• Alice Whaley

Inhabit; Out of Habit

At the age of six, I remember being given a small book to read. I was at school in France at the time, and the book was called something like Le Weekend Extraordinaire. It was about a little girl who is home alone, and finds various exotic animals inside her house: a giraffe in the shower, an elephant in the fridge, and so on. Each time she finds an animal she exclaims, “C’est extraordinaire!” It becomes a kind of refrain in the book, like Alice’s repeated “Curiouser and curiouser” in Alice in Wonderland. I remember being baffled by that word, extraordinaire.

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” I exclaimed to my parents, “Extra-ordinary is very ordinary, and finding a giraffe in your shower isn’t ordinary at all!”

Perhaps I, like the other Alice, have grown curiouser and curiouser, or perhaps I never shook off my confusion about Le Weekend Extraordinaire; either way, I’ve come to realise that the extra-ordinary is extraordinary after all. As John Lewis-Stempel writes in The Wood, ‘It is not the devil in the detail, it is the divine. Surely.’

*

It’s quiet in the truck as we roll into work this morning. The colts in the field to our left stand defeatedly still: ears back, necks long and low in the rain. The bulls don’t move when they see us coming, but their eyes follow us along the drive.

“The fish ain’t biting,” says Russell.

“What?”

“Bulls are laying down. Means the fish ain’t biting.”

It seems a great deal of Arkansan folk wisdom is dedicated to discerning when the fish are and are not biting. Gayle has an upturned Coke bottle in a jar of water sitting on the windowsill in her kitchen. When the bottle fills up with water, it means the fish are biting. I wonder if the bottle’s empty today, and if it isn’t, whether fishermen have more faith in prophetic Coke bottles or in bulls.


With the animals fed, we got all the gear out of the rodeo trailer, and set about oiling leather under the shelter of my front porch. I remembered the storm that hit in my first week at the Estancia in Uruguay, and how we cleaned tack there, humming Latin-American folk tunes and passing mate around as we rubbed animal fat from the kitchen on the white leather made from cow gut. I remembered oiling the smart zahones, ornate Spanish chaps, the night before the Andalusian deer hunt. I remembered having freezing cold hands while I cleaned tack before a local horse show, as a kid. And I smiled, and Russell hummed a country song, and I revelled in how different it all was, again.

Russell’s hands moved across the leather as if the rag was oiling his muscle memory too, his fingers tracing the form of the tack even when his eyes weren’t looking. The natural movement of habit, the unceremoniousness of familiarity. I’m not there yet. I know this because I’m aware of how American leather feels in my hands as I clean it. Spanish leather feels like earth, South American leather feels like cloth, and American leather, well, I don’t know it enough to say. This time, as I rub saddle soap on a faded rag, I’m tasked with cleaning the chaps worn by the ‘pickup men’; the men who pick up fallen cowboys during the rodeo. Everything here is heavy-duty. Russell’s expecting the weight, but I nearly drop the first halters I pick up. Every strap is two layers of thick leather, reinforced with a layer of nylon. Likewise, the chaps are so well padded that they’re almost stiff, and it takes most of my strength to lift two pairs off the hook at the same time. They’re black, with the Ram Trucks logo stitched in white three times on each leg. The new rodeo halters are broadcasting too. They’re dark cherry-red on the cheekpieces and headpiece, and rusty orange on the wide noseband, with intricate leather tooling around the white lettering: Hi Lo. I transfer the NFR medals from the old halters to the new, miniature celebrations of Hi Lo’s victories.


This is the first tack I’ve seen that’s self-aware, made with the knowledge that it’s going to be broadcast on national TV. Every square inch of leather is a business opportunity. It has to be – the animals have got to eat, and all this makes that possible. Russell’s own tack is, of course, unbranded, but it’s intricately tooled nonetheless. Elsewhere in the world, the beauty of a saddle rests in its elegant shape, or in the quality of the leather, or, perhaps, in the odd detail here and there. The embellishment at the heart of Western saddlery, at the heart of Western culture, is unique.


Van taught me to tool leather while I was in Oklahoma, and I’m just beginning to realise how Western that is. I travelled to Arkansas with a little hammer, a beveller, and the side of a pig, and – since my trailer doesn’t have WiFi – I have spent my evenings working on a new belt, made the old way. I’m giving it an acorn design to match the 1927 Hamley saddle that I fell in love with. When I’m not tooling leather, I’m practicing roping, playing Willie Nelson on my ukulele, or reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Earl has lent me his pistol too, but I’m not yet cowgirl enough to practice shooting alone.

Novelties are taking root and growing into habits, and yet, there are so many ways in which my patterns haven’t changed a bit. I still listen to Radio 4 every day, I still have vivid dreams every night. I sing in the shower, and I play with my split ends when I can’t think of what to write. I still hold the reins like Guillermo taught me in Spain, and I still drink mate like Carlos taught me in Uruguay. And, even though the content of what I’m reading changes with every flight I catch, I’m still reading, always reading. Habit, I think, is like the skin on your hands, telling the stories of who you are and of who you have been, quietly, faithfully, and without fanfare, to those who look.

Watching Russell’s hands oiling the leather, I find that habit has the easy beauty of stone steps, worn smooth and wise through years of use. It is not so much eloquent as it is honest, announcing nothing but the faithful memory of motions moved before. You do not hang it on a hook by the door; you inhabit it, or it inhabits you, so quietly that you don’t hear the latch click when lets itself in, or when it leaves. Across places, regions, and countries, habits grow so broad and old that they earn the name of ‘culture’. When you arrive in such a place, the light around the open door marks out the furniture inside. Only after living there for some time do you begin to inhabit it; begin to gather how it feels to move the way the natives do. We don’t hear the door close behind us, either.


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