THE FENCE by DW Groethe


photo © Jessica Lifland; request permission for use


by DW Groethe

When it comes to vexation and ire
Nothin’ gets my dander higher
Than bein’ in the sticks
Tryin’ to fix
Hun’erd year old strands a wire.
They criss cross in jumbles an’ knots
In places God’s all but forgot
Hangin’ from posts
That gave up the ghost
Way back when Valentino was hot!

You can randomly pick any stretch
Of thirty odd feet an’ you’ll fetch
Ten distinct types of wire
Twelve knots and a choir
Of whatever the wind lets it ketch.
As a functionin’ tool—it’s a bust.
There’s no metal in here — it’s all rust
That with one careless stare
Will drop from the air
To the gumbo’s gray mud cracklin’ crust.

A tradition out here every spring,
Says you light out an’ fix the damn thing—
Tho’ any ol’ dope
Can see it’s past hope—
You still go and give ‘er a fling.
Soon you’ll hitch up two loose ends that’s fell
An’ click that ol’ stretcher until
It’s snug tight an’ fit
Ah — You know you should quit
But a little voice says—”What the hell!”—
So you give it just one tiny squeeze
The whole time yer sayin’—”Lord please—
If I can just click one more
You’ll see me Sunday for sure—
Heck!—I’m already down on my knees!”—

But a fool and his wire are soon parted
So yer settin’ right back where you started—
With a mouth full of cuss
An’ words blasphemous—
It’s no place fer them that’s weak hearted.

And rocks?—
The rocks here a thicker ‘n sin
So there’s posts that ‘r barely sunk in—
The fact that they’re there
Proves the power of prayer
Answers many a shaky Amen.
There’s willow an’ cedar an’ steel—
Stone Johnnies—But hey let’s git real
In this fencin’ game
Findin’ two posts the same
In a row—now that’s a big deal!

An’ when it comes to ranklin’ yer craw
Nothin’ beats coulees an’ draws
When it’s hot’r ‘n blazes
An’ there’s nothin’ that fazes
The bugs as they chew yer hide raw.
There’s no such a thing as just one—
They’re like clouds that blot out the sun—
Moskeeters an’ gnats
Flies—big as small cats—
That nothin’ on earth can outrun.

Eventu’ly you’ve had enuf fun
An’ you end up—back where you begun—
With fingers well crossed
You lie to the boss
“She’s like new—I got ‘er all done!”
Til next spring when it’s time to commence
This time honored ritual nonsense—
What strikes me as odd
Is that cows us an’ God
All pretend that the damn thing’s a fence!

© 2001, DW Groethe
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Eastern Montana ranch hand DW Groethe performs his poetry and music at venues small (which he really likes) and large. He’s appeared many times at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and has been invited to the the National Traditional Council for the Arts’ National Folk Festival, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Library of Congress, and other places.

Hear him recite his “Yearlin’ Heifers” poem in photographer Jessica Lifland’s slide show.

He sings his “Rodeo Sweetheart” song in a video from the 2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about DW Groethe and his books and recordings at Follow him on Instagram.

The photograph above is by photojournalist Jessica Lifland, an official photographer for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find more of her photographs at, including photos from the 2017 gathering. Follow her on Instagram.




Photo by Bj; request permission for use.


by Bj Smith

I often go to church and sit a leather-covered pew
there isn’t any place I think that has a better view
of mother nature’s bounty, free of false pretense
where life is full of meaning because it all makes sense

I like to take communion then of waters pure and clear
and taste the fruit of faithfulness that’s unpolluted here
then linger in the garden intertwined among the rock
blushing forth in color of the blue forget-me-not

There’s monkey pods and kitten tales and yellow butter cup
neatly spread at table settings where disciples sup
massive granite spires hazing fountains tumbling down
past the lofts where angels perch adorned in choir gown

The path is tenuous that leads me to this tabernacle
half obscure and full of burdens that I must unshackle
trails are blazed by pioneers that ventured here before
guiding me past obstacles where no one’s keeping score

The steps along the way consume tenacity and grit
exhaustion tries to change the course that’s set upon the bit
for dead fall, bog and rocky scree protect this sacred alter
from those whose moral compass, slowly slips its halter

The world’s great cathedrals of glass and wood and mortar
created by fine artisans to me seem somewhat shorter
in stature to the place I pray in solitary fate
worship wants not only those who choose to congregate

Maybe you are wondering of where it is I search
to find my place of sacrament that is my precious church
I do not peer through sifted light of tinted window panes
but rather where it’s open to the sky on guided reins

It’s when I ride among the peaks on rocky mountain high
or from my bedroll gaze upon the stars that fill the sky
I feel so insignificant, a speck upon this earth
and marvel how it is that even I might have some worth

But maybe since this sacred place is there for me to see
a purpose flooding in my heart is what inspires me
to understand that greatness isn’t always in the show
goodness done is often something only God will know

Just like the timid fairy slipper shaded by the spruce
its beauty hidden far beneath the need of human use
where mankind in its arrogance purports to rule the hour
ignoring what a miracle there is in just one flower

There is no competition here for foolish mortal man
who argue one another which religions they should ban
confusion has no sanctuary, selfish pride no rest
there is no I am better, there is no I am best

And this is not a welcome place to comfort faint of heart
exposed to nature’s elements could tear a soul apart
slashing wind and biting cold will drive me to the timber
where gnarled juniper protect me ’til my legs are limber

It’s on these peaks and ridges that I learn of compromise
and know that our redemption begs for us to harmonize
suffer not our fellow man both modern day and tribal
has always been the message that is bursting from the bible

For from an alpine pulpit, how could we preach of hate
nature in tranquillity gives pause to hesitate
and see the devil down below promoting false temptation
envy, greed and disrespect that’s blinding our salvation

So it is on misty slopes I am a clergyman
astride my faithful partner, that is equestrian
I know that I am blessed more than a week has days of seven
for I’m among the lucky ones that’s rode the steps of Heaven
And so it is on misty slopes, I am a clergyman.

© 2010, Bj Smith, used with permission

Alberta outfitter Bj Smith likes to let this poem speak for itself. Its message seems important now, more than ever.


We’ve posted this poem before with a this photo by Bj Smith:

bjPhoto by Bj; request permission for use.

The photo at the top of this page and this photo are from this summer’s trail:


Photo by Bj; request permission for use.

Bj has a new CD, A Saddle Tramp Soliloquy, and a forthcoming book. Find more at his site,



conversationphoto by Dana Cook

by Ken Cook

What has not changed ol’ cowboy friend
Since you was young and men were men?

When horse not broke till nearly five?
Cow’s horns intact kept calf alive!

What has not changed in all your days,
Is nothin’ left of cowboy ways?

The wagon was your only home
And blackest eve Nighthawk did roam,

To hold ’em quiet with lullaby
And ride the ridge where coyotes cry.

What has not changed in all your days,
Is nothin’ left of cowboy ways?

When fences held a garden tight
And grass for miles a wondrous sight,

With horse and rope to branding fire
You burned the hide with one desire,

To live a life on Sandhills grass.
Tell me cowboy, has all that passed?

I’ll tell you boy what still remains
Of cowboy ways here on the plains.

By God you ride the same as me
And cows are cows near’s I can see.

I’ll tell you son what still survives
Of cowboy ways shines in your eyes.

Few teams are left and fence appeared
So Nighthawk sleeps but over years,

By God you rope and do it grand
‘Cause it’s your life, you’ve made your stand,

Which has not changed in all the days
You’ve kept alive a cowboy’s ways.

You fight back change to keep old ways
That every year make ranching pay,

So generations yet to come
Might live this life that we’ve begun.

They’ll saddle horse to work a cow
Here on this ranch like we do now.

© 2007, Ken Cook
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Ken Cook comes from a long line of respected South Dakota cowboys and has perpetuated that line with his offspring.

He tells that an interviewer’s question prompted the poem, “I spent nearly the entire interview talking about my Grandpa Frank Buckles and my kids and the changes in the cattle industry that have occurred over three generations…[the interviewer] asked the question, ‘Ken, what has not changed?’ I thought for a moment then replied, ‘Cows.’ The one thing that has not changed is the fact that cows are still…just cows. As I left the [interview] I pulled my pad and pen out of my pocket and wrote down the line ‘cows are cows.’And those three words prompted the creation of the dialogue between a grandpa and his grandson …For me, the poem has become ageless, with the passing of my Grandpa, my kids growing up, and now grandchildren of my own. This thing we
call ‘life on the ranch’ has a way changing with the seasons.”

Find more about the poem and about Ken Cook at

This photo of Ken Cook by Dana Cook is from a 2015 branding.

GOOD CLEAN FUN by Rodney Nelson


by Rodney Nelson

I remember making hay with Dad,
We’d put it up in stacks—
Dad used to use a stackframe,
and filled it to the max.

Then sometimes, but not often,
he’d say “Rodney, you’ve the knack.
Grab a fork—I’ll lift you up,
and you top off the stack.”

Reluctantly, I’d take the fork.
He’d lift me up on top—
I’d stack that hay to 30 feet,
before he’d finally stop.

Then he’d drive up really close,
I could see him down beneath
As I stepped out on the pushoff
on the end of the stacker teeth.

He’d back up a little ways,
I hoped he’d try no tricks
But giving me rides on that farmhand,
was how he got his kicks!

Wasn’t long and I’d get mad.
I’d had these rides before—
He’d slide the pushoff almost in,
Then he’d run it out once more!

“Come on, Dad, let me down,
this really isn’t fair”
Then he’d point the teeth toward the ground
and leave me dangling in the air!

I could hear him laughing down below,
in hopeless choking mirth.
and I’d wonder if I’d ever again
put my feet upon the earth!

It was no use to argue,
Dad wouldn’t quite ’till he was done,
But I always, always wondered,
How could this be so fun?!

Well, our yard light burned out last year,
and since I’d run that farmhand all my life,
I knew we could fix it in a minute
if I could convince the wife!

Wasn’t easy to convince her,
she said a housewife was her role,
Though mad she was, she climbed aboard,
Took a ride to the top of the pole.

I said, “Sweetheart, I’m so proud of you”
when she fixed the light—
“And you’re especially lovely when you’re angry,
You really are a sight.”

“Let me down, you worthless cur,”
She was having a full-fledged fit—
I couldn’t pass up a chance like this,
So I drove around a bit!

GOOD, CLEAN FUN—I said to myself
as she called me a hopeless sap,
My grin got even wider
as I made another lap!

“Honey, just enjoy yourself
and isn’t it a fright—
It’s the first time that I’ve carried you,
since our wedding night!”

I finally shut the tractor off
Let her sit up there a while,
Promised her I’d let her down,
if she would only smile!

Oh it was fun—but there’s a problem,
I can see it now, I can …
It’s gonna’ take some might sweet talkin’
when that light burns out again!

© 1989, Rodney Nelson
This poem and photo should not be reposted or republished without permission.

North Dakota rancher, poet, columnist, and Senior Pro Rodeo champion Rodney Nelson recites this audience favorite in a video from the 2008 Western Folklife Center National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Rodney’s daughter-in-law Sara Nelson shared photos of Rodney’s grandson Haakon in a past Picture the West at

The photos were taken in August, 2014. Haakon was out in the hay field watching his father make some square bales and the baler popped out this little bale that was just his size. He was two at the time.

Find more about Rodney Nelson, some of his poetry, and information about his books and CDs at He writes the popular “Up Sims Creek”
column in Farm & Ranch Guide.

A COWBOY SEASON by Jo Lynne Kirkwood



photo by John Michael Reedy; request permission for any use. 


by Jo Lynne Kirkwood

Part III
(October — The Pasture Corrals)

In late autumn gnarled branches remember
their youth, and know they must die,
and at night they moan, and creak and cry out,
and bare tremblin’ limbs to the sky.

And in those lost hours ’til the dawnin’
hoot owls hunt, and predators roam,
and out riding nighthawk you look over your shoulder,
feelin’ fearful, and longin’ for home.

But a coyote’s been doggin’ your late season calves,
and near the tank a bear print was found,
and the fences need mending, better get to that soon,
‘fore your cattle stray off of your ground.

The wind stirs dry leaves in the shadows.
Is that a bruin, a hidin’ in there?
Or could be a cougar, warily watchin’—
Or nothin’ but restless night air.

“Aw, Come on,” you mutter, and shake at your shoulders.
“Grab hold, man. This ain’t no big deal.”
It’s just that October’s got you feelin’ spooked,
and out here the demons are real.

© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood, used with permission

Perfect for the season, Utah storyteller and rural teacher Jo Lynne Kirkwood’s atmospheric four-part work, “A Cowboy Season” is a BAR-D favorite. Find the entire poem at

Jo Lynne Kirkwood has a fine book that collects her poetry, “Old Houses,” and recordings. Find more about her at, at her site; and on Facebook.

This intriguing photo, “Sandy,” is by Montana songwriter, poet, and photographer John Reedy. It is included in his book, This Place. The impressive photography in the book is accompanied by John Michael Reedy’s poems and songs. You can view the entire book here, where it is available from the publisher.

See our feature about John Reedy at, which includes more examples of his outstanding photography, and find more of his work and more about him at and




by Andy Nelson

I’ve found a new way to keep up with my pards,
That seems to be all of the rage;
I revel in stalking my cowboy buddies,
From my very own Facebook page.

I’m the jigger boss of my own cyber wall,
A social media buckaroo;
I ride herd all over my internet range,
And all of my buddies do too.

I post and I poke and I tag and I like,
It seems that the fun never ends;
I share and I add and most all my replies,
Irritate most all of my friends.

I’m on the confuser first thing in the morn,
Asking for side pork recipes;
But holding a skillet of splattering grease,
Makes it real hard to take selfies.

With smart phone I go as I see to my chores,
And film the cat having kitties;
Then upload a clip of a silly bum lamb,
Nursing on the milk cows (udders).

I spend most of the morning passing along
Unsubstantiated rumors;
I ask a few pards about wart remedies,
And treatments for sarcoid tumors.

I don’t care much for the political posts,
Just like most all of the masses;
Pachyderm or burro, far as I’m concerned,
Both parties’ mascots are asses.

I get all jacked up when a notice comes in,
It might be my birthday, or not;
Then invite all my friends to join an event
Called, “My party that you forgot.”

I keep track of feed days with a status update,
I don’t do anything by halves;
And I make sure to post a new life event,
Each time that a mama cow calves.

The joke that I shared of the old spotted donk,
Didn’t much seem to offend me;
But the Appy folks and the mule skinnin’ crowd,
All of them want to unfriend me.

I get back to the house and upload some pics,
Of me with my new healer pup;
A cryptorchid horse colt, a prolapsed old cow,
And something the barn cat threw up.

I know my old pards will be waiting to hear,
About my ev’ning ablution;
So I share a quick pic of me in the tub,
With my new dandruff solution.

Then I jump in my long-johns, flop into bed,
And rehash my day on the run;
I’m worn to a frazzle but don’t understand,
Why I don’t get anything done.

© 2016, Andy Nelson
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Pinedale, Wyoming’s Andy Nelson is a second-generation farrier, cowboy poet, emcee, humorist, rodeo announcer, and co-host (with his brother Jim) of the popular syndicated Clear Out West (C.O.W.) radio show. This poem is included on his most recent CD, I Won.

Andy entertains at gatherings across the West, and next month he is headed to Utah’s 22nd annual Heber Valley Music & Cowboy Poetry Gathering, October 25-29, 2017. Other poets include Waddie Mitchell, Chris Isaacs, Jeff Carson, Sam DeLeeuw, R.P. Smith, Jake Riley, and Paul Bliss. Musicians include Riders in the Sky, Bellamy Brothers,  Bar-J Wranglers, Brenn Hill, R.W. Hampton, Sons of the San Joaquin, Sourdough Slim, Lon Hannah and San Joaquin Junction, Chris Peterson, Rollie Stevens, Joshua Creek, Many Stings, Dave and Jenny Anderson, Charley Jenkins Band, Jon Messenger, In Cahoots, Cold Creek, Carin Marie, Eli Barsi, Summer Brooke & Mountain Faith Band, Call of the West, Kristen H. Lloyd, John Wayne Schulz, Molly in the Mineshaft, and the Heber Valley Orchestra.

There are many special events, including the Cowboy Express Train, a mounted shooting competition, the Buckaroo Fair, Cowboy Brunch, and Cowboy Church. On the Free Community Night, Thursday, October 26, the cowboy poetry and cowboy music Chuckwagon and Cow Camp Stages are open to all.

This year’s poster features the art of Andy Thomas. Read more about him here on the gathering site; at his web site,; and on Facebook.

Find more about this year’s event at and on Facebook.

Find more about Andy Nelson at; at his web site,; at the Clear Out West (C.O.W.) website,, and the show’s Facebook page.




by Wallace McRae

“What does Reincarnation mean?”
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, “It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life’s travails.”

“The box and you goes in a hole,
That’s been dug into the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted ‘neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin’ on
Yer transformation ride.”

“In a while, the grass’ll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower
That once wuz you, but now’s become
Yer vegetative bower.”

“The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed,
But some is left that he can’t use
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground
This thing, that once wuz you.”

“Then say, by chance, I wanders by
And sees this upon the ground,
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life and death, and such,
And come away concludin’: ‘Slim,
You ain’t changed, all that much.'”

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow penned this modern classic. The NEA comments, in a bio here, that “Reincarnation” is, “…a poem destined to outlive him; it has already become part of oral tradition and is recited by cowboys around the country who have never met the author.”

See a fun video of Wallace McRae, along with his friend Paul Zarzyski performing “Reincarnation” at the 2009 Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry

Wallace McRae will tell you that “Reincarnation” is his least favorite of his poems. For a
wonderful look at this complex man, watch a Western Folklife Center video in which he “… tells a true story about Northern Plains ranching, with a moving tribute to a neighbor.”

For another aspect of his work, view his presentation of his stirring, masterful poem, “Things of  Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of WESTDOCUMENTARY, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.

See Wallace McRae at the Western Folklife Center’s 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, January 29-February 3, 2018.

Find more of Wallace McRae’s poetry and more about him in our feature at

This 1941 photograph, “Ranch horse on grazing land near Lame Deer, Montana” is by noted photographer Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990). A collection of her photographs at The Library of Congress ( tells that she produced more than 9.000 photographs for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1938 to 1942. Find more at a web site created by her daughter.

Find more about the photograph here.

Wallace McRae relishes being known as “The Cowboy Curmudgeon.” Do not use his poem without permission.