Monthly Archives: May 2011


Thank you Amy Kitchener of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts ACTA in Fresno, an organization she co-founded in 1997, for inviting me to lunch last Tuesday (May 24th) with Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the NEA on his first visit to the Central Valley. The purpose of the lunch meeting, that included twenty or so local traditional artists, was Creative Placemaking, approaches through cultural activities to enhance the character and identity of neighborhoods, cities and regions. In my little canyon most of the time, I was once again surprised to see that the San Joaquin Valley is indeed a melting pot of many cultures. The NEA’s new slogan ‘ART WORKS’ seems an ambitious and sensible approach to enriching all our lives.

Richard Hagopian and his grandson on the drum opened with some traditional Armenian music and Julie Tex and her daughters demonstrated Mono Basketmaking. Mas Masumoto and I read to conclude the lunch in the Coke Hallowell Center at the San Joaquin River Parkway. ACTA Board Member Malcolm Margolin of Heyday was in attendance, bringing a small slice of his Great Valley Books. (His press, releasing a new collection every two weeks, focuses on California.)

Coincidently, I was questioned recently about NEA’s ‘subsidy’ of cowboy poetry, all stemming from the unsubstantiated comments on the Rush Limbaugh radio show last month. I continue to be dismayed that despite the facts, people believe what they want to believe – like gathering acorns, looking to fill their empty baskets.


Spiny-Sepaled Button-Celery (Coyote Thistle)

Spiny-Sepaled Button-Celery (Coyote Thistle), Dry Creek, 5.7.2011

California Native Plant Society: Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California (2001)


We’ve begun weaning calves, a plaintive chorus at the corrals in Greasy and along Dry Creek, as mothers check-in and locate their babies between grazing. The older cows know the routine, some looking forward to the process. The calves average 600 lbs. or more, no longer dependent on mother’s milk. The separation is mostly emotional, a fence between them for the first time in seven months, but the calves quickly adapt to good alfalfa hay, stay full and quit bawling in a couple of days. The cool weather has been ideal, as we work to control dust in the corrals that can create eye problems and even pneumonia. Our process lasts seven days before we turn the calves out on the irrigated pasture, supplemented with more hay that has skyrocketed this year to over $300/ton.

We’ve also been gathering last year’s heifer calves that were exposed to the Wagyu bulls during the winter months, to make room for the cows we just weaned, to make room for this year’s weaned heifer calves to be bred to the Wagyu. We’ll drive the first-calf heifers up the creek and split the bunch between two pastures around the house so that we can keep an eye on them as they calve this fall – our harvest and preparation for the next crop.

A busy time of year as we also cull some of the older cows that may have difficulty supporting a calf at the colder and higher elevations of the ranch, inserting some of the younger cows in their places, keeping our pastures stocked. We have a plan that can get confusing, at times, as we try to adapt to feed and weather conditions, as well as changing market demands and opportunities – trying to stay flexible and ever aware of our slow cash flow before our annual payday.

Long advocates of small family farms and cattle operations, we see the efficiency of seeing all our cows in the corral this time of year, not having to depend on second-hand assessments and descriptions as we prepare for the next calf crop. Then also, there is the special satisfaction we enjoy as we collect our steer calves that will be sold and shipped around mid-July, guessing what they’ll weigh against their weaning weights. Because we can’t wean them all at once due to the configuration of the ranch, we will be busy for next two or three weeks, so posts may be sporadic. Thankfully the temperature has been cool, making it easier on us all.

Opening the Dry Creek Preserve

Sopac Mulholland, JCD, Scott Spear, Hilary Dustin - photo: Laurie Schwaller

Twenty five years ago, Tulare County issued a Conditional Use Permit to mine rock and gravel here – in 1985, or thereabouts. It was controversial, but it also brought a community together to insist that the operators comply, and that Tulare County enforce, the conditions of that permit.

The Dry Creek Preserve is symbolic, because this is where growth and development has stopped for a moment on Dry Creek, and Nature has taken back over. This is an experiment, an experiment in reclamation, and an experiment in public access, a new land use on Dry Creek that will be managed by Sequoia Riverlands Trust. SRT

I am honored to cut this ribbon on their behalf, on the behalf of my mother and father who understood the forces at work from the beginning – on behalf of this community of families on Dry Creek who were forced to adapt to the drastic changes that rock and gravel mining brought here, and for the many with vision outside this canyon who supported us, offered us hope, direction and their expertise.

We welcome this new beginning.

photo: Laurie Schwaller - art: Matthew Rangel

Shipping the Wagyu X Calves

Robbin, Zach, Bob & Clarence

Bob & Robbin

Robbin & Bart

Excerpt from May 20th email to Snake River Farms:

All went well to the scales, Jody’s weighed about 8:30 a.m., ours about 7:30 a.m. We knew we would have to wait on the brand inspector, expecting him about 9:30 a.m., busy inspecting 4 loads, ½ mile up the road, after inspecting 6 loads, ten miles from here.

We, of course, never heard from the truck driver who had only second-hand directions, and who sailed right on up the road to stop alongside my neighbor’s patchwork corrals as they were bringing- in 200 1000# Mexican steers. The brand inspector, who was hiding behind the chute, sent him on up to our other corrals, where we are weaning calves, to get him gone. Seeing no one there, he went on.

Once done, the brand inspector went up the road, seeing no one there, turned around went back to where he started this a.m. to inspect 3 more loads. Meanwhile, another neighbor brings the truck driver to us in his little Toyota. Fortunately, the truck driver stopped where the road narrows and we could let him through a gate to get turned around. But while waiting for the brand inspector with us, the truck driver mentions his earlier encounter with the brand inspector by saying, ‘Maybe, I should have said something sooner…’, when we realize that the brand inspector mistakenly sent the truck driver in the wrong direction, then missing the open gate and trucked backed up to the chute, left the canyon.

Moral: “Assume nothing.”

Truck loaded and gone @ 11:45 a.m.


The jokes come snowmelt easy,
off the Rubies, cloudy runoff rising
down the South Fork as we grin
into wind gusts like pickup pups,
slit-eyes watering in a light rain.

                  I haven’t time to trace
                  how I found my way
                  to this strange country –
                  under sea undulations
                  with dirt road ruts
                  forking in the thatches
                  of willows swelling with bud,
                  where naked cottonwoods play
                  dead along the bottoms
                  of the high desert in May.

A quick language of quips, unrefined
and unfinished sentences sprinkled
with double-entendres, flashing eyes
locking, laughing just long enough
to chase the cold river downstream.

No longer lean boys looking for adventure,
we raise families to respect fate, to find
their rhythm on any landscape, to learn
our gods have no bounds, sympathetic
most to those who do for themselves.

It could be foreign gibberish, a lost
native tongue, stirring coals, throwing
sticks upon the fire between us – that
rare communion of common souls
where almost Anyman can be a comedian.

                                      for Tom, Sharon & Travis

Empty Winecups

Winecups (Farewell to Spring), Dry Creek, 5.16.11


Mid-May, the hillside cut beside the house
leaks a stream, fractured granite patient,
a steep tumble of broken stones frozen

in clay, hanging for a hundred yards to
the top of the ridge where water springs
from hydraulic pressure into fissures

of magma cooled too fast to crack and
connect the Kaweahs, loaded with snow.
How long have they waited, what pebble

slipped to stem full flow, how wet the year
they last moved? Dismissed wonders pale
upon the whole, an army of ants controlled

by queens we serve. They are sexy and
delightful, stirring dreams of magic
and luxury come to power, all the flags

and colored bunting of Camelot sans
chivalry. This perfect world at war
with itself will never be the same.


Beyond the window on the hillside up
between the dark green oaks at dawn,
a patch of blond dry feed – grasses

bent to a breeze before the storm.
Even the empty heads of wild oats
are heavy beneath a gray sky in May

and I can trace the well-coiffed track
of a comb from a quarter mile away –
that seemingly untouched perfection

where forty cows have grazed, that
last arch old grasses reach before a rain
lays them down to mat and mold

where I thought I saw two black cows,
calves somewhere else behind a tree,
two dark shapes that have disappeared

now that I’ve leapt there, focused in detail,
and remembering: we gathered them all,
the last pair trailing-in along the fence

tracking her friends, looking for company
other than her calf ready to be weaned –
slightly wild-eyed, suddenly suspicious

of a change in needs, almost completely
self-sufficient, living off the land,
almost perfect if she were a wild thing.

Kaweah Brodiaea

Kaweah Brodiaea (Brodiaea insignis), Dry Creek, 5.8.2011

Prior to the mid-1980s, the Kaweah Brodiaea was thought to have been extinct. Larry Norris, who was conducting a Biological Assessment for the USACE surrounding the Lake Kaweah Enlargement Project, rediscovered it on the ranch. Thinking he was on USACE lands as first mapped during the initial construction phases of Terminus Dam in 1959, he contacted me to get easier access to the location so that he might assess the population of this rare wildflower, that he later determined to be 300,000 – 500,000 plants on ground we graze. Kaweah Brodiaea is now an Endangered Species, and since has been identified in the Kaweah River drainage upstream from Lake Kaweah in the vicinity of Three Rivers. The wildflower has been cussed and discussed profusely as an obstacle to any kind of development in the area.

The wildflower blooms around May 10th, a few days before the more common Elegant Brodiaea and Harvest Brodiaea, and is a paler purple, smaller than the elegans, with petals unlike a wine glass, but of helicopter blades instead. Though I’ve tried for years to photograph the Kaweah Brodiaea, this is my first sighting.*

Elegant Brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), Dry Creek, 5.8.2011

The Brodiaeas are tough. The largest population of Kaweah Brodiaea in the world is thought to exist within our 300-acre flat that has been grazed for 150 years – and from where the imagery for one of my first cowboy poems was drawn.


It was dry in the fall of seventy-six
and the cows were calvin’ in the dust,
nothin’ to see but acres of chips,
a drought year when cowmen went bust.

Their hides were rough ‘n’ just cover’d bone
‘n’ ribs caught most of your eye,
spindly calves seemed to wander alone
as if lookin’ for a place to die.

Cows were bringin’ two-bits a pound,
a hundred bucks less than the spring,
and all you could do, was throw hay on the ground,
and pray to God it would rain.

Their toes would clack like castanets
in the cloud that’d boil ’round your truck,
the bawlin’ skeletons and weak silhouettes
would bring tears to the drought of good luck.

Reckon Ma Nature’s showed me who’s boss,
as she’ll do some time and again,
but she’s never caused me half of the loss
that politicians create with a pen.

*        *        *        *        *        *

* May 16, 2011 – I revisited the Kaweah Brodiaea to discover that they are no longer in bloom. The Elegans are just getting started. With less than 10 days of bloom, no wonder I had so much difficulty finding them.