And then look here, here’s the herd of nannies and babies I spotted a few weeks ago on a little drive through the badlands on my home turf.
The bighorns are badlands residents that I don’t get to see too often. In fact, this sighting was only my second in all the years I’ve lived and roamed around here.
So I was pretty excited to find a whole clan of mommas hanging out on a cliff in the badlands, posing for me.
These badlands that we live on the edge of are full of surprises, changing every day, every few minutes even, with the shift of light and weather.
Change is a big topic out here in these boomtowns exploding with growth above the shale formation where we’re busy extracting millions of barrels of oil.
Somedays are harder than others to get around, to make plans to accept that there are things that simply will never be the same. And this is both for the worse and for the better and that can be a hard thing to explain to people wanting to hear that it’s all black and white.
If I’ve learned anything from living back at the ranch it is that this world is full of blending colors…
Somedays I don’t feel like talking about it. Somedays I do.
But that day I was taking a drive outside of town, scoping out a spot for an oil truck photoshoot.
A shiny oil truck in the middle of the badlands.
Not my usual subject and sort of a funny juxtaposition of industry and beauty…
I was kicking up dust on a gravel road, me and about a dozen other pickups, along the Little Missouri River, when I got a glimpse of this little family…
And so I slowed down and watched them eating on the yellow clover, twitching their tails at the bugs and content and unconcerned with the world outside the fence moving and changing so quickly around them.
I stepped out of my car to get a closer look. A trucker stopped with his camera.
And then a car. And another pickup.
Working people behind out of state license plates taking a marvel, taking a second to admire these mommas.
The guests came and went but I stayed for a bit longer, like a visitor at a zoo, studying their behavior, admiring how they move so easily up and down the cliffs. How they were made for this place.
I think I was made for this place. Most days I do. I was made to defend it and scuff my boots on it. I was made to witness it in all of its changes.
In its struggles.
In its best moments.
I was made to tell its story if I can. To ask questions and make sure I take notice of things that are just so spectacular. Things that we might miss if we drive too fast.
Sometimes I think we’re all driving too fast.
Maybe in another life I’ll be something like a bighorn sheep momma, with just a few simple tasks, eating and moving and keeping us all alive….
Then again, maybe that’s all we’re really trying to do here…as humans…
There has been a haze in the air for the last couple days. Fires in Canada couldn’t hold their breath any longer and so some puffs escaped our way, lingering in the calm, hot air and reminding me of living in Montana in August.
When the wind doesn’t blow here in North Dakota it’s sort of eerie, like there’s some secret we’re not being told.
This place is full of them, untold secrets. I’ve always thought that.
How the snow ever fell on all this green and gold I never understand come mid-July. How it could look anything like this, my skin anything but brown and warm, my hair fuzzed just a bit from the heat.
How pink flowers spring from the same earth that was frozen seven feet under just months ago…
and the once wooly horses shed their coats and transform into sleek, high-spirited creatures I can’t comprehend because I have decided it’s magic.
And so I can hardly stand to be inside.
There’s plenty to do out there in terms of work, so I wander around a bit, grab a broom and sweep the garage, pick a weed or two and then sort of wander off to a couple hilltops to see how the flowers look from up there. The purple coneflowers out in full force, sprung up overnight among the grass and clover stirrup high.
I was away less than a week and look at all I missed.
How can I be lonesome for a season I’m standing in the middle of? How can I be scared that I might not catch it all? It’s ridiculous to be so anxious about the flowers. It’s ridiculous to be so worried that I might blink and miss the best part of a summer sunset.
When I was a little girl I was convinced there were parts of this ranch that were yet to be discovered and so I was determined to explore every inch. I walked the trail beside the creek bed in the spring, throwing in sticks to see where the cold rushing water would take them. In the summer I took off my boots and walked directly in that water, my bare feet navigating trails to the big beaver dams.
In the fall I would crawl to the tops of the banks and count the colors. In the winter I would bundle up and trudge, trudge, trudge…not to be kept away no matter the weather.
It wasn’t until I grew up and came home, camera pointed out of every window, dangling off my neck on every ride, every walk, that I discovered the gift of this place is the very thing that makes me crazy and sends me walking, searching for the undiscovered places. The most beautiful things.
This place never looks the same. Every day, every shift of light, every turn of season, every passing cloud, every breeze, every snowflake and raindrop changes it completely.
Gray sky, gray grass. Gold sun, gold flowers. White snow, white trees. Rain clouds, sparkling leaves.
It’s nature, but isn’t it interesting? Isn’t it magic how something so many miles up in the universe can change things for us, our mood, or intrigue, or plans for the day.
May the fires in Canada soon become a memory and the ashes turn to the greenest grass.
Because up here, the wind, the wind changes everything.
I wish you could smell the sweet clover out here this time of year. I step outside and I’m flooded with a wave of memories of all that I used to be, summer after summer growing up out here. It smells like work and evenings spent sliding down hills on cardboard boxes with my cousins. It smells like ingredients for mud pie and playing house in the lilac bushes by the red barn. It smells like bringing lunch to dad in the field above our house, horseflies and heat biting our skin.
It smells like my first car and the windows rolled down, taking back roads with my best friends as passengers, kicking up dust as we tested the limits of teenage-dom.
It smells like my leaving, bittersweet. My last summer as a kid here before it was time to go and grow up already. Be on my own.
And it smells like coming home, take a right on the pink road, stop at the top of the hill and look at it all before heading down and turning into mom and dad’s for a glass of wine and a steak on the deck that looks out toward the garden and up the crick bed where I used to play everyday.
Last week we had family here from Texas, a couple of those cousins who used to help me make mud pies, a couple of aunts and an uncle I adore and then, of course the grandkids. The ranch was buzzing, laughing, full of life like I remembered it when I was growing up and our grandparents were alive and serving us push-up pops from the small from porch of their small brown house.
Funny how the world changes when suddenly there are kids running through the grass, pulling up dandelions, blowing bubbles and making memories on this place like the ones I hold so close to me.
After the Centennial celebration was over we did nothing but sit on the deck and visit, catch up, eat and then run inside to watch the rain pour. We laughed at the kids as they played and fought over toys and I looked at my cousin, the one closest to my age, the girl I used to wish was my twin sister, a mother now, and I thought, well, weren’t we just the same size as her baby A? Weren’t we just five years old running through the clover, itching our mosquito bites, begging for popsicles and just one more hour to play outside.
Now look at us, all grown up and still here on this place.
I was so thankful to be here with them on this place.
Because I know it didn’t come without a cost for our family, keeping it here for us, so future generations can smell the clover and be young and wild out here…
I know that we did nothing but be born to good people who know the value of the land, not in dollars, but in something that is hard for me to find words for right now.
A place to belong?
On Monday when the rest of his family loaded up and hit the road, Uncle W, stayed home one more evening. Little Sister came out and we saddled up our horses and headed out east, riding along and listening to the two brothers remember what it was like to be young out here.
Little Uncle W always found hanging back on a roundup, eating on a Juneberry bush.
Young Pops getting bucked off on the road when his little brother popped over the hill on his tricycle.
Milking cows and riding broncs and chasing girls and growing up together, out here on this place.
How many gloves and hats and scarves have been left dangling in these trees, scooped off heads and hands of little cowboys and cowgirls rushing on the backs of horses running through the trees?
How many wild plum pits have been spit at one another?
How many mud pies have been made in this barnyard, topped off with little pieces of sweet clover.
It’s so quiet here this morning as I get ready to head to a show tonight and then on to Minnesota to celebrate the 4th of July. If I had my way we’d all live out here together, my cousins and us, and those kids would be over the hill forever being raised by kids like us, and we would rehash memories and then create new ones.
Every day, out here on this place the way it used to be.
But that wouldn’t work. There’s space out here, but not that much…not enough…
So I’ll take the clover. I’ll breathe it in and I will remember when it itched our bare little legs in the summer while we searched for kittens in the nooks of the red barn.
Then I’ll remember the weekends, weekends like these, when they came to visit us out here along the gravel roads, and how small the kids were and how they were so little, because they’ll grow up too fast you know. Just like we did, out here among the clover.
It’s Friday and it seems I have run out of words for the week, but that’s ok. I want to show you something that I don’t think I need many words for.
Because I was in the badlands this week, in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora. After my work was done, I went out looking for landscape, for beauty and life in those rustic buttes, and found that above the vibrant green of the grass there were these colors in the sky, constantly changing, casting shadows and light that changed the way the world looked every minute.
I couldn’t take my eyes away.
Peace, Love, Sunrise to Sunset,
This time of year is my favorite. I love it so much I don’t mind the ticks.
(Like, I mean, lots of ticks.
Like, I had so many I had to strip off my clothes and put them outside. Like, I won’t tell you how many because you would never sleep again and also, I had one stuck on my butt and that was one of those conversations you don’t really want to have with your husband, but, well, let’s forget I ever mentioned it.
And while we’re at it let’s also forget that I found a tick in my bed last night…)
Annnyywaaayyy… ticks or no ticks, there’s something to be said about being the first one out there to find a patch of sweet peas.
There’s something so new and refreshing about it all, the green grass poking up out of the ground before the weeds and brush take over.
The smell of rain coming in.
The damp dirt and the birds and all of the sounds and smells of things coming back to life.
I feel like I’m coming back to life.
So I make it a point to go out in it. In the middle of the long, cold winters those are the promises we make to ourselves: If it ever gets above freezing we will not complain about the weather.
We live here and we endure this because this is what we’re promised. We’re promised the greening up. And the process couldn’t possibly be as beautiful, as spiritual and soul reviving if we didn’t fully understand what cold feels like.
Yes. We know cold.
And endless white.
And to know the white is to truly know the green.
A few weeks ago on one of the first warm days of not-quite-spring, Little Sister made her way out to the ranch after school. We didn’t have any plans in particular, except that we both felt like we needed to take advantage of a sunny afternoon and then throw something on the BBQ for grilling.
Maybe we’d clean up the ditches.
Maybe we’d walk to the top of the rock hill in the east pasture.
Maybe we’d search for crocuses.
Maybe we’d catch the horses and take the first ride of the season.
And because that last idea sounded like the best idea, we called up Pops to see if he’d join us. But Pops was likely out on his own spring day walk-about and so, understandably, wasn’t answering calls.
We could have taken a ride by ourselves, just the two of us, but something about it didn’t feel right.
So Little Sister and I meandered, up to the top of Pots and Pans, where we kneeled down to inspect the crocuses, then along the top of that hill and across the fence to the fields where we followed the trail past where once, a million years ago, Little Sister watched me jump off my horse and emerge from the weeds with a concussion and a crooked and broken wrist.
We followed that trail down to where it met the road and we talked about everything and nothing like sisters do. Taxes and deadlines, summer plans and new recipes, our funny nephew, our mutual hatred for wood ticks, traffic and how things have changed around here.
Then we took a left off of that road and walked down to the hay pen where we used to feed cattle in the winter. Where once, when I was little, I watched dad get chased down by a mad momma cow while he was ear-tagging her calf.
It’s funny how all of these places out here hold different obscure memories for all of us. I doubted that Pops remembered that momma-cow incident, but at the time I was sure it was the closest he’d ever come to death.
Because, even as a kid I was aware that this life was fragile. I think growing up on a ranch surrounded by the sometimes cruel realities of nature helps a kid understand these things.
It’s a lesson I am glad to have, but sometimes I wish I could tuck away the worry as easily these days as I did back then.
See, I’ve told my sister, and I’l tell you, that ever since that long, cold week in January spent sitting next to our dad and willing him to live, to take more breaths with us, to keep pumping blood through that heart, I’ve been jumpy and much too aware that at any moment everything could change.
And I’m planning on it wearing off, that worry melting away from me as the sun warms my back and the tips of the long grass. I plan on unclenching my teeth and dropping my shoulders a bit as I remember that we can only know what’s in this moment, and in this moment we’re fine.
My sister talked about the future then and where she might build a house someday and we walked up the hill toward my house, then headed for the trail in the trees that would take us back inside, stopping to take a look at the Blue Buttes and how the sun hit them that evening, turning them purple…
And then we turned around, two sisters standing side by side. Two sisters who cried over the idea of their father’s last day on earth and took turns sitting with him during those long nights in the hospital, me from 10 to 2 am, her from 2 to 6…these two sisters who learned to ride horses by his example saw that dad riding towards them up over the crest of that hill.
His first ride, the one we prayed for, the one I promised him he’d have again if he just held on.
Last weekend I stood next to my dad on a stage behind a guitar and we sang out into a small crowd of dancing people words to songs it seems we’ve known forever, if forever was a promise we ever believed we were given.
But it doesn’t matter now. Because these things we do, the things that unclench our jaw and soften the hard parts of living, I believe they pull us through with their own promises, not to live forever, but to simply and fully live.
Coming Home: Some things in life are uncomplicated
by Jessie Veeder
It took some looking, but I’ve learned out here that while the big picture can be quite beautiful,
sometimes it’s the smallest things that are the most intriguing. Like a bud on a tree and how it knows it’s time to emerge from once bare branches, in perfect form.
Or how grass seems to turn from brown to green overnight.
Earth, we love you. We love how you keep us, how you hold us, how you call us to lay down in the grass under the warm sun.
And how that warm sun changes you so you look different every day.
We love your tall trees and your tall grass.
We love your mud and dirt for growing things.
You’re rocky and uneven and scary and beautiful.
And then the sun comes.
Happy Day Earth. Thanks for being our home.
I went out on the last day of winter to see if I believed it.
I had been driving for much of the day, having woken up in a hotel room in the middle of North Dakota to find that during my sleep snow had fallen.
It was the last day of winter and, well, you know how winter likes to hold on to the spotlight around here.
I waited a bit then before scraping the windshield of my car and heading back west on a quiet and slick highway, lingering over morning talk shows and hotel room coffee.
The weatherman said it would warm up nicely, the sun would shine and the roads would clear on this, the last day of winter.
150 miles west those roads were shut down and traffic backed up. Too slippery to be safe.
Not spring yet.
Oh no. Not yet.
But we gave it some time then, under the sun, and the fog lifted off of the thawing out lakes. The snow plow came.
White to to slush. The earth warmed up.
And me and my guitar buried under a mountain of groceries made it back home to the buttes on the last day of winter.
And when I arrived I changed out of my good boots and into the ones made for mud and I went out in it, knowing full well that just because it says “Spring” today on the calendar hanging by the cabinets on the wall, doesn’t mean the snow won’t fall tomorrow.
I heard the snow is going to fall again tomorrow.
But today I’m sitting in a patch of sunshine making its way through the windows, bouncing off the treetops, on to the deck and into this house and I’m telling you about yesterday, the last day of winter, when the brown dog and I headed east to my favorite spot to see how the land weathered the bitter cold of the season.
I followed the cow trail behind the house and through the gate, where the petrified bovine hoof prints from last fall magically turned into fresh tracks in the mud of the elk who make their home back here.
Sniff sniff sniff went the nose of my lab as he wove back and forth, back and forth in the hills and trees in front of me, always looking for something.
Squish squish squish went the rubber soles of my boots on the soft ground.
And then there was the wind, everything is second to the sound of it in my ears.
But as we followed our feet up and over the hills and down the trails to the stock dam there was another sound I couldn’t place.
It sounded like crickets or whatever those bugs are that make noise in the water at night. But it was too early for bugs. Too cold for crickets just yet.
I stepped up on the bank of the dam and watched my lab take a chilly spring swim in the water where an iceberg still floated white and frozen in the middle.
I put my hands on my hips and tried to place that unfamiliar music over my dog’s panting and shaking and splashing about.
It could be frogs, if frogs chirped like that, but there are not frogs just yet…or snakes or minnows or other slimy things that disappear when the cold comes…
No…none of those things…
but there are birds…
and well…look at all of them up there in that tree,
perched and fluttering, covering almost every branch.
Are they singing? I think it’s them.
Listen to that!
Relentless in their chirping conversation against the blue sky of the last day of winter and unafraid of the big, clumsy, slobbering canine sniffing them out.
Not phased by his two legged companion squish squish squishing up to the tree, shielding her eyes so she could get a better look at them.
A flock of proud little birds with puffed out chests, wearing tufts on their heads like tiny showgirls in Vegas.
Putting on a show for us on the last day of winter…
And if you would have asked me earlier that morning if winter was over, the fresh snow stuck to the bottom of my boots, my white knuckle grip on the wheel and my breath making puffs into the morning air as I pulled off the highway and stepped out of my car to admire the view, I would have said oh no, it is not over yet.
But under that tree full of songbirds I would have believed in anything…spring and summer and music and joy and tiny little feathered miracles who know, without a doubt, when to fly home.