Sunday, November 29, 2015

Harlan Bramble and the Full Moon of Advent

A big storm just came through and lucky for me, Prairie went into labor ahead of the rough weather. I drove to Portland on good roads and arrived in time to share in the birth of Harlan Bramble Wagner, Jon and Prairie's first child and our newest grandson.
Harlan and Sara

Harlan was born at home and that first night while he slumbered snug in his woolen sleep sack, a wild wind blew in, with heavy clouds from the coast dumping rain that sluiced through the streets. The rain kept up all night and most of the next day, gradually calming as the front traveled east. When the sky cleared, temperatures dropped below freezing and a full moon floated over the tall firs behind the house. We could feel the cold working its way in and we turned up the heat to help baby Harlan get used to the world outside his mom.
Prairie resting while Harlan gets his sun bath

Back in Wallowa County, the storm arrived bringing snow and leaving behind single digit temperatures and icy roads. Mike chained up when he went to get a cow outside Joseph so he wouldn't slide the trailer off into a little creek that crossed the driveway. We had to start feeding some hay to the cows, as our last standing feed in the valley was snow covered. After Mike caught a ride to Portland to meet Harlan, Zeke and Gabe pitched in on chores, including chopping ice in the ditch so the horses would have water.

They like each other

I'm glad to be back home after two weeks, just as I'm glad I could spend time with Jon and Prairie and Harlan. We diapered, swaddled, and rocked, sharing middle-of-the-night story telling, reading poetry and essays aloud and admiring Harlan as he mastered the jobs of a newborn.

Today I helped Mike take hay to the cows in an ice fog that never lifted all day. This next week he will try and get the new fence up behind our house and we'll trail the cows home and wean the calves. I hope it warms up above freezing for fence building, and while the cows are here, so we can keep ice chopping to a minimum. It's one of my least favorite chores.

Ice fog at the Eggleson Place

After we fed, I gathered evergreens from the yard and the wind break. I wanted to make an advent wreath for the table, and a bigger wreath for the porch door. The branches were clumped under icy snow and my knit gloves and sweater quickly grew hairy with frostsicles.

By the time I had clipped boughs from all eight types of greens my fingers were aching from the cold.  I brought the boughs into the kitchen and left them in front of the wood stove, where they warmed up, leaving little puddles of water on the hearth. 

The Oval warms up the greens

Now the spicy scent of spruce and fir and pine and juniper fills the kitchen and the first candle of advent glows brightly beside its quiet neighbors. I cherish this ritual of winter, bringing light into the darkness, honoring the evergreens of life in the midst of a snow-covered world, celebrating love and hope in spite of our fears and misunderstandings.

First Sunday of Advent

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Going Backwards

Starting from the pumpkin pie I made today, we're going backwards in time.

Pumpkin is always good

Today was a good day to make pie. Veteran's Day with four inches of snow on the ground, a fire going in the kitchen stove and a roasted pumpkin waiting in the fridge. I liked making up the recipe.

Sometime before pie, the letter writing began. It was after daylight savings started and I got up before dawn and found the quiet kitchen. I added wood to the fire, listened to the morning waking up and watched the trees and fields take shape out of the darkness.

Candles for writing letters
The first day I wrote a long newsy letter to the 90 year olds back in North Dakota, that would be my mom and mom's sister, Aunt Vera. The second day I wrote a long letter to my friend Kyle, who I met when I was four and haven't written to or spoken to for more than a year. I was thinking how the person you are writing to gives you as a gift the time it takes to sit down, light a light, listen, watch, feel. And then to write your life between you, the story wrapped carefully in paper and sent in the hands of strangers to a far away place. It seems miraculous.

Creepy teeth Weston

Before the letter writing was Halloween. My devil didn't speak, and had two tails, the horns of a goat, and a necklace of gargoyles. The mask frightened small children and the ten year olds stared until I tilted my fork in their direction and they looked away.

Pals together

Around that time Mike was back from Montana and hadn't left yet for Nevada. I was so glad to have him home. When we moved the cows to the Eggleson place on the Wallowa River, I made Gabe take a picture of us together. Evidence that in spite of our opposite peregrinations, we did have a least a few days together in the last six weeks.

Two Dot

Mike is working with the Grasslands Alliance and piloting a sustainability certification process. Two ranches in Montana and one in Nevada agreed to be the guinea pigs. The field trips came late in the season with winter's approach keeping everyone busy.
White buffalo near the Crazy Mountains

We had brought the cows into the valley earlier in the month and as usual there was fence to build. Electric this time. As we worked, little birds sang all kinds of beautiful songs from the trees along the river, and a wake of vultures rose up out of the tops of the cottonwoods and floated in circles overhead, their dark shapes spiraling slowly upward in the blue sky.

Bell at the valley pasture

Before the floating vultures and the singing birds, Malcolm Dawson died just before his 94th birthday. I gave myself a bouquet of flowers for consolation and to remind me what a joy Malcolm was in our lives. My boss, Lisa wrote her dad's obituary and it was stellar. She had me proofread it so I knew what was coming after the funny parts. I had my Kleenex ready.

Malcolm's flowers

On the day he died, Lisa told her dad he was too weak to get out of bed. His reply, "I'm strong." As Lisa told us in the obituary, Malcolm was physically strong, but he was also strong in spirit. His faith was strong, his will to live and to give was strong. His love was strong.

It's hard to imagine that precious weeks ago it was warm enough that the grandboys were mucking through the swamp. There was some hooting and hollering from Dawson as he braved the deeper parts, marshwater up to his knees, his feet sinking into the cold cold mud. Weston kept to the shallows. "I'm making magic,' he told me as he swung his cattail wand through the air, releasing clouds of tiny seeds.  

October swamp time 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Leaving the Zumwalt

We had to bring the cows in off the Zumwalt this month. The drought hit us hard and even though we were able to access some additional pasture by hauling water, once that dried up we made the move to bring the cows into the valley.
Water truck ready to fill pond

So strange to have consistent 80 degree October days, and nights in the 50s.  We kept a close watch on the cattle, grass and water, juggling a schedule that included fencing the valley pasture we were headed to, making our annual trip to deliver our Portland customers' meat, and Mike leaving town to present at the 2015 America's Grasslands Conference in Fort Collins.
Steers on Alder Slope

Any trip outside Wallowa County is a bit of an ordeal. It's at least a two hour drive to the nearest airport and there are limited flights. It turned out we had a bit of a perfect storm with our plan. 

Evening cattle on the Zumwalt

We had the freezer trailer reserved for the trip to Portland, had the cows settled for the week while Mike would be gone, and we had help lined up to move them upon his return. Then the night before we picked up the freezer trailer we checked on the cattle and the water had dropped a lot. Suddenly our plans were in flux. We had to get the cows to another pasture before our Portland trip. We had a place to go for a few days, but it meant gathering and trailing, work we didn't have planned and didn't really have time for. We bucked up and got busy. 

The next morning, Mike drove the hour and half to get the freezer trailer and then to the processor to load it with frozen meat. That's when a trailer tire started going flat. We nursed it 30 miles to the tire store and the rental company paid for two new tires and a spare. At this point we were about a half day behind schedule. 

Mike and Gabe gather cattle off the Zumwalt

Luckily, that afternoon the cattle cooperated and we made it to our back-up pasture in record time. We drove back to the Valley at dusk, and finished packing up for Portland in the dark. Next morning early, we were on our way and by Sunday night, all our customers had picked up their meat. It was a whirlwind of juggling boxes, hugs and hellos, checking invoices, and waiving goodbye to the last car pulling out of the parking lot at Zenger Farm. 

Monday we headed east, five hours later parting ways in La Grande where Mike picked up our car for his drive to Boise and a flight to Denver. When I finally pulled into our driveway, I was so glad to be home. I wished I'd had more time to visit with people on delivery day, that I had taken more pictures, that everything was less rushed. 
Grandboys with 'treasure' - old nails at McClaran corrals

We've faced a lot of change this year, a lot of punting and problem solving. Like most people in agriculture, we are beginning to see some of the long term changes ahead. 

I'm looking forward to getting the cattle to the winter range, but we're still rowing hard to get through fall. There's a new grandchild due to arrive soon, the honoring of elders who have passed on this month, and always grass to monitor, cattle to move, fences to fix. This morning I woke up to a quiet rain and was thankful for a little time to find my center, to slow down, let go, give thanks. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Oh You Customers

In the fall when harvest comes around, there are vegetables overflowing the garden, fruit falling from the trees, steers to be butchered, cows to be herded, fields to be irrigated, and all the other tasks with drought pressing down on us. I’m feeling harried and short.
Winter squash, beans, tomatoes covered for frost

Then come the moments of customers who cheerfully accept a minor offense in a cutting order, or the fact that a steer was bigger or smaller than you expected, or that your deposit was lost in the mail. 

You are a spark of goodness inside me. Your words are like tiny bursting fireworks that shower fairies around me, invisible but for their tickling wings. 

Peaches, pears, tomatoes - need attention

Oh you customers, I love your kindness, your encouragement, your enthusiasm, your respect for the animals, your willingness to partner with us in the connection of rancher and eater and rangeland.

Zeke and Tommy fencing the grass we need to move to

Thank you. Thank you for your kind words, for your ‘can’t wait' appreciation of the meat we raise, for the extra effort you make to support our family ranch, for your smiles on delivery day, for hugs. 

Star and Dawson having a snack before herding cows

Hope to see you soon. 

Sara and Weston at the stock pond

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Zenger Farm and Zumwalt Prairie

What connects Zenger Farm in SE Portland to Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon? Another Prairie, this one of the human kind, as in our daughter Prairie Rose Hale, Zenger Farm Community Programs Manager.

Prairie at Zenger Farm

Prairie grew up in the wilds of Hells Canyon where we worked herding cattle on the winter ranges of the Snake River. She spent her summers on the Zumwalt Prairie, first herding cattle at the Steen Place at the edge of the timber and later at the Buttes near the head of Camp Creek.

Longhorns on the Zumwalt Prairie

I still remember riding up out of the canyon with Prairie when she was just a baby. We'd already trailed the cattle and hauled our gear from our winter camp in the canyon to the summer ground on the Zumwalt. Now we were riding the last of our saddle horses up, a full day's ride. Prairie was only about four months old and I carried her swaddled to my chest, on a steady white gelding named Casper.

Looking into the canyon from on top

The country was new to me. I'd never ridden the trail before, but Mike had. He rode ahead of me with Gabe, not yet two years old, in front of him on the saddle. We crossed a wide open grassy bench, then climbed up the darkly timbered creek toward the canyon rims. The trail grew narrower and narrower until we reached a notch that went right up a steep rock face. The horses lunged forward, their powerful hindquarters launching them up onto the rock, hooves scrabbling for purchase as their momentum carried them up the rock and back onto the trail.

I remember asking Mike what else lay ahead of us and I felt relief when he said that was the worst of it. After that, it was just a long day in the saddle, eating lunches and snacks from our saddle bags, resting under trees, and drinking from springs.

Prairie herding cattle to summer range

Now we run our own herd of longhorn cattle and even though Prairie lives in Portland, she comes home every year to help us trail them out of the canyon to the summer range on the Zumwalt.

Magpie Ranch longhorn calf

We love supporting Zenger Farm and Prairie's work in an urban setting. Raising food, encouraging farmers, helping children and adults in their neighborhood learn about sustainable farming and enjoying healthy food together. And we're glad that some of our healthy beef shares go to feed families in Prairie's neighborhood.

Where kids grow and eat 

We're also excited to be part of building the new Urban Grange education facility by donating ranch stays to Zenger's fundraising efforts.
The urban grange at Zenger Farm

When the folks who bought our ranch stays arrived for their visits, we enjoyed sharing our common enthusiasm for Zenger's mission, as well as sharing a part of our way of life on a small family ranch.

Sara works on fence on Zumwalt Prairie

Now summer is halfway over and the cattle are doing well on the range as we keep a close eye on the water and feed in drought conditions.  We’ve been repairing fence and I’ve enjoyed the early mornings and late evenings out on the Zumwalt. It feels like the prairie is part of my family. I miss it when I've been away in town and I feel a welcoming timelessness when I’m back working there again. It reminds me of all the summers we spent living and working there when our children were little. The smell of tarweed and buckwheat, the calls of the meadow larks, the prairie breezes, the distant mountain ranges of the Wallowas and Seven Devils, the storms gathering and rumbling past. A balm for the soul in spite of wrestling old fences and rusty barbwire.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fire on the Trail

Water drop on the south end of the Little Basin Fire

When we first heard there was a fire on the river, we were mistakenly told it was on the switchbacks going to Dug Bar. Turns out it had started right across the river from the ranch, and it was headed south toward Log Creek, where we planned to trail our cattle to the Zumwalt Prairie in just two days.

Chopper drawing water at the swimming hole
Several helicopters worked the fire all the next day, drawing water from the big swimming hole downriver. Mike had shut the cows and calves in the river pasture, since we were getting ready to head them to the summer range in a few days.  The helicopter activity spooked the herd and they broke out and headed toward Corral Creek.

Luckily the wind changed direction overnight, driving the fire north away from the trail. So we were able to stay on schedule with the move to the summer range. Mike got the cows gathered and headed back upriver on the first day. Second day he crossed them to the Hall Place, and got them started up the road.
Gathered back up and headed south toward Halls. 
 Day three, Gabe came down and helped Mike start them up Log Creek.  Next morning the two of them left super early to pick the cows back up near the breaks where they had topped out of the canyon. Cammie, the boys and I joined them later, bringing lunch and cold drinks.
Dawson had fun on Chester

After lunch we let Mike and Gabe take a break and Cammie and the boys and I rode. Dawson had fun on Chester and Wes rode with Cammie, until he got too hot and wanted to get in the truck and help Grandpa drive.

When we got to the Elephant Corrals, Gabe went to fix fence and Mike watched the boys, letting them muck about at the pond. 

Weston tells another whopper

It didn't take long for Cammie and I to get the cows the rest of the way to Young's and through the gate. 

Cammie and Sara headed back to Elephant Corrals

Dawson got his driving lesson on the way to meet up with Gabe. He did pretty good...when he watched where he was going! 

Dawson's driving lesson 

By late afternoon, Weston was pooped, but determined to stay with the program and not miss anything interesting. The minute Gabe and Cammie pulled out for the valley, I'm sure his head was nodding, and it wouldn't be long before he was sound asleep.   
Wes and faithful blankee

Mike and Sara - yay the cattle are all at the summer range

It was nice to be able to call it a day and head home to enjoy some rest on Father's Day.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Milkweed Wedding Day

Some of our good looking steers at the river
We brought the yearling and two-year old steers out to summer pasture last Saturday. The weather cooperated very nicely by cooling down to eighty from the hundred degree temps earlier in the week.

Gathering the cattle at dusk upriver

On Friday evening, Mike rode out to gather the cattle, after the heat had passed. We wanted to overnight the herd near the house so we could get them in the corral to sort in the morning. After Mike left, the boys and I made a fire and cooked dinner. We kept an eye out for Gabe and Cammie who were driving down after work.

Wes and Dawson making dinner

An hour past dark, right about the time I thought I'd have to send out a posse, I heard the first mooing and knew Mike was finally coming in. Dirty and tired, he said the cattle took a rogue trail off the bench down through the rocks and prickly pear, just before it got too dark to see. At the barn he used a flashlight to find cactus spines and pull them out of his horse's legs.

Next morning, we had the cattle in and sorted before Dennis arrived early with his truck and trailer.  Pretty soon Paul and Molly showed up. After a little coffee, and second breakfast for Dennis, we loaded the four trailers of steers and everyone except me headed to the valley.

Gabe and Dennis had to change a flat tire

I stayed behind and hiked upriver to the fishing hole where Dawson had picked some mulberries that morning. When I got to the tree, a fat rattlesnake buzzed in the grass and slithered under a log beneath the tree. I threw rocks to try and run him off, while keeping a hold of our year old pup, Bell. I don't know how much Bell knows about rattlesnakes yet, but I wouldn't trust her not to be curious. Finally, with one eye on the place I last spotted the snake, I picked mulberries as fast as I could. There were lots of berries already on the ground, and many more ripening on the tree. It took me a long time to pick a quart.

Ripening mulberries

Walking back from mulberry picking, I thought about Sarah and Eliot getting married that very same day in Kentucky. A very nice wedding day, I thought. I stopped in the horse pasture to admire the blossoming milkweed and I wondered why there weren't any butterflies. Right then a beautiful big orange Monarch fluttered up in front of me and flitted away across the milkweed patch.

Milkweed patch

Interesting red beetle on this flower

The milkweed blossoms are so intricate and lovely, it's hard to believe that by the end of summer they'll turn into thick scratchy pods filled with cottony-down. As I admired the fleshy petals and the fat bees lilting among them, I thought, Mulberries, milkweed and monarchs, a very nice wedding day indeed.

Soon, I packed up and headed for the valley. As I bumped down the driveway, I could see pairs of cows and calves dotted along the bar, napping in the lush grass.  
Pinky naps with her calf

Sleepy cow

It felt peaceful and restful in a familiar time-of-year kind of way. In a few days, we'll hit the trail with the cows and calves. Headed for the Zumwalt and the summer range. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef