Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pearl Goes to Work

When Andy spotted Pearl as a puppy, he imagined the day when he would take Pearl to a working dog trial and watch her work with a refined quickness and ease. He named Pearl after the pirate ship, the “Black Pearl” from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean. The “Black Pearl” was a mythic figure in the movie known for being the best and the fastest ship on the high seas. He hopes one day, through disciplined training, he and Pearl will demonstrate a similar competency in a working cattle dog trial, one in which the partnership exhibits both finesse and a deep unspoken trust.

Now six months old, Andy has begun training Pearl for that event. Her instinct to work or herd is so strong, her early experiences around stock must be controlled in order to prevent Pearl from being kicked or otherwise hurt. So, recently Susan, fellow working dog owner and sheep rancher, brought three lambs for Andy to begin working Pearl on in the round pen. The space is secure and small so Andy can manage Pearl from a short distance.

In a working dog trial, the owner and dog are asked to move a small group of cattle or sheep across an open area and through various obstacles including gates, passage-ways, and even pushing them onto a trailer. Andy begins by teaching Pearl “down,” “come by,” and “away.” “Down” is the most important command in the beginning and throughout Pearl’s training. At the moment Andy says, “down” Pearl must obey for the partnership to be effective. Without the discipline of “down,” Pearl may push too hard, run out of control, or make the wrong decision about her position in relationship to Andy. “Come by” asks Pearl to move in a clock-wise direction around the herd and “away” asks Pearl to move counter-clock-wise.

Early in her training, Andy will teach Pearl to position herself opposite him or in what is called, the “balance point.” From this position it is easier to teach her the basic voice commands. As Andy and Pearl work the lambs, they will work toward maintaining the balance point while at the same time keeping control of the herd and its movement.

After six working sessions Pearl shows the strong instincts of a working dog. She naturally herds and is quickly learning to obey Andy’s “down,” “come by,” and “away” commands. Andy is also pleased to see Pearl’s intense eye develop as she herds the lambs. Prized among dog handlers and trainers, a dog with an intense “eye” is capable of intimidating cattle or sheep simply by their gaze on the herd. In addition to their movement and position, the eye becomes another powerful tool with which to move stock.

Watching Pearl work in the round pen is a study in the effects of select breeding for behavior and temperament. Her instinct in combination with her willingness to work for Andy provides a rich foundation on which she will master her very useful and historic purpose in life. As I’ve observed the two of them working together in the round pen, I know I am not only watching a work in progress but a work of art.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Essay Published in Farm and Ranch Living

My daughter replied, “When I see one of those envelopes, I know what’s inside.” She was right. When you receive a business sized envelope from a magazine you have submitted an article to, you know a sample copy is inside. In this case, I knew it was coming because I had been in email contact with an editor. But, it’s always exciting and satisfying to see the envelope sitting on the counter.

I was pleased my essay, “Gifts of the Harvest,” from my manuscript, At Home in the Elk River Valley, was selected for publication in the October-November issue of Farm and Ranch Living. If you have a chance to pick up a copy of Farm and Ranch Living, either at your local store or library, please note that it has been re-titled, “Meditation on a Hay Rake.” Also look for a downloaded version of my essay, soon to be posted on my website. I always appreciate your interest and support as readers. As a writer, the process wouldn’t be complete without you!

For more information, visit Farm and Ranch Living's website at:

Historic Steam

One recent morning, both Andy and Pete wanted their new straw hats shaped to their liking. Andy turned away from the cupboard and asked, “Mom, don’t you have a tea kettle?” I said, “No, I never use one anymore.” And then Pete said, “But what about that one up there?” Pete was pointing to a large copper kettle I had inherited from my mother when she moved from her long-time home in Western Colorado. It had been one of my favorite iconic objects from my childhood home. It was never used in my mother’s kitchen but always sat in a prominent place in the living room.

A tea kettle is essential to the art of home steaming and shaping of cowboy hats. Andy is well versed in the technique of holding the hat over the steam and bending and drawing his hand over the brim and crown to achieve the perfect crease and fold. So, after retrieving the kettle from above the kitchen cupboards, Andy set the kettle on the stove and began heating the water for the first hat.

As Andy worked, my mother, who was visiting the ranch, sat on a stool in the kitchen watching her grandson hold his straw hat over what was once her 200 year-old family heirloom. We all wondered about the journey the kettle must have taken, from a prominent place in daily use in a Swedish-Finish kitchen to my paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Loveland, Colorado and then to my childhood home. I tried to imagine the 200 hundred years of the kettle’s existence and the importance it held for four generations of my father’s family.

The copper tea kettle had come to the United States with my paternal great-grandparents, Beata Mattsdotter Ramus and Walfrid Julius Bjorkland, who lived in Swedish Finland. My brother, Dutch, who has done extensive genealogical work for our family, had fortunately tracked down Beata’s and Walfrid’s histories, including a copy of Beata’s Swedish Lutheran Church membership. I was curious about the reference to their residence as Swedish Finland. Historically, from the 1500s all of Sweden and Finland were under Swedish control. In the late 1800s a number of Swedes lived inland from the West Coast. About 30% of the inhabitants of the area between Vaasa and Turku, where my great-grandparents lived, emigrated to America in the late 1800s. So, it was truly remarkable to me, that from their hands to my father’s and now to mine, the copper tea kettle sat on my stove ready to provide steam to soften the straw in Andy’s hands.

While the tea kettle never heated water for tea or cocoa when I was a child, looking back, it’s presence continues as an enduring touchstone to family lineage and memories of childhood. In my mind’s eye, it’s indelible shape and color has always drawn me into the living room where I can still hear my brother playing Exodus on the piano under the window; where the brick fireplace provided the backdrop for a Christmas card in 1956; and the black rocker my mother painted and decorated with a gold leaf stencil sat off to the side near the kitchen door.

As Andy shaped straw cowboy hats and his grandmother watched that morning, I quietly imagined the moment tying him, not only to a copper tea kettle, but to a precious memory when he and his grandmother experienced one another as part of a long and rich family history.