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