"Lonesome dove. Lonesome pine. Lonesome blackjack." Daddy gave me this riddle to decipher months before my 30th birthday and told me I wouldn’t receive his gift until I figured it out.
I knew immediately what he was referring to. Our catch pen off County Road 45 looks just like a scene from Lonesome Dove, complete with cobbled wooden fencing, busted panels and choking dust. In the adjacent southeastern pasture, situated in a small valley near the creek, stands a gnarly longleaf pine. Directly south, over the next hill, proudly resides the shortened limbs and weathered bark of a seasoned blackjack oak.
This oak was the subject of a long-anticipated, hand-written-in-all-caps, emotionally-laden story Daddy composed for celebrating my 30 years on this place.
Daddy knew this oak as a friend and would communicate with him on a daily basis. He called him Lonesome and wanted me to know the story Lonesome shared with him.
The following is an adaptation of the well-written prose my father was so proud he had composed.
Lonesome was and is a witness—not only to the natural diversity that was once a seemingly inexhaustible resource in the wilds of Alabama but also to the Bearden family history that continues to be written in this particular part of God’s world.
Lonesome’s life began as determined acorn, dropping to the inhospitable, rocky Chilton County soil. Lonesome put down roots with a purpose—to outgrow all of the other oaks on the ridge. Back then, he wasn’t lonesome. He would laugh loudly as the fox squirrels, gray squirrels and flying squirrels shimmied up and down his slowly growing trunk trying to find food or a mate. He would give generously when the deer and turkeys came to him searching for shade and food. He would stand proudly when the red-tailed hawks issued their defiant calls of territory and dominance from his outstretched branches.
He never lacked for company – until the the day my grandfather decided to purchase the land he was on. In an effort to pull double duty as a Baptist preacher and cattleman, Granddaddy Bearden cleared the hilltops to grow grass. After cutting down Lonesome’s other tree family and friends with saws and axes, he had mercy on Lonesome and left him standing solo. He figured the cattle needed shade on this dry hill.
But one problem arose for Lonesome: his animal friends no longer came to see him. He was so far from the main forest that most of the creatures felt vulnerable in the open space. An occasional hawk would visit, and he could see turkeys on the next ridge searching for bugs, but he still felt, well, lonesome.
Since he couldn’t relocate himself to camaraderie, Lonesome waited for others to come to him. Initially the cattle and horses kept him company—“a mare’s soft nose and baby calves in downy clothes” (Daddy’s words). Then Lonesome began to admire all of the human activity that started taking place in and around his hill.
Lonesome watched in awe as Granddaddy painstakingly put in terraces along all of the hillsides to keep his soil from eroding and keep his recently planted grass growing.
From preacher's son to rowdy cowboy
Lonesome admired the transformation Daddy underwent as he morphed from being a mischievous preacher’s son to a spirited rodeo cowboy “busting” colts beneath his branches to an accomplished cattleman with a successful business and respected work ethic.
Lonesome smiled as Daddy courted Mama horseback and then settled into married life permanently on the ranch. He sighed when Mama refused to ride “ever again” after Daddy’s roping horse bucked her off and she was laid up in bed for a week.
Lonesome marveled as my sister and I visited his pasture daily and helped Daddy check cows. He watched nervously as Daddy evaded defensive mama cows in efforts to administer medicine to their calves or place the calves on the truck bed just so we could pet them.
Lonesome cheered with us when Daddy playfully chased turkeys from the pasture into the woods with the pickup.
Lonesome pitied us when Daddy, my sister and I took turns on a resurrected John Deere tractor, pulling a rented fertilizer spreader, bouncing over bull holes and terraces, in the summer heat, chugging two liter bottles of previously frozen ice water.
Lonesome painfully witnessed my Daddy’s last project on earth—his somewhat nostalgic attempts to rip open the soil and “re-terrace” the hillsides just as Granddaddy did almost 100 years ago.
This spring, Lonesome lost his best friend to a heart attack. Though I visit Lonesome occasionally in Daddy’s absence, I have a suspicion that he’s still keeping some of Daddy’s secrets to himself.
Though Lonesome is not the giant he used to be, having his once stately branches reduced to woody nubs, his steady core continues to stand strong despite his vulnerable hilltop home. Lonesome knows he still has a purpose.
Who else will watch after our mama cows when they begin calving every fall? Who else will make sure they don’t waste their hay during the chilly winter months? Who else will force my sister and me to stop our horses underneath his stubby, time-tested branches in order to smell the sweetbay magnolia blossoms drift up from the creek bottom in late spring? Who else will give the bulls a place to rest and fight flies during the summer? Who else will remind us that Daddy and his family stories have shaped our identity and fostered a permanent connection to this precious land?
Thank you, Lonesome, for befriending three generations of Beardens. We promise you will never feel Lonesome again.