Saturday, August 12, 2017

That's How it is on the Range

"Clouds race by, smell rain but it's dry, that's how it is on the range." The grandboys like this soulful song and surprised me by singing along as we drove home from the prairie. 




















What surprised me was feeling them recognize and agree with the point of view.  They are growing up on the range, it's part of their family, and they are old enough to express that now. 
"Jack rabbit darts, blue grouse starts, the roll of some distant thunder, it won't stay long, its moving along, that's how it is on the range."




























I'm happy they like this song because so do I. And sometimes when I'm far from shelter and a storm up and dumps on me, I think to myself, "Dark clouds roll in, its darker than sin, he heads for a rock overhang, the rain comes down fast, but he knows it won't last, that's how it is on the range."






















Or when my tongue feels halfway parched and stuck to the roof of my mouth and I can feel my organs sucking the moisture out of my skin. Or when the cactus flowers. Or the baby fawns rocket from their nests. Or when the pines reach out their arms and I have to go over to one and smell its bark. That's how it is on the range. 






















Hal Cannon wrote this song, so lovely and deep and pendant, and I'm thankful for hearing it.

"He's searching around, then catches the sound, the lilt of a laughing woman, he listens again, then sees that sage hen, he shivers and knows he's alone."




Lately, I've been negligent in my attendance at social functions. But I do read the paper most weeks, so I know there's a birthday party and art opening at the art center, and a music bash at the rodeo grounds, and fair starts Sunday with first the dogs and then the horses and then the fat stock and land products. And there's a geology presentation on Tuesday and an entomology presentation on Thursday and there's lots of people going out to the woods to pick huckleberries in their secret huckleberry picking patches. And I know I won't go to any of it. 




















Sometimes it's hard to describe the melancholy part of being in love with land that we'll never own. The other day a line in the poem How Heavy the Glass from Cameron Scott gave me pause, "My greatest possession: this animated world."  There is that word, possession, which once meant occupancy and later, to have control over, as in things we dominate.  The rangeland that I love I have no desire to dominate. And no one can really control it. But there is another meaning that appeals to me. To possess, to maintain within oneself. 







To carry inside me some presence of what lies below and upon and above, what grows and births and dies, what lingers and what expires. A grain of sand, a column of basalt. A mariposa lily. A vesper sparrow. These I would like to possess and be possessed by. 





"Life is so rare, but persistent out there, the prairie is open and true, we make a small mark, then fade in the dark, that's how it is on the range."



From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef














Sunday, July 30, 2017

Harlan Checks on the Cows

Mike has pretty well recovered from his bout with pneumonia earlier this summer. We had some good family time when Prairie and Jon and Harlan came home for a friend's wedding, and everybody chipped in to help with chores to give Mike some rest. 

Mike enjoys the hammock at Hope's wedding

















The wedding was classic Wallowa County. A lovely summer evening, too hot until the sunset, loads of delicious homemade food, kids running in packs in willow thickets around a pond, beautiful bride and handsome groom, rowdy band on a flatbed trailer, portable dance floor in the middle of a pasture, cold beer and plenty of revelrous guests of all ages.

Harlan, Prairie, Jon - photo booth! 

Harlan, Sara and Abby 'the hat stealer'

The morning after the wedding, Harlan and Prairie and I got up early to go check on the cow herd out on the Zumwalt.  Prairie scooped Harlan out of bed and into the truck, along with a big to-go bowl of oatmeal with dried apricots and pears which he greatly enjoyed, once he was awake.

Are we there yet?

















We couldn't have timed it better. As we drove through the gate at Alder Creek, we heard the first voices of the cows coming down to water. Several mother cows came right to the truck, where Harlan could check them out up close and personal. 


Harlan calling in the herd

















One of our older mother cows





















Soon there was a chorus of calves calling for their mothers, and mothers calling back, as more cows and calves wandered up the draw, their strong voices reverberating through the trees. I told Harlan they were talking to each other. "Where are you? I'm over here." "Here I am. Where are you?"

Calves finding their mothers





















A very gentle red cow.


















I was taking a picture of Prairie and Harlan when I caught a glimpse of our big blonde bull coming up fast behind me.  I smacked my shin on the trailer hitch as I scrambled onto the flatbed. The bull wasn't really coming after me, he was just making a bee-line toward a group of cows in front of the truck, but I had Mike's admonition in mind as I made my hasty exit,"Never turn your back on a bull."


Blonde bull





















Snack time in the back of the truck
























The morning was cool and pleasant, but we could feel the heat building quickly.  We took looked over the herd as they began to graze back through the trees and concluded that all was well. Plenty of grass, plenty of water, all the critters where they should be, including the bulls.

Ruby, Bell, Prairie and Harlan headed for the gate and home

















It was good to get Harlan out with the cows. Someday he'll be big enough to make a hand and like his mother before him, he'll have a hankering for the prairie, for the smell of the tarweed and the Ponderosa pine, for the call of the meadowlark at dawn, for the creak of the saddle and the ramble of a sure-footed horse beneath him. 



From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Epizoodic and Goodbye to Zeke

After branding, Mike came down with the Epizoodic, as Sam Loftus our old boss used to say. It's a bad sickness, like the flu, and in this case it turned into pneumonia. Yuk.

Herd coming in before branding day




















I went to Seattle to spend time with my 92 year old mother, and the 'cowboss' back home didn't do so good at following the doctor's orders. Resting was mostly at night and not enough. Days were already full of work.
Always weeds to dig




I pestered and badgered Mike over the phone, but I could tell he wasn't resting. The minute I got home I started pushing fluids, had him deep breathe through a straw and ordered couch rest under threat of bodily harm. He responded by saying "You have no control over me," and then he went to lie down.







After a few days treatment by 'nurse' Sara, we headed to the river to bring out the last of the horses. The canyons are nearing a hundred degrees and the river is high, but the river bars are still subbing and there is still a lot of green. A few high apricots have ripened and fallen. I found four on the ground that were good enough to eat. They will be in full swing after a few more of these hot days.
Canyon thunderstorm building




















I'm afraid I'll not pick mullberries this year. They are peaking and I didn't have time to both mow and pick berries. Mowing is essential. Fire protection and snake detection.

Bullsnake inside water shut-off box


























With all the windows open at night to catch a breeze, the sound of the river flowed through the house from all directions.  And I remembered long ago nights on the Yukon, the fizzing rush of the river beneath the wooden deck of our raft and sleeping pallet. A bed of water travelling beneath us as we slumbered.
Always the rushing river


















This time of year makes me think of Sam, and wildflowers, and topping out at the summer range, the smell of tarweed and yarrow, the far teeth of the Seven Devils in the east, somebody telling a bad joke and somebody telling a good story.
Indian Paintbrush


















I missed the trip to the summer range. Up in Seattle, I was helping Mom up and down stairs, sharing meals and games, staying up late with Udderly Chocolate ice cream and british mystery series on public TV.

Sara's Mom, Lorry at 92, ready for a walk

I thought about Gabe and Mike and Cammie and the kids trailing the cows and calves from the canyon to the prairie. Dawson riding his dad's horse and helping Grandpa herd. Abby in a front pack, when Gabe and Cammie took the cows the last stretch into Alder Creek. I wasn't there, but I could imagine it. All of it going smoothly and safely, I hoped.


Wes, Dawson, Gabe, Abby, Cammie, lunch break





















Later, Gary and Gabe helped haul the steers out to their summer pasture. I was a little worried about that endeavor. Mike said it went fine. Then he said Gary had a heavy load and exploded a trailer tire on the narrow steep switchbacks and there were tourists who had to back up to get out of the way. But it worked out.

Gabe, Dawson dig wild onions

Then he told me all the dogs got cheatgrass in their ears and had to go to the Vet, twice. Punch had one taken out of her abdomen, luckily it was just below the skin. After that, Mike gave the dogs another hair cut, this one a close shave. He did a thorough job and when I came home they looked a little scalped.
Cows on their way to summer range
















In Seattle I said goodbye to Zeke, headed off to Colombia where he'll be spending at least five months teaching English.  We'll miss having his help on the ranch.  A few days later, I was glad to hear that he arrived safely, albeit without his luggage. I'm looking forward to hearing about everything, his work in the city of Monteria, the people he meets, his neighborhood, the brutal heat and humidity of the lowlands, the cattle operations. And I'm thankful for Patricia, who took him on his first day to see Bogota, to share a meal and meet her family, to converse with him and understand his nascent Spanish. It is a precious gift to have friends in far away places, a role we play for those who make the trek to visit us, and one we cherish in return.

Prairie and Harlan say goodbye to Zeke




















From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef





Friday, May 26, 2017

Words on Paper, Words Inside


No bigger than a breadbox
Funny how we use words to make things. And funny how the words we make into things can remain silent inside our minds or be turned into sounds or symbols to mirror or unravel our selves. Words to describe worlds, to make war, to figure, to forgive, to boast or fail. I like the way our Magpie sign does its job, the way no giant standard can. 

River restoration project. 

Funny how traipsing can be purposeful, like a kind of time travel. When I follow the driveway across the river and past the restoration project, I see fifteen years of burning, seeding with a rangeland drill, and weeding, all reflected within the bursting green.  

Like a painting repainted layer upon layer, and one of the layers would show the old feedlot with its hundreds of cows crowding the feedbunks, knee deep in manure. Ground grubbed and trampled, a century worth of annual weed seed ripe for germination. I prefer the grassy thickness with it's rabbit lairs, its thrum of insects, its darting birds.  

Bluebird Canyon above old feedlot
There were up to six feedlots in use between 1960 and 2002, three on the west side of the river and two on the east side.  One lies beneath the box canyon we call Bluebird, where an ephemeral stream splatters down the rock face in a sparkle of water mostly hidden in clumps of currant and thickets of hackberry. This is where friend John took his first walk after being confined and sick. Where his wife Debra saw the year's first bluebird and thought John might survive his cancer. And he did.

This can be a place to reconcile with death.  Where predators and accidents and disease subsume life on a daily basis and leave behind a puzzle of scattered bones or rawhide twisted corpses, or the transient peculiar smell that Dawson, now eight, describes as 'kind of good and kind of sickening'. I pass two dried-out toads, one upright and mostly whole; the other grotesque and interesting, supine, with legs splayed and part of its head missing.

Dessicated Western Toad
Why not describe what they have given up by dying?  Those words are much harder for me to come by. Not knowing what they loved in life, their favorite smells, their easing into the water to lay their eggs, the best insect catch they ever made. Nor what gave them spite or fear. 
Second toad mummy

















When we arrived at the river, the 'big boys' had been there for a bachelor party. I was greeted by a new message on the chalkboard at the back door.  I thought it was the perfect decree for a man about to marry. Then I realized it was also the perfect decree for me. And I gathered the doubts at hand and set them in the past and walked inside.
Abandon all DOUBT Ye who enter here

All kinds of words have been left at the ranch: accounts, directions, instructions, brags, musings, confessions. From the scribbles of a one year old to the measured cursive of a ninety year old. Mongolian, Greenlandic, Arabic, German, Spanish, Dutch, French. Words carried here inside a real person, and left behind as a small part of each one.  I appreciate the words even when I can't read them. I admire the way they climb the paper in columns, or march from right to left, their forms both strange and lovely.

Last year Dawson made his first solo entry in the ranch journal. I found it later and was surprised and pleased. Drawings and words! A richness of meaning recognizable in any language.

Dawson's first solo entry in the ranch journal


When Mike saw my illustration of day two of the bridge redecking, he said it reminded him of Harlan Hubbard, and I almost cried. Of course, my drawings are mostly not this accurate. But I cherish his comparison, which makes me think of Shantyboat, and how I longed while reading it, to be back on the Yukon Queen with Mike. Sufficient with little, our homemade wooden raft calmly riding the vast fizzing opaque boil and suck of the Yukon. And at the end of each day, the hard pulls on the sweeps to get us a half a mile to shore, nestling up to the bank and tying off in the twilight of a midnight sun. 

Bridge work, Day 2, seen from Witch's Hat

Mike's few journal entries tend to be practical, where you can look back and find stuff.
Like what day we branded two years ago, or when we put that new gate in upriver, or how many stays and posts we used fencing off the toe slope. Still, his practicality doesn't stop him from using words like 'winter wonderland'.

January 31, 2017 entry by Mike

How different from today, when nearly everything seems green. I know this tropic lull will parch into brown soon enough. Spring has been longer and colder than normal, and so very welcome after the oppressive snows we struggled through last winter. 

Columbia Spotted Frog habitat




















In this moment of abandoned doubt, I wave away the raging flood, the wild fire, the dangerous trail. And open my arms to acceptance and courage. 



From Sara at Magpie Ranch home of Bunchgrass Beef



Sunday, May 7, 2017

Oh Green World - Hallelujah!

Mists of May
















The mists of May settled into the canyon this week. All across the benches, the cattle are enjoying the delicious spring range, perfect nutrition as we round into the last half of calving season. Most of the calves are born now and all the cattle, from mother cows to yearlings to two year olds to bulls, are looking slick and healthy.

Grass happy yearling
Hallelujah the new bridge is in! Well, it's just new decking on the bridge, but it still feels incredibly good to get this big and much-needed job finally done. This bridge was put in only 15 years ago and has a sturdy steel railroad car chassis for the span, but the quality of the decking materials was lacking. (The previous bridge, located further downriver washed out in the 1,000 year flood of 1997, after 40 years of service.)

Sad old bridge
Mike had JZ Lumber mill the new bridge material and Gabe and I treated it last summer when it was still in the millyard. The new material is heavier and thicker and with the treat, the new bridge should last many many years. We hope. 
Work starts on new bridge

 A break in wet weather allowed for two big trailer loads of material to be hauled to the site. The river was running high with spring run-off and I told Mike his most important job was 'safety manager' for the five man crew.  The crew worked two full days to put the deck on, and Mike finished up the running boards in another day. There were two casualties and both were wrenches.

Half a new bridge




















Now we have only the railings left to build. We wanted to get this done a year ago, so I am thrilled to finally have a safe sturdy bridge to drive over, walk over, ride over, or haul trailers over.


Only the railing still to do


Prairie and Jon and Harlan came home to help out for a few days. Harlan is really getting around now. He enjoyed the dogs, the horses, the cows and the cousins! 

Prairie, Harlan and Jon checking out the range seeding



















Harlan and Prairie





















We had yet more rain and the river was bankful, with many areas subbing along the river bars. We watched good sized logs and tree limbs careen downriver through the rapids. Harlan didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the river this time, as all the beaches were underwater and it was too dangerous to let him even get near the water. Instead, he enjoyed the puddles and the mud.

Harlan puddling





















As we start to think about branding and turn-out and all the spring-to-summer chores, it's good to remember we'll have help. Gabe came down and shod horses, taking off the sharps and putting on the summer shoes. We hauled the heifers to town and will be putting most of them up for sale as replacements.
Abby checks out the heifers in the corral

















Harlan and Abby will each get a heifer this year to keep with the herd. Their mom and dad get to help them pick one out. It's hard to choose, because there are so many nice ones!


Heifers out at the valley
















Gabe and Cammie and Mike and I headed out to Luke and Callie's to help brand today. The kids rampaged about and roping horses were passed around so anybody who wanted could take a turn. It was a good day to be together with three generations of friends who are like family. Gabe, Luke and Buck grew up together, and now their kids are growing up in the same community.
Mike helps out at Luke and Callie's




















Hopefully when our branding day rolls around in about a month, it will go as smoothly as it did today out on Swamp Creek. It's a lot of work to organize and prepare, and you never know if the weather will cooperate with the plan. But it's comforting, having your friends and neighbors show up to pitch in on the day's work. Keeping calm, paying attention, problem solving, teaming up.


Gabe and Mike horseback, and Luke on ground crew 


And afterwards, when we're feasting and enjoying a job done well, there's the telling of challenges and dreams. Somebody's in the hospital, somebody's going back to college, someone's getting married. We come together thinking calves and cattle and we go away thinking lives and loving.  


From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef