Friday, December 31, 2010

Ending the Year at Pumpkin Creek

Above the Rye Bench, looking north
The three of us, Mike, Zeke and I, gathered the last of the herd out of Pumpkin Creek this week and trailed them to the river.

Old rock flume at Pumpkin Creek
We gathered on foot, crossing Horse Creek on a slippery downed alder tree just below the cabin, and climbing high into Pile-Up where I’d spotted about nine head on a narrow strip of grass between the north rims.

The norths were thawed in places, with steep patches of greasy mud that stuck to my boots. I was glad for my staff. We threaded a little bunch of cattle off the narrow end of the ridge between rock outcrops and switchbacked down to the drift fence. They wanted to grade out but we managed to hold them. 

Once through the gate, they took off in a wild run crossing back into the draw and through the brush before galloping downslope all the way to the creek.

Down the Pumpkin Creek road
The next day Mike and I rode and Zeke shuttled the truck over to pick us up at the river place. Our neighbor had driven up the creek that morning to tell us where he’d spotted some cattle, and to let us know he’d already cut a few of our stragglers out of his cows and put them through the gate. Nice.

We picked up another fifteen head trailing to the river. The weather held off for the five-mile ride and the cattle trailed willingly across the bench. Almost to gate on the Rye Bench, we reached the funky drift fence at Walking Cane, with its long weak stretches, rotted material and awkward corner gates.

Trailing north
A bunch of the neighbor’s cows were scattered below on a finger of bench ground. Mike suspected our cows would go running over there as soon as they could get through the fence, so he rode ahead, off the slick side hill and onto the flat. Sure enough as soon as a big red steer found a hole, he high tailed it toward the flat with a string of cows behind him. Mike’s determination and some fancy footwork by Zip finally got the best of the steer and turned him back. When an old cow took the lead towards home, the rest of the bunch soon followed. 

Mike brings west-side stragglers across the river
Past the home place
We reached the river, met up with Zeke, unloaded supplies and turned the horses out. Mike and Zeke drove up the road to Crazy Man to gather a few steers and heifers who climbed out of the river pasture earlier in the week. They trailed the tail end of the stragglers through the driveway gate just as the snow started to fall. The temperature was dropping fast and the wind was picking up. We ate the last of the pies, swallowed some hot coffee and headed for the valley.  

Zeke drove us out to town, over the ice and snow and into a blizzard squall.  We were wedged into the front seat with the heater cranked and the familiar smell of wet dogs wafting up behind us. Mike took a swig of water and summed it up, “Well, we accomplished everything.”  It was a good way to end the year.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cow Camp at Pumpkin Creek

Pumpkin Creek cow camp

We've lived in cow camps ranging from a place to pitch a tent to a two-story house. At the Steen Place on the edge of the Zumwalt Prairie we summered in a 100 year old log house with walls that bore testament to some of the previous residents via initials carved into  the front porch. There was also a barn, extensive corrals, and out behind the kitchen, an enormous multi-chambered root cellar in a state of collapse. The cellar had a log front and thick stone walls that birthed boulder-sized rocks, pushed out by the settling hillside. Even though it was our summer place, we stayed there into December while the cows were in the breaks of the canyon, and we were thankful for the enormous barrel stove and the thick logs insulating us from the cold. 

At Pumpkin Creek, the accommodations are simple. A roof overhead and all the basics you appreciate at the end of a long day and a steep trail. 
"Fully equipped" kitchen

A "real" bed

Last weekend, Mike installed an old cast-iron dry sink for the kitchen, an improvement I'm looking forward to using. While he built the sink stand, I hiked the steep norths above the narrow bench to gather cattle and move them up Pumpkin Creek. I had to work two good dogs while keeping a pup and a big slobbering Labrador out of the way, which proved interesting at times. 
Mike builds stand for the dry sink
Narrow trail on a steep north

Frozen spring shedding ice in the sun
The sun was brilliant and the ground still frozen as I side-hilled along, gathering up little bunches of cows and heading them south. At one point, I came upon a spring flowing out of the ground above a rock outcrop. The rock face dripped with moss and a few stalwart icicles clung to the basalt, while the ground below was strewn with chunks of ice fall, collapsed in the sun after the night's frozen temperatures. 

Looking north toward the Imnaha

It was nice to have most of the snow melted off after the last storm, to have open ground for the cattle to travel in. Looking  back toward the Imnaha River, I saw the high snowy rims of Haas Ridge, and was reminded that winter has a long way to go yet. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poets and Storytellers

Last night was poetry and story-telling at the neighbors. "Come back any time," the old-timers called as we left, and I felt like I could.

Somebody read a family story of the hired gun "range detective" who simply shot people when they went out to chop a load of wood or saddle a horse, because their neighbors asked them to quit the country and they didn't.

And we heard the brand-new story of two sheepherders at Christmas on Pony Bar and I laughed so hard my belly hurt at the part where the sheepherder's hat flew off and stuck on her face when she was getting bucked off her mule in the middle of a race. And funniest of all, the old timer reciting the one about the girl who found herself dating a cowboy and his dog and ended up liking the hairy kisses of both.

We did talk a little politics, a little craziness we see going on right here, with people not wanting to share, with people not having to work a place to own it, not needing their neighbors. And we pulled ourselves in with a soft-feel, like horse-whisperers, as one cowboy reminded us, "What would Tom Dorrance do?"

Ice along the Imnaha
I didn't share the poem I wrote, but I like it better since I heard the poetry and stories last night. The questions  and emotions about where we live and how we can talk to others when we hear them out in the world saying, this is what the local folks think and do, and it's not.

There is so much that we learn from the places we live in. And often not with words. And we have to learn to tell it, to look at the other animals in the room and ask ourselves: Where is the life energy? Where is the fear? How much pressure should we give? When to release?

Here is the poem.

December, Dug Bar

What matters
is not the time or date, but the light and wind and chill,
the snow clouds blotting out the trail.

After dark, I hear your packstring
clump in on the frozen ground,
and I go to the barn so I can see you alive, unsaddling the beasts, their breath fogging the air.

It feels like we are in the bible,
flood and famine, whatever God writes.

I’m saying I think I understand this grass
this water, these gates and trails.

I’m saying I can see the locust grove
swinging in the basin high above us,
the place we rest sometimes, as if our graves lay there.

SI Miller 12 10 2010
Mike headed home ahead of the storm

From Sara at Mapgie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Missive

Winter finds us here on Prairie Creek, east of the stubble field, beside the ancient row of lilacs hugging the ditch-bank. The farmhouse has enriched our lives not only with shelter, work and gaiety, but kinship.

The farm is a life shared with us. It holds not our mothers’ childhood. Nor did our grandparents, uncles, aunts, make these fields or carve these waterings, raise these barns and sheds, corrals and bunkhouses. This is another family, now interwoven with ours, far flung, and rich in their own lives.

I see their summer photographs, the stubbly lawn bathed in full sun, the meager slips of lilac either side of the footbridge, new and ornamented white with gated archways. And in the yard, beside a tall slim woman, a toddler in bloomerish attire, toddling as my own have done in this very place.

Only now, the elms are tall and the lilacs overgrown. The buildings, once stark and construct, are settled and aged among a scattering of fattened cottonwoods and tall windbreak conifers. I am thankful for this sharing.

This winter morning, the fields and pastures, still farmed, are licked with fog. I wait for the sun to break through, to light the ice and set the fields with crops of tiny rainbow prisms.

There are other houses that have grown out of these farms, and left aside the farmers. There are houses whose people have lives elsewhere, with other professions and means. I would like to know them, I tell myself, and feel the urge to knock on their door, bearing jam and potatoes. I think I want to hear their stories, to tell my own, but then I remember times when the story is unanswered, and I doubt.

Sometimes it takes getting past, like wading through hawthorn thickets in the bottom of a draw. Last week moving cattle, I drug my horse into the middle of a thicket, thinking I’d find a hole and ended up clawed from every side. My horse’s head against my back, I wrestled spiny branches, wishing for a machete, until I found the fire-killed sumac that I could break, and we pushed through.

Mike said he cut the trail out once. But it will take cutting out again, for as long as someone is bringing cattle up that creek on foot or horseback. And I think of all the trails that have felt the arc of his machete. And I think of the hands before us who knew and wanted to keep open the way to that range and to the cabin at the forks.

Sometimes our stories can be told, even miles apart, to people we rarely see, and they might remember this same trail, even if they have never set foot there. I will knock on the neighbor’s door again this Christmas.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving's Work

Friday after Thanksgiving, the sun comes up with an intensity that sharpens the facets of the mountains' snow-covered cliffs. Zeke says the mountains look taller with snow on them, and they do.The golden light tips wheat stubble and tall-grass fence rows, a perfect morning for a march across the field with Dawson and Prairie. At the creek we stomp ice, poke our faces into the culvert - trying to see each other on the other end. The dogs run crazy and we practice Punch, now five months old, on 'heel', and 'here', and 'sit', 'behind' and 'stay behind'.
Dawson looks at Prairie
South End of Culvert

In the afternoon we load supplies and horse hay onto the flat bed. Mike leaves for the river with two hours of daylight, hoping to spot the herd above the Imnaha.. Prairie and Jon and I  finish packing another load and head down in the dark. We arrive to a fire in the stove and a light on (yeah solar system!), but no water. It's 40 degrees and the wind is in a steady blow down canyon.

Saturday morning, just as the horses are saddled, Gabe, Cammie and Dawson pull up and Zeke is with them. Mike and Prairie are headed upriver toward Basin Creek, where Mike spotted some of the herd, about six miles away. Gabe and Cammie ride out toward Walking Cane to open a gate on the drift fence.

 Gabe, Prairie, Cammie on the Rye Bench

Zeke and I stay behind to work on the water line. As we hike up the steep draw to the spring box, Dawson scrambles over the trail, fending off the claws of wild rose and hawthorn branches with one arm, the other firmly held in my grip. There's water in the springbox, and a wet place where the line might have a crack. We  poke around in the muck, then decide to head back. Nap time and we need a shovel. Dawson scrambles down slope with equal enthusiasm, "leaping" off rocks and stomping through an icy mud hole. At the bottom, Zeke and I spot where the pipe is apart. We walked right by it on the way up.

Back at the house, I look out the kitchen window upriver, clouds are rolling toward us like dense smoke, the snowfall obliterating landmarks from sight. The temperature is dropping fast and the wind is picking up.  Dawson looks out the window, "Storm's coming Grandma." I'm wondering how far the riders and cattle have made it, where on the canyonside they will be when the storm hits.

Storm clouds descending
Headed home ahead of the storm
With half an hour of poor light remaining, the four riders snake down off the hill, but Jon, who headed out for a hike this morning, is nowhere to be seen. We get the horses put up, still no Jon. A few of us hike part way to the bench in the failing light, no sign of Jon.  The snow is really coming down. Hunger battles concern, dinner's ready and it's pitch black outside. Then we hear Zeke's voice on the porch and Jon's answer. Thank God.

Sunday morning the snow has stopped. Mike and I saddle up and head out to gather the cattle off the Rye Bench. It's a slick climb, the horses are sharp shod with caulks, but the four inches of wet snow ball up under their hooves, making them slide a bit on the steep north. On the bench, the cattle are scattered in three bunches and it takes longer to gather than we hoped.

A solitary elk calf is in with herd and we wonder where her mother is, or the rest of her family. All day she follows along, sometimes wandering off a ways, then trotting back into the cows with long bouncing strides. As she stands fifteen feet from my horse, I realize I've never been this close to an elk calf before, and I admire her thick coat, her large dark eyes, how tall she is, the mewing noises she makes as she scans the canyon behind us.

In the afternoon, Mike spots a herd of elk high above us on the canyonside, and the elk calf leaves us to find her own kind. We drop down, cross the creek and turn the cattle through the gate onto the Horse Creek road.  My feet are soaking wet, we've clawed through thickets of hawthorn, I'm hungry and my horse is tired. I'm looking forward to meeting the rest of the family at the Pumpkin Creek cabin, where lunch will be waiting.

The cows have other ideas. They would rather head up the other side of the canyon and onto the east bench, than trail up the narrow road. It's the hardest part of the day, but we finally get them lined out, and I swear the trick is that I start whistling "B-I-N-G-O". They seem to have an aversion to it, and want to move, so I keep whistling until my lips cramp up. Finally we're through the last gate and can let the cattle settle and scatter. I'm hoping Gabe has finished the rock jack on the drift fence, and plugged any other holes that would make it easy for the herd to head back toward more familiar territory.  It's been four years since we had cattle on this range. It will take a while for them to make themselves at home.

By Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hats Off to Customers

Steel blue-grey sky and snow-covered fields outside the kitchen window as dawn creeps into the Wallowa Valley. On this 15 degree morning, I'm thankful the Oval cookstove still has coals in the firebox and all I have to do it drop in a couple chunks of wood to get the fire going again. It's the season of thankfulness and for days now I've been ruminating on how much I appreciate our Bunchgrass Beef customers. 
Cold morning in the valley

Customers--hats off to you! Not only have you supported us financially by buying our locally raised beef, you have been my teachers at Customer College. Your questions have helped me tell our story. Your feedback has given me perspective, everything from how great your cholesterol levels are to how people at your barbecue went wild over the amazing flavor of a Bunchgrass Beef burger. 

I love that you love feeding your families with natural, healthy local beef. I love that you are connected to Magpie Ranch and want to keep family ranches on the land, supporting local knowledge and our efforts to raise food sustainably. 

Packing salt to cattle in the canyon
I love how diverse you are and the many ways you inform me. Why does an animal yield more meat one year than the next? How come my raw burger turns dark after I leave it open in the fridge? How do I decide which "quarter" to buy? What do I do with this big roast? What makes this meat so flavorful? Why are the fats different in grassfed meat? 

When I'm struggling to get a fence back up on the edge of a canyon, or chopping ice at a water hole, or crunching numbers and making calls, your words of encouragement are right there, they are a part of what keeps us going. 

So give yourselves a gold star, for patience, for sincerity, for caring about local food and most of all, for letting us know what you think. And here's a big cowgirl whistle for you too. Plug your ears!

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Over the River

John and Newt below Packsaddle

It's official. The cow herd is on the winter range. Doug and Gabe and Dennis helped us get them to Packsaddle and a couple days later, John and Mike trailed them from the Hall place across the river to Magpie. I bet the cows are as relieved as I am. It's nice to get settled into your home range for the long winter, with all that nutritious bunchgrass spread out across the slopes and benches, the clear fresh water, and plenty of room to wander.

Climbing out of the Hall place

The favorite spot for crossing the Imnaha River
We'll be taking the herd up Pumpkin Creek for a couple months this year. It's been about four years since they were were up there. We've been resting that range since the big fire a few years ago, and gradually getting the fences fixed or replaced where they burned up. As soon as we get a couple big downfall trees off the main fence, we'll be ready to trail the herd the six miles up Horse Creek.

Pumpkin Creek reminds me a little of the Litch Place on Cow Creek.  I love being high up in the big pines, hemmed in by the narrow rims and steep canyon sides, far from the road. The cabin is primitive, but provides the basics, a place to cook, get warm, sleep.

I'm looking forward to spending a bit more time there, exploring, getting to know the trails, cleaning the cabin, fixing things up. I am reminded to thank each hard working soul who was here before me, building this fence, putting on a new roof, clearing a trail to the creek. Every "improvement" out in this vast country is a welcome and valued asset, even if it is just a two room shack with an outhouse and a place to put your horses.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Paw Dirt Doggies - Stomp Your Feet

We had another amazing old time dance at the Liberty grange last Saturday. Four fiddlers, three git-fiddles, a mandolin, piano, concertina, and spoons. Two callers and a big crowd of rowdy laughing dancers from ages 18 months to 77 years.

I had a blast harmonizing with the fiddles on my concertina, and playing the spoons. I learned the hard way that my new lighter-weight jeans are not so good for backstopping the spoons. Even though my playing spoons are wooden, my legs were on fire!

In spite of jet lag from his return trip from Armenia, Mike couldn't resist an old time dance that was right in our neighborhood. He wandered over for some visiting, relaxing with old friends in the chairs along the wall or standing in the corner close to the food and drink. I even got him out on the floor for a waltz.

Being in the grange reminded me of the old-time dances we had in Imnaha, many miles upriver from town. There is something comforting about the fact that many of the grange halls have the same building design. A big staircase and porch leading upstairs to the big hall with high ceilings and stout well worn wooden floor lined with chairs along the walls, rows of narrow double-hung windows, and a small stage, a coat room and a storage closet. Downstairs is a cavernous basement with many long tables for dining, several wood cookstoves, a couple electric or gas cookstoves, kitchen sinks and cupboards, and bathrooms (if you're lucky).

At Liberty, the outside stairs and landing are walled in to fend off winter gales and blizzards, with a recently added curtain of deer fence over the entrance to keep out the varmints, pigeons, etc. On Saturday night,  the black mesh deer fence was hoisted up to allow us inside and walking under it made me feel like I was entering some kind of medieval fortress that had raised its portcullis.

It is a tremendously good feeling to be able to gather people together for music and dance in a building that was built a couple generations back by some of the great great grandparents of people still using it. One of the things I love most about the grange halls is that they are often located out on the prairie, or up the creek, or tucked in the hills, where farmers and ranchers can be the hosts, welcoming their neighbors, welcoming folks from town, welcoming anybody intrepid enough to make the trek, homing in on the faint lights of windows peeking out of the darkness at the end of a bumpy gravel road.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Times They Are a Changing

First snow on the mountains. Garden ready to be put to bed for winter. Last of the squashes and pumpkins ripening under their blankets. Onions in the cellar. Meat in the freezer. Apples to harvest for storage and a few other odds and ends, and my part of getting ready for winter will be done! 

Last weekend I had the unbelievable opportunity to swim in the Wallowa River on the 2nd of October. It was 85 degrees in the shade and I hiked up the backway along the river from Joseph, thinking I would take a dip in the lake. 

When I reached the dam, the water was so low that instead of the usual raging torrent of summer outflow, there was a deep clear pool below the dam. I figured this was the only time I might experience both low water and hot temperatures, so I carefully climbed off the flume of the irrigation diversion and took the plunge into the icy beautiful blue-grey water. Frigid and refreshing!

That dip was enough to energize me through a hot sticky kitchen afternoon and the canning of the last of the pears. All afternoon long, my skin carried the velvety memory of that mountain water. 

Now mornings are soggy with dew and early romps through the field with the dogs result in dripping wet pant legs from the knee down. 

The new pup, Punch, (short for Opuntia - prickly pear), is well on her way to learning come, down, sit, back, and behind. Mostly she just races after the big dogs as best she can, but she is smart and if I am consistent on her training, and can keep her from having bad experiences, she will be an asset to the ranch. 

Another month and we'll have the cow herd back in the canyon. We hope to go up Pumpkin Creek this fall as we haven't used that range since the big range fires a couple years ago. I can't wait to be on the river, the frenzy of summer growing, fall harvest, and trailing the cattle, all behind us, and just the steady work of winter - fixing fence, packing salt, herding, making improvements to keep us busy. 

I know there will be long dark evenings where we are hunkered down, fires going,  reading and writing and talking, a few songs on the guitar and concertina, hot cups of tea and a last walk outside under cold and starry skies to send us off to bed. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, October 1, 2010

Oxtail and Beef Cheeks

We just celebrated Slow Food Wallowa County's first event, Dig In! 

Saturday the week before Dig In!, I got up to a kitchen loaded with produce waiting to be canned, frozen, or dried. On a whim I called Julia to see if she wanted to can peaches. She is a fruit person--that's what she told me when we met. She did want to can. So I started setting us up for peaches, honey curry pickles and apple pie filling. But after harvesting my cukes, I needed more so I called a garden buddy.

Janie said she had some cukes, but she was up to her eyeballs harvesting spuds and needed to get them in the cellar. I said I would come over and do it and she called me a "miracle from God." Julia and I went to Janie's and came home an hour later loaded with cabbage, beets, shallots, potatoes, carrots, dill, mint and a few cukes. The first produce for Dig In! 

When Friday rolled around,  I wanted to make my dishes for the pot luck while Dawson was napping.As soon as he fell asleep I started in on my two meat dishes: braised oxtail and braised beef cheeks. 

Braising stock with red pepper and tomato
Oxtail ready for braising

The oxtail was browned and then simmered in a dutch oven for 4 hours in a tomato-ginger-red pepper-carrot-onion-garlic stock.

Browning cheeks before braising

After a lot of trimming, the beef cheeks were browned and baked in an onion-garlic-black pepper-beef stock. Chilled overnight, I removed the fat and then reheated them for the potluck. Both were delicious.

Saturday of the event, I got up early and went to the neighbor's farm for apples. The neighbors came out and helped pick, parking a flat bed truck under the tree and climbing a step ladder from there. Boxes and boxes of yummy cooking apples to share.  

Some yummy produce from the Magpie Ranch
After that I went home and picked all my yellow and green beans, harvested red and green cabbage and herbs, and sorted a box of windfall Bartlett pears to take to the park. 

Around three o'clock, people came to the park to share produce and everybody talked about how delicious the different produce was and what they planned to do with everything. 

Then we had the potluck with amazing dishes, great stories, and good ideas. Monday morning, Julia and I hauled about six boxes of fresh produce to the Food Bank. It was a great way to wrap up a Dig In! weekend.

Now as an Indian Summer ripens the winter squash in the garden, I'm starting to look forward to winter and the next opportunity to gather folks and keep learning how to improve access to fair, safe, local food.  And this very moment-- I'm going to can the last of those pears! 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pop Pop goes to Armenia

Pop Pop, as grandson Dawson calls him, is headed to Yerevan again. When Mike was first asked to go to Armenia to work on a pastoral systems project, I had to look on a map to figure out where it was. It's over there next to Turkey, below Georgia and above Iran.

This is his third trip, and the last for this year. He has been too busy to educate me much about it, but so far I've learned that their main breed of cattle are a cross of native Caucasus cattle and Brown Swiss, which they hoped would increase milk production for their dairy operations. The "beef" they raise comes from bull calves that are weaned at three months and put on pasture for a year. They do not castrate and the beef animals do not gain very well and are maybe only 400 - 500 pounds when slaughtered.

It sounds like the villages have some good options for improving their management and increasing the yields from their livestock operations. These could include managing dairy and beef animals as separate herds, allowing the beef herds to be grazed on pastures further from the village, castrating non-breeding bulls, and implementing a range management approach based on
ecological principals.

There was a time when I would not have pictured Mike as a scientist, but now it seems to make perfect sense. If a horse wreck had not laid him up and sent him down the college path, he might have just kept working on ranches as a hired hand. In fact, once he was back in the saddle, ranch work kept him sane while he pursued his education. Between semesters he took winters off to herd cattle at Dug Bar on the Snake River, or summers to work for the US Forest Service Range department. The ranchers we worked for, like Joe Collins of the Hubbard Ranch, were incredibly supportive.

Mike spent quite a lot of the next ten years away from home, three of those in Idaho. I cherished the months, weeks and days when he could be home with us, and especially the ones where the family was all together, wintering in cow camp, herding cattle on the craggy canyonsides. It was amazing to be on the range with him, watching him apply what he was learning, and seeing the ecological system of climate, topography, plants and animals through his eyes.

I drove him crazy with questions and I still do. He is mostly patient. He is mostly quiet. But I know that underneath the hours and hours of hard work, whether building a fence or packing out salt block, calculating stocking rates or planning a restoration project, he sees the big picture and our little place in it.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heifer Havoc

I guess this kind of behavior should be expected from a two-year old. But Mike is always telling me to have a positive outlook. In other words, don't assume the yearlings and two-year olds are going to wreak havoc.

So I didn't think about it as we unloaded at the neighbor's corrals. Our day's job: to gather the herd on the Zumwalt and sort off bulls and steers to haul to the valley. We rode through the 400 Acres and down past the pond. The sky arched over us like a robin's eggshell, and the golden grass, cured on the stem, rustled against our horses' feet. It was a beautiful Indian Summer morning.

The cattle were across the draw and on top of the ridge and they gathered easy and trailed easy all the way to the corral. Getting them in was a different story.

We bunched them by the corral gate, where a short fence made a wing to help guide them into the first corral. The cattle balked and milled, and a couple mother cows fought the dog. Then a bull went through the gate and a bunch of cows went with him. We thought we had them. That's when some heifers quit the bunch and high-tailed it north with the dog and Mike in pursuit. Then a little red cow let out a beller and started running and the whole mob broke for the hills.

Repeat this scenario about five times. Every time the three of us got the herd gathered back up, one of the blasted two-year olds would bust loose, leaping rocks and humps of grass, evading me. The cows would bulge through the opening I left behind, while the other riders worked to hold the sides. We really needed at least another dog, but Ruby was left at home to babysit Punch, the new pup. And good horse flesh was lacking. Mestizo still thinks he's a packhorse and gets confused by my agitated intentions. Spurs might have helped. And then there was Zeb, the cowy, but ancient mustang. And Zip, the big guy, all charging here and there and working up an enormous sweat. The lone dog was wore down to a frazzle with a bad leg. It was not a real positive part of the day.

Finally Mike decided we should try a different gate, one flat-on mid corral, at the alley, where they could see the other cattle in the corral. We bunched them, they balked, we bunched them again and drove, and then the lead cow walked through the gate. A miracle!

During the year, I like having the mixed age herd, the generations of cattle working the range together. But when it comes time to gather, those yearlings can be a real pain in the pitoot.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, September 6, 2010


Mike and I just returned from a few Indian Summer days on the river, where Mike diligently pulled weeds (puncture vine and cockle burr) and I picked blackberries and plums. We are in the thick of the harvest now. Our second wave of Bunchgrass Beef customers are hungrily anticipating their September deliveries. The garden is overflowing its borders in a tangle of pumpkin and winter squash vines. And the trees are weighted down with fruit.

Usually we think of a windfall as a stroke of unexpected good luck, like finding out your old horse blanket is really a Navajo rug worth thousands of dollars. But when it comes to fruit, windfalls are often viewed with disdain, i.e.: those annoying piles of rotting apples collecting in the lawn.

I could have felt that way about our transparents. The tree has been battling some kind of leaf curl, but still produced fruit this year. The small, hail pocked, easily-bruised and quick-to-rot apples were becoming more and more numerous in the grass under the tree. I kept thinking if the apples would just stay on the branches longer, they would get bigger, and I would be more inclined to work with them.

But no, they kept falling off and a little voice inside my head kept saying, "Waste not, want not." Therefore, I added the apples to the growing list of garden stuff destined to be tucked into jars, freezer bags or drying racks. This included: peaches (lots), pears (quite a few), blackberries (the tale end), green and yellow beans (tons), sour yellow plums (plenty), cucumbers (just starting) and raspberries (last gasp).

Looking into the bucket of wimpy apples, I was humbled by the fact that imperfect fruit can still yield great food. Working up the apples reminded me how I love the feel of a good knife in my hands, the weight of a fruit balanced against gravity while the knife does its work. The peel falls away, the seeds are nipped from their bed, and into the pot go the serviceable and delicious remains.

There was a lot of trim on those apples, but after cooking them and running them through the hand mill, I combined them with the tart yellow plums to make a beautifully golden batch of plum-apple butter. Luckily, after the jars were filled, there was a "windfall" dab left over to spread on crisply toasted, butter-saturated chewy whole-grain bread, the perfect snack for hungry harvesters.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, September 3, 2010


In geologic terms, rejuvenation is a kind of rapid erosion that takes landforms backwards in time, from older forms to younger, more rugged features.

I imagine this like when the 1,000 year flood came through along the Imnaha River and stripped away the soil and trees, carving new channels, leaving high raw cuts and sprawling gravel bars. A few years later, I stood at the edge of the river and looked across the rapids to the far cutbank and the water line ten feet above my head. I briefly pictured myself submerged inside the roil, and shuddered.

The Missoula Floods cycled through about every 55 years when Hells Canyon was being formed. When I think that what we witnessed was a once in a 1,000 years event, the frequency of those Ice Age floods is staggering. I wonder if I have ever seen water travelling at the rate of 80 mph. How fast was the Imnaha when it was running 20,000 cubic feet of water per second? Even during a normal flood, at 2,000 cfs, the river is frightening.

In contrast to the geologic process, the rejuvenation of body or self is mostly associated with indulgence and relaxation. Perhaps I should reconsider life's threatening situations as another form of rejuvenation, the physical breaking down into new life, the turmoil that erodes feelings down to emotional bedrock, where one can begin building up again.

In 1862, Thoreau wrote, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Back when we first met, Mike had a favorite poster with that quote on it. I think it helped me trust him. The quote was like a founding principle that we could always agree on, one that has grounded us wherever we've lived, from the Yukon Territory, to the Andes Mountains, to the depths of Hells Canyon.

Wildness has been both balm and catalyst. Ignition and antidote. It has been one of the best teachers, for two people in it for the long haul.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Old Bonnie's Last Winter

Six years into retirement, old Bonnie dog sleeps most of the day. Often deep in dreams, legs twitching,she sleeps so hard you can raise her foot off the ground and drop it, and she doesn’t notice a thing.

To wake her, you have to poke her or stomp on the floor in front of her face. When she does wake up, it’s as if a shot has gone off and she lunges up off the ground a couple inches.

In my mind I see her when she was younger, when she never stopped moving and seemed to flow over the ground. All of her fit together and worked together. She had speed, agility, stamina.

For most of her life, she never missed a day’s work. Always a header, she would swing in a continuous arc alongside the herd, up and back, up and back. Sometimes she'd circle clear around and I wouldn't notice her slipping in front until the whole herd stopped. Squinting to see what was going on, I'd catch a glimpse of her slender form, quiet and focused, gliding back and forth, holding the lead.

During her last winter at age 18, she would get up every morning, unfold her stiff bones from her canvas bed under the bench and totter to the the back porch screen door. The night is likely to have been close to zero and inside the porch it’s not much warmer. If the door is propped open, she wobbles briefly at the top of the four cement stairs and executes a controlled fall to the wooden deck below.

Her momentum carries her into the frozen yard where she aims towards the pasture. It’s been a long night and she really needs to pee. She reaches the yard fence and relieves herself and slowly begins her laps around the house. First she navigates east along the north-side past the garden, then turns south past the lilacs along the ditch, then turns west under the overgrown honeysuckle, past the pumphouse and then north again.

As her stiff hind legs warm up, she breaks into a loose jog, remembering the stride that followed the cattle across the prairies and canyons. She rounds the house again and again and I see her pass by the kitchen window every few minutes for the next half hour.

Soon she will wobble up the back porch steps again and fold herself onto her worn bed under the bench. As she drifts into slumber, her body relaxes, her legs extend, her chest rises and falls--her lips opening with a little puff of breath. Her toes begin to twitch. Where is she now I wonder. Is she deep in the canyon climbing a rocky trail and dodging prickly pear? Or is she high on a ridge, threading the tall pines, following the scent of the herd?

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dog Days with Great Grandma

I'm not sure exactly why they call them dog days, but I think they have arrived. In spite of the heat, my eighty-five year old mother was determined to make the trip to the canyon to overnight at the ranch.

This time of year, the main cow herd is up on the Zumwalt prairie enjoying the summer pasture so we don't make many trips to the canyon, unless there is fruit to harvest in the orchard. An early bloom, followed by a late frost did in the apricot crop and the apples and plums and pears aren't ready yet, so the trip to the river was mostly about Mom getting another chance to enjoy the river and sky and beautiful canyon rock formations.

She hates the road because she is afraid of heights. One advantage of old age and failing eyesight is that she was not as petrified because she could not see the drop offs so well anymore. She had also forgotten about the road, and when we got there, she announced that she now remembered it and the fact that she always likes the trip out better as she would be on the uphill side!

Ninety degrees in the shade when we pulled in and almost immediately an enormous thunderstorm came crashing down, thunder and lightning with hailstones the size of Mom's thumbnail, followed by a torrential downpour. The temperature dropped twenty degrees to a comfortable 70, perfect for enjoying an evening hike.

While Mom stretched her legs, I hacked and collected thistle heads and pulled goat-head plants. The dogs should thank me for removing the goat-heads from the corrals and driveway. This ground hugging plant gets its name from its nasty seeds, about the size of a pea, with two incredibly hard, sharp spines that pierce the pads of the dogs feet. After the thunderstorm, I had a good opportunity to pull plants from the moist ground.

Mom loves being outdoors and just watching the storms and the sunsets provides hours of entertainment. She also enjoyed the new electric lights in the ranch house - via solar power that Mike installed. This was very handy on her many nighttime trips to the bathroom - as she puts it - "At 85, I'm a frequent flyer."

We finished up our visit with a hike up the river bar to pick a few of the early blackberries. Mom put her feet in the river, while I took a swim. The first river swim of the summer. Languid, refreshing, perfect.

We celebrated the end of Mom's visit with dinner at Gabe, Cammie and Dawson's house. Mom had a blast with her two-year old great grandson (one of seven "greats"). I made a luscious blackberry-blueberry cobbler using that weird and delicious recipe that calls for berries, topped with a layer of batter and then sprinkled with sugar and cornstarch and - the weird part - with some boiling water poured over top. I'm sure Mom will polish off the leftover cobbler today as she tries to implement my father's motto of "eat dessert first." At eighty-five, that's probably a good idea.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef