Remembering Samhain 2013: A Festival of Contradictions

This essay was originally posted on the Windbreak House website on October 31, 2013.

I wrote “Home Page Messages” for most of the eight Celtic seasons of the year from December, 2009 to December, 2014.

I am reprinting this on the 5th anniversary of the Cattleman’s Blizzard (also called Storm Atlas), which took place October 3-5, 2013.


Samhain: Festival of Contradictions
October 31, 2013

Linda with pumpkin harvest 2013--10-2The ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) is, said one writer, “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.”

By October 31, the day most folks celebrate as Halloween because Celtic and Christian traditions have become mixed through the centuries, harvests have been gathered and the fields lie fallow. Summer’s growth is finished.

And yet, as is always the case, this ending is a also beginning. As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life. People of many nations traditionally celebrate at this time, knowing that snow and cold will follow, and knowing too that the snow brought by plains blizzards (an onomatopoeic word that probably originated on the prairie) will melt eventually into the green of spring.

The month preceding Samhain is usually fairly benign in the Great Plains, with just enough snow to remind us that we need to be prepared for winter. The shorter days seem beautifully long as we pick the last tomatoes and set them on the windowsill to ripen. The sun feels good on our shoulders as we pull the tomato vines and till them into the raised beds; we pile the pumpkins in the pickup.

In late September, Jerry was working on a project that produced great bags of sawdust so I spent several afternoons dumping the sharply-scented fir shavings around the new berry bushes that grew so well in this wet summer. I enjoyed watering the golden heaps and stomping them so they’d hold solid against the autumn winds.

“Silence and Feasting”

Our senses sharpened, we took particular note of the bittersweet autumn life happening around us. A kestrel flew low over our heads when we were walking the dogs by the retreat house and we laughed, thinking it was eyeing the chubby Westies that outweighed it by twenty pounds.

A moment later my hat was blown off by the flailing wings of a low-flying grouse as it dived into a cedar tree nearby and we saw the little hawk veer off with a shriek of frustration.

Busy in my office, working on writing conversations by e-mail, preparing for fall retreats, I wondered several times where my Samhain home page message would take me this year. Though my writing is usually optimistic, Samhain demands that we face its contradictions; in the last bright warmth of autumn, we must acknowledge darkness. The beginning of winter is a time to reflect, to put all things in order for both contemplation and for physical life and comfort during the long cold. Mentally, I tick off the autumn jobs to be done. The Halloween or Samhain festival, though, was traditionally also a time of light-heartedness, when people played tricks, sang, enjoyed themselves before the cold sobriety and serious business of winter.

During the first week of October, weather forecasters predicted the usual mild October snowstorm: temperatures in the thirties with three or four inches of snow and little wind. Such storms usually leave a pretty frosting on the hills and melt within a few hours; they remind us to look at the colorful leaves before they fall and to check our winter supplies.

All around us, ranchers drove nervously out to look at cattle still in summer pastures, knowing that within a couple of weeks they’d wean and sell the calves, then move the cows into the shelters of winter pasture. Predictions of a storm this early in the season was worrisome, but the weather forecast was reassuring. Best not to disturb the cattle unnecessarily by moving them this close to weaning and sale time. The profits of a year’s hard work rested on those calves; once the sales were over, the ranch families would shop for necessities for their own winter survival.

On Thursday October 3, the high temperature was 41 degrees. Jerry tilled the garden and I made excuses to go outside, putting away pots, tidying up the greenhouse.

That evening, the storm arrived, blasting away all predictions.

All night, a freezing rain fell; our gauge held more than three inches of water the next morning. The wind screamed at 75 miles an hour, rattling the ice-covered window screens like hail on the roofs.

Lights shone late in ranch houses all over the region as ranchers worried about the cattle they could not reach. Thousands of head of livestock– cattle, horses, sheep– walked and walked and walked, trying to find shelter, to keep warm enough to resist the freezing temperatures. They walked on snowdrifts over the tops of fences; they stumbled into dams and drowned. They piled into low places, one on top of another on top of another until they suffocated or drowned.

CattleLine

“Sacrifice and Survival”

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

I can see them, lines of cattle walking through the moonlight, lowing so softly their voices are only a whisper. Among them walk the other plains animals whose deaths will remain uncounted– coyotes, antelope, deer. Grouse, meadowlarks, blackbirds and robins flutter on their way to the dark lands, their whistles mingling with the wind’s rush. Did the grouse survive? The frustrated kestrel?

Samhain is the festival of the descent into darkness, a time to reflect, to talk about the dead. The people who have lost the most from this storm cannot yet talk about it. Few will ever talk about the prairie wildlife lost.

“Sacrifice”

After the storm, one observer reported that 10,000 dead cattle lay between Sturgis and Union Center, South Dakota, a distance of 43 miles. That’s 232 cows per mile, or a dead cow every twenty feet. But most of the dead lay hidden in isolated gullies and ravines, not along a highway.

“Survival”

Jerry melting snow on stove 2013--10-5On Friday, October 4, we didn’t even attempt to go to the highway mailbox as snow fell and drifts piled up. We collected jugs of water to drink and flush the toilet. We got out the long underwear, boots, wool socks. Our power went out about 2 in the afternoon. We found our battery-powered headlamps. Our furnace won’t work without electric ignition and blowers so we lit the tiny auxiliary propane heater in the basement. We ate leftovers, minimizing opening the refrigerator and freezer. With no electricity, shut down like the government, we had no idea what was happening elsewhere.

We couldn’t turn on a faucet since the pump in our well is electric so we kept busy digging snow to pile around our coolers full of food, and to bring inside to melt on our propane cookstove. I made bean soup rich with chunks of ham. We played Rummykub and Quiddler and Boggle.

Local EMT’s and first responders later reported answering calls for oxygen and heat, finding people near hypothermia in their homes even though the temperatures were only in the 50s inside, 30s outside. “If it had been 30 below zero, we’d have lost people.”

“Silence and Feasting”

As the sun came out on Saturday, we saw 35 antelope basking on top of the ridge south of the house, blown clear of snow as usual. They grazed comfortably.

Greenhouse after blizzard 2013--10-5

We made no attempt to shift the giant, ice-hard drifts blocking our vehicles and buildings. Windbreak trees and bushes were completely covered by drifts 10, 15 feet high. A neighbor rode by on horseback, checking on his cattle in my pasture nearby; I could hear him talking on his cell phone. We read, worried about the effects of the storm on those who were less prepared.

As we melted snow to flush the toilet, I probably mentioned that I’d wanted to repair the outhouse, keeping it functional in case of a power outage. Jerry probably mentioned the outhouse is a half-mile away, an impossible hike through the drifts. Looking to the future, we found a spare toilet seat that can be perched on a 5-gallon bucket next time this happens.

On Sunday, October 6, Jerry used the tractor to dig a trail, discovering that our power line was broken between the highway and our house. Electric company lines were jammed. My cell phone battery died while I was on hold.

On Monday, someone from the power company patched our power line, though it still hung low enough to nearly reach the barbed wire fence. We took showers and went to town for the mail and a sandwich. The convenience store café was full of grim and grimy people with tired faces who had been working to move snow, repair electric lines, find cattle. Among our neighbors we began to hear bits of talk that hinted at the disaster’s extent. Feasting on food someone else had cooked, we basked in the warmth and loud talk. No silence, but feasting.

“Fire and Blood”

Early estimates said as many as 75,000 cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock may have died in the storm; every day the figure rose. At least 38,000 homes were without power and some, even in town, remained off the grid for days. In Lead, S.D., 55 inches of snow fell, with similar amounts in other areas.

All over the northern plains, animals that survived the storm were dying of pneumonia, or were scattered miles from home. Ranchers woke to find their corrals destroyed, yards filled with cattle wearing a dozen different brands. Dams and creeks were full of carcasses that would pollute the water if not removed; many of the watercourses lead to creeks and rivers that supply water to metropolitan areas downstream– though the city folks who eventually use that water may never realize their danger.

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

Lines of animals walk eternally through the moonlight, whispering of death.

“Sacrifice, Fire, Blood”

At Samhain, animals were ritually slaughtered in thanksgiving for the harvest and in prayer for a benign winter.

I will never forget the look on my father’s face, the set of his mouth as he mentioned “the time the government shot the cattle.” The pain was still sharp in his voice and face after 60 years.

I later learned that “during the early years of the Depression, livestock prices dropped disastrously. Officials with the New Deal believed prices were down because farmers were still producing too many commodities like hogs and cotton. The solution proposed in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was to reduce the supply. So, in the late spring of 1933, the federal government carried out ’emergency livestock reductions.’ In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, six million hogs were purchased from desperate farmers . . . The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits . . . The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy . . . the basic governmental approach of supporting farm prices by reducing supplies continues to this day.”
(from LivingHistoryFarm.org)

Meanwhile, now in South Dakota, state ag officials were pompously reminding producers of the state law requiring the burial or burning of dead animals within 36 hours of their demise. Fields and pastures were so wet only horses could move through them without being stuck and they rapidly became exhausted. Pickups, trucks, heavy equipment was paralyzed. Many ranchers still hadn’t reported their losses a week later because they couldn’t get out of their isolated ranches, let alone begin to find and dispose of dead animals.

Silence and Survival

This message for this Samhain began in light and descended into darkness. For days, I could not find the light. I dreamed of those dead animals, the silence of the snow.

Years ago, feeding in haste so we could get to a Christmas dinner, we lost cattle in a similar way. We usually fed the cattle, then cut holes in the ice-covered dam, then stayed until they had all drunk to be sure they didn’t crowd onto the ice and break through. My mother had been insistent: we must be home by a certain time. After we left, they broke through the ice and many drowned. When we drove up the next day, the bodies were dark shapes, moving gently as if the water was breathing. Taking turns, my father and I waded into the icy water, looped a lariat around a cow’s ankles, pulled each one out with the pickup. We were frozen, blue, hypothermic, but we said not a word to my mother. Our suffering was our punishment; we were responsible for their deaths.

The ranchers who lost cattle this month could not have foreseen this storm, but I know they feel that guilt. They are the caretakers of the animals and the land; they will feel these deaths as their responsibility.

Darkness is the symbol of this season. This is as it should be; the intent of the festival has, through the centuries, been for us to face the darkness, to understand that it will come, to accept it. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Either we let the darkness overwhelm us, or we face it, try to understand how to survive in it.

Throughout history, pagan and Christian beliefs have intertwined around this autumn holiday in what one [web]site calls a “glorious gallimaufry.” We each face darkness in our own ways. Differences will always occur. We need not submit to either annual or unusual death. But how do we rise above it?

Sacrifice as Prayer

As power was restored, a ranch woman from North Dakota wrote to me, telling me of some of the losses in her area, lamenting the ignorance of comments on social media sites.

Linda after blizzard big drift 2013--10-6Why didn’t the ranchers put their cattle in barns, some asked? Why didn’t they prepare for the storm by getting the cattle into winter pastures? Oh it doesn’t matter, said others; ranchers are rich. The government will pay for their losses.

How can we combat this ignorance, she asked? Writing from my computer at 5 in the morning, two hours before sunrise, I encouraged her, offering suggestions.

Still, I felt that darkness of ignorance hovering around my shoulders– even though her writing to me indicated someone has heard my words. I have been writing about ranching all my life, trying to explain it, to show how essential well-managed ranches can be to the welfare of the great plains ecosystem, all of it: grasses, trees, deer, coyotes, cattle, mountain lions, lambs, thistles.

My nights are haunted by the pictures of dead cattle that began to appear after the storm. I spent years getting to know my own cows, walking among them, talking, listening to their stomachs rumble and watching the frost melt from their eyelashes. When my father died, I had to sell my cattle to pay his debts– but I can picture those ranchers as they look at those dead cows. They were not just walking cash; they were friends, co-workers, colleagues.

Samhain: The Gates Between Life and Death Open

Two weeks after the storm, I follow a neighbor’s pickup into a local gas station; he’s towing a flatbed hauling a big backhoe.

“Been busy?” I say.

He shakes his head. “Buried two hundred of the neighbor’s cows yesterday,” he says.

He doesn’t tell me if he lost any; he was just helping out, like neighbors do. We talk about the lack of national news coverage. “It’s like Katrina for us,” he says, “only up here the neighbors are helping each other instead of looting. And there’s no news media.”

Another neighbor tells me that the man she’d paid to fix her driveway finally arrived, a couple of weeks later than he’d promised. They talk as they wait for a load of gravel. Normally, he’d have plowed snow for himself and neighbors but he was too busy trying to find his cattle and then burying 400 head, about 20% of his and those he ran with other ranchers. He couldn’t find his shovel, he said; somebody had borrowed it from his pickup because they were using it as an oar while they tried to get dead cattle out of a stock pond. Sad smile.

Cattle by outhouse 2017--11-24

Every Ending is a Beginning

I can’t change the weather, but I can mention that scientists say the signs of climate change– whether man-caused or not– involve violent weather. Without argument, we could all take steps to be more prepared to help ourselves and others. Jerry and I are pricing generators. We will continue to have warm clothing, a well-stocked pantry, adequate medications, plenty of reading material. We’ll keep checking on our neighbors.

Can we fix what causes these storms? Whether we are responsible for this climate change or not, we can reduce our demands for power. Millions of people are doing just that.

Three weeks after the storm, the local paper quotes people who disbelieve in the ranchers’ losses, or think they are deserved. The government begins to function again but even if a Farm Bill is passed, many of these ranchers will resist admitting their losses out of pain, embarrassment, horror. Many wouldn’t even consider a “government handout.” Can we repair ignorance? We must try.

Many of the cattle, horses, and sheep that survived are sick and ranchers are working night and day to save them. Thousands of miles of fences were pulled down by the storm; repairing them will require huge expenditures of time and money. Besides losing their income for an entire year, some ranchers have lost herds built up through generations of careful breeding.

Much of our society exists on credit. If a rancher followed the urging of the credit-based society, he may have borrowed money to fund his operation. Some ranchers, like the rest of the world, live from paycheck to paycheck, i.e., from that one yearly sale of their products to the next. They may have been borrowing money for living expenses against this year’s cattle sales. Cattle are not usually insured; premiums are too high.

During 2012, the Dakotas experienced a monumental drought so the price of feed was especially high last winter. Some ranchers borrowed money to feed their cattle; the other choices were to sell them or to let them starve. Now they have lost both the cattle and the money that might have paid those debts. With no paycheck for the entire year’s work, they may be in dire financial straits and facing another harsh winter.

Some may have lost all their assets; they may have to leave ranching. In such cases, the land may not sell to other ranchers who are part of the community but to absentee owners, part-timers who do not contribute to the economy. Towns that serve the ranchers will suffer, as will ranch-related businesses. In the Dakotas, many businesses are ranch-related: grocery stores, equipment manufacturers, restaurants, car dealers, sale rings, county and state fairs: the list can go on and on. Seasonal help will not be hired.

Losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some rendering trucks were in the area right away; normally these businessmen pick up scraps of meat and bones from butchering facilities as well as dead cattle and animals killed on highways. This waste is ground for use as fertilizer or sometimes for pet foods. Unfortunately, the snow was so deep, the ground so muddy that trucks couldn’t get to the dead cattle. By the time they could reach the carcasses, they were too spoiled to use. The buried cattle will not even feed predators, which may also be starving from loss of the wildlife on which they normally feed.

For generations, ranchers will gesture to the pits where their cattle were buried, telling their sons and daughters about the storm. The effects of these deaths, economic and emotional, will remain part of our history. Generations will resent the fact that this immense loss has been almost invisible to the national news reporters and thus to millions of citizens. Perhaps the breach between rural and urban will grow.

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Is it ridiculous to ask if there is good news in this darkness?

The storm officially ended the worst drought South Dakota has faced in decades. Stock dams are full of water. Moisture has soaked into the ground, bringing the promise of water and grass to feed any cattle left alive by spring.

Ranch stock dam filled after storms 2015--6-19

And more: not only have ranchers been helping each other, but dozens of small communities and organizations have leapt to help in a variety of ways. Businessmen in one town sponsored a free dinner for ranchers. Others have established funds to provide ranchers with payments for their losses, and for needed food and supplies. Residents from other areas have written to or called rancher friends to ask about the losses, to commiserate, drawing their ties closer. The neighborliness occurred in towns as well: residents of adjoining households that may never have spoken to one another swapped shovels, pushed each other’s cars, shared fireplaces and food.

How can I make something positive of this loss? I will keep writing, though today it seems impossible to write of anything but this horror. I must believe my words help educate people. I often hear from people who say they didn’t know ranching could be good, as well as from ranchers who are pleased that I help tell their story.

Darkness is a familiar friend. Every day the sun slides beyond the blue hills and pulls the dark blanket over us.

And every morning, as the coyotes slip through the grass, light rises in the east. No matter how dark and ferocious the night has been, no matter who has died, these things happen. Our job is to find hope in the negative, to use the fury and anguish of the losses to create connections between one another, to create hope for a more intelligent world.

“Darkness,” said Martin Luther King, “cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Switch on the light. Drive out ignorance with education, blindness with vision. We can all contribute, for the good of all. Whatever you write during this Samhain season, whatever you do in your daily life, remember the dead. But look to the light.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2013, 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Author’s note: The opening quotation, calling Samhain “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood,” is from Rebecca Tope’s Death in the Cotswolds.

 

Read all of my Home Page Messages (2009 – 2014) here:

http://www.windbreakhouse.com/home_page_essay_archives_56956.htm

 

To learn more about the October, 2013 blizzard and its effect on ranchers:<

South Dakota Magazine published a story in their January/February 2014 issue
https://www.southdakotamagazine.com/cattlemans-blizzard

NorthernAg.net published a one-year follow-up and thank you from ranchers
http://www.northernag.net/AGNews/AgNewsStories/TabId/657/ArtMID/2927/ArticleID/3485/Out-of-the-Snowdrifts-Atlas-One-Year-Later.aspx

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Paying Attention – Sixty Years of Experience

Roundup - Bull ignoring cow

I just spent a couple of hours having the most fun I’ve had since I gave up my horses– using my Kubota to herd a neighbor’s Angus bull into the corral.

When Jerry and I started our usual walk to the mailbox, we noticed the cows were excited and jumpy, and realized they were gathered around a couple of black bulls. Our lessee had apparently decided this was the time to turn his bulls out; service in July will result in calves in April.

Roundup - Bull bellowingWe noticed the bulls seemed to be sparring a little, but that’s normal when two bulls are competing for the favors of a group of cows. They soon settle down to their jobs– impregnation– and realize they don’t need to squabble.

Soon, though, we saw our neighbor coming down the road, and realized that one of the bulls belonged to him. His cows were disconsolately standing along the fence, missing their bull. He’d have to go home and get a horse and a trailer to collect the bull.

Let’s see if we can get the bull into the corral to make it easier, we decided: and so the fun began. The bull did not want to leave his new-found friends. Jerry and our neighbor grabbed long sticks and strolled toward the cows, hoping to be able to ease around the bull and get him into the neighbor’s pasture without much fuss.

Skeptical, I went and got the Kubota ATV. When I got back, the bull and all the cows in our pasture were galloping happily around the pasture, with the men panting in their wake. I eased into the group, hoping I might be able to separate the bull, since he was with strangers, and encourage him to go toward the men. We’d either get him into the neighbor’s pasture, or shut him in one of our corrals so the neighbor could collect him with a truck and trailer.

Roundup - Kubota has heavy grill on front

I grew up maneuvering a little Arab mare around bulls as big as this Angus, a sleek-headed black collection of muscle that weighed a ton or more. My little mare was nimble-footed and entirely without fear of critters that were probably double her weight. And I have always had the instincts that my dad called “cow sense,” so we made a good team. I’ve missed her every day since she died.

Roundup - Bull with sleek head and massive shouldersThis bull seemed to think that all he had to do to get past my orange steed was to roll his massive shoulders and shake his head threateningly, throwing snot over his shoulders and my windshield.  Another of my dad’s maxims was, “It helps to be smarter than the cow,” so I drove slowly, watching the bull’s eyes and the way he carried himself: with the confidence of a prize fighter.

I’d already learned the Kubota could, as we used to say, turn on a dime and give you nine cents change, so I knew exactly how close I could come to a post without slamming on the brakes. And the big bumpers on the front are pretty solid.

Roundup - Kubota corneringOnly someone who has handled cattle from horseback will understand how I used cow sense to know just what to do and whether that bull would climb in my window. I can’t describe the twisting, turning, galloping contest, but I wish someone had been able to make a movie of it.

I watched that bull’s head constantly. An experienced rider who has moved a lot of unwilling cattle would understand how I knew when he was going to turn and when he was going to come straight at me. That knowledge is part of paying attention to cattle for sixty years.

When he dived into the mud hole, I went around it and met him on the other side. He ran and jumped and dodged, but I know every rock and hole in that pasture. Afoot, on horseback and in a truck, I’ve been paying attention to that pasture for six decades, so maneuvering around its pitfalls with the agile Kubota was a challenge I enjoyed. The knowledge from that close observation is buried way deep in the cerebral cortex, but it expressed itself through my hands on the steering wheel and my foot on the gas.

The bull and I soon left Jerry and the owner behind, but eventually we collected ourselves behind the cows and herded them all into the corral. With a little more deft maneuvering, we cut out the bull with a few companions and shut him in a corral with steel gates and high fences, where he stayed, panting, until the owner went home and got his pickup and trailer.

The bull is back in his home corral now, having spent all the time he’s going to get with his cows this season. My Kubota is resting quietly in the garage.

And I’m still grinning.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Roundup - Kubota Linda grins

All writing begins with observation, which may lead to quick notes in a journal or on a scrap of paper. These notes expand in the mind and on paper into something with more detail– the notes or journal entry becomes a draft which becomes a poem or essay or simply the basis for deeper thought. The important thing is to notice, to be constantly prepared for the unexpected, to Pay Attention.

— LMH, 2018

Writing: Where I’ve Been — Educating Cows

CattleBrent2014

Most folks who work receive their paycheck weekly. Ranchers get paid only once or twice a year. Most workers can quote their hourly wage, perhaps negotiate or strike for more if they’re unsatisfied. The rancher’s income is set by the buyers of his product on a particular day; the rate may rise or fall the next day. This nerve-wracking experience is the rancher’s most important connection with the economy that affects us all.

In the days before the sale, we select our best yearlings, bring them close to the ranch corrals and loading chute. On sale day, we get up early and stand around getting more anxious while we wait for the truck and driver.

After the cattle are loaded, we may take a hasty shower or just wash our faces and change clothes before driving eighty miles too fast. At the sale ring, we walk along alleys filled with bawling beef until we find ours, and check to be sure they have feed and water.

Then we go inside, march up the bare concrete steps to hard benches, and begin waiting. Usually, we arrive at the sale ring before noon; if the sale is a large one, with dozens of ranchers independently choosing to sell, our cattle may not enter the ring until nearly midnight. Once bidding begins, we can either refuse the price and take our cattle home, or keep quiet. Often within five minutes the cattle are sold, and we head home with a check that may, or may not, represent a profit.

During the long hours of waiting, we can hear sale ring employees in the alleys shouting, snapping whips, cursing, slamming gates as they move thousands of cattle by small bunches toward the sale ring, and then out to waiting trucks. Bunch by bunch, cattle run into the central ring, often terrified, eyes rolling wildly, bellowing in fear. Dust and noise pour into our ears, noses, mouths. Such treatment can damage our product before it is sold; a running yearling is losing weight with every step.

An alert rancher who spots an injury a calf didn’t have when it left home may collect an insurance payment from the sale ring. But if cattle stand for nine hours without feed or water while waiting for the sale, shrinkage can amount to hundreds of pounds, weight for which the rancher is not paid. All sale rings provide feed in waiting pens–and deduct its cost from the rancher’s check–but frightened cattle often do not eat.

amarillo-livestock-auction-01
A cattle sale ring.  Photo found at http://AmarilloLiveStockAuction.com

The sale ring floor is a scale; the number and total weight of each bunch of cattle flashes automatically above the heads of the auctioneers, along with the average weight. Two ring men, one often on horseback and one on foot, snap their long whips, making the cattle move around the ring so the buyers can look them over, and cull out any that are sick, or below the average weight; culls will be sold separately, usually for less. A tricky buyer can delay a sale by demanding calves be cut off, ultimately costing the seller considerable cash.

The auctioneers chant, enticing the buyers in the front two rows to bid.

Behind the buyers in their neat three-piece suits sit rows of wrinkled, sun-browned ranchers, sometimes with their wives and children. Some smoke, some visit with friends; others simply settle in one spot, clenching and unclenching their scarred hands for hours, waiting to see how their cattle will look and sell. Owners need not be present, but most of them are; it’s a ritual more demanding than religion.

A few newborn calves always interrupt the flow of well-fed yearlings and elderly cows. Perhaps their mother has died, or borne her calf in winter, and the rancher wants all his cows to calve at the same time, producing a uniform bunch of calves later in the year.

Whatever the reason, watching the ring men handle the babies is always intriguing. No one complains when they whip adult cattle, though if they’re too eager, they may drive a nervous cow into a dangerous frenzy, or injury.

Once, I saw a cocky ring man hooked by a cow’s horn and tossed into the lap of a portly buyer. Another time, a cow leaped the five-foot barricade, scattering buyers like pheasants at hunting season. Bawling, the cow shook her head and flung snot over half the crowd, then charged up the steps. Women shrieked and dived, clutching their children. Men cleared each other’s cowboy hats in the delirium of escape. Any notions of chivalry in the ranching fraternity disappeared as the cow dashed around emptying the bleachers, finally slammed through a door, and crashed down the steps into the corrals outside.

Such situations only seem to encourage the whip wielders, but a baby calf baffles them. At one sale I watched a man get behind a two-day-old Hereford heifer to boost her to the center of the ring; she decorated his clean jeans with a creamy yellow flow and then stood still, bawling plaintively. Bidding was slow– most professional buyers want cattle old enough to eat without help– but within five minutes a man in the upper rows had bought the calf for his young son. The boy would feed her on a milk bottle, perhaps raise her for show or as the start of his own herd, learning responsibility.

Then the ring men tried to evict the calf. None of them wanted to get behind her, so they grabbed her ears and tail to drag her. The calf set her feet, hunkered down and resisted. We could hear the men muttering.

“Watch your language, boys; that little lady shouldn’t learn those words yet,” warned the auctioneer.

One man who’d just gotten his hand too close to the calf’s posterior, wiped the gooey results on his pants, and said, “If you don’t think we’re doing it right, come on down here and show us how.”

The other jabbed the calf’s flank with the butt of his whip, then flicked the popper against the calf’s hind legs; the calf planted a hoof on his kneecap so hard we heard the report in the top row, and the man collapsed, clutching his knee and trying not to whimper loudly enough for the crowd to hear.

A few people chuckled. The auctioneer said, “Come on, boys; calf can’t weigh more than fifty pounds. We’ve got a thousand cattle to sell!”

Then a door on the far side of the arena opened, and a girl about twelve years old entered. The crowd stilled as she walked without hurry toward the calf. I thought of explanations: her father had sold her calf against her objections, and she was about to protest, or attack the ring men.

She patted the calf’s nose in a friendly way, then held out her hand. The heifer wrapped its tongue around the girl’s fingers and began to slurp loudly, its skinny tail swinging in rhythm. One backward step at a time, she quietly led the hungry calf from the ring.

For a long moment after the door shut behind her, the ring man with the injured knee stopped brushing dirt off his pants; the crowd didn’t breathe. My father nodded, and looked me in the eye to be sure I understood, and remembered his frequent saying, “It helps to be smarter than the cow.”

Then the auctioneer said, “OK, boys, we’re here to sell cattle.”

*  *  *

cattle sorting whip
A cattle-sorting whip has a stiff handle with a short length of braided fiber and a popper on the end.  Photo from http://www.QCSupply.com 

My father always handles cattle gently; he doesn’t like to ride a horse, and calm cattle are safer for a man sorting them from the ground. In addition, cattle that are handled as kindly as possible from their day of birth will be less frightened of humans, and less likely to go crazy and hurt us. We always carry whips into the corral to sort cattle, but rarely hit them. To get a cow through a gate, my father gently touches her nose or flank with the whip, and steps away from the gate, out of her way. He trained me to use a combination of slow movement, and placement of my body in relation to each cow to move them through the corrals. Occasionally, one of us will tap a cow lightly with the whip; more often we use the whip as a pointer in the direction we want the cow to go. I don’t entirely understand why they usually go the way we point.

To watch my father sort cattle was like watching a slow and dusty ballet, or a conductor leading an orchestra playing a stately promenade. His whip would float gently through the air, touching a nose to make a cow back up, brushing a shoulder to make one go ahead. Sometimes he’d stretch his arm ahead of him with the whip held like a cavalry officer’s sword, and five or ten cows would trot obediently, one behind the other like school children going to the library, out the gate. Only if a cow was about to knock him down would he strike her hard. He used the whip like a deadly weapon: ready, loaded, but never fired.

My father only once used his whip in a way that frightened me. I’d sneaked out to the corral to watch a stallion breed one of our mares. My father was sitting on his tall Tennessee Walker, Zarro, watching. When I made a sound, he wheeled the horse and charged at me, whip arm up, yelling at me to get out of the corral. I was almost too paralyzed with fear, shock, and surprise to jump the fence. I think now he was more concerned that frenzied stallion might hurt me than with the quantum leap in my sex education; he never tried to keep me from watching the bulls mount the cows.

*  *  *

I was more than forty years old the day my father said, “I’d like you to count and sort the cattle onto the truck today.” That was his job; he’d never allowed anyone else to do it. Automatically, I followed as he walked to the garage, trying to figure out if he was suggesting it was time I take more responsibility– at last– or if he was having another of the series of strokes I suspected. His face was pale, bluish, and his breathing uneven.

He reached up into the rafters of the garage and took down a black whip with the price tag still on it, a more expensive model than the cheap ones we kept in the pickups. He turned, held it out, and said smiling, “I think you’ve learned how to use it.” I felt more elation at that moment than when I got my MA degree in the mail. And the whip represented more work, untainted by politics.

*  *  *

Most folks who use whips, feel compelled to wield them with enthusiasm, snapping and slashing until the cattle are hurt, angry, frightened, and dangerous. Perhaps the same impulse affects powerful or well-armed attackers in the presence of those who are weaker, or unarmed. I know a similar condition afflicts drivers; put a mild-mannered man in a pickup truck or a four-wheel drive, and he may turn into a swearing, gesturing road hog, careening around the landscape as if he was driving a tank. Back in his Honda on Monday morning, he’ll be a model of deportment.

Calves in corrals 1988
Sorting calves in the corrals, 1988.

Once when neighbors helped us bring cattle in to brand, all of us familiar with my father’s methods grew increasingly upset with one neighbor woman. Traditional wisdom dictates the pusher get close behind the calves and shove them up the chute; keeping one or both thighs flat against the calf’s buttocks prevents it from getting enough leverage to kick your kneecap off. Novices who try to stay back far enough to avoid streams of excrement usually get kicked hard enough so the alternative begins to seem pleasant.

 

This neighbor was using her whip, staying a long way behind each calf, whacking each one with the whip repeatedly. Not only did it take her longer to get each calf to the branders, by the time it got there it was mad with fear, and kicked the rest of us harder than usual. Several times I said mildly, “Our calves aren’t used to the whip; you’re making them wilder.” George was mumbling something unintelligible every time a calf kicked his hand as he tried to castrate it.

Then she leaned her whip against the corral fence and turned away to get a drink. George grabbed the whip before I could breathe, and threw it overhand. Several of us watched it arc up over the eight-foot fence of the corral we were in, and turn gracefully as it dropped butt first into some high weeds in the next paddock. Then he calmly removed the lid from his Skoal can, took a fresh dip, and smiled sweetly. She looked for her whip several times during the afternoon, while scraping calf shit off her jeans, but she never found it. In fact, George and I hunted for it the next day, thrashing weeds for an hour before we gave up; we’d planned to tell her we found it later, so we wouldn’t be guilty of the theft of a good whip. We never found it either.

“I was pretty sick of her waving it around,” George said, “maybe I put a little too much power behind it.”

*  *  *

A man I’ll call Aaron, a trucker who regularly drove for us, carried both a battery-operated prod pole designed to jolt a cow into movement, and a whip. We asked him several times, politely, not to use either on our cattle before they were in the chute leading to the truck. Sometimes a properly-timed electric jolt could inspire a cow to take the last step into the truck instead of running back down the ramp.

One day, when we were hauling heavy cows to winter pasture, we noticed a spooky black heifer, pregnant with her first calf. She kept looking over her shoulder at us, and pushed to the front as we moved twenty cows into the corral and toward the open back of the trailer. Moving slowly, and murmuring reassurances, I separated ten cows and eased them toward the trailer; gates would confine them in the front and another ten in the back, so they couldn’t rush from one end to the other and unbalance the trailer.

LMH cattle loading chute 2009
The cattle chute used when loading cattle into large trucks.  If a trailer with a low bed is used, the cattle step into it from the ground.

As we moved up into the narrow lane behind the trailer, the black heifer paused, letting the other cows pass her. As the first cow stepped into the trailer, Aaron and I moved closer to the rear cows. Once a cow or two steps in, the rest must follow quickly, before the leaders discover they are in a trap, and turn back. But too much noise will frighten them all enough to turn and run over us in their haste to escape. Aaron tapped the cows’ backs with his prod pole, but his finger stayed away from the shock button. I spoke loudly, and smacked the butt of my whip against a cow’s flank.

The black heifer took a step back, then another, until her rear end was against Aaron’s chest. He shouted and began to hit her back rhythmically with the prod pole. “Easy, cows! Easy!” I said, trying diplomatically to remind Aaron to speak quietly, make no sudden moves. The other cows were moving steadily ahead; in another moment, she probably would have followed them. Instead, she stepped on his foot, and he screamed, jammed the prod pole against her bag. I clearly heard its electric buzz. Before I could grab the fence, the heifer bellowed in pain and pivoted like a ballet dancer, knocking Aaron sideways. Her opposite shoulder grazed me, and she was gone. Aaron had stumbled, leaving a gap; as he straightened, the next cow, alarmed by the heifer’s beller, lowered her head to my chest level and slammed into me. With one hand on the fence, I didn’t fall, but the pain was intense enough to make me gasp for air. The other cows galloped down the lane and past us.

The black heifer wasn’t finished. When she reached the end of the corral, she put one hoof on the second rail of the fence, and began to climb. Deftly, she tiptoed up nine feet of thick boards as if she were going up a ladder. When her upper body tipped over the top, one back leg slipped between two rails, and I expected to it snap. But she jerked it free, stumbled to the ground, and ran across the neighboring corral.

I turned, finally, and looked at my father. His lips were drawn tight in what some folks mistook for a smile. As Aaron ran toward the gate, father said quietly, “Let’s load the rest and let her quiet down a little. Aaron, put the prod pole in the truck.”

We loaded ten cows without incident, then strolled into the next corral. The black heifer, head up, watched us alertly, but walked through the open gate and joined the nine cows left. As Aaron shut the gate, she rolled her eyes, and trotted toward the fence she’d climbed.

“Easy,” my father called. “Don’t use your whip Aaron; in fact, come back here, behind me.” Father and I pushed the cows gently toward the chute, but as they entered the narrow lane, Aaron must have felt left out. He stepped up beside me. The black heifer was last again, right in front of me, but moving quietly, nudging the other cows, showing every indication she’d follow them up the chute. I put my arm out as if to hold Aaron back, but his arm came down and his whip struck the heifer’s back, hard, punishment for his injury.

She whirled, head lowered, butted him against the barn, and climbed the same fence again, faster this time. Cursing, Aaron started to climb after her.

Father snapped, “We’ve got cows to load. Let her go.” We pushed the other cows into the trailer, and shut the gate, then turned to look into the adjoining corral. The black heifer was circling it in a graceful run, head up, measuring the distance to the top of the plank fence, clearly thinking of a career.

“We’ll never be able to haul that cow anywhere,” I said with sudden conviction.

In fact, in the four years since Aaron trained the cow to climb the fence, we’ve brought her to the corral once or twice each spring. Each time one of us approaches too close, she climbs a fence and gallops off.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Afterword to “Educating Cows”:

This piece was written as part of a book intended to explain what the cattle business is all about, as a response to some of the anti-cattle rhetoric environmentalists were churning out in the 1990’s. Slogans aimed at getting cattle off public lands included “No Moo in ‘92” and “Cattle Free by ‘93.” According to my notes, I started the essay March 10, 1993, expanded it to 2,047 words the next day, and in July of that year expanded it yet again. In my journals I’d recorded the various incidents of how people handle cattle, and my notes refer to the specific dates where I located those journal entries while writing this piece.

At that time I was involved in many meetings as I attempted to bring the rancher’s point of view to environmental groups with which I had connections. Since many of those with whom I met were hostile to ranchers, these meetings were often acrimonious. Environmental literature against cattle and ranchers was full of half-truths, illogic and false information presented as fact. In 1998, in one Wyoming county, while ranchers waited out three days of rain to finish branding their calves, trespassers who called themselves “Islamic Jihad Terrorists” cut barbed wire fences in hundreds of locations on both public and private land, allowing the unbranded cattle of seven neighbors to mix. Notes left under rocks called the ranchers “welfare cowboys.” Besides doing $100,000 in damage to fences, the thugs made rational discussion between environmentalists and rural folks much harder to arrange.

Notes on one essay about ranching economics note that I wrote it “after a F.R.E.E. conference.” I no longer remember what those initials stood for, and an Internet search brings up useless and irrelevant information, suggesting that the organization is defunct.

At some point, I made a decision to stop going to meetings and spend more time on my writing. Through a successful book I was likely to reach many more minds than through dozens of meetings. I also stopped calling myself an “environmentalist” because the term had come to denote possible criminal behavior as well as abysmal ignorance to my ranching neighbors.

Still, I carefully moved the COW book folder, containing fourteen essays, from one computer to another, so I may complete the book at some future time. I haven’t submitted the essays for periodical publication since they are interdependent.

Book Cows Save PlanetMeanwhile, though, other people have been writing useful books about cattle and ranching. My COW folder also contains a file of quotations from Laurie Winn Carlson’s excellent Cattle: An Informal Social History published in 2001 by Ivan R. Dee. More recently, I’ve found considerable quotable material in Cows Save The Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz, published by Chelsea Green. I find the book particularly relevant because Schwartz is aware of the unwillingness of many readers to credit cows with any benefits to the planet.

While both books address our relationships with cattle through the ages, neither is written by a working rancher who has lived and worked with cattle her entire life. Most ranchers are too busy to write. So my COW book would undoubtedly still be relevant.

 

For more information on eco-terrorism against cattle in 1998:

http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/20/us/in-new-wild-west-it-s-cowboys-vs-radical-environmentalists.html

http://www.rangemagazine.com/archives/stories/spring99/cut_burn_kill.htm

 

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Writing: Where I’ve Been — On the Range

Writing: Where I’ve Been  —  An Introduction to This Series of Unpublished or Published-but-Uncollected Work

My current project is writing a diary of a year on this ranch nearly 30 years after my first book, which is a diary of a year on this ranch. In this new work, I’ve necessarily looked back at journals I kept, letters and journals from my relatives and others who lived in this area, and at writing I did during that time, when I was searching for my writing voice.

Much has changed. I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons.

But always, I was writing. Much of what I wrote during the past will remain private, though— following my own advice— I rarely discard a draft because I never know what insight or information it might contain that will be of value to me now.

But re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Who knows when, where, how or even if I might publish another book that will enable me to collect past writing? My book Between Grass and Sky was a wonderful gift of that nature from the University of Nevada Press but the world of publishing has changed as well; I may not get so lucky again.  Besides, publishing a book means promoting a book and these days I enjoy making sales pitches less and less.

So I’ve decided to self-publish some writing via this blog. The writing that will appear in the category “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own.

++–++–++–++

Introduction to “On the Range”

This is written in third person, because I was intent on fictionalizing my true experiences. For that purpose, I said here that my parents were dead, though in real life they had started going to Texas in the winter, leaving me in charge. My husband and I had come back to the ranch to try to “repair our marriage,” but his behavior had led me to file for divorce, so I was alone on the ranch.

This story was published in Colorado State Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall 1979.

All photos were taken on my ranch.

++–++–++–++

On the Range

Barn window tree 2015--3-5The alarm slammed her out of a dream and left her clinging to the shelf over the bed. She switched on the bedside light. She’d been dreaming of a black calf so tiny it lay in the palm of her hand.

Two. What was I getting up for? Oh, the brockle‑face heifer.

She threw the covers back over the gray oval of the sleeping cat and put her feet down on the cold concrete floor. The shock helped her wake up.

Lucy, let’s be honest. At least when you were teaching you didn’t have to get up at two in the morning to take care of the little dears. They weren’t any smarter than cows, but they weren’t part of your job at night.

Her shirt, jeans and socks lay on the trunk beside the bed, and she put them on as if she had to think about each move.

Seems as if I’ve been doing this forever. And I’m not half through calving yet. Is it Wednesday?

She padded upstairs by the glow of the bedside light and slipped on the heavy boots. Out the window she could see snow falling.

Damn. That’s no good on those babies out in the pasture. They didn’t predict anything last night. I should know better; father always knew when a storm was coming.

Stiffly, she pulled on the heavy coat, jerked the stocking cap over her ears, picked up her gloves and flashlight. Standing on the porch, she looked up at the sky, crowded with flakes. A little wind was blowing and the snow had started to drift.

Damn. Damn. Damn. Wet snow, too. Most of those calves are old enough to live through it though, and I don’t think anything else was going to calve tonight. But I should have gotten them all in.

She turned the light on the thermometer beside the back door.

Twenty. Dropped ten degrees since midnight. Shit. The snow will get them wet, and then freeze. Damn. I should have gotten them all in the corral; even a little windbreak would help keep them warm.

???????????????????????????????She used the flashlight going into the dark tunnel of the barn’s entrance, and on the narrow path between the pickup and stacks of bagged cattle cake and salt, then switched it off and stepped silently up to the gate. She listened to the heifer’s raucous breathing for a minute. When she turned the light on, the heifer’s eyes rolled wildly, flashing light as she stood and turned. Two yellow hooves stuck out, shining in the light. The ground was torn and wet. While Lucy watched, the heifer lay down again, stretched her head out, grunted and began to push. The hooves emerged a few more inches, jerked and retreated. Above them she saw briefly a nose and a long black tongue which quivered when the heifer strained.

Lucy sighed, turned on the overhead light, turned off the flashlight and took off her coat.

At least it’s coming right this time. I hate that reaching in there groping around, trying to figure out what’s head and what’s rump while the cow tries to strangle your arm with her vagina muscles.

The heifer was unafraid, tamed by a month in a small pasture where Lucy scattered feed every day, talking quietly to them to get them used to her voice and presence. But she didn’t like the rope and bawled angrily when she was tied to the stanchion. Lucy moved the gate over to pin her against the side wall and fastened it. The heifer stood for a minute, head hanging, then lay down again.

That’s right, girl. Lie down and stay quiet, and it’ll be easier on both of us. All three of us.

She took the smooth chains and thick, looped handle from a nail on the wall, and glanced at the feed bunk: the rest of the calf puller was there, ready for use. She moved quietly up behind the heifer.

Take it easy, honey. You just concentrate on what you’re doing and I’ll give you a hand here.

She patted the heifer on the flank and slipped one end of the chain around the little black leg of the calf as far up as she could reach. Once she’d only been able to get it around the tiny hooves, and in pulling, had pulled them off. The calf staggered around for three days on the stumps of his front legs before dying.

???????????????????????????????She held the chain, blood and urine flowing over her hand, while she fumbled to fasten the other end around the other leg with her left hand. The heifer turned her head, rolled her eyes, and began to struggle against the rope.

Here now! Take it easy. Just lie down there and get busy. Easy, girl, easy.

A spasm shook the heifer and she laid her head back again. Lucy fastened the handle at the middle of the chain and leaned back, pulling as the heifer pushed. Again and again the heifer strained, and the woman threw her weight into the pull with her. The calf’s nose came further out, but the bulk of the head remained hidden by the cow’s body. When the heifer rested, Lucy reached inside her and felt the calf’s head carefully.

Pretty big. But not so big it shouldn’t come. Maybe I’m rushing things.

She wiped her bloody hand on her jeans, and knelt.

I wonder how this happened. When the folks were killed, it seemed perfectly logical to come back here. One day I was looking at sophomores’ faces, and the next day at cows’ behinds.

The heifer began to push again, and the woman pulled with her, then rested.

It didn’t take me three seconds to make up my mind. Of course, I can still sell the place, and find another job. Everybody’s short of teachers these days.

The heifer grunted, gasped, and stopped pushing again. The woman rested.

On the other hand, I’m almost through the winter; if you can make it through a winter out here with most of your cows and your sanity, they count that as a success.

The heifer pushed again, and the woman braced her foot against the heifer’s leg and pulled.

Come on, baby; we can do it. Come to think of it, the cows’ behinds look a lot like the sophomores’ faces. If I am insane, I don’t know it, which is the same thing.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve and looked at the mounds of straw piled against the wall, the clean bundles scattered over the floor. She’d spent four days collecting it from a neighbor’s field after the harvest.

Warm, clean, looks so nice in the light. Can’t even feel that wind.

She leaned against the heifer’s warm flank, shaken with her rough breathing.

I don’t know why I don’t just sleep right here. Some of the neighbors do, I guess. Might beat dragging myself up those stairs four times a night.

The heifer pushed again, and for awhile the two of them gasped and pulled and pushed together, but the head remained stuck. When the heifer rested again, Lucy stood up slowly, knees cramped.

Well, girl, I guess we’ll have to get the machinery.

She unhooked the handle, laid it aside, and moved to a stall across the barn. The calf puller was ready, a new one her father had gotten a few years before he died.

How in hell would you ever figure out how to work one of these things if you didn’t already know? They don’t come with instructions.

She giggled, picturing some novice reader of Mother Earth News confronting a calf puller for the first time in a dark barn in the middle of a blizzard.

The neighbors forget I grew up here; they mutter about that fool woman trying to run that ranch alone. Wonder what happened to my husband. Wonder if I’m going to find another one.

She put the canvas strap over the cow’s back, pulled her tail through, and braced the curved metal frame against her rear end, hooking the chain. The long handle stuck out and she gripped the crank.

Now, take it easy, honey, and stay down. I don’t want you slamming me against the barn door like the last one. I’ve still got bruises. Easy now, easy. It’s almost over.

The heifer took a deep breath and pushed, and Lucy began to crank. Once she started, the calf had to come out or the heifer’s vagina would throttle it. She cranked as hard as she could.

Easy, baby, easy. We’re getting it done now.

Barn stall panel 2015--3-5Her arm hurt. The heifer moaned low in her throat as the calf’s head slid into the light. The woman coughed with exhaustion.

Easy now, got to slow down for the shoulders. God, his head’s bigger than I thought. Bull calf, I’ll bet.

The cranking grew harder. The cow bellowed with pain and anger, and began to struggle. Her legs thrashed wildly, striking the sides of the stanchion as she tried to get up.

Easy honey, easy. I can’t help hurting you. Damn it, don’t get up.

The cow’s head slammed against a post and she lay still. With a sloshing sound the shoulders passed, and the calf slid forward until only its hips and back legs were still inside the cow. The membrane covered him, and he twitched as the umbilical cord snapped.

Lucy cranked hard, knowing she didn’t have much time. Suddenly the hips passed and the calf burst out onto the floor with a gush of blood and urine and membranes.

How the hell do you meet men in a community like this? Maybe if I accepted some of those women’s invitations to coffee, they could give me some hints.

She unhooked the chains, threw the calf puller to the side, grabbed the membrane and pulled it away from the calf’s nose. He gasped and snorted out a gob of mucus.

But I don’t want some guy who can’t talk about anything but the price of beef. Hell, why do I need anybody?

She stuffed the calf’s purple tongue down his throat, and swore as one of his knife‑sharp teeth slashed her thumb.

I’ve never understood why the cows’ tits aren’t cut right off when the calves gnaw on them.

He coughed, shook his head, gasped. She knelt, watching him closely, then pushed on his ribs as his breathing seemed to stop; she could feel the heart flutter beneath her hand. He wheezed, then began breathing regularly, gurgling a little.    She pulled him a little away from the cow and sat back on her heels, breathing hard. The cow was inert, blood running from her and pooling on the hay. Lucy sighed, wiped the slime on her pant legs and stood up.

You should have thought of this when that bull made his move, honey. You have to make some decisions for yourself.

She cranked the calf puller back down, so it would be ready for its next use, and replaced it. Then she picked up the chains and handle, dunked them in a bucket of water and disinfectant and hung them on the wall.

Got to change that water tomorrow.

The cow still lay unmoving, except for the slow heave of her breathing.

Damn it, get up.

She kicked the cow in the flank once; twice.

Get up, damn it. You aren’t through. You have responsibilities and it’s snowing. Get at it.

The cow groaned, stumbled to her feet, and turned around with the afterbirth hanging out of her. She sniffed the calf suspiciously, then grumbled a little in her throat. The afterbirth plopped to the ground. The calf’s white head was up, his black body slick and shining in the light. She began to lick him, throwing the little body from side to side with the force of her tongue. His ears began to stand up, and he shook his head repeatedly, throwing mucus out of his nose. Lucy stood in the light a minute, then patted the heifer on the flank.

Guess you’re all right. Take care of him.

The cow turned away from the calf and began to eat the afterbirth, her long tongue wrapping around it, drawing it up into her mouth along with bits of straw. The calf was trying to get up, pushing his long legs out in front of him, the soft yellow hooves shining in the light.

Another live one, and he wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t gotten up. Probably have lost her too.

Lucy put on her coat, picked up the flashlight, turned out the light, stepped out to darkness and whirling snow. She turned when she came out of the barn, and went into the corral, where the other twelve heifers lay in white bundles, blinking at the light and the snowflakes in their eyelashes.

Well, maybe the others are bedded down like this, and there won’t be any trouble. Maybe it’s just a flurry and will stop soon. Anyway, I can’t get the others in tonight.

She looked at each of them, shining the light at each end of each heifer. One stood up, stretched, looked at her and then lay down again in the black spot her body had kept from snow.

All quiet. Well, ladies, why don’t you let me sleep until six?

Once inside, she hung up the coat, and kicked the boots against the wall, then pulled off her jeans. She hung them over a chair, and padded down to the bathroom, and turned on the hot water, staring at herself in the mirror.

Dad always said ‘Don’t count the dead ones.’ He said a lot of things, but I wonder what he’d say about this? He was proud of my being a teacher; he knew I couldn’t teach and run the ranch too. Too bad he didn’t have a son. They’d probably have fought. Too bad I couldn’t find a husband who liked ranching, instead of one who just liked other women.

When the water was almost scalding, she scrubbed her hands hard with Lava soap. She washed her face, too; dried it on the towel.

I look like a hag, older than thirty‑four. Maybe it’s the light.

She left the shirt on the trunk and slid in under the quilt, moving the sleeping cat over a few inches. The cat raised her head and murmured, then curled up again. Lucy set the alarm for six, and lay back, willing herself to relax.

It could go on like this until you’re eighty, like your grandmother, struggling with these cows. You could grow to hate spring’s rebirth while you lie here barren, yet getting tied closer and closer to this land, being responsible for it. Is it worth it? What are you going to do?

In the dark barn, the calf struggled to his feet and found a teat, began to nurse. His tail flopped back and forth in rhythm, and his mother turned and licked his back and murmured to him. In the pasture, the wind howled, piling snow around cows with baby calves nestled against their bellies, sheltered.

Cow&Calf2014--5-16 - CopyGoing to be busy tomorrow; check all the calves, make sure everything’s sucking, get feed out. Hope the truck will start. Hope this doesn’t kill the blackbirds and meadowlarks.

The cat stood up, stretched, and curled up beside her ear, purring. Lucy smiled in her sleep.

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(c)  1979, reprinted 2015  Linda M. Hasselstrom