Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Telling Stories

In his short story "A Friend of Mine," Wendell Berry writes of his character Elton Penn: "He was tired.  He was forty-seven years old that summer ... and he was beginning to know what the older men meant when they told the young ones, 'you don't know what tired is.'"  At the age of forty-four, I'm starting to get an inkling of what Berry is describing!

Yesterday, I helped my friend Bill Boundy work his cows and calves.  We were joined by the crew at Elster Ranch - and we worked owner George Nolte's cattle, too.  Working the calves involves giving vaccinations, putting Bill's brand on his calves, castrating the bull calves, and putting ear tags in.  Working the cows and heifers involves boostering their inoculations, changing ear tags when necessary, and de-worming them.  Even in cool weather, working cattle in the corrals can be a hot and dusty job; yesterday, we had hot weather!

As we were working, I realized that I was the second oldest man on the crew (after Bill).  Seniority is a new experience for me.  I think some of us have always been "old timers" because of our approach to life and work, but having my chronological age match my outlook was a revelation.

I've always enjoyed telling stories - recounting experiences I've had or stories that older (mostly) men have told me about work.  Yesterday, I found myself telling funny stories about myself - things that I'd done wrong, mostly.  Humor always makes hard work go faster (at least in my experience).  As one of the senior members of the crew, however, I found that my stories seemed to have different significance.  They were funny (mostly), but they also seemed to be instructive to the other, younger guys.

One of the things I enjoy most about ranching is the way in which friends and neighbors help each other out during the times of intense work.  The Amish still have their barn raisings; cattle ranchers share their labor for things like branding and gathering.  As a sheep rancher (primarily), I've benefited from the help and humor of my friends and family during shearing and lambing.

Another of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner, writes about the paradox of the Westerner.  We often think of the lone cowboy as the epitome of the Westerner.  However, those who stuck in the West - those who stayed and succeeded - had to work together.  Cooperation, in the West, means success.  Part of cooperation is the stories we tell - humor makes the work go faster, and the lessons that we older guys have learned help the younger folks avoid our mistakes (sometimes)!

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