Sunday Column: Goodbye old friend


We’re quickly coming to the end of another season out here on the ranch.  School has officially started and my friends are posting “first day of school” photos of their kids, some sending their first borns off to kindergarden for the first time.

I’ve been spending time picking peas and beans, cucumbers, carrots and every red tomato I can find out of my garden, fascinated always by how time can transform dirt into food, just like that.


Fascinated by how time has made it harder for me to bend over and pick those beans every day, made those little flutters in my belly turn to jabs and hiccups…and then, soon, an actual tiny human that breathes this air.

Life and time are twin sisters it seems, conceived at the same moment and moving through the world together hand in hand. And just as time creates and grows life in one breath, it quiets it and takes it away in another.


And so it goes here on the ranch, the circle of life we’re made so aware of every day among the growing and withering things, reminding us that to everything there is a season.

Last week our faithful ranch dog, Pudge, gave us the gift of living until old age took her away in her sleep.

My husband came home to tell me the news, then went out to the big oak tree where we were married and dug a deep hole in the hard, dry, gumbo packed earth and buried our old friend.

“One day you will hear the sound of time rustling as it slips through your fingers like sand.” Sergei Lukyanenko

Yesterday I was just a kid shaking dirt off the carrots in the garden.

Tomorrow I turn 32.

Today I count the kicks in my belly, make plans to assemble the new crib in the box and miss that old dog…

Coming Home: Goodnight, Pudge, the sweet, tough cattle dog
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

Lately the coyotes have been howling outside our open windows, slicing the black silence with chilling wails. Inside the garage, our domesticated dogs rise from their beds, lift up their heads and howl back to them, long and dramatic cries, an unnerving message sent between the wild and the tame.

Last weekend, while I was out on the highway heading for home after a late show, my husband opened the windows to the house to let in the night air, turned on the porch light and laid his body out on top of the covers of our bed.

Somewhere between his dozing and me cutting through the dark miles, down the road at my parents’ place the oldest cow dog on the ranch took her last breath, and quietly, one of the most familiar lights on our ranch went out.

We knew it was coming. Pudge, an Australian shepherd with thick, wooly fur, one blue eye and one brown eye, came to us on a hand-me-down after her owners moved to town. Pops, who had lost his previous cattle dog to a snakebite, needed a new animal to help him get cattle out of the brush and to accompany him on rides.

We think she was 4 years old when she came to us. Lately, the topic of her age had come up often. I was in college, or on my way there. Could it be that she was 15? Fifteen and no longer possessing the strength to go for long rides with Pops, but holding on to the spirit of her job by making the walk with him to and from the barn.

That was the last walk they took together it seems.

And now we’ll no longer find her snuggled up in the her spot under the heat lamp in the garage in the winter, in the pickup box in the summer or trying desperately to make her way through the window screen and under the covers of my little sister’s bed during a thunderstorm.

Pudge hated thunderstorms. That might have been the dog’s only flaw.

Because it turns out she was just the right combination of sweet, smart and tough enough to be one of the few cattle dogs on this 100-year-old ranch to get the chance to die of old age.

This place can be hard on the strongest, most cared-for animals who live a life more in tune with their primal instincts than the couch-dwelling suburban pet.

Pudge tried out that life with me once. I took her back to live with me for a little while in college when life was overwhelming me. I’d take her for bundled-up walks on sidewalks and she would sit in the sunshine by the door and watch the cars roll by, comfortable knowing she had a purpose in helping me find my big girl legs again before I brought her back to her ranch where she belonged.


Before my husband came home to tell me she was gone, I was pulling carrots in my garden and singing to myself, “To everything turn, turn, turn … there is a season, turn, turn, turn … and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

If you can’t see that manifest itself out here, if it doesn’t become known to you as morning turns to night and summer turns to fall and the hair under your husband’s hat turns silver, you’re not paying attention or you don’t want to know.

It all happens so slowly and then so quickly, as if all at once the time has passed and then it’s up.

I listened to those coyotes howl last night and thought about Pudge, who would sit out at night under those stars, just on the edge of the light that flooded into the yard from the garage. When it was time for the people to lay down and pull the covers up, Pops would call to her to come in and she would pretend not to hear him, preferring a cool bed of grass under that sky to her fluffy bed.

And if Pops gave in and left her out there, she would wake him with her barks and wails to that dark sky for hours on end.

Sweet turned wild in the night.

Goodnight, old friend.



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…

Bittersweet-pain and peace

I woke up this morning to a sort of dull haze that had settled into the valleys of this place. It is not a fog, or a mist, just an indescribable thick kind of air that is veiling the bare trees and sharp grasses.

It is a mysterious way to showcase a season that has greeted me every morning from outside the tiny windows of our bedroom with a magnificent sunrise of red and gold and pink and yellow peeking through the snarly, ancient, hibernating oak trees that hug our tiny house.  Every morning this world I live in has taken my breath away. Every morning I have been grateful for this.

But this haze took me by surprise as I ventured out onto the landscape to clear my head and put a flush in my cheeks—the very thing I do every day to ensure myself I am alive, to remind these lungs and these legs and these eyes and ears that I sprung from this dirt somehow and that I belong here under this October sky.

At least that is what I hold on tight to, especially in the hardest times, the times when the unanswerable questions scream at us until we fall to our knees.

I am thinking about those questions today as I march across a landscape that was, just months ago, soft and lush and full of life. The trees stood tall, limbs wide and heavy with leaves, the creek beds flowing and moving with the heartbeat of the green moss that lived out brief lives on its surface; the colors of the wildflowers flashy, fertile and bursting with luxury; the green grasses bending and swaying with the rhythm of a warm wind.

Bountiful, beautiful, enchanting life.

But today, under the same sky, the same sun that helped spring life from the earth has stayed long enough to strip the mesmerizing landscape of its inviting softness, turning it harsh, more brittle, sharp and dry and brown under my feet.

With the blanket of green stripped away, any human with a pumping heart could easily be convinced by looking at the pieces left on this bare landscape that all hope is lost. That this is it. That there is life–glorious, colorful, dramatic, passionate, unforgiving life–but it is fleeting. It is over. The green will never return.

But of course every human with a pumping heart knows that this is no time to lay your head down and give up hope of ever smelling the wildflowers or reaching out your tongue to catch a spring raindrop. Every heart who has lived understands that this is just a change of season, the spinning of the planet and from the deep depths of winter there will always be a thaw followed by a crocus pushing through the mud and reaching its pedals to the sky.

And this purple flower will live a life  full and proud and fragile, until the love of the sun dries out its face and stems and one day it withers away to return to the earth.

Yes, this is fair to us. This is nature, the circle, the seasons defined. And we accept that we must harvest the wheat, breathe in the fall air, appreciate the inevitable nakedness of the trees and bundle up for the winter. We understand and only morn the loss of a season briefly, because it is sure to come back again.

But as humans who possess a warm, beating, passionate heart, we are confused and thrown off balance when other beating, passionate hearts around us cross over to a different season.

We do not accept.

We do not understand.

We grieve, and scream, and hope and look to something, to someone to tell us where this heart went.

“Will I ever see her again?”

“Is she happy?”

“Where is she?”

“Why not me?”

“Why her?”


So I want to offer something here to all of us who are struggling to find peace in a world that challenges our faith every day. I know when faced with insurmountable loss and grief and pain there are no answers, there is no grip that is tight enough, no kiss warm enough, no clock that moves fast enough. But maybe this can help. Maybe it will resonate with someone as it has with me….

See, as a woman who has lost friends too soon, family too young and who has been a mother, although only briefly, to children who never made it outside of my body to breath the air of this world, I have asked these questions inside of church buildings, in books, in doctor’s offices and while holding on tightly to family.

And I have walked the silent trails of tangled brush and bugs buzzing and abandoned nests and broken branches and have screamed to the sky that we trust so much to hold us together, to remain predicable, to provide the nutrients for the cycle of life.

I have asked:

“Why did I fail?”

“What happens to us now? “

“How do we move on without the hope of  an extension of our hearts, taking care and planting feet on this earth?”

And I cried for my loss.

I was angry.

I was scared.

I was aloof and unsure about God.

I was unpredictable.

I was fine.

I wasn’t fine.

And then it started over.

But I kept walking. Because in all of the places I looked, without question, I have found the most comfort under the branches, feet in the mud, face to the sun, hands touching the grasses and lungs sucking in the air.

Because here, I began to understand that nature, under this sky, isn’t as predictable up close as it is from afar. Once I began to come down from  the hills and the trails and into the prickly, dirty parts, I found that if you pay attention you discover there is suffering out here that looks just like ours.

Grass blades get torn and consumed by wild beasts, the tiny mouse doesn’t always outrun the hawk, the water cuts ruthlessly into the hillsides, thorns and burs tangle and take over the land, the greenest and most luscious of crops can poison and even the mighty oak can’t run from the storm.

No, there are no guarantees; there is no certain compassion, no protection for the weak, no sympathy in the dirt and no assured shelter from the sweltering sun. It all could very well be hopeless.

But when I take a step closer I notice among the bare, black, snarl of the brush in the dead of the fall, a vibrant, hearty vine wrapping its way toward the sky, holding out for the season, shining bright against the gloom.  Bittersweet.

And that mighty oak, despite the eminent snowstorm, with blind faith, releases its acorns with the hope that one of her seeds might take root and touch the sky.

And a weight is lifted off of my heavy heart as I take from the crocus, who has been absent from this season for months, the lesson to live this brief life with passion and vulnerability and beauty and color–and be the first to welcome the light.

Then I take from the oak her hope that those we release into this world will come back to life again. Come back to us. Maybe not in a heaven as most have understood it, but back to the earth, through the crisp clean air, on the scent of a rose, the glisten of dew on the grass, in the breath of a horse, the sigh of a newborn child or the sunrise through a bedroom window each morning–a quiet sign that those heartbeats still surround us.

And from the bittersweet that clings tightly to the thorns, wrapping its beauty around the dark, hard limbs of the tangled brush, holding strong to the splendor and hurt of it all, I take from her the understanding that one day our broken human, pumping hearts will make enough room for the pain…

…and the peace.