Saturday, February 17, 2024

For the Juncos

The juncos are flitting around my flower bed. I leave it “as is” in the fall, so there’s lots of plant material to sort through. I’ve seen the birds jump up on standing grasses, ride them as they fall to the ground, then feed on the seed heads. Let’s all let a corner of the lawn seed out next summer!

If you go on-line to find out how to attract juncos to your yard, you’ll only learn what type of bird seed to buy, not how to grow real seeds from real plants. Nothing against bird feeders, but think about all the side benefits real plants provide: roots reach into the soil to feed microscopic organisms, blooms feed butterflies and bees, beneficial insects burrow in to the stem to ride out the winter, they provide shade and cover to a myriad of species, and besides that, standing stems make a pretty picture against the snow.

There’s a new set of wind turbines on the skyline. They’re about 10 miles away. When Emma, our almost 3-yr-old granddaughter saw them, she said, “What are those spinners going round and round?” She’s the oldest, so will be the only grandchild that notices a change in the view. The others will think the windmills belong there. Beware the shifting baseline syndrome. We only know what we grow up with. And as each succeeding generation becomes accustomed to a new reality, we collectively lose. I know we need renewables, but let's acknowledge the impacts. We need to be conserving energy at the same time. Where’s the discussion? Where’s the incentive? Conservation has been unpopular since Carter asked us to wear a sweater. 

It's been a mild winter, but wet. Mark's had to take the tractor quite a lot to help the feed trucks get around in the mud. And since we're mostly sand, that's saying something. I hate to see calving season come. Winter, a slower time for us, is slipping away. I’m not like other heroic ranch women I read about that say they love this time of year. Not me. Once the calves get on the ground, it’s non-stop ranching until next winter. We wasted our off-season Netflix subscription and now it’s all over. I’d take February for a few more rounds.  


Watching "neigh neighs" graze the lawn

Sunday feeding crew

Sale Day at the Blackfoot Livestock Auction

Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Melancholy Christmas

We’ve had sad Holidays before. I bet a lot of readers have too, as it seems like death comes around this time of year. It makes it hard yes, but there’s something special about it as well, with memories of grief and joy all mixed up together, full of meaning and poignancy, some tragic, some beautiful. Christmas makes us think of times and people long gone. Mourning, in a way, seems almost natural.

We lost Mark’s sister to cancer this week. She carried Jesus close, so it’s fitting for her to return to him during this time of celebration. Every year her family will remember the mourning, the staggering loss, all blended with the meaning of Christmas and the renewal that comes with a new year. Or that is my hope for them. 

Mona was a year and a half behind Mark. There was just the two of them, so they were close. Mona never took to the ranch, though, so their paths were different. While Mark followed cows around, she was all about homemaking and relationships. She liked nothing better than deep conversation. She and I could go there immediately whenever we were alone together or on the phone. We shared a family experience, a history of 30+ years. We had our children in tandem. And she was just catching up to me with her own grandchildren when she was taken. Two infants that will only know their Nonnie from photographs. Well, that’s not true. They’ll know her because of the rich garden she planted and nurtured every day in her own children - their parents.

She told me the babies looked deep into her eyes with knowingness. It seems plausible to me. The veil would be very thin to newborns and those facing death. There are so many unknowns, so many miracles we take for granted.

I’ve been trying to remember what Mona wanted. Most of all she wanted her death to mean something to the ones left behind. That we take extra good care of each other and really focus on our relationships. That we realize the gift of life and enjoy the small pleasures. To her it was these, a cup of chai, delicate hydrangeas, a heartfelt visit, that made a good life. We talked a lot about the value of being present every day in the small acts of living and how gratitude follows that practice. I'll keep working on that.   

And life, as they say, goes on. It's snowing big clumps as I write. The cows are home from the mountains. They’ve been sorted and vaccinated, the calves weighed, and now they're finding luscious grass under the snow.   

Our hope is that however this holiday finds you, you have peace, a thankful heart and a warm bed to retreat to on these long winter nights. We hope you find joy in a handshake, delight in a child’s giggle, someone to hold your hand, a chore that needs doing and the strength to do it. Happy Christmas. 

Lou and Grandpa

Emma's turn

Friday, November 24, 2023

Meet Me in Montana

We had snow for Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter how early or late the first snowfall is, we’re never ready. I was tromping around in the cold putting extension cords together to heat the trough in the horse corral. Then I noticed the outdoor furniture hadn’t been covered.

We’ve entered another sister retreat in the books. Donna came all the way from Maryland. Then we loaded up in Kit’s rig, and the five of us drove to Montana to see our sister Janene. We stayed in a swanky house overlooking the Bitterroot Valley. Apparently some cast members from "Yellowstone" were supposed to be staying there, but canceled because of the actor’s strike. Oh darn! We enjoyed the wood stove and the big kitchen and a bed for each of us.

The day we left was Friday, which is our local livestock auction’s weekly sale day. Donna and I had just enough time to meet Rich at the auction cafĂ© for coffee. Donna caught up with an old classmate who works there, and we got to meet some of Rich’s friends that he hangs with every Friday. Then we went upstairs to watch the first cattle sell to the sing-song of the auctioneer. The scene goes way back to when we were kids and Dad would sell his weaned calves, a year’s work, on sale day and hope the buyers showed up to compete for the offering.

For our sister trip this year, Merle had the idea to prepare a “talk” of sorts to share with the other sisters on a topic we were particularly interested in. We learned about Sasquatch and spontaneous human combustion from her. Becky shared the Jimmy Carter story of eradicating guinea worm. Kit talked about the history of religion, and I talked about the monarch butterfly's life cycle. Donna’s presentation was the most fun. She's moon crazy so shared her moon app and other fun facts she's learned. Did you know we always see the same face of the moon as it rotates in sync with the Earth? Donna was standing at the front of the room with her notes in hand. We heckled her a bit, raising our hands and saying, “Mrs. McWilliams . . . Mrs. McWilliams! What about. . . ?”

Our brother Rich and his wife, Charlotte, drove up for a day too, which was a real treat. 

We’re getting some wear after living this long. We have disabilities of one kind or another, and you might think we’re not as sharp as we once were. But those issues fall away when we have such fun together. We laugh and reminisce and the conversation never dulls. The seven of us siblings are closer than we’ve been since we lived together in the same house. 

After a lifetime of hard work, raising kids and grandkids, navigating illness and disappointment, we don’t have terribly high expectations anymore. And what a gift that is. We just want time together, with these dear people that we know so well and who share our common history. It's uncommon and so very blessed.     

Me, Kit, Rich, Janene, Becky, Donna, Merle

Friday, September 29, 2023

Coaxing September

On the first day of September I was determined to go outside and just sit. Sit in the sunshine and welcome this sublime month that transitions us from summer to autumn. I didn’t get that done in the intentional way I meant to, but there have been moments. And now September is slipping away.

I got a sturdy bench to put by my flowers that grow in colorful lines in the vegetable garden. I watch dragonflies and butterflies visit the blooms – and of course bees of all kinds. Several times I sat there with a grandkid and watched for pollinators. Lou is all about bees and makes circles with his tiny fist while he makes a buzzing sound. When Emma sat with me we saw three painted lady butterflies flitting about the cosmos, larkspur and zinnias.

Then there was the evening I sat alone. It was cool, no pollinators to be seen. The wind was moving through the cottonwood trees in a mellow and comforting way that filled me up as well. We need comfort. Life is hard.

We got the cattle moved to a new pasture and the calves vaccinated. Mark sleeps better now. The temperature swings of autumn put stress on the calves and make them susceptible to infectious diseases. Watching them close and increasing their immunity with vaccine is a good practice.

On the day of the big herd move, I was riding one of our best horses, Sis. She’s lively and walks right out, responding to the slightest cues. What a joy to ride. But even so, after 6 hours I was all done. My legs were screaming at me to call it a day. In defeat I rode back to the pickup, got a cold drink of water, ate one of Leah’s cookies and took a nap. It was glorious.

I knew it would happen. I’m 64 and more interested in tending Lou while Anna rides than staying in riding shape myself. This has been our pattern this spring and summer. Still, it made me so sad to ride away from the herd. Even though there was plenty of help and the cattle were going fine, it still stung. It was the first time I had left my family before the work was done.

September is a month of transitions and my change of roles is just another one on a long list that we must accept. Beautiful and sad, these events mark our lives and the passage of time that weighs on us all. 

painted lady

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Ranching Butterflies

I went out this morning at first light to cut a few chard leaves to go with our bacon and eggs for breakfast. It felt like fall. There were clouds in the sky and it looked like today would be more of the same for a coolish August.  

Milkweed has invaded my low-maintenance lawn. I’ve mown once but the “weed” grows back quickly and the new leaves are fresh and inviting for monarch butterflies. As I was standing on the deck I noticed two monarchs fluttering almost lazily throughout the young milkweed. Were they laying eggs?

I took out my phone and randomly aimed it at a mama with graying wings. I happened to catch her extend her abdomen to the underside of a leaf, attach slightly and pooch out an egg! She fluttered away leaving a single ivory orb on the surface. To add to my delight, when I replayed the video, there in the bottom of the frame was a monarch larvae (caterpillar) eating his way to a metamorphosis of his own.

Monarchs, who have a fascinating multi-generation migration from their southern overwintering grounds up through North America and back down again, are in a population free fall. Numbers collected in California, where our butterflies from Idaho go for the winter, have fallen  80-97% of historic populations.

The current good news is that numbers are rebounding at the moment. We’ve noticed it at home, but it’s official all over the region. Last winter’s counts were the best in the last 20 years. This year is shaping up to be a good one too. I was surprised to learn that our own Snake River Plain is a critical component of summering habitat. It’s not hard to grasp why numbers are falling. Agriculture fields are “cleaner” than they used to be. Our lawns are manicured and non-native ornamentals fill our garden centers. We mow, prune, spray, till, burn, and in general tidy things up better and better. Not to mention population growth and the subsequent building boom.

Take a look around when you spend time out-of-doors. Where can you locate milkweed, the only food a caterpillar eats? Where can an adult butterfly find nectar to fuel her short, egg-laying life? Just because it’s a flower doesn’t mean it feeds monarchs. Look to our native plants for this role - asters, goldenrod, sunflowers, black-eyed susans and blanket flower among others. And for the wider spectrum of pollinators, shrubs like serviceberry, woods rose, chokecherry and currant are lovely choices (good for bird watching too).

We’ve been reporting butterfly sightings to and I’ve got Mark trained to let me know when he sees them. I’m getting behind he’s seen so many. He got this lucky shot one day, and with it he makes his debut in blog photography.


Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Plants for the Planet

It’s hot. And dry. But the heavy snows this winter and the rains this spring brought us grass and more grass. In the mountains, snowdrifts still send trickles of water through the quakies to the closest stream. And the wildflowers! They fill me up. It’s a good thing Mark focuses on the cattle when we travel the ranch because my eyes are on plants. I have to really concentrate when Mark expects me to drive the 4-wheeler and check fences.

The garden is bearing. I planted lots of carrots and beets to store for the winter. We’re doing our best to eat the thinnings (is that a word?). I’m stingy with water, and though I water the garden, things get dry around the house. I care more about seed heads and diversity for bugs and birds than looking neat and tidy. I call my yard a “wildscape.” If that’s not a word it should be. 

I’ve been having fun with my plant ID app. I take a photo in the mountains of a plant I can’t recognize and put it through the app when I get back in service. Then if I’m still uncertain, I type it into google and look around to make sure. I’ve learned a lot, mostly about what I don’t know. OK, it’s a ragwort, but there are all kinds of ragworts. Is this the native cinquefoil or the invasive, non-native cinquefoil? Is it hairy clematis or cotton grass? Look closely at the leaves to tell them apart. 

Plants don’t get near enough credit for the integral role they play in our world. They take the only readily available energy – the sun – and convert it to feed everything else. Plants from eons ago made the carbon stores that fuel our modern society. From consumer goods to transportation to shelter, we depend on the energy of fossil fuels. Plants hold the soil in place to slow wind and water erosion. They capture rainfall and snowmelt. They cycle carbon and feed microbes in the soil. Plants determine the makeup and health of whole civilizations. Most of us walk around clueless to this fantastic fact. 

And yes, plants are in trouble. From many directions - human development, fires/fire suppression, over grazing/under grazing, over tillage, climate change, invasive plants from foreign continents, and in general a simplification of the amazing complexity of species that rely on each other. 

Putting aside these challenges, which one has to do to find joy in life, tromping around in the diversity created over the millennia and marveling at how each plant has been named and catalogued by our own species, leaves me in awe.      

a favorite from the valley ranch, buckwheat

also from the valley ranch - veiny dock
we call them sand lilies

I'm going with wild garlic on this one, so delicate, just starting to open

brodea (cluster lily) and arnica

pretty sure this is hairy clematis, so unique!

prairie smoke, another fun one

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Emma's World

No way around it, spring is stressful on a ranch. Most of us in our region had a rough calving season, and now we’re having to delay “turn-out,” the term for when the cows can be grazing grass full time. We’re to that stage now, putting herds together on the pastures to the east of the ranch and getting ready for the long walk to the mountains.

The irrigation water is all up and running, which followed a marathon effort to get the ditches ready. First they’re burned, trenched if needed, and then all the debris needs to be pitched out of the way. And then, as lovely as it is to have water on the land, the streams need constant tending.

Mark has been doctoring a few sick calves even though the weather has improved. I think sick cattle stress him most of all. He rarely loses one, but it takes lots of time and attention on his part.

He and a three man crew spent two days in the mountains pulling up fences that were flattened by snow. The moisture is heaven-sent, and poor fences in this case is a good problem to have, but it all takes time.

It’s discouraging to be in the middle of it, far too many tasks and too few hours in the day. I’m not complaining, well maybe I am. We wouldn’t trade places with anyone, it’s just that the tough days seem to come one after another.

I’ve decided Emma has it figured out. She’s two years old and the world is her oyster. I think that’s the phrase, and I’m not even sure what it means, but I think it fits. All around her is a wondrous world to explore. Her senses are in full-on alert. She crouches to observe an ant or to examine a cow pie for bugs. She can identify a bumble bee and a honeybee and was concerned when the rain showers chased the bees into hiding. “Where’d the honeybees go?” she said.

Every time a pheasant crows, she looks at you with excitement, “ahhhh, a pheasant!” She looks up every time she hears geese or an airplane and makes sure you notice them too.

She examines rocks and tiny sticks, flowers and leaves. She found the lamb’s ear plant in my front flower bed. She stroked the leaves with a child’s appreciation. “Oh, it’s so soft!”

That curiosity, that wonderment, is available to us all. I’m going to be like Emma.

Emma with the new puppy, Myrt