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.