Sunday, February 28, 2010

The High Plains Two-Step

This time of year the dance step is called "freeze-melt-freeze-melt." The days go up into the 40s and occasionally much higher, and then nights go down into the teens or lower. Melt, freeze, repeat.

Just the other day I had to run some errands and left the place early. My so-called road was frozen over, ridged with ice and rough as anything. The "ponds" were gopher ice-rinks and there was a lot of bumping and crunching as I made my slow way out to the two-track, which had also glazed over.

I got back in the late afternoon, after everything had melted. Tundra had turned to swamp. The ten or eleven mini-lakes between the auto-gate and the house were fully thawed and the mud was deep. 4WD out, 4WD back.

This will go on for the next month at least, and probably well into April.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How To Tell a Chili Addict

No, this is not a variant on the old joke of "You can always tell a chili addict, but you can't tell him much!" (But that is true, by the way.)

This is about distinguishing the creature from other, lesser, forms of homo sapiens. Here are a few tips that might help.

1. Does he get a distant, glazed stare when the talk turns to favorite foods?

2. Is his pantry full of dried pepper pods and bags of various sorts of ground and powdered chili?

3. Does he have at least one crock pot devoted solely to the preparation of chili and does it sometimes stay plugged in all day?

4. Does he begin to sample the latest batch before it is even completely hot?

5. Does he keep a big spoon next to the pot, and is the amount of chili that finally makes it to storage (or a bowl!) far less than what the pot originally held?

If you can answer YES to any one of the above questions there is a very great chance that you are dealing with an addict. If YES to all of them, there is no question about it. You are faced with a confirmable case.

Institutionalization will not help. He's usually not dangerous, unless you accept a bowl of chili from him and are gullible enough to believe him when he says "It's not really hot."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Checking the mail

Mags and Emma know as soon as I start to put on a jacket that I am going out and start to dance around with anticipation. Emma likes to check her brush piles and other secret spots for activity and Mags like to go with me to the mailbox. The other morning she went with me to put mail in the box for pick-up and dashed outside the fence to check the mailman's tracks in the snow. Usually I get on her something fierce when she does that, but there are no cattle here now and as long as she stays close to me I indulge her a little. (The prairie is a dangerous place for a small, tasty dog.) We were only out for a few minutes but it was just above zero and her feet got so cold I carried her back to the house. She's a tough little monkey but no sled dog!

When I went out a couple of hours later to get the mail she refused to go.

Frosted Trees

I love the crisp, bright winter mornings when the sun hits the trees festooned in their morning hoar-frost. The days here have been getting up into the high 30s and low 40s, and then the nights plunge back to zero again. This creates the rime-ice (hoar-frost) on the trees. This approach/avoidance dance probably isn't all that good for the poor trees, but it's certainly beautiful. Especially when the sky is brilliant blue.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moving stock

After the weekend's snow storm, the neighbor came in to check his stock and move them to another range about ten miles east in preparation for calving. Mighty cold day it was to be up on that "weather deck."

Mulie Convention

I went to town last week for my monthly hamburger. Well, I had some other errands to run, too, but the hamburger (with fries!) was definitely high on the list.

On the way back I noticed a big crowd of mulies out on a harvested wheat field to my left. (Once I cross the river there are no crops— only cattle and buffalo, but south of the river there are a few scraggly circles.) I stopped and glassed them. They were hard to count, but I stopped at 40. The light was wrong, so I made no pictures.

Then as I approached the river I saw more movement to my left. Twelve to twenty or so mulies moving down toward the others. In about half a mile I saw the familiar heads rising above the scrub. I almost never pass this spot without seeing deer bedded among the cover. Funny thing is this covert faces east, not south.

Finally, just before I got to the river, I saw another batch that looked that they were moving toward the Grand Convention to the south. The light was OK, so I stopped and banged off a couple of frames. Had to limit the shot due to coverage, but there were about twenty in the mob at that point.

I believe this may be the largest bunch of mulies I have seen so far. I estimated 75 to 80.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Something New

If you'll scroll all the way down on the right you'll find a couple of tags for an outfit called "Our Happy Homestead." They sell useful things, needful things you might say. David and Jessica Coles are the honchos.

Let David explain…

"We’re a small business based outside of Denver, Colorado and our goal is simple – supply folks with the tools they need to become more self sufficient. To that end, we’ve got hundreds more products that I need to get added, everything from knives and butcher kits to some bulk dry goods, a wider variety of food processing equipment and canning supplies. We use at least some variation of every product we sell, so if people have questions or are looking for something strange, we’re ready and able to help out… Pretty simple stuff; customer service, good prices and products that we can stand behind."

It's stuff a lot of us are glad to know about.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Return of Father Winter

He was never gone, of course; merely lying in wait.

Over the last couple of days we have had about eight inches of new snow and a renewal of really cold weather. This is after a respite of several days during which the day-time temperatures reached up toward the 60s. We also had good sun and very little wind.

But if variety is the spice of life, then the High Plains are a very well-seasoned place to be! This is the Old Boy helping us to appreciate spring, when it finally appears, all the more.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jackrabbit races

Frequently one of these speedy jacks will get in front of the truck and race me up the road, sometimes for quite a long distance. He'll weave back and forth but will stay on the road until a likely turn-out appears and then he'll bound off into the brush and be gone. This particular race was for about half a mile. By the time I got the camera unlimbered we were real close to where he bailed out— up there where the road bends left he decided he liked the looks of things to the right better.

Friday, February 19, 2010


I can go weeks here without seeing or hearing any signs of aircraft. Occasionally a rancher in a Cessna or a Cub, running his fences, will buzz the place at low level and waggle his wings, but there'll be no signs of big stuff, high up.

Then, according to some protocol I can't figure out, one day it will seem that the skies are full of contrails. This happened just the other day and I happened to have a camera handy. It looked like a "close call" but they were no doubt very far from each other. Hard to tell at altitude like that, but their closing speed was probably in excess of 1000 MPH.

I like not having the sky littered with fresh contrails and the fuzzy remains of old ones. I also like not having to hear the whine and buzz of distant air traffic. It's almost like time stopped here and "progress" went somewhere else. I don't mind that at all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wanna make Rio cry?

Sunset, North Uist, taken from the back door of my friends' house

That's easy. Just make him listen to a really good pipe band play "Amazing Grace"— mission accomplished.

I've got a wee smidgeon o' the Scots in me, Clan Graham. But mostly it's Irish and then *gulp/blush* English. I prefer to think that the power of the pipes o'er me has to do with the historical, and perhaps genetic, fact that it was the Irish who exported the pipes to Scotland in the first place (along with the kilt). And as an Irish piper/fiddler friend of mine likes to say, "And they still haven't got the joke!" He tells the story of his baby daughter (now a well-known Irish musician) who would cover her ears when he was outside practising with his war pipes and say "Ceol tín salach!" ("Sick, dirty music!")

But the snap and rattle of the snare drums, the skirl of the pipes— what can match it as a visceral whallop? No wonder the Irish call the piobh mhor ("big pipes")— the war pipes.

A couple of years back I was on the Outer Hebrides and they were having a major pipe competition there. I went of course. A "typical" North Uist day: cloudy and a wet on-shore wind— ah, summer on the Hebrides!

These competitions are very formal, with required moves, footwork, and tunes that are not all that entertaining. But the local crowd was as interested in the fine points as a knowledgeable ranch crowd would be at a back-country rodeo. And they couldn't have been more warmly welcoming of me, the outlander.

There was a young lad there from Northern Ireland, competing. Saved his money and made his way alone from Belfast to Lochmaddie and then down to the competition. We struck up a conservation. Wonderful manners and a sweet, gentle disposition. Won second in his class. I was very happy for him, and he was "over the moon" as they say in that part of the world.

A pipe band, for me, is a powerful experience as long as they are good. It's a connection to a racial memory I think. I believe in that. I think we are connected to things through our genes that we know not through our brains. Just ask any handy Celt.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Doldrums of Winter

T.S. Eliot thought that April was the cruelest month. Tom was always a little strange. I suppose in today's PC environment we would call it 'calendrically-challenged.' Or maybe he just never spent a winter on the High Plains.

For my money February qualifies for the title, whether it's 'cruel' or 'doldrums.' Out here when you hit February you are a good three months into what passes for winter on the prairie and have another two to go before the glimmer at the end of the tunnel, as they say.

True, there's a lot to do. Between wood-chopping, reading, writing, loading ammo, tinkering with guns, and messing about with picture files there is no cause for boredom. (As an old photographer I still think of the basic photographic product as a 'negative.' Can't quite get used to calling them 'files.')

This year I even treated myself to a couple of Native American flutes, as they are called, and have been teaching myself about how they work. Beautiful things they are and playing them (that's what I call it anyway!) is a soothing, almost meditative practice. Even the dogs seem to like them, which was a pleasant surprise to me.

There's only so much reading, writing, and suchlike one can do, however. I long for the seamless re-attachment to the outside world. It's not like we're confined, the dogs and I, but the temperatures and the near-arctic wind can be factors in deciding that it's a lot preferable to be inside. Sometimes there are also real safety issues in being outside for long. Wind-chills of -40° can be somewhat unpleasant.

But this morning I lay in bed and watched an absolutely glorious sunrise spreading itself over the prairie. Reds and golds, purples and greens, shot through with lovely shades of gray and burnt umber. I couldn't resist and had to go out and shoot a couple of frames. But you have to act quickly with sunrises and by the time I got outside the bloom was off. Still beautiful, but the jewel-like quality was gone. Anyway it's always better to enjoy than try to capture. I say that, but the photographer's urge is always there.

I choose to see this morning's sunrise as a harbinger, a sweet message of spring-to-come. That's a welcome message at this time of year. It's spring and summer speaking with one voice: "We shall be back!"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Talking with dogs

The other day at lunch I got suddenly curious about how many command phrases my current and recent dogs seem(ed) to understand and (usually!) respond to in a more or less correct manner— some better than others. I began to scribble on the back of an envelope, gave up, and then after lunch sat down at the keyboard to complete the useless task.

Wanna go out?
Want a cookie? (dog biscuits are 'cookies')
Who wants a cookie/piece of chicken/some beef/some venison/etc.?
Are you hungry?
Do you want to eat?
Where's your toy?
Get your ball!
Let's go out.
Find it!
Wanna go in the truck?
Wanna come with?
Let's go for a walk.
Where's the bird?
Go see.
Who is it?
Where's (name)?
Go get (name).
Give it.
Get back.
Stop it.
No lick.
No bite.
Leave it.
Get it!
Come back!
Too far!
Go potty!
OK! (Permission to go out open door, get up on bed, eat from bowl, etc.)
All-ee, all-ee! (No more of whatever…)
Get in your crate!
Get in the back!
Get in the Rhino!
Take nice!

I have always talked to my dogs. Nowadays they are my usual and normal conversationalists and we "chat" a lot. It helps a dog to understand you, and himself in relation to you, when you talk to him. Over time they develop an amazing sense of what's going on and what you expect of them. I stopped at something over forty, and am sure to remember a couple more after I post this. I suspect that any dog owner could come up with a very similar list. Depending on their individual animals, it could be a lot longer than this one.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ancient Pathways

Today I delivered some ammunition to a rancher friend who lives about fifteen miles north of me.

The road to his place runs at right angles to the "main" north-south two-track. It's dirt (sand, actually) for about a mile and then there is a three-mile section of old, old macadam which is literally the Paved Road from Hell. (Not "to" hell, as they are real nice folks.) This is one of those 10-mph byways that are sometimes found in these parts.

At some point in the distant past the county must have been flush. How that happened is an open question, considering the population and the extreme sparseness of that population up in this end of the county. But anyway they paved a number of wee little roads and then more or less abandoned them. By now almost all of them are completely derelict and exist in random chunks.

They're a big nuisance, while a plain dirt (sand) road up here is often darn good and one can make good time on one. I wish they'd tear 'em all out and revert to sand. But I don't think that's going to happen. Not in these penny-pinching times.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wu Wei

Among Taoism's central tenets is wu wei. Sometimes translated as "doing nothing," it is more accurately rendered as "not doing," or perhaps "non-acting." It has to do with letting the natural order assert itself and not interfering with it through ineffectual human intervention. It has real implications for the philosophy of government, particularly for anyone who believes that "That government is best which governs least."

A few weeks ago the cheap clock on the wall in my larger bathroom somehow came off the small nail that it perches on and plunged to its doom. I heard the noise and when I went to find the source I discovered the clock, in many pieces, on the floor. It was as if several elven de-constructionists had attacked it with full toolkits. Parts were all over the bathroom, and when I retrieved those I could find (the second hand has never revealed itself) and put them on the sink counter in preparation for the funeral, I saw that every possible piece of the clock had been separated from every other piece. Motor, battery compartment, battery, minute and hour hands, clear bezel, printed dial— everything, and yet not a mark on any of it.

As a laugh in the face of what was clearly fate, I decided to see if it could be pieced back together. Surprisingly, it all went together like, well, clockwork. I slipped in a new battery and reinstalled it on the wall. Nothing. No movement. The hands just sat there. Not a bit shocking considering the clock's recent suicide. But at $12.99 for a brand new one I didn't see it as a big loss. Besides, that particular clock had never kept good time from the beginning and I had always seen it as a lemon.

Almost a week later I noticed that the hands were no longer where I had set them when I had pieced Humpty together and put him back on his perch. I re-set them for the correct time. That was at least a month ago, probably more. The clock is keeping great time, better than it ever did before.

That clock found its natural path through the trough of time, without much help from me. Actually, considering that I only reassembled the various surviving pieces and had resisted the temptation to "fix" them, it had found its way to its life's purpose with no help from me.

I chalk it up to wu wei in action.