A few months ago, I bought a walk-behind DR brush cutter to clear several overgrown acres in the back half of our new weekend property in Lamar County, Texas. In our part of the world we usually use tractors with bush hogs dragging behind, but I didn’t want to lay out the capital for such a big rig, hence the DR.
This thing is a beast that chews up saplings three inches in diameter without even struggling to clear its throat. Chest-high Johnson grass and weeds? No problem. It shreds that kind of vegetation with satisfying, crunching sounds reminiscent of a sharp knife cutting through limp celery.
The front stretches out like the hood of a ’76 Ford Thunderbird and the monster cutter is driven by an engine big enough to power that same car. The belt drive will yank it from your hands in third gear, so the only thing one has to do is engage the blade thick as a Roman broadsword and follow…sometimes reluctantly when the terrain forces a veer off the operator’s intended path.
One such unplanned shift in direction took me through a thick patch of head-high thorny blackberry vines and oak saplings, resulting in long, bloody scratches down my arms. However, when I looked back, the new lane was clear as a walking path in a city park.
Hang on, Ethyl, I think this boy’s gonna start reminiscing!
The whole thing reminded me of a scene that locked into my mind about twenty years ago when the legendary Y.O. Ranch in South Texas hosted a weekend cattle drive for outdoor writers and one of their children. Our youngest daughter who was thirteen at the time, nickname Taz, is a natural on horses and she was excited to go.
It was a real three-day cattle drive across that huge 40,000-acre ranch, moving a hundred or more longhorns from one pasture to another. On the first day, cowboys taught the city slickers how to ride, and later that evening kids learned to cook over an open campfire. It was a breeze for Taz, who grew up camping with us and already knew how to ride.
We pushed the herd on the second morning under a gray, leaden sky weeping with rain. The herd’s trail boss made it clear that if “things got western,” kids and dads were to get the hell out of the way and let the real cowboys handle the herd.
Ten experienced cowhands circled the cattle and pushed them into a long string through the first pasture full of prairie savanna grasses, cedars, and ragged mesquite. Mounted kids and dads filled in the loose circle of riders, walking their horses in pace with the longhorns and cowboys who looked to be straight out of casting.
I was riding point with the trail boss and Taz was halfway back when something spooked the tough, rangy longhorns. The leaders instinctively wheeled and charged into a thicket of fifteen-foot-high mesquite trees lining a dry wash. The rest of the herd followed, ignoring the experienced cattlemen’s attempts to stop them.
In the Trail Boss’s terms, things got western.
He spurred his horse and took off to the right and around the end of that big patch of crooked trees, intending to cut the herd’s leaders off and turn them until the rest of the cowboys punched through the dense foliage to help. Reins in one hand and a 35mm camera in the other, I followed right behind him and watched that man sit his horse like he’d been born in a saddle. Not nearly as graceful in the saddle, I held my own and we beat the herd coming through the brush and reined up in a small clearing to experience a scene straight from the 1880s.
The running cattle sounded as if a steamfoller was crashing through the thicket. Branches and limbs popped and crackled, hooves thundered on the ground, and whoops reached our ears both from kids and cowboys.
Then here they came. The leaders exploded through the thicket in a blast of dust and flying leaves with broken limbs and dead branches caught on their horns. The real cowboys popped out on both sides of the herd, doing their best to keep the cattle from scattering to the winds. My breath caught at the sight of a scratched and bloody kid bent low over the saddle horn to avoid the limbs, holding her hat with one hand, and riding like hell.
She passed us and flashed me a grin full of excitement and fun.
The trail boss roared and pointed. “Who the hell belongs to that kid?”
I raised a hand, expecting a good old fashioned dressing down in a cowboy way.
Instead, he built his own grin. “That little gal can ride with me any day!”
They passed, and I looked through a newly cleared lane stomped flat by hooves and huge bodies to see the rest of the kids and their fathers picking their way through the undergrowth.
Under a similar gray sky yesterday in Northeast Texas, I turned after unintentionally following the DR brush cutter through a ten-foot-high thicket of saplings and blackberry vines and the new lane looked similar to the one pounded flat by that runaway herd
So what does all this have to do with writing?
Creating your characters, building a scene, and then setting those fictional people on course is like starting that cattle drive. We’d planned to follow a two-track pasture road that day, an outline if you wish, but the thing turned on a dime.
I hadn’t planned on that lane the other day, just like Trail Boss hadn’t planned on his longhorns cutting a new path through the mesquites, but I was glad for the experience and such satisfying results, both times
My way of writing is to set everything into motion and then follow the plot as it turns when it wants, but those of you who outline may shriek and throw up your hands at veering off your course and abandoning your outline. Planners must push their characters say and do certain things at specific points in a manuscript, but wait a second.
Try this little exercise just once. Let your mind wander through five or six new pages, allowing your characters’ fictional personalities to find their way. They might turn around a sapling (read minor character), a mature oak (one of your major characters), or an unseen obstacle such as a dip or dry wash (clues or an unanticipated incident) and cut a different, open path that you can look back on with satisfaction.
What could a few bloody, mental scratches hurt in the long run?