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In Animals, Seasons on December 31, 2018 at 7:56 pm

A light rain fell last evening.  Intermittent puddles line the bottom of the irrigation ditch.  The path alongside the ditch is damp and near muddy where vegetation has never taken hold in the alkali crusted soil.  As the alkali eases, small lime-green ground hugging plants keep mud from building up on boot soles.  The small plant doesn’t show up before nights cool down into the twenties.  Might the cold trigger their growth?  I wonder as I hunch in the cold and scan ground more than horizon.  I should have got down on my knees and drawn leaf details long ago so I could identify the plants.  Probably laziness on my part, but I’d rather think there is greater beauty in the not knowing.  I certainly have never enjoyed the beauty of poison oak as I did during my first fall introduction. Green with a tint of red, the oak’s beauty calls for closeness and touch.  I traded beauty for warning a day later when I learned what the oaks red does to skin.  Perhaps it is best to learn what that ground-hugging plant is all about, what its official scientific name is, but I leave pencil and paper in pocket and walk on to live with tomorrows conversational awkwardness of describing this moment with, “well, you know, those little green plants that lie on the ground when it gets cold.”

I seldom negotiate my way down the slope of the irrigation ditch. After untold millions of gallons of water over the length of the irrigation season the ditch never dries out before the next season.  Should one be foolish enough to slide sown the ditch bank they would find a muddy bottom that builds up on the bottom of one’s boots.  At about two inches thick the journey becomes tedious.  More so when the clump of mud breaks off it leaves one walking as if wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes with one heel missing.  Better to figure the ditch bottom is best left alone until after the first hard freeze.

Other life has a different opinion.   A scattering of footprints travel the length and crisscross the ditch. Someone has spent a good time in the bottom of the ditch, but from atop the ditch bank the individual tracks are hard to make out.  Clean, clear tracks are best in a little mud.  And the scattering of tracks is as attractive as any red tinted leaf.  I slide down the ditch bank.  Only to have my feet slide out from beneath me.  I fall back and use the rest of the bank as mud slide to the bottom.  Once at the bottom and now that the seat of my pants is muddy I find little reason not to take a closer look.  Sitting in the mud I see a mass of small thin three fingered tracks.  Quail have been using this spot as a crossing.  Preferring walking down, across, and up the ditch bank rather than flying across.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Standing Rock 2018

In YCM on June 17, 2018 at 11:37 am

A twenty-hour drive and I am back home on a sunny and clear Sunday morning.  Such a drive allows much time for reflection.  The last few weeks of visiting reservations of this ancient land, having many conversations, and living with young adults on the Standing Rock reservation gives one much to ponder.  Just the same, I spent as much of that driving time listening to TED Talk’s and music than I did pondering the past.  So, on this sunny Sunday morning, as I write this last piece on the Standing Rock trip, I settle upon one image of these last weeks.

Four mares stand in a temporary corral. They each descend from a particular time in the life of the Hunkpapa Lakota people.  Specifically under the leadership of Sitting Bull.  The story told is about Sitting Bull and a number of folk going to Canada after the Battle of Little Bighorn for safety.  They live there for a number of years.  During that time US representatives visited five times to negotiate their return to the US.  After the fifth time Sitting Bull and the people agree to return—under specific conditions and agreements.  When they returned their horses were taken from them and they confined to place—not the conditions and place agreed to.  The four mares standing in the corral before me are decedents of the Sitting Bull horses taken on that day. Read the rest of this entry »

Craned Neck

In Animals, Landscape on April 29, 2018 at 10:00 am

A warbling trumpet sound wanders across the valley.  Must be mid-March for the sound can only mean the Sandhill Crane has returned.  Having left the warmth of the south for northern places, the valley provides rest and food and thoughtfulness.

The arrival of the crane means it is time for spring tilling.  Scattered tractor engines belch black smoke after their winter idleness.  Then settle into smokeless back and forth movement across fields.  Few in number this early in the season means the sound of a single tractor working the hop field a mile to the north can be distinguished from one disking a cornfield half mile to the east.  Over the low growl of engines, a sound without equal encourages eyes to wander the sky.

Two factors work against your first glimpse of spring cranes.  Their trumpet sound is heard for miles and by the time you hear it they’ve traveled a good stone’s throw from where they spoke.  Then, the March sky is the gray of rain.  Delineating between their gray bodies and the undulating grays of clouds takes persistence.  However, the payoff is worth persistence and close listening.

A first spring sighting of a Sandhill Crane flock is a view one hopes will linger into that era after life is lived. Their over-reaching wingspans slipping across the sky is something of the ancient.  And as a flight of dozens glide through the valley as if they are floating upon unseen swales, one experiences a gift.  Of the ages.

Twenty-three settle upon the north end of the west pasture.  It’s the first week of April.  As soon as they land they point their bills south and begin feeding.  Guards with long necks, regally straight, walk with an eye toward the strange and predator.  Others feed. Soon there is a a changing of the guards.  Guarders drop necks to feed and feeders rise to guard.  The constant change from guard to feeder to guard is a communal act of safety, family survival, and natural relationship.

The eating Sandhill walk is as graceful as it is odd. Leaning forward over ridiculously long legs with backward knees seems it should come across as awkward.  However, the lean comes with the long neck bent into a double U, one U upward the other downward—not unlike the p-trap under the kitchen sink—which gives the observer a natural sense of balance.  This stance also places their bill perpendicular to the ground.  Ready for feeding.

Step by step they feed across the field.
Without sound.

A tractor a few miles to the west fires up.

Of Cornfield Surprise

In Landscape, Reflections on November 27, 2016 at 10:00 am

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Sage and I were walking toward the refuge.  Only a mile from the farm, the distance is just enough for the dog and I to have worked the kinks out of the legs before settling in for a good walk—that is saying more about me than Sage who is not quite of two years yet.  We were a quarter mile from the farm, walking along our neighbor’s cornfield, when visited.

The harrier is not one of the largest hawks in the valley, but for its size it has a rather impressive wingspan.  Males, gray in color, have a rounded shape tail with an unmistakable black band.  Unlike many other birds, it is the female who is more colorful and attractive—to my eyes not the birds.  Common to the farm, harriers like the low vegetation landscape that allows for a weaving pattern of low flight hunting.  They are a great benefit to managing the vole population in the hay fields.

We walked the cornfield’s west end keeping fifteen feet between the nearest corn stalk and us.  An early cool morning, the distance allowed us to walk in sunlight dropping off the cornfield’s edge.  Sage kept her nose to ground picking up scents of last night’s nocturnal critters.  She dashed in and out of cornrows, returning now and again questioning why I would not join in on the fun of following scent.

It was during one of those visits when a harrier dove off the cornfield edge and almost ran into us.  Sweeping hard to the south, the hawk was close enough to detail feathers on its gray belly.  I don’t know if hawks jump, but the waggle it made in it tough southerly turn seemed akin to the jump Sage and I made.

He quickly leveled out a few feet from the ground.  Sage watched him for the full length of a moment and then ran off nose to ground.  I took a breath.

In seconds the hawk was over the wild area it would take our non-flight legs to make.  Banking to the west he circled to the north, crossing the winter feeding ground of a neighbor and a disced wheat field before heading south.  Keeping five feet above the ground, he flew by a few feet off our right.  As he slid by, there was the slightest twist of his owlish face.  Perhaps it is a stretch, but I think not, we looked each other in the eye.  Meanwhile, with nose to ground Sage was busy checking out a pile of crusted over coyote crap—with little less wonder than my own.

Broken Egg

In Poetry on July 31, 2016 at 8:00 am

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stillness in morning hatch
and off-stage mother calls
audience not to notice

 

Gravel Actor

In Poetry on July 17, 2016 at 8:00 am

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broken wing killdeer actor
fills the gravel stage
moving audience from eggs

The Contemplative Of Warm Teats

In Animals, Reflections on April 10, 2016 at 8:00 am

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April 10, 2016

Milking is not my place of redemption.  I never got to know God when rising at four on a cold winter morning and heading to the barn to milk cows or goats.  The lack of connection probably had a lot to do with cold fingers and a love for warm weather!

Because of my lack of love for milking, I managed to never do much of it.  My father and Belinda, though, did quite a lot.  Belinda was milking sixty or so goats in southern California when I met her.  Dad grew up milking cows in the landscape of the Texas panhandle.  Belinda has many great stories of milking.  Daddy, not so many, but then there is a lot of difference in winter weather between southern California and the Texas panhandle.  Winter is winter though, and both talk about the redemption of milking on a cold winter morning is a warm teat.

Milking is milking, but there is as much difference between cow and goat teats as there is in their milk.  Cow’s teats are slender and fit a medium sized hand fairly well.  They are tough though, and the action of milking, rolling fingers from top to bottom with a bit of pulling action, develops hand strength.

A few days ago a neighbor stopped by the farm and picked up a ton of hay for his cows.  He supposes milking has its ups and downs, with more ups than down.  An up was during his teenage years.  The daily pulling of teats, he figures, gave him such hand and forearm strength that he had an advantage over his high school wrestling opponents.  No longer a young man, when I look at his hands and forearms I am good with not having him as an opponent all those years ago.

The goat teat is softer and more funnel shape than the cylindrical teats of a cow.  The difference in teats between species is fairly obvious.  From cow to goat to hog to cat they are all uniquely suited to their young.  After talking to milkers though, I imagine teats are like fingerprints, they are all unique to the individual animal—no two, quad, or dozen are alike.  This uniqueness is apparent when talking to milkers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Gold in Them Thar Commodes

In Reflections, Theology on March 13, 2016 at 8:00 am

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March 13, 2016

I never notice it during the summer. Well, maybe never is a little strong, but for the most part I do not. When I think of it though, how does one walk pastures and not notice it? After all, folk who know a lot more than I say that for roughly every thousand pounds of weight, a steer produces close to 9.8 tons of manure.

Let’s see now, we have roughly eight or nine thousand pounds of steers on the farm. 9.8 tons times 8 and you have…well, a lot of shit. Just imagine what must be going on with urine.

With those numbers, one would think mountains of manure would cover the farm. However, the moment manure hits the ground it begins its work of fertilizing. During irrigation season or rain season or when snow melts, cow pies break down fairly fast. The break down is best though during the growing season. This stuff is full of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—combined you get roughly twenty pounds per ton of manure—and the pasture soil and plants eat this stuff up.

Recognizing that whole circle of life thing, it is nice to know the soil gives grass the will to live, the grass does the same for the steer, and the steers manure in turn enhances the wellbeing of the soil. Makes one rethink the value of shit.

Manure is more than steers, goats, and chickens though. You would think healthy humans naturally know this truth with their daily bowel movement. However, I imagine few folk living with modern bathrooms give it much thought as they push the toilet handle. Gene Logsdon gives a reminder in his book Holy Shit that this was not always the case. At one time, the worth of human manure for fertilizer was very valuable in China. So much so, that when your neighbor invited you to their home for dinner, the neighborly thing to do was to visit the bathroom before you left. Really! You can’t make this shit up! Read the rest of this entry »

Earring Cattle: And the Sin of This Generation(s)?

In Peace & Justice on November 15, 2015 at 9:31 am

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November 15, 2015

The calves were weaned two three months ago. Standing on a fence rail, looking at calves, I know weaning is never an easy time—for anyone. The calf is on the teat and the next day not. That makes for an upset mama and calf, which can lead to steady bawling for a day or two. When you have fifty cows and fifty calves in the corrals and those corrals are located next to home, like our closest neighbor, no one sleeps well for those couple of days. No, weaning is not easy for anyone. Standing on the rail, I know another stressful event for these calves lies ahead.

Yellowing leaves of autumn trees is the signage of fall roundups and selling of spring calves. Leaves falling from trees mean it is time for me to buy spring calves. Calves will spend twelve to fourteen months on the farm, so I look for weaned calves weighing between 400 and 550 pounds. Weaned because calves gain little, maybe lose, weight during those first days after separation from mama. After weaning though, they come into their own teenage identity and become capable of dealing with the stress that comes with a change of place. (Isn’t moving hard on all of us? Little matter if it is for a great job or family, moving to a new place—even a few blocks away—always gives us apprehension and stress).

The perfect change of place for calves means I choose them from the rail, load them at the neighbor’s ranch, trailer them to JustLiving Farm, and unloading into the corral. Seldom is that the case. More often than not, the calves are trailered from the ranch to the auction barn where I bid and buy. They are then loaded and trailered to the farm. Because life is seldom perfect, we do what we can to minimize stress. Therefore, we make sure the feeder is full of hay and the trough full of water when they unload off the trailer. Once calves make their way around the corral once, and know where the food and water are, we walk away. Belinda and I figure, at that moment, they are not looking favorably upon the two-legged animals who have taken them away from the landscape of birth to who knows where—best to let them alone.

Over the next two weeks calves will eat, drink, chew cud, and sleep in the corral. I move in and out during that time filling the feeder with hay, filling the water trough, and having short conversations. My work during those weeks is to watch their movement, their noses and eyes, and anything else that might indicate a need for doctoring or special care. Read the rest of this entry »

Elk Parts

In Landscape, Peace & Justice, Reservation on October 4, 2015 at 8:00 am

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October 4, 2015

Elk parts. They come once a year. Archery season opened a few weeks ago and rifle season follows it up. My bow hunting friends are saying this is a season unlike any other. The elk are not traveling normal trails or hanging in their normal high country valleys. Maybe there will be few elk parts this year.

I never imagined elk parts growing up in the rural canyons of southern California. Our deer are small in stature and when it comes to meat, they are little more than a big rabbit compared to an elk. Though small is size, being of a landscape of canyon sage, the flavor of their meat rivaled any Cascade elk. The black-tailed deer of sage country may not be the biggest of deer, but they are right up there with the smartest of deer—and a hair coat the blends beautifully with the sage landscape. The cageyness of these deer meant many hunters spent their time enjoying the landscape and returning home to eat beef. That might be why I never saw another hunter in the ridges and canyons around home, and why “I’m going up north to hunt, these deer are to small and not worth the time,” was often heard leading up to hunting season.

I knew I was not in the landscape of my youth when hunting season rolled around my first fall in White Swan. Growing up rural, forty minutes from town is one thing, living in a rural town is something different. The proximity of folk to one another in town (even a town of 500) leads to a different way of thinking than the open country. The old adage that everyone knows everyone in a small town carries a bit of truth. One of those truths is folk have a very good idea of which neighbor struggles economically and who does not—including their dogs.

When the first elk came out of the hills, that first fall, and after they were quartered and cut into steaks, roasts, and jerky, many hunters went about town giving their meat to the elderly and families who struggled. The knowledge being, the hunter is capable of hunting again and many others are not.

Two events made me notice how this new place was different from back home. One, two hunters showed up at the parsonage and offered us meat for no other reason than placing value on the community’s spiritual leaders. Place matters. When two elk roasts were lifted out of the back of the pickup, there was more meat than any one deer I hunted as a youth. My place was no longer the landscape of canyons and sage. Read the rest of this entry »