And now an ode to late summer fields.
To wheat fields, golden and rolling.
To sunflower fields, bright and following the sun.
To oil fields, kicking up dust and fueling our world.
Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies, they start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.
Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees.
They mean Pops’ stories of grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums , drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.
They mean memories of grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.
They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal places.
They mean a passing surprize on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.
Laughing at the thought.
Wild plums mean listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.
“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”
“Keep ‘em out of the cow poop…poop plums are no good.”
“Are you eating them Jess. Hey, no eating!”
“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”
Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked last night standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees, I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking season.
But even if I didn’t. Even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.
The ditch sunflowers are out in full bloom and everything is taking cover, looking for shade or a place to cool down.
The heat woke up the wasps. And the black flies. And the scum growing on the pond. The weeds are prickly and tall. The dust settles in on the lines on my face and makes me look a little weathered as I wander sort of aimlessly around the farmyard, thinking I should be doing something on this late summer afternoon.
But there’s nothing worth doing when the sun’s this hot.
The neighbors are putting up hay in the fields above the house.
They’re combining the pea crop up the road.
Someone out in this country is fixing fences.
When it’s hot like this the work still needs to get done. And so the cowboys and farmers are out in it, their faces red under their caps, their arms dark brown and dirty under the sleeves of their t-shirts.
Out there under the hot sun they work, thinking it’s likely a storm will blow through tonight, this heat conjuring up a big set of thunderheads on the horizon.
Thinking how nice a rain would feel right now, the cool drops hitting their backs, the lightning striking and thunder cracking, promising a downpour to interrupt the work.
There’s nothing like a late summer storm that sends you into the house.
There’s nothing like watching it pour and knowing there’s nowhere you can be now.
Nothing you can do but watch.
I had the windows open last week as the clouds darkened the evening and turned dust to mud. I had my guitar in my hands and it was so sultry, being cooped up in the house, my husband on the easy chair reading a book and me singing something.
To me a summer storm out here is weighed down with emotion: relief and renewal, unrest and electricity, and a sort of loneliness I can’t explain. The sound of the rain on thirsty things makes me want to sit a bit closer to him, to tell him things I’ve forgotten to tell him, remember the other storms we watched together.
Because there is nowhere we can be. No work to be done in the pouring rain.
So I sang.
Sun beats down
turning my pale skin brown
I have been cold for months
I turn my face up
I hear the thunder crack
heavy drops lick my back
and I think how nice it is
that I can cool down like this
Oh, it’s raining
Oh, it’s raining
can’t get the crop in
come in and sit down
come on into the house
I’ll take that heavy coat
soaked to the skin, the bones
I’ll cook you something warm
as we wait out the storm
There’s nothing like summer heat
cooled down by a thundering breeze
there’s nothing like you and me
Oh, it’s raining
Oh, it’s raining
can’t get the crop in
come in and sit down
come on into the house
Looks like it’s letting up
steam rolls from your coffee cup
held by your callused hands
I like these change of plans
I pull your collar up
say this weather is like our love
pouring the heat on us
then it’s raining
Oh, it’s raining
Oh, it’s raining
can’t get the crop in
come in and sit down
come on into the house
For more of my music visit:
Happy Friday to you. I hope you get off work early and have plans to sip cold drink on a summery deck somewhere.
I’m spending mine under a blanket on my cozy couch dosed up on pain pills after partaking in a little surgery (nothing major…and no, not a nose job) yesterday.
Yes, full disclosure, I’m on drugs.
Word is I’ll be feeling better tomorrow. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway as I’ve been enduring daytime television programming and small attempts at sounding coherent on work calls I decided to return since I am home and not supposed to go anywhere.
And now for your lesson of the day: you shouldn’t return work calls when you’re on hyrdocodone.
You probably shouldn’t respond to emails either. Or write a blog.
But I could be worse. I could be Little Sister. She got her wisdom teeth removed on Wednesday.
She looks like a chipmunk and can’t eat Doritos.
So there’s that.
At least I can eat Doritos. If we had Doritos.
I could really go for some Doritos…
Yup, we’re a pathetic lot out here at the ranch. But while we’ve been resting Husband and Little Sister’s man have been working on putting up the deck in time for my birthday party because, besides world peace, my one birthday wish is that I will be able to celebrate 30 by toasting to old age with tequila on the beautiful deck attached to our house.
And my husband, bless his handyman soul, is doing what he can.
I’ll keep you posted.
But for now, in honor of Friday, mandatory couch time and my drug induced loss for words, I would like to give you a little update on what’s been going on around the old homestead these days.
To sum it up, it’s August and it’s been raining, which is not common for this month. Our ranch missed the recent devastating hail storm that rolled in across the country side, wiping out large wheat fields and leaving farmers to shake their heads at the loss. We are shaking ours at the thought.
The cows have been finding a new hole in the fence to crawl through every day because the grass is apparently greener.
The horses are sleek and are spending the warm days swishing their tails, nodding their heads and running from the flies,
the chokecherries are ripe, the plums will soon follow,
the clover is tall, the late summer wildflowers are in bloom,
the oil is still pumping,
The badlands are at their best,
LIttle Man keeps growing up,
the dogs have decided it’s their duty to protect us from the squirrels in the trees, so that’s why they never stop barking if you’re wondering…
The dragonflies are back for their fill of mosquitos. So are the bats. And we don’t mind at all.
The thunderheads roll in at night,
and the sunsets are spectacular.
There’s even been some rainbow sightings.
And we’re pretty happy around here, even when we’re not on the painkillers…
So you should come for a visit. You can stay in the cabin. That came this month too.
And God willing, in a week I’ll have a deck and I’ll pour you a cold one and we can cheers to good friends and good weather and good health.
But for a little while, I’ll be here, under this blanket, eating Doritos and watching that deck go up from the cool side of the window…
Peace, Love and pain medication,
The best part of summer is the back of a horse on top of a hill when the sun is slowly sinking down below the horizon leaving a gold sort of sparkle in its wake. And the cows are in their place, grazing in the pasture with the big dam and the tall grass that tickles their belly.
And that guy you love is finished arguing with you about how to get them there, so you can relax now and just love each other and take the long way home to notice how the coneflowers are out in full bloom and the frogs are croaking like they’re trying to tell us something urgent. Something like, “Hey, stop worrying about trivial things. Stop working so hard to make more money to buy more stuff. Stop moving so fast. This is it right here guys. This is the stuff.”
Who knew frogs had such insight.
Around this ranch moving cattle is a sort of therapeutic chore. With everyone working a day job, taking care of the cattle is a priority that gets us home in the evening and out of the confines of the office, the checklists, the phone calls and the stress of the highway miles full of big oil trucks we pass by with white knuckles to get back home.
If our office could be the back of a horse all day, I think it’d be better for our blood pressure.
Maybe someday it will. Maybe not.
This is my third summer back at the ranch and every day I’m gaining more insight into what it takes to keep a place like this up and running. I’m beginning to understand that there are things in my life I need to weed out to make space for the time I want and need to spend out here on the back of a horse.
It’s funny coming from a woman who, three summers ago, started writing again because she had more time on her hands.
Because she didn’t know how to sit still.
Because she needed to work through what coming home for good means.
You’d think I’d have it figured out by now, but I’m not sure I’m there yet. For months our minds have been set on the bricks and mortar that hold us and all of the stuff we’ve picked up along the way.
That’s the step we are standing on.
But every day I look out the window, step outside to feed the dogs or pull at a weed or get in the pickup to move down the highway and I’m so overwhelmingly grateful that the summer came as promised.
And then I get a little lonesome.
I have responsibilities. I have burdens I’ve placed on myself to move forward, to achieve goals. I have deadlines I’ve committed to and jobs to complete, people who have questions and dates marked on my calendar to leave.
And when I’m leaving I want to stay. When I stay I think I’m missing a chance.
What chance? I don’t know. Aren’t I where I want to be?
But I’m not eleven anymore. No one is buying my milk so I can play outside all day.
All I want to do is play outside all day.
All I want to do is sing.
All I want to do is write.
All I want to do is take photographs.
All I want to do is ride.
All I want to do is drink cocktails and sit on the deck that we need to build and catch up with my friends and family and take in the sunset.
All I want to do is everything.
Is this a battle we all fight, the battle of balance? I feel I’ve been fighting it my entire adult life, with a list of so many things I want to be, so many places I want to see, and only one body, one life to achieve it.
More time to sit for a bit on the back of a horse and watch the sun go down on a place I love with a man I love and watch the cows graze.
But no one is selling time, turns out it is homemade.
I just need to find the right recipe.
Pops has always kept a garden. He grows things like peas and carrots, radishes and green beans, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and plenty of weeds. Once or twice he grew corn just tall and delicious enough for the horses to find their way from green pastures into the yard for the free buffet.
We no longer plant corn.
I love Pops’ garden. I love it as much as the deer love his peas and the moles love his radishes. I love to watch it sprouting from my parents’ deck. I like to watch their cat hunt for mice and big bugs out there. I love breaking off rhubarb stocks, digging around for the first sign of a ripe carrot and the taste of the first fresh garden tomato on a BLT.
A few weeks ago Pops’ garden had a new tiny visitor, a little girl named Addy who flew in all the way from Texas to explore the ranch where her grandpa grew up.
looked out for Little Man,
got a woodtick or two, and probably a few mosquito bites too.
I followed the little darling around because I didn’t want to miss a word that came out of her adorable little mouth.
“Jessie, can I borrow your ring for when my prince comes?” she asked as she made her way out of my bedroom with one of my big bling rings wobbling on her tiny pointer finger.
“Well of course you can Addy. You can have anything you want. Want my wedding ring too? Take it. Want all of my necklaces and my horse and my car and the pug? You might need those too, you know, so you’re prepared when your prince comes.”
I would have given that girl anything she wanted, but Addy didn’t want everything, she just wanted to play. So we did. I showed her around the place, showed her where the tiger lilies grew and where the dogs go for a swim. Addy wanted to swim too, so I found someone to tell her it might not be a good idea.
There was not a chance I was uttering the word “no” to this girl.
I watched as she put her hands on her knees and squatted down to get close to the leaves of the strawberry plant, where she declared and made known to the world every bug that crawled on its leaves.
I gave her a taste of rhubarb and watched her cute little face pucker up while she threw the stalk down, declaring it sour before asking for another one.
I followed her following the cat who was hot on the trail of a mouse.
I tried to convince her that pulling weeds might be fun.
She convinced me it was time to go inside.
But before dinner was on the table we were back out there again because Addy said, “Jessie come out here, I think that it’s growing! The garden is growing!”
And so she was right. It was growing. Growing by the minute like this little girl’s wonder and knowledge of the world. So I told her that it might grow faster if we watered it a bit. She grabbed the end of the hose and I headed for the spigot.
“Ready. Set. Go!” Addy yelled in my direction as I pulled the lever up and the water made its way through the hose and to the little girl’s hands squeezing the nozzle.
Addy was watering the garden.
It’s what good princesses do. They tend to the growing things and make the world a little bit greener, the sky a little bit bluer, the birds a little bit chirpier and grown women cry at the utter cuteness of it all…
It turns out, little garden princesses make rainbows too.
At least that what princess Addy did. She made a rainbow with the sun and the water.
“Look Jessie, I’m watering the rainbow!”
“No Addy, you made it! Look at that, you made a rainbow!”
And then I cried a little bit under the protection of my sunglasses so my family observing from the deck could not see that she was melting my heart into a puddle in my chest.
Turns out that making rainbows make princesses thirsty and so Addy needed a drink…
Yes, Pops has always kept a garden, but if he never plants another one, it won’t matter. All of the failed attempts at squash, overgrown asparagus and horse-chewed corn on the cob was worth it.
Because it turns out gardens are not made for horses or rabbits or moles or regular people who like home grown tomatoes. No. Gardens are made for princesses, and finally, one came to visit ours!
It’s summer now and the days are long, the sun moving slowly across the sky and hanging at the edge of the earth for stretched out moments, giving us a chance to put our hands on our hips and say “what a perfect night.”
It’s summer now and before dark officially falls we ride to the hill tops and then down through the cool draws where the shade and the grass and the creek bed always keep a cool spot for us.
Because it’s summer now and things are warming up. The leaves are out and so are the wildflowers, stretching and blooming and taking in the fleeting weather.
It’s summer now and the cows are home…
It’s summer now and the dogs’ tongues hang out while they make their way to the spot of shade on the gravel where the truck is parked. They are panting. They are smiling. They just got in from a swim.
Because it’s summer now and the water where the slick-backed horses drink, twitching and swiping their tails at flies, is warm and rippling behind the oars of the water bugs, the paddle of duck’s feet, the leap of a frog and the dunk of a beaver’s escape.
It’s summer now and we keep the windows open so even when we’re inside we’re not really inside.
We can’t be inside.
Because it’s summer and we heard they’re biting.
Yes, it’s summer and we should mow the grass before the clouds bring the thunderstorm that will wake us in the early morning hours of the next day. And it’s summer so we will lay there with the windows open listening to it roll and crack, feeling how the electricity makes our hearts thump and the air damp on our skin. Maybe we will sleep again, maybe we’ll rise to stand by the window and watch the lightening strike and wonder where this beautiful and mysterious season comes from.
And why, like the storm, it’s always just passing through.
I went to bed last night with the windows open in the loft where we built our master bedroom. It was our first night in our room we’ve been working for months to complete and when I returned home from a night away on a singing job I found that my bed was moved upstairs, made and waiting for us to snuggle down and reap the benefits of another step almost complete.
I don’t know how Husband got it up there without the help of my giant muscles, but he did. And I was glad.
When we were making plans for this house two years ago my idea was that when it was all said and done we would feel like we were living in a tree house and with the installation of the railing a few weeks ago I felt like our vision was finally coming together.
It made me feel like all that time spent looking at Better Homes and Gardens magazines and Googling things like “rustic railings” and “vintage lighting” and “log cabins” and “how to get wood glue and green paint out of my favorite Steve Earl t-shirt” was finally paying off.
This morning I woke up to Husband sneaking out to work. I rolled over to catch a few more blinks, noticing how the sky was beginning to turn pink with the touch of the first moments of sun. I thought I should get up, rise with it, drink my coffee and start on my writing project, but I slipped back to sleep for a moment while the world lit up.
And I woke again to the sound of a pissed off squirrel in the tree tops next to my head reading another critter its rights over something like trespassing on his side of oak or a stolen acorn.
At least that’s what I imagined as I woke from a dream about nothing in particular that I can remember.
I laid on my back and listened to that squirrel chatter, his obnoxious, angry squawk rising above the hundreds of bird species singing their morning song, the breeze rustling the full grown leaves and a truck kicking up dust on the pink road.
And although I couldn’t hear it, I thought about the swish of the horses’ tails in the pasture, the buzz the flies make around their ears and the soft nicker in their throats when I approach with a grain bucket.
I thought about the cattle pulling dew covered green grass from the ground, munching and chewing and bellowing low for their calves.
I thought about the croak of the frogs in the dam, the familiar sound I fall asleep to each night we let the windows open and the air in.
I thought about the plop of the turtle leaving his rock for a swim in that dam. I thought about the howl of the coyote and the sound of the dogs crying back.
I thought about my fingers squeaking across the strings of my guitar, sitting out on the chair under the small oaks, working to make a melody.
I thought about the sound of my husband’s breathing and the words he says out loud at night when the world is sleeping and so is he. I thought about what he might dream about.
And then I thought about the silence in this house as I lie listening to the world I was letting in through open windows. Silence between walls that have absorbed the noise of saw blades spinning, voices discussing dinner, crying over tiling projects and laughing at the memory of the stupid kids we used to be. It will be quiet in here today with the exception of my fingers moving over the computer keys, the coffee pot beep and the ice cubes dropping in the refrigerator. I will run the shower and get ready for a trip to sing outside in a different town this evening.
When I get home it will be late and Husband will be sleeping on the couch, the television reflecting the light of other peoples’ stories off his scruffy face. I will switch it off and walk up the steps to our bedroom to get closer to the stars and fall asleep to the sound of the frogs, thinking about the mornings to come in this house, the sounds of Christmases and birthday parties, failed dinners and dancing in the living room, conversations with friends, fights about bills and schedules and time, sobs about missing someone and laughter about having just what we need in a tree house with the windows open to the sounds of our wild world.
We helped our neighbors brand calves this Sunday. The sun was finally shining enough to give us hope the corrals might dry up by the time the day was over, so it seemed like the perfect day to get some work done.
Branding calves is a traditional chore that happens once a year. And whether your herd is 50 or 500, branding is always a great and necessary excuse to get neighbors, friends and family together to get some work done under the big prairie sky.
Branding, for those of you who are not familiar with ranching operations, is what cowboys do to identify their calves a month or two after they are born in the spring. Each ranch has a certain symbol associated with its operation and that symbol is placed on the cattle by using grey-hot irons that have been heated up in a fire and placing those irons momentarily on the calf’s hide.
At one time cowboys ran their cattle in open range on land not divided or sectioned off by fences. Branding your cattle meant that each ranches’ herd could graze freely on the open range and could easily be identified come roundup time when the calves were taken to market. Today in Western North Dakota ranch land is split up and sectioned off into pastures. If a neighbor’s cattle break down a fence and get into a field or an adjacent pasture, they are easily identified. In addition, branding cattle has traditionally been a way to deter cattle thieves, as brands are registered and inspected when taken to market.
With most calves born in March and April, ideally a rancher would want to get their branding done in May, but with the snowy and wet weather that occurred during calving and on into the late spring, things have been delayed a bit this year.
Now every operation has their own traditions and ways they like to work their calves. Around here a typical branding day would start early in the morning with a ride out into the pastures to roundup all of the mommas and babies and gather them into a corral where the crew then sorts the calves off from the cows into a smaller pen.
There’s a lot of mooing at this point, which will not cease until the mommas are back with their babies, the end goal the crew will work to accomplish as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible.
Once the calves are sorted the real work begins. Typically, if the calves were younger, a crew of able bodied cowboys and cowgirls would work to catch and “wrestle,” or hold the calves in place on the ground while another crew works quickly to vaccinate, fly tag, brand and, if it’s a bull calf, castrate. If all goes well the calf is only down for a few short minutes before the crew releases the baby back into the pen to find his momma.
At the neighbor’s last weekend the process was the same, but because the calves were a little older and a little bigger, Cowboy Kelly decided it would be easier on all of us, calves included, if we used the chute.
And because, as I have mentioned earlier, I was out a little late the night before, drinking some adult beverages, I was ok with missing the opportunity to brush up on my calf wrestling skills. But my desire to be involved was completely selfish anyway, because around this neighborhood it seems you always find you have plenty of help.
And so was the case on Sunday as one by one under a sun that turned my fair skinned friend’s skin pink, even under her cowboy hat, the crew pushed the babies through the chute and Cowboy Kelly marked them with a brand that has been attached to his family’s ranch and cattle for over 100 years.
I stood by Kelly’s daughter, my best friend and neighbor when we were growing up, as she tagged the calves to help keep the summer flies away and counted and inspected each and every one for her father.
My best friend is a mother now. I watched her carry one of her babies piggyback as she trudged through the mud to shut the gate and I wondered when it was exactly that we grew up.
She just had her first son, her third child, a little red headed boy, a few months ago. He was likely sleeping in his great grandmother’s arms in the house as his grandma set out the dishes, turned on the oven and put ice in the cooler for the crew.
His two blonde and freckled sisters were hanging on the fence in their pink boots and ponytails, watching the action, counting the calves and asking questions next to their cousins and aunts who stood just close enough to make sure they didn’t fall and hurt themselves.
I look at those girls and it’s like I’m looking at my friend, new freckles appearing with each hour those little noses see the sun. I used to stand next to her on that very fence, watching our dads, asking questions, wearing holes in the toes of our red boots, happy with the business of being friends.
And so I stood next to her again on Sunday and we were ourselves, older versions of the children who used to ride their bikes up on the highway between our two ranches, weaving in and out of the yellow center line, our feet off the pedals, the wind tossing our hair, making plans to grow up and get married and work and be cowgirls and mommas out here on our ranches, the only place we knew, the only place on earth for us.
So I guess we are grown up now. And so are those boys we brought home to help with branding back when we were sixteen or seventeen and hoping they could pull it off.
Hoping our dads approved.
When the last calf got his brand, the crew gathered for a Bud and to lean on fences and find some shade. I snapped a few more pictures as my friend tallied up the ratio of bull calves to heifers.
She’s always been good with numbers.
I’ve always liked words.
And so I’ll tell you the most important part about branding. Everyone will agree.
While we were standing in the sun and the smoke of the branding irons, inside the house our mothers were cuddling the babies and cooking up a casserole meant to stick to a hungry man’s ribs.
Because the number one promise after a successful day of work in this neighborhood is a hearty meal and the chance to catch up, to visit a bit after a busy calving season. It’s why you can always get a crew, because the work load is eased by friendship and comradery and the spirit that still lives out here on 100 year old ranches, the spirt that holds hope that it could carry on like this through the generations in the faces of the children we used to be.
Unlike the snow itself.
No, that snow is not melting any time soon. In fact, it’s settled in nice and compact and crusty on the top of my car, which I attempted to dig out of the icy, hard snow this morning on my quest to get to town.
But, as most simple tasks go around here, it didn’t happen without a fight. Nope. Even after letting the defrost do its thing for a good twenty-five minutes I had to attack the three foot snow drift on my windshield with the power and might of Wonder Woman if Wonder Woman’s weapon of choice was an ice scraper.
Which it is not. I guess I’m not sure what Wonder Woman uses to combat evil, but it has to be something besides her leotard…wait…I’m Googling it…
Oh, look at that, it’s the Lasso of Truth.
And indestructible bracelets.
And, of course, her tiara.
But since the snowdrift wasn’t lying about making my morning difficult and beating the car or throwing a fancy but dangerous piece of jewelry at the thing wasn’t going to help me with the task at hand, I summoned, unsuccessfully, the aid of the Hulk instead.
But he must have been busy trying to control his uncontrollable rage, something that coincidentally I was practicing at the moment as well, so I was on my own.
On my own with the windshield wipers and my ice scraper as I freed myself from the drift and headed up the icy hills sending snow chunks flinging off my car in every direction, just rolling down the highway like Cruella DeVille.
And then I heard on the radio that it’s supposed to snow this weekend.
And then I screamed: Waaaahhhhhh!!!!!
So, to make myself feel better I decided it’s time for another contest ya’ll (Yes, I’m bringing ya’ll to the North Country…maybe it will make us warmer).
I know there are a few of you out there who are living in much warmer climates. Climates that are actually accommodating and welcoming green things by now.
I want to see them.
But most of all, I want to see what spring is doing in other parts of the world.
So whether it’s blossoming or blowing snow, whether you live in the North Pole or down in the heated heart of Texas where, unlike me, they actually pull the whole “ya’ll” thing off, I want to see your photos!
Here’s how it works.
Let the games begin!
Peace, love and lilacs already!