I’ve been feeling mortal. I suppose it started when I came down with pneumonia and the doctor looked at my chart and said, “In light of your age, we’d better order some additional tests.” He was about thirty and had that wrinkle and flake-free tan that doctors get from being able to choose the sort of sun they stand in. I don’t begrudge those tans. I’m just jealous and feeling mortal.
It is not like I think I’m about to die. In fact, dying is hard for me to imagine. There is a creeping sense of fragility, but it usually only comes over me when I’m about to do something stupid. It could be the first onset of wisdom that makes me look a strange horse in the eye and try to read his soul before I jump on. Life has suddenly gotten less physical. I don’t lift heavy objects anymore without help. Walking is still a great pleasure to me but now, before I set off, I notice and consider the distance and change of elevation like never before. That contraction of the physical is probably all normal and good and it really doesn’t bother me much. What bothers me most is a new focus and feeling of helplessness with regard to purpose. It is a kind of exhaustion and it makes me consider the future as if I have lost some power to mold it. I have always been a dreamer, but now I feel myself planning more, weighing the options, noticing the flaws in the dreams.
My new-found mortality is not simply the sudden realization and fear of risk. The risks of life have always scared the hell out of me, but I usually went ahead because I felt strong and the dream was so much more powerful than the fear. But of course, dreams are personal things and the weight of them falls on the dreamer’s shoulders. It isn’t fair to expect others to step into the harness of another’s dream, though it does happen. I have a brother who has two sons who have, to my brother’s great surprise and delight, stepped into his business and are running it in a way that is inspiring. There is no one in the wings to take over this buffalo ranch with its belief in good food and the restoration of the Great Plains. I suspect that is why I hesitate to take advantage of what I am sure are opportunities to expand and prefect the operation and the dream. Maybe the sense of our mortality is not so much the realization that we will one day die, but that, when the inevitable happens, there may not be anyone to step in and tend your dreams.
Anyone who cares to think can stand on the deck of this ranch house and look out over the Cheyenne River and know that the temporal relationship between the Great Plains and a man is severely out to scale. Time simply acts on one differently than the other. For a man to affect any sort of restoration or new realization about our relationship to the environment is way bigger that a single human life – if it is possible at all. A guy hates to think of his life’s work sliding backward after he’s gone but that is what happens to most of us. It is really only ideas that have a chance of bridging gaps between generations. If an idea can be established then the next generation gets to start at a different place than the last generation. It might be two steps forward and one step back but it seems to be the way it works. So the real question is not so much one of the mortality of man as it is one of the immortality of ideas.
There are modern ways to counter-act this negative effect of time. There are organizations that carry on the dreams of men. There are legal creatures like conservation easements and corporations that can extend the influence of us all. But knowledge of these things is not something that I have picked up over the years. Of course old dogs can learn new tricks but there is that exhaustion to consider. This month I have been unplugging the telephone and reading old books a lot. I re-read Don Quixote and it stuck me hard that the hero dies only when he realizes that his dreams are not possible. It makes me think that this old dog had better be studying up on some of those new tricks.