Sunday Column: What it means to be a cowgirl

The wind is blowing so hard out here it woke us out of a dead sleep early this morning and detached some of the new shingles on the roof of the garage, undoing in one second some of the hard work Husband laid down last weekend when the weather was a little less tornado-ey and a bit more melty.

You never know what you’re going to get out here. If I’ve learned anything this winter I’ve learned that. 

So we’re spending the day inside making shelves, making plans, making progress and making egg in a hole.

Ever had it? It’s gourmet.

Later today after I get tired of handing my dear husband things like nail guns, screwdrivers,   sandpaper and the thing he just asked me to find that I will never find because I have no idea what it is, I will go hide in my room and play some cowboy music and try to get  prepared for our trip to Elko on Tuesday. 

This trip to another region of cowboy country has gotten me thinking about my roots and where I may have picked up on the idea that I want to stick around here and ride horses for the rest of my life.

In fact, lately I’ve been in touch with a woman from New York who is working on “The Cowgirl Project,” a documentary and movement that explores what it means to be a cowgirl. She’s going to meet me in Elko next week and we’re going to talk about it a bit more, but to prepare she called me up and asked me for my initial thoughts on the topic.

Visit www.barbaranewmancreative.com for more information

At the time I was riding in the back of my Big Sister’s car as she drove our dad around town, a sort of outing we’d been scheduling that week to get him out into the world as he recovers. Lately I’ve found all of the women in my life have had to ‘Cowboy Up,’ so to speak, to tap into the best and strongest parts of ourselves to move through the scariest moment of our lives and come out better–more compassionate, more understanding and more capable–on the other end.

But I have to be honest, I’ve never thought to define the word “cowgirl.” And so when I was asked to do just that, I sort of started rambling. I mean, I have plenty of thoughts on what it means to be a cowboy, but really, when I get right down to it, some of the best cowboys I know are women.

And they don’t all wear hats and chaps and ride a strawberry roan. 

No. In fact one of the best cowgirls I’ve known, the one who showed me at a young age the kind of woman I could turn out to be if I stuck here with the cattle and the buttes and a roast in the oven, was my grandmother.

And when I think of her I think of an old free feed cap and hands that can soothe a baby and fix a fence.

When I think of her I think strong, not just in muscle but in spirit.

When I think of her I think of homemade rag dolls,  popsicles on the porch, rainwater catching in the barrel below the house and digging up potatoes in the garden out back.

When I think of her I think overalls in the winter and her voice yelling “Come Boss! Come Boss!” as my grandpa threw out grain for the cattle.

When I think of her I think of family and holidays surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles in a tiny kitchen on the prairie, homemade buns and the jello salad she always forgot in the refrigerator. 

When I think of her I think of that old sorrel horse, the one I rode when she was gone. The one that taught me how to fall off and get back up again.

Coming Home: How I define a cowgirl
by Jessie Veeder
1/26/14
Fargo Forum
http://www.inforum.com

There are plenty more like her out there, some of who’ve never sat thier ass in a saddle, but if asked to get ‘on up there  would give it her best shot, with confidence, grace and good humor.

And when you got home there would be a roast in the oven and maybe a jello salad somewhere in the back of the fridge.

And I don’t know what it all means except that as long as their are women out there who know how to “cowboy up,”–in between sidewalks or on the wide open trail–I think we’re all going to be ok.

If you need me I’ll be in my room singing about it.

A prayer for the South Dakota Cowboy

As the sun shines down through the golden trees and rests on the back of the black cows grazing outside my windows and along our cattle trails, we send out a prayer to ranchers in western South Dakota who’s early autumn turned into a devastating winter storm last week.

Winter Storm Atlas Kills Thousands of Cattle in South Dakota
The Weather Channel
http://www.weather.com

Tens of thousands of cattle killed in Friday’s blizzard, ranchers say
Rapid City Journal
http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

Up to four feet of snow in some parts of our neighboring state buried cattle, horses and sheep in a cold grave, leaving ranchers and citizens without power to dig out and count their losses with the help of airplanes, neighbors and the National Guard.

I have just written and filed my Sunday column on how ranchers across the heartland are looking across the prairie, the badlands and the foot of their mountains and holding our breath, heart broken and worried for our neighbors, knowing that out here, raising these animals and crops, we’re all at the mercy of the sky.

So I’ve decided it’s worth spreading the news, not because it can reverse the damage, but because it sheds light on the industry and the farmers and ranchers who don’t call what they do a job, but a life.

Blogger Dawn Wink with Dawn Wink: Dewdrops explains the effects a storm of this magnitude has on a ranching family and not only their bottom line, but their morale.

Read it here:

The Blizzard the Never Was–and its Aftermath on Cattle and Ranchers
by Dawn Wink
Dawn Wink: Dewdrops
www.dawnwink.wordpress.com 

and send up a prayer to the cowboys in South Dakota.

Want to help? Here are some ideas: 

 The South Dakota Cowgirl
How can you help? 
http://www.thesouthdakotacowgirl.com

Heifers for South Dakota
Pledge a heifer (a bred yearling or a replacement quality weanling) for a rancher in South Dakota

Give to the cause today!
Ag Chat Rancher Relief Fund

The roundup.

Sometimes we have to bring the cows home.

This is what that looks like…

when it takes a little longer than planned to get them there.

And this is what it looks like in the morning waiting for the rest of the crew to come and help finish the job.






Rounding up. Gathering. Sorting. Working.  Punchin’ ‘

These are all words for moving cows home, although I can’t say we wear out the last very often.

I should start though.  Cow Punchin’ sounds cool and retro and as you know, that’s the image I strive for.

Well, something like that, but anyway…cow punchin’ is my favorite task on the ranch. I like the idea of gathering everything up in a big black mass of bellering and creaking and munching from all across the Veeder Ranch acreage. I like to make a big swoop of the place,  riding alongside the cowboys, loping up to hilltops, opening gates and following behind a nice steady stream of marching cattle on a well worn path.

I like the crisp air and the way my bay horse moves under me, watching and knowing and doing a better job of anticipating a cow’s move than I ever could.

I like the dogs and how they work as our partners in pushing the bovines forward, seeking approval and a little nip at the heels of the slow ones.

I like the way voices carry off into the hills and the conversations and curse words that come up when we’re all out in the world on the backs of horses.

I like how anything can happen and that anything always means a good portion of the herd will head for the thick brush and I will eventually have to go in there, no matter how many hats, mittens and chunks of hair have come to their final resting places among the thorns.

Or how many thorns have come to their final resting place in my legs.

This week was no exception: wool cap in the trees, tree in my hair, thorn in my leg.

Sounds about right.

Sounds just fine.

Because this is what it looks like when the cows come home in the light of day.





And no matter how many years pass, how many trucks hit their breaks on the way by or how many power lines or pipelines or oil wells cut through the once raw land. No matter the fact that some cowboys carry cell phones now and that I might hear one ringing in the trees below me, roundup always throws me back to the long held tradition of cattle ranching and care taking.

Because no matter what, horses and saddles and riders and neighbors and good dogs still work best to get the job done.

And technology can never save a rancher from the occasional necessity of standing in shit all afternoon.

No. In this line of work, some things just will not change.

Cannot change.

And so I tell you my friends,  if there is anything in the world that brings me peace…

it’s the roundup.

Heroes Proved

I’ve been writing music since I was a little girl. Some of it has escaped the walls that held me at the time, others have been locked up, unfinished, never ready to be played for anyone.

I have ideas. I try to show you. I try to tell it as I see it, or maybe as a stranger might. I try to share a little piece of me and my surroundings with whoever wants to listen.

I don’t always know what it is that I want to say.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the song knows better.

When I was in college touring the midwest in my Chevey Lumina, I wrote a song called “Heroes Proved.” It was the middle of winter in Northern North Dakota and I was cold. I was on the road and alone a lot. I missed home,  the smell of the sage and horse hair, black cows and the way the grass bends in the breeze.

I missed the neighbors and how they would come and visit on Sunday and linger over coffee.

And I missed cowboys, the ones I was convinced no longer existed in the world, except the few I left behind,  scattered and  lonely on the quiet scoria road.

I didn’t know if I would ever get back to that place for good.

I didn’t know if that place even existed anymore.

I didn’t know anything.

“Heroes Proved” was my way of asking the world to slow down.  I was desperate for it, but in a completely different way then I am now.

Now that I’m home and never leaving.

Now that I’m home and watching the world drive by–rushing, digging, kicking up dust on the way to meet the bottom line.

At 20 years old I couldn’t see the future. At 20 years old what I was writing felt so personal and disconnected from my peers. At 20 years old I couldn’t have known the progress waiting to barrel down that dusty road toward my family’s ranch, bringing me and the world with it.

“Heroes Proved” hasn’t been on my set list for years. I moved it out of the way to make room for new words and ideas.

I never considered that some of my songs might have become more relevant to me over time.

This is one.

“I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while
is how much the trees have grown around your memories.”

― Mitch AlbomFor One More Day

The recipe for time.

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.


And I haven’t figured it out quite yet, but I have a theory.

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.

No frogs, I don’t want stuff. I want more time.

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.

A neighborhood tradition.


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.

A prayer for wild women…

To be content at the end of the day. As the sun goes down and the world goes dark, to know that it was yours for the taking, and so you took.

This is my prayer for you and wild women everywhere.

To know you’ve tamed some wild things, and let the others run free. To have ridden hard and fallen harder.

To have found your way back to your feet.

This I hope for you.

To have loved a good man, a good horse and a good dog, but not necessarily in that order.

To have been loved. I know you have been loved.

To have mud on your boots, on your face and under your fingernails and still call it a good day. To know the smell of a well-worked horse and call it sweet. To stand in the rain because it’s raining.

To find a soft place to land, wild women, I pray for a soft place to land.

To climb a hill to be closer to the moon.

To do it yourself because you can do it better.

To work. To work. To work. And to love it as much as you can possibly love it.

Wild woman.

Wild, wild women.

This is our prayer.

Up here, I always feel the same.

I was interviewed today on Trent Loos‘s radio program, “Loos Tales.” Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer with a passion for the rural lifestyle. “Loos Tales” is dedicated to exploring the interesting people and places of Rural America.
Listen to our discussion here: 

http://www.ruralrouteradio.com/affiliates/thursruralroute.mp3

Now onward! I have to tell you how I feel about roundup season!

There are some tell-tale signs that fall is in the air. The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I am thinking about canning tomatoes so we can have a piece of summer all year round.

Yes, I’ll try my hand again at preserving our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode to the reservation to gather cattle.

Fall roundup has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done.

But moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me. Perhaps because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate–it was a task that provided me with the perfect amount of adventure, freedom and accountability.

It was during that long wait from when the crew located all the cattle in the pasture, grouped them together and moved them toward my post that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest and find ticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out today, as an adult woman, my role when working cattle with Pops and Husband hasn’t changed much. I am the peripheral watcher, the girl who makes sure the cattle don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

I am given direction and then left to my own devices while the guys head for the hills and I wait to see if I will have to battle a horse who is whinnying and prancing and wishing he could go with them.

Sometimes I get lucky and he just stands still.

Sometimes I wait for what seems like hours for any sign of life coming from the trees–the best time still to make up a few melodies in my head and collect photo opportunities.

Because sometimes, most of the time,  it’s just nice.

Nice and easy like it was on Monday morning when Pops showed up with our horses already caught and saddled and asked us to help him move the cows home from the west pasture.

Who could refuse that kind of valet service? So we pulled on our boots and obliged, sitting on the backs of our horses walking slowly, swatting the sticky flies with their tails and anticipating that the calm and sunny morning was sure to turn into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here. I think the guys are too, making conversation about the cattle industry as they make plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while Husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and Pops lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture.

Pops comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up and discuss where Husband might be and turn around to find him waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle.

And that’s how it went on Monday, the three of us pushing the cows along, Pops at the back of the herd counting, taking note of brands and numbers,

Husband on the hillside making sure they turn the right way,

and me watching the brush.

We pushed the cattle slowly with the sun warming our backs and sweat beading on our foreheads as morning turned to a sweltering afternoon.

We headed toward home and talked about lunch and the fencing that needed to get done that day.

And cattle prices.

And the deer population.

And a pony for Little Man.

And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…

even though, year after year, up here…

I always feel the same.

 

A Cowboy Christmas reminder…

Well, it looks a little like a Charlie Brown Christmas around here, but husband and I did it. We got a tree…or something that looks like it might have come off of a tree somewhere.

Not the Rockefeller Center Tree, but at least we'll save on our electrical bill...

And it finally smells a little less like the small brown stinky present the pug left on my carpet last night and a little more like the holidays in this house.

Yes, the pug continues to hold a spot at the top of the naughty list, but we’ve gone ahead and decked the halls anyway…

Don’t worry, he’s been adequately punished…

hey, at least I sent him out in the cold with the proper gear...

And that’s all I was asking for. A little holiday cheer, a pug in a santa hat, and a tree, any tree, to put all of those presents under.

Yes, when husband came home before dark for the first time in weeks last night we decided to head out before the sun sunk down below the horizon. Despite the beautiful weather we have been experiencing this December, husband and I haven’t been out and about on the place together for a while. So we loaded up the lab and the pug in his humiliation hat and headed out to check on things.

Down the pink road and into the quickly setting sun we drove, dressed in jeans and boots and nothing but a hat, coat and gloves. As we took a turn onto a prairie trail we both marveled at the weather we’ve been having. We couldn’t believe we don’t have to wear seventeen layers beginning with underwear and ending with a wool cap over the top of a wool cap. Last year at this time we were on a snowmobile zooming over the top of ten foot snow drifts in our search for an oversized Christmas tree that would spend the rest of the month in the house poking the back of my neck as I sat at my computer desk.

Yes, last year we had a bit more ambition, a little more time, the pug had two eyeballs and we had a very white Christmas.

Last Christmas

This year? Well, Cliff the weatherman says it’s supposed to be 40 degrees.

Do you know what I am going to do on Christmas if it is 40 degrees?

Go find my horses and ride off into the tropical North Dakota December sunset, because riding horses on a warm, snow-less December day on the northern plains might be a once in a lifetime experience.

I think the horses were feeling the same thing as they came to greet us on our hunt for holiday cheer. Our pickup rolled slowly across the grassy pasture and the paints and the sorrels and the buckskin and bay, fat and happy and furry came trotting down from the horizon to sniff our pockets for treats.

I buried my nose in their fluffy coats to smell the little pieces of summer they hold in their skin. I scratched their noses and took some photos as they posed for me, black silhouettes against a darkening sky. And standing out there on the open prairie with the winter chill on my skin as those horses breathed and snorted and leaned into our hands on the cusp of Christmas, just like a shot from a gun I was flooded with a memory that set me right with the season…right in the place I needed to be…

…to Christmas morning when Pops gets up before the sun. Hours before our bare feet hit the floor to find our warm slippers, he is pulling on his wool cap, his overshoes and coveralls in preparation for the chill of the morning winter air.

If we get up early enough we might catch the tail lights of his ranch pickup as he heads out over the hill, the empty grain buckets he is intending to fill rolling around in the box as he bounces along the gravel road.

And as we walk past the sparkling tree with presents piled high, our stockings filled for the brim waiting for us, as we put our caramel rolls in the oven, brew our coffee and pull our robe tight around us to go wake the children, our little sisters or our husbands, Pops has just parked his pickup next to the grain bin and pulled out those buckets from the back. He is un-latching the creaky door to shovel the sweet smelling feed into the containers, piling it high to the top as the dust from the previous season pools in the crisp air around him.

Carefully he is loading the buckets, two at a time into the back of the pickup… and then he grabs one more and fills that one too before pulling down his cap against the cold and reaching for his handkerchief to wipe his chilly nose.

As we are pulling on our sweaters and sipping our first cup of coffee, pops is heading toward where he last saw the horses, out in the field above his house or down in the coulee between the two places.

And while we’re turning on the holiday music and buttering our caramel roll, Pops is taking a moment to scratch his buckskin between the ears, pull a few burs from the bay’s mane and give them that extra bucket of grain before heading out to check the water and then on into the yard as the sun rises slowly over the house.

When I was younger he would take me with him if I was up in time. And in those quiet moments on Christmas morning when the frost was sparkling on the trees, or the snow drifts were lurking in the shadows of the rising light. in the moments my toes might have been a little chilly and my nose a little runny I don’t remember thinking that we needed to hurry to get back. I don’t remember feeling anxious about opening my presents or checking out my stocking to see what Santa might have brought us. I don’t remember thinking about hot cocoa or Christmas cookies or the new sled I hoped I would be getting…I knew we would get there in time

The only thing I remember on those Christmas mornings when I sat next to Pops on the bench seat of the feed pickup is the lesson he may have mentioned out loud…or maybe not…

No matter the day, no matter the season or the weather, the blizzard or the warmth, no matter how many presents are waiting for you under the tree, our first responsibility is to care for the things that depend on us…

And on Christmas we always throw them a little extra.

If only some of those things that depend on us didn’t poop on our floors…

Alright, alright…I’ll take off the hat…


Waiting for the cold…

It’s late October and our windows have been closed for weeks, sealing our houses up against the chill that this month lays upon the nights. And we button up in the morning as we step out to start our cars, or saddle a horse, or feed the livestock or take a jog while the streets are quiet. We rub our hands together and notice our breath pushing out our bodies and floating in the atmosphere, hanging our words up there to linger for a bit. “Huh, look at that,” we say. “Haven’t seen my breath for months.”


Our words forget that they can be seen now.  Our skin forgets, somehow, what this chill feels like. It forgets it bites a bit. It forgets the way the cold comes in, rustling the near-bare branches, dancing with the dried up grasses and the remnants of the wildflowers left behind brave and brittle…just as we have been left here season after season. 

Yes it’s late October and we are reminded by the flush in our cheeks and the boots on our feet, prepared for the moment the sky could fall. Any moment . Our senses know it, we were animals once. The ones who move along ridge lines and on horses’ backs, behind the path of a deer, they remember. They remember that animal’s still there.

So we put on our wooly coats like the horses do and crunch through blankets of leaves on the ground, stripping off layers as the sun rises to give us one  more day of warmth. Oh, we know it’s a gift. If only it could stay until late November. But we take it. We do.

We roll up our shirt sleeves and bring the cattle home. We stroll our babies dressed in fleece on sidewalks along paved streets. We sit a little longer on the front porch. We think of making apple cider, some biscuits, maybe a pie for dessert.

We eat soup and hang on, like the last of the yellowing oak leaves, to a hope that the snow will stay up in the air.

We hang on to the colors that don’t dare leave us, the colors that stick out on the landscape and promise a reprieve from the brown…

from the inevitable white that is to come.

We hang on and take trails still made of dirt, breathe in the damp air and find a quiet spot to watch the birds get ready for it too, wondering where they go in times like these…

…wondering if they’d take us too.

Wondering if they are ready.

Missing them already.

Yes, it’s late October and just like us the sun is slower to rise and faster to set, the dog takes pause before he walks out the door,

the horses nibble on hay, the cows stay close to the barn, the birds move in bunches and call to one another “come on, come here, stick close together, we have places to go” as they fly over a landscape that is rough like our skin,


and an earth that has given in to rest and is waiting, like us, for the cold.