Monday, April 26, 2010

Date Night in the Thistle Patch

Sunday late afternoon, a gentle breeze blowing down the river, the golden light settling on vibrant new grass, Bunchgrass Beef cows high on the benches with their frisky new calves...all was well on the Magpie Ranch.

The dirty work of digging out the crawlspace and putting in new conduit for the solar power was done. The first go round on the lawn with the stinky hard-pushing gas mower, whacking it all down before snakes and grandchild had a chance to meet unexpectedly. Another ride on the sassy new mare. The bumpy drive up to Pumpkin Creek to seed grass on the fresh dozed tracks where the road was relocated out of the creek. And in between it all, the non-stop antics of the almost-two-year-old grandson.

Time for a break. Time to sit on the porch, letting it all sink in: the greening range, the merganzers zipping low through the air heading downstream, the current high and silty frothing over the rapids and sucking at the willows, the fruity-sweet scent of apple blossoms and the heady perfume of lilacs. And sun, glorious and warm, bathing red rock and red osier and purple brodia and yellow sunflower.

And what could be nicer than a leisurely meander across the bridge and upriver to the farthest stretch of reclaimed feedground, where the rangeland drill couldn't go, to the broadcast seeding, to see what our efforts had amounted to.

That's how it started, a simple hold-your-hand stroll through the field. But somehow a shovel entered into the picture, and not long thereafter, the uprooting and pulling of a scotch thistle here and there, and then the scuffing and scrabbling of kochia sprouts from among new grass seedlings. Before long I was hard at it in a clump of thistle rosettes with Mike up ahead, gloves wrapped around a stubborn root. When I finally stopped looking at the ground, he was gone, a telltale wire gate left open at the narrow end of the field.

I laid my shovel down and ventured into the lush ribbon of alder, birch, dogwood, elderberry, box elder and rose. Rock rims crowded the channel, towering overhead and casting their cool shade onto the tunnel of trees. I crept under the hanging branches, looking for signs of boot tracks in the new grass. The river churned past, licking the banks, and the fresh leaves of the trees danced around me in the breeze. "ARRRRRRR!" came the inevitable roar as Mike jumped up from behind an ancient upended box elder.

We laughed and then continued on through the green tunnel to the end of the grove where the rims reached the water and cut off the trail. And we stood for a moment on a rock reaching into the current, where we could see a few Bunchgrass Beef cows grazing the spring grass on the far bank, the slant light of dinner time cutting into the canyon. Then we turned toward home, holding hands again, at least till we got to the thistle patch.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gap Fences

The fence we built last weekend is classic. Not in the traditional rock jack sort of way. More in the improvisational scrounge-and-scab-together way. As our new grass seedlings pop up in our restoration projects, some of those athletic Bunchgrass Beef cattle challenge our determined efforts to keep them from crossing the river and reaching the big bar on the west side. Not that they don't have nutritious bunchgrass greening up on the slopes and canyon benches, they just "like variety" as Mike puts it.

We are a few years into the restoration project on the west river bar where there used to be a feedlot. After the 1,000 year flood in 1997, the bar was colonized by six foot high kochia and other weeds transported in on the flood, and enormous piles of gravel and rock and woody debris were left behind in scattered spots on the broad flat ground.

When we first started the restoration project, we had to pull out the feeders, anchored by railroad ties that Mike and I toiled to set as posts over twenty years ago when we worked for the Phillips' family. It was really hard work setting those posts and I guess we did a good job, because it was really hard work getting them out too! After dismantling the feeders, we burned and pulled weeds and cut out washed up trees, etc. Then we drilled in seed with the the rangeland drill from the Soil and Water Conservation District.

This year we did our second round of drilling. Our first seeding took pretty good in some spots, but we wanted to get into areas that we couldn't seed the first time, and go back over some places where germination had been spotty. It's really rewarding to see grass instead of weeds and to see the diversity of plants and animals enjoying the habitat.

Last weekend we were improvising a gap fence between rock outcrops where the cattle were finding spots between the rims where they could jump down onto the river bank and then cross to the other side. We lugged a couple steel posts downriver and perched ourselves above a small rim along the east side of the river. The view of the historic camping place in the box elder grove and upriver across the bar was soothing in the warm spring sun, with the river gurgling past in one of our outstanding salmon fishing holes and a set of rapids tumbling off to the north.

Just below us, a Canada goose was setting on her nest in a cleft of basalt half-way up the rim. A great spot to get away from predators, but one of her eggs had rolled off the nest and sat out in the open, balanced on the rock ledge like an abandoned Easter egg. It would be fun to see how the goslings make their first jump off the nest and into the river some six feet below.

All day long the beautiful cliff swallows darted back and forth above the river. As they banked and turned catching insects in the warm air currents, their iridescent backs flashed in the sun.

Finally, just as we gathered up our dusty tools, a golden eagle drifted around the bend and flew overhead close enough for us to see the striations in his belly feathers.

The gap fence didn't turn out as tight as we would have liked, but it was a pretty good day out there with the birds.

From Sara, Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, April 9, 2010


I love those holidays like Easter that last for days with all our favorite things, like dying eggs and hunting eggs and eating eggs. And the cookies Prairie made to decorate in vibrant colors, our family gathered under one roof, sharing and playing, laughing at our kites jumping on the gusts of wind in bright sun along the river bar.

Any day now there'll be the first calf of the year on the Magpie Ranch, a lean little creature taking tiny knobby-legged leaps beside his mother.

I'm thankful for the moisture this past week, the snow and sleet and rain. For the native grass is growing along the benches and canyon slopes, and in the drill rows of our restoration projects, the new seed is germinating.

I know the river will come up in her banks and I try not to think of the herd crossing in their usual places, the little calves braving the current, their heads bobbing above the waves. I am reminded some things come naturally.

Each week brings new flowers, birds I am learning to know, with always a fencing job and cattle to be herded and lately, horses needing shod. I have planted more asparagus to join the feral sprouts in the garden, thick with equisetum. And I dug in a rhubarb start in hopes that all will survive the blaze of summer. Perhaps I want a reason to come back, when I can say, I've got to get to the river and water those plants...

Trailing the rocky slopes, I scan for buds on the prickly pear, their spiny limbs suddenly plump and tall after the wan and dessicated months of cold. It won't be long before their creamy yellow blossoms tinged with pink dot the canyonsides.

Green up. Glorious green up. It feels so good, I could almost eat the grass myself.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef