Monday, May 30, 2011

Wet Wildflowers

The rain started to fall about 9:30 p.m. last Friday, and I wondered whether our annual Wildflower Week event would be affected. Probably not, I decided. The forecast was for clearing skies overnight and partly cloudy skies in the morn, with highs expected in the 60’s and only a slight chance of thunderstorms.

The forecast was a bit off. In fact it rained most of the night and when I rolled out of the sheets at 5 a.m. it was raining hard.

I wasn’t bothered by the rain. In fact, I was happy about it. South of Kimball, where our ranch is located, is the driest part of the Panhandle. We rely on spring rains to make the grass grow so that our cattle can harvest the green bounty and turn it into a valuable commodity. Let it rain!

But the Wildflower event had been planned and publicized for months, and there was a long list of attendees who would have to be notified of the rainout and reschedule. Fortunately, I’d planned for this. I sent out texts and e-mails, posted a rescheduled event (for Saturday, June 4) on Facebook, and made a few phone calls.

I wasn’t sure whether everyone would get the word in time, though, so I headed out to the site at 7 a.m. to catch those who might show up despite the weather. None did.

While I was there, I decided to scout the area and get in a bit of exercise. Hiking in the rain doesn’t bother me at all; I learned a long time ago that I won’t melt.

I set off down a grassy swale covered in rank cool season grasses. Within a few feet my feet and legs were soaked to the knees from walking through the tall, wet green stuff. The rain kept pelting down, bringing the horizon close and adding a vibrancy to the colors of bountiful grasses and forbs. As I moved along, I began to pick out brilliant wildflowers. Yellows, reds, blues, purples, whites. Indian paintbrush. Hoary puccoon. Star Lily. Hood’s phlox. Western wallflower. Penstemon. Prairie buckbean. Nuttall’s violet. Milk vetch. Wild parsley.

As I hiked I pushed along hard to drive up my heart rate. Soon the ol’ ticker was thumping along at about 160 and I was breathing good and hard. Sweat began to run, adding a water and salt burden to my drizzle-soaked clothing, and nicely balancing the heat of exercise with damp coolness. Though I was breathing hard, the great draughts of humid air went in and out of my lungs with ease. A few of my previously injured joints and tendons complained as I strode along, but those are aches and pains I’m accustomed to dealing with.

I scrambled down a familiar canyon path and picked my way along the rocky, sandy bottom. Here the walls of the canyon are forested with chokecherry, wild rose and skunkbush sumac. The chokecherry was beginning to bloom, with great white clouds of perfumed flowers floating among deep green leaves. Rose buds were swelling, as were the sumac buds, ready to burst open and join in spring’s wild dance of prolifity. As I brushed against the sumac it’s pungent aroma filled the air and followed me along, an invisible but welcome companion. Only weeks ago this canyon was drab, brown and sere. Today it had completely changed it’s appearance to vibrant, dripping color. A chameleon landscape.

A colorful horned lizard, washed free of dust by the rain, gleams brightly under overcast and raining skies last Saturday on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
 On a grassy tuft of soil near the bottom I spied a surprisingly colorful horned lizard. Washed free of dust by the rain, it’s brightly colored, pebbly skin gleamed brightly in the muted light. Cold and sluggish, it let me take a few pictures. I kicked up a cottontail, then another. They dashed madly from rock to rock, thicket to thicket. I rounded a corner and beheld a mule deer doe and two tiny fawns, perched halfway up the eastern wall of the canyon. The trio looked at me for long moments, then turned and picked their way daintily up and out of the canyon. I turned another corner and a pair of Swainson’s hawks leapt into flight from a high nesting ledge.

Out of the side branch and into the main branch of the canyon, the walking was easier, with established grama and buffalograss to tread upon and less exposed rock and sand. On either side of me the canyon walls, wet from the rain, showed off unusually colorful sedimentary strata. Where erosion had undercut harder rock, mats of prickly pear flourished atop ledges, grasping roots hanging in the air underneath.

After several miles of a great looping route, up and down hills and past windmills and skirting good, tight fences, I returned to my truck. Standing there in cool-down mode, I drank in the beauty of the scene and felt once again the deep, abiding good fortune I’ve been blessed with.

As my heart slowed and breathing moderated, my phone rang. The caller, from Pinedale, Wyo., was checking to see if the wildflower event was still on. I told her about the rain, as well as the makeup day on June 4. She was glad she’d called, and happy about the makeup day. So was I.

In some sense I wished we could have held the event in the rain, to give folks the chance to experience a different, though slightly uncomfortable, view of nature’s beauty. A few, I was sure, would have come, but most wouldn’t have, and the idea is to share the spring shortgrass prairie ecosystem with as many as possible.

If you’re interested, come out and see for yourself on Saturday, June 4. It’s an all-day event, beginning at 7 a.m. and ending sometime after sunset. You needn’t stay all day; come anytime and stay as long as you like. For details go to ‘Kimball Wildflower Week Makeup’ on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For the Fallen

Last week I wrote about enjoying the “bonus years” I’ve had since surviving an aircraft crash more than a quarter century ago. This week I’ll write about, and hope you’ll think about, those who never got a second chance – never got to enjoy the gravy.

Though congress made it a three-day weekend in 1971, Memorial Day is nevertheless still formally a day to remember those who fell in the service of our country, and specifically those who fell during time of war.

Since the Vietnam War, service in the U.S. military has been a volunteer affair. For more than 35 years now, those who have served have had to make the decision on their own, and then have had to voluntarily jump through a bunch of tough hoops to even be allowed to wear the uniform. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. There are good and valid reasons to field either a conscript or a volunteer force. One thing the volunteer force seems to have done, however, is to distance most Americans from their military.

Perhaps this is why so many folks think of Memorial Day in terms of time off from work, rather than as an opportunity to honor and think about the sacrifice of the relatively few for the overwhelmingly many.

For those who served and survived, though, Memorial Day is much more than a holiday. For many of us, it is a time of reflection, a time to brush cobwebs away from painful memories and to think about and honor our fallen comrades.

As I write these words I think of two men in particular, the first and last men I served with who were killed in combat. The memories I have of their last hours and moments, of the nature of their deaths, are sharp and wrenching. I don’t like to think of those times, because they are shot through with a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt. Yet I must remember, I must think of those awful moments, for I must honor the lives and the sacrifice of those men. Neither was larger than life, neither a movie poster hero. Yet both fought to the very last breath, demonstrating a kind of courage which is remarkable and at the same time impossible to describe. To gain a visceral understanding of the ultimate sacrifice, unfortunately, you simply have to be there.

No one joins the U.S. Military with the intent to die in battle. In fact, the military go to great lengths to weed out the applicants who have a death wish. They are simply too selfish and too immature to be reliable, to be a team player, to guard the backs of their comrades.

No, those of us who make the rigorous cut expect and plan to survive. We know the risks, we can each of us calculate the odds. The odds, in the aggregate, are in our favor. But the risk is real, as each of us knows full well.

Regardless of the risk, each of us have determined that our country, the grand, wonderful idea of these United States of America, is worth the possibilities that the risk entails. We go into harms way as a service to our country and to our fellow citizens. Most of us survive. Some of us do not. The fallen are the real reason we celebrate Memorial Day. If you get the chance, perhaps you can take a few moments to reflect on the heroic nature of the sacrifices others have made so that you might enjoy the manifold blessings of life in America.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) “For the Fallen”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kimball Wildflower Week

Nebraska Wildflower Week is May 27 through June 5. The Kimball Community Arboretum and EJE Ranch are hosting Kimball Wildflower Week on May 28 at the EJE south of Kimball, Neb. Everyone is invited and we'd love to see you there. Below is the text from a press release about the event.

May 28 Near Kimball. “Kimball Wildflower Week.” Visit us on Facebook!!/event.php?eid=175460332498168 Morning yoga (followed by bird hike) at 7 a.m. Morning wildflower hike at 10 a.m. Bring a sack lunch and drink if you want to stay for lunch or visit one of Kimball's restaurants. Afternoon wildflower hike at 2 p.m. Campfire hot dogs and s'mores at 6 p.m. (bring a drink and something to share). Evening wildflower/sunset hike at 7:30 p.m. (sunset 8:18 p.m.). Come and enjoy the wonder of Nebraska's shortgrass prairie ecosystem. This event is free but there is a suggested donation of $5 per adult. Donations go to the Kimball Community Arboretum. Site use donated by EJE Ranch. Make-up day in case of inclement weather will be Saturday, June 4, with the same slate of events. Directions: From the Kimball stoplight (Hwy 71/30) drive 3 miles south, then 3 miles west on CR 28. Turn right on CR 35 and drive 1.2 miles north (crossing over I-80) and follow the signs. Or just follow the purple line on the google map (link below), which begins at the Kimball stoplight and ends at the site! GPS coordinates: N 41° 12.734’ W 103° 42.533’ Contact: Shaun Evertson, 308-241-0878/

Calves at play

As I’ve said before, spring is a nice time of the year. It can be harsh at times, but it is the season of renewal and the countryside abounds with new life of all kinds; grasses and forbs, buds and leaves on trees and shrubs, new baby livestock and new baby wildlife. And there’s baseball.

In 1990 the renowned columnist and commentator George F. Will published a book titled “Men at Work, the Craft of Baseball.” While you may or may not like Will and his conservative politics, he’s a fine writer and “Men at Work” is perhaps the best baseball book written in the last 50 years.

The thesis of Will’s book is that while it’s true that baseball at the professional level is a boy’s game played by men, the men who get paid for playing the game approach their craft as professional craftsmen. Will writes in great detail about the work ethic and professionalism of four people who were active in the game during the late 1980’s: Oakland Manager Tony La Russa, L.A. pitcher Orel Hersheiser, San Diego slugger Tony Gwynn, and Baltimore’s modern Iron Man Cal Ripkin, Jr. If you’re a fan of the game, you might give ‘Men at Work” a try. It’s a good read.

But this piece is more about calves than baseball. I only mention Will’s book because while we were fixing fence the other day, my hired man and I paused to watch a group of calves at play. As I watched the calves and thought about our fencing labor, I thought, “here we have men at work and calves at play.”

A first-calf heifer and her new baby soak up the warm morning sunshine last week on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb. Click on the image for a larger view.
It’s fun to watch calves go from nearly-helpless newborn to playful, nearly-independent creature in only a few days. When they’re first born, they’re not yet strong or coordinated enough to travel far so mama sticks pretty close. Over the next few days, as the calves fill up on rich milk, they get stronger and more coordinated. Mama needs plenty of food to keep her milk production up, so she parks her calf in a reasonably safe area and grazes ever farther from her baby. Often the calves are cleverly hidden in shallow depressions or in thick brush, where they seem to instinctively know to remain quiet and still until mama returns.

After a few days, cow and calf rejoin the herd. Then the magic happens. The calves check each other out, like school kids on the playground. They’re tentative at first, almost as if they’re shy. But before long they become pals and spend more time together than with their mamas.

Filled with energy, on fine days they begin exploring their surroundings and learning what their new body is capable of. They prance and hop and jump around, butt heads a bit and get into shoving matches, curiously examine grass and fences and weeds and the stray scraps of paper and plastic that blow through the pasture.

Before long they learn that they can run like the wind. A group of eight or ten calves will suddenly take off at full speed, on who knows what signal, and tear off across the prairie, dashing in big, sweeping loops wherever their fancy takes them.

Watching their antics, it’s hard not to think that they are having fun, and it’s easy to equate their behavior with the play of children. They’re not children, of course, they’re young cattle. But they’re still playing, still finding some level of enjoyment in their fresh new lives and in their fresh, new bodies.

Watching the calves at play is part of the reason many of us choose to raise cattle. It’s a small part of the non-monetary compensation package we get. I doubt many of us would enjoy our profession as much if we weren’t able to take the time to watch calves at play. I know I wouldn’t.