Friday, April 23, 2010

It's Official: Spring Arrives on the Ranch

In a little less than four days, the location of my measurement for the snowpack in the meadows went from twelve inches to dry ground. The date was April 20th. According to the wives’ tale, spring should have arrived on April 16th, but with the additional snowfall early in the month, the estimate missed the mark by a few days. However, when spring truly arrived a few days ago, it arrived overnight with warmth. The outer edges of the lawn appeared and turned green in what seemed like a matter of hours. The hyacinths, crocus, and jonquils suddenly appeared and have begun inching toward bloom. Drainage off the hillsides began rushing through the culverts under the country road literally in twenty-four hours. The ditch traveling through the barnyard flooded and two mallards found a temporary home. A pair of sandhill cranes stood in my neighbor’s meadow, the robin perches on the top fence rails, and a bald eagle flew above the cottonwoods over the Elk River near the arena. However, the most exciting sign of spring here on the ranch was the arrival of the first of our six foals last Saturday and the arrival of the second, Flo’s baby, today.

Flo Foals

The phone call was from Pete. “Hey, Flo’s having her baby. She just started. The feet are out but that’s it.”

Closing out my document and grabbing my camera, I said, “I’ll be out.”

Peeking over the stall door, Pete and I looked at Flo quietly waiting for her foal to complete the birthing process. The sack had torn, he laid with his body half in and half out of his mother. Flo rested patiently, as if she were both a young mother and old mid-wife all in one: patient, alert, knowingly waiting for the natural process to take its course. The small foal, a buckskin, with a small white blaze, waiting for the next contraction, scrambled with his front feet at times, leaning to one side and the other working to release himself from his mother, the birthing sack still partially wrapped around his hips. Flo laid still, waiting and watching, looking as though she knew it would just be a matter of time: the foal knew what to do, she just needed to allow him time to make his way.

Within a matter of minutes, the foal had separated and had begun the instinctive process to stand and nurse. Through a process of trial and error, repeated attempts to throw his front feet out in front of him, steady himself, and then instantly gather up his hind legs, the foal eventually managed to stand, if all for a brief second the first time, losing his balance and falling. After a brief respite, he tried again and succeeded, his legs ever so wobbly underneath him, the neurons waking up and firing continually as he worked to master the steadiness to nurse. As he worked his way through this process, Flo carefully licked and nuzzled just enough each time to stimulate his nervous system, saying, “I know you can do this, you need to do this.” The colt finally stood, wobbled alongside his mother, and instinctively began attempting to nurse.

Pete and I left the two alone knowing once the colt was up and had nursed, the important milestones had been met. We don’t always see the live birth of our foals. But each time we are privileged to witness it, we remember that the life cycle is a powerful force, one in which there is this amazing miracle and gift of a new life.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Update: Meadow Measurement

Last Friday, when I measured the snowpack, we'd lost a foot of snow in a week. The meadows are down to 12" of snowpack now and winter is retreating rapidly: pools of water cover portions of the meadows; the creek that flows near our home and down by the barn flooded for several days, and daytime temperatures invite us to linger in the barnyard as we visit with neighbors that pass by to say hello.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Life with Emma: The Wisdom in Emma's Discipline Part IV Leave It

My memory is clear. Early in our dog obedience class, Emma’s paws rested properly under her chin as she waited to receive permission to take a treat from our trainer. Valerie knelt on the floor in front of Emma, pointed her finger at Emma and said, “Leave it.” Just inches from her nose, the doggie treat was a great temptation for a six-month old puppy. Emma’s eyes looked intently at Valerie and then furtively my way, as if to say, “What do I do?”

The smell of the treat drifted temptingly over Emma. She couldn’t resist, pulling herself part way up to reach it. Valerie quickly reprimands her and said, “No, Emma.” And back down Emma went. The second trial succeeded as Emma waited just a few seconds before being released with Valerie’s, “Get it, Emma.” Emma instantly enjoyed her treat, a reward for respecting the boundary Valerie had set: “This isn’t for you right now.” Later, in our work together, we would expand boundary setting to include things that weren’t good for her and things or situations with people or other dogs from which she should stay away.

I’ve always been impressed with Emma’s ability to, “Leave It.” Just like her “Sit and Wait,” she responds with the promptness of a Marine. I see it as I run along our road with Emma. The scents on the roadside and in the barrow pit irresistibly draw Emma. She seeks them out with a consuming instinctual drive. Sometimes tracking scents is Emma’s way of learning about what’s going on in the neighborhood. On other occasions however, the scent may lead to road kill and if Emma chews on it, she risks the possibility of an intestinal bug which can threaten her health. When I suspect she’s involved with the remains of an animal, I quickly say, “Leave it,” and Emma, in the time it takes to process my command, turns and continues to follow me down the road. She is quite reliable the majority of the time. However, there are occasions when it’s more difficult for her to turn and walk away.

When Emma submits to temptations like chasing the cat when the cat doesn’t care to be harassed; grabbing a Frisbee before I have a chance to throw it; or chasing a car that’s passed by when she hears a barking dog inside; the command, “Leave it,” is more difficult for her to obey. She protests by continuing the behavior I’ve asked her to stop. But, I repeat the command, “Leave it,” and she eventually pulls back and sits and waits anxiously.

Observing Emma’s ability to turn and walk away from that which she should leave alone, I realize I, too, wrestle with setting healthy boundaries in my own world. If Emma were a friend with whom I could have a conversation, I know she and I would talk about how to leave the things that do not belong to me or I do not have control over. For instance, when my children were young, it was easy to be tempted to solve a problem for them whether it was in school or with a friend. Knowing when to leave them to their own resources was important to their development, but sometimes difficult to figure out.

I know some of our conversations would have easy and apparent answers. But there would also be conversations in which the answers would be more difficult to distill. We would discuss how much discipline it requires to leave an unhealthy focus on anything in our lives: whether it’s Emma obsessively biting her favorite 36” exercise ball until it pops as she rolls it mightily across the living room; or my over-focusing on writing projects and failing to go for a walk, a run, or a snowshoe with Emma and Griz. We would discuss how we know whether or not to leave the unresolved, unresolved: for Emma, perhaps a territorial doggie dispute that could cause harm without settling the issue; or for me, a disagreement in a work setting or in a relationship.

As Emma and I carry on down the road in the days ahead, I know we will continue to find the command "Leave It," a point of reference in answering the questions about the important relationships that make up our daily lives. Whether the questions over healthy boundaries are easy or difficult for us to sort out, I believe our ultimate desire is to settle in a place of peace, with ourselves and our world.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Update: Measuring the Meadow's Snowpack

Even though the measurement of the snow in the meadow is two inches greater than my measurement on March 25th, it's good news. This last week we've had 18-20 inches of snowfall and between warmer ground temperatures, winds, and a storm that blew sideways for the better part of a day, the snow didn't stick around. I measured 24 inches today. And I found an additional sign of good news when I walked out across the yard to the meadow this morning: I noticed the brave emergence of hyacinth leaves in one of the south facing gardens and with it, my optimism rises.

For more information on my measurements, please read my blog posting on March 22nd where I explain the North Routt wives' tale about the arrival of spring here at the ranch.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Springtime Memory

Walking along our county road a couple of days ago, a male Red-winged Blackbird caught my eye. Perched in oak brush, he pecked away under his wing perhaps preening or attending to a discomfort. His presence triggered a memory of other spring days many years ago.

When Pete and I first came to the Elk River Valley, we lived in an old renovated dairy barn with a small seasonal creek running through the front yard. Bergen Creek was named after the homesteading family who lived there at the turn of the century. In the early 1980s, our young children enjoyed the freedom of walking through that inviting creek, gathering eggs from our first laying hens, and heading out over the small hillside to the neighbors for play time. Most late afternoons, while Pete watched Andy and Cassidy, I ran on a county road nearby for a brief respite from mothering. The Red-winged Blackbirds were always plentiful in the spring, sitting on fence posts, singing out with a characteristic quick note and then a lovely trill.

Recalling this nearly thirty-year old memory the other day, I remembered a poem I’d written then describing the return of spring and the Red-winged Blackbirds. Thinking that poem might be a nice posting for my blog, I went hunting for it in "The Bergen Creek Journal," a collection of articles I wrote in 1981. Once those articles were written, compiled, hand-typed, illustrated, and copied at the local office supply store, I sent it off to family and friends, assuming of course, they were interested in what I had to say.

Scanning through the rumpled copies I’d saved, I found a young writer filled with idealism. I found articles and reflections on the raising of livestock, sustainable food production, disciplining with love, reducing energy consumption, composting, and ways to restore the simplicity of the past in our society. When I came across the poem, I felt disappointed in my memory of it. I wondered to myself, “Why had I remembered it in such a positive light?” I realized in the intervening years, I had remembered not so much the poem, but a supportive comment my mother-in-law made about the poem after she received her May-June issue of the Journal.

My poem, “Spring on Bergen Creek,” began:

I step out the door, the air I breathe brushes across my face and says, “spring.” There’s no doubt.
The birds singing away in the cottonwoods – busily, contentedly – remind me of how closely I live with nature.
The Red-winged Blackbirds, too, are back. They sit on fence posts and accompany me as I jog down the road.
Baby buckwheats have peeked out of the cracks in the moist earth, giving promise of more spring color to come…


I wrote then as a hobby, satisfying a creative urge to share my world as the young mother of a growing family settled in a rural landscape. My attempts at poetry in 1981 sound young and awkward to me today, as though the heart and mind had yet to develop a full confidence in one another. But I know at the time, the words on the page satisfied and brought a part of me to life.

Between then and the time my children left home, I wrote sparingly, a journal entry or reflection when my world stopped for a brief interlude in the quiet of an afternoon. It was only when the house emptied out, I returned to my old hobby. Along the way, I was told writers should save everything they’ve ever written. I balked at the thought of saving every file of everything I’ve ever written. Where does one keep all that stuff? I usually sort through files several times a year and gratefully find clarity in what I leave in my files.

I am pleased however, that when the memory of that spring poem was triggered by the Red-winged Blackbirds on my walk the other day, I had saved my old issues from "The Bergen Creek Journal." For inside, I found evidence that in sharing one's life narrative with others we are brought to life just as the Red-winged Blackbirds joyful song brings to life their existence atop fence posts come spring.