The vows and working cows

The Vows and Working Cows
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Listen to this column and Jessie’s conversation with her husband on this week’s Meanwhile Podcast

Do you know what almost 16 years of marital bliss looks like? It looks like yelling at each other in the wind across the cow pasture because 1) you didn’t fully understand his plan 2) even if you did, the plan wouldn’t have worked and 3) you don’t and never will understand his hand-signaling for crying out loud and 4) turns out catching an orphan calf with you in the ATV and him on foot real quick before our daughter’s piano recital was not, in fact, going to be real quick.

My husband and I have known each other since we were kids. We have had so much fun together, lots of lovely moments, which really helps in the stupid idea times, like taking on a total house remodel in our 20s and not taking the time to go get a horse to get this calf in. And the hard times, like years of infertility, a sick parent and cancer. But working cows together? Well, it’s in a league of its own in the marriage department. There should be a line item in the vows about it. Like, “I vow to not hold anything you say or do against you when we are working cows if you promise to do the same for me. Amen.”

When it comes to starting a life together, no one really mentions stuff like that. I’m not just talking about the annoying and surprising things, but the things that come with sharing a house, and plans, and dinner and children and new businesses and careers and remodels and a herd of cattle and six bottle calves in the barn.

Because, if we’re lucky, there’s a lot of life in between those “I do’s” and the whole “death parting us” thing. Not even our own wedding day went off without hitches. (If I recall, there was a cattle incident that day as well. Guess that’s what you get when you get married in the middle of a cow pasture.)

Yes, marriage officially joins us together, our love, yes, but also our mistakes and small tragedies, goofiness and bad ideas, opinions and forgetfulness and big plans in the works. You’re in it together. You get a witness. You get a built-in dinner date that sometimes is really late to dinner and it now you’re annoyed.

And it isn’t our anniversary or anything, but, after we chased that tiny calf across the pasture and down the road and into the next pasture and then into my little sister’s backyard where my husband finally dove in and caught a leg as I slid down a muddy gumbo hill in my muck boots after him and we finally got that calf onto the floor of the side-by-side and drove her to the barn, made her a bottle and got her to drink and wiped the sweat off of our faces, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the reason this will last until death parts us is that we don’t hold grudges.

Because (and this doesn’t always happen) we were laughing at the end of it. About the yelling part. About the dumb idea part. About the part where he’s terrible with a rope and knows it. About the ridiculous predicaments raising kids and cattle put us in. How is it that it’s equal parts easier and harder to do these things together? What a balancing act for a life that’s never balanced.

Because it’s all so annoying sometimes, and sometimes it’s his fault. Sometimes it’s mine. But I tell you what’s also annoying, that pickle jar that I can never open myself or the flat tire he’s out there fixing on the side of the road in the middle of a winter blizzard, proving that regardless of our shortcomings, life is easier with him around.

Ugh, it just has to work out. That’s something, isn’t it? As if the whole working out thing happens on its own because love will make it so. Love helps, but it doesn’t make you agree on the arrangement of the furniture. Love will not make him throw away that ratty state wrestling T-shirt, but it will make you change out of those sweatpants he hates every once in a while, you know, on special nights. And initially, love will send him running when he hears you scream in the other room, but there will come a time when he will wait for a follow-up noise, because love has made the man mistake a stray spider for a bloody mangled limb too many times. And, really, love makes it so you don’t really blame him.

And, just for the record, sometimes love is not patient. Sometimes it needs to get to town and she’s trying on her third dress of the evening.

And sometimes love is not as kind as it should be. Because love is human.

And no human is perfect. Not individually and surely not together. And especially not when working cows.

The Promise of a Greener Summer

This week’s column on the rain and the rain and the rain. It rained almost five inches over the course of a couple days out here last week, filling the dams, pushing the river over its banks, sending creek beds rushing and greening up the grass. There are places that were flooded in the state and it got a little scary, but out here we opened up our arms, lifted our faces up to the sky and said a prayer of gratitude.

The Promise of a Greener Summer
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Click to listen to commentary and this column on the Meanwhile Podcast

It’s been raining at the ranch for the last few days.

Raining, and thundering, and pouring and making puddles and filling the creek beds. It’s been a while, a couple years maybe, since we’ve seen a long, soaking rain take up the entire day, followed by another and then another, so I didn’t believe the thunder when it was threatening my walk in the hills the other night. I thought it was bluffing the way it did all last spring when the sky refused to open up and the wind howled and the prairie was burning. So I carried on like the superstitious kid I am, the kid raised by a rancher whose never owned a rain gauge for fear that if he ever put one out, it would never rain again.

My dad, he judges the amount of rain by what’s sitting in the dog dish or the buckets outside the barn or the puddle that always forms in his driveway. And then he calls me, just a mile down the road, to take a look at my gauge. Because up until a few months ago, I didn’t know the reason my dad never had gauge himself was so specifically calculated. I just thought he never got around to it or something…so maybe it’s been our fault, this drought?

Anyway, it seems the sky has had enough of its silent treatment and just as I got to the gate a half a mile from home, it opened up and started to really pour and so I pulled up my hood and hoofed it toward home, turning my stroll into a jog into a full-on run when the thunder clapped again and the rain turned to little pieces of hail.

My kids were standing in the doorframe watching the drowned rat that was their mother struggle and puff her way back to the front door, laughing and thinking, well, maybe I was right to ignore it, to have low expectations so I wasn’t disappointed.

That evening a double rainbow appeared right outside our house looking to have sprung up right at our kids’ playground set. I called the girls out of the bath and they left little footprint puddles on their way to patio doors where we all stood with our noses touching the screen, breathing in the scent of the rain and counting the colors.

Now girls, this is what spring is supposed to do. Bring it on. Let the heavens pour down and wash that winter away. Wash it clean and squeaky. We’ve been dusty then frozen then thirsty and our hair needs washing…the worms need air…the lilacs need watering…The horses need waking up.

Rain sky. Cry it out. Turn the brown to neon green and make the flowers hunch over under the weight of your drops.

I don’t mind. Really. I will stand in it, I will run in it all day if it means it will fill the dams and grow the grass.

I’ll splash in your puddles, let it soak in my skin, slide down the clay buttes, jump over the rushing streams. Because I forgot what this feels like, being soaked to the core and warm in spite of it.

I forgot what it looks like when the lighting breaks apart the sky. I forgot how the thunder shakes the foundation of this house, how it startles me from sleep and fills my heart with a rush of loneliness, a reminder that the night carries on while I’m sleeping.

I forgot how clean it smells, how green the grass can be, how many colors are in that rainbow.

So go on. Rain. Rain all you want.

Rain forever on this hard ground and turn this pink scoria road bright red, his brown ground green. Let your drops encourage the fragile stuff, the quiet beauty that has been sleeping for so long to wake up and show her face now. It’s time.

I’ll be there waiting to gasp over it, to gush and smile and stick my face up to catch the drops on my tongue, and return home flushed and soaked and tracking mud into my house where the soup is on.

Rain. Rain. Rain. You fill up the buckets and gauges and puddles and tap at my windows… and promise me a greener summer.

If you want a slice of rural America, visit a Cenex station

My niece Ada walked right up to him, a man in work coveralls, thick glasses and a Scotch cap. His face was weathered from years of living and I had my hands full of Icees and personal pan pizzas and a couple treats I let the two 4-year-olds pick out after preschool that day.

We were having a special lunch while we waited for my kindergartner to get out of school on Friday and so we chose the Cenex station because they have basically everything. And Ada broke away from my side to say hello and he reached into the inside pocket of those coveralls and handed her a million dollar bill with a laugh.

Then I had to abandon our lunch with the cashier because Rosie had to go potty really bad, like most 4-year-olds do at the most inconvenient times. When we finally sat down and got them settled in the dining area of the convenience store, I couldn’t help but think of what a slice of life this place is.

This old Cenex station used to be on the corner of Main Street in my hometown when I was growing up. A small store with a few candy bar treats, but mostly supplies and parts and sunflower seeds and a drink cooler and most everything you could grab to get you by for now on the ranch or in the field — and if not, they could order it or help fix it in the shop attached.

I remember popping in there with Dad when I was a kid, maybe getting an orange pop for the ride home. And when I finally got my driver’s license, it’s where I would gas up because I could put it on the ranch account. It’s where most kids who lived in the country gassed up and where some of them worked after school and on the weekends.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend (who’s now my husband) took me there to get wasp spray for the wheel well of his dad’s old boat trailer after he witnessed me getting stung right in the middle of the forehead when he disturbed the nest in our attempt to escape to the lake. I don’t know why, but something about walking into that Cenex store with that giant wasp sting and that boy looking for revenge, well, it stuck with me. Must have been love. Anyway, when I look up for the memory I swear I can still smell that place, a little bit of grease mixed in with diesel exhaust, probably what that old man’s coveralls smell like.

The Cenex store is a fixture on the landscape that is rural America. As a musician, I’ve traveled enough county roads and highways to see my fair share of versions of this place, each one retrofitted to make sense to the size of the town. The fancy ones exist along the highways and interstates, but I prefer the ones tucked into the Main Streets of small towns a long way from the exit signs. There you can usually find what you need, plus a couple old timers in a booth in the back having coffee and looking up to see if the person coming through the door might be familiar. Or even better, someone they don’t know about yet.

Anyway, that old Cenex store looked nothing like this bright, shiny pizza pit stop we have now in a newer development in town, complete with a mini food court, fancy restrooms, a wall full of anything you want to drink, clothes, parts, gloves, coolers, toys, and of course, wasp spray. You name it. I picked the pepperonis off of the girls’ pepperoni pizza and watched them wiggle and giggle and use too many napkins in the booth and couldn’t help but think that this place is sort of a metaphor for my hometown turned boomtown. The idea is the same, but we can afford to have some nice things now.

And so there we sat, a mom with an SUV full of car-seats and cracker crumbs dug into the floorboards making a Friday special with a couple of Icees. And in the booth behind me two middle-aged men sat facing one another, a bible open between them, talking about Jesus and what it means to be a man. Across the room, a job interview, one man in work boots asking another about his driving record and through those sliding glass double doors (they’re automatic now) the faces come in and out, some familiar, some new, some we don’t know yet and some just passing through with million dollar bills…

An abandoned service station in small town ND.

Listen to commentary and the column on this week’s podcast

In this week’s podcast I took advantage of the rainy weather and had my husband Chad as my first guest. We visit about how things have changed in our hometown since we grew up there in the 90s. He also proves that he’s intellectual by using the word “unbeknownst.” You’ll hear Rosie in the background and also our thick ND accents take the stage before I read the column and share a song. Thanks for listening!

Listen below or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Lessons in life and heartbreak on the ranch

I started this piece last week as an introduction and recap of the latest spring storm. Since then we’ve been on the warm up, watching the snow drifts turn the ground to mud and exposing some green grass. And we’ve added another bottle baby, a twin, to our mix, putting us up to a total of 4, one for each little girl to feed if we can all get out there together. It looks like this week we’ll see 70 degree temperatures for a few days, and everyone’s spirits are lifted by that. Uncle Wade headed back to Texas and the girls are in their final month of school for the year and we have summer on our minds. I’m headed off to visit a few schools this week with the book “Prairie Princess” so I’ll be seeing some of the state thaw out and green up before my eyes and whenever I get a chance I’ll be on those hilltops, checking again, for crocuses, and probably collecting a few ticks.

Lessons in heartbreak on the ranch
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As I write this, the sun is shining after another really tough weekend of weather. As you read, we are likely getting more of the forecast moisture, but by now we’re all familiar with the storm that rolled into western North Dakota that started with rain, turned to ice and then into over a foot of more snow blowing sideways in up to 65 mph gusts throughout last Saturday and into Sunday afternoon.

This one was just as hard or harder on our herd because, No. 1, wet and freezing weather is tough on livestock, especially newborn calves. No. 2, we are full-on calving now, and No. 3, we lost power on Saturday, April 23, around 3:30 p.m. and didn’t get it back until around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. As I write this, some in our county are still waiting for the lights to come back on. And it all felt a little spooky, honestly.

On Saturday afternoon, right before we lost power, the guys pulled four soaked, shaking and newborn calves in from the storm to try to save them and our entryway turned into a bovine nursery, complete with all four little girls helping to dry them, warm them and get them to eat if we could.

My sister, Alex, sat with the newest calf on her lap, scrubbing him with towels, drying him and asking him to hang in there. But after our last-ditch effort of pumping him full of electrolytes, he didn’t make it another 20 minutes. The girls were heartbroken and so we sat on the steps together, working it out with them, wiping little tears, worried that he might not be the only one in our entryway with such a fate.

My sister and I hang on to memories like this one of being kids during calving season. The excitement of bringing the calves inside always held with it a bit of anxiety knowing that they were there with us because something wasn’t going right. So that’s the lesson I tried to give the girls, that nature can be cruel, and we’re here to be caretakers, doing the best we can. But sometimes there’s nothing more we can do.

And so we move on to the next thing we can do. I don’t think they’re too young right now to learn about life and death and how to care for helpless things. It’s not too early to learn how fragile it all can be and what a big job it is to be responsible for these animals.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but my sister and I cried a bit about that calf, too. We were hoping for a victory, but it was a tough day to be born. So we focused our attention on tiny No. 4, the one the girls named Strawberry, who wouldn’t stand up or take a drink. The next morning, after a fair amount of patience, I finally got her to drink an entire bottle. This morning, she was bawling for it and I got my victory there. Funny how you can be so proud of a calf. And so the guys loaded all three of those baby bovines into the back seat of the pickup to graduate them to the barn — and that right there is why everything we own out here is covered in poop and slobber in the spring.

This week, the guys are counting the calves and keeping close watch, making sure they all get paired up with the cows who get mixed up during stressful times like this. When we woke up on Sunday morning, all four of my family members tucked in our big bed to stay warm, we were a little unsure of what we’d find down in the trees where the cattle hung out for protection on layer upon layer of hay. But these cattle are tough, and so are their babies, and as soon as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, there were calves running and bucking and perking right up. I couldn’t believe it.

Baby Calf Kevin tucked in safe and sound

Nature is cruel, but instinct and being bred for hardiness plays a part in the equation, and those two things didn’t disappoint us in our herd. Neither did the natural protection of the trees and valleys and all of the family around us helping take care.

Fresh new baby on greening grass

This one will be in the record books. Some neighbors in other corners of the county were literally digging cows and calves out of snowbanks where they were stuck standing. And there’s so much to reflect on, and so many lessons my husband and I have learned about how we could be better prepared for next time. And so we put that in our pockets and in our plans and keep digging out, more thankful for the sunshine than ever.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Under these snowbanks is green grass, and this, I think, has become a metaphor for almost every hard time in my life. The rainbow after the rain. I believe it always comes, sometimes naturally and in its own time. Sometimes you have to just buy yourself an ice cream cone and make that count. Either way, I hope you’re all finding your silver lining. Stay warm out there. Chin up. If you need us, we’ll be mixing giant calf bottles and heading to the barn…

Listen to this week’s column with commentary in my first attempt at a podcast

Ok folks, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to record each week’s column with a bit of commentary in a weekly podcast format. This first attempt is a bit rough as I just wanted to see what it was all about, but I think it could be a nice option for readers to be listeners. My plan is to incorporate more discussion on each week’s topic and to hopefully include some of my family, friends and maybe you in the conversation. Oh, and there will be music too.

Hang with me as I work through this, but I think it’s going to be fun!
Click here to listen on Spotify
Or search “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” on Apple Podcasts

The Promise of a Greener Summer Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

This week it's all about the rain and the rain and the rain. After a long dry spell in Western North Dakota, the sky broke the silence and dropped almost five inches in a few days, filling the dams, cricks, and our hope. Jessie reflects on the stories we tell and the memories we revisit when the sky opens up. Catch her original song, Raining, at the end of the episode and download it at jessieveedermusic.com or wherever you get your music.  More at veederranch.com — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/veederranch/support
  1. The Promise of a Greener Summer
  2. A Slice of Rural Life at the Local Cenex
  3. Lessons in life and heartbreak on the ranch

Spring calving in April storms

The sun is shining this morning after another really tough weekend of weather. A storm rolled in on Friday that started with rain, turned to ice and then into over a foot of more snow blowing sideways in up to 65 MPH winds throughout Saturday and into Sunday afternoon. This one was just as hard or harder on our herd because, number one, wet and freezing weather is tough tough tough on livestock, especially newborn calves. Number two, we are full-on calving now, and number three, we lost power on Saturday around 3:30 pm and didn’t get it back until around 6:30 pm on Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, right before we lost power, the guys pulled four soaked, shaking and newborn calves in from the storm to save them and our entryway turned into a bovine nursery, complete with all four little girls helping to dry them, warm them and get them to eat if we could.

My sister sat with the newest calf on her lap, scrubbing him with towels, drying him, and asking him to hang in there. We tried the last ditch resort of tubing electrolytes, but he didn’t make it another 20 minutes. The girls were heartbroken and so we sat on the steps a while, working it out with them as they wiped tears and I worried that he might not be the only one in our entryway with such a fate.

My sister and I hang on to memories like this one of being kids during calving season. The excitement of bringing the calves inside always held with it a bit of anxiety knowing that they were there with us because something wasn’t going right. So that’s the lesson I tried to give the girls, that nature can be cruel, and we’re there to be caretakers, doing the best we can. But sometimes it doesn’t work. And so we move on to the next thing we can do. I don’t think they’re too young to learn about life and death and how to care for helpless things. It’s not too early to learn how fragile it can all be and what a big job it is to be responsible for these animals.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but my sister and I cried a bit too about that calf. We were hoping for a victory, we’ve seen calves come back from similar situations, but it was a tough day to be born. So we focused our attention on tiny #4, the one the girls named Strawberry, who wouldn’t stand up or take a drink. The next morning, after a fair amount of patience, I finally got her to drink an entire bottle. This morning she was bawling for it and I got my victory there. Funny how you can be so proud of a calf. The guys loaded all three of those calves into the backseat of the pickup to graduate them to the barn and that right there is why everything we own out here is covered in some amount of poop.

Today the guys are counting the calves and pairing them with the cows who get mixed up during stressful times like this. When we woke up on Sunday morning all of us were a little unsure of what we’d find down in the trees, but these cattle are tough, and so are their babies and as soon as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, there were calves running and bucking and perking right up. I can’t believe it. Nature is cruel, but instinct and being bred for heartiness plays a part in the equation and those two things didn’t disappoint us in our herd. Neither did the natural protection of the trees and all of the family around us helping take care.

Anyway, there’s so much to reflect on, and so many lessons my husband and I have learned about how we could be better prepared for next time, and so we put that in our pockets and in our plans and keep digging out. Under these snowbanks is green green grass and we’re lucky to have them honestly. Some ranchers further west would certainly pay a price for this kind of moisture.

Below is last week’s column on how we dug out from the last blizzard, unaware what was still lurking in those clouds!!

Spring calving and April blizzards

The epic April blizzard during Easter weekend dumped at least 20 inches of snow on the hills and valleys of the ranch. The moisture was much-needed, but this storm was one for the record books, bringing with it whipping winds, blinding snow and drifts up to10 feet tall in some places.

We hadn’t “officially” begun to calve, but we had three early babies on the ground when the snow started falling in sideways sheets, inch upon inch creeping up as a dramatic drift outside our living room door. We measured our daughters against it, and soon they couldn’t compete, marveling at how the snow almost topped our doorway, blocking out the view and any chance to get to the grill for a spring cookout.

So many families across the state were doing the same thing, pressing their faces against the window and wondering if it was ever going to stop, likely worrying about something out there.

Here we were worrying about our livestock and hoping the momma cows would hold on to their babies just a few more days, the way we planned. My dad and husband took to a routine of going out together, one in each tractor, to move whatever snow was possible around in the protection of the trees, to check on the animals and to bring hay for feed and bedding during the storm.

There were times the men couldn’t see a foot in front of the tractor and it was dangerous even with the good equipment, but they had equipment and so they were thankful. It would have felt impossible for my dad all those years ago when he was on his own with the 1970s 1086 International. These days we have three families living at the ranch, which makes tackling the brunt of these things a little more bearable in lessening the load and, maybe equally important, keeping company.

The storm was particularly bad on that Wednesday evening and didn’t let up much for us on Thursday when my dad’s impeccable timing found him out checking the herd just as a momma was pushing a calf into the world. Had he been a little earlier or a little later, he might have missed the chance to load all 80-some pounds of baby bovine into the cab of the tractor and bring him inside for a chance to dry off, warm up and get a better start at life.

I made a spot in our entryway for the calf to spend the night and the girls gave him the welcome he deserved, helping me scrub him down with dry towels and taking it a few steps further (of course) by changing into their cowgirl outfits, wrapping him up in a quilt, laying down next to him and naming him Kevin.

And this is why every rancher, in my opinion, needs a daughter, even though it’s hard to explain to them that the goal is not for that calf to stay in the house with us forever.

No, it’s always the goal to get him back to his momma, and that’s what we did the next morning after filling him full of milk-replacer and getting him up to take a few laps around the mudroom among our boots, coveralls, backpacks, vet supplies, sunglasses and, of course, a doll or two. So perfectly out of place, that baby.

The next day, the sky cleared and the sun shone and across the state the doors flew open on houses where the kids were cooped up and they got busy building snow forts and snowmen under a confusing sun that seemed too warm for only 20 degrees and stayed up too long for winter. The bigger ranch kids helped dig out and keep watch and feed and ride along… what time was it anyway? What day?

We made our way to dig my little sister’s family out of the 8-foot drift over her house and the one surrounding her new chicken coop and we lingered around the kitchen island, drinking coffee and saying things like, “Isn’t this just crazy?”

And then it was Easter and it was snowing again, so I made caramel rolls and ham and roast and beans and we took our time making a bunny cake and skipped the fancy dresses, keeping close to home as more snow fell and more momma cows threatened to give birth.

We’re in the full swing of it now, baby calves born into a white, slushy spring, and we will have our hands full in the next few weeks keeping them out of those melty snowbanks. I just talked to my husband and it sounds like we have another baby bovine house guest warming up and drying off. He’s hopeful he can save him.

Today, the sun is shining and the wind is blowing the hilltops clear for the deer and the turkeys, the horses and the cattle. When it’s warmed up enough to melt the drifts, we’ll climb up there and poke around for wildflowers and green grass, but it looks like it might storm again at the end of the week so we’ll take it day by day, grateful for the moisture, but worried anyway.

And this is ranching in North Dakota. This is spring…

A spring blizzard at the height of calving…

I wrote this column last week as a big April snow storm was brewing and preparing to dump almost 20 inches of snow on the hills and valleys of the ranch. Today was the first trip I took to town since Tuesday. The moisture was much needed, but this storm was one for the record books bringing with it whipping winds, blinding snow and drifts up to10 feet tall in some places. We had just begun to calve, with three on the ground and one that we know of born in the blizzard. The guys took both tractors out to check and bring hay for feed and bedding during the storm, a task that wouldn’t have been possible without the adequate equipment. This little calf was lucky dad caught him being born as there was nothing the momma could do to dry him off. So I made a spot in our entryway for the calf to spend the night and the girls scrubbed him down with dry towels, wrapped him up and named him Kevin. Luckily we were able to bring him back to his mom the next morning and all looks well.

Easter Sunday was quiet and we entertained the family living here on the ranch with caramel rolls and ham and roast and beans and a bunny cake, keeping close to home as more snow fell and more momma cows threatened to give birth.

We’re in the full swing of calving as of last night. Three more born in the trees on the hay, surrounded by cliffs of snow. What a difference that extra time made for us, as some of our neighbors had a completely different storm experience, working tirelessly to save calf after calf dropped in a storm like we haven’t seen for years.

And today the sun is shining and we made it to school, although we were a little late of course. It looks like it might storm again at the end of the week and this is ranching in North Dakota. This is spring…

A spring storm during the height of calving season
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As I type this column, the snow is whipping sideways outside of the windows and across the Plains. It’s mid-April and we’ve just started calving, three calves on the ground and the rest safe and sound in their mommas’ bellies as we feed extra hay in a low and protected spot on the ranch, waiting, watching and wondering how it will all shake out, this wild weather they’re predicting for us.

By the time you read this, we will know how we all fared. We need the moisture desperately, but this is not the ideal time to be born.

A drought is ended by a calf-killing blizzard. It sounds rough, harsh, but this is the part of agriculture, of ranching, of cowboying that isn’t glamorous. They don’t put the cowboy in a Scotch cap and Carhartts digging a half-frozen newborn calf out of a snowbank on the postcards they sell you in the gift shop in Montana. It doesn’t make a beautiful oil painting, but so often out here there’s more to the drama than the lovely sunset.

Without rain, we have no grass. Without grass, we sell the whole herd. Without the herd, the story changes. Dramatically. That doesn’t make a good inspirational quote.

But it’s reality. This spring storm during the height of calving is the definition of gratefulness and fear walking hand in hand with us as we take another loop around the pasture in the feed pickup, unroll another bale, make sure we have the entryway and barn and milk replacer and extra fuel and tractor ready to help fend off the worst of it the best we can.

It’s the story my dad holds like a lump in his throat, the hot summer of scours that took nearly 90% of their calf crop. His father was fresh from a battle with cancer, feeble and shell-shocked, and my parents, they were hanging on to a dream that was literally dying right before their eyes.

In a particularly desperate moment, one where my dad, as a young man, helped his father work on another unresponsive calf, he offered that it might be time to give up. And his dad looked him in the face right then and said plain and stern, unflinching against the despair, “You CAN’T. You CAN’T just give up.”

My dad tells it, still humbled after all these years, and that lump appears in my throat, too. Maybe we were born with it there, waiting to remind us of the weight of the responsibility that grazes on our summer pastures, bunches up together in fence corners against the wind, rides her pony out in the round pen and runs wide open down the scoria road. Maybe we were all born with it there to remind us how fragile it is really, how small we can become in the scheme of it.

My parents, not yet in the middle of their 30s, packed up the little they had in that old trailer house and their two young daughters and left the ranch that summer, not knowing if or how they might ever return, how they might ever make it work. I was just about to turn 2 years old.

That lump, it’s in every rancher and farmer’s throat, or it’s a tightening in her chest, or the thing that wakes him in the early hours of the morning before the birds and the sun. The bad winter. The drought years. The hailstorm that wiped them out. The scours. The day he had to sell it all. The calf-killing storm.

But agriculturalists, we don’t hold the patent on hard times. And the weather, no matter how extreme, it’s never unexpected. We’re never surprised, we know how to batten down the hatches. And we know the stakes.

We keep them tucked up under our hats or in the pocket of our shirt, the one under the jacket and the wool vest and the winter coat, the one closest to the hearts that we carry out into the blinding, whipping wind, knowing when we get through this, the white will make the grass grow greener and that will be something to put on a postcard. That is your inspirational quote.

Under the early morning sun…

Mornings come early for my family during the work and school week — that’s the thing about living so far from the edges of town.

At 6 a.m., the house is dark and quiet and as sleepy as we are, when just hours before it was buzzing and humming and squealing with the negotiation and untimely roughhouse play that dads always bring to the bedtime routine. I remember it from my childhood, too, my dad teaching us to properly make a fist, our spindly arms swinging at him, trying to tackle him to the ground, to show him our muscles while he did things like put one big hand on my forehead, the other on my little sister’s, and we clenched our jaws then laughed and giggled and swung our arms into the air between us.

And there were a hundred other games we made up on the brown shag carpet of the living room, tumbling and jumping, growling and squealing like wild little bear cubs ripe to learn our lessons, doing anything we could to avoid the teeth-brushing portion of the night that led to bedtime. My mom would look over from cleaning up the supper dishes or sweeping the floor to suggest that we “Be careful now. Careful! Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Because someone usually got hurt, even though we tried our best not to admit it.

I hear her voice come out of my mouth now as I watch my own children launch their bodies from the couch and onto their dad’s back while he bucks and kicks and tries to dump them off. They use my throw pillows as weapons, they team up to distract him and execute an attack, they holler and whoop and laugh hysterically, golden hair strung out of their ponytails, cheeks flushed as they dangle from each of his arms, arms that seem made for this sort of thing, cut into shape from years of swinging hammers and hauling Sheetrock, sanding oak smooth and digging in fence posts. They ask him to show them his muscles and he puffs up his chest, rolling up his sleeves for his audience. They do the same, just like we used to do, my sister and I. Then they launch another attack to put those muscles to use.

“Careful now. Careful now girls. It’s almost bedtime. Five more minutes…”

I say this and so you might not believe that my husband is the more cautious of the two of us when it comes to our young children and their play. Knowing the guy since childhood, I guess I understand it. I never pushed my body’s limits the way he pushed the limits of his, driving his three-wheeler too fast over prairie trails, finding the highest cliff from which to jump into the lake, wrestling and playing football, peddling his bike off ramps that just got higher; broken ribs, broken shoulder blade, broken collarbone. A fish hook under his fingernail.

I suppose I can relate, having spent plenty of my youth in a cast, but my circumstances always felt more like bad luck and clumsiness to me. I always thought his scars screamed wild boyhood. I think back on it and the only difference I see now is that the hurt made me more afraid. It just made him want to try again.

I watch our daughters run wide open down the scoria road in their cowboy boots and I can almost feel the rocks scrape and dig into my bare knees. He sees them climb a thing they’re not ready to climb and he moves to help make them stronger. He shows them how to tighten their grip. How to clench a fist. How to bend their knees at the drop. I yell, “Careful!” He shows them how.

I pull my 6-year-old out of our bed, untangling her long, skinny legs from her little sister’s. They both found their way to us in the middle of the night and curled their bodies up in the space between us to ward off bad dreams. It’s my job now to wake us all up. It’s so early, but it’s time.

It’s his job to make them breakfast. It’s my job to fix their hair. It’s his job to make sure their teeth are brushed. It’s my job to drive them to school. It’s his job to pack the snacks, and on and on, step by muddy puddle jump — we make a mess and clean it up and find our way together under this sun, no matter how early it rises…

Spring cleaning gives time to reflect

My sister’s husband is working on building a chicken coop today and so my niece, Ada, spent our ride to town telling me how many chickens she’s going to get.

Sounds like hundreds. And I’m thrilled for them. Because it means that I don’t have to get chickens ever in my life. It’s kinda like the boat thing, you know, the only thing better than having a boat is having a best friend with a boat. That’s what I think about chickens. Eggs for days and no poop to scoop. I’ll save us all the cartons.

Building something like a chicken coop is a typical spring task at the ranch. The sun warms the ground and we’re ready to head outside to thaw out all of those ideas we conjured up while eating carbs and pulling our beanies down over our ears. But it also means cleaning. Oh, the cleaning. I’m always amazed by the amount of mud, random screws, mismatched gloves, beanies, boots, neckerchiefs, and, because my husband’s a carpenter, random electrical wires, plumbing parts, tools and hardware store receipts that accumulate in our entryway over the winter. I spent all morning Sunday trying to arrange it all so I could mop. And by the time I got to the mopping part, the kids had come in and out of that door 37 times, dragging more mud and dolls and winter clothes and random twigs with them.

My daughters were busy driving their kids to Hawaii in the little hand-me-down electric car that always gets stuck in the scoria halfway up the driveway. And the disagreement about who’s turn it is to push and whose turn it is to drive derails the game for a spell, although it does make it a bit more realistic. Adulting comes with all sorts of obstacles and predicaments. Like making the choice between spring cleaning and pouring a Sunday margarita….

Most of the time, I chose both. I’ve always been good at multitasking.

Anyway, the mess here is endless, between the ranch and the garage and the house and the yard, I’m fully committed to the idea that I’ll never catch up. And I know I’m not alone in it overwhelming me sometimes. If I dedicated every minute of my waking life to trying to control it, I still don’t believe I’d fully dig us out. Because, we just go on living, don’t we? Do the dishes and your husband comes in to make a sandwich. Clear the kitchen table of Play Dough to turn around to the kids making Barbie Doll phones out of tin foil and puffy paint. Get to the bottom of the laundry hamper and you’re still wearing clothes, aren’t you? Fix the fence and watch a bull jump right through it. Living’s messy. It requires lots of chores…

Last weekend my husband was also committed to clearing some clutter, so we were, as we usually are on the weekends, busy bopping around the place to see what tasks we can get checked off the list. This leaves the kids within earshot, but to their own devices, with a few tattle tale moments, skinned knees or request to help push the blue car out of the ditch sprinkled in. I stood in the driveway procrastinating sorting 1,000 gloves and watched as my daughters pretended to be mothers riding their bikes and changing diapers and, as I said, making plans to head to Hawaii.

And then I had a flashback of when they were smaller, just a few short years ago, at age 1 and 3, then 2 and 4, when my children required so much more out of me in the entertainment department—to peek-a-boo, to pour the paint, to rattle the rattle or build the blocks.

Now look at them, they’re in the sweet spot of sisterhood and childhood and play, immersed together in a world of their own creation. Rosie stopped her bike/car and her eyes caught mine, “Mooommmmaaa, you can go now! You don’t need to watch…”

And so this is the phase we’re in. Maybe I’ll get a duck or something and add it to my sister’s coop. It seems, with my kids in Hawaii, I might need something new to fuss over this summer, because I’m already sick of cleaning…

To get away, and be glad to be back…

It was spring break and so we let loose two little pale-as-our-snow Northern prairie girls in Florida. They swam with dolphins, caught a lizard, came face to face with a couple of sea otters, snorkeled and rode a roller coaster and jumped in the backyard pool approximately 3 million times, which is about equal to the amount of times they yelled, “Watch this!”

And so we watched. We, the parents who clearly overpacked, realizing our two little girls had no intentions of ever removing their swimming suits. And so we had to drag them out of that pool every night for the entire seven-day vacation, wondering if fingers can be eternally pruned. Or as Edie used to say, “sprinkly.”

We got back to the ranch and woke up to the official first day of spring. Which doesn’t really mean that it’s going to feel like spring around here, except now we can leave the house in the light and come home in the light and therefore we can see the light at the end of the winter tunnel. And that’s why Northerners need places like Florida. So much so that in the mix of a bazillion people at SeaWorld, Rosie spotted one of her preschool friends.

And then, the next day, we ran into folks from a neighboring town and so Disney is right, it’s a small world after all. Especially when all the frozen people are planning to head south at the same time.

What a blessing it is to get away for a bit. This vacation was one that was supposed to kick off, quite literally, the day the world shut down in 2020. It was a gift from my husband’s family, the kind that has aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, grandkids and Gramma and Grandpa scheduling time to live in a house together for a week and do nothing but the fun things. Who would have thought that it would take two entire years to actually get us there? The last time we did something like this as an entire family, my daughters were just a dream and my now-teenage nieces and nephew were much shorter, much younger and found me less embarrassing.

Which I proved wasn’t such an unreasonable sentiment when I took that nephew along to help me deliver our leftover boxes of beer and soda to the neighbors at 11 p.m. the night before we left our Airbnb because I “would just hate to see it go to waste.”

Those neighbors opened the door slowly to a woman in PJs and humidity hair and they looked as cautious and confused as they should have been and suddenly I became overly aware of my nerdy North Dakotan accent. I’ve never felt more Midwestern in my life, except for moments later when the poor woman finally took the boxes and began to close the door and I couldn’t stop myself from popping my head in to elaborate: “There’s just a few beers, some pop, I mean soda, and a juice box or two, you gotta dig for those, sorry… you know, we heard you back in the pool and thought you might put it to use. Hate to see it go to waste! Enjoy! Enjoy your vacation!” Because when in doubt, just keep talking. That seems to be my motto. Lord help me.

My nephew couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He literally ran himself into our glass patio door and we both laughed harder than we ever have together. He said it was his favorite memory of Florida, beating the dolphins and his shark-fishing excursion, me embarrassing myself.

And isn’t that how it goes if you do it right? My dad asked Rosie, my 4-year-old, what was her favorite part of the vacation and she said it was swimming in the backyard pool and staying in the same house as all her cousins and her Nana and Papa. No dolphin jump or roller coaster ride or new princess outfit complete with a sword beats any of that, the actual time spent. Sometimes we just need a few plane rides and a four-hour wait in the rental car pickup line to get us there.

And now we’re home. And it’s spring. And soon the calves will be born and the crocuses will bloom and my daughters will be riding their bikes on the lone piece of pavement on the ranch, fingers fully dried out and “unsprinkled.” To be gone long enough to miss it. To be away in paradise and be glad to be back, well, what a gift. What a blessing.

We are the water

We are the water
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It’s the time between winter and the full-on sprouting of spring. The time where the snow still peeks through the trees, the wind still puts a flush in your cheeks, birds are still planning their flights back home and the crocuses haven’t quite popped through the dirt.

It’s my favorite time of year.

When I was a little girl, I lived for the big meltdown. My parent’s home is located in a coulee surrounded by cliffs of bur oak and brush where a creek winds and bubbles and cuts through the banks. And that creek absolutely mystified me. It changed all the time, depending on rainfall, sunshine and the presence of beaver or cattle.

In the summer it was lively enough, home to bugs that rowed and darted on the surface of the water and rocks worn smooth by the constant movement of the stream flowing up to the big beaver dam I loved to hike to. In a typical North Dakota fall, it became a ribbon carrying on and pushing through oak leaves and acorns that had fallen in its path. In winter, it slowed down and slept while I shoveled its surface to make room for twists and turns on my ice skates.

But in the meltdown it was magical. It rushed. It raged. It widened in the flat spaces and cut deep ravines where it was forced to squeeze on through. It showed no mercy. It had to get somewhere. It had to open up. It had to move and jump and soak up the sun and wave to the animals waking up.

I would step out on the back deck, and at the first sound of water moving in the silence I would pull on my boots and get out there to meet it, to walk with it, to search for the biggest waterfalls, gawk at how it would scream out of its banks and marvel at how it had changed.

Around every bend was something a little more amazing — a fallen log to cross, a narrow cut to jump over, a place to test the waterproof capacity of my green boots. The creek runs through multiple pastures on the place and as long as the daylight would allow I would move right along with it, and then return home soaked and flushed.

And I would do the same thing the next day. Because even as a kid I knew this magical time was fleeting and that there are places along that creek that very few people have ever been. I took great joy in the fact that I was one of them.

And it was performing only for me.

I still remember a dream I had about the creek when I was about 10 or 11. I dreamed it was huge, like a river you would find in the mountains — a river I had yet to discover at that time. The landscape was the same — the oaks and the raspberries existed there — but the water was warmer and crystal-clear and it pooled up at the bottom of gentle waterfalls that rolled over miles of smooth rocks and fluffy grass.

And I was out in it with friends I had never met before as an adult woman with long legs and arms and we were swimming in its water and letting the current push us over the waterfalls and along the bottom of the creek bed until we landed in the deep water. And we were laughing and screaming with anticipation, but weren’t afraid — we were never cold or worrying about getting home for dinner or what our bodies looked like in our bathing suits.

We were free. I was free. And the water was rushing.

And we may never know if there’s a heaven, but we know that there are snowbanks that fly in with the burning chill of winter’s wind. Those banks reach up over my head and stay for months on end only to disappear with the quiet strength of a sun that turns it to water rushing around the trees, settling in hoofprints and dams to be lapped up by coyotes and splashed in by geese, sinking in the earth and changing it forever.

And that’s something that makes me believe in something.

Like perhaps we are like that drop that fell from the sky, afraid of the mystery that was waiting for us as we hurtled through the atmosphere only to find when we finally hit the earth that we are not one drop alone in this world.

No.

We are the water.