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.