Sunday, January 24, 2021

Hoping for Snow(pack)

I’ve been cooking like Mom lately. I’ve been bypassing the kale and avocados, cool vegies, and relying more on red potatoes from the garden, my own home-canned green beans and frozen corn from the local truck garden. Not a bad place to start. What isn’t like Mom is the absence of homemade white bread. Mmmmm. 

It’s another sunny day, so unlike a normal January. Last evening I took my dog with me to pile cottonwood limbs for burning later. The moon was out making tree shadows; an owl hooted above us. I kept having to call Dot back from stalking the horses in the pasture. As we walked back to the house, the lights shone through the windows and I knew Mark was in for the night. These moments, so simple and commonplace, fill me up. 

We’ve been together – alone – for quite a few years now. We had a fabulous time with our three kids, but this is so familiar now I can hardly remember the excitement of raising a young family. Oh, the passages of life. 

Other than getting their daily ration of hay, the cattle are mostly set until calving starts. Someone might need some individual attention, but it’s kind of quiet around here. There’s been lots of winters where Mark spends his days moving snow and fighting the cold. Keeping the equipment running and the water troughs open can occupy a rancher’s day in frigid temperatures. This year is different though and Mark has had time to work on other projects.

Though we love the mild weather, we really need more snow. It’s supposed to be cold in January, cold enough to keep things in equilibrium, to destroy pests that shouldn’t overwinter, to keep snow frozen solid, and to challenge us enough to keep us mentally and physically strong. I told Mark that feeding cows this winter was child’s play. No frozen strings, no getting stuck, no snow covered, soppy wet bales.

But, heck, February could be lying in wait for us with its talons bared. February can be like that. 

I think about the phrase I picked up in my reading this winter: “The West was built on the backs of snowpacks.” Deep snow acts as a natural reservoir. As it melts, it trickles into the soil profile to feed springs and rivers throughout the summer. It also feeds the aquifer beneath our feet. The one that we can’t see but that scientists measure, and about which officials educate, they regulate and divvy up. 

Newcomers to Idaho don’t give our precious water a second thought. The tap turns on every morning, a hot shower flows daily, and the crops they drive by on their way to work look green and lovely. But it doesn’t just happen. Those mountains, perhaps the same ones that drew them to our state in the first place, need to be white in the winter for us all to have enough water the rest of the year. 

Snow is in the forecast next week. I promise not to complain about wet gloves on the feed wagon, even if we get stuck.

perfect burning conditions

in their winter coats

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Quietest New Year

Christmas has its charms, but the part I like best is when it’s over. Too many gifts, too much chocolate (I didn’t mean that) and too many expectations. 

Christmas dinner was going okay, a bit harried at the last minute, but it always is, when Mark asked, "When are we going to eat because I forgot to break the ice on the water trough for the bulls?" Could he not see I was pouring the gravy in to the gravy boat and everything was ready? Turns out no one cared that the meal was lukewarm by the time he got back. No one but me. 

We started feeding the cow herd the day after Christmas. Grazing is more satisfying for sure, but there’s something comforting about the repetitive nature of feeding. I love my daily stint kicking off one load to the heifers, especially the part where I get to walk home and leave the rest of the day’s work to everyone else. 

We raise some of our own hay and buy the rest from our neighbors. We provide a service to our community by using forage grown on land that is best left under a perennial crop. Unlike the annuals - wheat, potatoes and corn - alfalfa fields stay put when the wind blows. The air blows fresh and clean across them, the soil safely covered with stubble and securely anchored by deep roots that stretch down in to the soil profile. 

I always love a brand new year and the long nights of winter. A kind of magic happens as the sun goes down and I rummage in the kitchen for our supper. There is finally time to read, to discuss what we're reading, and to explore Netflix and PBS for good programming.

We watched a documentary on Lewis and Clark on New Year’s Eve. I got out the atlas and followed their journey up the Missouri. I was especially interested in how the land looked before we Europeans changed everything. The narrator spoke of the Great Plains as a Garden of Eden, with wild grazers spread across a sea of grass. He spoke of the diversity of native peoples the men encountered, the peaceful Mandans and the fierce Lakota Sioux among them. It's breathtaking to consider the impact we have wrought over these scant 200 years since the Corps of Discovery opened the doors to the northwest in 1806. We see Lewis and Clark as heroes of course, but something about that image is flawed isn’t it? It was the beginning of the end of a way of life for the natives and the wild ecosystem in which they lived. 

I’m reading Irrigated Eden, by Mark Fiege, the story of Idaho’s Snake River Valley and the farmers that diverted its waters to grow crops starting in the late 1800's, not so long after Lewis and Clark made their journey. The book talks of a now disturbed hydrologic cycle and the unintended consequences no one could have foreseen. It describes the romance of green, flood irrigated fields surrounding tidy pioneer homes, a vision that hits very close to home here on Pratt Ranch. It tells the story of farmers, when water supplies drew scarce, banding together as partners to store, distribute and share the precious resource. This message is more important now than ever. As Idaho's population grows, the climate shifts and agriculture must respond, it's obvious that it will take all of our wits, science, and collaborative efforts to navigate the next hundred years of irrigation policy.  

Long winter evenings are for adventuring. For learning new things, pondering old things, and conjuring the vision of a new year. 

a typical morning

still grazing before Christmas

2021 begins

Sunday, December 6, 2020

a christmas story

We got the cows home. It feels good to have them on good feed and water after their long walk down from the range. And even though they’re working on pastures and heading towards the haystack, it’s nice to have them close by again. I put the lunch cooler, the walkie-talkies and the travel thermos away for the winter. After traveling up and down on washboardy roads all summer, we’re happy to stay put for a few months.

We had beautiful weather in the mountains, sunny and cold, no wind. I had the pleasure of a long leisurely walk behind the herd with my dog keeping the stragglers caught up. Not so leisurely, however, when we got near home and the cattle spread out on fall grain. There was much running, hollering and dogging before we got them lined out again.

When we got to the valley we put the herd in "Lorin's corral," a sturdy set of pipe corrals built by a good cowboy and neighbor who's been trailing cattle in Heaven for some years now. He lives on in perpetuity for all the ranching outfits that use his facility when heading to and from the range. We put them through the pens, sorting off the young cows expecting their first or second calf and anybody that wasn’t bred or that needed attention. The older cows went to one pasture, the younger cows to another. 

Mark is amazing. He knows these mothers so well. Better than he knows his own wife. They’re so much easier to read and understand! Each one has a unique ear tag so we can all identify them, but Mark's presence means something more, much more, as each one gets the attention they need. That will be Mark’s legacy, a set of cows that got the best of care.

The kids came home to get Christmas junipers last weekend. Leah, who as a kid enjoyed fresh popcorn and hot cider at the local tree lot, brought these two treats along for us all. How fun is that? She's in for it, though, because now it's a tradition. Callie stuffed two trees in her PT Cruiser to take back to Boise, Cole and Anna got two as well, one for Cole's Mom, and Seth and Leah chose a small one for their cozy home. Mark and I always get a big tree over my objections - too tall to decorate. And here it stands, waiting for him to lug in a ladder to get the lights on. He's in charge of watering it, by the gallons, he says. 

Our tree feels and smells so familiar. My folks always had a juniper at Christmas time. The trees were free for the cutting and beyond plentiful in the mountains, even seen as invasive now. Mom had blue lights with star-shaped reflectors surrounding each bulb. And those little carousels hung nearby that twirled from the heat. Remember them? And real-life socks hung on a real-life fireplace. Oh, but the magic of it all. 

But here's the deal, wasn’t it just Christmas?


three years makes a tradition

winter quarters during the homesteading era

off the bluff while getting trees

on top of my world, no cows up this high

starting towards home

Thursday, November 19, 2020

It Could Happen!

I had a blog all started about the mild November we were having in the mountains. How I had walked a tributary of Meadow Creek looking for brook trout spawners and, not finding any, had decided it had been too warm and sunny yet. And how, at the spring, the water bubbled up sending concentric circles out in a delicately repeated pattern. Then it all ended abruptly with snow and high winds. We've been in the hills every day since, gathering stragglers, breaking water, convincing cattle that there was indeed grass under the snow and to go eat it already!

Yesterday we trailed the herd to a lower pasture and will get another couple of weeks before walking them down to the home ranch. I checked the cabin before we left and discovered someone had broken a window out and put a big hole in the card table. Luckily the window was a slider so I brought it home to get fixed. It takes two weeks to get a replacement and I doubt if the roads will be passable by then. I hate to think of the window being out all winter. We have a saying for this kind of disappointment in our fellow humans: “people are the worst.”

I’m loving it at home as the days get shorter. This time of year a homemaker’s thoughts turn to tending the wood stove, comfort cooking, and wading through all the domestic jobs we neglected while the weather took us outdoors. But the outdoors still beckon. I took the dogs for a walk tonight and smelled the sweet fragrance of damp cottonwood leaves and tromped through lots of sumptuous stockpiled grass. The buckskin and browns of the horses mirror the now muted colors perfectly.  

I keep thinking about a CD that Mark and I listened to as we traveled back and forth to the mountains. It’s a book called Outwitting the Devil by Napolean Hill, which was written in 1938, post WWI and in the midst of the Great Depression, and while Hitler was gathering power in Germany. The author is interviewing the Devil. It was chilling to listen to the Devil explain that the ability to think for ourselves is his greatest enemy and how through propaganda the public is manipulated thereby creating a perfect void for his influence.

As a counterweight, I just finished the book, From What Is to What If, by Rob Hopkins. It’s a hopeful book, so fitting for today with a pandemic upon us and an election under threat. The author admonishes us to cultivate our sense of imagination, and that it is, in fact, the only way to find solutions to complex, nagging, seemingly insurmountable problems.

It applies to our world, our local communities, and right here at home on the ranch. How does it look and feel if, as Hopkins describes, “it all turns out OK?” Well, for the ranch it looks like a great quality of life for us and our kids AND the work getting done. For our community it looks like neighbors protecting neighbors by using Covid spread prevention practices without a fuss. For our world it plays out with a united front against climate change which reduces fossil fuel use AND leads to better land management that cycles carbon in healthy ways.  

I wrote a quote from the book that encapsulates this crazy notion that what we can imagine, we can create. I wrote it on our whiteboard in the kitchen, “I bet it can be done, though.” 

November colors

good grazing on fresh feed

This grass fills me up

Sunday, November 1, 2020

2020 Friends

Yes, I feel apprehension before the election. And I’m concerned and feel compassion for those who will be affected by the outcome more than me. But meanwhile the sun is pouring in our south-facing windows, I just dug some gorgeous carrots out of the garden, and the calves are home on green grass and staying healthy. Today I'm content. 

We weaned the calves in a two-stage process. Mark set up corrals and a chute in the mountains and put a crew together for Sunday. First we separated the calves from the cows, then one-by-one worked the calves through the chute to give them a vaccination and a multi-vitamin shot, and put a plastic flap in their nose to keep them from sucking. We let them back out with their Moms to stay together but get weaned off milk for four days. Then we went back and hauled the calves home in time to get the flaps taken out by dusk. They were put straight out on pastures with abundant drinking water nearby. 

Using nose flaps is rare in our area. It’s our third year of trying it. Most ranchers wean cold turkey like we did for many years. It's really dependent on each ranch's set up and what works for them. Remaining curious and willing to learn new things is always a good idea and we like the results so far.

We couldn't have done it without an army of friends, our faithful employees, and lots of family. The kids came home to help and Anita prepared beef soup for lunch. I heated the soup in a cabin nearby so we could get out of the wind to eat. And wind there was. At the end of the day we looked horrible. Our eyes were gummy and part of the crew still had a long drive ahead of them before starting their work week on Monday. I made a note to round up some goggles for next time.    

We say thank you to our helpers, but it always seems so inadequate. Our friends give up their free time to essentially do slave labor for fun. Good grief.  

I had "none jobs" (a kid saying) after lunch, so I cleaned the cabin with a squirt bottle of cleaner someone had left behind and a couple of random paper towels. Lots of sweeping of flies from the carpet. I could watch the crew working cattle, but be inside where it was quiet and warmed by the wood stove. 

I usually worry a lot before big cattle days like this, but managed to stop myself this time. I just put my trust in my husband and went with the flow. After nigh on 30 years of marriage and working together on the ranch, I’m sure Mark just shakes his head. What he doesn’t know is how many crises I've averted by worrying ahead of time!

Trust, faith, calm - such good attributes to keep in mind as we enter a winter with a pandemic raging, civil unrest simmering, and an election where 70% of people think that if their guy loses doomsday will ensue. If you’re worried, my best idea is to do something that fills you up today. Contribute to your community. Get outdoors and revel in autumn. Think hard about your principles, write that letter to the editor, attend your next zoom call with a smile, and get on with it.   

our dream team

a dirty windy day

Friday, October 16, 2020

Walking through History

The wind is blowing again, three days in a row. It always does this just when you want the colorful leaves of autumn to stay suspended in the trees - but no - they fall to the ground one after another. 

It’s a lovely time of year on the ranch for lots of reasons. One the beauty . . . and the silence. Another is that it’s transition time. The work flow has a gap in it so that we can do something special – something that isn’t routine maintenance of a cow herd. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s still about cows! It’s always about cows. 

Mark and Jesse hauled several loads of gravel for odds and ends work in the mountains. Fall is the only time you can drive through the seeps without getting stuck. They shored up some creek crossings to funnel the cattle to an easy crossing which helps protect the stream banks. 

Mark and I had a couple of “date night” pasture walks. I campaign for these times because for the rest of the year we go to the fields to work – to feed cows in the winter, to irrigate or hunt weeds in the summer - anything but walk and talk and listen and learn. Mark needs a nudge to go because I don’t think he likes the probing questions I ask. I get it. Questions with answers that look like work aren’t helpful. But I still think we can make progress without causing more work if we think big enough. It could happen! 

I tell Mark that finding the right questions to ponder is my forte. I’m not going to rebuild the irrigation dykes or reconfigure a headgate by myself. I’ll help him repair fence, but won’t build one on my own. The role of a ranch wife is her own creation. Some women do build that fence - and others are so removed they couldn’t even show you where the fence is. 

We spent a day in the hills loosening fences for winter and I took photos of how the creeks and pastures look before winter. We discussed the existence of old roads, barely visible, that seem to lead to nowhere, and were surely put there by sheepherders pulling their camps and tending thousands of sheep in the early days of white settlement, long before fences divided the land by ownership. The ruts are grassed in; a rusted tin can lies in the grass, left to tell the story. 

We often look at a piece of land and try to imagine its historical potential. How did this look before modern humans came on the scene? It’s a good exercise for ranchers, and for everyone else that cares about our future.


pasture walking

wild range that was farmed
then planted back into grass 

How did this stream look in the days of the buffalo? 

rock wall built by my great grandfather
to generate hydro power
but abandoned in the early 1900's 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

September Vows

Cole and Anna were married the first week of September, when summer was at her most brilliant. What a beautiful time for a wedding, if the weather holds that is. And hold it did. In fact, we had cool weather right up until the week of the wedding. Then as the forecast unfolded it got warmer and warmer to peak on the Saturday of the wedding. We were sweating after dark on the dance floor.

Two days later it all came crashing down – literally - with rain and high winds that felled mighty limbs on the site of the ceremony.

Turns out the ranch fixes up pretty good. Our cow pasture was glammed up by lights strung between poles in Cole’s carefully set out arrangement. Linen was draped over straw bales, a dance floor leveled on the grass. Being a grazing enthusiast, I have to say the pasture, which had been harvested once and allowed to regrow, was gorgeous and emerald green, the perfect backdrop to Anna’s color scheme of cinnamon and navy. Our native cottonwoods shaded, sheltered and cozied us all in their steadfast manner. Even the strawberry clover, which the photographer called wildflowers, were featured as foreground in the sunset photos.  

As a writer I love words. The word that comes to mind is providence, but what does it mean exactly? God or nature as providing protective or spiritual care.  Ah yes. It felt like that. Like nature held off as long as it could to bless a couple of kids, then let loose just to show us her power. It was humbling, just as it was humbling to witness these young people pledge their futures to one another while basking in the warm embrace (covid friendly mind you) of their family and friends as they embark on what they know will be, at times, rocky seas.

Because of the pending festivities, Mark finally took the time to finish the steps and retaining walls off the back of the house. Now that he’s done the heavy lifting, I can fret and fuss over the plants that live there for the rest of my days. As you read this, Mark, consider being told again how much I appreciate it.  

My vegetable garden was part of the decor. There was a row of sunflowers on one side and random flowers throughout. I planted the cosmos one year and now they voluntarily come up wherever they want. This year I gave the seedlings a little more leeway and they were scattered around the cucumbers and beets with their pink and white blooms. Even the carrots and swiss chard knew to be pretty this year. A wedding was just the push I needed to get the dripline done as well.  

It was a precious experience, from the girl trip to Boise where we found the perfect gown in an out-of-the-way dress shop, to the last minute clasping of great-great grandma True’s pearls around her neck.

As I write this, Mark is in the kitchen putting some words together for his aunt’s funeral. She died the day before the wedding. My Mom died in September too. Actually, considering it all, September is a good month to pass over to the other side - and a good month to marry. As we put the finishing touches on summer, we celebrate another growing season’s production and store up for the future. One part is finishing up, maturing and cycling back into the soil. The other part is seed dispersal and the storing of energy in roots or pollen for food in the faith of chapters yet to come.

I have a line I use this time of year, “September breaks your heart.” And so it did again. Death always does, but a wedding does it as well. It breaks your heart wide open with all the love you can hold. It leaves bare the hopes and humility we always feel as parents. I know I speak for Cole's Mom and Dad as well, that as our children leave us and commit to a new partnership, the heaviness we feel is good and right, and only proves our rock solid support for their lives ahead. 

above photos by thistleandpinecreative