Sunday, September 2, 2018

Feet on the Ground - and Cycles of Life

On my 51st birthday last April, my folks gave me a copy of This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems by my favorite poet, Wendell Berry. I've already quoted one of my favorite lines from a poem in this collection (see my post, Heart and Head: The Joys and Realities of Small-Scale Ranching); I found another great line this week (on the morning when we started flushing our ewes in preparation for next year's lamb crop):
"To one who has watched here many years, all of this is familiar. And yet none of it has ever happened before as it is happening now."
Last night, we went to a barn concert (actually, to be accurate, the concert was in a round pen at our friends' place - thanks, Dave and Chris Bugenig!) featuring Dave Stamey. Introducing his song "12 Mile Road" last night, he talked about the fact that many cowboy songs celebrate the huge ranches of the West - the places were a cowboy could ride for days and not come to a fence. "There aren't many songs," he said, "that celebrate the small, hardscrabble places where folks struggle to make a ranching life." He added, "That's the tradition I come from." As he was talking, I realized that he was describing our little sheep operation, too. A line from his song especially resonated for me:
"You do everything you can, by God, to keep your feet on the ground."
Poetry, I find, when it's written by my fellow farmers and ranchers - and both Berry and Stamey are far more eloquent than I am - often articulates the thoughts that have been niggling at the back of my brain. As Berry suggests, the work I do as a shepherd is familiar - carrying buckets of grain to the ewes this month to prepare them for breeding season is something I have done for "many years." And yet, this year (every year) is different. Every year is different, which I suppose is largely responsible for holding my interest. Each year presents a new set of problems to solve, a new set of joys and frustrations.

Persisting from year to year, as Stamey sings, requires a bit of stubbornness, too. His song made me think about our experiences during the 2012-2015 drought - the driest 4 years in the last thousand in California. We went into the drought with more than 250 ewes; we came out with fewer than 60. We've been rebuilding since - we'll put the rams in with 68 ewes this year, and we're keeping 20 ewe lambs for next year. Keeping my feet on the ground, for me, has meant going back to work of the ranch. It has meant getting a master's degree and being hired as the livestock and natural resources advisor for my region.

As I get older, I realize that I'm more aware of the mileposts in each year. Lambing, shearing and weaning. Flushing, breeding and settling the ewes. This work is the same, year in and year out - and yet this year's flushing has never happened like this before. Persistence - some would call it stubbornness - and an open mind - allows me to learn something with every season. That's what I love about ranching. That keeps my feet on the ground.


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