Of Blood and Bone

OVER THE YEARS, we have left many things at my father’s grave: flowers, agates, and fossils found out on the prairie, an old pair of boots he loved. But not everything makes it through the winter or the wind. My drawing of our old sheepdog, Sam, was gone in a few days. One spring my mother tried to get a batch of moss roses to take; they went brittle in the sun. Yet what has never left is the fact of his body, or what remains of it, in this prairie earth. This is where we come because we want to remember he was, like us, a born and living thing of blood and bone, and now he is dead.

I grew up in eastern Montana, on the wide, rolling teardrop of bunch grass and sage tucked in between the Yellowstone and the Missouri that everyone calls the Big Dry, a place where blood and bone still matter, still make sense. Even as a boy of five or six, when I watched Sam kill my kitten with one quick snap of his jaws, I knew the reason: the kitten had tried to eat from Sam’s food bowl, something every other cat and child on the farm knew not to do. My mother dried my eyes and patted me on the back and sent me out with a bucket of soapy water to clean up the mess as best I could. I can remember, as well, holding down the wide-eyed, heaving ewes as my grandfather slipped his scrubbed hands into the birth canal and gently eased a new lamb into the world. He’d pull the caul from the small mouth and nose, set the lamb on a bed of straw near its mother’s warmth, and stand, his bloody hands held steaming in the air. And on the other end of the shed was the bone yard, the place we piled dead sheep and lambs to keep the stink and flies and disease from the living.

This cycle of birth and hard life and death, this turning about of blood, was not always pretty, but it made sense. Even more than that, it mattered. The antelope we hunted and butchered in the fall fed us through the winter. Each lamb lost in the spring was mourned, as the drying river was come summer. We saw our own mortality, our own delicate lives, mirrored in the real world around us. Funerals on the Big Dry were always huge occasions. The family sat with the body for days, and all the old cowboys wore their best brown suits. Births too were community occasions — from the Congregational Church down to the Sportsman Bar, we all gathered ’round and drank deeply and danced in our boots and sang. And after either, we turned back to the world, knowing all of this was the hard and wonderful way of things.

Yet I fear I may lose this knowledge. I now live in the midst of our suburban, consumerist, and entertainment-driven culture designed to insulate everyone who can afford it from even the slightest engagement with the raw essentials of existence, a world where blood and bone no longer matter. We lie to ourselves. We are dishonest in our refusal to take a look at the lay of things, to pick up stones and weigh them in our hands, to bend down to the dust. We no longer admit or remember our blood-roots, and by this false witness, this failure of the most basic empathy, we condemn others to lives of compounded brutality. How are we to understand the rotting bodies in the Ninth Ward or the burnt-out streets of Baghdad — images of a world not only hard but horribly wrong — if we know nothing of blood? How are we to know what to do? Our shock and outrage and capacity to comprehend have no depth, no breadth.

I come back to my father’s grave because I want to remember. Though my shoulders still fill out his old snap-shirts, one day I too will lie down on my deathbed. I want to carry the weight of this truth into each day. For this is the way it is, the way it has been and will be, and I want to remember in a world that has forgotten.

Joe Wilkins is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Diepraised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist and short-listed for the First Novel Award and the Pacific Northwest Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and four collections of poetry, including Thieve When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award. Wilkins grew up north of the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana and lives now with his family in western Oregon, where he directs the creative writing program at Linfield University.


  1. I just want to thank you. I found this article very comforting. I remember blood and bone things and sometimes in the city world I feel like I’m the only one that knows such things existed and sometimes do exist still in some place. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that remembers.
    Thank you again.

  2. Thanks for such a well-written, memorable, and effectively concise essay! Taking a familiar theme, it makes it new and individual.

  3. As a child many years ago, I lived on a small dairy farm off a meandering dirt road in rural northwest Missouri. Reading your article brought such deep feelings of connection to that time and place…I too remember.

  4. Living in Ireland where death is regarded as a friendly door opening onto a new journey and a normal extension of life, I sympathize with RR. When I go home (to the US)I see so many who either DON’T remember or never thought of it this way. Thank you for this poignant and moving reminder.

  5. Thank you for your kind comments. I’m glad the piece helps you remember as well. I do believe these are things we should try hard to never forget.

  6. My dad, brother, sister, and I went to Australia this past summer to return my mother’s ashes to the farm where she was raised. It was so comforting to touch the red earth and see the remains of the home where she was raised. I took home some of the rocks I found there, so I can touch them sometimes and remember. It is good to know that she is back in the place she loved, where she wanted to return to. I am glad to know that others have such a strong connection to their lands, too.

  7. This aricle reminds me the root of my life.Life worth nothing and so should we not live in a world of chaos.For we will oneday live it and go to the grave

  8. How true, that we live in a society that is so insulated from the physical reality of the natural world. We’re so dirt-phobic, afraid of animals, ignorant of plants and processes of nature, so unwilling to know about anything vaguely unpleasant, that we can turn aside and do nothing about the true horrors and brutalities being exerted, by ourselves or in our names, upon our brethren people and animals(out of sight, out of mind, and “if I don’t know about it, I don’t have to do anything). It seems that, in addition to living our own lives in touch with the earthly facts of life, writing so well about it may be the best we can do to alleviate the sad foolishness we as a society spend our time and energy on these days.

  9. well written and reminds us all of the way things truly are in our society

  10. Beautifully written. It makes me want to buy a new cellphone, find the author’s number, and invite him and his wife to the Steve Earle concert in St. Louis, May 5.

  11. How true, that location can have an enormous effect on how we embrace existence, how we perceive life and death…the city certainly does give us to some extent lives less influenced by the cycles of nature; there’s at times a lot of novel stimulation to compete with the acts of the nature always surrounding us. You make these points well in this story, it really got me logically and emotionally.
    Also, having a husband from the middle east, a place quite different in ways from this America, I have been thinking a lot about this issue of different world within one big world we all shared; all so interconnected yet all so diverse! Thanks for sharing this.

  12. My Father died in April 09 and I find this article to be most comforting. He would have loved it. Dad lived on farm when he was young and at the end of his life he gave us a couple thousand photographs of sunrises and birds and sunsets in Cocoa Beach. He lived a beautiful life. Thank you for Blood and Bone.

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