Tuesday, July 28, 2015


The Ranch Hand’s Diary:

Norma the milk cow and her calf Little Dude are let back out to pasture. In the evenings, Greg rides Blue out to collect them and bring Norma in to be milked. The morning milking responsibility is usually split between Darby and Sami, me, Jesse, Greg and Morgan. But on Thursday, Greg will go with Karen to the farmer’s market and it will be up to me to do the evening milking. It’s on the weekly chore list with my name typed in bold letters.

Wednesday night at dinner I say, "Greg, do you think in the morning you could leave Norma in?"

He doesn't say no, but he says, "You could saddle up the grey horse and ride out to get her. That would be fun."

Yeah, I could do that.

The next morning, after I’ve dumped the compost into the composting pile, I go over and help Greg as he’s milking, first handing him the bucket of hot water and a washcloth to wash Norma's udders and then plugging in the generator to the pump.

"How bad of an idea is it for me to ride bareback?" I ask. Saddling up and gearing up is making the evening chore seem like an ordeal to me.

"Not a bad idea at all," he says. "If you have time this afternoon you could ride Johnnie around here in the corral to see how he does."

After my morning chores, I take a carrot out to where Johnnie, Louie, and Senator are grazing. I give out bits of carrot to all. Then I halter Johnnie, the grey horse, and lead him to the corral. There, I bridle him and try to get him to stand lengthwise alongside the fence so that I can climb on up. He doesn't go for it. So then I lead him to an overturned watering tub and use that to gain enough height so that I can slide a leg over and scramble onto his back.

Johnny hasn't been ridden in weeks. He kicks up his heels in protest and tries to fight the bit. I walk him around the corral until I’m comfortable that he's at least pretending I'm in charge. I take him a little ways outside the corral and then I lead him back to his pasture home. There, I dole out more carrots and then go back to do more chores.

My legs shake as I walk to the lodge. Riding bareback is about leg control. I must have been hanging on pretty tightly.

At lunch, I tell Greg what I've done and how Johnnie behaved. He thinks the evening will be fine. He says that riding with just a halter is also a lot of fun.

In the afternoon as Jesse and I are cleaning up after lunch, I ask, "You want to go out and ride a little?"

"Yes," she says, a bright light in her eyes.

Johnnie and Louie are best buds. Inseparable. Somewhat codependent. I'm not sure if it will be easier or harder if we take them both when the time comes to get Norma. For now, for our afternoon jaunt, Jesse and I decide to ride bareback and with only halters. It seems so much more symbiotic. Johnnie is calmer with Louie there with him.

We ride around the corral some. Louie bucks a bit to see if Jesse will fall off. She won't. So he settles down. "You want to ride up to the gate?" she asks.

"Yeah, sure," I say.

We head out the open corral gate and up toward the main ranch gate. Once there, we decide we’re not quite done. It's fun. It’s a sunshiny day, the landscape is breathtaking, and we’re riding horses. Moments like this are perfect ones. It's like we’re getting a small vacation in the middle of our work day.

As we pass their makeshift corral, Senator neighs a, "Hey, you guys, I'm bored here all alone."

"Hold on, they’ll be back soon," I promise him.

We mosey across the field, pass the stream, and weave through some trees. On the way back, we pick it up to a trot. Louie has a faster gait and Johnnie, not liking being left behind, steps into a gallop. Louie isn't feeling it. He bucks up. Jesse keeps her seat. "He hit me in the chin," she says, over her shoulder.

"Ouch," I say.

The knot I've tied to make Johnnie's halter work as reins slips loose and I slide off and walk the last few feet to their makeshift, electric fence corral. Jesse and I disconnect the electricity and put them inside. We hand out carrots to everyone, reconnect the electricity, and then walk back to do our afternoon chores.

With my two trial runs, I feel set for tonight's roundup. More or less. Pretty much.

Greg and Karen go to the farmer’s market.

Jesse and I stay behind and work. While we’re setting up for dinner, I tell Laura, "Greg says it's easy, that Norma comes right in. That probably means you should be standing by with the camera or a video camera. It could end up being hilarious." She says she'll take pictures.

After dinner, it's go time. Jesse and I set up the milking equipment. We bring Louie and Johnnie in so we can mount up by way of the overturned water tub. Right or wrong, we're riding bareback and only using halters to guide.

We ride across the field.
Norma is a Holstein. She's big and white with black patches over her coat. She's easy to spot. There, next to her, small with the same black and white coat is the Little Dude. At the sight of us, Norma stands up. We get behind her and begin the slow journey back toward the barn.

Johnnie likes to follow. He wants to be right behind Louie. Nose to tail close. I have to work, turning him in a tight circle, to get him to flank Norma. I manage to get him to go where I want him to go. We’re doing just fine. We’re over halfway there. For a split second I think we’re going to make it in as easy as Greg had said it would be. But then, the horses get it into their heads that they want to get home faster. They start to trot and Norma gets spooked. She darts off to the left and I can't get Johnnie going fast enough to cut her off. That ‘ol milk cow heads back to the pasture with the Little Dude and Jesse and Louie following.

Johnnie fights me, fights for control of his head. I turn him in a tight right-hand circle and try to nudge him back out after all the others. He's not going for it. He takes us into the corral. He wants to call it done for the day. Me too, pal. For minutes, five, ten, three, fifteen? I don't know how long, I turn him and tap my heels into his sides, but he won't leave the corral. He’s dug his hooves in and is determined to stay.

Jesse is out there, somewhere, chasing Norma on her own. It's not even really her chore. "Come on, Johnnie," I say, nudging, circling, pleading. Jesse is out there, somewhere, possibly carried away into the sunset on a fast-moving Louie. For an instant, I consider abandoning Johnnie and going out on foot, but that would admit defeat. That would teach Johnnie that I'm a pushover. I'm not a pushover.

I turn Johnnie toward the open gate and this time he goes through. We make a very slow way back across the pasture. I spur him into the occasional trot, but he prefers to walk. I consider pushing him to canter, but I'm not sure I can handle the speed. I'm not sure I want to.

Finally, there ahead in the trees, on the far side of the pasture, I see a flash of black and white. It's Norma. Behind her like a pro is Jesse still on Louie. She gets Norma going in the right direction and I hold Johnnie back until I can get into a better flanking position.

Suddenly, like a miracle, we’re all pointed in the right direction.

The horses are impatient. They want their heads to run on home. Johnnie starts up a rocky trot and then lengthens his stride into a gallop. I hang on for dear life, grasping his mane and trying to keep my seat. I pull on the halter and slow him down. Ahead of me, Jesse is hauling back on Louie’s halter for all she's worth, trying to keep him behind Norma. That crazy cow will spook if we get too close. Neither of us wants to start all over again.

By a cocktail of sheer luck and a lot of work, we get Norma into the corral. We follow behind her on the horses and then dismount as if it were all in a day’s work. Easy. We secure the horses’ halters to the hitching post and leave them to wait until after the milking is done.

We only get a half gallon of milk. It seems like a lot of work for a little bit of milk.

We let Norma back out, put the horses away, and get the milk bottled up and all the equipment washed and put in its place.

We’re both exhausted as we walk back toward our cabin that evening. "You always see those pictures of milkmaids leading milk cows placidly in to be milked," I say. "Why can't it be like that?"

"Yeah, that's not how it is," Jesse says.

Jesse and I do our chores together. We're a team, but not codependent like Louie and Johnnie. We walk on home past the field filled with cows. We’re both thinking that tomorrow it’s Jesse's chore to do the morning milking. We're both thinking that we might use bridles this time. I'm thinking maybe a saddle too.

I go to bed with the saying, "Sufficient for the day are the troubles therein" in the forefront of my mind. But it's hard not to plan ahead, to think about doing that all over again, to worry about what tomorrow will bring.

I sleep the sleep of the innocent and the hard worked; full and deep. I wake up thinking about milkmaids.

Dressed for the day, I shoulder my backpack and head out the door. In the pasture I see the white and black figure of Norma the milk cow. I wonder, I think. With that thought, I start her way. When I get close, she turns her head and eyes me with those big eyes. "You want to have a milk cow with pretty eyes," Greg has said more than once. He loves the cows.

"Come on, mama," I say.

She gets to her feet. The Little Dude, his sleep interrupted, gets up too. Norma begins to walk in the direction of the barn. Slowly. I walk behind her, also slowly, moving right to left as she thinks about getting off track. But she knows where to go, what to do. What she's supposed to do. This way, with the calf trailing behind, we make it all the way to the corral.

Jesse comes out of the kitchen to see what will happen. Greg and Boss the dog stop their work and watch our progress. Greg shrugs. "That works," he says. "It's not as much fun though." I've had an awful lot of fun, I think, I'll take this for now. Boss gets behind the Little Dude who has balked at the gate and gets him in. "Good job, Boss," Greg tells him.

As Jesse and I are getting the milking stuff together, she says, "I'm so glad you walked her in. I've been contemplating that all morning."

"Me too," I say. "Since last night. I didn't know if I could handle an adventure this early."

We get nearly four gallons of milk from Norma. After her udder is slack and we've undone the milking suction cups, Norma lets out a big sigh.

"Thank you, mama," we tell her. She and the Little Dude head back out to graze. Jesse and I pull the milk cart back to the lodge and began the process of bottling and cleaning. We work contentedly. The hardest part of our day is now over.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Owls: A Vignette

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Owls: A Vignette

Three Great Horned owls live out behind the meadow cabin where Jesse and I live. The first time I saw the baby, sitting fuzzy and small on a low lying branch, I dubbed him Baby Ewok. Later, when I saw the parent owl, age marked by the darker feathers, I named him (who is probably a her) Chewbacca. It wasn’t until later that I realized there were two babies. I can’t tell them apart so Jesse and I call them the Ewok Twins.

At dusk, when Jesse and I return home from our work day, the owls are often sitting on the other side of the creek perched on their favorite branch. Too immature to talk just yet, the Ewok Twins squeak their comments. They still have to learn how to say, “Who who, who who who?”
Jesse says they look like humans in owl suits—their oddly human shaped eyes watching us as we come around the corner of the cabin and head into our respective rooms. Even the young ones seem wise in their silence. In their observation of us.

Most nights, I sit on my bed to read with the pillows bunched up behind me against the metal headboard. The window is to my left and I catch movement, the falling light of the day, and sometimes the glimmer of stars out of the corner of my eye. Chewbacca likes to sit on my roof and on the porch. When he moves, taking flight to hunt or find a better sitting place, his shape casts a dark passing shadow that makes me flinch with its size and suddenness.

It’s at night that Chewbacca must teach the Ewok Twins the facts of owl living, of owl life. Hunting, perching, watching, hooting, observing, becoming wise. It’s at night, after dark that they have dance parties on our roofs. Jesse and I have yet to be invited.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

At the End of a Rope

The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
At the End of a Rope

These past weeks I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen making yogurt, kefir, cheese, and kombucha. My life, all the work, seems to be focused in on containers. So many containers. For instance, the milk goes from the cow to the pump bucket, from the pump bucket to a closed lid container, from the closed lid container to a strainer, and then from there into bottles. Then, if I'm making yogurt, it goes into a pan to heat up and cool down. From the pan to the thermal containers where the cultured milk sits for hours at a time. Then I transfer it to a strainer so that the yogurt separates from the whey. The whey goes into one bowl, the yogurt into another.

Don't get me started on what happens if I have to pasteurize. There's even more containers for that process. Ranch life is simply the science of moving things from one place to the other.

Nighttime rises like bread into daybreak. The workdays are long, tiring, and seem somewhat never ending. By the time our half-day off comes neither Jesse nor I feel up to any real excursions. Karen always asks if we’re going to go out and hike. Even that sounds like too much work. Being still, sitting down, taking naps, those are the treats our days off offer.

The work we do is varied and often times interesting. I don't mind it. Not really. Especially knowing that it's temporary. It’s ever-changing enough to satisfy my short attention span. And yet, I often find myself thinking of the quote by an author (Anne Lamott perhaps?) where she said that she wrote, was a writer, because she wasn't fit for any other kind of work.

I feel that way, physically, as my wrists begin to protest the effort I call on them to give. Even while my muscles are hardening and my endurance is lengthening, I still have to try and pretend that I don't have arthritis. No one wants to be seen as unfit in the eyes of others. I don’t. I gauge the strain and treat the returning inflammation the best I can. I find myself counting down the days and adding up the weeks to see how much longer I have to last.

When I remember to look up and appreciate the views around me and remind myself to enjoy this time, the summer sun, this place, I also find myself looking forward to my fall trip to Europe with Jesse and the upcoming winter back at the Darwin, alone with all the animals, alone with that crazy old cat. I'm not fit for this kind of work long-term. The body that I push day after day needs more sleep than I give it, needs more rest than I have time for, seems to be only fit for certain things.

"What about your own work?" my brother Phinehas asks on the phone one night.

"I don't have time for that," I tell him. "I knew that I wouldn't for the summer." The words, characters, and stories can wait for winter like I’m waiting for it. They’ll have to.

One afternoon, Jesse and I drive from the ranch up the road to the spring to harvest watercress. "It's like the kind you get at the store," Karen tells me by text. I park on the side of the road and Jesse and I walk past the cemetery and along the low banks that contain the spring.

"I've never bought cress at the store," I admit. I stop in my tracks to look up pictures of watercress on my phone, to try and match those pictures with what we see growing around us. I feel I should know more about wild vegetation and vegetation in general, store-bought or otherwise, being the vegetarian that I am and the raw foodist that I was for so long. "I'm a terrible vegetarian," I tell Jesse.

I send Karen a picture of what we think might be the proper plant. Karen says no, that’s not it. It will be small and round leafed and growing in the water. "I thought it looked like big leaf lettuce," I say to Jesse.

We walk up farther. I’ve forgotten to bring bear spray and I'm on alert. Though what I would do if a bear charged us is hard to say. Fortunately, we don't encounter any bears.

Around the bend of the land, there in the water, just past the spring box (like Karen had said in her directions) is the round leafed watercress, growing aptly in the water. We collect what we can and head back. We’ve only gone a mile, if that, from the ranch but it feels like an excursion. We’ve driven outside the gates. Outside the property line. Up the road. The mountains loom in front of us and behind us, the sky shows clear and blue. The wind talks wildly through the trees. It would be a nice day for a picnic. I should have brought my camera.

The days go on. Jesse and I milk Norma the cow, pull grass from the tree beds, plant grass in the bare spots in the lawn, pour things from container to container, clean cabins and bathrooms,  empty dishwashers, wash dishes, and share anecdotes, dreams, and the present moment.

Tom, our antisocial coworker, comes in one morning exuding frustration. He feels overworked and upset that the chickens were moved too close to his irrigation line. "I shouldn't have to tell you this," he tells me, tells Jesse, tells Laura, tells the room. "I'm at the end of my rope."

When he's gone, I say, "Tom needs his brother to come work with him." I don't know if he has a brother but I do know that sharing chores and working alongside someone makes the work seem less arduous. More fun. What I wouldn't trade about this summer is the work time with Jesse. Our conversations and the camaraderie. I think that if I had enough containers (containers always containers) I would bottle up these moments and then refrigerate them so that I could take them out and enjoy them later on.