Friday, May 26, 2017

Words on Paper, Words Inside

No bigger than a breadbox
Funny how we use words to make things. And funny how the words we make into things can remain silent inside our minds or be turned into sounds or symbols to mirror or unravel our selves. Words to describe worlds, to make war, to figure, to forgive, to boast or fail. I like the way our Magpie sign does its job, the way no giant standard can. 

River restoration project. 

Funny how traipsing can be purposeful, like a kind of time travel. When I follow the driveway across the river and past the restoration project, I see fifteen years of burning, seeding with a rangeland drill, and weeding, all reflected within the bursting green.  

Like a painting repainted layer upon layer, and one of the layers would show the old feedlot with its hundreds of cows crowding the feedbunks, knee deep in manure. Ground grubbed and trampled, a century worth of annual weed seed ripe for germination. I prefer the grassy thickness with it's rabbit lairs, its thrum of insects, its darting birds.  

Bluebird Canyon above old feedlot
There were up to six feedlots in use between 1960 and 2002, three on the west side of the river and two on the east side.  One lies beneath the box canyon we call Bluebird, where an ephemeral stream splatters down the rock face in a sparkle of water mostly hidden in clumps of currant and thickets of hackberry. This is where friend John took his first walk after being confined and sick. Where his wife Debra saw the year's first bluebird and thought John might survive his cancer. And he did.

This can be a place to reconcile with death.  Where predators and accidents and disease subsume life on a daily basis and leave behind a puzzle of scattered bones or rawhide twisted corpses, or the transient peculiar smell that Dawson, now eight, describes as 'kind of good and kind of sickening'. I pass two dried-out toads, one upright and mostly whole; the other grotesque and interesting, supine, with legs splayed and part of its head missing.

Dessicated Western Toad
Why not describe what they have given up by dying?  Those words are much harder for me to come by. Not knowing what they loved in life, their favorite smells, their easing into the water to lay their eggs, the best insect catch they ever made. Nor what gave them spite or fear. 
Second toad mummy

When we arrived at the river, the 'big boys' had been there for a bachelor party. I was greeted by a new message on the chalkboard at the back door.  I thought it was the perfect decree for a man about to marry. Then I realized it was also the perfect decree for me. And I gathered the doubts at hand and set them in the past and walked inside.
Abandon all DOUBT Ye who enter here

All kinds of words have been left at the ranch: accounts, directions, instructions, brags, musings, confessions. From the scribbles of a one year old to the measured cursive of a ninety year old. Mongolian, Greenlandic, Arabic, German, Spanish, Dutch, French. Words carried here inside a real person, and left behind as a small part of each one.  I appreciate the words even when I can't read them. I admire the way they climb the paper in columns, or march from right to left, their forms both strange and lovely.

Last year Dawson made his first solo entry in the ranch journal. I found it later and was surprised and pleased. Drawings and words! A richness of meaning recognizable in any language.

Dawson's first solo entry in the ranch journal

When Mike saw my illustration of day two of the bridge redecking, he said it reminded him of Harlan Hubbard, and I almost cried. Of course, my drawings are mostly not this accurate. But I cherish his comparison, which makes me think of Shantyboat, and how I longed while reading it, to be back on the Yukon Queen with Mike. Sufficient with little, our homemade wooden raft calmly riding the vast fizzing opaque boil and suck of the Yukon. And at the end of each day, the hard pulls on the sweeps to get us a half a mile to shore, nestling up to the bank and tying off in the twilight of a midnight sun. 

Bridge work, Day 2, seen from Witch's Hat

Mike's few journal entries tend to be practical, where you can look back and find stuff.
Like what day we branded two years ago, or when we put that new gate in upriver, or how many stays and posts we used fencing off the toe slope. Still, his practicality doesn't stop him from using words like 'winter wonderland'.

January 31, 2017 entry by Mike

How different from today, when nearly everything seems green. I know this tropic lull will parch into brown soon enough. Spring has been longer and colder than normal, and so very welcome after the oppressive snows we struggled through last winter. 

Columbia Spotted Frog habitat

In this moment of abandoned doubt, I wave away the raging flood, the wild fire, the dangerous trail. And open my arms to acceptance and courage. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Oh Green World - Hallelujah!

Mists of May

The mists of May settled into the canyon this week. All across the benches, the cattle are enjoying the delicious spring range, perfect nutrition as we round into the last half of calving season. Most of the calves are born now and all the cattle, from mother cows to yearlings to two year olds to bulls, are looking slick and healthy.

Grass happy yearling
Hallelujah the new bridge is in! Well, it's just new decking on the bridge, but it still feels incredibly good to get this big and much-needed job finally done. This bridge was put in only 15 years ago and has a sturdy steel railroad car chassis for the span, but the quality of the decking materials was lacking. (The previous bridge, located further downriver washed out in the 1,000 year flood of 1997, after 40 years of service.)

Sad old bridge
Mike had JZ Lumber mill the new bridge material and Gabe and I treated it last summer when it was still in the millyard. The new material is heavier and thicker and with the treat, the new bridge should last many many years. We hope. 
Work starts on new bridge

 A break in wet weather allowed for two big trailer loads of material to be hauled to the site. The river was running high with spring run-off and I told Mike his most important job was 'safety manager' for the five man crew.  The crew worked two full days to put the deck on, and Mike finished up the running boards in another day. There were two casualties and both were wrenches.

Half a new bridge

Now we have only the railings left to build. We wanted to get this done a year ago, so I am thrilled to finally have a safe sturdy bridge to drive over, walk over, ride over, or haul trailers over.

Only the railing still to do

Prairie and Jon and Harlan came home to help out for a few days. Harlan is really getting around now. He enjoyed the dogs, the horses, the cows and the cousins! 

Prairie, Harlan and Jon checking out the range seeding

Harlan and Prairie

We had yet more rain and the river was bankful, with many areas subbing along the river bars. We watched good sized logs and tree limbs careen downriver through the rapids. Harlan didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the river this time, as all the beaches were underwater and it was too dangerous to let him even get near the water. Instead, he enjoyed the puddles and the mud.

Harlan puddling

As we start to think about branding and turn-out and all the spring-to-summer chores, it's good to remember we'll have help. Gabe came down and shod horses, taking off the sharps and putting on the summer shoes. We hauled the heifers to town and will be putting most of them up for sale as replacements.
Abby checks out the heifers in the corral

Harlan and Abby will each get a heifer this year to keep with the herd. Their mom and dad get to help them pick one out. It's hard to choose, because there are so many nice ones!

Heifers out at the valley

Gabe and Cammie and Mike and I headed out to Luke and Callie's to help brand today. The kids rampaged about and roping horses were passed around so anybody who wanted could take a turn. It was a good day to be together with three generations of friends who are like family. Gabe, Luke and Buck grew up together, and now their kids are growing up in the same community.
Mike helps out at Luke and Callie's

Hopefully when our branding day rolls around in about a month, it will go as smoothly as it did today out on Swamp Creek. It's a lot of work to organize and prepare, and you never know if the weather will cooperate with the plan. But it's comforting, having your friends and neighbors show up to pitch in on the day's work. Keeping calm, paying attention, problem solving, teaming up.

Gabe and Mike horseback, and Luke on ground crew 

And afterwards, when we're feasting and enjoying a job done well, there's the telling of challenges and dreams. Somebody's in the hospital, somebody's going back to college, someone's getting married. We come together thinking calves and cattle and we go away thinking lives and loving.  

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef