THE BRANDING PEN

 

Once again, the south slopes fade, begging for moisture. We’ve been following yesterday’s forecast rain for well over a week, watched it vacillate from 3/4s to ¼-inch daily, while hoping to get Kenny and Virginia McKee’s calves branded in Woolley Canyon at the same time—a four-day gather in wild country. On cue, a light shower began as we finished up, but unfortunately the trailing storm evaporated by late afternoon.  But it was a delightful branding, an efficient dance of ropers and ground crew that was almost mechanical, yet seasoned with quips and joviality, reminding me that the center of our culture and community has always been the branding pen.

 

Two years of Covid and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has upset the equilibrium of the planet, injected fear with the hopeless horrors of war into nearly every soul. The meatpackers’ conspiracy that has defrauded both producers and consumers has added to the instability along with our ‘megadrought’, new terminology from the scientists denoting two decades of drought not seen since 800 AD—all in all, the impacts of which have created an overwhelming mess.

 

Kids—recounting the branding at home, Robbin and I tallied at least 10 little kids in and around the corrals, another generation exposed to this lifestyle, caring families who treasure the opportunity to teach their children how to get the work done. We are not helpless, it is a luxury to still have a place to ignore the outside world where we can pour our attention to what’s important, to the things we can do something about.

 

 

March 5, 2022

 

Misting, light snow on Sulphur Peak (3,400’) this morning, we ‘ve enjoyed 1.02” received thus far from the last two days of this season-saving rain—a little more scheduled for today.

 

But it was the 0.48” we received on the 23rd of February that truly saved our grass after 3 months of nothing but a few heavy dews.  The ground was so dry that it sucked all the moisture up by the next day to the extent the mud grips on the feed truck left no tracks.  The grass, that has been so thin in the Flat where we’ve been feeding our first-calf heifers since last July, finally filled in, and now is beginning to grow. Add this inch and we’ll be good to go for three weeks or so, depending on temperatures.

 

Robbin and I, with the help of Allie, Terri and our neighbors, got our last bunch of calves branded on Wednesday before this rain. Due to last year’s heavy culling because of the drought, our bunches were small this year, but the cows and calves looked great.  Whether or not we can make ends meet on so few numbers remains to be seen in the marketplace, now that the weather seems to want to cooperate—we have hope.

 

The third variable to survival in the cattle business has always been politics.  With the world in turmoil because of the invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent impacts, anything can happen to disrupt the marketplace, inflation and the pandemic yet still in the wings. Unresolved issues regarding the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed by the urban majority in 2014, adds to an uncertain future for all agriculture in California, one that will undoubtedly include foreclosures and lots of litigation for years to come.  Meanwhile, imposed fines and the cost of water may be too great to farm in California if the State has its way, once the richest agricultural region in the world.

 

Nothing stays the same.

Only nothing is normal.

 

 

THREE WEEK REPRIEVE

 

Everyone is happy, I exclaim—

 

half-inch rain after forty-five days without—

grass, trees, birds and animals revived,

the February air full of the future

 

as black cows and calves ascend

the green slopes across the canyon

reaching for the richer ridgetop feed

 

by evening. We raise a glass

to the generosity of all the native

gods and goddesses, to the crow pair

 

robbing nests and the bobcat trailing quail,

the ground re-energized—the vitality of life

spilling right before our eyes.

 

MAYPOLE

 

The dark hole in the barn

that once was leafy, fine-stemmed alfalfa

for six-months feeding, rides on a rain

 

as wildflowers get ahead of the green

making color, making seed—a spectacle

that will eclipse the hopes and dreams

 

that drew us to this tipping point in time.

Seems we’re always on the cusp of perfect

storms, praying for enough that we might

 

meld into the wealth of these steep slopes

we belong to, marvel at the cattle

and forget about the money and the market

 

for a moment as we and our old neighbors

hold invisible hands and hobble around

the maypole to appease our pagan genes.

 

 

TASTE OF SPRING

 

Christmas storms colored the canyon early,

purple brodiaea, blue lupine, white flakes of snow

upon the green as wildfires of poppies spread

 

slope to slope, mid-February, forty-five days

warm without rain. I used to think I knew

what it took to paint these hills with flowers,

 

like the warm spring rains in ’78

after the drought.  Living here 100 years,

Nora Montgomery claimed she’d never seen

 

so many poppies in this canyon, solid gold

nor I since. Each a fantasy, no two springs

the same, we live in the 10-day forecast

 

for rain, for grass, for cattle. The Old

Farmer’s Almanac predicts a backwards

spring, growing cooler through April—

 

we never know, and like the cattle

in grazing circles, we plod through time,

always eager for another taste of spring.

 

NATIVE CATTLE

 

You see the sign and smell their cud

hanging low in the open

where they have laid, grass blades

 

pressed exchanging thoughts

and gossiping while fat calves slept

with dreams of more of the same:

 

no clutter of ambition or greed

living in the moment—

easily startled by those who don’t.

 

Gentle families: mothers, daughters

grandmothers grow to know you

over a lifetime, learn to read

 

your eyes, your mind—some

more curious than others

makes you wonder.

 

JANUARY IN LOVE

 

What is left to add to the millions of words

in books of poems stacked on shelves around me,

as if by some osmotic marvel they might impart

a simple brilliance, a lasting, unfettered glow

that I might capture and travel the page by?

 

My early morning sojourns into darkness seek

reveries I can hear and feel with my hands,

well-apart from the blinding light of day,

that prismed cacophony of lies driven by

man’s ugly nature of greed and power.

 

I crave blackness under clouds and crisp

moon shadows in a breeze, redrawing

constellations from twinkling starlight

like the ceiling of the old Fox Theater

from where I believed Walt Disney fell.

 

The primal bellow of a bull or the prolonged

serenades of a hundred coyotes in the canyon,

January is a month in love at night. Closing

the distance between hoots, the owls

have finally agreed on a tree to raise a family.

 

JANUARY 2022

She foresees an early spring,

winter warm as we brand calves

in the open space between rains

 

this ground and cattle need

as much as we for our sanity.

The finches vie for corners

 

in the post and beams

that hold the roof and summer sun

at bay. Fat ground squirrels play

 

grab-ass, warming-up  

for the real thing, planting seed

for fresh armies of vermin

 

to attack the garden.

Already the love songs

of a hundred coyotes

 

fill our dark canyon

from dusk to dawn—invite

the dogs to sing along.

 

One never knows about the weather—

it can do anything anytime it wants

to make geniuses or fools of us all.

SMALL WORLD

Small world here, an eddy

in the cutbank of a raging stream

            like Roaring River

before it dumps into the Kings—

Río de los Santos Reyes,

            or like Cloud Canyon

our honeymoon camped

            upon soft needles

            in the moving shadow

            of a huge Sugar Pine—

            Cement Table

apart from the foaming current

and thunderous cascades

of man’s designs.

 

Small world here making circles,

gathering cattle to brand

around the weather,

putting crews of neighbors

and meals together

for a picnic:

            bring your horse

            for a slow dance

            of wide loops,

            tight ropes

            and camaraderie—

            we are family

            chasing seasons

            for a lifetime.

 

Small world here in the darkness

of a moonless morning, stars

like glinting diamonds set

in black velvet, a universe

unfolding beyond reason.

A NEIGHBOR’S HAND

It’s not easy to get glimpses of myself

among the young men in the branding pen,

awkward young bulls bellowing

as they wrestle fat calves to the ground.

 

Yesterday, I carried the nut-bucket

and dope instead of riding with a rope,

instead of sliding a wide loop

beneath two feet. I can feel it, see it

 

in my mind, the smooth dance and dally

round a cotton-wrapped horn, rolling

calves and slipping slack when needed—

but my metronome has slowed.

 

I don’t wish to be among the old chiefs

who stayed too long to become obstacles

in space and time just to be aboard,

just to lend a neighbor’s hand, like always.