Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Out with the Plymouth, in with the Oval

Floyd Peterson’s staggering collection of junk, mostly metal scrap, was stored in and around an enormous well-weathered building next to the old Mill Pond in Enterprise. Somehow Mike figured that amongst all that junk Floyd might have a cookstove, which Floyd did, which is how for the grand sum of $25 we became proud owners of the Plymouth.

“It’s all there,” Floyd said, pointing to a pile of metal that he claimed was a functional wood stove. “We raised six kids on it and it’s been right there ever since I took it out of the house.” Mike brought the pieces home and indeed, it was all more or less there, from the somewhat-repaired firebox, to the black-trimmed white porcelain warming shelf, to the oven temperature indicator reading: “warm–slow-medium-hot-very hot.”

For twenty-five years, the Plymouth served us well. It was about as non-airtight as it gets and wouldn’t hold a fire for more than an hour (well, maybe longer if you put some apple wood in it). At baking temperature, the inside of the oven would be 500 degrees in the left rear corner and 300 degrees in the right front. If you forgot and set something breakable on the warming tray, it would soon vibrate toward the edge as people walked past and then fall off and shatter on the cast iron stove top.

In short, the Plymouth was a beloved fixture in our otherwise frigid farmhouse. The center of every winter morning, and every holiday gathering, loaded with simmering and baking foods, a place to dry out and warm up after cold, tiring work, the Plymouth was like an alter in the middle of our lives.

Several firebox repairs and about 150 chords of wood later, we’re not exactly getting rid of the Plymouth, we’re just putting her into semi-retirement. We’re modernizing. For our thirtieth wedding anniversary Mike gave me a brand-new modern, efficient, wood cookstove. As of this very moment, all six hundred pounds of the Oval are resting on the new tile hearth Mike built, hooked up to the new insulated chimney that Mike put in, burning a toasty fire of wood that Mike and Zeke harvested. She’s a beaut.

The old Plymouth hasn’t quite made it out of the kitchen yet, but will likely head to the canyon to take up a service in the ranch bunkhouse. She’ll need a new firebox first. And the bunkhouse needs new sills, a chimney, a door…it could be a few years. But that’s okay. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a useable cookstove is worth hanging onto.

From Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hairy Lucy

She didn't start out that way. When Prairie and I took pick of the litter, Lucita La Luz was a silky sweet pup with prick ears. We chose her for her confirmation and personality, which we hoped mirrored her grandmother, Bonnie, one of our favorite dogs.

Lucy joined the pack, at that time consisting of Oso, Bonnie and Chili, and assumed her role of relentlessly harassing the older dogs. Since she was too young to work, she did her best to herd the other canines at the ranch, racing ahead to cut them off and nipping at their legs, necks and shoulders. She was a colossal pest. But since all the other dogs had exhibited this same behavior as pups, they tolerated her or sent her packing with a no-nonsense growl.

When Lucy was about a year old, she and I were walking the fields behind the farmhouse when a coyote popped up from the marsh and loped off across the stubble. Lucy spotted him and took off like a rocket. I let her go, thinking this would be a good time to work on a call back, to get her to break her focus and listen to me. The coyote was a long ways off and I knew there was little chance of her ever getting close to it.

Her speed was unbelievable. I was so impressed that I just let her run. As I watched her churn across the field in a cloud of dust, it reminded me of the old roadrunner cartoons. She was humming.

I came to my senses and called her back, whistling long and sharp into the morning. When she heard me, she turned and ran all the way back to where I waited at the pond. She galloped up, tongue lolling, flashing a smile as if to say, "Now that was fun."

Lucy taught me an important lesson about communication. She was a pup when Zeke was in grade school and he loved to call her into his lap, where she would jump all over him and lick his face. As she grew older, this behavior transformed into a tightly coiled, forty-pound leap launched at your face as you walked across the yard. I hated it. Visitors like it even less.

I tried everything to break this habit, but nothing worked. Finally after two years, it clicked. She was not misbehaving, she was obeying a command. Zeke had trained her to "give kisses" and the command for this action was to look down at her and make eye contact. As soon as I figured this out, I stopped giving the command. When she bounced over to me in the morning, I looked straight ahead, said, "Sit" and held my hand out flat at my side.

At first she would sit obediently, but when I then tipped my head to look at her, she would jump, bam, teeth-first into my face. So I tried looking straight ahead and then petting her without looking down. It worked. I asked others to do the same and after a year she stopped jumping up altogether. It's amazing what we teach each other without meaning to.

Lucy was about four when she went to graduate school. She and Mike headed to the US Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho where they grazed sheep on knapweed and developed protocols for controlling invasive species using livestock. Lucy was our first dog who could work both sheep and cattle.

Back in Wallowa County, she worked hard and eventually retired at age ten. The older she got the hairier she got. Her undercoat grew more and more dense and she never seemed to shed out all the way. Combing and brushing helped, but she was still a magnet for burrs and seeds. After two expensive trips to the vet to remove foxtail embedded in her abdomen, I took to shaving her each spring. When several friends appeared on the scene with dogs that were also named "Lucy", she became first Big Lucy and then Hairy Lucy.

In her last chapter of life, Lucy was the grandkid dog, the sweet old beast that would stand while one-year-old Dawson patted her back and grabbed handfuls of her ruff. As long as she got a chance to snake a tongue in his face every now and then, she was happy to put up with him.

Saturday Lucy went to meet her maker. Zeke and I dug the hole and the younger dogs, Newt and Ruby, came over to give her one last sniff. I laid my hand on her back, "Lucy, you were a good dog," I said. "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust," said Zeke.

If anybody comes over to pay their respects, you can find Lucy's final resting place out back in the dog cemetery next to the native grass nursery. Her's is the one with the deep red basalt stone.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Heads and Hides

They are beautiful, these animals we have chosen to raise and live with and to respectfully harvest and appreciate as a source of food.

The harvest went well. Now the Bunchgrass Beef from Magpie Ranch is carefully aging, soon to be skillfully cut and packaged for each family who is waiting, freezer at the ready, to receive this year's bounty. I am thankful.

I am also thankful for all the work that Mike has put into preparing the heads and hides of these amazing animals. He skins and cleans each head and puts it away to dry. In a year or so, each stark skull with its impressive horns, will be ready for sale to provide another source of income to sustain the ranch.

There is something about taxidermy that creeps me out, but I don't feel that way about skulls. Perhaps this is because out on the prairie and in the canyons, bones are part of the landscape. Sun-bleached and porous, each holds testament to an individual life. The skulls of deer, cattle, and elk are more common, but an unusual skull is something to ponder. I cradle it in my hands, How tiny the skull of a mouse! How interesting the teeth of a badger!

Each skull from the Bunchgrass Beef herd is unique. Some have long swooping white horns delicately tipped in black. Some have powerful short horns that arc inward. Some have horns that jut forward, like tines on a pitchfork. I admire them all.

For the hides, Mike painstakingly cleans the flesh side and generously rubs fine salt into each hide. Then the hides are folded and put away to dry. After cleaning and salting, they can be safely stored until we are ready to have them tanned, either as regular leather, or with the hair on for rugs or upholstery. Each one is unique and a pleasure to look at.

I'm glad that today, when I look at a skull or a hide from an animal out of the Bunchgrass Beef herd, I can feel a sense of peace. I am thankful that each animal had a life well lived as part of the herd in a wild and beautiful place.

From Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Third of October

Snow. Closing in like a flour sack being cinched around our valley.Where were the mountains? Where was the neighbor’s house at the far side of the field? I could barely see the barn through the frigid wet clouds that had settled onto us like a hen on top of her nest.

We were building corrals as the snow fell ceaselessly, heaping up on surfaces like some kind of water-saturated frosting. Jarred loose by our hammer blows it splatted in little glops on our hats, shoulders, hands.

As we pounded and sawed and measured, wrapped in our slickers and wearing our winter boots, we kept saying, “Wasn’t it ninety-one degrees a week ago? We were out in the yard in shorts and t-shirts, barbecuing up Bunchgrass Beef burgers!”

I escaped the wet and the hammering and headed to the kitchen to start lunch: a huge pot of minestrone soup, batches of yeasted rolls and apple pies. Zeke and three friends from Portland, a couple more friends from Enterprise, and Bryan and Tanyia were here helping and before long, the wet and hungry hordes would need a warm and tasty refuge.

There is nothing quite like coming into a savory kitchen, dumping your sodden muddy layers in the porch, and being enveloped in the smell of soup simmering, bread baking, and bubbly cinnamon-apple pies resting on the sideboard. A hot beverage is pressed into your hand, and you wedge into the circle at the table, elbow to elbow, stories and laughter swirling around you as your weary muscles relax and good food fills your belly.

Saturday showed me more of the ‘neighborly economy’ that goes into the raising of Bunchgrass Beef. The untimely snow may have dampened our labors, but the spirit of camaraderie kept us going. Night began to fall and with it snow-laden trees that collapsed onto power lines taking out the power at farmsteads all along Prairie Creek. We lit lanterns and candles and pulled out extra blankets, grateful for the warmth of friendship and the old upright piano, as the timeless music of familiar hymns filled the living room.

From Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sometimes Things Can Go Very Right

I love it when the peaches resting in their boxes on the kitchen floor reach perfect ripeness on the evening I have time to can. Or when the dogs lie down in the exact spot that keeps two renegade pairs from quitting the Bunchgrass Beef herd. Or maybe when the number of cucumbers from one picking just equal the amount needed for the pickle recipe. Or when the lead cow looks at the open gate, looks at me on my horse, feels the herd milling behind her and decides to walk into the corral.

That’s what happened on Saturday when I was riding Mestizo, and it felt especially good. A lot of animal experts, Temple Grandin, Tom Dorrance, etc. tell us how as predators, we can interact with prey animals without either them or us freaking out. In theory, it seems clear. In practice, I often fall short of my intent.

Mestizo is our tall red horse, who, after ten years of thinking he was a pack animal, is learning that he will be carrying me around on his back the rest of his life. The Peruvian Paso of his mother gives him a long smooth gait and the thoroughbred of his father makes him high-headed and nervous. Mestizo does an excellent job in the comfort of the pack string and he enjoyed his place on the ranch until we ran short on horses this year.

I needed to ride him again, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. When we were given Mestizo as a colt he was already terrified of a few things, like being tied up and sprayed with liquid. His flight instinct had kicked in, but he couldn’t run away so he had learned to rear violently in response to stress. A bucking horse can make me nervous, but a rearing horse unleashes a flood of icy fear in my brain. Adrenalin explodes throughout my body and I’m incapable of sensibly communicating with the animal between my legs. Combine Mestizo’s fear with mine and it’s not a pretty picture.

This June when Bryan decided to ride Mestizo on the cattle drive to the summer range, I watched how Bryan pushed Mestizo through his anxiety with forward motion, instead of working against it. Mestizo danced around and turned a lot of circles, but he didn’t rear. This time when we gathered the herd I was ready to try again.

Yes, Mestizo humped up a few times as we rode through the dark grove of wind-whipped Ponderosa pines. Yes, he whinnied and danced when Mike and Zip got too far away from us on the other side of the herd. But when we reached the corrals, there was no more worrying about us. The cattle were either going in the corral or we were going to be chasing them all over the prairie.

I stopped thinking and let my body guide the movement I knew would help the cattle decide that entering the corral was easier than running away from it. Mestizo flowed beneath me, yielding to pressure, turning, striding, turning, scooting in front of the red cow, then back to head off the brindle. The first cow finally chose the open gate and the rest of the herd followed. A stiff breeze chased the dust north into the timber. Mestizo blew softly as my hand reached under his mane to scratch his supple neck. We had done a good job. Together.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Neighborly Economy

The night frosts are upon us, down to 25 degrees on Monday, and we’re in the thick of the harvest. I picked pears and apples this week and today I lugged a bucket of cucumbers in from the garden for a batch of honey-curry pickles. It’s also the season for meat and the first hunters are out in the hills. In a few weeks, we’ll be butchering and starting our delicious Bunchgrass Beef on its way to hungry families anxious to lay in a supply for the coming winter. Think of all those kitchens that will soon be filled with the tantalizing aroma of simmering stews and savory roasts. I’m starting to salivate.

One of the best parts of having a family ranch is having family. Our “real” family, and our amazing “family” of friends who work for each other, lend each other stuff and barter to get things done. This week Prairie was here helping sort and move cattle and build fence.

Prairie also stretches our thinking with discussions about local food systems, sustainable communities and economic justice. We’re lucky to have her out in the world learning, traveling and working towards positive change. One thing she shared with us was a list of Wendell Berry’s 17 rules for a sustainable community that appeared in YES! magazine. Berry is a farmer and well-known author and many of his rules resonated with me. I especially liked rule #15:

“Always be aware of the economic value of neighborly acts. In our time the costs of living are greatly increased by the loss of neighborhood, leaving people to face their calamities alone.”

When asked what they value about living in small rural communities, I often hear people say it is that we help each other when we need it. A house burns down, someone is injured in an accident or becomes ill, and suddenly a whole swarm of people tumble out to organize meals, set up donation accounts, raffle quilts, hold dances and auction off $150 huckleberry pies.

Our family certainly relies on and enjoys being part of the neighborly economy. Just this week we had Prairie’s help with the cattle, Bryan was here to lay out the new corral, Pam called to offer green beans and another friend let us glean fruit from his orchard. We then passed on apples and cucumbers to other families.

While she was here, Prairie also took over the kitchen and whipped up some tasty meals. Working at Zenger Community Farm and immersed in the thriving food scene of Portland, she collects a lot of interesting recipes. The Carne Asada tacos she made were perfect for Gabe’s birthday dinner. Try out her simple and savory recipe. With a few neighborly acts, you might even be able to rustle up some of the ingredients right where you live. In any case, you can start "economizing" by having the neighbors over to enjoy it. Maybe they'll bring the beans and rice.

Prairie’s Carne Asada Tacos

A nice piece of grassfed beef - sirloin, flank, or round steak
Juice of 2 limes mixed with several cloves of minced garlic, some olive oil, salt and pepper

Marinate the meat in the refrigerator for 4-8 hours in the lime juice/garlic/olive oil. Then cook the meat. You can cut it up into small pieces and sauté it. Or you can grill or broil it whole and then cut it up. Don't overcook it.

Serve on warm corn tortillas garnished with:

Chopped white onion in fresh lime juice with fresh cilantro
Fresh jalapenos minced
Hot pickled veggies, jalapenos, carrots, cauliflower, etc.
Fresh or home canned salsa
Shredded cabbage
Chunked avocado

Goes good with a side of rice and beans.

From Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, August 30, 2009


On the cusp of autumn, the owls are back in the cottonwoods. All week long I wake again and again to hear them. Calling. Calling. Their softly feathered voices like sonorous drums carrying a message along the watercourses of the valley.

I don’t know what brings these great horned owls from their usual haunts to our tall cottonwoods each year. During the summer, we see them perched on power poles or swooping out of the tops of willows and gliding off into the dusk. But late winter and early fall they join us for a week or so, settling in outside our sleeping household and gently waking us in the dark hours. I am impressed by their persistence, their meditative calls that go on and on. I wonder what they are thinking.

Owls are one of my totems. As a child, I grew up on salt water in the land of coastal tribes. Dark fathomed arms of the Pacific reaching into the continent to lap fir-covered humps of land. Even in this dry country where I now live, I feel a tiny totem pole shaped inside me. Significant, recurring experiences,indelible over time. What I carry with me.

At our first home in the canyon, I was often with owls. At the edge of a vast grassland bench, Tulley Creek nestles into the draw with red rock rims stair-stepping to the breaks above. It’s a special place. But I was struggling with the isolation of a woman in a man’s world, and hardly any men at that. It was like being on a tether, trapped in the snare of two babies under the age of two. Diapers piling up, everything washed on a board.

One long evening in August, I stood in the screened porch looking east when a tiny screech owl landed on the gatepost at the end of the boardwalk. Another owl landed on the other post. They perched quietly, their heads swiveled backwards. I had never been so close to an owl.

I stepped inside and picked up the crawling baby, took the other child by the hand. “Look at the owls,” I whispered, kneeling in the porch doorway. Dusk was falling and the orange tabby kittens began tumbling out of their lair in a mass of daylilies crowding the porch. Suddenly I knew why the owls were there.

I had already lost most of my cats and in the constant battle with mice and packrats I couldn’t afford to be without. My last mother cat had been hauled off by something that left her dead and hanging high up in an alder tree behind the cabin. These kittens were all I had left. “Get,” I said, waving a hand at the owls. They ignored me, eyes riveted to the squirming kittens wrestling in the trampled yard. I picked up a rock. It smacked against the post. I picked up another rock and threw it hard. The owls lifted and flapped away.

The next afternoon I had to get out. I saddled a horse, threw some panniers over the saddle, put the baby on my back. I lifted the toddler onto the horse and walked to the old orchard about a mile down the bench. I picked too many apples and let time get away from me. Dark was gathering. The mare was spooked. She didn’t like the bags of apples shifting against her side or the toddler perched on top of the load. Coming off the hill onto the trail, she snorted and whirled, the toddler cried. I jerked the lead, apples spilled.

I barely got a hold of the toddler and dragged him to the ground by one arm before he got dumped. The mare pranced and snorted like there were cougars in the brush. The toddler refused to get back on, so I trudged toward home, lugging him in one arm, the baby whimpering on my back, the mare wall-eyed and jittery at the end of the lead.

Night air flowed around us, the cool dirt smell of evening mixing with the sweet smell of apples. Then a shadow passed overhead. I looked up. The biggest owl I had ever seen glided above me. Off to the side another owl flapped silently along the trail. The owls followed me all the way back to the cabin. Remember, their softly drifting shapes seemed to say. Remember we were here first. And I haven’t forgotten.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dances – My Top Ten

Saturday night’s barn dance was not quite a rip-snorter. About a hundred folks packed into the upstairs of the Hockett Barn. Some lounged on fairly cushy strawbale seating under the eaves, others busted their moves, arms twisting like octopuses, skirts flying, boots stomping. The local talent belted out some rowdy western-swingable tunes and everybody from sleeping babies to slightly deaf great-grandmothers had a great time. Even though we live in a pretty small-town kind of place, we put on some of the best shindigs ever. Most of the great dance parties on my top ten list have taken place right here in good ol' Wallowa County.

#10 Hale Family Living Room Dance – what WAS the occasion? We rolled back the rug, shoved the furniture out of the way, I called standing on the piano bench

#9 Cox Wedding Dance, Dug Bar, Hells Canyon – I called standing on a chair next to the squash patch

#8 Norse Hall, Portland, Oregon – old time dance with “professionals”

#7 All Night Latin Dance Party, Iowa City with Rueben from Guadelajara, okay it wasn't live music, but we were still smokin hot

#6 Skip and Pam 25th Anniversary Old Time Dance – Oddfellows Hall, sweet and wild

#5 Callie and Luke’s Eastern Montana Wedding Dance – crazy wagon ride to the "dance hall" tent, get drunk enough to break your leg and win a prize

#4 Cammie and Gabes’ Out in the Pasture Wedding Dance – on a “real plywood” dance floor built by cowboys

#3 Imnaha River Grange Hall – old time dance with whiskey in the bushes by the outhouse and midnight supper with mountains of sandwiches and pies

#2 First Cowboy Poetry Gathering Dance, Elko, NV – with Ian Tyson and people who know what counterclockwise means

#1 First Cowboy Music Gathering Dance, Elko NV – Texas Playboy style with my all-time favorite cowboy dance partner

From the Magpie Ranch - home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rock Jack King

Today is the Rock Jack Building competition at the Ranch Rodeo in town. The REAL champion rock jack builder won’t be in the competition. He’ll be working on fence out on the Zumwalt Prairie.

People from Wallowa County sometimes don’t realize that the rock jack is a unique fencing technique, but we’ve had many a visitor ask us what those triangular structures and piled up rocks are all along the fenceline. In most places, people just drive posts into the ground. On Wallowa County rangeland, much of the ground is rock, and there is no way you’re going to sink a post into it. There is also the issue of remoteness. Many fences can only be reached by horseback and wooden fence material packs better on a horse than metal posts do.

The art of rock jack building is passed down from one fencer to another and it starts with good material. Mike’s first job in Wallowa County was splitting 9,000 pieces of tamarack fence material for the US Forest Service. He and Jay Penniman searched out enormous dead-standing tamarack trees and felled them. They sawed the downed trees into lengths and laid into them with maul and wedge to split them into 4 ft posts and 4 ½ ft stays.

I can still remember the sweat glistening on the men’s necks and the ring of their mauls biting into the pumpkin colored wood. It fascinated me, the clean straight grain of the tamarack splitting sharply into what seemed like impossibly long lengths of material. Standing beside one of the enormous logs, I imagined the wood slabbed off into shakes, boards, timbers, shingles, everything you would need to build a hand-hewn house. What a remarkable resource.

Mike’s rock jack techniques have been honed over years of fencing. First contracts, then building and maintaining fence on the ranches we worked for, and now on our own fences at the Magpie Ranch. One year we built fence for McClarans on Pine Creek and camped out in our wall tent all summer. While I worked alongside Mike, the kids played He-Man, using the flatbed truck for a fort with the dog-catcher over the cab as their watchtower. Prairie even came up with a new armored hairstyle by working a handful of fence staples into the crown of her tightly braided hair. My job was to attach the fence stays to the newly strung wire. After a mile’s worth of days of hammering staples into twangy tamarack, I got used to waking up with swollen hands that could barely make a fist and I developed a healthy respect for fence builders.

Out on the Zumwalt, the resident elk herd migrates through our range on a daily basis and can flatten a fence without batting an eyelash. Mike is perfecting the art of keeping the fence just loose enough for the resident elk herd to pass over, and just tight enough to keep our cow herd from deciding to go visit the neighbors.

Building good rangeland fences requires skill. With steep ground, determined animals, and gravity to contend with, I know how important every angle is, the choice of each piece of material, the placement of the rocks on the deck and the height of each wire. And yes, fence building has appeared in one of my favorite poems, a love poem of course. I’ll share an excerpt here, but if you want the whole poem, you’ll have to ask me for it. And by the way, since Mike’s not entering the contest, I’m rooting for Bryan Baquet.

Excerpt from

February, Horse Creek

When you wake up
we haul two jack’s material
down slope and build fence.
I love this just as much,
mu diagonal fitting your upright,
the wire I lift and hold in place
as if all the world could be held by one wire
strung just right.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Circling Back

Little Duke was not little. The cowboys named him that to differentiate him from his dad, Old Duke, who eventually became Duke Whitey, because of his thick white hair. Both Dukes are part of a long line of Phillips, which I think is now up to Duke the Fourth with Little Duke’s son. In my family nobody has ever made it past Junior, so this feels weighty to me.

I met Little Duke when he knocked on our door to offer Mike a job day riding. We didn’t have a phone so he had driven the eighteen miles out to our place and since Mike wasn’t there, he delivered the message to me. It was a brief conversation. I had yet to discover that it would be the beginning of years of working together and many late night campfire barbecues, with guitars, poetry and stories.

The Phillips came to the Snake River from Old Mexico. They were Texans, but grew up on a ranch south of the border. Duke and his brother Scott were our age and both spent time on the Oregon ranch between college and getting married. Their ranch included Dug Bar, Horse Creek, Camp Creek and Target Springs.

Horse Creek is now part of our winter range. The house is actually on the Imnaha River, and the range extends into a fork of Horse Creek. My first memory of Horse Creek is from a cattle drive from Dug Bar to Camp Creek. We overnighted at the Horse Creek house and our black half-wild pup escaped the truck and disappeared during a storm. The next morning after the cowboys headed out, Duke came riding back with the bedraggled pup under his arm. He had spotted him halfway up a rim downriver, said he looked just like a bear cub crawling through the rocks. That’s how one of our best dogs got the name Oso, Spanish for bear.

Phillips later hired Mike and I to build a large feedbunk on the river bar across from the house. We toiled for a couple weeks, setting the heavy railroad tie posts into the dense cobble of the river bar, sometimes unearthing enormous boulders and slabs of basalt. That feeder was stout and meant to last. In the evenings, I pulled books of poetry from Little Duke’s shelves and discovered the Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda, poems in Spanish that eventually led to our family moving to Ecuador for a year. The Phillips left the country after less than a decade (winters were too long) and settled back in the Southwest, but Mike and I still think of them. Especially last year as we labored to yank those same feedbunk posts out of the ground.

We laughed about the irony of our efforts, but under our management that patch of riverbar is one of our main restoration projects. After clearing out the feeder, burning and reseeding the bar with a rangeland drill, we are satisfied to see the new grass taking hold, the weeds becoming fewer and fewer. We admire the athletic river otters who make their way to a favorite fishing hole in late winter and we welcome the pairs of wild geese arriving to nest on the bar in spring. We think of our own migrations, one ranch to another, winter range to summer. People come and go, ranches change hands, decisions or weather take their toll for a time, or improve things. We keep circling back and when we arrive, we say, here we are again, and we look at what needs to be done.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Today I was reminded of a tried and true companion that has travelled with me from the Okanogan to the Yukon to Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Valley. I’m talking about The Herb Book by John Lust. The subject of the book came up over dinner when we were discussing a malady that has afflicted me the last few weeks, the nasty rash, swelling and pain caused by exposure to Rhus radicans L, poison ivy.

Since I have been affected before, I know what poison ivy (commonly referred to in these parts as poison oak) looks like and I avoid it like the plague. But I still get it several times a year, from Mike, the dogs, tools, laundry, etc. This time I suspect I got it from the horses. When Mike and our good friend Bryan trailed the cows up Log Creek to the summer range, they said they went through a “jungle” of poison oak. I remembered not to touch the dogs, but I forgot about the horses.

The Herb Book
contains a startling amount of information on useful plants. It not only includes botanical information, but also educates the reader on medicinal terminology, methods of preparation, nutritional properties, other useful properties, herbal formulas, plant lore and has several comprehensive indexes. Yellowed and worn, I grabbed the compact and dense paperback from my kitchen cupboard and showed it to my friend at the dinner table. “Wow,” she said, “I’ve never used a book enough to have it look like this.”

That’s when I realized how many times this book has helped me treat various illnesses, wounds and discomforts for myself and my family. Living in remote areas, I could often use this resource to find herbal relief in my cupboard, garden, or surrounding landscape. Just a few days ago, I used it to review the properties of my chosen remedy for poison oak and refresh my memory on preparation, dosage and application.

I have heard of many “treatments” for poison oak, everything from bleach and kerosene, to scratching-the-heck-out-of-it, to steroids and shots of whiskey. The remedy I prefer is a decoction of black walnut leaves. Luckily, Mike was heading down river so he picked some fresh leaves for me. As a plant person recently reminded me, the treatment for offensive plants is generally another plant that grows in the same region.

In this case, I used two remedies.

Black Walnut Poison Oak Remedy

Simmer a couple cups of whole fresh leaves in about a quart of water for 5 - 10 minutes. (Dry leaves can be substituted for fresh, simmer 10 minutes.) Let cool. Pour leaves and decoction into a glass jar and store in the fridge. If you are not going to use it up in a week or so, strain and discard the leaves before storing the liquid. Soak a small cloth in the liquid and apply it to the affected area for several minutes, three or four times a day. It helps relieve itching and dry out the rash.

The Other “Remedy”

I hiked from Buckhorn Springs out the end of the ridge above Tulley Creek. A storm was gathering, with fretful winds, dull yellow underbellies of thunderheads, and dark curtains of rain trailing south. When I reached a rock knob at the end of the ridge, I looked down to the Tulley Creek bench below, and the spot where our first home in Wallowa County still squats beside the creek in a ribbon of birch, alder, and willow.

I sat down to contemplate the vast expanse before me and suddenly the world was becalmed. Not a breath of wind, not a bird singing, not even a fly buzzing. It was utterly still. The kind of quiet you can feel on your skin.

Now that kind of remedy works for most anything.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Prairie Terroir

Luckily there was a breeze on the Zumwalt today. It’s hot. It’s July. Out in the open, where the sun is baking the range, there’s the pungent smell of tarweed and yarrow. I like that smell.

This morning Mike dropped me off at the pond and I hiked the upper fence, checking for holes where the elk wander through on their daily travels. I climbed above the head of Alder Creek and crossed a swath of biscuit-scab terrain, the interesting mounds of vegetated soil with rocky bare channels between. Nobody knows for sure what resulted in this unique rangeland feature, some say glaciers, others geologic floods, and once I even heard a theory about giant prehistoric gophers!

In spite of the dryness, there were still wildflowers: pink buckwheat, lilac erigeron, magenta dianthus, purple-blue penstomon. I followed the fence off the top down into a stand of Ponderosa Pine, thankful for the shade. In the dappled shadows, the grass was green and lush, with birds flitting and calling among the trees and shrubs. I swear I could smell the huckleberries ripening, even though I couldn’t find any.

Every time I look up into a big old Ponderosa Pine, I think of cougars. I think of how a cougar can jump almost twenty feet straight up, easy as pie. I look at those massive tree limbs arching out from the trunk and I think to myself, “If I were a cougar I’d hop up there, drape myself along that branch and take a nap.”

No cougars today, but lots of birds and butterflies and our cow herd happily wandering the range, enjoying the breeze just like me. Out in the open, I was reminded how beastly hot it gets on the Zumwalt, how when we lived at the Steen Place the kids would try and swim in Chesnimnus Creek even though it hardly had any water in it. They wandered along the creek bed looking for holes deep enough to wallow in and came back to the house covered in mud. I had to pump a couple buckets from the well and douse them off before I could let them in.

The Steen Place is a big two story hundred year old log house at the edge of the prairie. We summered there off and on over the years, and we have many memories of good times and hard work with the folks who cowboyed together there. It seemed we always had some project going to try to fix up the house. One spring the pack rats packed 50 pounds of dog food, one piece at a time, from the front porch up into the attic where it collapsed the ceiling and fell through into the bedroom below. We got new sheetrock on the ceiling that summer. When the ranch sold recently, people stopped living there. I wonder if it will ever be cared for as anyone’s home again.

The Steen Place is just one more reason why I love this country. The open rolling grassland, the mosaic of timber, the deep red canyons, the wide benchlands, the lush dynamic river bottoms. Like the grass and the cattle, we have become the product of its soil, climate and culture. This is our terroir.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Velvet and Luminous

In his collection Elemental Odes, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has written some of the most sensuous love poems in history. Consider this excerpt from Ode to the Onion:

In the garden, the earth heaped up her power showing your naked transparency and as the remote sea in lifting the breasts of Aprhodite duplicated the magnolia, so did the earth make you.

Yes, one can write a love poem about a vegetable or a fruit.

Like the intoxicating and voluptuous apricot. Three pickings already this week and now they are dozing in boxes in the basement, ripening, ripening.

Evenings I break a sweat carving their little orbs into the makings of luminescent preserves, racks loaded for the fruit dryer and quarts of perfect halves floating in their exquisite nectar.

Poet and professor David Wagoner talks about feeling like he was using the same words over and over in his poems. When he examined his work, he found the six words that his poetry lived on: wind, bird, tree, water, grass, and light.

Apricot is one of my words.

I feel a sense of embarrassment every time the apricot appears in another of my poems, but I can’t help it. Sometimes they just sneak in there. And this is definately one of those moments. They are such a gift.

Canyon Apricots

And come the long baked days of summer
I return for the harvest glowing
among the fluttering leaves. Velvet
shoulders gently plucked from stems,
and lolling in my palm, the succulence
of blushing cheek and silken cleft.
Again my lips reach for tender skin
the burst of flesh, sweet quenching
I can not swallow enough of.
And all this for simply needing and finding
what was left by those before us
hidden here among the rims and benches.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Little Houses and Lasting Partnerships

The Bunkhouse Orchestra has a song about the "little house that stands among the trees" and they are not talking about a cottage.

We have built, restored and reholed many an outhouse over the years. I have great respect for a good outhouse and there are definitely times when two holes are better than one. Some of my favorites are the two holers that have a regular size hole for grown-ups and a stepped down hole for the kids.

When the 1,000 year flood came in 1997, we lassoed the privy at Corral Creek and tied it off to a tree. It survived, upright in the raging floodwaters, riding the waves like some kind of ark.

At Horse Creek our centennial one-holer is made out of hand split tamarack planks and square nails which date to a hundred years ago. It was in pieces when we found it. Mike carefully dismantled them and is now restoring it to a place of honor just up the hill from the ranch house.

The old farmhouse we live in has both an indoor flush version and an outdoor one-holer. We tell guests that when they stay in the bunkhouse it comes with its own privy. In fact, it has a dutch door so you can enjoy your privacy and the view of the mountains at the same time.

Indoors, the flush facility has its own character. It is lilac. Lilac sink, lilac tub and yes, lilac toilet. This was Hattie Freudenberg's house and purple was her favorite color. In June, the toilet perfectly matches the immense hedge of lilacs blooming all along the front of the yard.

Mike spent quite a bit of his 4th of July holiday removing and refurbishing said toilet. After seventy years you can expect a piece of plumbing to have a few issues. Which reminds me how thankful I am for lasting partnerships and division of labor. While I have fixed many a toilet, I'd much rather spend my time making a pie for him to enjoy when he is done with the plumbing job. It is not likely we'll find another lilac toilet, so we are trying to make this one last. But we'll always have the little house out back, just in case.

Ode to the Privy

Four walls and a door, with a roof overhead
one hole or two, not much more than a shed
but you never freeze shut, you never break down
a sure sign that we are not living in town.
O outhouse dear outhouse you welcome us in
when wind rattles by and rain hits the tin
so we'll sweep out the spiders and shovel your snow
because whenever we need you, you're ready to go.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Sam Loftus Kind of Day

Today the bulls get a surprise. They are going to the prairie to be reunited with the cow herd. At this moment, they are lounging in the shade of the willow trees out by the corral, their bellies full of lush green valley pasture grass. It is a pretty good day already, but it’s going to get better and they don’t even know it.

Mike could get a surprise today too. I made a super delicious sour cream fudge cake late last night and now I’m picturing a picnic to surround that cake, on the breaks of the canyon, overlooking the deep-cut tributaries of the lower Imnaha River. It could be a Sam Loftus memorial kind of day.

Sam was our first cow boss when we came into Hells Canyon nearly thirty years ago. I remember the first time I met him. We had recently moved into the cow camp at Tully Creek, a long ways from anybody and five miles up a dirt driveway that was ten miles down a cliff-hanging dirt road. The cabin was well worn, with a rich history of pioneering souls and packrat invasions, an unreliable spring, and an equally unreliable toilet that somebody had installed on the front porch.

It was early in the morning on a wet April day and I was trying to get a garden plot started below the cabin. I had two kids under the age of two and Mike had already left for the day’s work, so I snuck out while the kids were sleeping. The view out across the wide canyon benches at Tully Creek was stark and soothing. It’s one of those rare open places in what is otherwise an up and down landscape.

As I squatted in the damp dirt among my scraggly beds of seedlings, I suddenly heard the thump of hooves and the hard breath of a horse climbing the draw. I turned and stood as an older cowboy galloped up on a huge dapple grey gelding that he slid to a stop practically on top of me. “Where’s your man?” he barked, towering over me while his horse blew, spraying me with slobber. “What are you doing out here? You’ll never get a garden to grow. Too hot and not enough water.”

His orneriness could have been intimidating, except for his impish grin and his eyes that twinkled out from under the brim of his hat. I knew there was a sense of humor under his loud, bossy demeanor and I knew I had to be just as tough as he was if we were going to get along.

Sam’s been gone a couple years now and the memories of all the seasons and places we worked together fill most of my life so far. The big ancient log summer house at the Steen Place, the tiny winter cabin at the Litch Place, Indian Village, School Flat, Vance Knoll, Square Mountain. And even when we weren’t working for Sam, we still relied on his knowledge of where to trail from one range to another, where to water, how to deal with a sick animal.

One of the last pictures I have of Sam is at Buckhorn. He’s sitting in a wheel chair at the edge of the fire look-out. The breaks of the canyon fall away right behind him, where he looks down at the trail from summer to winter range. And over his shoulder are the dusky clefts of the drainages, Horse Creek, Lighting, Cow, Corral, Thorn, Tulley. And on the horizon, the high red hogback ridges, Haas, Grizzly, Windy, Summit.

So that’s what I’m thinking. A picnic at Buckhorn after we drop off the bulls. A few good stories, some of that awesome chocolate cake, and a look into the canyon that has shaped our work, our lives and our friendships all these years.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Real People Eat

I’m sure if I read Betty’s book I’d find something good in there. Betty Fussell is a gourmand. She lives in New York, N.Y. and she believes in steak. Her recent book Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, is described by Michael Pollan as an “absorbing journey through the geography of beef.”

But I haven’t read Betty’s book. I’ve only seen part of the meaty note she sent to High Country News in May. This is where Betty shares a few thoughts on red meat, emphasizing that ‘real’ American men, women and children eat steak because it infuses them blood, iron and vitality.

What struck me about this sentiment is the word “steak.” In my book, what ‘real’ men, women and children eat is locally and sustainably grown food. Which in places like Hells Canyon, with an abundance of natural grasses and forages, includes meat. And not just steak.

Steak can be yummy. So can arm roasts, heart, soup bones, liver, rump roasts, tongue, stew meat, etc. To build a food system that supports ranch families and the lands they steward, we must learn to eat and use more of the animal.

Folks who know how to cook a delicious heart or tongue can share those skills and tastes. I can’t remember who showed me how to cook tongue, but I know that boiled and seasoned, sliced thin, it makes awesome sandwiches, with a hearty mustard on homemade bread.

Nowadays, the butcher even asks me if I want the tail. And some of my customers do. So fire up the freezer honey, because it’s about the whole cow.

Recipe for Boiled Beef Tongue

Rinse the tongue and place in a stock pot with water to cover and one teaspoon of salt. Optional: add chopped onion and/or seasonings, such as bay leaf, red or black pepper or pickling spice. Bring to a boil and simmer 2 to 3 hours or until tender, should be able to pierce it with a fork. Rinse in cold water. Peel off the skin. Slice thinly and serve. Good for sandwiches.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lessons Learned

Cherries good. Bean maggots bad.

Here is what you don't do: plant a late cover crop, till it in late, rush to plant your beans and then incubate a superb hatch of bean seed maggots in the cool moist rotting cover crop. This is guaranteed to eliminate beans from your summer harvest. The bean maggots eat the bean sprouts as they emerge from the seed. The happy little buggers took care of every bean seed in the garden. I hope my friends and neighbors have a bumper crop this year, because I will be on the hunt for beans.

Consolation for the demise of the beans came in the bucket of cherries Gabe brought out from Horse Creek. Sweet, dark, juicy delicious organic cherries. The tree is at least 40 years old and enormous. It has survived in the old orchard along the river in spite of drought, pests (including bears), and floods. The birds love it. They usually get the harvest, but this year the salmon season coincided with cherry season and our dedicated fisherman also loves fruit. So I got the bonus of cherries.

Some were splitting from the copious rains of last week. I sorted and saved the most pristine for fresh eating and pitted and froze the rest. These will go into my favorite kind of cherry pie, which is a mix of 1/3 sweet cherries and 2/3 pie cherries. And don't forget cherry smoothies, and plain frozen cherries barely thawed which are a great treat in themselves, especially for little kids. For now I'm practicing self discipline and not reaching into the cherry bowl too often, just when I think of the beans.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rain on the Range

One should not complain about rain. Many good remarks were shared at Flora School Days yesterday regarding the benevolence of morning sun breaks as the heavy clouds marched overhead. The music was great, especially having the fiddlin' Fluit sisters from Upper Prairie Creek, Doc Woods on his trusty stand up bass, and a new mandolin player, Liz from Flora. Lucky for us, it didn't really rain until the activities concluded and then we scurried around packing up everything from butter churns to mules and plows.

And it's still raining. I hope my beans haven't decided to rot in the garden. One of the items that is a must for the pantry is a good supply of pickled beans. So I'm hoping those little bean plants are happily soaking up moisture instead of turning to mush.

Speaking of stocking the larder, I can't believe we are still eating onions from last year. These are the best keeper onions I've ever had. They are the same kind I've grown the last few years, yellow and red Spanish sweets, but for some reason they've held longer. I wish I could predict how curing, braiding and storing resulted in such longevity, but I can't. So I just praise each onion as it goes into the pan, firm and unsprouted.

I wonder how the cherries are fairing down on the Imnaha at Horse Creek. Last week they were nearly ripe and Gabe and I had to restrain ourselves from eating too many and suffering the result. If as much rain has fallen in the canyon as in the valley, the cherries are likely to have split. But there will be other cherries in the coming month. That is the beauty of food in Wallowa County. With our elevation gradient the opportunities to harvest are scattered across topography and season. First the canyon, then Imnaha, then Big Sheep, then the Valley. I can't wait.

After a well-deserved Fathers Day breakfast of four-grain sour-milk waffles with honey butter sauce (honey from Prairie Creek), Mike and I are off to the Zumwalt again. We have a couple heifers who would like to join the herd on the summer range.

It will be good to breathe in the fragrance of wet prairie, but I will look out across the canyon breaks and part of me will still long to be at Horse Creek. It's a time of transition, this migration that gets in your bones, feeling the pull from one ecotype to another, from one cow camp to the next. We count our blessings to still be here, following the circle, remembering those who were here before us and those who will come behind.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Home Sweet Summer Range Home

June thunderstorms keep rolling in soaking the thirsty range with sweet fresh rain. Wildflowers and native grasses are blooming. The sun rises early and sets late in a salmon-magenta horizon framed by canyon breaks and mountain shoulders. Life is definately good.

Last weekend we trailed our small herd of longhorn and corriente cattle from the winter range in the Imnaha River canyon to the summer range on the Zumwalt Prairie. It was a three day affair. One day of brushing out the trail (Mike and his faithful machete vs blackberry and poison oak), and two days of trailing. As usual, all the meals tasted better, the draws seemed steeper, the sun got hotter and the beds felt sweeter.

The dogs, horses, cows and cowboys all worked together to make it a safe smooth trip.

Lots of changes up on the prairie as more ranches are purchased and consolidated into private preserves with a proliferation of explicitly yellow "posted" signs reminding everyone who ventures past that they are not welcome.

When we topped out of the canyon and hit the gravel road by Thomason Meadows, we bumped into a neighbor. How good it was to visit, catch up on family happenings and remember all the times we've helped each other over the years, sharing our labor, knowledge and resources. It's good to be part of community.

Now that the cows are situated, it's off to Flora School Days this weekend for the big doin's at the old two-story schoolhouse. Every year Mike and I join the other folks who show up to play music on the schoolhouse porch. What's better than circling up some fiddles and guitars with a mandolin, banjo, stand-up bass, concertina and some spoons thrown in to spice it up?

Especially since all around the school yard people are busy learning about wood stove cooking, blacksmithing, horse farming, washing on a board and other useful stuff. Inside you can wander around listening to the echos of classrooms past and taking in all the history. And there's pie. You can get delicious homemade pie, with or without a dutch oven dinner. I always eat the pie first. Two pieces, one chocolate merengue and the other rhubarb custard. You better get it on the calendar for next year.