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