Sunday, June 5, 2016

Merry Month of May

Licorice vanilla is how the locust blossoms smell, at least that is how someone once described them to me. I agree. But they also smell like something else I recognize, something ephemeral at the edges of memory, from my childhood in Germany perhaps, something that was not a locust blossom. And I find myself wanting to compare them to that evanescent fragrance, a smell with velvet texture, like these sprays of locust blooms jostling the wind.

Black locusts
Lushness has invaded the river bars. We let the cows and calves come down to the river to graze after several months spent mostly on the benches. 

Mike shared some of the results of his recent utilization monitoring. He said the quantity of plants consumed by the cattle was less than he expected. The monitoring is part of our conservation efforts and helps us tell if our management decisions are accomplishing our goals.

My favorite rangeland ecologist
Monitoring quadrat

There is a reason this story has a picture of an onion, well, three onions to be exact.  The reason is that here it is May and these onions have been hanging in the basement waiting to be eaten for eight months and they are still beautiful and delicious. The last of the onions.  

Amazing Spanish red onions

It's easier to understand why there is a rattlesnake in this story. I uncovered the first snake of the year while mowing the yard. Heath stopped by soon after I found the snake (by mowing over top of him) and did me the favor of pitching him in the river to swim away. Encounters like these motivate me to mow the yard frequently.

Snake uncovered by mower
Great weather for the branding
We branded the last Sunday of May and had a great crew of helpers.  Mike's dad and step-mom came for a visit and it was their first time ever at a branding.

Pete ready to keep the cows on the road.
Gabe bringing in the last of the cows

Nice bull calf
Amalesh, Mike, Mike, Paul and Luke
Back with mom

The branding went smoothly and it was nice to get in a lot of visiting before most folks made the trek back to the valley. We had plenty of time for feasting, water fights and laying in the hammock. 

Mike, Paul, Justin, Annie

Wes, Cammie avoiding the water fight
Water fight! 
Barb relaxes at the fishing hole

Dawson talked us into letting James spend the night. They spent the evening fishing at the bridge abutment, swinging in the hammock, roasting marshmallows and threatening various accidents involving flaming sticks, followed by baths to remove numerous layers of stickiness and filth before going to bed.

James, Dawson and Wes, three peas in a pod 

All in all, a very good and mostly merry month of May. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Stronger and Better with Music

Mike, Mike and Ashley at Lone Pine Saddle

In early April, we hosted Zenger Farm supporters, Ashley Sherrick and Mike Terepka for a ranch stay.  We donate a weekend at the ranch as part of the fundraising auction for Zenger Farm in Portland. Ashley and Mike won the bid and we had a great weekend together, swapping stories of far-away travels and sharing yummy meals, including my favorite experiment of the weekend -- mushroom-laden gravy on slow-grilled polenta.
Another Mike of many songs

With two Mike's who love music, we were treated to singing, and banjo/guitar playing into the wee hours (long after I went to bed). We also had a lovely night-walk downriver along the old driveway trail, each of us hanging onto our partner and bumping into an occasional boulder in the pitch black. The stars in the moonless sky were spectacular. We stood on the edge of a rim above the rushing river and looked for familiar constellations overhead. Ashley knew the most, naming off possibilities I'd never heard of.
"You are here"

I love the relief map we have on the living room wall. It gives a sense of the vastness of the canyons and is a great way to orient visitors to the lay of the land.  I like to use it to point out the many special places we have lived and worked over the years.

Palisades picnic

We lucked out on the weather and picked a sunny day to drive to Cactus Mountain and hike part of the Ni Mi Poo trail. The barrel cactus weren't blooming yet, but the canyon was starting to green up and we saw pink phlox, yellow sunflowers, purple penstemon and white yarrow.

Looking south, towards Magpie Ranch
After Ashley and Mike left for home, we got back to fencing.  Well, I shouldn't say we - because even though my arm is getting stronger and better all the time, I still can't do hard labor. I did help lug material up the steep part of the fence line, but I can't quite hold a stay and pound in staples yet. 

Fence around old sheep ground 


Mike and Ben finished the fence around the historic sheep bed ground above the barn, so it's ready for restoration seeding and rehab. It will be interesting to see what kind of results Mike will get with the restoration. He has collected baseline data on it for a while, but now he'll start experimenting with ways to get more diversity of plants growing on this degraded area. 

Chester at the mouth of spring draw

Ben and Mike also fenced the area around the spring box. Chester had his first experience packing fence material. Mike said Chester didn't like the loading process, but once it was all on there, he did okay. It was a challenging fence to build in the steep narrow draw and I was glad Ben was there to help. 

Rock jack at spring draw

When I think of all the projects on the ranch over the years, I see the faces of the people who helped us do that work. Luke with his bobcat digging out the back of the barn. Zeke running a chain saw prepping for prescribed burning. Pete dismantling rotten corrals. Prairie peeling poles for the new corrals. Julia digging thistles. And so many many many others. Thank you. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, May 1, 2016

That was March

I'm always enamored of the first catkins that bloom along the river. They seem to flower about the same time as the apricot trees. Now the first leaves are appearing and the lilacs are about to pop.


Mike has been planning and building fence for some of his conservation projects. He also replaced the fence along the old driveway. Before the thousand year flood event of '97, the driveway crossed the river on a two-part wooden bridge near the old campground. 

Looking down the old driveway

It was a beastly scary bridge that launched off an abutment part-way out in the river and swooped steeply up onto a rim where the track immediately make a sharp right to avoid crashing into another rock face. In winter the icy sagging timbers made it especially treacherous.

Nice sale heifers 

We kept a few heifers this year, and sold the rest. Sometimes it's hard to choose. One we kept is out of Weston's cow, so it will be interesting to see how she turns out.

Another fish for Dawson

Dawson is getting good at catching and bringing home fish for supper. He is definitely following in his dad's footsteps. When Gabe was five, he and Prairie would pack some snacks and Prairie's 'my little ponies' and go down to the Snake River to catch bass. Gabe loved to fish. If he caught them, I would cook them, but he had to clean them. That was when we lived at Dug Bar in Hells Canyon.
Weston the fish stunner

I had a blast at the Old Time dance and I got to dance a couple waltzes with Mike in spite of my arm still being in a sling. Caleb and Reeb brought the Culley Cut-Ups out from Portland to play the dance and we had a good turn out at the Oddfellows.
Old timey dance at Oddfellows

Culley Cut-ups visit from P-Town

After the apricots, the plums started blooming. The canyons are well on their way to greening and the river is swelling with run-off from the mountains.

Greening and blooming

Mike took advantage of the warmer temperatures to finish painting a new screen door.  It has two sassy mapgies carved by Steve Arment,

New screen door with Magpies

The door commemorates Jon and Prairie's wedding, which took place in 2013. We had planned to host the wedding at the ranch, but were forced to relocate to the valley when a wildland range fire threatened. We still held a private family ceremony at the ranch, and now the new door reminds me of that special day.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Wham! A Proximal Fracture

One moment I was standing in the snow and the next I was on the ground and my shoulder felt like it had been hit with a sledgehammer. That's how my imagination translated what happened. I had stepped onto a patch of wet ice and my body hit the frozen ground shoulder first.

A proximal humerus fracture is where the top of the humerus bone is broken off the humeral head (also known as the greater tuberosity or 'ball'). If you have ever had one, you have my sympathies. In fact my sympathetic and empathetic functions have evolved to a higher level since my fall in early December. I was told to expect it to take six months for the bones to heal and a year for my shoulder to recover.

The 'village' has been a wonderful help these past few months. Friends and family have provided meals, come over to 'babysit' me while telling stories and making art, cleaned house, and given me rides. They also helped Mike build fence, haul hay and move cattle.

Friend Cheryl, one of the regular 'Sara sitters'

Mike has been the solid, compassionate, caregiver, primary chauffeur, wardrobe assistant, bath attendant, and hair stylist. On top of the extra chores, my accident threw a monkey-wrench into his ranch management schedule, requiring many trips to doctors here and in Portland. I admire Mike's ability to find the energy and patience to deal with it all.

My 'left hand' man

Thank goodness for the grandboys who arrived regularly to play, cuddle and explore. We enjoyed a quiet holiday season with the extended family and we finally got the cattle down to the winter range. A huge relief after having to feed hay and chop ice for far too long in the valley.

Snuggle treatment from Weston

Harlan's first visit to the canyon

Jon and Prairie came for a long visit and baby Harlan had his first trip to the canyon. It was a treat for me to be on the river again. I've missed the canyons and critters so much during my confinement.

Even if I still can't do much, it feels good just to be in the canyon. I love walking to the cemetery to visit Tinie Stubblefield and Effie May Lydell; listening to the rush of water over stones, being greeted by geese, mergansers and king fishers; and standing in the dark, watching the whorl of stars above canyon rims.

Sara finally makes it back to the canyon, following cows down the road

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Harlan Bramble and the Full Moon of Advent

A big storm just came through and lucky for me, Prairie went into labor ahead of the rough weather. I drove to Portland on good roads and arrived in time to share in the birth of Harlan Bramble Wagner, Jon and Prairie's first child and our newest grandson.
Harlan and Sara

Harlan was born at home and that first night while he slumbered snug in his woolen sleep sack, a wild wind blew in, with heavy clouds from the coast dumping rain that sluiced through the streets. The rain kept up all night and most of the next day, gradually calming as the front traveled east. When the sky cleared, temperatures dropped below freezing and a full moon floated over the tall firs behind the house. We could feel the cold working its way in and we turned up the heat to help baby Harlan get used to the world outside his mom.
Prairie resting while Harlan gets his sun bath

Back in Wallowa County, the storm arrived bringing snow and leaving behind single digit temperatures and icy roads. Mike chained up when he went to get a cow outside Joseph so he wouldn't slide the trailer off into a little creek that crossed the driveway. We had to start feeding some hay to the cows, as our last standing feed in the valley was snow covered. After Mike caught a ride to Portland to meet Harlan, Zeke and Gabe pitched in on chores, including chopping ice in the ditch so the horses would have water.

They like each other

I'm glad to be back home after two weeks, just as I'm glad I could spend time with Jon and Prairie and Harlan. We diapered, swaddled, and rocked, sharing middle-of-the-night story telling, reading poetry and essays aloud and admiring Harlan as he mastered the jobs of a newborn.

Today I helped Mike take hay to the cows in an ice fog that never lifted all day. This next week he will try and get the new fence up behind our house and we'll trail the cows home and wean the calves. I hope it warms up above freezing for fence building, and while the cows are here, so we can keep ice chopping to a minimum. It's one of my least favorite chores.

Ice fog at the Eggleson Place
After we fed, I gathered evergreens from the yard and the wind break. I wanted to make an advent wreath for the table, and a bigger wreath for the porch door. The branches were clumped under icy snow and my knit gloves and sweater quickly grew hairy with frostsicles.

By the time I had clipped boughs from all eight types of greens my fingers were aching from the cold.  I brought the boughs into the kitchen and left them in front of the wood stove, where they warmed up, leaving little puddles of water on the hearth. 

The Oval warms up the greens

Now the spicy scent of spruce and fir and pine and juniper fills the kitchen and the first candle of advent glows brightly beside its quiet neighbors. I cherish this ritual of winter, bringing light into the darkness, honoring the evergreens of life in the midst of a snow-covered world, celebrating love and hope in spite of our fears and misunderstandings.

First Sunday of Advent

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Going Backwards

Starting from the pumpkin pie I made today, we're going backwards in time.

Pumpkin is always good

Today was a good day to make pie. Veteran's Day with four inches of snow on the ground, a fire going in the kitchen stove and a roasted pumpkin waiting in the fridge. I liked making up the recipe.

Sometime before pie, the letter writing began. It was after daylight savings started and I got up before dawn and found the quiet kitchen. I added wood to the fire, listened to the morning waking up and watched the trees and fields take shape out of the darkness.

Candles for writing letters
The first day I wrote a long newsy letter to the 90 year olds back in North Dakota, that would be my mom and mom's sister, Aunt Vera. The second day I wrote a long letter to my friend Kyle, who I met when I was four and haven't written to or spoken to for more than a year. I was thinking how the person you are writing to gives you as a gift the time it takes to sit down, light a light, listen, watch, feel. And then to write your life between you, the story wrapped carefully in paper and sent in the hands of strangers to a far away place. It seems miraculous.

Creepy teeth Weston

Before the letter writing was Halloween. My devil didn't speak, and had two tails, the horns of a goat, and a necklace of gargoyles. The mask frightened small children and the ten year olds stared until I tilted my fork in their direction and they looked away.

Pals together

Around that time Mike was back from Montana and hadn't left yet for Nevada. I was so glad to have him home. When we moved the cows to the Eggleson place on the Wallowa River, I made Gabe take a picture of us together. Evidence that in spite of our opposite peregrinations, we did have a least a few days together in the last six weeks.

Two Dot

Mike is working with the Grasslands Alliance and piloting a sustainability certification process. Two ranches in Montana and one in Nevada agreed to be the guinea pigs. The field trips came late in the season with winter's approach keeping everyone busy.
White buffalo near the Crazy Mountains

We had brought the cows into the valley earlier in the month and as usual there was fence to build. Electric this time. As we worked, little birds sang all kinds of beautiful songs from the trees along the river, and a wake of vultures rose up out of the tops of the cottonwoods and floated in circles overhead, their dark shapes spiraling slowly upward in the blue sky.

Bell at the valley pasture

Before the floating vultures and the singing birds, Malcolm Dawson died just before his 94th birthday. I gave myself a bouquet of flowers for consolation and to remind me what a joy Malcolm was in our lives. My boss, Lisa wrote her dad's obituary and it was stellar. She had me proofread it so I knew what was coming after the funny parts. I had my Kleenex ready.

Malcolm's flowers

On the day he died, Lisa told her dad he was too weak to get out of bed. His reply, "I'm strong." As Lisa told us in the obituary, Malcolm was physically strong, but he was also strong in spirit. His faith was strong, his will to live and to give was strong. His love was strong.

It's hard to imagine that precious weeks ago it was warm enough that the grandboys were mucking through the swamp. There was some hooting and hollering from Dawson as he braved the deeper parts, marshwater up to his knees, his feet sinking into the cold cold mud. Weston kept to the shallows. "I'm making magic,' he told me as he swung his cattail wand through the air, releasing clouds of tiny seeds.  

October swamp time 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef