Friday, November 17, 2017

Wood Stacked Before Church

Pride. A word that can make me cringe. Pride goeth before a fall. The prideful sinners in Dante’s Inferno who bear enormous rocks on their backs, rocks they carry for eternity or else be crushed.

I feel proud that I got the wood stacked in the shed before church. I was late to church, but luckily, people are encouraged to ‘come as you are.' Which is to say disheveled, pitchy, dirty, and wearing an old shrunken blue sweater littered with sawdust and bark chips. And with an itchy nose full of dust.

Sara gathering cows to head to Pumpkin Creek

We had a busy few days, getting ready to move the cattle to Pumpkin Creek, but I really wanted to go to church. It had been many months since I had a chance to enter that hundred-year old stone sanctuary and take time to reflect and question life with people of different minds. I knew a storm was moving in and the firewood was still in an enormous pile in the yard.
Crossing Rye Bench

So first thing Sunday morning, I wrestled the big quarters of tamarack, red fir and pine into neatly stacked rows inside the woodshed.  A small thing, so simple and necessary that I can’t help but admire it during these trying times, when all around me I feel a cacophony of wrongs ringing against the mountains like the shots of duck hunters at dawn.

Andrew saddling up to take horses to P Creek

The night before, at the cultural center in Joseph, people gathered to be part of a project that uncovers racism and change through music.  There were stories about black people who migrated from the south to the logging town of Maxville in nearly all-white Wallowa County in the 1920s. There were stories about redlining and confinement of people of color to areas like Vanport in NE Portland in the 1940s. Our history, our story.

Leaving the Hall place, over the hill to river crossing 

Marilyn from the Portland Jazz Ensemble calls her voice a musical tool; she sang a newly-birthed song about trees. Trees that give so much to life and have also taken life away. Her music travelled into my solar plexus and left me vibrating and without words.

Chester watches cattle cross the river

And then I had to walk to the front of the room and take the microphone and moderate the audience discussion with the panelists. I said that some months back, at the dedication ceremony for the Nez Perce longhouse in Wallowa, the leader of the Washat service reminded us that each person who journeyed to be there brought something to that space, each person contributes something. What is created in the Washat is made possible because of every person who is present. 

Mike and Andrew arrived at Pumpkin Creek

What I learn over and over again is that I am not in control of my voice. I give it air. I give it sound. I give it thought and recognition and attention. But sometimes my mouth opens and words come out and people are frightened, feel left on the edge of a rim, and sometimes people are bored and dissipated.
Fence fixer, complete with dirt mustache

The experience of grace in the Washat gave me the courage to stand the front of the room at the Josephy Center and invite people to share, to listen and be a part of something difficult together.

If we dig deep enough we find a kernel of ugliness and a kernel of beauty in each of us. Each of us has something rotten and repulsive in our story, and each of us has a flower fattening toward light, a grub morphosing into a hummingbird moth.

Fence I fixed snaking up to the rim, steep work

Before I went to the Josephy Center, I spent the day propping up old barbed wire fence on a ridiculously steep hillside in the canyon. When I finished, I scrambled back down to the creek, searching for sign of Mike and Andrew working their way up the fence on the other side.
Mike and Andrew fencing across the draw

Near my feet, I spotted an enormous yellow leaf that had drifted down from the crown of a tall cottonwood tree.  Twice the size of my hand, the leaf lay on the stream bank, reflecting for a day the transient light of fall.

Big as my two hands

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"Thank You So Much"

The encouragement and appreciation of our customers goes a long way to getting us through the rough spots. After delivering to our local customers a few weeks ago, we geared up to haul a freezer trailer of beef to Portland, which is always a bit stressful. The trip went extra smooth this year. 

Everyone was so nice. The guys at the trailer rental place in La Grande who prechilled the trailer to minus five and tested the wiring before we picked it up. Linda and Morgan at Valley Meats who helped us load the trailer. Zenger Farm who hosted our delivery location. Customers aged 4 months to 70 years who thanked us again and again for the delicious beef. Prairie and Jon and Harlan who shared dinner and offered us a warm soft bed for the night. Even Kevin at Valley Meats, working 'eight days a week' in this busy season, came outside and stood on the street for a minute in the sunshine and thanked us for returning empty boxes on our way back to Joseph.

We made it! Ready for customers to arrive at Zenger Farm

We arrived home to a beautiful late fall afternoon and a note from one of our customers, "Thanks again Mike and Sara! It was nice to see you yesterday and all of the Thomsens (Kristina, our boys Noah and Henry, and I) are excited to get this year's beef." Sigh, what could be nicer than to feed people delicious natural beef raised with care and effort by our family.  

Exploring Zenger Farm wetlands with Harlan

Before we made the trip to Portland, we took the cows to the canyon. We went early this year and will go up Pumpkin Creek for a month as we didn't graze that range at all last winter. We trailed the cattle to McClaran's corrals in the valley where we loaded the trailers. Then we hauled to the end of the pavement at Fence Creek and walked them in four miles to the Hall place where they will stay for a while before we cross the river and head to Pumpkin Creek.  

Cow herd at the Hall place

The drift fence at Halls had slid down the steep hillside, but we were able to prop it up enough with the materials at hand. We'll go back later with some new material and make better repairs. We are thankful to have neighbor's like Halls who provide an important stopping point for our cattle when we are coming and going from the canyon.  
Patching up the drift fence

While I was in the canyon I was glad to have a chance to gather the walnuts before the wild turkeys ate them all. I enjoy sitting in the dirt under the big trees, picking through leaves and twigs and tossing the nuts onto a tarp to drag inside. The acrid pungent smell fills the air around me, another smell of harvest season, of putting food by for winter. I'm thankful for these resilient and long-lived trees and the food they provide.  

Walnuts curing in the mud room

Most of the vegetation along the river is still green, but the poison oak has turned and the sumac colors the canyon like veins of blood flowing down the draws. It felt good to be in the sunshine, in the last warm weather of the year. 

Poison oak lovely, but still annoying

It was warm enough to get sweaty working. Warm enough for the river to look inviting and almost make me want to jump in. But I was content to take off my boots and dip my feet in the cold clear water, and just sit and listen for a while. Thankful for beauty and kindness and another turn of seasons. 

Under the Horse Creek bridge

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Date Ride and Cows to the Valley

It felt like a dream.  Summer was hard-parched and the one day Mike and I had to ride for a few stray cows it rained. Not only was it a gentle cool rain, we also found the cows right away and had an easy time getting them back in.

Coat and gloves! Rain clouds not smoke! 

Of course, we had to figure out where the cows got out and as soon as we found a big Ponderosa keeled over on the fenceline we had our work cut out for us. Luckily we were able to get the fence back up without needing a chainsaw.

Mike sorting out fence mess.

Even with all the fence work, the rain made for a nice date ride for the two of us. It felt like the clouds were toasting us, like we were celebrating our anniversary or something. 

The thirsty ground soaked up the moisture and all the animals and plants seemed to be as grateful for the rain as we were. We knew the change in weather was short-lived, which made it all the more precious.

Slicker weather! 

About a week later, we took some more salt out and Mike collected fecal samples for nutritional analysis as part of our monitoring program.  It was hotter then heck and dry as ever.  

Collecting fecal samples

The ponds still had good water, but we knew it was time to move the herd to new pastures. And this year, that meant hauling them to the valley.

Dawson's cow, Betsy

Mike and I set to work going around the fence at the valley pasture so we could bring the cattle in. We spent two days plugging holes and putting up fence that the spruce trees had smashed down. 

End of a day fencing valley pasture, tired and hot

A flurry of phone calls lined up friends and family to help haul cattle over Labor Day weekend. Dave and Mike rode and brought the cattle into McClaran corrals, where we loaded six trucks and trailers. We were able to haul everything to the valley in one trip. 

A sweet sight - lots of good help

When I thanked our crew I told them it was the smoothest day of cattle hauling we'd ever had; one them asked why. "Because we had enough help," was my reply. Often after the first trip in, Mike and I are making several more runs to bring in the tail-end and haul the horses home, which makes for a very long tiring day. 

Tyson, Mike, Dennis and Mark after loading

I can't say enough about friends who are experienced, have the right equipment and are willing to share the work that makes a small family ranch possible. Many hands make light work and less stress! 

Callie and I goofed off and visited! 

When we let the cattle out of the trailers at the valley pasture, they bawled for about twenty seconds while mothering up with their calves. Then they looked around at the fresh flowing water, green grass and shady timber.  "Now this is nice!" they seemed to say as they meandered off and began to graze. 

Happy cows on new pasture

And we were soon headed home, with plenty of daylight left for us to work on other chores. Or not.... 

Our good crew

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

That's How it is on the Range

"Clouds race by, smell rain but it's dry, that's how it is on the range." The grandboys like this soulful song and surprised me by singing along as we drove home from the prairie. 

What surprised me was feeling them recognize and agree with the point of view.  They are growing up on the range, it's part of their family, and they are old enough to express that now. 
"Jack rabbit darts, blue grouse starts, the roll of some distant thunder, it won't stay long, its moving along, that's how it is on the range."

I'm happy they like this song because so do I. And sometimes when I'm far from shelter and a storm up and dumps on me, I think to myself, "Dark clouds roll in, its darker than sin, he heads for a rock overhang, the rain comes down fast, but he knows it won't last, that's how it is on the range."

Or when my tongue feels halfway parched and stuck to the roof of my mouth and I can feel my organs sucking the moisture out of my skin. Or when the cactus flowers. Or the baby fawns rocket from their nests. Or when the pines reach out their arms and I have to go over to one and smell its bark. That's how it is on the range. 

Hal Cannon wrote this song, so lovely and deep and pendant, and I'm thankful for hearing it.

"He's searching around, then catches the sound, the lilt of a laughing woman, he listens again, then sees that sage hen, he shivers and knows he's alone."

Lately, I've been negligent in my attendance at social functions. But I do read the paper most weeks, so I know there's a birthday party and art opening at the art center, and a music bash at the rodeo grounds, and fair starts Sunday with first the dogs and then the horses and then the fat stock and land products. And there's a geology presentation on Tuesday and an entomology presentation on Thursday and there's lots of people going out to the woods to pick huckleberries in their secret huckleberry picking patches. And I know I won't go to any of it. 

Sometimes it's hard to describe the melancholy part of being in love with land that we'll never own. The other day a line in the poem How Heavy the Glass from Cameron Scott gave me pause, "My greatest possession: this animated world."  There is that word, possession, which once meant occupancy and later, to have control over, as in things we dominate.  The rangeland that I love I have no desire to dominate. And no one can really control it. But there is another meaning that appeals to me. To possess, to maintain within oneself. 

To carry inside me some presence of what lies below and upon and above, what grows and births and dies, what lingers and what expires. A grain of sand, a column of basalt. A mariposa lily. A vesper sparrow. These I would like to possess and be possessed by. 

"Life is so rare, but persistent out there, the prairie is open and true, we make a small mark, then fade in the dark, that's how it is on the range."

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Harlan Checks on the Cows

Mike has pretty well recovered from his bout with pneumonia earlier this summer. We had some good family time when Prairie and Jon and Harlan came home for a friend's wedding, and everybody chipped in to help with chores to give Mike some rest. 

Mike enjoys the hammock at Hope's wedding

The wedding was classic Wallowa County. A lovely summer evening, too hot until the sunset, loads of delicious homemade food, kids running in packs in willow thickets around a pond, beautiful bride and handsome groom, rowdy band on a flatbed trailer, portable dance floor in the middle of a pasture, cold beer and plenty of revelrous guests of all ages.

Harlan, Prairie, Jon - photo booth! 

Harlan, Sara and Abby 'the hat stealer'

The morning after the wedding, Harlan and Prairie and I got up early to go check on the cow herd out on the Zumwalt.  Prairie scooped Harlan out of bed and into the truck, along with a big to-go bowl of oatmeal with dried apricots and pears which he greatly enjoyed, once he was awake.

Are we there yet?

We couldn't have timed it better. As we drove through the gate at Alder Creek, we heard the first voices of the cows coming down to water. Several mother cows came right to the truck, where Harlan could check them out up close and personal. 

Harlan calling in the herd

One of our older mother cows

Soon there was a chorus of calves calling for their mothers, and mothers calling back, as more cows and calves wandered up the draw, their strong voices reverberating through the trees. I told Harlan they were talking to each other. "Where are you? I'm over here." "Here I am. Where are you?"

Calves finding their mothers

A very gentle red cow.

I was taking a picture of Prairie and Harlan when I caught a glimpse of our big blonde bull coming up fast behind me.  I smacked my shin on the trailer hitch as I scrambled onto the flatbed. The bull wasn't really coming after me, he was just making a bee-line toward a group of cows in front of the truck, but I had Mike's admonition in mind as I made my hasty exit,"Never turn your back on a bull."

Blonde bull

Snack time in the back of the truck

The morning was cool and pleasant, but we could feel the heat building quickly.  We took looked over the herd as they began to graze back through the trees and concluded that all was well. Plenty of grass, plenty of water, all the critters where they should be, including the bulls.

Ruby, Bell, Prairie and Harlan headed for the gate and home

It was good to get Harlan out with the cows. Someday he'll be big enough to make a hand and like his mother before him, he'll have a hankering for the prairie, for the smell of the tarweed and the Ponderosa pine, for the call of the meadowlark at dawn, for the creak of the saddle and the ramble of a sure-footed horse beneath him. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef