Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Juice of life

Most human languages have a word or phrase for alcoholic beverages that translates into “water of life.” In Latin it’s aqua vitae, in French eau de vie, in Swahili maji ya uzima, in Italian l’a acqua della vita, in Norwegian livits vann, in Korean saengmyeong-ui mul, in Yiddish vaser fun lebn, in Gaelic uisce (whisky).

In the American Naval Language there are approximately six thousand words for alcohol, and pretty much each one of them translate as “water of life” or “water of liberty.” It’s (or it was, once upon a time) a navy thing.

But this isn’t about alcohol. This is about the juice, or essence, of life.

On Monday morning I felt awful, like five hundred miles of bad road. Doesn’t really matter why, and no, it had nothing to do with alcohol, which I no longer consume, and have not consumed for many years.

I felt weak and tired and dispirited. My head ached and my stomach churned. My muscles felt like mush and my mind was moving like molasses.

I really, really needed to blow the cobs out, but I wasn’t sure I had enough get up and go in the tank.

I finished checking cattle and parked up on top of a ridge near the northwest corner of the south unit. I dragged myself out of the pickup, pulled out my trusty camera, and started taking pictures. I let my eye pick out the shots and made my feet take me to where the camera needed to be.

Slowly, ever so slowly, my mind and my soul began to perk up. It was a lovely morning, still cool at 7:30 a.m., with the promise of heat in the photons cast down from the infant sun. All around me the grass was lush and tall and vibrantly green, perhaps one of the most unusual sights you will ever see in early August in this part of the country.

The smell of the morning was amazing. Warm, moist soil, the green smell of growing plants, the heavy damp smell of evaporation and transpiration, the sharp smell of fresh cow manure, the chalky, astringent smell of baking, lichen encrusted siltstone. And wafting among all the other August prairie odors was the sharp, resinous scent of gumweed, skunkbush sumac, stinkgrass, and fencepost creosote. Those last four take me directly to happy places.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories include those scents. They play like a kaleidoscope as I move along, flashes of sunshiney moments seemingly hardwired into my DNA. The decades between now and then vanish, and it seems I’m stepping effortlessly back and forth through forty and fifty years of time.

“All of these moments,” said the fictional character Roy Batty, “will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.”

He may be right. But they’re not lost yet, and will not be, so long as I live and breathe and experience.

And that is the essence, the juice, of life. Experience. At least it is for me.

After an hour or so I take a break from snapping pictures and look around. I see, then, what my feet have done for me.

They’ve led me across a broad valley and up onto a piece of high ground along the north perimeter of the unit. I’m at a familiar and perfect starting point for a vigorous hike. I look back toward my pickup, parked about a mile away. I can slink back and drive away, letting the weariness and malaise take me. Or I can suck it up and drive on. I turn my back on the pickup and forge ahead.

From where I begin a great circle route around the perimeter of this 1,400 acre unit will add up to about seven miles by the time I return to the pickup.

As I hike the sun shines down and the air warms up. Air flows in and out of my lungs, meeting a lot of resistance at first, but soon it smooths into the rhythm of a proper hiking cadence. In, out, in, out, in, out. Stride, stride, stride, stride.

The ground is uneven, the way nature made it. In this part of the world siltstone is overlain by decomposing gravel and sand and a thin skin of rich, organic topsoil. The grasses and forbs that flourish here are not those of a park or golf course. They blanket the uneven ground and introduce their own unevenness. It takes practice and experience and toughened muscles and joints and good boots to navigate the shortgrass prairie afoot without succumbing to injury.

As I march up and down broad and varied slopes the sweat begins to flow in earnest and the main circulatory pump shifts from low range to high range. The pump sends blood coursing through every bit of my ageing carcass; first to the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, then on to all the organs and muscles and tissue, where the oxygen powers cellular combustion of glucose. Deep inside my body raging microscopic fires make the energy that drives me along, stride after stride after stride.

That glucose comes from the food I eat, meat and plants. The energy that comes from the meat -- that once animated the meat -- came from plants. And the energy that gave the plants life came from the sun. Those tiny cellular fires burning throughout my body as I hike and sweat and breathe and experience are miniscule suns in their own right. I am, the meat and cattle and grasses and forbs are, concentrated sunshine.

The hiking feels good and I drive myself hard. I still don’t feel great, but the exertion and the increased circulation and respiration and perspiration relentlessly attack the feelings of not good and drive them back, back, back.

I hike across mixed shortgrass prairie. The grasses are broadly divided in two main groups, cool season and warm season. The cool season grasses are first to green up in the spring and do the bulk of their annual growing during rapid growth windows which coincide neatly with springtime rains and springtime air temperatures.

Green needlegrass, needleandthread, western wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, smooth brome, slender wheatgrass. If there’s moisture in the soil when the springtime thaw occurs, these grasses green up and begin to photosynthesize. As air temperatures climb into the 60’s, and provided there’s enough moisture, they take off. On a warm spring day with plenty of sunshine and abundant moisture in the ground you can lay down, close your eyes, and actually hear the grass growing. Some of these grasses, including the ubiquitous but non-native crested wheatgrass, are bunch grasses. They grow in clumps or bunches and contribute to the uneven nature of the prairie.

Later in the summer, when air temperatures venture into the 80’s and above, and again so long as there’s adequate moisture in the ground, warm season grasses hit their stride. On the EJE ranch these are primarily blue grama, sideoats grama, hairy grama, and buffalo grass. Here and there a few clumps of little bluestem join the party, but there’s not a lot of Nebraska’s state grass in this part of the Panhandle.

There are plenty of forbs and shrubs present as well. As I hike along I pass the late-summer examples mentioned above, gumweed and skunkbush sumac. Here and there, mostly along fencelines and ditches, the summer annual stinkgrass shows up. These plants are highly aromatic, and the pounding photons of the summer sun drive their scents into the hot, close air.

The scent of gumweed is one of my earliest memories and I remember being repeatedly chastised as a very young lad for coming home covered with the sticky, aromatic sap. It wasn’t my fault the dog kept knocking me down in the gummy, smelly stuff!

The smell of stinkgrass rings a memory bell from my high school days, when we mighty Longhorns gathered twice a day on the practice field to prepare for the coming football season. That smell always calls up the recollection of sweat and exertion and running and exhaustion and fun.

The odor of skunkbush sumac and the smell of hot creosote-impregnated fenceposts takes me back to countless hot, exhausting days of building and mending fence. We have a lot of fence on the ranch and there is no fencepost and no strand of wire that I have not personally manipulated.

All those memories wash together and mingle, playing snippets of sensory recollection in and about me as I trudge across my prairie home. Yes. My prairie home. This is that place, and these are those memories that signify the very essence -- the juice -- of my life.

I turn a corner and pound along a fenceline in the home stretch of my hike. I’ve come about six miles and have two to go. I’m moving easily now, heart and lungs working at good capacity and keeping time with my swinging stride. I increase my pace, searching for that elusive surge of endorphins. I spy a couple of abandoned fence posts along my path and snatch them up to add a bit of mass to my workout. Each post is eight feet long, four inches in diameter, and weighs in at about thirty pounds. I balance each post on an opposing shoulder and press my pace harder.

With sweat stinging my eyes, hot breath rasping in and out, and leg muscles beginning to burn I finally hit overdrive. It’s a strange juxtaposition of agonizing exertion and overwhelming serenity. The effort is enormous and painful, yet at the same time I seem to float along on a cloud of effortless wellbeing. I’m at once within my body and without. I feel the extreme exertion, the pounding of my heart and the straining labor as my diaphragm struggles to provide adequate respiration. My fingertips begin to tingle as my lungs blow off great draughts of carbon dioxide and the chemistry of my coursing blood flirts with hypocapnia and alkalosis. At the same time I seem to float alongside myself on a wave of euphoria.

The last quarter mile is agony and ecstasy. It seems to take forever and no time at all. When I arrive at my pickup and fling down the dead weight of two creosote soaked cedar posts my legs keep moving. I want to stop and rest but at the same time I want to keep driving as hard and as long as I can. I slow my pace and walk several hundred cool-down yards in a big loop around the truck. Finally, I stop.

I lean back against the sun-warmed flank of my pickup and look around. I’m standing in the midst of lush shortgrass prairie in early August. Above me towers a deep blue sky, dominated by the blazing sun and garnished with a few fleecy white clouds. The air is warm and close, inching toward the mid-90’s, and suffused with those wondrous scents. My skin cools as sweat evaporates. Slowly my breathing returns to normal and my heart rate falls below 100, then 90, then 80, then 70, and finally settles out around 60 beats per minute. My muscles luxuriate in the glow of recent hard use and peak oxygenation.  The tingling leaves my fingertips.  I’m in a state of bliss.

What, I wonder, in all my nearly 21,000 days of life, have I ever done to deserve this? Nothing. Not one single thing.

One day it will be gone. Perhaps quickly, perhaps slowly. But that day is not yet come. It still resides in that far, undiscovered country. For now it is enough -- far more than enough -- to be supremely blessed.


  1. Moving and very well told Shaun.

    I felt like I was right there.

    Your world is very beautiful my friend.

  2. Thanks Sarge.

    My words always seem pale in comparison to reality; nice to know they're accomplishing at least part of the mission.

  3. I want to see the entire bicycle. As I have said before, rust can have a beauty of it's own. I just derusted a fencing hatchet, that I keep in the Impala, because it is such a usefull beaast to have around. You do have a talent for puttting down words.