On a horse, Pat patrolled national-forest rangeland for the local cattlemen's association. He watched for cows in trouble, checked fences, and moved cattle from short grass to better grazing. Whenever he was close to our house in Whitney Valley, Ore., he stopped to visit Laura and me, and he became our friend.
Laura and I were raising two active daughters, Juniper and Amanda, 9 and 7 then. We kept the responsibility for their education within the family.
I irrigated the 1,200-acre ranch, took care of the fences, helped cut and bale hay, and bolstered our income by cutting and selling beetle-killed lodgepole pine for firewood. I took care of the garden, with some help from our daughters. I also wrote fiction, poetry, essays, and songs, and I sporadically played my guitar.
Laura did most of our cooking and household management, with some help from our girls and me, and she was principal and main teacher in our family school. She reserved enough time for a solitary walk every day, to study nature in the mountain meadows and forests all around us. She kept up regular spiritual study, for improvement of her own understanding and to provide a center for our family.
We used two wood-burning heaters in our house, and we cooked on a wood-burning stove. Laura walked out on the front porch and watched me splitting kindling with the small double-bitted axe. She said, "You make that look easy."
"It is easy. You want to learn?"
Laura knew how to take care of kerosene lamps and wood-burning stoves. She thought maybe she should know all the processes of our living, so she said, "Sure."
When Pat drove into our driveway, Laura swung the axe and tried to split a block of wood.
Pat said, "Laura, what are you doing?"
"I'm learning to split kindling."
Pat spoke sharply. "Don't you do it. You put that axe down right now, and you leave that to Jon."
He walked forward and shook his finger at us. "If you learn how to split kindling, times will come when you're splitting kindling instead of teaching your daughters, taking care of the house, or having your daily walk or your regular study.
"You don't know how to do it now, so Jon will do it, no matter what else he has to do. He might not mean to load more work on you, but he'll be in the timber, cutting wood, and he'll think, 'Well, Laura can split the kindling and get the wood in for the dinner fire, so I'll just stay out here and cut a little more wood.' Or he'll be working calves with the crew in the corral, and he won't show up come splitting-kindling time, and you'll have another chore.
"If something happens to him, you'll always have someone around who can split kindling for you, or if you have to, you can learn when you have to learn."
I thought, "He's right. How come he sees that right away, and I've never even thought of it, and neither has Laura? I'm plenty busy with my work, but my schedule is flexible. The stuff she does is the foundation for our family and for our daughters' education, and it fills her time."
We had enough kindling, so we went into the house and ate dinner, Laura, Juniper, Amanda, Pat, and I.
Our somewhat isolated way of living meant we didn't know many people, but among most of the people I knew, the women learned to do the chores and were stuck with the work, just as Pat said. The women worked with the men moving cattle, branding, fixing fences, cutting and baling hay.
The men worked hard, but they had more freedom to fit entertainment into their schedules and to do work that allowed them to be outside on the meadows or in the woods, where they wanted to be. And when the day's work was done, the men sat down and talked or watched television while the women fixed dinner and took care of the house and children.
That seemed to be a strong cultural pattern, but it wouldn't work for us if we wanted a good education for our daughters and a strong, effective family, and that is what we wanted.
Juniper and Amanda were fascinated by Pat, an aging cowboy who owned beautiful horses, who knew how to laugh and how to tell exciting stories about his adventures riding in nearby forests and meadows.
I ate dinner, joined in sharing friendship, and wondered where the old, bachelor cowboy had developed his sharp perception of patterns in the family. I was grateful to him for his readiness to give advice, because I knew the path we traveled as a family was different from most paths and required close attention to make sure we didn't develop habits that didn't support our goals.
I split a lot of kindling through our years of raising our daughters. I made sure Laura rarely had to fill lamps or polish lamp chimneys. I did a significant part of the teaching for math and English, but my most important contribution to our family's education was to make sure Laura, Juniper, and Amanda had uninterrupted time and a warm house for the schooling they worked on together.