Temperatures are forecast to rise next week as our first cold front brings light precipitation to the 200,000 acres of fire-stricken Northern California that was fanned by 70 mph “Diablo Winds”. Southern California will approach 100 degrees. Our forecast is closer to 90 as we wait for our first rain, like always, this time of year. Longer range, no rain in sight for the remainder of the month.
We keep our first-calf heifers close to the house and the hay barn. Only 35 days into calving, the transition from heifer to mother is almost magical, driven by a selfless instinct to care for a newborn calf, multiplied many times over—they all suddenly become a pasture of cows. Bred to Wagyu bulls, the calves come small, but they are growing and demanding more from their young mothers, so we augment the cows’ dry grazing with enough alfalfa hay to keep the them in shape while raising a calf.
We began feeding a moderate amount six weeks ago with the Kubota, but graduated to the feed truck last week as we’ve slowly increased their hay. In recent years, we’ve tried to keep our feeding down to twice a week instead of every other day, though we feed the same amount, thinking that cows are more apt to leave the flat ground to graze the hillsides between feedings. And they do, but as they come to water in the morning, they wait hopefully, and bawl every time the Kubota or pickup is started, on both sides of the canyon—a deafening pleading that’s hard to ignore, but tame compared to the drought years.
Nothing out of the ordinary, we will feed until the green grass comes.
Behind the barn and horses
grazing evening time, beyond
our chorus line of sycamores
locking hands gleefully,
young mothers pepper green,
return home to fresh feed
with branded calves—slope bare
for years without rain.
Breathing deeply, we inhale
all before our eyes—
herd and family without
the scattering sort of bulls,
they glean the sweetest first
up the mountain gradually.
We want to freeze the feeling
in a photograph forever,
knowing we cannot.
Everyone’s got a job on the ground,
in the smoke, in the canyon, dancing
in the branding pen—syringes, taggers,
knives and irons—stepping ‘round
fat calves stretched one after another
before finding their mothers waiting
at the gate for children after school.
The smart and hard-to-gather
black white-faced cow looks
a little rough in your cell phone
photo, but after twenty-two years
she knows the routine—bringing
her last year’s calf you missed
to the corrals for weaning.
for Kenny & Virginia
So hampered by the wet ground, we were only able to see a few cows and calves on the Paregien Ranch. The cows are producing lots of milk, there’s plenty of grass and the calves are really growing. Right now they would be handful to brand, and who knows when we’ll be able to get up the mountain to get that job done.
The clouds you ride are tissue-paper thin.
– Red Shuttleworth (“If You Had a Tail Fins Caddy”)
High on the mountain, two isolated cows surprised
graze thick fog without wet bags, act guilty found
in one another’s company before their inevitable trip
to town when we gather, the price of truancy
they seem to know or hear through my eyes
and the mist between us, or pure imagination
that blooms personified from my disappointment.
A little too content to be on vacation from maternity
and needy nurseries, the mother in me understands.
Up here, the footing is treacherous, each tentative step
measured against all the break-through, downhill
possibilities—up here the poems hang in oak trees.
Dark morning without moon or stars
before the first winter storm, the day before
Black Friday rains deals and discounts
for Christmas, for our economy and I am
ever thankful that the bulls are out early
courting cows, meeting kids and family
before dirt roads get too slick to travel—
ever thankful for the drought that felled
two big Live Oaks on the gate and fence
we corded-up and stacked beneath the eave
before the girls drove posts and spliced
the barbed wire on a mat of green
to leave the mess looking like a park—ever
thankful for them, for you and this ground
we’re invested in together, for good horses
willing to get the cow work done—
black skies without moon or stars,
you and I alone before the storm.
Sigh no more, ladies.
Time is male
and in his cups drinks to the fair.
– Adrienne Rich (“Sanpshots of a Daughter-in-Law”)
The women here wear leaves,
offer shade and dance in place
of plans to clear the unimproved—
or they bear children, populate
with coyote pups that learn
to clean the plates of men
girls fill with grass, raising
cows for heifer calves—
women teaching women.
The hawks are nesting, almost
everything on the wind
is a feminine production—
no passing fad for a buck.
I’ll raise my glass, bet
our future on the women.
Rare harmony, the grays and greens
spill off the hills like stringed music
in the gloaming, naked oaks in granite,
cows and calves bent to new grass
step slowly mowing earth and rain
at work in the bright of day and night.
Like sea tides rising, each blade eager
twists towards the moon in cool darkness,
drawn to listen to heaven’s basic chords.
A wild sound is playing now outside
while waiting for a cloud, for the strum
of winter storms to prolong the song.
I turn away, blinded by November’s
first light, Redbud hearts enflamed
with last season’s feed on green
burning yellows between dark shadows
with the news, with disbelief.
I retreat to calm counsel with cattle:
scattered pairs, calves fresh with life
finding legs to fly—buck and run
figure-eights without direction always
circling back, showing off for mom.
We will work the heifers anyway—
give them everything we can
to make them attractive to Wagyu,
their first bulls. And we will wait,
as we always do, for rainy days.
Heading into winter, black cows yet fat
sucking calves—damp, thick-piled green after rain—
everyone is clean and shiny off the hill, parading
to water early to laze in the shade. Pages
of poetry shuffle across a desk messy with business,
an untitled collection scattered and spread,
collected and clipped faraway in my head
from our family of cows, from short remarks:
our song of words and phrases overflowing
with the water troughs at Windmill Spring,
spilling too spontaneously to require editing.
We needed to collaborate, to escape the loud
and demanding devils too close to home.
In this place, we are blessed with native eyes
and forgotten tongues—where we can relate
long poems in the luxury of untamed silence.