
Is underneath a spoil heap.
And across the crick is a tipple, now,
Where they load coal onto a train,
The Mae West Rock on Hay Coulee?
Just black and white snapshots remain.
There’s a railroad loop and a coal storage shed
Where the bison kill site used to be.
The Guy Place is gone; Ambrose’s too.
Beulah Farley’s a ranch refugee.
But things are booming. We’ve got this new school
That’s envied across the whole state.
When folks up and ask, “How’s things goin’ down there?”
I grin like a fool and say, “Great!”
Great God, how we’re doin’! We’re rollin’in dough,
As they tear and they ravage The Earth.
And nobody knows…or nobody cares…
About things of intrinsic worth.
© 1989, Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission
During Cowboy Poetry Week, no poem was more commented upon or shared than Montana rancher Wally McRae’s “Things of Intrinsic Worth.”
Watch a powerful presentation in a 2014 film from The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country, directed by Carly Calhoun & Sam Despeaux.
A comment with the film explains, “Wally and Clint McRae struggle to save their ranch amidst the encroaching forces of coal production. The McRae family settled in Montana in the 1880s to raise cattle amongst prairies of the Tongue River Valley. The McRaes knew the intrinsic worth of the land and unspoiled waters of the Tongue River. Wally McRae and his son Clint continue the old family traditions. But now, the McRae’s ranch sits at the epicenter over a battle that pits powerful corporate influences against the protection of public health and the environment, and the future of the climate.”
Another moving recitation of the poem is captured in WESTDOCUMENTARY, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.
Wally McRae was the first cowboy poet to win a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their bio tells, “Wallace McRae was born in 1936, the son of a second-generation rancher from the Rosebud Creek area near Colstrip, in southeastern Montana. McRae’s family ranch is bordered on the east by the Tongue River and lies just north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Both of his parents were born and raised on Rosebud Creek, and his family has raised sheep and cattle in this region since 1885.”
The author of several books of poetry and an outstanding collection of stories, Stick Horses and Other Stories of Ranch Life, Wally McRae is reluctantly known for his modern humor classic, “Reincarnation.” He often says it is his least favorite poem.
He was a regular participant at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other events, but now he has retired from performing. Find more of Wallace McRae’s poetry and more about him in our feature at cowboypoetry.com.
Wallace McRae relishes being known as “The Cowboy Curmudgeon.” You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.
This photograph of Wallace McRae is by respected photojournalist Jessica Lifland (Instagram) as a part of her Cowboy Poetry Project. Her art so often captures the character and spirit of her subjects. Others she has photographed to date include include the late Elizabeth Ebert, Sean Sexton, Andy Hedges, Jerry Brooks, Waddie Mitchell, Amy Steiger and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, DW Groethe, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, the late Jack Walther, and others.
Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her recently-posted 2020 highlights and other gathering photos and her Cowboy Poetry Project photos at her site.
(Request permission for sharing this post or photograph.)