Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More esses

I must have been a rotten kid this year because I got a big lump of influenza for Christmas. It set in on about December 22 and as I write this on December 30 I’m finally beginning to feel a bit better. But not a lot better.

It’s the respiratory flu, complete with wracking cough, congestion, fever and chills, aches and pains, weakness and general malaise. Hard to describe how awful it feels to feel so awful. Not a lot to do but treat the symptoms with cough and cold nostrums, take acetawhatchacallit for the pain and fever, force fluids, rest as much as possible, and endure.

Complicating matters is the fact that Mom and Dad were laid low by the same malady at the same time. They’re 20 years my senior and I could tell the illness was harder on them than on me. They also had a house full of teenage grandkids and their parental units. A reasonably good time was had by the visitors but a serious toll was exacted from Mom and Dad. The things our parents and grandparents do for us.

On December 22-23 the weather on the Ranch south of Kimball was extremely fine. Skies were clear and the temperatures were pleasant for late December. Although I was ill, I couldn't help but appreciate the beauty of the High Plains shortgrass prairie. In the bright sunshine the grasslands come alive with a brilliant gold color. Cattle grazed contentedly and basked in the warming sunshine. You can click on the images to, as they say, embignify.
Grazing with contentment.
There’s something enchanting about the quality of the sunlight this time of year. The sun never climbs very high in the southern sky, so it’s slanting rays have to travel farther through the atmosphere. As the light flows through the air it seems to gather warmth and a depth of color.
Winter light makes the mundane come alive with beauty.
On Christmas Day the snow came. A remarkable event given that we don’t often see snowfall on December 25 in this part of the country. Before, yes. After, certainly. On, seldom. It was a solid dusting, producing 8-9 inches of the white stuff, but it was also a gentle snowfall, with no blowing or drifting.

My world over the next couple of days was a bit bipolar. As the snow ended the sun came back out and bathed the landscape in a fresh coat of beauty. Gone -- for the most part -- was the gold of stem-cured prairie grasses. In it’s place was an endless vista of brilliantly clean, blisteringly white snow.
Summer's corn and sunflowers transformed.
The temperature remained reasonably mild and the wind stayed away, so venturing out to do chores was an excursion into the heart of fairytale winter. The cows and calves seemed to revel in their clean, crisp new world. They wandered about, seeking and finding still tasty and nutritious grazing. My chores were limited to forking a bit of hay, chopping a bit of ice, and eyeballing each individual cow and calf to assess their condition and health. Not a demanding job at all.

Which was fortunate, because while I appreciated the beauty of the winter landscape and the health of the cattle, I was also extremely ill and miserable. Two hours of morning chores was just about all the fun I could handle. The phrase ‘weak as a kitten’ comes to mind.

Speaking of kittens
Last summer my Mom’s precious companion Ruby passed away unexpectedly. Mom had raised Ruby from the time she was the runt of a litter of kittens, and the two of them had a powerful bond. Ruby spent her waking daylight hours close to Mom, sitting in her lap as she “did the computer” and hovering near as she did chores. At night Ruby was on mouse patrol throughout the ranch house. Her expertise was never very apparent except in the absence of mice and the signs of mice.
When Ruby died Mom swore she’d never have another cat. She tried to hide it, but her grief was profound and she missed Ruby terribly. And the mice returned to the ranch house.

On Christmas Day daughter Jenny arrived with her two sons and a carload of cheer. They also delivered a pair of nine week-old Snowshoe Siamese kittens, Jingle and Bell. The two strikingly pretty and playful kittens immediately made themselves at home and quickly thawed the icy grief in mom’s heart. Just another Christmas miracle.
Mom, Jingle and Bell.

There really needs to be another kitten picture here.
Jingle, Bell. Or vice-versa.

On December 27 at about 8:30 a.m. the sun began to break through the low overcast. I’d just finished checking calves and was negotiating the south gate of the hay meadow when warming rays of sunshine tumbled down from the heavens, illuminating the vast field of snow in front of me, setting off a riot of scintillating reflection from trillions of individual ice crystals, turning the snow into a blaze of glittering diamonds.
The temperature was hovering at about 28 degrees, and with the sunshine came just the barest puff of northerly breeze. As I watched, captivated by the sight, a mist of water vapor began to rise from the frozen snow and into the brightening winter sky.

I was all too mesmerized by the sight to capture an image. It was all I could do to witness and drink in the majesty of nature's beauty. The mist of vapor rose all about me, bringing the horizons in close and tight and wrapping my shrinking world in a cooling, invigorating embrace. Within a few minutes I stood at the heart of a classic “milkbowl” sky. All around me the air glowed with soft whiteness, far less dense than fog, but just as visually impenetrable.

My mind flashed back to a Mediterranean sky more than 30 years in the past, when as a young man I flew through a similar sky in the right seat of a trusty Intruder. There had been no snow then, and the meteorological phenomenon was completely different, but the result was subjectively the same.
In 1984 Smurf and I soared majestically through the milkbowl at 30,000 feet and 500 knots, returning to the boat from a routine SUCAP mission. We seemed to float along in a featureless void, with no up or down, left or right, front or back. There was no horizon to be seen, and no way to gauge how far we could even see. Did the world out there still exist or did it end at the glass of the canopy and windscreen? From our perch in an airborne tactical jet the sensation was both sublime and frightening. Our instruments told us that all was well, that we were wings level, upright, and proceeding normally, but our eyes told a different story. The milkbowl is a beautiful place, but it’s also a very dangerous place. A few moments of inattention, the onset of “the leans” or spatial disorientation, and disaster could strike. We kept the monsters at bay that day, but the experience has stayed with me.

In 2014 I stood firmly on the ground and had no fear of the leans or of flying unexpectedly into the sea. I could marvel at and enjoy the milkbowl sky. And so I did. The mist of vapor rising from the snow has a simple but beautiful explanation. As the sunshine washed down on the frozen snow, and as a puff of breeze wandered by, and with the air temperature and pressure at just the right point, the surface layer of the vast snowfield began to sublime.

By definition sublimation is the transition of matter from solid phase directly to gaseous phase, without an intermediate stop at the liquid phase. Most forms of matter can sublime when the conditions are right, but on our planet conditions are rarely right for any matter except water.

Water is a very interesting thing. It forms as a polar molecule, with two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Because of the chemical properties of oxygen and hydrogen the water molecule can form as many as four molecular bonds. This, in part, makes the phase transition of solid ice to gaseous vapor possible. All that’s required, when conditions are right, is the addition of a bit of energy. As I stood at the hay meadow gate the other day the sun and the breeze added just the right quantity of energy and countless trillions of water molecules sprang into the chill morning air as water vapor. It was a beautiful thing to see.

On December 29 Arctic air began to flow into the region. At a minute after midnight the temperature at Kimball hovered at 20 degrees. Then it began to fall. By a minute past the next midnight it was minus one, and by 8 a.m. minus four. The forecast called for minus 17 in the depths of early morning on the last day of 2014.

As I scurried about my chores on December 30 the cold was a force to be reckoned with. My pickup gets me around and keeps me warm, but a breakdown or getting stuck could be a serious problem. It’s not worth fretting over, and I've taken the proper precautions, but a chores excursion on December 30 is very different than one on June 30, when the Earth is on the other side of it’s orbit and our northern hemisphere is directly facing the sun’s warmth. The high temperature on June 30 was 88, and the mercury only dipped to 49 that night.

At first glance on a day like this the prairie appears cold and lifeless, mired in the depths of frigid winter. There’s plenty of life going on, though. The calves at the far end of the hay meadow, a full mile to the north, appear first as scattered dots, clustered about the bigger dots of hay bales. I try and try to capture the essence of this and similar scenes with my camera, but it never quite works. There's always too much information missing.

As I checked water the stock tank was frozen over with a thick rind of hard, white ice. If the pasture was larger and used more extensively in the winter, it might pay to install propane tank heaters. Then again, it might not. The conservative frugality of a successful operation dictates a manual option for making water available. And so I took up my trusty axe. Chopping ice isn't a big chore, and I have to admit that I’ve cheated a bit.
Over the last several days I let the tank float become captured beneath the ice so that a thin stream of water continues to flow from the supply valve at the bottom. A bit of water runs over, but not much, and it keeps the surface ice thin in even the coldest weather. It's the work of moments to clear a large hole. Hearing the chopping sound, calves begin drifting over for a drink of cool water. They don’t use as much water in the winter, only 7-8 gallons per head per day, but that doesn't mean it isn't critical for their survival. Chopping ice is a least favorite task, but it’s arguably the most important job of the cold season.

Thoreau had a number of interesting things to say about winter and ice. Thumbing through my well-worn edition of “Walden,” I can quickly find a familiar place, chapter 16, “The Pond in Winter.”

  • “…I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where…a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

There are moments when the realization of my immense good fortune bursts to the fore and nearly drops me to my knees with gratitude. A frigid winter morn, a frozen stock tank, Christmas cheer and the love of a family provide such a moment. Here’s hoping that each of you kind readers will be similarly blessed in the coming year.

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