Friday, April 24, 2009

A Wink Each Spring


Petite purple crocuses erupted overnight, a surprise every year. One day they’re covered in snow and the next thing I know I spot them out of the corner of my eye, beneath the kitchen window. A diminutive grouping, they don’t seem to care they’re not in the company of others. I wish I could save the pocket-sized crocus: they come and go so quickly, I’m afraid I haven’t cherished their moment of surprise, they, just a wink each spring. ---Epigraph from At Home in the Elk River Valley

Pete headed out in the six-wheeler to fence the far side of our main pasture. I headed for my desk and worked on the development of my new website, various appointments, and emails. Come late morning, I saw the six-wheeler parked in the oak brush across the pasture and felt guilty that I was not in the middle of the outside spring chores.

So, I headed out into the gardens where I knew I would find the remains of last fall covering the beds in a morbid mulch-like covering. With my tine rake I lightly raked over the bed by the front door and drew back the layered and lifeless cottonwood and aspen leaves no longer brilliant but in deep browns and tints of gray. I plied my rake through the leftovers of my favorite variegated giant reed grass and tenderly around the white, yellow, and purple crocus.

Once cleared, the petite and brave crocus took a stronger stand on center stage. The daffodils in bud and tulips not far behind happily stirred memories of how all the early flowering bulbs will look in their dazzling yellows, oranges, and reds in just a matter of days. The woodswort peeked out from ground level and the snow in summer, long and straggly, fluffed up and looked as though it had just gotten out of bed.

Tidying up in this way: pulling back the dark covering, exposing the dark mulch and earth beneath, and rediscovering the perennial plants in each garden was like drawing in a deep, cleansing breath. Clearing away the old growth, the lifeless remains of another time in order to make way for a new order had within it restorative powers: a physical and emotional awakening to the energy of a new season.

As the wind of the afternoon brings in another spring storm capable of both rain and snow, I feel as though moments like these are like the eruption of the crocus, “just a wink each spring.” But I know there will be other similiar moments in the days ahead in which I'm reminded of the renewal felt in the simplest of spring’s chores.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spring Run-Off on the Ranch

When the spring solstice finally warms our days, the 400 hundred inches of snow that fell during the winter has to go somewhere. There’s the runoff from the Zirkel Wilderness that will flow down into the Elk River and through our valley to the Yampa River, then on to the Green and the Colorado Rivers offering sustenance to all those below. Then there’s the run-off on the ranch that goes down the driveway and barnyard; and the melt in the yards and meadows beginning beneath the snowpack and finding its way into the irrigation ditches. Most everyone around here calls this affectionately, not the run-off or spring in northwestern Colorado, but “mud season.”

During mud season, Pete carves out little diversions ditches to drain the many puddles in the driveway and barnyard so the ground dries and the pot holes don’t deepen. Pete bravely begins springtime chores at the barn while carefully managing to avoid the green and brown manure soup that is created by the mix of warm temperatures and the frozen pack of manure in the corrals where livestock were kept and fed all winter. If he ventures out into the mix, he risks losing a muck boot and having to return to dry ground without it.

The dogs, confined for so many months to our daily runs and snowshoes, now run through the wet spring yards and meadows and puddle-bedecked barnyard. You would think Griz, the herding Blue Heeler, Border Collie Mix ranch dog, would be the one to run pell mell through puddles unfazed by the mess he made. But it’s Emma who runs at top speed straight through any or all puddles, concerned only in reaching the barn ahead of Griz or to head him off in a chase to another destination. Each time they come home Pete and I are faced with not just a dewy dog, but a mud soaked dog from paws to underbelly and beyond. If they were just dusty, the house would endure as it does all summer long. But these dogs are such muddy liabilities at that moment, they must have a bath, usually in the mud room, but sometimes a regular bathtub is required.

Next to the kitchen, perhaps the most important room in our house is that “mud room.” It was built precisely for this season. It is there I most hate spring. When Pete arrives from being out doing chores, his muck boots land on the floor ladened with the muck of the season. Whenever I clean the mud room, the tidiness lasts for a couple of hours. Between dogs and humans, the undoing of winter lands there on the floor and I am continually cleaning away the remnants of winter’s snowpack mixed with the earth and the messy nature of raising livestock.

I often equate April with this room and the discipline it requires to maintain order there. Some days it defeats me and I let it go. Other days I am a formidable opponent. This is my mud room and the mucky earth will not rule. The broom and mop come out and I am in command. Once clean, I stand back and think, “It will be over soon. I’ll make it.” The simple dirt of dry ground come summer will seem inconsequential and mud season will fade quickly behind me. The brilliant comforting greens of the meadows will emerge and the tulips and crocus will peak out from beneath the earth moistened by the gift of spring's run-off.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Sandhill Cranes Return

Last week I heard a familiar sound from above while returning from my regular run. At first, I thought surely it was a flock of geese and then the sound kept nagging at me to identify it other than geese. Rightly so. Above the meadows came a flock of Sandhill Cranes. More than I'd ever seen at one time. I began to count: two, four, six, eight, and so on. There were twenty-three and then another sound from about 800 yards back: the twenty-fourth was doing it's best to catch up. Just over our ranch the flock circled slowly and the twenty-fourth managed to catch the tail end just as they returned to their northly flight.

The simple sight of the Sandhill Cranes has always been a special announcement of spring, of return to a familiar and joyous season. Their deep trumpeting sound somehow exotic and reassuring all at the same time.

The following is a short excerpt from an essay in my manuscript about the Sandhill Cranes returning a number of years ago.

The Cranes Return

I often hear the Sandhill Cranes before I see them. Today, just before noon, I see seven of them drift east overhead and then turn, circling the river. The flock rides leisurely on the warmth of a rising current of warm air, circles for a few minutes, and then peels out of the thermal like a licorice string from its coil.

They head north, two Cranes in tandem and the remaining five flying one behind the other. I wonder if the two flying together aren’t related, perhaps a parent flying with a young one, showing him the way, giving him a push if needed, the thermal just one stop on a tutorial flight. I watch until I can no longer see them. I imagine the late morning outing carrying on north, taking a left hand turn across the river, and landing at home again, on the low lying western banks of the river.

Sandhill Cranes, a long necked, long legged species, trumpet like a French horn. With a wingspan of over six feet, they fly dutifully in a V-formation from the Rio Grande to the Salmon River. They stop over in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado on their way north in the early spring and on their way south come fall. Along the way groups drop off in summer nesting grounds near mudflats around reservoirs and moist agricultural areas finding rich sources of food for survival and safety from human encroachment.

We used to see only one pair in the spring and think we were on safari in Africa witnessing a rare species. Now protected, they are common overhead: more nesting pairs finding adequate security and resources to claim their place in the Elk River Valley.

As the numbers of Sandhill Cranes have increased, I have more opportunity to watch the rare species fly overhead: their long bodies stretched as though they’re reaching from the Elk to the Rio Grande. I follow their flight and feel connected, their flight infused with divinity. I am grateful for the gift of freedom this land provides us and for the homesteaders whose footprints we followed onto the banks of the Elk River.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lena Foals


The night of April 5th, Lena’s due date, Pete said, “Lena’s waxing up. Can’t believe it’s gonna be one of the coldest nights we’ve had for awhile. Sure enough she’ll have her baby tonight.” Pete went out to check her at daybreak, and Lena’s foal was up and at her side: a sorrel filly---already alert and moving around the stall with her mother.

Whether it’s Lena’s new baby or any other baby animal, the miracle of birth remains the same to us every spring on the ranch. It brings with it a quiet feeling of hope and a sense of awe at life’s creative powers. I imagine the miraculous process of accurate embryonic cell differentiation at conception and the eleven month fetal development that takes place in order for a perfect being to arrive alive and well. We are stilled by the ability of a foal to rise so soon after birth with those long legs and then search for his or her mother’s milk. And we are impressed with most brood mares’ consistent instincts to nurture and protect their young, shadowing the foal and maintaining a protective shield to their young as others, horses or humans, show any signs of coming near.

Within twenty-four hours, Lena’s foal stands straighter, makes her first efforts at kicking out her feet, and becomes curious about the other objects in the stall other than her mother: perhaps Pete or a water bucket. She seems to have grown up just a bit overnight.

We look forward to the day when the paddocks are free of snow and mud so Lena and her baby can head out into the world and enjoy the warmth of the sun and dry ground, moving freely and unencumbered.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

From My Bookshelf

While attending the Rocky Mountain Cluster Dog Show in Denver, Colorado this past February, I discovered Stanley Coren’s book, Why Does My Dog Act That Way?: A Complete Guide to Your Dog’s Personality. I had read his earlier work, How Dogs Think: What the World Looks Like to Them and Why They Act the Way They Do when I brought Emma home as a puppy. After three years of having Emma in my life, I find myself continuing to look for ways to improve my relationship with her. So, it wasn’t surprising I purchased Dr. Coren’s next book.

In his book he discusses personality traits, temperament, and how the interaction of the dog’s breed and environment continue to shape a dog’s personality as they grow and develop. I was most interested in his classifications of personality depending upon the AKC breed classifications and the Dog Behavior Inventory (DBI) he provides readers in order to do an analysis of their own dog.

According to Dr. Coren’s AKC breed classifications, Boston Terriers, as part of the non-sporting group have the following personality profile:

· Moderately low intelligence and ability to learn.
· Moderately low sociability.
· Very high level of energy.
· Moderately low reactivity to the environment.
· Moderately high drive for dominance.

After reading these personality traits and thinking of Emma, I felt a question mark form in my mind. I wasn’t sure she fit the profile. So, with every effort to be objective, I completed Coren’s Dog Behavior Inventory. Here are the personality traits that emerged for Emma:

Moderately high intelligence and ability to learn.
· Moderately high sociability.
· Very high level of energy.
· Moderately high reactivity to the environment.
· Very high drive for dominance.

With three out of the five personality traits varying considerably from Dr. Coren’s personality traits of the AKC’s non-sporting group classification, I concluded Emma is perhaps more terrier than non-sporting dog. While Boston Terriers were bred for companionship, terriers were bred to keep farms free from vermin and she is certainly capable of that work task and the physical nature of a life led on a farm.

Even though Dr. Coren’s assigned personality traits to the AKC’s non-sporting group didn’t match Emma perfectly, the completed Dog Behavior Inventory did. Emma is just Emma. She’s a smart, highly energetic, loyal, independent, strong-willed companion that wants to work, play, and be loved. While her drive for dominance wears me out, her ability to go as far as I want to go when I run or snowshoe; to curl up on the couch in my office for as long as I’m at my desk; or to learn new tricks or advanced techniques in agility training, she, in many ways, is my perfect friend and companion.