Friday, February 16, 2018

I Am An Old Woman

Named after my mother. My old man's another, child that's grown old.  So goes the words and I realize I've never really thought about why this song has stuck with us for so many years.

Gabe and Bird headed to Pumpkin Creek
















Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. I want the angel. But Montgomery seems like a specific place. A specific story that I know little about.

Bell, youngest of the crew, a bit on the wild side













And which Montgomery? Surely there is more than one. So I just make it my own Montgomery, the place my angel harkens from, the place I want to be.

Punch (Opuntia), sweetie pie, works well to the left













My mother is a very old woman. These days her stories create startling connections between eras and locales. Ownership is fluid.  My brother's house may as well be the house her father built. She knows he built one and it is hers, where she lives.

Coffeetime, thankful for Andrew's help this winter

As old as she is, my mother knows she isn't home anymore. She knows she's not with family. No matter how well it worked before --- agreeing that she was where she belonged, asserting ownership of my brother's assets at times, and going so far as to suggest some of us 'visitors' could be asked to leave --- all that has changed.


Now, the distance home is inconceivable. She doesn't want to recognize where she is; she doesn't want to live there. But she tries. "It's not easy, such a change, when you're as old as I am."


Glad someone besides me draws in the ranch journal!





















Her lap is still available in a big chair with padded arms, wide enough to support a small child. And children come to see her. Babies and toddlers, boys with legos. Even college boys.

Warm up, have a cup


We tell her our names, and most of us get a pass into her world. The others have learned to create a chain from their lives to hers, describing the links a few times until she recognizes her own lineage.



And our names are longer now. PrairieRoseYourGranddaughter. The little ones call her Great, and she is. If they are lucky, they are old enough to remember playing together, with the sound of her voice encouraging them to go on and on in their imagining.




And we bring her things. Small things to hold on to, pictures held together in small books, our faces labeled, the places we come from labeled.

Greening in the bottoms!
















We might be the angels now, arriving at the door of her room, painting and repainting the picture of her life.

Make me an angel 
that flies from Montgomery.
Paint me a picture 
of an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing 
that I can hold on to. 
To believe in this livin' 
is just a hard way to go. 


Mom, Harlan, Prairie

















From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Different Winter


This winter is about as different as it could be from last winterLast year at this time we were slogging through two months of chaining up on treacherous roads, battling storm after storm that kept winter feed buried in snow and trails too slick to ride. Our weaning pen and haystack were flooded with snowmelt, then frozen into an ice rink. Even the elk seemed miserable, crowding into the canyon in unprecedented numbers seeking relief from the deep snow of higher elevations.
Looking north from the horse pasture
This January, we've had mostly open weather, with trails decent enough to pack out salt and herd cattle, and only one episode of chaining up to get out to town.We've had our fingers crossed, not wanting to jinx it, but meeting our few neighbors coming and going on the downriver road, we chat about what a difference it is, how relieved we are. And the conversation always wraps up with, 'Well, it's not over yet, so let's hope it keeps up this way.' 

Mike loading salt on Theo
We took salt out to the cattle, packing Theo for the first time, the big mustang lent to us by friend Paul. Theo did pretty good, and Bird too, in spite of Theo losing his footing on a greasy north, where Mike was leading them through a draw above the barn. I was riding behind and saw Theo start to slide backward and then sideways off the trail. He was dallied to Bird and pulled Bird off with him, the two horses plunging down slope in a scrambling tangle. Somehow they made it to the bottom without hurting themselves and ended up still tied and breathing hard across the draw, looking around as if to say, 'What the heck happened?'  They could have run off in a wild spook, but Bird stood quietly ground-tied until Mike got off the hill to gather them back up again. 

Theo, relieved of half his load
After that, Mike led Theo to the top of the ridge and I rode Bird and led Chester.  We unloaded half the salt and supplement at the first salt ground and the rest of the ride was uneventful. I was glad it was early enough in the day that most of the norths were still frozen. It felt good to be up on the bench horseback and nice to check a task off the list: pack salt. 

Cattle coming in for salt
The day before I had worked a long day teaching non-profit management in town and having time in the saddle allowed me to reflect. I love teaching and I learn so much from the participants, in this case, volunteers with projects ranging from youth programs to the cemetery.  I was mostly thinking about our journey toward improving inclusivity and equity in our organizations and programs, something that can't be done without personal growth and challenge. 
Sara and Chester packing salt


























When we got back to the house we worked on setting up the temporary electric fence outside the corral. We've been weaning, with the calves in the corral on hay for a few weeks already. Now Mike will use the temporary pen to train the calves to electric fence. They get a bit more space outside the corral and can discover the electric fence.  We don't use much electric fence in our operation, but when we do, it's helpful that all the cattle have been trained to it at some point in their lives.

A few of our good looking calves in the corral



















I think my favorite time during the holidays was having three of the grandkids at the river while Gabe and Cammie took a trip to Seattle. In spite of some mid-night sleep disruptions, we had a pretty relaxed few days. Mike made a deal with the boys to help rake wild turkey poop out of the yard in trade for truck driving practice and a jaunt upriver to the fishing hole. The fishing was a bust, but the exploration of hide-outs in the massive debris piles from the 97' flood was super fun.
Put them to work! 

When we recorded our highlights in the ranch journal, wild rumpus dancing was at the top of the list, followed by the bonfire and food. The top dance tunes were: Ring Around the Rosie Rag and the Motorcycle song (I don't wan't a pickle...).
Abby loves anything she can climb on, stand on or sit on


Compared to last winter, it feels amazing to have down time for any kind goofing off, or even just resting up. It's funny how a few little traditions can settle us and bring space into our thoughts giving us respite from the craziness of the world's changes, giving us courage and strength to be part of what is to come. A winter crossword left out for anyone to puzzle on, finding my way through a new song on the concertina, a walk downriver to visit the hundred year old graves of Tinie Stubblefield (3 years old) and Effie Mae Lydell (3 months), where I sit on a rock and draw the ridgeline rising above me like the spires of a cathedral, only better.


 Haas Ridge - morning, watercolor pencil

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wood Stacked Before Church



Pride. A word that can make me cringe. Pride goeth before a fall. The prideful sinners in Dante’s Inferno who bear enormous rocks on their backs, rocks they carry for eternity or else be crushed.

I feel proud that I got the wood stacked in the shed before church. I was late to church, but luckily, people are encouraged to ‘come as you are.' Which is to say disheveled, pitchy, dirty, and wearing an old shrunken blue sweater littered with sawdust and bark chips. And with an itchy nose full of dust.

Sara gathering cows to head to Pumpkin Creek
















We had a busy few days, getting ready to move the cattle to Pumpkin Creek, but I really wanted to go to church. It had been many months since I had a chance to enter that hundred-year old stone sanctuary and take time to reflect and question life with people of different minds. I knew a storm was moving in and the firewood was still in an enormous pile in the yard.
Crossing Rye Bench
















So first thing Sunday morning, I wrestled the big quarters of tamarack, red fir and pine into neatly stacked rows inside the woodshed.  A small thing, so simple and necessary that I can’t help but admire it during these trying times, when all around me I feel a cacophony of wrongs ringing against the mountains like the shots of duck hunters at dawn.

Andrew saddling up to take horses to P Creek




















The night before, at the cultural center in Joseph, people gathered to be part of a project that uncovers racism and change through music.  There were stories about black people who migrated from the south to the logging town of Maxville in nearly all-white Wallowa County in the 1920s. There were stories about redlining and confinement of people of color to areas like Vanport in NE Portland in the 1940s. Our history, our story.

Leaving the Hall place, over the hill to river crossing 
















Marilyn from the Portland Jazz Ensemble calls her voice a musical tool; she sang a newly-birthed song about trees. Trees that give so much to life and have also taken life away. Her music travelled into my solar plexus and left me vibrating and without words.

Chester watches cattle cross the river
















And then I had to walk to the front of the room and take the microphone and moderate the audience discussion with the panelists. I said that some months back, at the dedication ceremony for the Nez Perce longhouse in Wallowa, the leader of the Washat service reminded us that each person who journeyed to be there brought something to that space, each person contributes something. What is created in the Washat is made possible because of every person who is present. 


Mike and Andrew arrived at Pumpkin Creek




















What I learn over and over again is that I am not in control of my voice. I give it air. I give it sound. I give it thought and recognition and attention. But sometimes my mouth opens and words come out and people are frightened, feel left on the edge of a rim, and sometimes people are bored and dissipated.
Fence fixer, complete with dirt mustache





















The experience of grace in the Washat gave me the courage to stand the front of the room at the Josephy Center and invite people to share, to listen and be a part of something difficult together.

If we dig deep enough we find a kernel of ugliness and a kernel of beauty in each of us. Each of us has something rotten and repulsive in our story, and each of us has a flower fattening toward light, a grub morphosing into a hummingbird moth.

Fence I fixed snaking up to the rim, steep work






















Before I went to the Josephy Center, I spent the day propping up old barbed wire fence on a ridiculously steep hillside in the canyon. When I finished, I scrambled back down to the creek, searching for sign of Mike and Andrew working their way up the fence on the other side.
Mike and Andrew fencing across the draw





















Near my feet, I spotted an enormous yellow leaf that had drifted down from the crown of a tall cottonwood tree.  Twice the size of my hand, the leaf lay on the stream bank, reflecting for a day the transient light of fall.

Big as my two hands



From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

















Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"Thank You So Much"

The encouragement and appreciation of our customers goes a long way to getting us through the rough spots. After delivering to our local customers a few weeks ago, we geared up to haul a freezer trailer of beef to Portland, which is always a bit stressful. The trip went extra smooth this year. 
Pards 




















Everyone was so nice. The guys at the trailer rental place in La Grande who prechilled the trailer to minus five and tested the wiring before we picked it up. Linda and Morgan at Valley Meats who helped us load the trailer. Zenger Farm who hosted our delivery location. Customers aged 4 months to 70 years who thanked us again and again for the delicious beef. Prairie and Jon and Harlan who shared dinner and offered us a warm soft bed for the night. Even Kevin at Valley Meats, working 'eight days a week' in this busy season, came outside and stood on the street for a minute in the sunshine and thanked us for returning empty boxes on our way back to Joseph.

We made it! Ready for customers to arrive at Zenger Farm















We arrived home to a beautiful late fall afternoon and a note from one of our customers, "Thanks again Mike and Sara! It was nice to see you yesterday and all of the Thomsens (Kristina, our boys Noah and Henry, and I) are excited to get this year's beef." Sigh, what could be nicer than to feed people delicious natural beef raised with care and effort by our family.  

Exploring Zenger Farm wetlands with Harlan















Before we made the trip to Portland, we took the cows to the canyon. We went early this year and will go up Pumpkin Creek for a month as we didn't graze that range at all last winter. We trailed the cattle to McClaran's corrals in the valley where we loaded the trailers. Then we hauled to the end of the pavement at Fence Creek and walked them in four miles to the Hall place where they will stay for a while before we cross the river and head to Pumpkin Creek.  

Cow herd at the Hall place

The drift fence at Halls had slid down the steep hillside, but we were able to prop it up enough with the materials at hand. We'll go back later with some new material and make better repairs. We are thankful to have neighbor's like Halls who provide an important stopping point for our cattle when we are coming and going from the canyon.  
Patching up the drift fence




















While I was in the canyon I was glad to have a chance to gather the walnuts before the wild turkeys ate them all. I enjoy sitting in the dirt under the big trees, picking through leaves and twigs and tossing the nuts onto a tarp to drag inside. The acrid pungent smell fills the air around me, another smell of harvest season, of putting food by for winter. I'm thankful for these resilient and long-lived trees and the food they provide.  

Walnuts curing in the mud room



















Most of the vegetation along the river is still green, but the poison oak has turned and the sumac colors the canyon like veins of blood flowing down the draws. It felt good to be in the sunshine, in the last warm weather of the year. 

Poison oak lovely, but still annoying




















It was warm enough to get sweaty working. Warm enough for the river to look inviting and almost make me want to jump in. But I was content to take off my boots and dip my feet in the cold clear water, and just sit and listen for a while. Thankful for beauty and kindness and another turn of seasons. 

Under the Horse Creek bridge





















From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Date Ride and Cows to the Valley

It felt like a dream.  Summer was hard-parched and the one day Mike and I had to ride for a few stray cows it rained. Not only was it a gentle cool rain, we also found the cows right away and had an easy time getting them back in.

Coat and gloves! Rain clouds not smoke! 
















Of course, we had to figure out where the cows got out and as soon as we found a big Ponderosa keeled over on the fenceline we had our work cut out for us. Luckily we were able to get the fence back up without needing a chainsaw.


Mike sorting out fence mess.







Even with all the fence work, the rain made for a nice date ride for the two of us. It felt like the clouds were toasting us, like we were celebrating our anniversary or something. 










The thirsty ground soaked up the moisture and all the animals and plants seemed to be as grateful for the rain as we were. We knew the change in weather was short-lived, which made it all the more precious.

Slicker weather! 




















About a week later, we took some more salt out and Mike collected fecal samples for nutritional analysis as part of our monitoring program.  It was hotter then heck and dry as ever.  

Collecting fecal samples




















The ponds still had good water, but we knew it was time to move the herd to new pastures. And this year, that meant hauling them to the valley.

Dawson's cow, Betsy




















Mike and I set to work going around the fence at the valley pasture so we could bring the cattle in. We spent two days plugging holes and putting up fence that the spruce trees had smashed down. 

End of a day fencing valley pasture, tired and hot




















A flurry of phone calls lined up friends and family to help haul cattle over Labor Day weekend. Dave and Mike rode and brought the cattle into McClaran corrals, where we loaded six trucks and trailers. We were able to haul everything to the valley in one trip. 

A sweet sight - lots of good help




















When I thanked our crew I told them it was the smoothest day of cattle hauling we'd ever had; one them asked why. "Because we had enough help," was my reply. Often after the first trip in, Mike and I are making several more runs to bring in the tail-end and haul the horses home, which makes for a very long tiring day. 

Tyson, Mike, Dennis and Mark after loading




















I can't say enough about friends who are experienced, have the right equipment and are willing to share the work that makes a small family ranch possible. Many hands make light work and less stress! 

Callie and I goofed off and visited! 

















When we let the cattle out of the trailers at the valley pasture, they bawled for about twenty seconds while mothering up with their calves. Then they looked around at the fresh flowing water, green grass and shady timber.  "Now this is nice!" they seemed to say as they meandered off and began to graze. 

Happy cows on new pasture
















And we were soon headed home, with plenty of daylight left for us to work on other chores. Or not.... 

Our good crew


















From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.



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