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.

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