Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Time for snow?

Summer faded slowly, oh-so-slowly, into a lingering, mostly pleasant autumn this year. Other than the few skiffs of snow, a handful of nearly cold days, and the brisk hammering of intermittent wind spells, the weather has been pleasant for a long time. These nice conditions made fall chores on the ranch a good bit easier than in many years. We had little trouble finding pleasant days for moving herds, sorting calves and weaning, preg-checking and sorting cows, vaccinating and pouring, and hauling grain and hay.
But as they do every year, the days got shorter and the temperatures fell off. Now that we’ve passed the winter solstice and the days are getting longer, winter – real winter – is just around the corner. And that’s as it should be.

Last year winter came early. Looking back over my weather log I see that first frost came on September 28, the first hard freeze on October 3, the first snow fell on October 8 and snow fell every day for a week. We had a nice warm up for a couple of weeks, and then winter settled in for good on October 27. From then until the spring melt there was snow cover on the ground.

This year was different.

It was frosty cold on Christmas morning but the skies were clear and the dawn came like thunder. A second daybreak with warm, bright sunlight was sweet and welcome after a pair of solstice-dark, glowering mornings.

Wheat fields and clean fallow were crystalline bright with frost; countless pinpricks of sparkling brilliance dazzling eyes and mind and heart in a near-explosion of up-sun splendor. Stubble and prairie were drab in comparison, brown and gray and lumpy, but tinged with their own brand of frost, not as spectacular, perhaps, but lovely in their own right.
 I turned on the tap in the northwest quarter and started filling the tank and watched as the cows trailed in single file, providing most of the ground color against a bright blanket of sparkling white frost. The tall junipers were a glowing green accent around the edge of the pasture. A few handbreadths above the western horizon hung a bright, slivery, waning gibbous moon. As I drove in to feed the calves kicked up their heels, throwing dazzling pinpricks of sparkling frost into the air, then dashed to their places at the feedbunk. If I wasn't in church Christmas morning I don't know where I was.

The air cooled quickly Christmas evening, but the sky was clear and the wind calm. As the sun set in the south-southwest, it produced one of the Great Plains' signature treasures - a gorgeous sunset. I don't think I longed for a white Christmas this year.
Welding gauges glow in sunset light on Christmas Day south of Kimball.
By Monday the weather-guessers were predicting the first real winter storm of the year, due to sweep into the region Wednesday night. Predictions are for arctic temperatures, chilling north winds, and somewhere between four and 10 inches of blowing snow for the lowlands. More snow was predicted, of course, for the high country.

I’ve enjoyed the snow-free days we’ve had this year, even though I know they are a double edged sword. No snow means no precipitation, and each day without precipitation drives us deeper into drought. As I drive around the county I see a lot of wheat stands in very poor condition and know that a thick blanket of insulating and, eventually, water providing, snow may mean the difference between a crop and no crop.

As the sun sets on Christmas Day on a south Panhandle ranch, a hay-feeding truck casts shadow on a light-washed outbuilding.
There’s nothing we can do about the weather, of course. We take what we get. There are upsides and downsides to every weather event, and the trick to survival seems to be to never get too high on the upside or too low on the downside. Easier said than done.

Still, I’ve enjoyed our snow-free days. And I’m ready for the snow-filled days to come.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Now where in the heck...

As I drove into town the other day and stopped at the stoplight (yes, the one and only stoplight in Kimball) my Toyota pickup gave me an unexpected message.

As I flicked on the right turn signal I noticed that the dash indicator was blinking much more rapidly than usual and I could hear the relay clicking like mad. This generally means that the tail light bulb is burned out.

In modern vehicles (mine’s a 2005) this can be quite an irritation. Long gone are the days of simply removing a flat lens cover and popping in a spare 1057 (if I recall the number correctly) bulb. Oh, no. Everything is modular these days.

You can still replace the bulbs, of course, and the chore isn’t really that bad, but you have to remove the entire tail light assembly to get to them. The replacement bulbs can be a bit pricey, too.

So I pulled into the parking lot of the local parts house and hopped out to see if I could remember how to remove the tail light assembly. But I didn’t have to. The whole thing had gone missing. Nothing left but a broken and ratty looking wiring bundle.

A friend of mine who was just leaving the store got quite a kick out of my situation. “Holy cow (or words to that effect) Evertson, how can you lose the whole dang thing?”

“Beats me,” I said. “I wonder how much one of these costs?”

“Don’t even ask ‘em in there,” he said, pointing to the parts store. “You can’t afford it. Buy one on line.”

But I had to ask, of course.

Turns out my friend was right. I couldn’t afford it.

After a surprisingly brief and relatively pain-free internet search, I found a replacement unit at a price I could live with. Three days later it arrived by FedEx. Installation was quick and easy.

With a proud and shiny new tail light assembly installed, I went in search of the old one. I had an idea that I’d lost it while driving over rough (former CRP) pasture ground, looking for the three cows I needed to make my tally come out right. But I’d driven over a lot of ground in two sections so I didn’t have a lot of hope. I’ve lost things on that ground before, lost forever until found accidentally a year or two or three later.

But I searched diligently, and after hours and hours of driving the cob-rough ground, I gave up and turned for home. That’s when I noticed a bright, silvery glint on the ground about a quarter-mile away. I headed for it, lost the glint, found it again, and finally pulled up next to the missing tail light. My tire tracks made it clear that I’d driven right by the darn thing several times. All’s well that ends well though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Solstice 2010

On Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 4:38 p.m. the sun will stop moving south and begin moving north. Tuesday will be the shortest day of the year at 9 hours, 21 minutes and 22 seconds. Tuesday night will be the longest night of the year at 14 hours, 38 minutes and 38 seconds.

Wednesday, December 22 will be about two seconds longer than Tuesday, and Wednesday night about three seconds shorter. And so it will go, days getting longer and nights shorter until on June 21, 2011 at 11:16 a.m., the sun will stop moving north and begin moving south. June 21 will be the longest day of the year at 14 hours, 59 minutes and 8 seconds. The night of June 21 will be the shortest of the year at only 9 hours and 52 seconds.

This is the Earth-centric view, of course. Although the day/night duration calculations are correct, and days seem to get shorter in the summer and fall and longer in the winter and spring, that’s just our perspective from the surface of the earth. In reality, so far as our solar system is concerned, the sun is fixed in the center of the system and the planets – including the Earth – orbit around it.

But Earth’s annual trip around the sun – its orbit – doesn’t account for the apparent movement of the sun – south to north in winter and spring and north to south in summer and fall. Were it as simple as that – the Earth orbiting the sun – we’d have a situation similar to that of the Moon. Luna, as the Moon is often called, orbits the Earth and rotates on its axis only once per revolution, keeping one side, the side familiar to us, always facing the Earth. The other side – the so-called dark side – never faces our planet, and only since the advent of space flight and rocket trips to the moon has man ever had a glimpse of the dark side.

But Earth, which is not tide-locked into a single rotation per orbit as the moon is, rotates much more frequently, making 365 and a quarter rotations for each orbit around the sun. Each rotation takes just under 24 hours. From these numbers, 365.25 and 24, we derive the length of our year, measured in days, and the length of our day, measured in hours.

This is all very well, but the fact that the Earth rotates once per day and orbits the sun every 365.25 days doesn’t explain the apparent north-south, south-north movement of the sun when viewed from the surface of Earth.

What causes that apparent movement is the fact that the Earth is tilted about 23.5 degrees in relation to the plane in which it orbits the sun. This plane is called “The Plane of the Ecliptic,” and is the same plane occupied by the other seven planets of our solar system as they orbit the sun. If the Earth stood vertical in the Plane of the Ecliptic, with the north pole straight up and south pole straight down, the sun would never move north or south. It would rise each morning in precisely the same location on the eastern horizon and set each evening in precisely the same location on the western horizon. Each period of day and night would be the same from day to day, and those periods would be very close to 12 hours for most of the planet.

Earth is tilted, however, and presently the axis of rotation – an imaginary line drawn through the center of the earth from the north physical pole to the south physical pole and around which the earth rotates once every 24 hours – is leaned over at 23.5 degrees.

The Earth’s axial tilt of 23.5 degrees is the secret to the seasons, and the secret to December’s Winter Solstice. (Image courtesy NASA/In the public domain)
So why the seasons? Why is there a summer solstice and a winter solstice? The secret is that the axial tilt of 23.5 degrees remains constant (at least in our very short temporal frame of reference) as the Earth orbits the sun. In the summer, the northern hemisphere is leaned over toward the sun, and the sun’s light shines more directly on the north half of the planet. In the winter, the northern hemisphere is leaned away from the sun, and the sun’s light shines less directly on the north half of the planet. If you live below the Equator, in Australia, say, the process is exactly reversed, and your summer begins in late December while your winter begins in late June.

All in all, three things have to work in concert to provide the seasons and the apparent solar movement we see. Earth has to orbit the sun. Earth has to rotate. And – perhaps most importantly – Earth has to be “leaned over” with an axial tilt of 23.5 degrees.

So enjoy next Tuesday, Dec. 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, with the certain knowledge that as our planet continues to orbit the sun, our trusty axial tilt will mean lengthening days. Before you know it, it will once again be spring, and life will begin anew across the lovely and majestic Great Plains.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


In honor of the Middies big win today...


More than 25 years ago. My how time flies. The A-4F  Super Fox was probably the best aircraft the Blue Angels ever performed in. Some of the footage gives you a real feeling for what "form" is really like.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Gales of November

When I stepped out of the house last Wednesday morning, into the teeth of a screeching, frozen wind, lyrics from the Gordon Lightfoot song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” came to mind. Sure, I was on a ranch more than a thousand miles from Lake Superior, site of the infamous 1975 sinking of the mighty ore carrier, and it was late in the month, rather than “early”, but these sure seemed to be “…the gales of November.”

Only a few days after last weekend’s freezing fog departed, a howling wind began blowing across the EJE Ranch south of Kimball. Starting the day before Thanksgiving, the northwest wind averaged close to 30 mph for three days, with daytime gusts topping 40, and sometimes 50, mph. Combined with frigid temperatures ranging from 6 to 20 degrees F., the wind made outdoor excursions bracing a best, and often downright miserable.

Miserable is one way to describe the experience of feeding calves under such conditions. The cold makes everything harder to begin with. Bulky clothes keep the body warm but add extra weight and impede movement. Heavy winter gloves – a true godsend – keep hands and fingers from freezing up but pretty much destroy manual dexterity. Corn freezes solid at the spout of the grain wagon and needs to be pounded into free-flowing submission. The big round hay bales take on a layer of hard frost, and extra effort is needed to peel off slabs for forking up to the feed bunk. Once the labor starts and blood begins to flow, the body warms up nicely, but quickly becomes too warm under heavy clothing, and sweat begins to flow.

Add a howling wind to the equation, and regardless of how well your hood is tied or how tightly your jacket cuffs fit, your clothing is quickly blown full of itchy, scratchy hay. And rather than “pitching” hay along the feed bunk, as you can do in calm weather, each fork-full must be laboriously carried to it’s place.

Once the labor is ended, as you walk the feedlot to eyeball the calves for health and soundness, you begin to cool down. Your sweat-sodden under garments become cold and clammy, itchy and scratchy, a totally miserable feeling. And there’s still ice to chop in five tanks, cows and heifers to check and feed, electric fence to test and monitor, and often as not, snow to scoop and icy porch steps to salt.

Paradoxically, I love morning chores. On freezing, blustery days when the labor is hard and the conditions harsh, I’m locked in a contest I know I can win. There’s a lot to be said for that. I know that I can bear down and persevere – or as we used to say in the military, “suck it up and drive on.” Knowing that you can do hard and miserable things and be defeated by neither the elements nor the task is a good and valuable thing.

I love watching the seasons change, walking and working on the same patch of High Plains real estate, standing and laboring in the same geographic place in snow and rain and dry, under solid cloud or solid blue or all the possibilities in between, in dead calm air or seething winds, in temperatures anywhere between minus 30 and plus 110. I get to see the whole of this place, from extreme harshness to sublime mildness. I know the faces of this place, know them intimately, love them all.

I love watching the cattle; from birth all the way to their final days, watching them grow in health and vigor, watching them graze and eat and play and survive, watching them persevere in harsh weather and grow slick and fat in fine. I love to labor alongside them; fixing fence or putting up hay or chopping ice or just striding out amongst them, out over the vast and flourishing shortgrass prairie and under the same sky and sun, out there in the real world, the place that I love.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


He wasn’t Haji then, he was just a week old calf abandoned by his mother, laying near death on the south side of a stock tank.

He looked like a brown bag of bones, eyes closed and breathing so slowly and so shallowly that he almost wasn’t. His gums and tongue were pale and as cold as the dust he lay in. He looked deflated, like a week-old party balloon. Not completely flat but close to it.

He was dehydrated and hypothermic, and those paired threats would kill him in short order if not immediately treated. He may already have been on the wrong side of the survival curve, past the point of recovery. But he was still with us, the spark of life was still there.

I scooped him up and placed him on the back seat in the pickup cab. He was surprisingly hard to lift and carry. Completely limp and utterly unresponsive, he was like a 60 pound bag of jello. His head lolled and hung off the side of the seat, so I had to shift his whole body to close the door. As I drove out of the pasture and headed to the home place three miles down the road I wondered if he’d survive the five-minute drive.

At the barn I lay him down in the sunshine on a bed of clean straw. He seemed a little bit more responsive, moving his legs and weakly trying to lift his head. Maybe that was a good sign, but maybe it was just a last bit of thrashing before death, which seemed to hover oh-so-near on that crisp April morning.

At the house I mixed a cup of electrolyte powder – mostly salt and sugar – in a quart of warm water and poured it into a soft plastic drenching bag. I fitted the long esophageal tube to the bag and retraced my steps to the barn. The calf was still alive and seemed to be breathing a bit more regularly. But he was still flat out and unresponsive.

I rolled him upright, legs underneath, and held him in place between my legs. Bending down, I raised his head to a hyper-extended position with my left hand and slid the drenching tube into the side of his mouth. With gentle pressure and a little jiggling I worked the tube down his esophagus and into his stomach. As soon as the end of the tube cleared his esophagus the electrolyte solution began flowing. The calf weakly chewed on the tube as the warm fluid filled his belly. His tongue and lips felt icy cold on my fingers, a sure sign that he was deeply hypothermic.

When the bag emptied I tossed it aside and moved the calf to a clean straw bed in a warming box. The box was a cube about three feet on a side, and equipped with an infrared lamp. The calf was still flat out and mostly unresponsive, but still alive and breathing. “Hang in there, buddy,” I said as I vigorously rubbed him down. I hung an old saddle blanket over the opening of the warming box to help hold in the warmth, then left to get on with morning chores. I’d done all I could for the calf. His survival now depended on whether he had enough energy left to make proper use of the electrolyte. Having never seen a calf this close to death recover, I gave him little chance to survive.

When I returned to the barn thirty minutes later I was pretty sure I’d find a corpse. But when I looked at the warming box, much to my delighted surprise, the calf was standing up, trembling a bit, and looking around. He tried to step out of the box but didn’t quite have the energy to get over the six-inch lip. “Hey, buddy, you’re looking good,” I said. In truth he looked sick and bedraggled and woebegone, but for all that, he was remarkably improved from when I’d left him.

The slanting morning sun was still bright and warm, and the forecast was for clear skies and moderate temperatures, so I moved the calf back to the sunlit straw bed near the south door. He was very weak and still shivering a bit, but he could hold his head up now and the sunshine would provide gentle, natural warming. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, but he had a fighting chance.

The next two weeks were far from easy for the calf. He needed electrolyte drenching a few more times, and drenching with milk replacer, too. He rallied and faded three or four times in the first week, then began to slowly progress day by day. He learned to take milk replacer from the bottle, and I fed him colostrum collected from a couple of new momma cows to give his immune system a boost.

In a perfect world we’d have been able to get a cow to adopt him. We had two candidates, a cow and heifer, each of which had lost a calf. But for one reason or another, neither would pair up with the hard luck calf. The calf knew what to do and was happy to nurse when the cow was restrained by a headgate, but he was either too weak or too timid to persist when the cow pushed him away or otherwise discouraged him.

We continued to bottle feed the growing calf and he quickly became a farmyard fixture, ambling around the outbuildings and through the windbreak, nibbling on tender spring grass and weeds and finding warm, sheltered spots to lie up and sunbathe. Mom took to feeding him his morning bottle, and the calf would follow her around whenever she was outside. One day he even followed her into the house, nipping quickly through the door behind her. He came to grief on the slick tile floor, though, slipping and falling heavily, then scrabbling and flopping wildly as he tried to regain his feet. After that experience he’d come to the door and look inside but never again tried to enter.

After a couple of weeks we turned him out with the first-calf heifers to see of he could learn to “steal” milk, and he got pretty good at it. He learned to sneak in from behind while a calf was nursing from the side, and the mild-tempered new mommas tolerated his antics quite well. He wasn’t the only “thief,” either. One of the smaller heifers had given birth to twins, and the plucky brother and sister soon learned to nurse from the closest and most convenient udder. We kept feeding the orphan calf a twice-daily bottle, and he was soon growing like a weed.

The calf took on an interesting personality, seemingly at home both in the herd and around people. Mom opined that we treated him like a sacred cow, so we took to calling him Haji. A long list of youngsters got in on the bottle feeding act, town kids and visiting grandkids and nieces and nephews. The kids delighted in feeding him, and he seemed to enjoy being around the kids. His primary interest was always the bottle, of course, but he always looked at, sniffed, and licked the “miniature” people (which the kids enjoyed more than their mothers).

After 60 days we stopped the milk replacer and Haji was on his own. He was eating grass and had become an expert at nursing on the sly. He continued to grow at a rapid pace and eventually caught up with and surpassed some of the younger calves. It was a good summer to be a bottle calf, with abundant grass and lots of sweetclover and plenty of young cows to sneak a bit of nursing from. At preconditioning on Oct. 9 he weighed in at 400 lbs. He was the lightest of the calves out of the mature cow herd and fell 140 lbs. below the average of that group. He was on the light end of the group out of the first-calf heifers, too, but not the lightest, and only 72 lbs. off the average weight of that group.

As we worked him in the chute, applying a brand and giving him shots, he was pretty much indistinguishable from the other calves, healthy and strong and anxious to leave the chute and get back to the pasture.

The time and expense of bottle feeding Haji will eat into his profit margin a bit, but not a lot. Though the battle to salvage orphan calves can be a tough and vexing one, it pays off in several ways. Firstly, of course, at the sale barn, where you can only sell the live ones. Secondly, the challenge is enjoyable, and part of the responsibility of animal husbandry. Finally, every bottle calf represents an opportunity to introduce a crop of youngsters to the ranch and the ranching experience. Most of those kids will remember seeing the cows and calves grazing naturally on grass and remember feeding Haji in the warm sunshine. Perhaps they’ll be less inclined to believe the anti-ag stories spun by those who’ve never actually visited a ranch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A runway runs through it

I was giving a ranch tour to some city folk a few years back. As we drove along county roads and trail roads I pointed out crops and cattle and talked about what we do on the ranch and why. The four city folk – husband and wife, son and daughter – seemed interested and asked quite a few of the usual questions. Until the daughter, a mildly sullen 12 year-old, asked, “ How can you stand to live here? I mean, there’s nothing here!”

It was a question I should have been, but wasn’t, prepared for. These days I “head ‘em off at the pass” by emphasizing, at the beginning of the tour, the differences between the High Plains shortgrass prairie and the region they hail from.

But my response to the 12 year-old wasn’t very convincing. Wherever she looked, all she saw was a dreary landscape of grass and some cows. New Jersey, in her mind, was much, much better. People and trees and cool places to go and fun things to do. Nebraska was nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles. Yuck!

As we neared the end of the tour I drove down the county road toward the home place, passing Kimball’s tiny airport on the south. Sitting on the left side of the vehicle, the girl hadn’t noticed it as we motored past at the beginning of the tour. “Hey! Are those airplanes?”

So we stopped and took a quick tour of Robert E. Arraj Field, Kimball’s Municipal Airport. I walked the family through the flight center office, pointing out the phones and computers for checking weather, then out onto the flight line. There were four light airplanes tied down on the ramp: a pair of Beech Bonanzas, a Piper Cherokee, and a Cessna 172. “We can walk right up and look,” I said, “But don’t touch the airplanes.”

As we walked around and looked, I was able to use my aviation background to answer questions about the airport and airplanes. The family seemed to enjoy the tour and were fascinated that we could just stop by and walk on in. “This is soooo cool!” said the formerly pouting 12 year-old, over and over. Chalk that tour up as a success.

I hadn’t thought about the local airport as a potential part of a ranch tour, but I’ve added it to the itinerary. And why not? In my life it’s always been there, just across the county road from the home place. In fact, the airport is pretty much surrounded by the EJE. And in addition to operating and housing airplanes, the airport is also a working agricultural enterprise, where a couple of local farmers raise wheat and hay.

And though it’s a small airport, home to less than a dozen aircraft, there is always a good deal of activity. With a wide, modern runway and both jet fuel and aviation gasoline available, Kimball is a popular stop for aircraft passing through. Whenever I drive by I always look at the flight line and I’m often rewarded with a glimpse of an interesting aircraft. Sometimes I stop and visit with the crews.

Monday was a good example. As I drove by the airport I saw a pair of Japanese “Zero” fighters parked in the fuel pits. Zeroes? Sure! Having seen these airplanes before at air shows, I knew what they were, and in the middle of air show season, with Kimball a good gas stop, I wasn’t surprised to see them. So I stopped, visited with the crews, and took a few pictures.
AI-114, Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force, on the ramp at Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon. This aircraft was manufactured as a North American Harvard during WWII, then rebuilt by the film industry in the early 1970's to resemble a Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" for the movie "Tora Tora Tora."
The airplanes were part of Tora Tora Tora flight of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The flight formed in the 1970's to commemorate World War II aircraft and the crews who flew them in defense of the U.S. and her allies. The aircraft, North American Harvard (T-6/SNJ) trainers built during the war and later converted by Hollywood for movie work, do a Pearl Harbor reenactment at airshows all over North America. They also continue to appear in movies and on television, most recently in the movie “Pearl Harbor.”
Pilot Ron Wright taxies AI-112 out of the fuel pits at Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon. Wright and his wife Linda, along with Pilot Dan Reedy (flying AI-114), landed their two "Zeroes" at Kimball for food and fuel while returning to their home base in Texas. The two "Zeroes" and six other aircraft of Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force were featured at an airshow in Lethbridge, Alberta over the weekend.
The pilots Monday were Dan Reedy and Ron Wright of Houston. Ron's wife Linda was along and riding in the tiny back seat of his “Zero”. They were very nice folks, and even though they were in a hurry to get home, they took the time to tell me about their aircraft and the air show in Lethbridge, Alberta, they’d participated in over the weekend. It happened to be the air show where a Canadian CF-18 crashed, providing spectacular video for television news around the world.
Dan Reedy, "Zero" pilot with Tora Tora Tora Flight of the Commemorative Air Force, visits with a local reporter at the Kimball Municipal Airport (IBM) Flight Center Monday. At left is fellow "Zero" pilot Ron Wright.
Though the paint scheme and some cosmetic changes to the nose, canopy and tail make this aircraft look quite similar to the Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero," it remains a North American Harvard at heart. The engine is the famous Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp.
Zeroes on the Kimball flight line!
Veteran of the movies "Tora Tora Tora" and "Final Countdown" as well as the movie/television series "Baa Baa Black Sheep," this WWII-era North American Harvard trainer has been altered to resemble a Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighter.
Even though the Wrights and Reedy were anxious to get home, they took the time to give us a formation flyover – including a shot of air show smoke – as they departed. A very nice gesture.

So that’s why Kimball’s tiny airport is now part of the EJE Ranch tour. There’s more than meets the eye in “flyover” country, including some of the things that fly over!
Form and Smoke! A pair of Tora Tora Tora flight aircraft, Commemorative Air Force, depart Kimball Municipal Airport Monday afternoon following a fuel stop. Many thanks to Linda and Ron Wright and Dan Reedy for your willingness to share your story with us.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixin' Fence

Just after 3 p.m. the temperature bumps into triple digits. First 100, then 101, then finally 102. I don’t know it at the time, and frankly, I don’t care. It’s hot, very hot, and after a wonderfully cool spring I’m not used to or prepared for very hot.

Sweat bee, Dialictus zephrum

I’m fixing fence on the EJE, one of the usual summer chores. The fence I’m working on has been rather neglected for several years, low on last summer’s priority list but high on this year’s. As I bake in the stifling heat I suddenly grin and laugh to myself as I realize (for the zillionth time?) how much I love this chore, even though I hate it from the bottom of my heart. Such contradictions are part and parcel of ranching. I turn and look at the wash I’ve just climbed out of, and pause to admire the straight, tight section of fence I’ve just completed. There was no grin on my face thirty minutes ago…

There’s only the barest hint of a breeze, and only occasionally. The air is mostly still and close and hot, and more humid than normal because the lush grass and sweetclover are transpiring, sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen and water vapor. I feel the weight of the atmosphere bearing down from above, wrapping me in a hot, wet blanket of misery. Sweat pours from my skin and my clothes, boots and gloves become wet and sodden. Perspiration fairly pours from under the sopping ball cap on my head, running in a steady stream past the sweatband, into my ears and over my face. The sweat rivulets wash bug spray from my forehead and deposit in my now-stinging eyes. As I plod along the fenceline, stooping and grasping and nailing wire to wooden posts, I find myself on the edge of a small wash. Below me, in the bottom of the wash, mustard grows rank and wild, six feet tall and more.

The mustard-filled wash is hellish. The stiff stems and leaves claw and scratch at my arms and legs and snarl the four strands of barbed wire. Sorting the wires out is pure misery in the wash-bottom oven. The wire seems to be playing a rude game, dodging away from my sight and grasp, then suddenly snapping back and biting my arms until the sweat runs red. Cloying, choking mustard pollen fills the air and makes me cough and sneeze and wheeze and gasp. At my feet, hidden in an impossible snarl of weeds and wire, there is a sudden harsh buzzing sound. I jump and yell instinctively, fearing the sound means snake, even as in mid-jump I realize it’s only a grasshopper.

Time seems to stand still there in the wash, and my world becomes very small; only me, my fencing task, and natures efforts to defeat me. I persist, and keep working, despite a deep desire to give up and leave the wash for another time, another day. Slowly I gain the upper hand, get the wires unsnarled, staple each to the appropriate spot on the half-dozen nearly invisible posts. After what seems an eternity I scramble up the other side and emerge triumphant. Breathing heavily, with sweat pouring and eyes stinging, I look back and grin.

The misery of such labor is just that – misery. I hate it passionately – the heat and the sweat and the coughing; the close, stifling air and the stinging eyes and biting barbs. At the same time, however, the victory is sweet and delightful. I don’t think I can describe it adequately, but it includes the deep satisfaction in having struggled mightily and persevered and won out by finishing the job and doing it well.

I learned about fixin’ fence and learned the love and the hate of the thing when I was a youngster. Those memories are never far away when I’m doing the chore, and they’ve always been close and served me well whenever I’ve struggled with other hard tasks. During the harsh physical regimen of boot camp, for instance, while other tough 18 year-olds were falling out and giving up, I knew I could persevere and dig deep for untapped reserves. They’ve always been there; the well has never run dry.

The lesson’s not just about toil and perseverance, though. It’s about doing good work and contributing to an enterprise, of being part of something larger and longer-lived than oneself. There’s somehow a solid comfort in sharing the sweat and toil of my forbears on the same land and for the same reasons. One of those reasons, and perhaps the most important, is preserving the EJE’s ranching heritage for generations yet to come.

I have a nephew working with me this summer, trading the sweat of his brow for college cash. He’s always known “the farm” as the place where Googie and Grampy live, and as a place of fun and adventure. As he struggles now with fixin’ fence he’s seeing the ranch through different eyes, and he’s learning to hate the task with a passion. But he’s a good, solid young man, and though he may not realize it yet, he’s already showing signs of learning to love the task, too. He’ll probably never take up the profession of agriculture, but what he learns this summer will stand him in good stead no matter what he does in life.

I turn and move along the fenceline once again, bending and grasping and nailing, with the hint of a smile lingering on my still-sweaty face. The breeze picks up a bit and a cloud passes over, providing some much needed and wonderful shade. Delightful! Then the sweat bees show up.