Love and snow fall…

We woke up this Valentines Day to find a nice fresh coat of fluffy snow, a little sun and some sparkle in the air.

I was happy to see it, because for about three months it’s literally been too cold to snow.

Yes.

Too. Cold. To. Snow.

That’s a thing here.

Which means I’ve been cooped up a bit, and so has my camera. Things like cameras and fingers don’t work too well when it’s too cold to snow.

But those clouds and that sun seemed to be working this morning (I mean it was like 10 degrees above zero) so I went out in it.

A gift to myself for a day covered in love.

Love and sparkly snow on the tips of berry covered branches…

On the noses of dogs…

Ok, all over the faces of dogs…

On the tips of the grass…

On the backs of horses…

In barnyards…

and all of the things made more beautiful with a little light…

and a little frosting.

Happy Valentines Day Friends. Spread a little love today.

Let loose…

The world’s full of mustangs
and stray cats
and untamed
men lighting smokes and making promises to you

You show them the fences
the spots that need mending
and the holes in the trees
in case you need to break through

Let loose.

Let loose.

You’re tangled and unbraided
just like the mane
of that pony who taught you
about getting up again

And bones they might break
but words have a way of
screaming out secrets
only that pony ever knew

Let loose.

Let loose.

Let loose the horses girl
Let go of the reigns
It’s no use being lost this way
though I know you love to roam…
Let that horse bring you home

You forgot
All those things you said you’d do
When you’re lost
and no one’s coming for you…

Let loose.

Let loose.

Let loose the horses girl
Let go of the reigns
It’s no use being lost this way
though I know you love to roam…

Let that horse bring you home.

I don’t want to know…

I don’t want to know what tomorrow brings, how it all turns out, how we might, at the end of it all, be rich or poor, lonely or surrounded, fine with it all or disappointed.

I don’t want to know the count of the stars in the sky or if they might fall one day.

I don’t want to know if this is it or if there’s more, because what is more than this?

At the end of the day all I want to know is the way the sun cast shadows and makes the manes on the horses glow like haloes in the pasture outside my window.

I want to know this. I always want to know this…

And the crunch of the leaves beneath my boots.

The smell of the sage.

The red on the berries, a gift of color that stays with us through winter.

The sound of the breeze bending the bare branches and how there’s no such thing as quiet when a heart beats.

No.

I don’t want to know the length of a good life or the minutes in forever or how it could, how it will, end.

I only want to know that golden light, the light that makes angels out of horses, and warms your face under your hat after a day’s work.

I want to know this light as it blots out the stars and makes for us a day.

And in that day and the days that might follow, the things that don’t matter, I don’t want to know.

It makes no difference, except one thing.

The thing that makes all the difference, that thing that holds on as that sun rises and sets.

The thing that I know like the light on your face.

You are loved. You are loved.

Every day you are loved.

I

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.

Why I’m here.

We were out late last night working cattle.

And by late, I mean after dark.

And by after dark I mean, a sliver of a moon, a thousand stars, 50 head of black cattle, five people and one flashlight.

No, it’s not all raspberry picking, sunflowers and margaritas on the deck out here.

Sometimes we have to get Western.

And when all available cowboys and cowhands have jobs and responsibilities in the sweet and useful hours of the day, sometimes we find ourselves chasing the sun while we’re chasing the cows.

It’s difficult. Since moving back to the ranch two summers ago I’ve learned a lot of things. I’ve learned how to can a tomato, tile a shower, where to find a missing pug, how make a meal from what I have in my pantry because I’ve got no choice, I’m not driving to town, how to kill a burdock plant, what time of day makes the most magical photos and how long I can go without taking a shower before the neighbors start to complain…

But above all of that, mostly I’ve learned there aren’t enough hours in the day.

And I don’t know how Pops has done it all these years.

Ranching is a full time job. It’s not just about watching them graze in the pasture and riding through them like the Man from Snowy River every once in a while to get your cowboy fix. You have to feed them, move them, watch the water, watch for illness, doctor, move them again, find them when they’re out, fix the fence, move them, fix the fence, patch up corrals, bring them home, let the bulls out, get the bulls in, roundup, doctor, wean the babies, fix the fence, get a plan for hay, move the hay, feed the hay, break the ice on the stock dam and check them every day.

My dad has always had two full time jobs, one of them being ranching. His goal was to keep this place in the family and, during that time, that was the only choice. He would come home from work in the winter and I would bundle up in my Carharts and we would roll a bale out for the cattle in the freezing cold, nearly dark landscape. Sometimes I would drive the pickup while he scooped out cake or grain for a line of cattle trailing behind in the falling snow.

In the spring we would drive out and watch for calves being born. I would sit in the pickup as he braved the wrath of momma while he tagged and checked the baby.

There was more than one time that momma won the battle.

Summers were spent riding horses and moving pastures.

Fall was roundup and time spent in the pickup on the way to the sale barn.

And then he’d do it over again.

Every memory of being a side-kick ranch kid was one I hold close to me as part of my makeup, no matter the fact that I likely wasn’t one bit of help, except maybe that driving part.

And I like to think I’m good company.

I’ve been bucked off, had my fingers smashed, broken bones and cried out of frustration when facing a seemingly impossible task.

Ranching is not a job for the weak, and often I wondered (and I still wonder) if I’m made up of the things my father is made up of.

Why all of those years of long hours in town and late nights? Why not a house in town with a lawn, beer with the guys on Friday nights, golf on Saturday?

I never asked him because it’s a stupid question.

I’ve never asked him because I know the answer.

I’ll tell you here, but I have to do it  quickly, because in an hour, we have to be home from town and saddled up. We have to bring more cows home and it’s gets dark earlier every night.

So here’s what he’d say:

This is it for me. Give me the beaches of the Caribbean, the steep mountains of Montana, give me perfect city streets laid out and predictable, give me the cactus and mysterious heat of the dessert, give me the shores of the mighty Missouri, the fjords of my grandparents’ homeland and I will say they are good.

I will tell you they’re beautiful.

I have seen them and I believe that’s true.

But I would not trade one day out in these pastures for a lifetime on those beaches, even if it means broken tractors and working until midnight with no light but the stars.

And I don’t know what else to say about it except this is my home and I will do what it takes to make sure that it stays the truth.

And that’s why I’m here.

Sunday Column: On horses and what it means to hold on


July is full of so many seasons out here in the middle of America. We have fireworks season, chokecherry season, lake season, running through the sprinkler season, county fair season, street dance season, grilling season, family reunion season and, of course, wedding season.

This month holds so much potential for fun and connecting with community and family that it’s one of the reasons I wait for it all year.

And one of the reasons each day of sweet July is planned, each square on my calendar is filled in with an idea and an event I cannot miss.

This weekend was one of those that has held its spot of anticipation for months. The youngest of the Veeder cousins had a date to get married and so the rest of the cousins were summoned from Western North Dakota, Eastern North Dakota, Southern North Dakota, Washington DC, South Dakota and Texas to give him hugs and cry because he was all grown up.

And so we were all together to celebrate most of the seasons: fireworks season, wedding season, grilling season, lake season, dancing season and family reunion season.

Here we are, all grown up! (We missed you Little Big Sister and your Little Man)

This past week spent with the cousins and family who used to gather in my grandparent’s tiny house tucked in the buttes of the ranch for Easter egg hunts and turkey dinner and carols by the Christmas tree has been the highlight of my summer.

And so I’ll tell you all about it when I sort through the photos.

I promised you last week and I’ll keep my word.

Can you tell we’re related?

Because you have to see these beautiful and talented people. And I have to show you a photo of what we used to look like when we ran around these hills as kids decked out in our fanny packs and neon t-shirts, side ponytails and scraped knees.

You won’t believe that we all turned out to be pretty cool in the end.

It’s true, despite, well…this…

But for now it’s back to the grind and back to life on this ranch, a place that rings with the laughter of my cousins and the adventures we made for ourselves out here when we were glued together by grandparents that left us too soon.

Tonight Husband and I will move some cows from the home pasture out east, because July is also made for ranch work. I will sit on top of a horse I learned to ride under this very hot July sun all those years ago and think about the blessings and lessons this ranch has taught me about horses and family and what it means to hang on tight.

Coming Home: Learning their language, horse whisperer or not
By Jessie Veeder
7/6/13
Fargo Forum
www.inforum.com 

Snow on the backs of horses.

This is what it looks like when you put a house cat out in the snow for the first time in its life.

Coincidently this is also the face that was staring back at her after I peeled her out of my arms like a piece of velcro with really strong legs ..and then again off my head…and then again off of my boots.

We’re in a fight, but don’t feel bad for her, the weather is warming up and I think it’s time she gets acclimated to this wild place.

Yes, tomorrow it will be March and my longing for green grass, crocuses and creek beds overflowing with melted snow will summon me to pull on my muck boots and go exploring for the slightest change in scenery.

It will be March tomorrow, and I feel the chilled surrender that January brings start to break up and separate inside of me, even as I stand under a gray sky that blends into the horizon as if it weren’t a sky at all but a continuation of the snowy landscape…below us, above us…surrounding us.

Flakes fell from that sky yesterday afternoon, big and soft and gentle they drifted down to the icy earth and summoned me from behind my windows to come outside and stick out my tongue.

When the snow falls like this, not sideways or blowing or whipping at our faces, but peaceful and steady and quiet, it’s a small gift. I feel like I’m tucked into the mountains instead of exposed and vulnerable on the prairie. I feel like, even in the final days before March, that someone has shaken the snow globe just the right amount to calm me down and get me out of my head.

When the snow falls like this I go look for the horses. I want to see what those flakes look like as they settle on their warm backs, on their soft muzzles and furry ears. I trudge to the barnyard or to the fields and wait for them to spot me, watching as they move toward that figure in a knit cap and boots to her knees, an irregular dot on a landscape they know by heart.

I know what they want as they stick their noses in my pockets, sniff at my camera and fight for the first spot in line next to me. I know they want a scratch between their ears.

I know they want a bite of grain.

They know I can get it for them.

Our horses in the winter take on a completely different persona. The extra layer of fur they grow to protect them from the weather makes them appear less regal and more approachable.

Softer.

I like to take off my mitten and run my fingers through that wool, rubbing them down to the skin underneath where they keep the smell of clover and the warmth of the afternoon sun. I like to put my face up to their velvet noses and look into those eyes and wonder if they miss the green grass as much as I do.

On this snowy, gray, almost March afternoon the horses are my closest link to an inevitable summer that doesn’t seem so inevitable under this knit hat, under this colorless sky.

I lead them to the grain bin and open the door, shoveling out scoops of grain onto the frozen ground. They argue over whose pile is whose, nipping a bit and moving from spot to spot like a living carrousel. I talk to the them, “whoah boys, easy” and walk away from the herd with an extra scoop for the new bay, his head bobbing and snorting behind me.

In a month or so the ground will thaw and the fur on the back of these animals will let loose and shake off, revealing the slick and silky coat of chestnut, white, deep brown, gold and black underneath. We will brush them off, untangle their manes, check their feet and climb on their backs and those four legs will carry us over the hills and down in the draws and to the fields where we will watch for elk or deer or stray cattle as the sun sinks below the horizon.

I move my hand across the bay’s back, clearing away the snowflakes that have settled in his long hair and I rest my cheek there, breathing in the scent of hay and dust and warmer days.

He’s settled into chewing now, his head low and hovering above the pile of grain I placed before him. He’s calm and steady so I can linger there for a moment and wonder if he tastes summer in the grain the same way I smell it in his skin.

My farewell to winter is long, lingering and ceremonious.

But it has begun. At last, it has begun.

Seeing it all.

We’re finding our way to the end of January, and around these parts that’s a huge relief.  I’ve been keeping busy playing music, writing and eating carbohydrates, and after a Friday evening spent singing to a full house, I was thawing out and happy with the way life gives you gifts, like 40 degrees on a January weekend.

Funny how a little warm up can turn an attitude around. Suddenly I was in love with winter again and while Husband worked on hammering and nailing and putting up walls in our master bedroom, I worked on ways I could sneak out the door unnoticed.

Because I decided it was of utmost importance that I load up little Juno and give her a tour of her new home turf.

Because we needed to check on things, ensure the gears were grinding right, the snowbanks weren’t too deep and the view was still as beautiful.

We needed to make sure those weird clouds weren’t storm clouds above us.

We needed to introduce her to the horses.

We needed to play…

and run…

And do whatever Tucker was doing here…





That looked like fun.

See, around here, if we chose to look, we can see things like this every day.

And although winter gets long, it’s one of those seasons that changes the landscape constantly. And so I suppose I’ve made it my mission here to keep tabs on the way the horses grow beards to ward off the chill…

The way the clouds roll and shift and change directions and colors…

How the light hits the grass and makes it sparkle…

How the horses settle lethargically into a pile of grain…

and how their noses feel under our hands.

I watch it all because I don’t want to miss it.

Because I like the way a puppy kiss looks.


And the sound of snow melting under a blue sky.

And the tree rows planted all those years ago? I like that they’re scraggly but standing still under a slow to rise winter sun.


I like the idea that this all will be green again, but first it has to be blue and white and brown.

I like that I’m here for all of that changing.

And I like the feeling, that like Juno, I’m hearing it all, seeing it all, discovering it all for the first time…on a 40 degree weekend at the end of January.

Summer horses.

I miss my summer horses. I miss the way their coats lather up under the saddle after an evening ride to the east pasture.

I miss the way that smells and the way it feels to see them grazing on the green grass of the season–admiration and beauty and peace and home all wrapped up in their breathing and munching, snorting and fly swatting.

I even miss those damn burs I pull out of their mangled manes every evening.

I miss my summer horses because they have turned into winter horses, wild and free in the big pastures chewing on hay bales and hiding from the wind in the coulees at night.


We don’t ride much in the winters, the ground’s too hard, the wind too bitter, the hills too slick, so we give our working animals a much needed break during the coldest months and in no time they turn into a sort of wild and wooly that always amazes me.

On the coldest days they find their way to the barnyard and I bury my face in their thick coats where they keep the summer,


feed them grain from the buckets in the tack room and watch as they argue over the first and last bites.

You have to have respect for the animals that bear the burden of this extreme weather on their backs. I know the white tale deer that bed down on frozen hillsides or in a bull berry patch, the grouse roosting in tree tops and the wild elk competing for the same domestic feed as our horses are built for endurance with instincts that save them, but I still wonder if their noses get cold.


On frozen days like this I go looking for them, as if catching a glimpse of how they’re surviving this season might help shed some light on how I might do the same.

There are bison that live on the land next ours. I catch a glimpse of them when I’m on the highway, stopping to watch as the young ones run and the old ones nuzzle the ground for grass. Frost forms on their muzzles where they breathe in the cold air and on days the ice settles in on our world those creatures wear it, unassuming, as just one more layer of their being.

I wear my sweaters like the bison wear the weather. I cannot grow a wooly coat, so I wrap a scarf around my neck and lean into the cold.

I wonder if those bison miss the summer grass.

I wonder if those deer bedded down in the oaks behind this house notice the lights in the bedroom and dream of coming in from the cold.

I wonder if they know I would let them if I could. I would let them all in to warm by the fire if animals were meant for houses.

But I’ve said it before. Houses are for people and this big wide world is meant for deer in the bull berry brush, grouse in the tree tops, elk in the hay bales and horses in their wool coats waiting for a girl who’s waiting on summer to come and drop them some grain.

This familiar place

Weekends out here can be bliss. Especially when it’s 50+ degrees and sunny and crisp and it’s autumn and your little sister comes over to spend the whole two days with you.

This happens sometimes–the weather cooperates perfectly with the plans you have. And our plans consisted of big breakfasts and coffee, a long walk through our favorite coulees,

a ride with Pops to our favorite spot in the trees

and a couple birthday parties for Little Big Sister and her Little Man.

Little Sister and I scheduled our weekend together and proceeded to tackle the checklist that ensured we got to everything from omelets to birthday cake. And we accomplished it all.

See, she’s been gone for a bit, out doing what we’ve been taught to do when we hit eighteen and graduate high school: get out, get going, see stuff, learn stuff, work and study and graduate and travel.

And come back if you want to.

Come back for a while.

And so Little Sister has come back. She’s come back with the same sort of remembered wonder that I experienced a few short years ago when I did the same thing. I’ve tried to explain it here a few times in these lines and photographs I share with you, how rediscovering those secret places I used to wander at the ranch as a child hold a sort of haunting nostalgia and comfort when visited as an adult.

But now that I have arrived and am here to stay my childhood secret spots have become familiar again. I visit them regularly either for a stroll to take photographs or to chase cattle along the trails. I am remembering and learning every day where all of these deer and cow paths wind and twist and turn, determined to be capable of navigating the place the way Pops does one day, without pause or back track.

And it’s an interesting and adventurous task I’ve set out to accomplish, one that, growing up, was always tackled with a shadow following a few yards behind me.

I swear just yesterday I was hollering at that little curly-haired six-year-old in the purple barn jacket to “go home and leave me alone!” Just yesterday, wasn’t I suggesting that if she really had to build a fort along the same creek bed, perhaps it should be a little further up the coulee and out of my sight.

And there we were last weekend walking side-by-side, adult women with our own fears and worries pushed back until Monday, tucked away so that we might enjoy and remember the time the tire swing broke sending Little Sister flailing into the creek, how we used to climb the old apple trees behind the house, and the hours we spent following Pops chasing a cow or a deer in the oak trees and brush that line the creek bottom.

How many mittens did we drop along the way? How many times did our boots fill with creek water?

How many wood ticks and burs and grass stains did we accumulate?

And in all of the lines and photographs I share in this space about the magic and adventure the ranch, our home, holds for me–all the ways I tell you it mystifies and heals, puts me in my place and brings me closer to the version of myself I like the most, I have to confess it is not the landscape alone that holds the responsibility.

I imagine I could fall in love with a number of creek beds, oak groves and rolling fields, marveling at the way the afternoon sun hits the leaves that have fallen into the water, getting to know how the trail winds up the embankments, coming to understand how it changes with the season.

I know I could fall in love with many places and landscapes throughout this world.

But it is this one, this one that holds my father’s footprints, my Little Sister’s laugh, my mother’s call to come in for supper. It is this one that promises Little Man a place to run and learn to ride horse and Big Little Sister a refuge if she needs it.

It is these hills, these paths, these coulees, these acorns, these fallen trees and fallen logs and this mud and these thorns and soft grasses that have bent under my growing feet and the feet of those who know me the best that gives this place a heartbeat and makes the sunrise brighter, the trees grow taller, the creek clearer, the horses more capable…

and me more grateful every day that through all these years we can be out in it, loving it and living in those familiar spaces on a days that were made to be together.