Tuesday, July 19, 2011


As the sky lightens in the east, I’m sitting on soft, green buffalograss, leaning in comfort against a timeworn hump of siltstone. I’m nearly in the center of pasture we call the North Googie. The air is cool still and fragrant with the smell of prairie-July and cattle.

Around me I hear the quiet sound of heifer footfalls, the soft grinding of heifer chewing, the dim rumble of heifer rumination. The waning gibbous moon hangs fat and bright over my right shoulder, providing plenty of light to take in the scene. The heifers are grazing north-to-south, moving along the low ground at a steady pace, selectively grazing on tender new warm-season grasses like blue grama and buffalograss. As sunrise nears, morning twilight fills the air and the still somewhat shadowy animals gain substance, dim shapes becoming distinct and shaped like what they are – young cattle.

I’ve come to check cattle, but I’ve come early enough to enjoy the last cool of the night and to soak up the beauty of a summer sunrise. Wrapped in cool beauty and surrounded by natural wonder, my mind dashes down thought-filled brain corridors as each sensation prompts staccato flood of thoughts. The curse, perhaps, of the fifty year-old mind.

The young cattle grazing around me are in the midst of a remarkable transformation. They are nominally under the control and authority of the pair of Lowline Angus bulls grazing alongside. The bulls are doing their job – have done so in most cases – of providing genetic material to quicken heifer ova into fetal calves. At the same time, the heifers are growing wildly, turning sun- and water-fed grass into flesh and bone and sinew.

This mid-summer slice of the cycle of life is remarkable to me, but only because I pause to give it thought. Otherwise it is simply nature at work, and nature does her work whether I think about it or not. Although we spend lots of time and more than a little effort managing our ranching operation, nature is really in charge here, at least in charge of the important stuff.

The management stuff is vitally important to the continuation of our ranch and of our lifestyle. Without proper management, bills go unpaid, and the land title passes to someone else. In many ways, however, land ownership and ranch management are simply ideas, a set of artificial rules to guide us as we navigate civilization – an artificial civilization which exists, perhaps only ephemerally, alongside the real world.

I smile as the young cattle graze on by. Just as it’s important to manage the ranch to the best of our abilities, so also is it important to understand the reality of one’s place in nature.

My thoughts shoot down another passageway, one echoing with voices from the past. How many times, I wonder, have people paused here to enjoy midsummer coolness and the impending beauty of sunrise?

I have no way to know, of course. It seems a perfect pausing place, and I’d be unsurprised to find evidence of previous use. Yet the land is wide, with many possible paths, and people – compared to the vastness of the land – are few, even at their present six-billion-plus number.

I think about a letter I’ve recently discovered, penned by my great-grandmother Oda and addressed in 1970 to my grandparents. The letter describes, in two pages of sparse but detail-packed paragraphs, Oda’s marriage to Sam in Kentucky, their subsequent migration to a homestead in New Mexico, and ultimately, back to a farm in Adams County, Neb.

“(We) were married Apr. 20, 1904 at a lumber camp in Lee Co., Ky. Pastor was an old man who came on a mule across the Mts. from Owsley Co., Ky. Mamma had dinner soon as the ceremony was over. They had a square dance at he house that night. There was no work at the mill that day…

“In summer of 1909, Sam went to New Mexico & took up a homestead. He paid $550…we picked up bag & baggage & got to Estancia, New Mexico. The shack was very small, 10 x 16 ft. It was fun at first, but money ran out & first crop burned up – so dry. Sam went to Albuquerque to look for work. The children & I stayed on the claim, as the family had to stay 7 months of the year. We had 2 horses & a neighbor worked them while Sam was gone. Every week the children and I went 11 miles to Estancia to get groceries and mail. Sam would send me a little money. We proved the claim in Dec. 1909. Sam came back to prove up & we went back to Belen with him. Dale was born 5 days after we got back…

“Dale left us 28 Sept. 1915, and it was a sad time. He was at a cute age, 2 years, 9 months. In August 1917, Sam decided he wanted to visit his brother in Nebraska so he got a pass on the railroad. He rented a farm and went back to New Mexico and disposed of the household goods. We got to Nebraska 2 August 1917…

“The first year, we got hailed out, but Sam had good luck with hogs and with chickens. By this time, both girls had to go to high school. Mae worked for her board and came home on week ends. She taught school at 17, Wilma at 16. They took Normal training at Kennesaw, Neb.”

Oda lived to be 99 years old. Sam died in 1973 at 94. They were never very successful at farming, but farming isn’t the yardstick to gauge a successful life. How many Americans could do today what Sam and Oda did a century ago?

Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, live in today. As the sun finally breaks over the southeastern horizon, the day comes alive and the temperature begins to rise, quickly chasing the coolness from the air. I have more cattle to check, not to mention windmills, water and mineral supplies, and fence integrity. I stand up and stretch, then walk back to my pickup to begin managing.

The smile on my face lingers, though. If the words of my forbears and my own experience have taught me anything, it’s to enjoy the good years and endure the hard years. So far, this has been a year to enjoy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Love and the butterfly-to-be

As I trudged across the shortgrass prairie Tuesday morning, my heart was doing emotional flippity-flops, and I wondered why. Why was my throat tight? Why were unbidden tears stinging at the corners of my eyes? Why was I on the verge of blubbering like a girl?

The emotion wasn’t sadness, it was joy. I’d just had a remarkable hour of photography, taking pictures of a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on common milkweed and of some of my young cattle grazing on rich native grass.

The caterpillar was beautiful, both in its present intricate and colorfully banded form and in its gorgeous potential adult form. The cattle were beautiful too, but probably only to a stockman. Strong and healthy, with rapidly growing calves at their sides, they were busy turning the prairie’s grassy bounty into milk for this year’s calves and into energy reserves for next year’s calves, even now present as fetal calves in nearly every recently-bred cow.

Still, I wondered, why this upwelling of emotion? The prairie ecosystem, the cattle – these are daily bread to me. I deeply appreciate them. I revel in their paradoxical simple complexity. I am never more at peace with the world than when I’m amongst my cattle out on the native prairie. But I’m seldom near tears at those times.

As I hiked along my mind kept turning back to two things; the beauty of the caterpillar and the rough licking one of my young cows gave the bottom of my hiking boot as I lay in the grass snapping pictures. Those two disparate experiences seemed to be at the heart of the emotion I was feeling.

On the one hand, I’m pleased that my cows are quiet animals, accustomed to low-stress handling and to seeing me afoot on the prairie. As herding prey animals, their instinct is to flee any possible threat. The fact that they don’t dash away in panic when I approach seems to validate my efforts at low-stress handling and of the husbandry I provide them. You can click on the images for a larger view.

Cattle graze within a few feet of the photographer Tuesday morning on a ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
An inquisitive calf approaches the photographer Tuesday morning on a ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
But it was more than that on Tuesday. The cow that licked the sole of my hiking boot, for instance, is a first-calf heifer. Last summer I spent a lot of time afoot amongst her and her heifer group. As curious young cattle, they would always eventually approach and crowd around me, particularly if I stayed very still. One heifer, braver (or perhaps stupider) than the rest, would nearly always sniff at me and then lick me with her rough tongue. On Tuesday, she exhibited the same behavior, despite the passage of a year’s time and despite having a calf to care for and protect.

There’s behavioral continuity there, and that feels good to me. Does the cow “remember” me? Well, perhaps at some level. But she’s still only a cow, and so far as we know, the bovine brain operates very differently than the human model. The emotion I feel is almost certainly not reciprocated by the cow. This I know, yet that knowledge does nothing to dampen my emotional response. It might, in fact, enhance that response.

At this point, you may be wondering if I’m certifiably nuts. If so, you may be right.

Half an hour earlier I’d clambered through a four-wire fence to snap some pictures of common milkweed, a plant that had come up as a topic in, of all places, a facebook conversation last week.

Common milkweed is common in the ditches and in recently reclaimed grasslands, but not in native prairie. I spied this milkweed in a ditch alongside a county road that cuts through the prairie I was hiking, and facebook conversation in mind, decided I’d better grab some images while I had the opportunity.

Considered by many to be a weed, common milkweed is nonetheless showy and attractive. The plants I was photographing were partially obscured by tall, headed, western wheatgrass, so I moved along the ditch to where a single plant was growing right at the edge of the road grader cut. As I sat down on the sun-warmed, gravely incline of the ditch to steady the camera, I saw a flash of color adorning one of the pinkish flower petals. “Monarch caterpillar,” I thought immediately. Not exactly rocket science, of course, as Monarchs are known to feed only on milkweed and the caterpillars are prettily and distinctively marked.

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on common milkweed Tuesday morning along a county road south of Kimball, Neb.
I moved closer, set my camera to the “super-macro” setting, and began to take pictures. The caterpillar, intent on feeding, seemed not to care about my proximity or the intrusion of a giant, shiny camera lens.

Colorful? Breathtaking?
At one point I paused to peer closely at the inch-and-a-half bug, and was immediately captivated by its beauty. The bright yellow stripes, I knew, were a warning sign to potential predators. “I taste terrible!” Still, the brightly striped insect, perched on a pinkish, star-shaped flower and seen against the vibrant green of the plant’s foliage was breathtaking.

That’s when the flipity-flopping started.

Is it possible to love a butterfly-to-be? I think it must be.

How fortunate I am, I thought, to not only be able to see and experience nature’s beauty on a daily basis, but to be able to take the time to enjoy it, think about it, and in some small way, share it.

My thoughts turned to my great-grandmother, Maude Evertson, who so often told me of her love for the prairie, and her contention that most of it should never have been plowed and farmed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d ever beheld the beauty of a Monarch caterpillar. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I thought about the wonders she must have beheld back when the prairie was essentially undisturbed, when there were no county roads nor REA lines and fences were few and far between. When Indians still occasionally trotted across the landscape on short, colorful horses.

Maude Holloway and her mother, Louisa Quick Holloway, beside their "soddy" in Frontier County, Neb., about 1895.
I thought about other people across the length and breadth of our nation, the 99 percent who have never set foot on a farm or ranch. Do they find beauty in their daily lives? Do their hearts occasionally lurch from the sheer joy of experience? I hope so. Oh, I hope so.