Saturday, December 3, 2022

Unwritten Rules

During this past baseball season, I discovered a great podcast - “Unwritten” - featuring former major leaguers Ron Darling and Jimmy Rollins. Each episode features one of baseball’s unwritten rules - don’t talk to a pitcher who’s throwing a no hitter, don’t steal a base when you’re up big in the late innings. Mostly I enjoy listening to a couple of retired ball players talking about the game! They’ve helped me reflect on our “Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know” podcast - hopefully, my co-hosts (Ryan Mahoney and Dr. Rosie Busch) and I convey a similar love for our subject! More recently, “Unwritten” has caused me to reflect on the unwritten rules of ranching.

Most of us who are (or work with) ranchers have heard that we’re not supposed to ask a rancher how many sheep or cows they own. “That’s like asking you how much money you have in your savings,” we tell the errant inquisitor. This unwritten rule, at least in my case, masks the fact that my livestock inventory is more complicated than just saying I have (at the moment) 62 head of sheep. My actual sheep numbers (as of this moment) include 52 breeding ewes, 7 replacement ewes, and 3 rams. If you’d asked me this question on May 1st, I would have told you I had 84 ewes, even thought at that moment I had 212 sheep (84 ewes, 126 lambs, and 2 rams).

However, there are more subtle (and often more meaningful) unwritten rules in most ranching communities. If you go through a closed gate, close it again. Assume the electric fence is always on. Don’t “steal” someone else’s grass. Most of us with livestock have experienced the “fun” of discovering when someone has left a gate open - usually when we get a call about our livestock being on the road. Many of us have had to learn the “fence is on” lesson the hard way - there’s nothing like stepping over an electric fence that you didn’t remember might be energized to make you appreciate electricity!

But ranching communities - especially in areas like my slice of the Sierra foothills - are also fairly small. Word gets around. Most of us operate on leased ground at some point. And most of us understand that our neighbors may be interested in the ground we’re currently leasing.

I should digress here for a moment - I use the term lease somewhat loosely here. In its strictest sense, “lease” implies the exchange of money. Here in the foothills - and especially in the foothill sheep business - “lease” has a more informal definition. Many of us who graze sheep have informal - and long-standing - arrangements with landowners and neighbors who allow us (or “hire” us) to graze their properties without any financial exchange. As shepherds, we get grass (and provide fencing, stock water, and predator protection). Our landowner partners get fuel reduction and weed management. These relationships provide stability for both partners - my landowner partners can count on me taking care of their soil and their vegetation; I can count on having enough forage during key portions of our production cycle (gestation, lambing, lactation, etc.).

Sometimes, though, another producer sees the grass we’ve grazed and puts a higher value on it. In most cases, our colleagues respect the arrangements we have to graze this grass - but not always. Sometimes, ground is “leased” out from under us, breaking this particular unwritten rule.

All of this leads me to speculate about why these rules are unwritten. I suppose some of these “rules” reflect our expectations of common courtesy; in other cases, these rules suggest that we expect others to have common sense. A pitcher who’s throwing a no hitter has to stay focused - courtesy suggests that we don’t talk to him about his no hitter. Similarly, closing a gate behind us is also a courteous act. Common sense dictates that we don’t touch a potentially electrified fence!

That these rules exist - unwritten or otherwise - suggests that common sense and common courtesy are in short supply. They are not as common as we’d like to think! And so when one of these “rules” is violated, we have various ways of reminding the violator that they’ve stepped outside of the community’s expectations. A base runner who steals a base when his team is enjoying a blowout in the late innings of a ballgame can expect to be “reminded” of his transgression later in the season (usually through a high-and-tight fastball or a hard slide). Our ranching community reprimands its transgressors less directly - someone who “takes” a lease might not be included in community activities. Reputations, in the ranching community (as in other professions) take a long time to build and a moment to ruin.

Over the course of the decade-and-a-half I’ve grazed sheep in my part of the Sierra foothills, I’ve only had two instances where someone tried to take ground I had arrangements to graze. In one case, my landlord honored our arrangement - and I found out afterwords that he’d told the inquirer no. In the other case, I found out when I contacted my landlord about our grazing schedule that we’d lost the feed we’d been counting on. Obviously, I much prefer the landlord who honored our mutual commitment! And the neighboring rancher who respected this arrangement!

I suspect that the topic of unwritten ranching rules will be the subject of a future Sheep Stuff podcast! And so I’m interested in YOUR unwritten rules! What are the things you expect from your neighbors, landlords, and colleagues, but that you don’t feel are necessary to articulate directly?! What are the “rules” that you abide by in your ranching business?

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

There’s Busy - and then there’s Sheep Busy

Between my “day job” as a cooperative extension advisor and county director, and my sheep ranching work, life has been exceptionally busy over the last six months. Research, teaching, and middle management responsibilities, all add up. On top of my “professional” life, moving water daily from mid-April until mid-October, feeding livestock guardian dogs daily all year long, and moving sheep once or twice a week, add up even more! As we stand on the cusp of December, I realize I’m tired of the non-stop running. I’m tired of being busy.

Much of my busyness, at least professionally, seems to be an attempt (futile, at times) on my part to balance my responsibilities and interests. As extension county director, I’m responsible for our local funding support. I manage our local staff and support our other advisors. And I try to do the things that drew me to cooperative extension in the first place - locally-focused research, teaching, and one-on-one work with ranchers in the counties I serve. But there are evenings when I get home and wonder what, exactly, I accomplished.

Lately, this busyness has affected my ability to enjoy raising sheep. Chores - whether morning or evening - seem like just one more thing I need to get done. I’ve always enjoyed the sights and sounds of turning my sheep into fresh pasture; lately, this has seemed like it’s just more work. I’ve enjoyed the annual cycles of grass growth, the changing of the seasons, the movement from breeding to gestation to lambing to weaning - and back again. But this fall, I’m tired. Just simply tired.

Lambing, as other shepherds will attest, is the busiest time of the shepherd’s year. As a pasture lambing operation, our lambing season consists of about 6 weeks of checking the flock three times a day (before my day job, on my lunch hour, and after my day job). But I love lambing season. At the end of each day, I can look back and see what I accomplished - the number of lambs marked, or the amount of fence constructed for next week’s grazing. Sami, no doubt, will remind me of the evenings when I stress about the weather, or the nights when I sleep on the couch so that I can get up and drive to the sheep every 3 or 4 hours during a storm. But the exhaustion, and the stress, are different for me. I feel like my work as a shepherd during lambing matters; sometimes I wonder about my work as a middle manager.

I guess one of the things I enjoy most about raising sheep is the combination of physical and mental work. I love working outside, with my hands, and with other animals (dogs and sheep). I also love thinking about how I can be a better shepherd - about planning my grazing, about being more efficient during lambing or shearing. When I think about my extension work, I realize that enjoy the same things - I love working outside (collecting data or teaching classes). I love thinking about - and discussing - ways that we can manage rangelands more effectively, ways that we can increase profitability in livestock production. I love work that makes a difference.

Ultimately, I suppose, I enjoy being busy when I feel like there’s a purpose to the work. I enjoy looking back over my day and seeing what I accomplished - marked lambs, or a stack of firewood; a full data sheet, or a successful field day. Being busy for the sake of being busy - I can do with out that. Meaningful work? Bring it on!

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

More Dog than I've Deserved

Our family said goodbye last week to the best sheep dog I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Mo, who technically belonged to my oldest daughter, Lara, was coming up on his 15th birthday. During his prime - and even past his prime - he was the finest border collie I’ve ever partnered with. Saying goodbye to a pet is difficult; saying goodbye to a working partner is beyond difficult.

Mo came to us as a pup - just 9 or 10 weeks old, as I remember. At the time, I was just beginning to understand how to work a dog - we’d returned our first older border collie to our friend Ellen (who also sold Mo to us). My working dog at the time was Taff - who was a wonderful dog in his own right. Being new to working dogs, we sent Mo for six weeks of training with Ellen before he was a year old. He came back to us with a solid foundation; we spent the next 10 years building our relationship.

He was an incredibly athletic dog - and one that we could never keep weight on (no matter how much or what we fed him). One of my earliest memories of seeing Mo and Taff together was walking across our winter pasture with them and watching them run. Taff was going flat out - as fast as he could go; Mo passed him and pulled away - all the while looking back at Taff over his shoulder. I’ve seen coyotes run the same way!

While he was a rough-coated dog, Mo was one of the more fastidious dogs I’ve ever had. Stickers and burrs didn’t seem to take hold - and if they did, he picked them out of his coat with his teeth. I suspect he did this because he hated being brushed. And unlike the rest of our dogs, he rarely rolled in shit or other stinky things. Once, when his half-brother Ernie was still a pup, Ernie rolled in a fresh, green cow pie at one of our leased ranches. We had to throw Ernie in the creek to get him clean enough to ride in the truck. Mo was disgusted - somewhere I have a photo of Mo sitting on top of Ernie on the ride home.

Shortly after Mo came back from training, I used him to gather a group of sheep that was out of sight behind a hill. For some reason, we had exposed some of the ewes in the spring with the hope of having some fall lambs (we generally lamb in March). Mo disappeared around the back side of the hill; soon, the sheep crested the hilltop - but Mo didn’t reappear. I was getting ready to curse him for becoming distracted and leaving his work when he showed up - easing a new pair (a lamb and ewe) back to the flock. This was my first lesson from Mo: trust your dogs. Mo was always trustworthy in working sheep.

In better hands, Mo might have made a competitive trialing dog. He was fast, smooth, and smart. Lara did enter him in several amateur trials (in Plymouth and Pescadero) - they made a great team. But I think he always preferred real work. Unlike some of my other dogs, Mo would take a break if he got too hot, but I only really saw him tired one time - after a full day of shipping sheep from a grazing contract in Rocklin in hot weather. I watched him fall asleep sitting up on our ride home!

In 2013-14, I went to work part-time for a big sheep outfit in Rio Vista. Taff, my old dog, was winding down. Ernie wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Mo solidified his position as my top dog. The job was our first experience working with large groups of sheep (more than a thousand at a time). Mo excelled. He loved the work - and he loved curling up in our trailer at night.

The following year, I left the sheep job because of the drought - and went to work as the beef cattle herdsman at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. Mo and Ernie came with me. Cattle work made hard-headed Ernie a more thoughtful sheep dog; steady Mo took the change in species in stride. Since we still had our own sheep, Mo’s work week might include gathering cattle pairs, moving heifers to fresh feed, and driving sheep up the county road. He seemed to love all of it.

All through these working years, Mo also developed several hobbies. He loved chasing bird shadows and butterflies on the far side of our shop. He barked at the lawnmower, the chainsaw, and the leaf blower - and he lost his mind if I blew leaves off the roof. And he cultivated an intense fear of gunshots, firecrackers, and thunder. On one occasion, he bolted when a neighbor at one of our leased ranches shot a shotgun - he ran across two or three other properties and waited for me at our corrals.

During the summer of Mo’s eighth year, as we were preparing to take Lara to Bozeman, Montana, for her first year of college, Mo suffered a back injury while helping me move sheep at the house. We’re still not entirely certain what happened, but he lost the ability to use both back legs. As hard as it was to send our oldest child off to college, I found leaving Mo in the care of some friends nearly as difficult. Thankfully, Mo eventually made an almost complete recovery and was able to work with me for another three years.

But the injury took its toll. In February 2019, just before we started lambing, we decided we needed to retire Mo. My friend and sheep partner, Roger Ingram, took drone video of Mo’s last job - moving sheep across the road where we graze in the wintertime. While he’d obviously slowed, he accomplished the job with his characteristic style.

In his retirement, Mo was content to pursue his hobbies. He enjoyed laying in the sun on the back step. He liked to sleep in the house during the winter, but insisted on sleeping outside the rest of the year. I suspect he was amused (or perhaps annoyed) by his offspring (we have two pups from Mo and Mae). He continued to enjoy trips to swim in the irrigation ditch at the back of our property. And he lost all interest in working sheep - he’d stand and watch when Mae and I would move sheep here at home.

I’ve written similarly about my other working dogs, but I still have difficulty expressing the difference between my relationship with my working dogs and my relationship (earlier in life) with pet dogs. The term “master” doesn’t seem to be appropriate - “partner,” to me, is more apt. Mo, I think, respected me (although I’m certain he wondered about my sheep herding abilities at times); I know I respected Mo. Every dog I’ve owned has taught me something; Mo taught me to trust my canine partners. He taught me that a sensitive dog (as he was), doesn’t need harsh words or a guilt trip (do any of us, really?!). He taught me to stop and enjoy the beauty of a dog totally committed to his work.

Mo also spanned an interesting time in my life. Mo watched (and helped) our daughters grow up - he was a companion, a guardian, and a friend to both girls, but especially to Lara. He also spanned an interesting time in my professional life. When we got Mo, I had dreams of making a living from raising my own sheep. Drought, lack of capital, and my own unrealistic expectations forced me to adjust my dreams. During Mo’s life, I went from working full-time and ranching part-time to trying to ranch full-time. I went from working for others to working for myself to working for others again. I went back to school and earned a master’s degree. I managed sheep and cows and goats. And Mo was there for all of it - a willing and uncritical partner. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson I have learned from my dogs - unconditional love and boundless energy for the job that’s in front of us today. Mo loved his work - and always lived in the moment. Thanks, Mo - that’ll do, ol’ buddy - that’ll do.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Our Pasture

Every morning (mostly) from mid-April through mid-October, I start my day changing water on the 15 acres of irrigated pasture we lease near Auburn. When everything goes well, this process takes about 40 minutes. When it doesn't go well (when one of our K-Line sets pulls apart, for example, or when the sprinklers are clogged), the process takes much longer. Regardless, this daily investment of time means our sheep have green grass to graze when our annual rangelands are dried out (depending on the year, from late May through November). Our irrigated pasture is obviously a critical part of our annual forage calendar.

In times of drought (which seem perpetual in California at the moment), irrigated pasture is often criticized as a waste of water. And I'll admit, our hillside pastures aren't as productive - or as uniform in their vegetation

- as the pastures I see in the Sacramento Valley. A century ago, our pasture was an orchard - and we still see resprouts from pear rootstock throughout the pasture. We have other weeds, as well - summer weeds like smutgrass and broom sedge, whose seeds are transported on the irrigation canals that deliver our water. Since we're irrigating hillsides, our soils aren't uniform - which means the tops of the hills dry out and the low spots stay wet too long. But productivity isn't the only measure of the value of our pastures.

We manage our irrigated pastures to provide more nutrition to our sheep than our annual rangelands can provide during the summer and fall. We bring our pairs to the pasture after shearing in late April - at a time when our annual grasses are declining rapidly. We graze our feeder lambs and replacement ewe lambs on these pastures during the hot summer months. Most importantly, from a production standpoint, we try to manage our irrigated pastures to maximize forage production for flushing and breeding the ewes. By putting our females on a rising plane of nutrition just before the rams join them, we increase their conception rates - and the number of lambs they'll deliver next spring.

But last week, as I was counting the days until the end of irrigation season (26 days as of this moment, to be exact), I realized that our pasture is an island of biodiversity and fire safety in an otherwise dry (and increasingly developed) landscape.

Last weekend, I brought the sheep into the corrals to sort off the lambs before we started feeding the ewes (frugality, at least when it comes to the sheep, is part of my nature). After I put the ewes back on pasture, I walked by a small patch of narrow-leaf milkweed - and spied a monarch caterpillar munching away! I’ve since discovered another. Later in the week, I found pacific tree frogs near the K-Line pods and irrigation risers, along with spiders, crickets, and praying mantises. During the course of the irrigation season, I regularly see mocking birds, black-headed phoebes, mourning doves, scrub jays, and goldfinches. This year, we’ve had a pair of red-tailed hawks hanging about, and more recently, an American kestrel has been hunting along the ranch road. We see deer, jackrabbits, raccoons, skunks, and bobcats with regularity; coyotes and mountain lions are less frequent (thankfully) visitors to the pasture. Several years ago, we even found a river otter in the pasture (more than a half a mile from live water). Indeed, one of the things I enjoy most about the drudgery of irrigation is the life I see every day!

Beyond this biodiversity, however, our pasture serves another important role in our arid summer landscape. The 15-acre patch of green - even if it’s not the best irrigated pasture - serves as a firebreak in our community. A fire that came from our south would slow down when it reached our pasture - as it would regardless of the direction of its origin. These patches of green in an otherwise brown landscape are important from a fire perspective, as well.

Grasslands - rangelands and pastures - also serve an important carbon sequestration role. Our annual grasslands, which grow from October/November through May/June, sequester carbon while they are green; our irrigated pastures continue this sequestration through the summer and early fall. Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide and sunlight - and water! - our 15 acres wouldn’t be sequestering carbon at the moment if we didn’t irrigate!

In the 20-plus years I’ve raised sheep - and in the 15 years I’ve irrigated this particular pasture - I’ve learned that every year is different. Some years, like 2022, I fear the grass will never grow. Other years, like 2017, I fear the rain will never stop - and that we’ll never catch up with the grass. But every year - whether drouthy or wet - I’ve learned to enjoy the oasis that is our irrigated pasture. I love turning the ewes back into green grass in August. I love seeing the wildlife that benefits from my efforts to move water.

I just have to remind myself about this in early August when I’d rather sleep in….



Sunday, September 4, 2022

Done with Summer

Labor Day, in many ways, marks the transition from summer to fall. Actual autumn won’t begin for several more weeks, but Labor Day represents the last big touristy weekend in the mountains before snow and ski season arrive - the start of the shoulder season. Here in the foothills - at Flying Mule Sheep Company - Labor Day means I only have about six weeks of irrigation left. Labor Day means I need to order 1500 pounds of whole corn to start flushing the ewes in preparation for breeding. Labor Day means we’ll bring the feeder lambs home for finishing in a week or two. But this year, in the midst of the hottest stretch of weather we’ve had all year, Labor Day feels more like summer than fall.

I always reach a point during irrigation season when I grow tired of the day-in-day-out chore of dragging our K-Line irrigation system across the pasture. This year, due to problems with our Nevada Irrigation District (NID) delivery system, our pastures look drier than I would hope in early September. NID finally figured out we weren’t getting the water we paid for, but we won’t be able to catch up for another month or so (at which point, the season will be nearly over). In the meantime, the dry spots in our pasture are depressing. Heading into flushing and breeding season with our ewes, I’m a bit worried about whether we’ll have enough feed for the fall. Like every September, I’m putting my hope in an early germinating rain and moderating temperatures.

The temperature, though, at least for the next five days, won’t moderate. We’re in the midst of an intense heatwave. We’ve been at or above 100°F for the last three days; the next three days promise to be even warmer. Thankfully, with increasingly shorter days, our nights are comfortably cool, but the high daytime temperatures mean our water demand in our pasture remains elevated. And with the hot days, I try to get an early start to my chores - this morning, I had the water moved and next week’s fence built by 9 a.m.

While autumn has always been my favorite season, the uncertainty of when we’ll get rain - and my anxiety over the threat of wildfire until we DO get rain - have tempered my enthusiasm for the season in recent years. Autumn has always been my favorite time to be in the High Sierra; recent fire seasons have eliminated the opportunities to enjoy a campfire - and have even closed our national forests at times. As a deer hunter, I look forward to dear season (rifle season opens in three weeks); warm weather makes processing my venison (should I be lucky enough to get a buck) problematic. And obviously, the arrival of wet weather is directly related to the amount of forage we’ll have as fall turns into winter.

On the plus side, I suppose, by the end of summer, I find that I’m finally acclimated to the hot weather. A 100° day in September doesn’t feel as extreme as a 100° day in early June.The longer, cooler nights make sleeping more comfortable, and mornings more enjoyable. The possibility of 80° days in our 14-day forecast bring me hope.

I’ve always enjoyed transitions more than steady states. I love the changing of the seasons - none more so than the transition from summer to fall. And this Labor Day - more than most, I think - I’m ready for fall to arrive. I’m done with summer!

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Tending Sheep; Experiencing COVID

Way back in the "before" times (back in February 2020, that is), I'm pretty sure I caught COVID-19 on the last day of the Society for Range Management conference in Denver. My symptoms started with a dry, persistent cough; by the time I got home from the airport that evening, I had chills and a fever. I spent much of the rest of the week in bed. When I told my doctor about my illness - and my suspicion that it was COVID, he just laughed. "It will probably get here eventually," he said, "but it's not here yet." I can't confirm that I had COVID two-and-a-half years ago, but I'm pretty certain that's what I had. I wonder what my doctor would say today....

Fast-forward to August 2022. After 30 months of mask-wearing, after three injections of the Moderna vaccine, after not having been sick - at all - in that time, I have COVID. I took my first in-home COVID test about a week ago - it was negative (as was the next test I took). However, I came home from building sheep fence last Sunday with a scratchy throat and a developing cough. On Monday morning, the test card showed two stripes.

My positive test had a variety of ramifications for me professionally. I had to notify my boss at UC Cooperative Extension. I had to notify my staff. I had to develop a new COVID plan for the office. I was required to "isolate" for at least 5 days (if I had a negative test) or for as many as 10 days (without a negative test). I had to cancel plans to help lead a workshop at the California Wool Growers Association this weekend. Tomorrow night, I'll miss dinner at one of my very favorite restaurants - JT Basque in Minden, Nevada.

I count myself very lucky, though - my symptoms, while unpleasant and inconvenient, have been relatively mild. And I know that by isolating at home, I'm protecting folks in my community who are more vulnerable. I have friends who have been very sick, and who have family members who have died. COVID is no joke. A mandatory 5-10 day absence from my work is probably good for everyone - I'm not indispensable, for sure! Sometimes, I need a reminder!

But despite all of this, the sheep don't care.

Last Sunday, still thinking I'd be gone tomorrow through this Sunday, I spent half of my day building fence for ewes and lambs. I was planning to wrap up some fuel-reduction grazing this week, which meant combining our feeder and replacement lambs with our ewe flock on irrigated pasture. Having all the sheep in one place would make it easier for my stand-in shepherd to care for the sheep while I was gone - and it would give us a jump on preparing the ewes for breeding season (only 6 weeks away). About halfway through my Sunday fencing project, though, I knew I was getting sick.

While my positive test on Monday morning precluded my working at the office, it didn't eliminate the need for me to check on sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs. Amazingly enough, the same chores needed to get done on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. On Wednesday, I also needed to walk the lambs back through a neighboring property to the paddock I'd built on Sunday. All along, I had planned to move the ewes to a holding field on Wednesday evening and haul them to the irrigated pasture where the lambs were grazing on Thursday morning. And guess what? That's exactly what I did last night and this morning.

I don't relate any of this in a search for sympathy. We all get the things that have to be done accomplished if we can, regardless of how we're feeling. Rather, I've reflected this week on the need to isolate myself while I've been sick and the nature of tending for livestock. Lots of folks operate at a scale (as do we) where we're it - we're the only ones available to do the work. Tending rangeland livestock - sheep, cattle, goats, etc. - is typically solitary work. I suppose this is why we enjoy the communal work of shearing and branding so much.

Tomorrow morning, I'll feed the dogs, check the ewes, and move the irrigation water - by myself. And I'll do it again on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday morning, I'll take another COVID test - 2 negative tests will mean I can go back to work before the full 10-day isolation period. But the sheep will still be there - and I'll still be taking care of them

Monday, August 1, 2022

To Know a Place

A conversation with my friend Hailey Wilmer last week started me thinking (again) about what is required to really know a place. Dr. Wilmer, a range researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, had recently spent several weeks collecting data in the backcountry. She remarked that she was enjoying learning a new place - learning about how to get from point A to point B in the absence of roads, learning about where the good camping spots were, learning to see the country as the sheepherders who care for the Station’s flock see it.

Her comment made me think about my experience on the sheep ranges north of Truckee, California, these last four years. I’ve been studying the interactions between livestock guardian dogs and wildlife - and in the process, exploring much of the Kyburz and Boca sheep allotments on the Tahoe National Forest. And while I don’t know the country like Madardo and Luis (the herders) know it, I’m getting to know it better. The herders know where the sheep can cross the Little Truckee River safely. They know where the sheep can drink on their way into the shipping corrals in September. They know what the sheep like to graze in the morning - and the entirely different set of plants they like to graze in the evening. For me, knowing this country has required my attention - and my repeated visits. Knowing a place takes time, and I don’t yet know the Kyburz/Boca country like Madardo and Luis.

Closer to home, I’m privileged to have spent the last decade and a half getting to know the places where our sheep graze. As I was moving water at our irrigated pasture this morning, I saw little tree frogs where I expected to see them. I heard the mocking birds singing from the top of the oak near the telephone pole near irrigation set number 2. I missed the pair of red tail hawks that I frequently see near set number 5, but I expect I’ll see them tomorrow or the next day. Later, when I was checking the ewes on our summer targeted grazing contract (and where we’ve lambed our ewes in late winter since 2011), I saw doves feeding along the road where I always see them. I saw deer sign and game trails along the seasonal creek. I saw praying mantises on the sheep - which I typically see in August.

But knowing a place, I think, means more than knowing the roads and trails. More than knowing when I can expect to see a certain bird, or where I can expect to find a coyote track. Knowing a place means knowing how much rain will make the little creek run where we winter our sheep. Knowing a place means knowing where the frost will linger into the afternoon on a cold December day, or where the breeze will come up on a hot summer morning. Knowing a place means knowing where the clover will grow one spring, and soft chess the next, depending on the timing and amount of rainfall. 

Knowing a place, in other words, means being there - and being inquisitive - across many seasons and many years. Knowing a place requires being present, again and again, in that place. As Wendell Berry’s great character, Jayber Crow learned, knowing anything takes a lifetime - or maybe longer.

Thanks to my friend Ryan Mahoney for taking these pics!