Watching the corrals from a distance:
young men a horseback dancing in the sort
of cows from calves before branding
amid a discordant chorus, the same
plaintive song of years worn thin
that holds the heart in place as the eyes
fade and the mind wanders a far
ridge searching for the first split
in the trail that leads to this short
moment of chance and circumstance—
apart and beyond the world’s fear and all
the raw conflicts that feed it senseless.
A man rides by the seat of his pants,
pockets of memory that reach for the rhythm
of a horse collected, the singing twine.
Through the cerise redbuds and wildflowers awaiting sunshine to fully bloom, our slow hour’s drive up Dry Creek, then descending a curvy 245 to the entrance of Woolley Canyon, we arrived to brand the last of Kenny and Virginia McKee’s calves yesterday, despite concerns of Covid-19. Social distancing is virtually impossible in the branding pen.
Virginia had soap and wipes available and Kenny had prepared a concoction of 90% alcohol and witch hazel to spray on our hands that I used several times. It took the dirt off as well. Though apprehension varied among us, there was none of the normal hugs or handshakes, most keeping a noticeable distance when possible. But when it came to the groundwork and vaccinations, the work was necessarily close.
My separate apprehension on my 72nd birthday centered on a horse that I had roped on only once before. Robbin and I have outlived our dependable mounts, and I have had to borrow horses to get through this year’s branding season. By the end of the day, “Twist” was beginning to overcome his cutting horse breeding and he and I were having fun. After a couple of more brandings next year, he’ll be reliable at brandings.
Though everyone was given the option of not participating, we were there to help our neighbors, a cultural exercise we all prescribed to despite the risks. Not unlike workers tending and harvesting crops, it’s what we do this time of year. Not branding is not a viable choice in Woolley Canyon.
Working together with neighbors for a few hours on a beautiful day was a luxurious diversion from the news as we await a forecast rain.
Yesterday, Robbin and I began our 26th year together by making a loop through Greasy to look at the cows and calves, assess our feed conditions and put out salt and mineral. The cattle look great! We got an early start to the grass with November and December rains, but with a dry January and February, we lost our feed at our lower elevations on the south and west slopes. To date, we’ve only received three inches since the first of the year, but the grass at the higher elevations has just begun to grow.
A Border Collie at five months, it was Tessa’s first extended ride in the Kubota away from the house. Channeling her energy has been a challenge, but she’s smart and willing to please. It was good for her to be completely lost away from home and dependent on us for over four hours. Tired before she went to bed last night, she was sitting in the Kubota waiting for another ride.
Not much has changed for us, despite the Coronavirus pandemic. Normally, we do our best to stay out of town anyway. Before we have to get our Wagyu calves in for a second round of vaccinations, we’ve been preparing and planting our garden for the past couple of weeks—it’s what we do this time of year—that in turn will help us stay out of town later this spring.
However, we are not immune to the news as we try to imagine millions of people shut in their living quarters in a big city environment. Our hearts go out to them as we realize how fortunate we are to be free to move around the ranch to get our work done. Having something to do during this crisis is indeed a luxury.
Mid-afternoon, after-rain beneath cottony cumulus
with sails set north trailing the long-awaited storm,
a lone coyote’s husky bark, cows and calves
across the creek frozen alertly upon the green—
I must assume the feral pigs now have had their fill
of the young bull I had to kill two weeks ago
with broken leg sunk deep into a squirrel hole
while sparring with his mates passing idle time
with unemployed testosterone awaiting the long,
hog-truck trip home to a feedlot in Idaho.
Stiff hide and disconnected bones don’t care
having filled the bellies of our sanitary engineers.
Western Livestock Journal, March 2, 2020
Not good news from one of our best livestock publications, founded by Nelson Crow in 1922.
As supermarket shelves empty in the midst of our worldwide coronavirus pandemic, I am reminded of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, a theory most often likened to a pyramid where food, shelter and clothing are the foundation necessary before fulfilling our innate human needs. Common sense to most people.
This is not the time to forget about American farmers and ranchers, many bankrupt or near bankruptcy as a result of the tariff wars with China and other countries. Furthermore, all of our normal distribution avenues are being disrupted by the virus. Instead, some of the $16 billion in tax dollars intended by Congress to bailout farmers and ranchers have been diverted to foreign countries, one of which is JBS SA of Brazil.
I pray for the sake of us all that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Congress and the Trump Administration wake up and take a look at the bigger picture as they focus on the virus, because we all, rich or poor, have to eat.
She didn’t stay long
or leave much in the way
her fine gray mist
to brighten green,
and relieve the pain
for a well-begged rain—
a sniff and taste
to lure us closer
toward our reward
like this cold dawn’s
flat to the ground,
February 23, 2020
Alone in the dark
that shrouds anemic green
and short-stemmed fiddleneck
thinking February seed,
the joyful gurgle
of a shrinking creek
gulps over cobbles
to sit beside me
on a cold and moist
all sounds normal
as if a sign.
Alone in the dark
I color hillsides leaking
beneath gray skies.
Despite warm temperatures and no rain for nearly 30 days, the calves have grown since we branded last in Greasy on January 9th.
Father and daughter, Garth and Audrey Maze pose before we start.
With a great crew, we made short work of big calves and were down the hill by noon. Thank you all.
Another cold dry front
rests upon the tops of hills,
shapeless clouds, a haze
upon steep south slopes,
red clay like brick—
green pales to gray
as we brand calves
one by one
we may sell early
with their mothers.
I brace against the familiar
drama, growing numb
as my stiff new rope
slides through the palm
of time’s softened hand,
warming as it searches
for my frayed
I quote my elders
dead and gone
as they visit
the branding pen.
Don’t worry, Dofflemyer,
E. J.’d say.
It’s gonna rain.
It takes years to get here
with cows we like—
as we discuss
of who goes first
and who gets what’s left
Of the two of us,
I am the dreamer
you have allowed me
as I grow gray.
She was there
always for her kids
and theirs and theirs
with open wings—
quick to feed
and defend them.
of the Dust Bowl,
rest in peace.
for Ila Jean Fry
January 17, 1926 — January 17, 2020