Episode 1: “How to Cuss in Western”


Carrie: Welcome back, lit-nerds, to our first edition of St. Mary’s Modcasts. I am Carrie Villarreal, and I have a “hard road to hoe” this evening as we discuss Michael P. Branch’s “How to Cuss in Western.” But before I get there, let me introduce you to my fellow cussers: 

Leigh Ann: I’m Leigh Ann Cowan, and “you’ve got the wrong pig by the tail.”

Forest: I’m Forest LeBaron, and “I’m gonna catch the weasel asleep.” 

Dr. Hill: I’m Mary Lynne Hill, and “you can hobble my latch pan, sister.”


Lane: I’m Lane Riggs, and “I’m as crooked as a Virginia fence.” 

Carrie: And we have some tough nuts to crack this evening as we delve into Michael P. Branch’s “How to Cuss in Western.” A little bit about the author, Michael P. Branch: 

He is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada in Reno, where he teaches creative non-fiction American literature, the literature of human environmental studies, and film studies. He’s published eight books and more than 200 essays. He’s received an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize and been recognized as notable essays in the best

American short essays, [Carrie gets tongue tied]. I totally goofed that up–the best American Essays three times, among others. He’s also the recipient of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, among others. 

He’s quite accomplished, and we are really excited to be discussing his book as we kind of delve into this idea that he approaches a lot through “How to Cuss in Western” this idea of transformative landscapes. 

And we’re really gonna start off with the geographical transformation of landscapes at his home on Ranting Hill and the Great Basin desert of Nevada with, “Running Into Winter”.

Leigh Ann: Right, so we could talk till the cows come home on this one, 


But basically he starts off with this story he’s into–his father-in-law’s 60th birthday rolls around, and you know when your father–when your father-in-law turns 60 you really want to ask him what his greatest wish in the world is, and when your father-in-law says running, of course you’re gonna say, “That’s great, grandpa. What else.”


Which is exactly what Michael Branch does. But in the end they actually do end up running a marathon together, and even though he comes in dead last, you know, after his father-in-law, after the children, after the 80 year old lady with the walker, he decides he actually likes running. 

But when you live out in the desert where you gonna run? Nowhere really. 

Forest: Up a mountain. 

Leigh Ann: Yeah, up a mountain, apparently. Because he finds a special pair of running shoes that allows him to run up the mountain in winter! So it’s just like when your grandparents tell you how they used to walk to school every day. 

Dr. Hill: Up hill, both ways, through the ice, and the snow, and the rain, and the wind, lots of wind. 

Carrie: So I, I really–So what interested me most about this: not only was it that he was having to like, tackle, like, this relationship landscape with his father-in-law, also going back to California which he addresses in one of his prior essays. 

But this idea of like, the name of the shoe is Icebug, and as I’m sitting here thinking like, Icebug like water bug, ‘cause like, he describes how the shoes work, right, where you basically, like, the pressure of the runner’s foot causes the spikes to extend out as opposed to, like, a normal track shoe, like sprint shoe, where, like, the spikes are straight down. 

They’re straight down and they’re stationary, and they stay there all the time, so it’s almost like–I love that they’re called Icebugs, you know. Water bugs, the legs, they create tension on the water so that they can skid across that, and then like here, like, that’s exactly what those ice spikes are doing. That allows him to climb, to run up the mountain and the ice and the snow and then to run back down it, right? 

Leigh Ann: Interactive cleats. 

Carrie: Yes! So I think that, like, not only is he talking about, like, geographical transformation, but these shoes, which transform the act of running on ice, allowed him to transform his thoughts about running in general. Because, you know, he says that he’s never been a runner, but that that endorphin, that runner’s high from the half-marathon, thought maybe he could be. But then how do you tackle that, right, in the desert when you go from one extreme to the next? Almost like looking a few feet, walking a few feet, walking a few feet, yeah. So. 

Dr. Hill: Are the shoes, then, a metaphor also for his relationship with his father-in-law?

Forest: Well, he says perhaps I was simply ill-equipped. And he says that throughout the whole entire thing. And so I think it’s–it’s kind of some of his anxieties that get transferred from not only his space that surrounds him, but, like, the people that surround him as well because he gives in, and he goes, and he runs his marathon. And he knows he’s not gonna come in first in any kind of way, and he still does it because it’s for his family. 

Carrie: Yeah. And I love that, like, you know, kind of like going along with the idea, like, are the shoes the metaphor for the relationship with his family? He says, here on page 194, “The further I ran, the more I trusted the crazy shoes. And with that trust came comfort. And with comfort, speed. And with speed, the return of that species of exhilaration that is unique to running.” 

And I just, I just I wonder, then, if that’s…If that is just, you know, kind of something that encapsulates this whole, like, idea of like, when we are in–even geographical crisis, if we trust the geography or the place that we’re from–in transforming us, then we can find the peace to live within that geographical boundary. 

Dr. Hill: What do you think about “Such Sweet Sorrow” as a story that helps us explore transforming social landscapes and the social power of the fart. 

Carrie: This is my favorite. this is my favorite story of the entire collection here. I think that it is delightful. 

Leigh Ann: He does bring up a lot of good points. Like, for example, a fart: it’s basically just a sneeze from the other end. He writes on page 37, “If I am blessed for publicly detonating a high velocity snot shower, why must I beg pardon for farting as if it were a crime?”

Which is very interesting to me because in the Deaf community, bodily functions are okay. Like, it’s not even a big deal. If you fart you fart. It’s natural. Like we talk about bodily functions all the time, like, did you poop, did you poop today? Yeah? Good, okay. Cool. I haven’t done it yet, so if you could leave the bathroom free for a little bit that’d be great. 


Carrie: Well, you know, I think I about that, too, because so, I’m recent–I’ve–so I’ve been married a year, so it’s still pretty new, and I still have a fear of farting in front of my husband. 


I’m, like, worried that it’s like this big faux pas, that automatically he’s gonna be like, “Oh. Yeah, it’s time for a divorce.” 


But, right, one that doesn’t flatulate? 

But I–it–I love this here, that, this idea that the thing that connects us, and because we’re always asking like, well what connects us to each other? Um, and and we’re like really trying to reach out there, Oh, well it’s our ability to think, it’s our ability to feel emotions, or it’s our ability to rationalize. 

But really what connects us all and what what he says connects all mammals is the fact that we fart. I mean, something so basic that we could really all get behind. 

Dr. Hill: Hopefully not too close behind. 

[Laughing hysterically and loudly.] 

Carrie: Yeah. And I love that he ties in the idea of farting with a societal transformation, and really using that for freedom because there really, I think that that is like the linchpin of really this whole idea, and he carries that theme often throughout “How to Cuss in Western.” Because, you know, that’s what he feels that he has out there on his home mountain, on Ranting Hill, is that it allows him the freedom to express himself from, free from, societal implications and all of that.

And so I wouldn’t–I want that for me. I want to be able to pass gas in public should I need to without fear of reprisal… 

Dr. Hill: Or divorce. 

Carrie: Or divorce!

Forest: But it’s like he says, “Farts, like love, are an inevitable byproduct of our humanity.” 

Carrie: Yes. Yes, absolutely.


Forest: All of his 87 references to farting. 

Carrie: Of the 261 synonyms from Urban Dictionary. 

[A veritable mix of both Carrie and Forest, we really were excited about this part.]

Forest: M-hmm.

Carrie: Quite a few of them in there; I was impressed. 

Forest: He used a lot of good phrases too, “one cheek sneak”–

Carrie: Yes. 

Forest: –“the benchwarmer”, “a little back draft”–

Carrie: Yes. This is my favorite, and, like, this is one of my favorite from a syntactical standpoint ‘cause I was thinking about–

Dr. Hill, excited about linguistics: Okay! 

Carrie: –okay, the Linguistics course we took, I took last semester, and he says here “I paraphrase the poet Galway Kinnell’s irrefutable scatological, which is beautiful word insight, that those who don’t poop don’t live, while those who do do doo-doo do”. 

So, um, I just think that that was like really, like, if you, like, in my musical mind is like kind of like, trying to like, doo doo doo doo. But like, and I’m just like, he’s, he’s [we all stutter a lot apparently, this isn’t a typo] like, really like, pulling on the musicality of flatulence. 

[Awkward giggling whilst we gather our embarrassment.] 

Carrie: And speaking of music. 

What about the emotional transformations in “Desert River Music”, what did y’all think of that? 

Forest: Hmm. I didn’t understand really the, at first where it was going, and then the whole scenery of the river and my mind instantly jumped to sunset over the water. It was just a very peaceful, tranquil kind of setting. And then all these people started to come and listen to them, and just the the kind of sense of camaraderie and being able to be there for your fellow being was very eye-opening.

Lane: And it was definitely eye-opening–opening [again, this is not a typo, we are all stuttering out of nervousness], that if they hadn’t gone to the river and played music that these people would have never heard them play, so, like you said it was creating a bond between them because, by chance, they were there, and all these other people came to listen to them. 

Carrie: Yeah, I really love that. Like, and I know like we talked a little bit about, you know, society as well, because the people that come to hear them play the music are homeless, right? Right. They have nowhere to go, and like, really, like, I think here and, like, transforming an emotional landscape, you also have the ability to break down societal barriers. And I think that that is so powerful. 

And music is a really great pathway for that. I mean maybe we can add that to the list of all the things that connect us, and that’s music. Along with, you know, flatulence. 


Dr. Hill: Which is a type of music. 

Carrie: It’s very bass-y! Its trumpet-y. 

[Laughter and unintelligible background comments as we began to realize the musicality of farts.] 

Yeah, we’re trumpeting in here, but I really love this last image here, where one of the listeners who have come to listen to the music…He didn’t have anything to give Michael P. Branch and his friend SmooB–which is smooth Brad–except the gift of…the gift of a place, the gift of a place, where they could be safe and warm. And I just like that’s really, I think there’s, I don’t–I’m kind of lost for words ‘cause it’s just such a beautiful… 

Leigh Ann: So, he offered–yeah, he offered it to these two people who created this music, yeah, created this refuge and community. 

Carrie: Yeah, all in a single evening. 

Forest: And it really connected them to each other, even though number one: they’ve never met each other; number two: a lot of people’s first instinct is when they see a homeless person is to walk the opposite direction. 

[A general consensus of “rights”.]

Carrie: Something that just like hit in my mind is like–okay, so my brain’s working overtime here, but this story occurs almost in the middle, like the dead center of the book. And like thinking about it, and in, you know, hearing your perspectives it’s really got me thinking about how this story is kind of, because he starts out the story talking about the river, the Truckee River, right. So, we really have this intersection of emotion, society, and place, like geography all converging here in this one single story.

Dr. Hill: Intersectionality. 

Carrie: Yes. Yes, yes. Yes, and I think if there were going to be one story that you would ever read from How to Cuss in Western, it might have to be this story, yeah, because it does–

Dr. Hill: “Desert River Music”? 

Carrie: Because it does, it connects–connects it all together. 

Forest: He even he brings in his family, too, and the fact that the hobo’s lullaby is the one that he sings to his daughters to go to sleep. Yeah, and so that it shows that that experience really just kind of stayed with him and traveled with him, and that connection is never gonna truly leave, right. 

Carrie: It’s truly transformative. 


Dr. Hill: So, with this collection, Michael Branch helps us transform, or he invites us into the transformation of the geographic dimensions of our life, of the social landscapes, and geographic landscapes, and the emotional landscapes of our life, and how we can, through observation of the most basic dimensions of the human experience or the mammalian experience, transform ourselves through a human awareness and fundamental human kindness. 

[All of us make sounds of agreement.] 

Carrie: Absolutely. 

Forest: Bringing these things into everyday conversation and everyday actions.

Carrie: Absolutely. And that’s how we transform our lives. 

Again, if we can harness that that’s how we can transform things. 

Well, lit-nerds, and ladies, thank you for cussing in Western with us tonight as we discussed Michael P. Branch and transformative landscapes. We do hope that you stick around with us by hitting like and subscribe and we’ll see ya on the other side of the mountain.

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