Friday, December 23, 2016

Attending a Lowly Birth

Commentary in the Idaho Falls Post Register, published Christmas Eve, 2016

One of our fondest memories of Christmas is our son, Seth, helping set up the nativity scene and carefully placing the baby “Genius” in the manger. Every year the scene is the same. Mary and Joseph are placed either side of the child and gaze down at him lovingly. At a reverent distance are three distinguished men in ornate cloaks and two lowly shepherds in crude clothing and sandals. An angel looks on.  
Surrounding the scene are the animals that play an important role in the story of that first Christmas: the donkey that carried Mary across the sands to Bethlehem, a few sheep to represent the flocks being watched by shepherds who would follow a star in the night sky, the camels that bore three wise men and carried gifts to the child.

And in this re-creation, we learn the lesson of humility, and honor a stable warmed slightly by the animals that sheltered there, where a young couple found a place to rest for the night. And where a baby was born. Who better to attend this humble birth than the beasts who have no need to judge?

It’s not a stretch for us here on the ranch to relate to this scene. Outside our dining room window, the horses paw through snow to graze. Down the lane the cattle wait for the hay crew to arrive. Tethered outside in straw-filled houses are the herding dogs, and in the basement of our house is a surprise winter batch of puppies. We hear them whimper in the middle of the night.

It’s what we do, this living with animals. We may be a remnant of the population now, but all humankind owes great swaths of our history to domesticated animals. The dog was first at around 10,000 B.C. followed by sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. Oxen, camels and horses would follow and be helpmeets well before the birth of Christ.

The benefits these animals brought to man were many. Meat and milk top the list, but manure for fertilizer, and brawn to pull a plow meant that food was no longer a hunt and gather activity. Leather and wool for clothing, horn and bone for tools, tallow for candles and strong backs for transport advanced human welfare immeasurably. Perhaps Christmas is a time to contemplate that welfare . . . lest we forget.

At calving time we get a chance to tend our own stable. We take a few cows to the barn for assistance every year, and when the stalls are bedded with straw and the mama and her calf lie in the quiet, we feel a certain reverence there. We speak with hushed tones to keep the cattle calm. And yes, we hear the cows lowing to their babies, the sweetest of murmurs, and can imagine a human baby stirring but not crying from that sound.

ranch horses in winter

cattle grazing stockpiled feed

we're living in a snow globe


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Keeping Vigil

The snow keeps coming – and there’s more in the forecast. It’s Christmasy; so much so that even Scrooges like me are feeling the vibe.

We got the cows home from the mountains, but not before we had a bit of excitement when my brother’s cattle mixed with ours on the trail home. Rich stopped his herd for the night with only a cattleguard between them and us. He was afraid that the pressure of the herd would crowd an animal into the guard, a series of metal slats over a wide gap in the road, so finally let them through the gate. When he got home he called Mark. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Mark could guess what he would say next. “The good news is nothing got in the cattleguard; the bad news is we’re mixed!”

No worries. Mark said he would have done the same thing. It meant extra work on horseback letting their black cows walk by our mostly red and white cows, but they all got to their home fields in fine order. The last sort was on a bitter morning with a dusting of snow on the cattle’s backs. It was a good photo op until my I-phone powered off because of the cold.

We put all the cows through the chute yesterday for processing. To “process” a cow means we have the local veterinarian check to see that she’s pregnant, then we give her an annual vaccination and a dose of insecticide. Mark checks teeth and the general health of the oldest cows to see if they’ll stay in the herd or be sorted off to sell. It’s like taking year-end inventory. We’re making a list and checking it twice.

There's more going on in the background than you can tell from my photos, however. As we drive through ranch headquarters, we pass by the modest white home that houses our ranch matriarch with renewed concern. Mark’s grandma, at 97, who has enjoyed good health up until a couple of weeks ago, is declining. She would really prefer to move on, find her husband, and do some dancing. He passed away in 2000 after 62 years together. She wonders why he's left her alone for so long.

So we’re keeping vigil over Grandma. "Vigil" is a word that sounds just like its meaning. It is defined as “a period of time when a person or group stays in a place and quietly waits, to keep awake when sleep is customary.” Very apropos for this wintery December when we watch and worry with a gamut of emotions – gratitude, awe, sadness, joy - surrounding this petite dynamo who, when the dancing finally begins, will leave a big hole in the human side of this ranch.  

my brother Rich holding herd


the processing crew

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Facing up to an Imperiled Aquifer

published as commentary in the Post Register, November 27, 2016

I come from a long line of flood irrigators. My great grandfather acquired one of the first water rights out of the Blackfoot River in 1871. Now my husband, who is an artist with a shovel, carefully maneuvers our own 1904 right across our ranch using the power of gravity.

This spreading of river water (surface water) worked to raise the level of the aquifer beneath us right up until the 1950’s, when groundwater pumping began in earnest. This new method of irrigation was efficient and brought many more acres under cultivation than could have been reached by gravity alone. Approximately one million acres are now irrigated by the water-soaked basalt of the Snake River Aquifer. And some 300,000 of us draw our drinking water from the aquifer as well.

At nearly 11,000 square miles in area, it is one of the largest and most productive aquifers in the world. There’s no doubting the economic prosperity it has brought to Southeast Idaho. But we now face the real threat of aquifer declines lower than the benchmark levels of the early 1900’s.

The specter of climate change and the likelihood of receiving more of our annual precipitation as rain instead of snow, further complicates the picture. Snowpack acts as storage and ensures a long seasonal flow of water as temperatures warm throughout the summer.    

On our ranch, we have always believed that too many deep well irrigation pumps had a negative effect on the water table, so we welcomed the recent efforts of local groundwater pumpers to curtail use for this very reason. This voluntary 2015 effort is a great start to realizing that hydrology of surface and ground waters are inextricably linked.    

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) has gone a step further. Because the Snake River Aquifer is approaching critical status they have ordered the designation of an Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Ground Water Management Area. I attended one of the town hall meetings conducted by IDWR this summer to take comments on the plan. Our groundwater pumping neighbors voiced their anger and their concerns. They’ve already agreed to voluntary cutbacks and see this effort as government overreach. They’re afraid they’ll be asked to give up more water in the future when, by agreeing to curtailments in the existing agreement, they were promised “safe harbor” from that threat.

Their argument is valid and I understand their fears. But from a gravity irrigator’s standpoint, who is at the mercy of river flows, I endorse the management area creation. I believe IDWR director Spackman when he says that the Ground Water Management Area gives us a chance to get ahead of aquifer declines and allows for proactive efforts on the wet years as well as the dry. The best thing we as irrigators can do is stay engaged and help with defining the terms of the agreement.

As Judith Schwartz, author of Water in Plain Sight, who looks at the water cycle from a soil management perspective says, “water connects us all.” Here in southeastern Idaho, we see water as our birthright. But change is upon us. And it’s not just an agricultural problem. Societies have always gone the way of their food producing fortunes. At mealtime we’re all agriculturalists. 

Springtime delivery of surface water, our lifeblood

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Soliloquy for Fall

November dawned still as stone today. The forecast says snow and single digits by Tuesday. The canals are quiet again and the long mornings mean an extra cup of coffee and some quiet conversation for me and Mark.   

We’re still finishing up fall chores. I cleaned the various ranch outbuildings – the warming room in the barn, the scale house and the pump house. The mouse droppings have been vacuumed and the windows washed.  

Mark is draining water troughs. He draws the water out with an irrigation siphon tube and/or garden hose. Some years he’s been caught off-guard and has to chop the whole thing out because it freezes solid. A “make work” task for sure.

He helped me dig the red spuds, and to further fill the larder, I picked up the meat we had processed at the local butcher shop. The Mickelson family was hard at work packaging ground beef when I arrived. How thankful we are that this family business is close by. While I was there a Hispanic mother and son picked up a cow’s head in a plastic bag. I don’t know how they prepare that, but am glad to know their culture helps us use the whole carcass. The value of diversity!

After 16 years in our home I finally got a circle drive! What was once a weedy eyesore that attracted ranch paraphernalia like a magnet, is now a graceful, graveled loop. Men with large tractors don’t realize how easy it is to make a wife happy.

We moved the cattle down to the first stair-step towards home. It was a clear, warm day, and with the calves off, the "drys" were quiet and agreeable and moved off the dogs in a fluid motion. We dumped the herd in the Brush Creek field and took them to water before coaxing them up the mountain to where Mark had delivered salt and lick tub treats. This supplement will help them process dry mature grasses, plus reward them for making the climb. They’re lazy and would prefer staying down on the creek.   

2016 has been a tumultuous year across our planet, and with all the strife, I’m feeling very grateful for our bulging freezer, a generous wood pile, and the fact that we go to bed each night without fear of our own countrymen. 

Mark handed me a poem this morning by Bernard J. Patrick, A Thanksgiving Soliloquy, and suggested that with all I could write about, perhaps I could end with this: . . . for every pennyweight of bad, I have found a ton of good. . . good in Nature, in People, in the World. And I’m thankful I belong. 

the way home

the monochromatic beauty of quakies in November

someone's long ago great idea

Kate and me on top of the world

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Original Hydrologist

It keeps raining! There’s a pond at ranch headquarters just like in March when the weather breaks for spring. For a cowboy it’s heaven on earth. Only, what happens if it keeps being this wet and gets really cold? It’s a scary thought when we’ve got cattle grazing at 6,000 feet.

We’ve got beaver trouble. We love them, but their dam is flooding a ditch and creating a large bog across a pasture in the mountains. Mark and Seth waded into the creek and pulled out great quantities of sticks and succeeded in getting the water level dropped. But of course the beaver had the dam rebuilt when we went back. The sound of escaping water is their cue to get to work.  

Mark called Seth to tell him about it. They joked about the big rodent throwing a bugle to his lips and sounding a call to arms to repair the destruction. Mark made a beeping noise, like heavy equipment in reverse. And we laughed, but Mark wasn’t so jocular when we yanked out the sticks on our next trip.

I was convinced there had to be a better way so went researching for alternatives. I found that a pipe at the bottom of the pond could be used to keep the water level at a certain height. Sounds like it might work.  

Beavers are called a keystone species, like the wedge shaped block at the highest point of an arch, they are the one resident of many within an ecosystem, that if removed would cause the whole thing to implode. Their ponds support a myriad of life forms in the wetlands they create and increase the water table throughout the whole watershed.

Their ponds are firstly for predator protection. A beaver is slow and vulnerable on land but can hide quickly in a deep pond. Besides that, floating timbers is easier than dragging them across land. Just like lumberjacks of old who used rivers to transport logs, beavers are clever that way. The pond also serves as cold storage for tree limbs that provide food for the beaver family during winter. They are vegetarians and feed on leaves and the cambium layer of limbs as a mainstay.   

Beavers can spend up to 15 minutes underwater. They mate for life, and the young, the kits, stay with their parents for two years before venturing off to find new territory. Their lodges have secret watery entrances, with the interior living areas warm and protected from predators through the long kit-raising period.

Beaver, nearly trapped to extinction during the fur-trapping heyday in the 1700’s, have made a comeback, but are coming into more and more conflict with human enterprise. In this age of climate change, declining aquifer levels, population growth and fights over water, hydrology - even and especially here in richly irrigated southeastern Idaho - has come to the forefront. It behooves us to reacquaint ourselves with the original hydro-engineers and find ways to enlist their help.

battle lines are drawn!

still lovely by any measure

Friday, October 28, 2016

An English Experience

In the month of October, Mark had the opportunity to close a circle that stretched across the Atlantic. Twenty-four years ago when I was pregnant with Anna, Mark spent six weeks in England on a Rotary Exchange. He stayed with host families throughout his visit and one home in particular stood out. This family included a three year old girl, Felicity, who asked her mother on the way home from picking up Mark, “do you think he would like to play faum with me?” Of course Mark would. A little set of corrals with animals and a barn reminded him of home.  

Skip to 2016, enter Facebook. Mark asked Anna to research the English family name and sure enough, there was the little girl all grown up. And she liked horses! Mark issued an invitation to visit the ranch, and Felicity, with her fiancĂ© Ash in tow, arrived for a visit.  

We were in the middle of weaning calves and put them on horses straightaway. Ash rode Sly, our veteran, and Felicity (Fliss) rode Birdie. Sly was perfect for Ash, who had only been taking riding lessons for a few weeks. Birdie, lively and sensitive in nature was a good fit for Fliss and more like the English version she was used to.

One day we gathered our mountain field. I sent Ash to the top of a peak where he could see the other side of the property. His job was to radio down to Fliss and me, riding the creek below him, about cattle hiding out in the high mountain draws above us. The picture of his silhouette against the skyline made us realize how far from England they really were.

Later that same day, Fliss decided she didn’t like cows after all when the few she was following split and each went a different direction. She would put one in the gate to the corral, then go back for another one, only to have the one she had just put in come back out again!

They rented a camp trailer and toured Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in an early snowstorm. They marveled at the Tetons and got the all-important photos of bison, elk, and even a foraging bear (the same one that Fliss’s Mom had warned her about!) We took them to Craters of the Moon and had supper at Pickles in Arco. They soaked at Lava Hot Springs, took part in family parties and toured the rugged Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls.   

I know they learned a lot . . . but then, so did we. We talked about Brexit (they voted for it) and the fear mongering that went on before the vote. We talked about vanishing farm ground in England and the consequences of immigrant influx to their country. We talked about sheep farms in Wales where Ash grew up, London congestion, the upsides and downsides of universal health care, and what it’s like as young people, working hard and making their way in the UK.

We had the rare opportunity to see our world through their eyes. When riding in the mountains, Fliss remarked about the “awful brush.” What? You mean sagebrush? Why, sagebrush is Idaho herself! I told her I didn’t know anything else. And riding horses to us means walking behind a cow – at a cow’s pace – in stark contrast to their version, cantering across the English countryside jumping over hedges! Their version sounds like loads of fun (no wonder they wear helmets) . . . but we have work to do after all.  

Fliss left her recipe of “toad in the hole” on the fridge before she left. I made it last night and it was almost as good as when she made it for us. There are several versions of it on the internet. If you try it, make sure and bake it until the Yorkshire pudding is brown and crispy.

Thanks for visiting our world you two! It was, as the British say, “lovely.”

full circle

Pinning Bedfordshire on the map at the Twin Falls Visitor Center

                                                                  at ease in a western saddle                                                     photo by Anita

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Monarch Story

published as commentary in the Post Register, October 20, 2016

My son found a late season monarch caterpillar on one of the few remaining green milkweeds in late September.    

Because a cold snap was imminent, we brought the caterpillar in the house along with a few leaves to put in a jar like we used to do when Seth was a boy. Within a couple of days a cocoon appeared. We knew it was going to be too cold and wet for the butterfly to survive in Idaho so we sent it with Seth as a traveling companion on his move to Chico, California. He knew that monarchs had the ability to re-calibrate a change of location and Chico isn’t far from traditional over-wintering sites along the California Coast.

Generations of kids have been introduced to the wonder of nature by these once ubiquitous beauties. It’s not only the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly that fascinates us, but the migration mystery as well. The annual route, up to 6,000 miles round trip, requires about four generations, with the spring and summer insects living only 2- 6 weeks as they work their way north from Mexico or California to Canada and then back south in late summer. Our butterfly will be the lucky generation, living up to 8 months, and delaying mating until after its wintertime rest.

Sadly, monarch numbers have plunged over the last twenty years by as much as 74% in 2015. Insecticide and herbicide use is undoubtedly part of the problem. Milkweeds, the only plant the monarch caterpillar can eat, is in serious decline. Humans have gotten very good at killing living things, including many species we never intended to.   

Milkweeds are abundant on our ranch. They love the ditchbanks, and I even let them crowd the edge of our lawn, using the mower to squelch their valiant attempts to invade my landscaping. I’m okay with ragged edges in my spot of earth. You might call it unkempt; I call it biodiversity - different plants with various characteristics to support all the creatures that live on the ranch, with the cows, the herding dogs, the horses and our human family.

British East/West philosopher, Alan Watts, said it: “Life is wiggly.” And we’d all be better off acknowledging that fact. Farmers mow, spray, disc and otherwise manicure the edges of their farms. Homeowners prune, pull, edge, trim, eliminate the undesirables and promote the ornamental. I appreciate the ordered beauty as much as anyone, but nature loves complexity which is usually messy. 

How many kids these days bring in a caterpillar to watch it turn into a butterfly? Do kids play outside anymore? And if they do, are there wild spaces where milkweeds grow and crawling, creeping, insects live?

Luckily, individuals and groups across our continent are working together to create and protect habitat. Over-wintering sites are receiving tourism income rather than having to cut down forests that harbor butterflies. We landowners can now receive government help to plant “pollinator plots.” Backyard gardeners are planting milkweed and nectar producing plants. Even Monsanto, blamed for promoting glyphosate herbicide use in the agricultural industry, effective at eliminating milkweed from crops, is contributing over $3.5 million over three years in matching monies for research and education to restore and enhance monarch habitat across North America.

Good news for this iconic, fleeting and fragile resident of our natural world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Weaning Day

The mountains are glorious this fall. The quaking aspens have almost lost their color, but the willows along the creek and poplars at the old homesteads are in full splendor. And to make it perfect, the soil is thoroughly soaked. It's a very full-up feeling to work with the cattle on days like these. The herd does fine on cured-off grasses, but the new green leaves are a bonus.

The moisture is a boon to wildlife as well. Green sprouts mean protein and energy for soon-to-be wintering birds, small mammals and large game. And deep soil moisture, hopefully followed by good snowpack, bodes well for a bountiful growing season next year.

We pulled the calves off the cows between storms. The day didn’t exactly go like clockwork. When we arrived at our mountain weaning corrals, we found that the cattle had escaped their fenced pasture overnight. We had to re-gather the whole herd and stuff them back into the pasture through the muddy path they had made while escaping. The fence had to be repaired before we could begin separating. So as we worked through the herd, cows to the left, calves to the right, the truckers who had come some distance to help us, were waiting in line. I was worried that we were ruining their whole day and “will they come back next year if we made them wait so long this year?”

I needn’t have worried. What a nice bunch of guys they were. They all pitched in and helped us work the calves up the alley and into the trucks. Turns out Mark rodeoed in college with one of them. His son, Dalton, was my helper and told me all about the Texas ranch he is determined to own one day. His grandpa directed traffic and secured the latch as the last gate went down. Their three generations worked with our three generations to finish the job.

Dalton said that cattle were “in his blood.” And so it is with us I suppose.

The calves came down to the home ranch corrals for three days to complete the weaning process and then we turned them out to graze. Despite our good care, we’re getting sickness in the calves, which means riding through them daily and doctoring those that need it. The rain, though welcome, came with temperature extremes that, on top of weaning stress, may have precipitated the sickness.

When I told Great Grandma Bonny about our travails, she sang to me: “Mamas . . . don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys!”  I laughed and assured her that if we weren’t cowboys we’d perhaps be doing something equally as stressful. We know that owning stock means you'll lose a few now and then. We try to take what comes with equanimity and remember the oft-repeated phrase that stockmen live by: “As long as we keep it in the barnyard, we’ll be okay.” 

all photos by Anita 


the end of a long day

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Love Letter

It’s supposed to happen in the fall – a soaking rain. And it came! And after a dry summer, we ranchers breathe a collective sigh. There is green under the golden grasses and no dust for our fall work.

Mark and I have a list of autumn chores we’re trying to work through. I think all country dwellers would agree with me, if September and October would offer a “do over” we’d all rejoice! So much to do and here it is already the last week of September.

One of my autumn tasks is re-typing some essays my sisters and I found during our annual retreat. We got together right here in Idaho to attend our nephew’s wedding, and when the festivities were over we turned to another task we’d been thinking about for some time.    

We finally went through the last of my grandma’s personal belongings. They had been caught in a time warp in our ancestral home for forty years. Yes, we found costume jewelry to distribute to the granddaughters and stacks of magazines to discard even though my uncle, now deceased, had written “don’t burn ever!” on the covers.  The letters to Grandma written by four grandsons serving in Vietnam were wonderful. But the most precious find was a stack of personal essays. Grandma was a poet and wrote a weekly column for the paper. But this writing was a different genre and work we had never seen before.  

One special piece is one she wrote about my grandfather, Robert. He was only 63 when he died of asthma, so none of us knew him. We knew the two of them had a good marriage, but never knew any details of their life together. So when I stumbled upon this manuscript, typed on yellowed paper with her old manual typewriter, I knew I had found a gem.  

 “Oh! You guys listen to this!” I said, as we sat around on the porch of the 1887 home. The essay was entitled, simply, “Bob Reid.”

“Always I shall see him framed in the door as he greeted some unexpected guests that had come while he was in the fields. His hat pushed back and his sweaty hair looped down on his low, broad forehead. Perhaps he hadn’t taken off his rubber boots and his overalls were carefully tucked into them. His tall angular form filled the doorway even as his smile filled the room.”

“As he talked, his face became a study of expression. His left eyebrow had a way of running up in a point, and every wrinkle around his eyes and mouth had an upward curve that proclaimed kindness, contentment, optimism. The world was just the way he liked it. His children were all perfect in his sight, his wife the only woman in the world.”

At this all my sisters exclaimed at once, “awwwwwww!” What a treasure.

Most of us have some of our heritage tucked away from our ancestors. A gun, a saddle, an antique bedstead or a handmade quilt, but for me, this would-be writer, I could not be more thrilled than to find the painstakingly crafted stories from my dad’s mom, a woman very different from me. She was gregarious and I am shy. She had many friends from all over the U.S. My friends are my sisters! Different, yet so alike. She needed to write and so do I. 

" Grandy"  heading to flood irrigate

my sis's

Friday, September 23, 2016

Grazing and Fire Behavior

previously published as commentary in the Post Register, September 21, 2016

We summer cattle in the mountains of Southeastern Idaho, and last week after checking the herd, we took the long way home through Bone and toured the area of the Henry’s Creek Fire. Ouch! The devastation along Willow Creek is hard to grasp. This once dense thicket of willows looks like a bombing range.

Fire is from time-to-time a natural occurrence, and there will undoubtedly be some beneficial effects of this fire as time goes on, but it will hardly offset the costs of fire-fighting to the taxpayer (in the millions) and the cost to wildlife through short term habitat destruction, never mind the cost in private property damage. Worse yet is the nagging fear that this fire will be followed by more to come if drier, hotter summers become the norm. The desert west of us is where they have to worry about devastating range fires . . . right? 

We drove to a vantage point where you can see where the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area abuts private ground. It’s easy to observe the fence line contrast between the total annihilation of plant life caused by dense fuel loads (years of ungrazed grass) on the wildlife management side, and the much reduced effects of the fire as it entered a landscape that had been grazed and consequently had less fuel. Is this difference significant to the recovery process?   

The Wildlife Management Area, originally acquired as mitigation for the Ririe and Teton dams, encompasses some 34,000 acres. It provides vital winter habitat for 8,000 – 10,000 elk, deer and moose. We’ve yet to hear what percentage of the area burned, but we know it was significant.   

This wildlife refuge, combined with Conservation Reserve Program lands in the vicinity, meant plenty of ground in the path of the fire was “set aside” from grazing. Did this have an impact on fire behavior? Is it time to consider adding domestic grazers to the management scheme of the Wildlife Management Area?

I’d like those two questions to quietly sit in the minds of wildlife managers - without any opinion attached to them for the time being.

And remember, grazing isn’t grazing isn’t grazing. Perhaps a light spring graze would leave plenty of forage for the elk, and in fact freshen it a bit for better palatability when the wild herds return. But I’m not advocating grazing as much as I’m advocating a conversation that includes grazing as an alternative.  

I’m reminded of a commencement address I listened to this spring given by James Ryan, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He talked of the need for “inquiry over advocacy,” of asking “wait, what?” when confronted with the curiosities of life. He said we’re too quick to race to the answer instead of searching for the right question in the first place, or if the right question is found, exploring the nuances held in the answer(s).  

Ryan urged his students to “see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the difficult, the tricky, the mysterious, the awkward, and sometimes the painful.”

As devastating as the Henry’s Creek Fire appears, it presents a unique opportunity to contemplate questions that local ranchers, recreationists, and wildlife lovers should not let go unanswered.

Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area on the left, private ground on the right
photo by Becky Davis

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Birds and the Bees

It’s remarkable how quickly the dog days of August morph into the cool of September. We had rain this morning and the subtle colors of fall are made richer by dampness.

Have you noticed how quiet September is? The migrating songbirds have left for warmer climes and the year-round residents are silent since the mating, nesting, fledging season is past. If you listen closely, though, the call of the meadowlark is still with us. A harbinger of spring, my Dad said they start singing again in the fall. And my Dad knew everything!

We sat on the terrace last night and watched a group of nighthawks circling to the west as the sun went down. For a few weeks we heard nighthawks every evening but never saw them. Now here they were in full view but with only the occasional shrill cry.  

The cattle are grazing golden cured-off grasses in the mountains. To me this grass is every bit as beautiful as the greens of springtime. We’ve had a few sick calves and Mark has been monitoring the herd regularly. If he finds a sick one, he ropes it around the hind legs and when the rope is pulled tight, if he doesn’t have another roper with him, he dismounts and has his helper, usually me or Anna, get on his horse and hold the rope while he gives them a shot of antibiotic and two large sulfa pills (the tag number recorded to follow a different marketing channel later). With just that much help - a life is saved. Cattle can get virulently sick in a hurry, but recovery is usually ensured if they’re doctored soon enough.

Here at home, Mark took a day off from the ranch to make steps off the back of the house with railroad ties. They descend through my xeriscaping project, which is coming along nicely albeit at a snail’s pace. I’ve transplanted native plants from surrounding habitats - sagebrush, rabbitbrush, indian rice grass, baby cedar trees and blue flax, but my laissez faire attitude, thinking it could be low-maintenance, is a little skewed. Just because the plants grow wild on their own doesn’t mean they’re easy to establish in a yard. I collected wild seeds of buckwheat, horsebrush and lupine from the ranch yesterday in hopes I can get them started as well.  

A happy surprise has been the transplanted rabbitbrush, which has lovely gray foliage in the summer and is now covered in golden blossoms. In the wild it establishes on dry, disturbed sites easily, so it’s just what I need on my desert sand that I’m too stingy to water. This shrub’s late flowering, which happens as other blooms fade, arrives just in time to provide valuable food for bees and butterflies. Bees need pollen to over-winter and they’re making good use of the many plants that grow on our ranch.

Rabbitbrush is humble and undervalued. It’s not sexy like sagebrush. But like many nondescript, background sustainers and supporters, has its niche and its own beauty. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Before Summer's Gone

It’s still hot, hot, but there’s a fall feel to the breeze that moves through the windows at sunrise. It’s quiet since Anna left for North Idaho for her first real full-time job. I’m not comfortable with life’s passages and late August is ripe with passages.   

Callie made the move from New York City and is now safely ensconced in a perfect apartment in Boise. She’s getting her feet under her and finding lots of support in her new community. This Mom is very happy to have her back within shouting distance.

The girls were in full nesting mode as they prepared to leave for their new apartments. Anna did some DIY projects, using lumber she found around the ranch, leftover paint and canning jars from the store room. Callie rounded up some warped boards from the burn pile that she hoped to turn into swooping, hanging shelves. They needed Mark’s help and he took an afternoon off from ranch work to do just that. He and Callie had to make a few trips to Home Depot to get the shelves hung. He laughed, saying what she really wanted was for them to levitate in her living room! 
Mark and I served as grand marshals of the Little Buckaroo Rodeo Parade. Seth said, “that’s for 70 year olds!” Mark has announced the rodeo for 25 years so comes by it honestly. We rode in the parade in Gary’s horse drawn surrey pulled by two white steeds named April and May. Anna and great grandma Bonnie sat in the back seat. What fun! The surrey even had fringe around the top, so of course I had to sing the song from Oklahoma!

Anna and I froze corn and canned peaches before she left. To that we added red potatoes, beets, kale and basil from the garden as a starter kit for her kitchen. She takes her roots - figuratively and literally - with her. 

It’s a bittersweet time of year. Always has been. Mothers put their youngsters on the school bus for the first time with an aching heart. Little kids move into the fourth grade hallway or across town to the middle school with high hopes. Big kids go off to college. It’s transition time. 

photo by Katie Wallace

Now we hope they seal


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dirty Jobs

July is about used up. It’s hot. We don’t have air-conditioning, but the house stays cool if we open the windows at night and close them tight by 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. It’s one of the best parts of living in Idaho – cool nights.

Mark has been fencing in the hills, which is a never ending job if you’re a rancher. We acquired property 4 years ago whose interior and exterior fence lines are totally electric. It’s been a constant chore getting them to stay charged. The voltage is erratic and it takes multiple chargers being moved from one section of fence to another throughout the season. Mark and Colton came home from an extended stay in the mountains and said they finally got 5,000 volts in the whole thing with one charger!

It’s weed fighting season. Weeds make me think of my great aunt Elsie’s line, “there’s always something to take the joy out of living.” Our land is diverse: dry sandhills intermingled with irrigated pastures, canals, and timbered areas. It’s great for wildlife, but unhandy to keep weeds out of. We’re judicious with herbicides, preferring to manage weeds with cultural methods, but find ourselves spraying to have a chance against their onslaught. I discovered a different kind of thistle while changing water one day. It was huge - as wide as my outstretched arms and taller than me, with stout, leathery leaves. I hacked at the stem with my shovel and it made a cracking sound as it fell to the ground. Ack! I felt like I was in some horror movie where weeds appear overnight and gobble up the children.

Mark tried something different with the heifers. We took the bulls out after 40 days with plans to draw blood from each animal and have it tested for pregnancy proteins. This allows for a tighter birthing window and opens up marketing options for the heifers that didn’t “settle” within the breeding period. Our crew included Callie, Anna, and my sister Becky, a retired vet technician, who drew the blood. She brought her grandkids who hung out in the heat with us, alternately tracking wild kittens in the barn and helping sort blood vials.

After I put the last three head in the chute, I took the kids down the lane to Great Grandma’s for Fresca and donut holes. It’s the best part of ranching, working with family. And unlike much of largescale agriculture today, ranching is still hands-on and family friendly. You have to be intentional about it, though. Callie and Anna, kids once themselves who learned the ropes underfoot the working adults, knew to keep the little kids busy with “jobs” of their own.

Callie, especially, as a kid, wasn’t happy if she had “none jobs.” We laugh about the time when she was 5 years old and helping Gary with some ranch project. When grandpa Eldro arrived, she said he could go home because, as she put it, “Gary already has help!” For children, this learning to do and seeing the results of one's efforts, is critical parenting, and so beneficial as to deserve a line of its own on the profit section of the ranch’s income statement.     

Anna and Mark repairing fence

So mad to find houndstongue here!

working heifers
Clancy and Clara have jobs

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Citizen Science

It’s mid-July and we've had some pleasant, coolish days. To make it even better, the mosquitoes and flies are taking a bit of a hiatus. Wait, what?

We’re heading into the crunch season of irrigation and our streams are already losing their springtime exuberance. The late afternoon wilt can be seen across the hay fields waiting for water.
I’m having fun in my garden. We have beets galore and a variety of greens. I’m planning on surprising Mark tonight with creamed new potatoes and peas!

I’ve had two “citizen scientist” escapades lately. It's apparently an old (ala' Ben Franklin), now new movement to empower the public in natural resource management based not on regulatory actions but on education and volunteerism. 

First I attended a workshop by Tim Ekins, University of Idaho Extension Water Educator, to learn how to monitor parameters of stream health including dissolved oxygen level, velocity and turbidity (cloudiness from suspended particles), pH, temperature, and bank characteristics. The best part was using a screen to collect organisms that live on the bottom of the stream. We sorted through debris with tweezers and transferred any bugs to an ice cube tray for identification. Seth’s fly fishing talk of caddis and stoneflies came alive to me during this exercise. So that's what he was talking about!

The second science lesson was hosting Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition who returned to the ranch to revisit a carbon plot on one of our pastures. Peter educates as he monitors. At one point he pulled out two loupes, small 5X magnifying glasses that fit in your eye socket, and invited me and Colton, a young man working on the ranch this summer, to lie down in the grass and observe the soil surface. Worm castings rose up like boulders and giant ants scuttled around the grass stems. Later we looked at seed heads and tiny bugs on flowers with the loupes. It blows your mind and makes you know how little we grasp of the natural world.  

We ranchers and farmers need to try harder to mix it up with the scientific community. I’ve learned both parties can be skeptical of the other. We cowboys can be intimidated by the scientist’s unfamiliar names of our common plants and their sometimes superior attitude. Likewise, I'm guessing biologists are suspicious of the cowboy culture and don't think they can relate to us. Truth is, a richness comes to the conversation when both disciplines are included. And in my opinion our resource issues will only be successfully addressed when the two “sides” come together.   

Resource management aside, the citizen scientist in me is a perfect fit with the artist in me. Knowing their contribution to the ecosystem only makes the species that live here on the ranch more beautiful.  

They're not endangered around here

fighting over who gets to collect bottom dwelling macroinvertebrates!

Peter eyeing soil life with a loupe

the loveliest grass of all, Indian Rice 

 mules ear and quakies

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Toast to Grass

Summer is in full swing, which means most evenings we eat outside. Tonight we’ll watch and wait for the June full moon, the strawberry moon, which just happens to fall on the summer solstice, a rare occurrence. Mark and I talked about the northernmost sunrise this morning and how the sun will now head back south along the rim of the mountains until its about-face in mid December.   

The garden is up and hitting its stride. The peas will be blooming soon. I've stymied the cabbage moths by putting mesh around the cabbage plants and thinned the kale, a new/old favorite I planted for the first time this spring.

We’ve been enjoying bird traffic around the house, bobbing goldfinches, regal cedar waxwings in pairs, and the occasional flash of an oriole. We don’t cotton to bird feeders, but provide currants, serviceberries and chokecherry bushes for au naturel dining.  

Anna is spending the summer with us, weighing fall employment options and taking some much needed downtime to reflect on her college career and dive into ranch work. She’s been Mark’s right-hand cowboy all spring. We lost her horse, Mater, last fall so she’s been riding 21-year-old Birdie, who’s as light and lively and high-strung as ever. Birdie and I don’t exactly mesh, but easygoing Anna is getting along well with her.

The cattle walked their way to the high country and are happily settled in a sea of grass. Oh, how Mark and I love grass. So much so that at a restaurant for dinner yesterday, on the terrace on a perfect evening, we raised our glasses; "to grass!” I said.

It was written eloquently about grass in the late 1800’s: “Grass is the forgiveness of nature, her constant benediction.” I’ve memorized the words from the 1948 Yearbook of Agriculture, a large green tome entitled, Grass, which Mark’s grandpa gave me 25 years ago. An essay by Kansas senator, John James Ingalls, extols the “enduring blessings” of grass which captures my love for this, a most inconspicuous but essential family of plants. Grass moderates soil temperatures, diminishes floods and droughts, feeds life in the soil, sinks carbon, and through the gut of an herbivore, provides nutrients to the food chain long past its short green season. 

It is this last function, the joining of cow and grass, that is the principle job of a rancher and that which we take most joy in. 

Anna on Birdie

Kate working the flank

it was a long walk

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A New York Minute

We’ve been moving cows to grass. May is rushing by. But I’m not ready to leave April until I write about my trip to see Callie in New York City.  Words and photos, this is how I deal with the passage of time and events, and my children turning into adults. I’ve never understood how other mothers can stand it if they’re not doing the same thing.  

I don’t know if Callie even knows what a “New York Minute” is, but she can probably guess. The expression attempts to describe the fast pace of the city. Johnny Carson explained it once as that instant between when the light turns green in Manhattan and the car behind you honks the horn.

It was the first time for me flying and traveling such a distance alone. Callie’s sweet face greeted me at LaGuardia and we shared an indulgent late night taxi ride back to her apartment. Just grabbing a taxi from the line in front of the airport was an adventure. The rest of the trip was the same, me tagging along as she lived her life. We strolled through the cherry trees in full bloom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and dodged Sunday morning traffic on our bikes to brunch and back. We experienced the quiet awe of the 9-11 memorial and hoofed it though the east side and the west village. It was a treat to watch Callie at two dance rehearsals and see her in her element, cussing and discussing artistic expression.

Callie’s Crown Heights community of Brooklyn is predominantly West Indian/African-American and Orthodox Jews. It was a bit unsettling the first time we visited, but by now I feel at ease walking the streets.

Callie commutes everywhere by subway. She does it by rote, glancing at her phone from time to time checking routes as the stations whiz by. I enjoyed following her lead, free to observe the other travelers who avoid eye contact with you. One night a large black man with a beautiful booming bass voice was playing guitar on the platform. A middle aged white woman with boots and a long skirt got off a train and when she heard him, broke into song, harmonizing for a single verse and one chorus, and then stepping back on the train with a big smile. The guitarist, who had been looking down, raised his head and grinned as the wind hit us from the departing train. All in a New York minute. 

Callie dances with a company that performs outdoors, often in public spaces where the “public” might be in the midst of the performers. The venue is very much an element of the art.

The diversity of the city was evident at one rehearsal in particular in Battery Park on New York Harbor. Juxtaposed against the dancers were the local Hasidic Jews out celebrating Passover. The Jewish men were clad in black cloaks and hats and side curls, the women in wigs and modest skirts. They have large families and many young mothers were pushing a baby stroller. The tourists were there as well speaking unintelligible languages, as were the ubiquitous joggers, huffing and puffing and weaving their way through the strolling masses. They all watched Callie and the other performers with interest, but not surprise, as it was just another day in this city of contrasts.     

The highlight of my trip was the evening performance by her dance company, Kinesis Project, as part of their annual fundraising gala. We guests watched from an overhead balcony as the dancers performed on a perfect harbor evening with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

Sometimes when I lie in bed at night, I think of my daughter and imagine myself above the U.S. landscape whizzing across the countryside following a meandering route eastwardly to the Atlantic Coast. I picture the Rocky Mountains, the plains, the cities and farm ground, the Mississippi River, the homesteads and traffic, until I arrive at her Brooklyn brownstone. It is a surreal feeling and is comforting and unsettling at the same time.

She went to New York for the opportunities of the dance world. She didn’t realize it would instead be a coming of age, a reckoning with herself, and more difficult than she could have imagined. She now has the city and its challenges firmly under her belt and is ready to slow down, get back to nature and closer to home, but she’s having a hard time leaving her friends and artistic community. She repeatedly sets a departure date and then moves it back. She seems a little more determined this summer to make the move and I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but in the end I just want her to be happy. 


the performance
 photo by Stephen Delas Heras

the fabulous cherry trees at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Sunday, April 17, 2016

'Tis Better to Prune

We were gone for two days and came home to find water flowing in the canal and a green haze smudged across the willows. The quakie out my office window has the tiniest, shiniest light green leaves. There is life all around us in a rush to birth, bud, nest, bloom, leaf and grow.

We got several hundred calves branded over three days. Seth and Anna were home to help and Anita brought a yummy lunch every day. It’s a family affair, along with some extra good help. Our friend Alan, a highschool teacher in Boise, drives 4 hours each way to help us. He’s castrated thousands of calves over the years. Let’s see . . . several thousand x 2, since there are two testicles per calf . . . . .    

Besides making steers out of bulls, we give them vaccinations and a hot iron brand for identification. They don’t like it, of course, and lay around for a couple of days, a little shell-shocked that life isn't as carefree as they'd come to believe. Still, by day three they’re up and running in packs across the pasture again. I liken it to immunizing a human infant. Yes, they squall when they get the shots, but in a day or so they’re fine and don’t think about it again.

I took a turn at putting calves in the chute. I like to put my hands on their bodies and feel their thick, luxuriant coats. I make a game out of seeing how gentle I can touch them and how gently they respond. Of course, don't kid yourself about their gentleness; come armed with boots and chaps because they can eat your lunch whenever they want!

Every spring I get the pruning bug. This year I spoiled myself with a new set of pruners and a handy folding saw. I’ve been having a ball cleaning up along our canal. I worked for 4 days, sawing, snipping, hauling, piling - and then Mark arrived with a truck and tractor and took it all away. 

And as I prune, I think of how analogous this activity is to a life well lived. How many of us clutter our lives with endless “stuff” that, frankly, needs hauled away to the burn pile? We’re like the unkempt kid at supper with his shirt sleeves dragging in the soup that needs a comb put through his hair and his shirt tucked in. We need to cut back the dead, whack away the wayward suckers and the cluttered lines, and reveal the graceful and uncluttered arcs of our life. 

tough customers

the '77 Ford can handle it

oh, that our minds were this peaceful

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Spring Signage

Spring is here in a big way. I pruned the chokecherries and cleaned out the front flower bed today. It was 60 degrees in the shade by noon. Mark is still doctoring a few calves and eyeing the ditches to get ready for the irrigation season. The Slough is due to start running water tomorrow. So soon?

We have a strange phenomenon this spring – no tumbleweeds. They usually blow against the fences and into the ditches during spring winds. They’re a real nuisance, clogging waterways, filling open sheds and covering fences. If nothing else the piles are unsightly, so we gather them together and burn every spring. For some strange reason they’re absent this year. What circumstance of weather kept their numbers down? Did weeks of heavy snowpack flatten them? 

About ten years ago we had a particularly bad year that we named, “the year of the tumbleweed.” The weeds filled the alleyway in the corrals and rolled down the lane into the yard blocking the driveway. We manned pitchforks and worked as a family to get them gathered and burned. But tumbleweeds aren’t the worst thing. Bare ground is. And the weeds do a great job of covering bare spots, grow with little moisture and provide seeds for songbirds and cover for all kinds of varmints. 

We’re on the downhill side of calving. Yesterday Mark was surveying the heifers out our picture window with the binoculars. At one point he abruptly put down the glasses and headed out the door. He doesn’t often leave in such a hurry, so I was anxious to hear what had happened. When he returned, he explained that he was watching a heifer calve and saw the calf plop to the ground, just over a rise and out of his view. He saw the cow looking back at her calf and, as he said it, “giving him the hairy eyeball.” A new mother doesn’t stand and look at her baby curiously. Normal behavior is the anxious lowering of her head, sniffing and licking excitedly. Mark knew something was wrong. Sure enough when he arrived on the 4-wheeler, he found the calf folded in half, making snuffling noises. He flopped him upright so he could get a breath and at that moment the mother’s instincts kicked in and she started tending her calf.

It reminds me of the admonishment Mark’s grandpa used to tell us. “Think,” he would say. “The signs are there, you just need to read them.” 

the preemie that was in the barn, still friendly and wanting a scratch

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Business of March

We’ve had rain and snow and wind. The feed truck got stuck three days in a row.

We love the moisture, but know that too much wet on baby calves makes them susceptible to disease. Mark has our hay tested and provides supplementation to ensure a healthy diet for the cows, the first order for strong calves. We put out straw to give them a dry place to lay and provide sandhills and windbreaks for protection. Still, in the middle of the night when the wind howls and we hear the smattering of drops against the house, we worry.

Today there’s a brisk wind, but the rain has held off all morning and the sand is drying out. It’s challenging to raise crops in sand but our farm is wonderful this time of year for cattle.

It was calm last evening. I walked into the yard and told Anna I was going to sit on the porch and listen to the robins go to bed. She grabbed a big quilt and joined me. Within ten minutes the red-breasted party quieted down until the last robin gave one last chirp . . .  and then silence. A couple of owls, perched in the willows, their silhouettes against what was left of the day, hooted their ghostly goodnight.

It is familiar - this wet, windy, sloppy March. The killdeers are flirting; well, doing more than flirting I suppose. There’s a green pop in the meadow. No serious growing yet, just a “heads up” awakening.

Every year in March the water meetings commence. I keep books for a couple of canals and each year we meet to discuss the upcoming irrigation season. What condition is the ditch in? How much excavation work should we budget for? Who’s paid up and who’s behind? Snowpack levels are discussed and board members elected. Large farmers and backyard irrigators rub shoulders and hope for full ditches.  

We’ve had a string of fetal mal-presentations in the cow herd. The most unusual is the “backwards, standing up” position. The calf attempts to come out butt first, pretty much impossible without assistance. One spring a few years ago, we had several and Mark got very good at spotting them. So good in fact that when driving to town one day, he spied a cow in a pasture along the road and knew she was in peril from just such a birth complication. He crossed the fence, walked her behind a gate, pushed the calf back inside far enough to get hold of the legs and pulled it out. He was too late to save the calf but the cow survived. He said about the cow’s owner, “I don’t think he ever knew who stopped and pulled that calf!”

I’m sure when Mark closes his eyes at night he sees pregnant cows in varying stages of labor and calves, calves, calves.