Monday, July 4, 2011

Tending Water

It’s the Fourth of July and we’re spending it as usual, putting up hay. I remember one holiday where we actually took a picnic to the mountains, but mostly it's a work day. There’s truth behind the phrase, make hay when the sun shines.

Irrigation season is in full swing. We live and die by surface water on our ranch, the delivery of which occupies every morning and evening from May thru September. In Pratt Ranch vernacular it’s called “changing water.” When I first heard that expression I thought it quite amusing, a bit like changing your underwear. On Reid Ranch where I grew up, it is simply called “irrigating.” Mark sometimes uses a deviation of that; he says he’s going “puddlegating.” Whatever you call it, it is a necessary, constant, never-ending chore in southeastern Idaho.

We’re old timey here on our ranch. While the neighbors flip a switch on a pivot, or start a motor on a wheel line to sprinkle their crops, Mark runs a shovel. From a series of ditches diverted first from the Snake or the Blackfoot River down to a small stream that borders our fields, a shovel does the trick. Yesterday our insurance agent was sitting at our kitchen table and asked about irrigation equipment protection. Mark answered, "it’s hard to cover a shovel."

Flood irrigating is kid-friendly work. My job when I was little was to stand on a corner of the dam as it was filling to keep it from slipping back into the ditch. I can see my Dad expertly placing shovelfuls of sod to keep the dam in place, or to stop and start “cuts” in the ditch for the water to flow through. When he was finished, he would carefully clean his shovel of any soil to keep it sharp and free from rust.

Mark has a different technique. He likes his shovel dull so that he can tamp the dam into the sand all along its edge to keep it in place. And he doesn’t worry about cleaning the shovel, as sand falls readily from the blade and keeps the metal shiny. Both men handle a shovel like an extension of their arm, fluid and efficient. 

Callie earned the nickname "Gator" following Mark around in her little black knee boots. One day she came home from elementary school where her class had planted a tree. She was surprised that she could work a shovel better than the boys.    

Someone once asked my father-in-law, “If you could only have one tool what would it be?” His answer: “a shovel.” It can dig post holes or cut weeds; a good one can be used in place of a hammer or pry bar. Mark says it can even be used to defend your water rights from a greedy neighbor! A shovel is, as my Dad would say, “a man needer.”    

Seth in gum boots, shovel-ready

1 comment:

  1. "We live and die by the surface water..."
    "handle a shovel like an extension of their arm, fluid and efficient"
    wow- There are some great lines in there. It's easy going and has a good sense of time jumping back and forth, but is present too.

    A pleasing story, lighthearted but nuanced in comedy and memory.