Friday, December 19, 2014

Dark nights, bright lights

I tried to observe the Geminid meteor shower at the river last weekend, but the night was overcast. Later on the nearly full moon came up and a diffuse light shown through the floating clouds making the sky overhead look like a puffy silver-blue quilt. It was every bit as thrilling and beautiful as watching meteors.

Morning mist

In the morning, wraiths of mist flowed down from the canyon breaks as the sun lit rocky spires above. A magical way to start the day's work.

Mike has been packing salt. I haven't been able to help much as I've been on the road teaching workshops for people who want to move some of their investments out of Wall Street and into businesses in their own communities.
Mestizo packing salt and tubs

He packs blocks of salt to several salt-grounds spread out along the bench.  The salt provides the cattle with extra minerals and is also an incentive for the herd to utilize different parts of the range.
Chester and Mestizo rest after climbing to the bench.

We're gearing up for winter projects.  Mapping and estimating costs for a new drift fence above the river to keep cattle from dropping down and crossing the mouth of Horse Creek to go visit the neighbor's herd. Getting ready to wean our calves, hauling hay and setting up the feeder in the corrals where they will spend three weeks before being turned back with the herd.
Sara headed home from bringing a few cows back from Rye Bench

We need that new fence. A few bunches of cattle keep wanting to head up Horse Creek, toward the Pumpkin Creek range, when we're not ready to go yet. So we ride and hike to bring them back, a few here a few there. Luckily the trails haven't been too greasy. After weaning, we'll take the whole herd to Pumpkin Creek, but that won't be until the end of January.

Bell, ten months old
Bell, is just starting to work a little bit. She still thinks its a game and our goal at this stage is to give her a taste of herding. Safe and easy little jobs that will have a positive outcome.

Head down Punch works, head and tail up Bell plays

A jackpot or bad experience at this age can ruin a dog for work. Bell has plenty of confidence so she can take a firmer hand than most border collies. I say she's a little bit 'coyote', meaning independent minded and tough. And she has a tendency to bark, so she's learning to use her body and not her voice most of the time.

Newt, in retirement
Newt is going on eleven now, and retired. He helps out occasionally, but his old injuries from being run over - at about the age Bell is now - sore him up if he climbs around the canyon too much. So Punch and Ruby do the heavy lifting and Bell is coming up to take on more of the load in year or so.

Mike takes a break after morning herding

We have to fit our many tasks into the short daylight hours. Still we try to make time to rest, write, paint, draw and practice music to share on Christmas eve. And in the afternoon, when darkness suddenly descends, we light the many Christmas candles, honoring hope, love, life and a little good cheer in 'the bleak mid-winter.'

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Seeing the Good

I love pumpkins.
Maybe because I was born on Halloween, or the fact that this time of year gives license to making art from vegetables, putting on your fanciful and spooky, and even connecting to the souls who have crossed the veil before us.

Mr Mean

Or perhaps because I love food that you can grow and put in your basement after harvest and bring it up months later for a delicious meal. And that the seeds scooped from their fleshy nest hold the promise of next year's garden, waiting over the long winter to be planted again.

But there was an extra special pumpkin that arrived one fall in our early years of starting Magpie Ranch. It had been a decent year, with plenty of challenges. Mike was dividing his time between ecological site inventory work in Southeast Oregon and running the ranch. I held down the down the fort at home as best I could when he was gone.

Rangeland drill - restoring an old feedlot

We both felt stretched thin, trying to lay the foundation for a new enterprise, with so much infrastructure still to rebuild, fencing, corrals, water lines. And riparian areas that we hoped to help to recover from long use as winter feedlots.

That fall, a friend had gotten cancer and was fighting for his life. We organized a benefit dance, took extra time to stay in touch.

Waiting for 2 babies 

And two babies were waiting to be born in our extended family. I was far from the mothers, but made the special chord we all tied around our wrists or ankles, to hold them with us day and night until the babies had arrived.

When my birthday came along, Mike decided we should celebrate at the river. After many repairs, the house was finally livable enough to host a gathering. The afternoon of the party, we drove down into the canyon. As we approached the bridge crossing over to the house, I caught a glimpse of a small bright globe atop the rock abutment. How sweet I thought, someone's come down ahead and left a pumpkin to welcome us. Who could that have been?

Dancing with Pam

Soon our children and friends began to arrive. Did you bring the pumpkin I asked? None of them had.

I finally ran back across the bridge to get the pumpkin and bring it to the house for the festivities. That's when I realized, to my amazement, the pumpkin had actually grown there.

Sometime in spring, a seed had traveled more than seven miles downriver to be swept upon a gentle wave into the rocks of the abutment and left behind at the high water mark four feet above the ground. And just enough flotsam had washed up with the seed to keep it moist, let it germinate and nourish its roots atop the rocks. And just enough rain had fallen over the summer to keep it alive during the hundred degree days of July and August, when a single flower blossomed and then bore fruit. And no freezing frost had nipped either the tender shoot or the maturing fruit, so that there in a nest of withered vines sprawled across broken black basalt, one small pumpkin rested in it's fullness, having grown and filled itself with seeds and the promise of another year.

The Very Special Pumpkin

It's moments like that, years like that, stories like that, which help me remember to look for the good, to look for it and to see it. To marvel at it, and be glad.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 4, 2014

There's more to it

It seems simple. In principle. Handling cattle.

Trailing down from Pumpkin Creek

When there's a jam, I see it like a branch that catches in the crick, and if you don't get it out right away, all the stuff coming down the crick piles up behind it until its wedged so tight you can't budge it. But if you just ease out one little willow slip, then something else shifts and you can pull out a bigger piece, and everything flows smoothly again.
Sara and Newt

And the way your horse moves, kind of like a dog sometimes. Quietly threading the prairie behind the cattle, sometimes flanking, and sometimes heading, shoulder for shoulder with a heifer, as you turn and lope together back toward the herd.

And when, after the cows have gone through the gate, two riders race across the prairie to try and stop a huge black bull that has appeared on the horizon, determined to get with the cows. He's trotting fast, now running, and you're running and you don't think either of you will get there before him. And at the last second, both mares spin, butts to the gate, blocking him and the bull slides forward, shifting his weight and leaning away from you, his hooves plowing ground, fat and muscle rolling toward you, his sweat and slobber flinging into your face. And you guess this might never happen again in your life. This pas de deux.

Ruby, Bird and Gabe headed upriver, March

And in winter, when two trails present at a fork, and you know that one goes well for a while, but then turns bad in canyon rims, a judas trail. And the cattle hesitate, strung single file through the pines, and you see the lead a ways off in the head, and you will and pray she remembers and steps with a swish of her tail onto the good trail.
Mike herding off the top to the winter range

We're still learning. Sometimes it seems we've never made it out of Kindergarten. And other days, it feels like we're almost to a PhD.

Old days - taking a break from herding Snake River, Hells Canyon

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Leaving the Prairie

This weekend we hope to bring all the cows and calves and bulls in from the prairie.

View from the Southwick place

There's still enough grass, but the ponds are getting lower and muddier. It's time to go. And the Southwick place is calling us, with it's tall pines and grassy meadows.

The yearling herd has been at Southwick's half a month already, and Mike brought in one bunch of pairs from the prairie earlier this week.  I'm glad Paul was there helping out. Mike said everything went fine.

Paul and Bird and Punch gathering off the prairie

Later, I heard Chester exhibited his equine snake-killing maneuver. Mike stayed on.  It's like riding a pile-driver. One enormous leap with all four feet off the ground, rearing position, and then front feet extended on the way down and hammered into the ground like a battering ram. A big bull snake slithered away unhurt. Paul said, "Maybe if I hadn't of pointed it out he wouldn't have reacted."  

At the beginning of the month, we delivered to Portland, where we met our customers at Jon and Prairie's house. It was a pleasure to be introduced to new folks, reconnect with friends, and have this big trip off our list for the year. 
Portland delivery day - Yay we're here!

We learned more about what the people who buy our animals are interested in, as we shared stories and wrestled a lot of boxes of meat.  That evening we had a yummy dinner with delicious grapes, tomatoes and beans from Jon and Prairie's garden.

Sara enjoys visiting with a customer

I'm sad to see the days growing shorter. I miss waking up to the long early light, and the evenings with their balmy languor. Still, there's a quickening and we gather as much squash, as many onions and apples as we can. Laying by what will keep for the winter months ahead.   
We only grew two kinds of winter squashes, but we got 16!

There's a lot to do still, to get ready for winter. We haven't cut a single load of firewood yet. And our hay still needs to be delivered and stacked in the barn. But the basement larder is filling with jars, and bins and braids. And every day it seems we get another call to come get apples. I think it's going to be a heck of a cider year. 

Apple pear galette with dried red and yellow cherries and pear syrup

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, September 6, 2014

About this Time

About this time of year, a long time ago, before Zeke was born, we moved into Hattie Freudenburg's house on Dobbin Road.  The day after we moved in, I woke up to the first real sunrise I'd seen in six years. We'd been living mostly in the canyon and it was hours past daybreak by the time the winter sun would finally clear the canyon rim. During summers, we usually lived in the timber at the edge of the prairie, at the Steen Place, or in a camp along a creek and didn't see the sun until it was high overhead.

Long shadows heading into fall

That first morning on Hattie's farm, I looked out my kitchen window and saw the shadows of the house and barns stretching far out across the grain fields in a light so early, flat and bright it felt like magic. Now every fall, when light arrives in the morning, with certain smells of ripening, of harvest and putting away, I remember my first morning on my first day on this beloved farm.

Over Labor Day weekend, Jon and Prairie came home to help move yearlings and put up food.  Gabe was finally getting a day off from the Somer's fire and we had a long list of jobs we wanted done, fencing, herding, and canning the bounty from Prairie's garden.  I added swimming, hiking and music to the list so we didn't lose sight of our other goals.

Pairs on the summer range

We divided and conquered.  Our first day together, Mike went to the Zumwalt to check on cows and calves and work on fence.
Jon and Prairie and I pickled beans and roasted tomatoes and took the boys to the lake.


Gathering ingredients for stone soup

This is how you make it

Next day, we got together with Gabe and Cammie and moved the yearlings. We had to fix some corrals first and the bees were not happy to be disturbed in their nesting in gates and brush piles.

Reinforcing corrals

What's the plan? (Will we ever know?)

As usual, we figured out what we were doing while we were doing it. As Jon says, too many cooks in the kitchen.

Tacking up sheep wire
Grandpa's truck always has books

The boys wandered the corrals, then helped gather the steers, and finally they took up residence in Grandpa's truck with the books and snacks.

Weston counts

Aunt Prairie reads

After that it was home to lunch, and the makings for apple and peach pies.

Mike and Sara at McCully Creek

On Jon and Prairie's last day, we took a hike up by McCully Creek. All too soon, they were headed back to Portland, wishing they had a few more days, time enough for a trip to the canyon and some of the last river swimming of the year. 
Prairie saw this cool caterpillar

Prairie and Jon, wishing they could stay another day

I'm happy to say, Mike and I did just that. We hightailed it for the Imnaha and got there in time to work up a sweat picking fruit and pulling weeds. As the moon came up, we floated in the cool river, barely warm enough for an evening swim. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Wedding Beef Cheeks

Arrowhead ranch barn
Yesterday Steve and Joella got married at Arrowhead Ranch. Audrey read the hillarious Book of Love poem by Stephin Merritt. And Rose read the serious Pablo Neruda love Sonnett #17. Great herds of clouds lumbered over the mountains and across the prairie, churning up drenching bouts of rain and dripping trees. And in between the towering white shouldered beasts with their dark flanks, blue autumn filled the sky as still and patient as paint on canvas. And I thought, well Steve and Joella got the rain, but they got the clouds too. 

For the wedding supper, I braised a dutch oven of beef cheeks. It's a special dish we usually only have at harvest time. The bittersweet harvest of our beautiful steers. I'm thankful for the skill and compassion of the mobile harvest service. I'm thankful for the healthy animals we raise that feed so many families. And I try to show respect by using as much as we can, like the beef cheeks. Which I had never cooked until a few years ago.

Dales Mobile Harvest 
One of my heroes

Trimmed beef cheeks browning
Ready for veggie roux and wine braise

First I trim the cheeks, brown them and then braise them in wine, with roux of cooked down veggies. Hours of slow, patient cooking rewards us with a rich and tender dish fit for a celebration.  A long marriage is kind of like a braising cut of meat, that complicated web of muscle, tendon and fat that takes patience and time to meld into something worth savoring.

The vegetables at the wedding were no less delicious. I tasted Mary's first slaw of the summer from her own beautiful and perfect cabbage (grown under netting), with her first green pepper so fresh it seemed to burst when she sliced it. And tiny yellow tomatoes that you could eat by the handful, and fat red tomato slices lolling in fresh basil leaves.  
Morning harvest
This morning I waded into the garden, searching under the sprawling squash plants to find the cucumbers. I was rewarded with enough for another batch of honey curry pickles.

I first learned to make these with Linda Donnelly, from the Old Fashioned Recipe books our husbands gave us for Mother's Day. The husbands had gone to town for supplies. When one of them saw the books on sale at the merc, they had the brilliant idea of purchasing us each one. It was my first Mother's Day gift.

Honey curry pickles

These pickles are zippy, crunchy and perfect on sandwiches. I hope to make enough this year to give some away, maybe for a wedding gift.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Paradox of Summer

 When I started grad school I left Mike and the three kids back in Wallowa County and headed to the U of Iowa in Iowa City. I rented a room in house with three other adults, and soon after my arrival something happened that told me, "You're not in Oregon any more..."
The beginning of one of many fires
My roommates had watched a movie that included a scene with firefighters eating a meal at a large camp. They asked me,"Why were those people all wearing yellow shirts and green pants, like some kind of uniform?" "Because they are firefighters, it's nomex, fire retardant clothing."  "Firefighters? You mean firemen?" "No, firefighters, you know like for wild fires..." No they didn't know.
Sara mowing toward the Pumpkin Creek Cabin

The concept of wildland fires was outside their experience. No waking up to smoke so thick you can't see more than a half mile. No worries that fire will race over the ridgetop to consume the winter range you depend on for your cattle, destroy your pain-stakingly constructed fences, burn up your home, threaten your cattle, or threaten the lives of people working to fight the fires.
Mike is really fast with his scythe

It's a paradox, one of the most beautiful and fun times of the year with blissful river swimming in rushing rapids and deep pools, the harvest of berries, fruits and yummy vegetables. The wonderful feedback from customers ordering more delicious Bunchgrass Beef shares.

Golden plums at Magpie Ranch

And then the worry, hundred degree temperatures, forecasts for wind gusts up to 50 mph, thick smoke in every direction, the reality of climate change that increases our fire frequencies, challenges our actions and decisions, and brings people we love into dangerous situations.
Hoses and sprinklers

Fire pumps
Sigh. We do what we can for fire protection at the ranch. We enjoy each moment of summer fun. We give thanks for the hard work of fire fighters and we pray for a change in the weather, for no wind, for cooler temperatures, for rain.

Sara cools off on 100 degree day

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef