We never quite give-in to the ground,
though it shapes faces and scars our flesh—
mountains and canyons worn apart
from the crowd, our trained brains taught
to see the smaller things while looking out
over purple ranges to snow white teeth
sunk sharply into the blue, blue sky
after a cold rain clears the air, erases
tracks, cleans all but the near at hand
climbing higher for the tallest green
hidden in the old, gray grass, mildewing—
cows and calves full atop the ridge,
friends and family lying in leafless shade
looking out beyond the perfect dreams
of our calculations ever coming out.
Oak smoke from the woodstove
curls beneath the eave, gray snake
sliding from post to beam
to filter dawn’s first blinding light
after rain. Bare ground green
with cotyledons, damp with dew
overnight, sequins glistening
on blond dry stems—on the cusp
of something beginning with
the miracle of seed swelling
into new shoots, leaves of grass
over and over and over again
despite our ignorance and greed, our
ownership of more than the moment
as we prepare for another adventure:
oak and Manzanita stacked
against the dry and cold stretches
between the welcome rains.
The scent of dampened dust
settling with the first fine drops
envelops us in wind gusts,
all the loose atoms of death
over eons of friction bonding,
fusing into new shapes of life
as we inhale and taste it, sip
like musty red wine begging
release—lungs and capillaries
surge to rejuvenate the flesh
with the promises of fresh
beginnings, another chance
to chase seasons of grass
with a new crop of calves
who’ve never seen rain,
never smelled the green.
Swept up grinning, we raise
a glass into the endless gray.
Heavens begin to churn
with the first disturbance
of a new beginning,
fresh celestial friction
of an unknown season,
a fiery harbinger stirring
flesh and feather, coveys
bobbing home to bed
in brush piles, cows
collecting calves for cover
from wind gusts
in the ever-changing light—
these old bones giddy,
from ridge to ridge
consuming purple skies
before the storm,
before the welcome war.
We wait with weathered totems
in the garden, the always happy
ceramic caricatures, for rain.
We search for sign on ridgelines
drawn nearer, the sky for wisps
of manes and tails as cows beg
at the fenceline, a cacophonous
crescendo, a chorus of hoarse chords
intensifies the canyon’s imperative
between feed days as if we were gods
for a moment—healers, soothers, pleasers,
or just hired hands late for work.
A few hang on, leather leaves on a single limb
reaching for rain, grasping sky for life
in this battlefield of arms and legs in piles
around upright trunks with loosened bark—
gray shields to relinquish at their feet.
A four-year war without water on uneven
slopes, ridges strewn with old timers down,
disheveled skeletons beginning to disintegrate,
assimilate deep into the space they leave
to time—a blank sheet, native stories gone.
What we understand of place is ‘nothing
stays the same’, no permanent circumstance
to protect and feed us except hard ground
cloaked by layers of law within the diaphanous
clouds of cyberspace it will endure forever more.
I’ll not forget the dust clouds boiling out of the canyons when the cattle came to hay in November of 2012 through 2016, while we fed and begged for rain, then had to sell half the cows. Nor will I forget last year’s too much rain, more disruptive to our operation than the four years of drought, unable to get to the bulk of our cattle in the high ground to brand our calves. Then sometime late last spring when the slick calves were approaching 600 pounds, exclaiming to anyone who might listen, ‘all we want is something close to normal’.
Though we’ve made significant advances in the cattle business in the past four decades with bigger and better quality calves and broodstock, the ground stays the same and has endured the ever-present variables of the weather and most of our mistakes. Glacial evidence in the canyon helps reinforce its permanence and durability, the one element in this enterprise that we can depend on.
We normally feed the young cows in the fall when the calves come, concurrently scanning the long-range forecasts for rain to start the grass and give us and the feed truck some relief. And after watching recent promises of an inch or more disintegrate before our eyes with nothing forecast into the future, and while seriously considering petitioning the gods for a little moisture, it’s beginning to feel normal, or close to normal, or so we hope and carry on just the same.
We finally got these heifers branded yesterday with another round of shots, vaccinations, dewormer and multi-min, before they meet the Wagyu bulls in 45 days. As you may remember, we took their counterparts to town as bulls last spring when we weaned, unable to brand and vaccinate them because of last winter’s wet conditions. The girls were polite, familiar with processing since their first round of shots and vaccinations for Brucellosis at the end of June.
Building a fire to heat the irons this time of year is problematic with fire danger still high. Our propane pot is an inefficient and noisy alternative we’d like to avoid if possible. Electric irons have been around for years, though I’ve never considered using one as electricity to our corrals is a recent convenience. And consistent with the ‘cowboy way’, my underlying prejudices against such citified methods of marking cattle, an electric iron has never been part of our operation—until yesterday.
With the tangle of extension cords, etc., they will never replace hot irons in the branding pen, but they have their place. Furthermore, the brand goes on quicker and cleaner with consistent heat and quick recovery. All going to prove that old dogs can learn new tricks.