Sunday, December 10, 2017

Then Winter Came

The first snow with cold, cold temperatures is a sea change on the ranch. We were busy doing something . . . and now we switch gears and do something entirely different.  

The change in weather means the cows had to come home. We always think we might get a few more days of grazing in the mountains, but old man winter has his way. Our fall pasture is on the other side of steep mountain grades, so when the weather turns, we go for the cows. Mark’s tripping back and forth to the mountains is over until spring. Time to hunker down and tend things close to home.

We worked cows yesterday. They needed their annual shots so each one had to be put through the working facility. We had a wood stove blazing near the chute, but it was still bitter cold. This particular set of corrals hadn’t been used in a while so we had to iron out a few kinks as the day progressed. Ten head escaped out the back of the corral and another cow jumped out and bent a steel section. We gathered up a couple of panels, a long pole and a broken wooden gate and jimmied up a temporary fix. On top of that, the cows didn’t want to load in the crowding pen nor leave through the working chute. We coaxed every one through and finished just at dusk. I was so ready to be done!   

Despite the difficulties, everyone stayed agreeable and we eventually (as Gary likes to say) “wore them out.” It’s one characteristic of many I appreciate about our ranch. We don't argue while working cattle because we know we need each other's help. We may disagree on some business elements, but we’re diligent about keeping a positive working environment and for that I thank the previous generations. It’s one tradition we’re determined to keep.

Before the snow came, I took a photo of Anna and Mark catching horses and planned on using it in my blog. It’s a good one of a father and daughter starting the day. Then November got away from me and now the scene has changed so much it doesn’t seem to fit anymore. Mark assured me it didn't matter. I could write about the changing seasons he said. I guess a last, longing look-back is okay.

As we wrap up another production year, we take stock. We add up inventories, divvy expenses, balance the accounts and count our blessings. Among our blessings has been Seth and Leah living close by and helping us on the weekends.  

Leah, California raised, is spending her first Christmas in Idaho. She has a sense of joy and wonder about the snow. I found her a pair of gently used overalls on the high shelf in the mudroom. They were just her size and kept her warm working cattle. When I said she could take them home, she smiled and said, “a Christmas miracle!” Kind of sheds a whole new light on winter.   

Jane, Anna, Sis, Mark

the crew

a good calf crop on processing day

Kate bringing them home while I drive the (warm) pickup

waiting their turn
(photo by Seth)

one more to go
(photo by Seth)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Left Messy for Wintering Wildlife

Originally published as Commentary in the Post Register on October 18, 2017

I saw three wooly caterpillars on my walk today. They were rushing across the paved road, determined to find the perfect overwintering spot, a pile of leaves or a bit of dried grass to hide under. In the spring they’ll turn into tiger moths and be part of the web of life we enjoy during the summer months.

I’m cheering for them because in our world it’s fall clean-up time. For farmers tidying post-harvest and homeowners hoping to improve the look of frost beleaguered floral beds, we rush to rake, pile, till and otherwise rid the landscape of organic refuse. Or is it refuse after all?

Not if you’re a worm, a goldfinch, a partridge or a ladybug. That goldfinch will thank you for leaving seedheads standing on your long-past brilliant patches of black-eyed susans. Partridges will make use of any standing brush, weeds and grasses as food and shelter, not only from winter winds, but from the jaws of a coyote. Ladybugs and other beneficial insects need rough organic material to overwinter. A few limbs left in the corner of your yard or a pile of leaves at the base of a tree might be home to adults or eggs that will hatch in the spring.

Driving the roads this fall, look for signs of fellow citizens making a difference for living organisms that can’t come indoors for the winter. Thank a farmer for standing crops, the pivot corner planted to perennials, or a windbreak at the edge of his field. Thank a rancher for deep pastures and for keeping open spaces, “open.”  Thank the irrigation company for trees, grasses and weeds that line the canals in our community.  

And it’s not just for wildlife in the traditional sense. I mean “wild” life, including organisms that live in the soil. Some above ground protection and roots left intact below ground mean homes for the millions of microorganisms so vital to healthy soils. Don’t till the garden and kick them out just when the weather gets nasty.  

If that isn’t reason enough, consider that standing perennials catch snow, adding beauty and definition to the winter landscape. And who doesn’t love bird watching in the winter?      

But I have it easy you say. I live in the country and no one cares if I leave my flowerbeds and garden in disarray. What if you live in the city? What will the neighbors think? How about we all get lazy and stick a yard sign out front, “Left messy for wintering wildlife.”

But if you insist, we always welcome lawn clippings and bagged leaves to our ranch in the sandhills. It’s much better than the landfill. Contact me at I”ll meet you at the gate. 

still beautiful

Monday, October 23, 2017


We spent four days at the mountain ranch weaning calves. Everybody but Mark and I went home after we separated the herd. Early the next morning and every day thereafter, we rode the 4-wheeler out to a fence to make sure the wire was energized between the two groups of cattle. Then we walked a fair distance, crossing the creek at a path of rocks, then climbing towards the ridge line, winding our way through brush and lichen covered rocks and dormant bunch grasses. As we neared the ridge, the bawling of the cows and calves grew louder. From the top we could see the herd stretching out along the fence line and Mark could check the whole expanse through binoculars.

It was an impressive sight, but no rancher likes weaning and seeing his cattle in distress, even if only for the 3-4 day weaning process. Yes, they were walking the fence, but the calves looked healthy and full. Fresh grass and clean, plentiful water are paramount in keeping the calves from getting sick.  

There’s a tiny cabin at the ranch with a front porch and a swinging bench, but we never have time to stop and take in our surroundings. Imagine my surprise when Mark agreed to sit with me wrapped in a sleeping bag as the sun set, watching the horses graze out to the east, the view reaching clear to Wyoming. We hardly talked, just sat.

The nights were long. We had a propane lantern, and standing under it, I read aloud to Mark a book by Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home. A ranch girl, Jordan made her way from Cheyenne to Colorado State to Yale, and never returned to the ranch, but she loved it always. Her words hit home with us. Words about loss . . . of ranches, of rural communities, of people we love.

I took an empty journal to keep at the cabin. Well, almost empty. It had one entry written by Mark in November of 1997, 10 years ago. I see the book as part guestbook, part a record of happenings at the ranch, part Wendy’s musings (imagine that). I wrote the second entry about the previous owner and how we came to purchase the property after 30+ years of renting. The owner was a gentle soul who didn't fit the image of a traditional cowboy. We never saw him in a Stetson hat or cowboy boots. He wore lace up shoes and rode a horse like a farmer, but he could get more done with cattle on a horse than many men who looked the part.

I’m trying to figure out why the march of time comes to mind so often when we’re up at the cabin. Maybe it’s thinking about the generations of stockmen who have ridden, wrangled, and hunkered out a living on these windy vistas. Maybe it’s because I keep imagining a future when our grandchildren will occupy the now empty top-bunk in the rafters of the cabin. Maybe it's the quiet. 

On our last night I had a dream that Callie was a baby again and I had the chance for a “do-over” raising her. I wanted to, but knew that I was too old and I never saw anyone else getting a “do-over” so doubted that I could pull it off. I told Mark about the dream in the dark of the morning as we put off getting out of the covers.

I said, “I don’t think the passage of time weighs on you as heavily as it does on me.”

His reply was somehow comforting. “It does, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The darn thing just keeps on moving. All you can do is change the way you do it while you’re living it.” 

early morning catch

A good roll follows a day under saddle

day four, spectacular skies 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cowboy Science

We’ve spent the last week getting the herd settled in our highest elevation pasture. Snow, please hold off. I say this as blizzards break records across the Rockies.

There’s something about fall cattle feed. The grasses are tall, straw colored and seeded out, except for the green leaves at the base of the plants, especially in a wet fall like we’re having. Looks good enough to eat.

There’s an ethereal element to time spent in the fall field. The days are alternately warm and cold, windy and quietly still, crystal clear then cloud covered as the cattle come in and out of view perusing the perimeter of a pasture saved for them during the heat of summer. The calves have a special bloom to their coat – beef in the making.

I’ve been immersed in “range” in more ways than one. I’m reading a history of range science, The Politics of Scale, by Nathan Sayre. It’s too academic for me, but if I go slow enough, underline enough, and read and re-read, I’m good. I always grin at academics who insist on using “temporal and spatial” instead of “time and space.” I know it’s a different application, but every time I come across either word I have to remind myself what it means.

“Scale,” is another word that has broad implications to science as it relates to time and space in a range landscape. In simple terms, it means that research conducted on one landscape cannot readily be applied to other areas of different sizes, different locations, and with different variable factors over time such as weather and grazing. Every region, every watershed, every ranch is different. As is every growing season. Idaho is diverse enough to prove that.

Even in the same pasture, plants can be over-grazed and over-rested. The merging of cow and grass is confounding in its complexity.

Mark and I started work on taking down an old fence, removing staples that held the wire to the posts and then rolling up the old wire in large circles. A few cows came over to see what we were doing. We wondered about the men who built the fence and how many had visited it year after year, repairing the damage caused by snow so they could put the cows in. It’s cowboy work, fencing and tending cows. And looking at grass.

We cowboys (and girls) and range scientists have a lot in common and much to divide us. We use different terms, but in the end, we love the same rolling vistas of robust bunchgrasses, the heavy lift of a sage grouse, the brilliance of quakies in autumn. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

That One Sunset

The last nest of barn swallows on our porch fledged just in time to meet up with the hordes gathering along the power lines for their trip south. They’re all gone now. Or so I thought. This morning five birds were back, darting around the now vacant nest and perching on the gutter like old times. One more spin around the neighborhood. One more look back at their childhood home. A bit of nostalgia, which is fitting for September. I feel it too.

The horses keep coming in from the pasture with wads of burrs in their mane and tail, so Mark sent me out with my pruners to find the renegade burdock plants. Sure enough quite a few were hiding under the trees and amongst the weeds along the canal. There was something so familiar about the wind and the cool and the pungent scent of plants after a rain. It’s the smell of maturity, of grass laid over, sagebrush in bloom and damp dirt. Just fall I suppose.

I saw three monarch caterpillars last week. “HURRY!” I admonished them. I’m afraid they won’t make it out of here because there's frost in the forecast by Thursday.

What a change of mindset fall brings! A flip-flop designed to get you to address those remaining outdoor chores before the weather drives us indoors.  

We vaccinated the calves pre-weaning. We gathered a large pasture, separated the cows from the calves and then put the youngsters through a portable chute we had set up on the range. It was the first time we’ve tried that and it didn’t work very well. Sometimes despite pre-planning and the best of intentions, the design just doesn’t flow and it’s a chore to put every animal through. I brought a sick calf down to the vet mid-morning, and when I returned, a one-and-half hour drive each way, the crew was finishing up the last 30 head and was totally spent.

We finished and unsaddled the horses to head home, only to find the cows escaping through an electric fence that wasn’t hot. Callie and I ran around them with the dogs and got them turned back without much trouble. Callie, fresh from the city and undaunted by the long day, was full of smiles and exclaimed over the beauty of the evening. I stopped and looked around and she was right. The sun was slanting behind the mountains, the cows were burying their faces in fresh feed, the dogs were happy to be let out of the trailer with a job to do, and we had the whole of the mountains to ourselves.

Seth caught the moment with a photo that I need to hold in my mind’s eye every day. As we head into fall cattle work, I’m not feeling very strong. I’ll be fine once we get in the flow, but I’m not looking forward to the cold mornings and I’m out of shape to be horseback. Oh, but wait, my friend H.W. made me a rawhide covered cushion for my saddle! I feel better already.  

Monday, September 4, 2017

A September Welcome

Since the total eclipse, I’ve been keeping my eye on the moon just in case it has any more shenanigans in store for us. It’s waxing its way to a full moon on the fifth. The Farmer’s Almanac calls it the “corn moon,” followed by the “hunter’s moon” of October, the “beaver moon” in November (when the pelts were ready), and the “long nights moon” of December.

I have always loved the Native American names for the full moon. What would we name our moons today? September might be the “back-to-school moon” and October the “trick-or-treat moon.” November would definitely be the “turkey moon,” followed by the “shopping days moon” of December and the “super bowl moon” in January. That’s how far away we are from the natural world.

Until, of course, events like the wildfires on the Great Plains this spring, the forest fires of the West this summer, or Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast slam us to attention.

Mark and I spent a day at the farthest reaches of the ranch fixing fence and checking water. It was just like I like it: a picnic in a rundown homesteader’s cabin, a good workout moving rocks to repair a wash-out, then mostly just riding the 4-wheeler around looking at grass, getting a drink at the spring, a little fencing, and then a nap before heading back home.

I’ve done the domesticity thing too, canning pickles from the garden and making applesauce and apple pie filling from the transparent tree in the horse pasture. When I was picking apples I felt like my Uncle Doug who used to hide in the limbs and throw apples at us as we walked home from school. When I processed the apples and the cucumbers I felt like my Mom. I used her recipes and was happy to see that she had the vinegar/water ratio written down for from one to seven quarts, however many cukes you had ready in the garden. 

She preserved food effortlessly, or so it seemed. For me, canning takes me all day and it’s haphazard with a hurried-up trip to town for more lids or needed ingredients. And when I’m finished, usually after dark, I still have to clean up all the pans and the sticky floor. But oh, the click of a jar as it seals when the kitchen is clean and the jars are lined up on the counter!

I took a day to go to the hills with my cousin to change water at her mountain pasture and see her cows. We spent a lot of time together as kids, but haven’t taken advantage of the fact that we both have our families raised, she’s retired, and now we can enjoy a drive to the mountains we both love. We stopped on the way home to weave clematis wreaths from the vines that grow along the fence lines. Such fun. Her text when we returned home said it right: “laughter is such good therapy!”

She left some fresh sweet corn on our porch the next day. Just one of the many gifts of September. And just in time for the corn moon. 

wild clematis makes a lovely wreath

dipping a drink from the spring

the Lone Fir Ranch

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Day(s) after Totality

In 1918 a total eclipse visited Idaho, and the path of totality was just a few miles south of our own 2017 phenomenon. My Great Grandmother Just wrote about it in her diary. The family had traveled to be with friends for the occasion. The eclipse arrived late in the day. She wrote simply: “A jolly time, all were so happy.”

That’s a fine description for our 2017 experience as well. Nearly 100 years later we gathered at my cousin’s house which has a good view of the mountains and the Snake River Valley below. It was a festive atmosphere. As we waited and watched, I ran in and out of the house tending my crock-pot potatoes, losing my eclipse glasses often, only to pick up random pairs that were lying about for just such an emergency.

As the time neared, we saw that the dappled light coming through the trees had turned into a sprinkling of crescents. The light turned the color of honey, the air cool. We put sweaters on over our summer clothes. At seven minutes to totality my sun-sensitive glasses went clear. And along the horizon behind us a “storm” of violet-grey appeared.

As the slide to totality commenced, I couldn’t sit still and climbed over the fence to the horse pasture. Seth and Leah followed. Then we were caught up in the wonder of it. The moment our glasses went black, we threw them off to see the moon surrounded by a halo of light. Totality is a 360 degree experience. Stars appeared and we threw up our arms and turned in circles and cried and whooped. I agree with someone who called it a “primeval thrill.” It was grand!

Then, oh so quickly and much too soon, the “diamond ring” appeared as the sun gleamed out on the opposite side, and within seconds the impalpable half-light was back and the lunar march across the sun continued.  

We immediately felt a kinship with those around us who had experienced the thrill as well. We shared the day with family and with strangers from Minnesota who had been planning the trip for three years and by chance ended up in Idaho.They were delighted to have found the perfect hillside for viewing the excitement. We’ll never see them again, but we are strangers no more.

When we returned home, an unexpected line of traffic, no doubt helped by Google Maps, sped past the ranch on our own country road in an attempt to bypass the interstate and highway.

That evening I lingered outside at dusk to see if the rays of the setting sun resembled those of the eclipse. Was it this dark, I wondered? How about now? But day by day, nature doesn’t replicate the ethereal light of a total eclipse.

Some called it God’s handiwork. I can buy that, but let’s not forget the lowly human scientists who predicted the eclipse to the minutiae of detail. It’s science that figured out the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun. And the curious fact that it is 400 times closer to us, which means the two orbs are the same size when viewed from Earth as their masses overlap.   

I can only imagine Grandma Emma’s eclipse experience. They did have "solar" eyeglasses in 1918 and smoked glass for viewing, but who knows if the aids made it to rural Idaho. I do know they didn’t get home until 11:30 pm that night so would have traveled home in the dark, perhaps by buggy. And surely with a newfound sense of awe. She also said they used their first ice of the season on that warm June day. Cut from the river during the winter and stored in the ice house, then brought out for just such a celebration. Imagine!

Since the eclipse, I have been appreciating our dawns and dusks anew. Our planet spins on its axis to create day and night. It orbits the sun to create the seasons. And all around us an incredible diversity of life has evolved in sync with those cycles. Bats and owls and nighthawks soar in the darkness. Nocturnal mammals, the raccoon, badger and cougar prowl, as we homo sapiens on an opposite cycle, sleep. And seasonally, grasses drop seed and go dormant, squirrels and bears hibernate, insects burrow, and songbirds and whales migrate. Let’s not forget this feeling of majesty and mystery we were lucky enough to witness, and step back in honor of a solar system that makes it all possible.