Ars moriendi

Yesterday I dedicated the grave of my grandfather, Verl Bagley, who by one measure spent his life at the end of the earth. A hierarchy of geographic and cultural distance from coastal metropolises like New York City or Los Angeles might descend through Chicago to Denver to Salt Lake City to Idaho Falls. From Idaho Falls, you drive a half hour to Rexburg, then an hour through the dry farms into Driggs, the largest town in Teton Valley, and then another ten miles to Victor. In Victor, you turn right on the Cedron road and drive almost to the end, and there my grandfather lived. Aside from a mission late in life to Oklahoma, and occasional visits to see his children and grandchildren, my grandfather never traveled far from home.

Not many people would choose that kind of life today. Or, rather, it’s a life that we can scarcely imagine, let alone choose.  His mother, as a young girl, watched the U.S. Army escorting the Shoshone onto a reservation. When my grandfather was born, Russia and Austria were ruled by Romanovs and Habsburgs. He began herding sheep, summer and fall, at the age of twelve. Some people leave home for college; he went away to Ricks and stayed only a quarter, just enough time to discover that he was a better sheep herder than college student, and time enough to meet my grandmother. Other men of his generation went away to war, but he was excused from service because sheep herding was a strategically important industry. As stake Sunday School superintendant, he visited the Kelly branch just north of Jackson; its remaining structures are known today as Mormon Row, an iconic monument to a moment in the settlement of the West that is not quite so far past as one might think at first glance. As the Teton Valley water master, my grandfather oversaw the local irrigation system for many years, while also serving unofficially as the dowser for anyone who wanted their well to hit water at a reasonable depth. For all his interest in news of the wider world – at the time of his death, he had been a regular subscriber to the Post-Register for seventy-eight years running – nearly all his life was bounded by the hills and mountains that he could see from his front porch, and he was subject to all the stresses and hardship entailed by life on a family-owned ranch.

As I said, it’s not how many of us would choose to live. But there are worse ways to finish your life, I think, than in a house you built and lived in for seventy years that drew water from a well you dug on the spot you witched with a willow rod, surrounded by gardens bearing the flowers and vegetables you planted and land that your sons and grandsons still work and hills whose every slope you’ve ridden and streams whose whole length you’ve fished with your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are no good deaths, but there may be none better.

19 comments for “Ars moriendi

  1. No need to be sorry. And the loss is hardly mine, compared to the dozens or hundreds of people who lived near my grandfather for many decades longer than I did.

  2. Pequisat en pace, Verl Bagley. A different life from the one my grandfather lived, but also, in a sense, the same one too. I hope these itinerary scholarly grandkids they produced, you and me, can honor their dedication to a particular place and faith as best we can. Thanks for sharing, Jonathan.

  3. Jonathan,

    I knew your grandfather through my work at the nearby Bennion Ranch. He was a remarkable man who taught me (unsuccessfully) how to water witch. He also had a great sense of humor. I am saddened by this news and sorry for your loss.

    That little spot next to the stream underneath his weeping willow tree was a perfect paradise on a hot day.

  4. It is pretty country, Jonathan. Most people stay if they can but often leave for education, family, or employment. Your grandfather was a lucky man.

  5. Russell, I had that post of yours in the back of my mind when I wrote this one. Now I see that your grandfather and mine were born the same year. I’ve never thought of my grandparents in terms of a “greatest generation” – rural Idaho was so different from the arc of history that that term implies – but sometimes it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there were giants in the earth in those days.

    Sgarff, people say my grandfather had a thousand friends. That may not be an exaggeration. Thanks for being part of that.

    Bill, I didn’t think I could call it an ars vivendi because I would have been a complete failure at it. I would have flunked sheep herding at 12, or probably something even more basic at an earlier age. You’re right, though, that ars moriendi isn’t a perfect fit either. Ars vivendi in mortem?

  6. I bet your grandfather knew my great grandfather, who herded sheep in the same area before settling down in Victor. I think we still have a couple of family members in Teton Valley. One perspective on the change in lifestyle you didn’t mention is that property in Teton Valley is exponentially more expensive now than it once was with the boom in outdoor recreation and hobby ranches. There are probably plenty of the old families wishing they had held onto their land another thirty years to really cash in. In a lot of cases, choosing that slower lifestyle isn’t possible anymore because the best places to live them have ceased to be what they once were. Moving out to the country isn’t always an option for people with meager means anymore.

  7. Jonathan,

    I believe my family and I met your grandfather in the summer of 2010 where we did a project in association with the Quickwater Ranch. He taught us to witch. I was sure I was going to be able to do it, but failed. He was delightful. I also spent my childhood summers on the Bennion Ranch in the 1970s. What a place to have a family legacy.

  8. George, that seemed to be the result with everyone he tried to teach. His usual explanation was that you had to have a bit of the devil in you to be successful at it, so maybe it’s not all bad that it didn’t work for you.

    Owen, I think it’s safe to say that my grandfather knew your great grandfather, since Victor had maybe 200 residents until the last few decades. You bring up a good point that the area has changed a lot with the development of the skiing and tourist industries. My grandfather’s ranch was at the wrong end of the valley to really strike it rich in real estate, but I know the idea of moving operations elsewhere came up at least once or twice.

  9. Having lived eight years in Idaho Falls, we have visited the Teton Valley many times, and even been slowed down a few times by sheep being herded down the highway. One of my missionary companions from Japan came out for a visit when his daughter was getting married to a local boy she had met at BYU Idaho, and again when another daughter finished her mission on Temple Square. Being in the business of selling traditional Chinese pharmaceuticals, he was excited by all the wild sage growing there. He and his daughters loved posing for pictures next to the giant potato in front of the drive-in movie theater.

    A number of my co-workers have built vacation homes in the valley, where the real estate is still more affordable than in Jackson, just over the pass. Many neighbors argued that the view of the Tetons from the Idaho side is superior to the one from the national park. Being able to make a living in the midst of that beauty is wonderful.

  10. I admire the sense of rootedness, of utter connectedness, embodied in this piece. For all the allure of “seeing the world,” there’s something to be said for being a “homebody”—and few of us are homebodies to the extent described here. I have experienced a degree of connectedness to my hometown which I’ve often looked upon as undesirable—“for this cause shall a man leave his mother and his father, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they, twain, shall be one flesh.” While some of my friends have left for points hence, it’s surprising to realize how many of us have come home—or have never left in the first place.

    While I left home for the usual pursuits—a mission and school—except for a few years working and during graduate school, I have returned home most summers and in between ventures. My financial circumstances currently dictate that living elsewhere makes little fiscal sense. While I have often told myself that I will leave here whenever work, more school, or a family of my own takes me elsewhere, and while I have sometimes told myself that I am “trapped” by my circumstances, I wonder if I might be guilty of assuming that the grass at least appears greener elsewhere, and of looking beyond the mark.

    My maternal aunts, for the most part, have lived within a dozen to two-dozen mile radius of one another for most of their lives. The exception has been my mother, whose husband took her all of several hundred miles north of that radius. Still, she returns at every opportunity. My brother and his family live a scant thirty miles away. My own home town is certainly not the same sleepy burg I grew up in. Still, I suppose it will always be “home” in some sense, even after my immediate connections to it have passed on.

  11. Not many people would choose that kind of life today. Or, rather, it’s a life that we can scarcely imagine, let alone choose.

    Well, I can certainly imagine it – it’s one of my more active daydreams – but I have to agree that it doesn’t seem like one I can choose. It’s something I feel rather conflicted – and often irritated – about.

    My great grandfather and namesake ran the family sheep herding outfit that his great grandfather began in Fairview Utah. My cousins (whom I call uncles) are the last generation that will run it. My dad who spent considerable time herding these sheep while growing up before apostatizing into accounting used to repent for this choice by dragging us down to rural Utah in order to arise at 4am and doc lambs every spring. For him, it was a vacation. While my own time herding sheep could be collectively counted in months, somehow the generations worth of genes riding sheep through the mountains and deserts of Utah have sunk into my own soul and helped form an identity I can’t deny – even if it’s not an empirical reality or even possibility for me.

    Your post moved me. Thank you Jonathan. May we all honor our fathers and mothers in like manner.

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