Lessons in life and death from a ranch kid…

If you were to sit me down for coffee, serve me up a piece of pie and ask me what it is that appeals to me about ranch living I would tilt my head to the side,  look up at your ceiling and come up with a few things.

The first would be the quiet and the beautiful secluded spaces I can visit at will.

The second would be the animals.

I would probably go back and forth then, trying to really distinguish which aspect is truly my favorite before coming to the conclusion they go hand in hand really. I mean, you need the wide open space to keep animals healthy and fit and roaming. The rolling hills full of grasses and trees and the winding creek bed are perfect for cattle and horses (and goats and sheep and llamas, you know, if you were into that sort of thing). And I truly believe if a dog were allowed the choice of prime real-estate to make his home he would pick your farm or ranch over the city sidewalks. Yes, even that little fluff ball you keep in your purse would agree. I mean, given the choice wouldn’t you prefer to poop in private?

But for all that ranch living is to the animals: an endless adventure for their noses, a smorgasbord of the best grazing, a giant park with countless trees to pee on, a dynamic hunting grounds, it’s also something entirely different…


Dangerous and full of lessons about life and death.

And as a young ranch kid growing up out here I like to think that we learned about the circle of life a bit earlier than most. Ranching mom and dads, in my experience, don’t tend to sugarcoat things like this for their young ones. Our lessons about where babies come from were caught while helping Pops check cows and being brave enough to ask what the deal was with the cow, ummm, well, giving that bull a piggyback ride…

We learned about birth by sitting on a hill-top in the early spring to watch a cow deliver a calf in the warmest, most protected place she could find. We absorbed what instinct meant as we witnessed her lick her baby clean as it awkwardly struggled to get to its feet, wobbling on knocked knees for a few hours until it got the hang of his hooves standing on the surface of the big, wide world.

That calf needed to stand to live. It needed to move with his momma as she ate, so he could eat. He needed to tap into what it meant to be a calf and who he needed to stick by in order to survive out here where there are spring ice storms, slick mud, unexpected temperature drops and coyotes.

And so yes, I learned about death out there in the pastures as well. I learned that it isn’t always fair, that sometimes the weak don’t have the luxury of protection, sometimes mommas don’t possess that instinct, and sometimes nature is more powerful than the will to stay alive.

Oh, I learned these lessons and I accepted them, but my heart broke just the same each time the tough ones made their way into my life. I remember saying silent little prayers to myself when Pops would have to bring a calf in from the cold, feed it and warm it in the basement only to delay the inevitable. And I remember my heart breaking when my favorite horse grew so old and weak that one day I woke up to find she didn’t make the trek to the barnyard.

I remember the untimely death of the puppy I rescued and the countless barn cats that didn’t have the chance to make it to old age.

As a little girl I wondered if these things got easier as you got older. I wondered if your heart got harder or you got braver as you grew taller.

Then I would watch my Pops work into the night to help a young cow deliver her first baby safely. I was a mouse in the corner as he tube-fed a calf clinging to life. I was a witness to the despair when he found his best horse bleeding and broken out in the pasture. I saw how his eyes dropped, how he shook his head and paused for a moment before sucking in breath, exhaling and moving on.

And I understood.

I understood that life is beautiful. That it’s a series of heartbeats and breaths, pumping blood, willpower and spirit.

I understood that all of those things will eventually quiet. That all of us will return to the earth, circumstance or time helping push us there.

And it doesn’t get easier to let go of those creatures under your care, no matter how small.

And no matter how tall you get.

Rest in Peace Mister the Cat. You were one of the good ones.

I am certain there will be a red barn and plenty of mice in heaven…

Oh, and dragonflies…

16 thoughts on “Lessons in life and death from a ranch kid…

  1. I love your posts and relate to many of them. But this one today…you know how in the movies, when a character has a moment and is brought back in time? That’s what this post did to me this morning, one moment I was at my desk reading your post, the next I was 8-9 yrs old crying because our dogs killed another sweet baby kitten that strayed too far from the barn or watching my Dad take care of stray dogs that tried to get too close to the newborn calves. Oh and then the last pic…wow! We had several cats that were dragon-fly hunters. I miss those days on the ranch! Thanks for bringing me back for a few moments!

  2. No matter how hard it is, how much it hurts–as a friend once told me, “we just go out and do it again.”

  3. So sorry for your loss; as a farm kid, I completely “get” this. Yes, we experienced life and death on the farm …. and even though it hurt I think it taught us to appreciate the here and thenow just a little bit more that we might have otherwise. MJ

  4. What a lovely story. When my son was growing up, I played a lot of funerals. First I told him the person was taking a lovely nap. Then, I told him the truth. When it came time to make out his paperwork before he went overseas, I asked him what he wanted, should he die. I also told him what I wanted in case of my death. It was a cleansing experience. However I never would have thought to tell him about the cow giving the bull a piggyback ride. He would have had to come up with that himself.

  5. I’m so sorry about Mister the Cat. I just love the last photo – what a wonderful memory. We have to hang on to those.

    Your photos are just so wonderful, in good times and in sad times.

  6. Jessie, Your posts are always so poignant and personal. This was a beautiful post, and I really identified with it. It is so sad when you lose something – whether it be a person or a pet.

  7. Jessie, lovely pics and writing as well..when I grew up on a farm ’til 7 yrs, I always wanted to be a city kid cuz like on the farm wasn’t much fun..dad a dairly farmer..now that I’m older and much wiser, wish I had a place to go for so nature. thansk as always. Nicole

  8. Jessie, some never grow tall, and always have that hurt when they lose what is loved. That’ what makes you the best! Glad for your rain as well!!!!

  9. I remember that sinking feeling I used to get when dad would tell us a new calf was struggling to hold on. A couple to times I got personally involved in trying to help them survive, only to learn later that nature can’t be bribed. When I think back on the long list of creatures and pets that have shared their short time with me, few still tug at my heartstrings like my old barn cat. Seventeen years of dragonfly catching, chipmunk catching and snake watching and I still wasn’t ready to see him go. No matter how much time we get with some, it’s never going to be enough. So sorry for your farm and family’s loss. Thanks for reaching through the heartache to share your memories.

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