Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bear in Mind the Chickens

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Bear In Mind the Chickens

It's Tuesday. My day off. I sit on the porch in the sun talking on the phone to my mom. I'm gazing out into the trees when suddenly I say, "Holy smokes! I just saw a bear." The unmistakable shape, on all fours, ambles behind a fortress of trees and out of my sight. I wait for it to reappear on the other end, but it doesn't show again. "I just saw a real live bear," I say to my mom with a touch of disbelief. "Oh wow!" she says.

The bear is the week's big news. Even bigger news on Friday morning when Jesse walks past the broilers only to discover one of the pens smashed, half the chickens eaten or killed, and the other half, some injured beyond repair and the rest right as rain, scattered around the grass with eyes either closed in coming death or wide open with dazed freedom.

Karen, Jesse, and I catch the live chickens and put them all together in the second pen. We collect the dead and bag them up. Karen dispatches a handful of fowl whose injuries are irreparable. "Sorry baby," Jesse says to one chicken huddled panting in the grass, bloodied and fatally doomed. Then Karen and Jesse take the still living chickens over to the reinforced and electric-fence enclosed turkey pen where they’ll be safer for the time being. I water trees.

Later, in the kitchen, I tell Jesse, "I'm sorry about all your chickens."

"On a ranch like this," she says, "you live with the fact that at any time, inevitably, everything might die."

The rabbits might eat all the new garden shoots, a frost could kill all the fruit trees, an owl could get the turkeys, and a bear could easily eat half the broilers.

A ranch, the wilderness, shows that never-ending circle of life and death. Always life and death. Death and life.

"Rilke said," Jesse says, even later on, when we’re in the kitchen cleaning up, "that animals have their backs always toward death and their faces toward God."

I think about how death could be a looming, scythe-wielding specter or an event that is already happened and therefore no longer needs to be dreaded or feared.

Greg calls the Fish and Wildlife Department and they send someone out almost immediately to set up a trap for the bear. The cows, curious, always so curious, sniff the trap, sniff at the decaying scent of the elk meat left inside to entice the young, male grizzly in, and then wander off to graze.

The bear is not caught Friday night or Saturday night. Sunday, the Fish and Game guy moves the trap behind the garden where he and Greg have discovered a bear-killed cow, one of the ranch’s yearlings, and the reason the bear has been sticking around. The Fish and Game guy sets up a camera and Sunday night it records the grizzly getting in the trap then out again. In and out a second time. Rewatching the video, they see the grizzly has a collar on. He'd been caught last year and released when the Fish and Game Department had been after a troubled sow and her three cubs. With trap experience, this grizzly is wary.

On Monday, Fish and Game set a snare. If the bear is caught in it, they’ll dart him and then take him to some place where he (hopefully) won't cause so much trouble.

It's Tuesday again. The bear is still not caught. It's my day off and I linger over my first cup of coffee while waiting for my laundry to wash. Jesse comes in for some breakfast. I ask her about the Rilke line so I can look it up. I find it and read it out loud to her.

The free animal has its dying always behind it and God in front of it, and its way is the eternal way, as the spring flowing. Never, not for a moment, do we have pure space before us, where the flowers endlessly open.
            -Rainer Maria Rilke

Then I make light of a dark, sad thing by saying, "The caged animal has a bear always behind it and God before it."

Jesse corrects me, "The caged animal has the bear always behind it and humans before it." We don't quite laugh. For the remainder of the chickens are to be processed on Wednesday. They're called broilers for a reason.

"This may be awful," I’d said days earlier, "but do you think it's better to be eaten by a bear or to be eaten by humans?"

Those chickens, the broilers, truly do have death, the specter, behind them always, but the sweet part is that for the time that they lived they had a beautiful life. Jesse loved them. She made sure they had fresh grass to scratch, sometimes moving their pen to new grass twice in one day. She carried them out fresh water to drink and gave them plenty of food to eat. In addition, she spoke to them with a soft voice of love saying, "Hello, babies," when she was near them.

Maybe she was the God in front of them. She made their life beautiful. For all those chickens, she was the God they knew face to face, and in a way because of that, the death that was always behind them, when it came suddenly to them in the form of a bear, became as beautiful as the life they’d so rejoiced in living.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Leaning Towards Tuesdays

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Leaning Towards Tuesdays

The days are long. I find myself leaning towards Tuesdays, my day off, and know that's no way to live. I leave the cabin in the mornings before seven o'clock and often don't trudge back until after nine PM. I learn to use our afternoon breaks to take time to myself. Evenings are for nothing more than a quick shower and a falling into bed.

Working alongside Jesse, we garden, water, weed, tend chickens, move fences, herd pigs, fertilize plants, inventory food, doctor horses, prune cottonwood trees, clean bathrooms, and help with kitchen work. During our breaks we plan our fall trip. Hash out ideas. Talk about the world.

On Saturday, I turn thirty-seven years old. I talk to my buddy Stevie, tell him I herded cows last week, and he tells me with thread of jealousy and a great deal of pride, "You have such an awesome life!"

After we hang up, I look over the tall grass I'm pulling and remark to Jesse who is sifting compost, "It's nice to be reminded how awesome our lives are." Sometimes in the midst of the work—in the striving to make money when I have to—I can forget.

As if to add evidence to that reminder, Jesse throws me an afternoon party with presents and everything. She gives me a log dragon with wishing hearts and stacking stones to decorate my room with. She’d spent her day off looking for treasures. It’s just what I wanted. For dinner, Lara, the cook, makes a requested cashew stirfry. Then she serves up a delicious and gluten-free lemon-curd frosted cake.

In the mornings before I leave my cabin, I change out the log dragon's heart. But what could I wish for? I'm full with all that I have. Sure, work is hard and days are long, but the mountains are all around me, the fresh air is alive with life, I’ve got my sister to share the load of the chores with me, and daily adventures to have. I’ve got an awesome life. I eat leftover cake for breakfast on Sunday and Monday. It's just as good outside of a birthday dinner.

On Monday, I water trees. Later, Jesse and I weed out dandelions and dead grass from a rooftop garden. We clean one of the cabins. In the late afternoon, we book tickets to Berlin.

Jesse arranges with Karen for all of us to share the chore of tucking the chickens and turkeys in for the night. This means I get some evenings to relax. The summer doesn't seem so hard to work now.

Week two is in the books.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Riders of the Purple Sage

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Riders of the Purple Sage

I join my sister at Ishawooa Mesa Ranch just miles outside of Cody, Wyoming. While I've been cooking for various and sundry crews, she's been laboring as a ranch hand.

My first day on the job, I follow Jesse around and learn how to feed and water the broiler chickens, the layers, and the turkeys. Learn how to manage the garden weeds, pull grass, and tend the greenhouse. We clean up one of the houses and several other bathrooms around the ranch. Then we inventory about 600 pounds out of 800 pounds of beef.

In passing, Karen asks us, "I've been meaning to ask, do you ride?"

We both do, although it's been a while since we have.

By the end of the day I'm exhausted. I'm not sure if I'll be able to do this type of work six days a week for three months. I wonder what I've gotten myself in for.

I sleep like the dead.

The next morning, Greg has the horses saddled up. We adjust stirrups and with Karen's help I remember how to put on a bridle, how to convince a horse to take a bit.

"Only your second day of work and you get to ride," Jesse says. It's her first time since she got here.

"I realize why cowboys got in so much trouble all the time," I say. "Cowboy boots make you swagger." I've borrowed a pair of boots out of the room with spare things. They’re a size too big, but they work enough for riding. I've also borrowed a hat I found in a basket with spare hats. Jesse looks like a natural in a flannel shirt and cowboy hat. I look like a goof.

We ride across the field and with the cowdog Boss’s help we collect the cattle into a group and herd them into the corral. A small group escapes and crosses the creek, but we get most of them. Greg says it's not bad and that Jesse and I handled ourselves like naturals. It feels like if we didn't we wouldn't be much for Texas girls.

"The variety of work keeps you from getting bored," Jesse says later. The variety also works to keep me from feeling the same kind of exhaustion as yesterday.

I go to the cabin with a different type of weariness covering me like a cloak and sleep like the undead.

Day three, we’re all saddled up and ready to ride. Greg drives us and the horses up to the entrance to the lease land. We'll hang out until he returns with the cows. We’ll hold the cattle until all of them have been brought over and then we’ll herd them up the draw to the lease area where they'll graze for the summer.

The morning is spent waiting for cows. I sit up on Gatsby, the horse I was paired with, and look out at the Wyoming mountains while he grazes. I think once again how lucky I am, what a life I live.

When the cows arrive we, Karen, Morgan, Michael, Jesse, and I, keep them bunched together best we can and turn them occasionally to point them back the way we will want them to go.

A while later, Greg and Tom ride up over a hill and then we begin the trail drive. Michael takes the lead, Jesse and I cover the left flank, Greg and Morgan cover the right, Tom and Karen have the rear.

We have about 65 head. We get them up to the tank so they’ll know how to get water. We leave them there and ride off into the proverbial sunset.

"We were like the Riders of the Purple Sage," I tell Jesse in the truck on the way back to the ranch. Sage brush lines the land beside us to either side. Mountains loom around. The sky is scattered with clouds that threaten rain.

"I always liked Zane Grey," Jesse says.