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.