Seeing Black and White

When the puppies were first born, it was impossible to really distinguish one from the other, at least as far as four of them were concerned. Bessie was named pretty quickly, because of her milk cow markings, and there was an all black male that was quickly identifiable, but for some reason hadn’t earned a name.

They are now coming up on 7 weeks old and are a riot of activity, eager for attention, friendly, boisterous, and just a bundle of fun. We’ve got the sweet and sleepy one, the go-getter, the playful and clumsy one, the smart one, and a couple that haven’t really distinguished themselves but are plenty adorable with more energy than should fit in a body that size. It doesn’t get much more fun than going down to the barn and yelling, “Puppies!” and have six puppies and sometimes their mother come pouring out of the barn or out from under the trailers.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have let them start to explore outside and it is hilarious to watch the fat little pandas barreling full-tilt across the yard in protection of their pinecones, tumble down remnants of snow drifts, and learn the about the delicacy of horse manure.

They also enjoy terrorizing the cats, many of which actually invite the terrorizing and enjoy a playful romp with the pups. Polly in particular. It is only since the puppies have significantly outweighed her that the novelty of them is wearing a little thin. One pup is generally tolerable, but four or more is less so. But she still comes back and invites another mauling.

It doesn’t get much cuter.

The Banshees

When Brad brought me that crate full of feral cats in exchange for my beautiful Amelia who laid blue eggs and whom Pearl ruthlessly beheaded, inwardly I scoffed at what was so obviously not a fair trade. They were beautiful cats. Absolutely beautiful. But wild. Completely wild. And then I got to work taming them down. I definitely had my doubts a time or two, especially when those blue-eyed banshees still weren’t even letting me see, much less touch, them a week later, and then more than a week. If I happened to catch one, they trembled pitifully and got all small and pathetic.

But then, finally, after many cans of cat food, Amelia (so named in honor of the deceased) actually approached my hand, and then – wonder of wonders! – she actually let me pet her. And purred. Once a cat purrs, you have her hooked. It was all clear sailing from there, and yesterday Amelia and Madeline had their first little taste of freedom when I let them outside. Today, it was hilarious watching them flit through the snow like delicate white wraiths, pouncing one another, climbing trees, scattering the snow under their tiny paws. Their clear blue stare is mesmerizing, even though Amelia is a little cross-eyed and it is hard to take her completely seriously.

I really expected these girls to tame down to no more than a passively amiable barn cat, one that wouldn’t run away but that wouldn’t be truly friendly. Well, they are two of the sweetest cats, and maybe the prettiest I’ve ever seen. So no, they won’t ever lay blue eggs but I’d say it was a more than fair trade.

Snow Globe

We woke up to a snow globe outside our windows. An almost-windless, beautifully quiet, comfortable wintry day made chores pleasant and I couldn’t resist lugging my 15 pounds of camera and lens with me as I trudged around to the various critters. The chickens were extremely unimpressed, the chicks were even less so, the cats were divided, and the snow was lovely.

They called for a coating to an inch, but it hasn’t stopped snowing. And we are so thankful. This dry ground is so thirsty.

There is nothing quite like the transformation brought by a fresh snow. The delicate, mesmerizing whirlwind of white so exquisitely transforms the most drab, dreariest landscape, drought-parched though it may be, and turns the whole world outside into a thing of wondrous beauty. The trees are finally catching enough snow to be letting it go now and then in puffs of sparkling white. Footprints are getting made and filled in. Critters are hunkered down, and the world outside is peaceful and almost silent. Every dead flower head wears a funny little white hat, fence posts are capped in snow, and every once in awhile a gust sweeps the snow and the snowfall gets heavier, like someone shook the snow globe.

I am so glad to live where there is such a thing as snow.

Ranch Wife Musings | Cold

All summer long, we race against the clock to beat the heat of the day in whatever project it is we are working on. We freeze old apple juice bottles full of water to take with us when we head out in the morning, and drink greedily from them as the day heats up, wearily wishing for the heat to lessen. It doesn’t. Until the autumn months begin to slip by, and then that first real cold snap does it. You wake up in the morning and see 7 degrees plain as plain on the thermometer and start shivering sympathetically.

The cold sets in and complicates the simplest of tasks. Whether it is snow, or a particularly heavy frost, or just bitter, biting cold and the requisite South Dakota winds, impending winter is a force to be reckoned with. And when I say it complicates the simplest of tasks, I truly mean that. In warm weather, we can bounce out the door in the morning as quickly as it takes to put on a pair of boots and grab a hat. The colder it gets, the longer it takes. It gets a little brisk, and now you’re finding a jacket and a scarf. Then it’s a jacket under a heavier coat. Then coveralls. Then a warmer hat, maybe even a ski-mask type hood under the hat. Then it’s remembering to put on long underwear first thing, and nice, thick wool socks. Then, at that point, it honestly feels like you’re wearing the entire coat closet plus some after 15 minutes of buttoning and wrapping and layering, and the inevitable strip down for that irritating search for a forgotten or misplaced item that you only remembered after buttoning the final button on your coat, or the sudden need to “get rid of some coffee” as some might say.

Now, finally, you’re out shuffling the door feeling rather like a spring-loaded marshmallow and can stumble through the seasonal comedy of chores, encumbered by the entire coat closet, fumbling with gate chains and lids and dropping stuff from mittened fingers, snagging gloves and coat and hat on this, that, and the other thing, remembering – oh so fondly – when these little tasks were simple, you know, just two weeks ago, but which have by degrees become more difficult. Pun intended.

And this is now the new normal for the next several months and it isn’t even technically winter yet.

Every water source freezes up, causing the animals to walk out onto ice in the dams looking for a drink, risking a deadly fall through the ice. On stock tanks, floats can be used during the day if the temps creep up sufficiently, but have to be taken off at night so as to not freeze the entire hydrant. Jugs of hot water get hauled down to the chickens and the cats, multiple times a day unless there’s enough sun to warm the water tubs. Fingers and toes get cold and stop cooperating, in spite of efforts to keep them warm. I carelessly left my vet kit in the chicken coop and obviously everything turned to a block of ice, including what I needed right then. The mud room in the back of our house truly earns its name, in spite of good faith efforts to keep it tidy. Boy, I’m thankful for a mud room! The cats come up to the back door looking miffed or something a little more potentially violent than just miffed, and I honestly don’t blame the chickens for kind of going on strike.

And so we settle in for the coming winter and adjust to the seasonal changes of shorter days, colder temperatures, and literally everything that can turn to a block of ice turning to a block of ice, and I thank God for all of his blessings.

Instead of rushing out the door to beat the heat, we linger pleasantly over that cup of coffee, or maybe a second, letting the sun take the edge off the cold a bit, and get to work on the overnight ice. It is hard to beat the pleasure of warming up cold fingers on a hot mug of coffee or tea mid-morning or at dinner time. That blast of warm air when first coming in from outside is delightful. Hot showers even the evening never feel so good as when you’ve been borderline chilled all day long. There’s nothing quite like filling the house with the warmth and the aromas of baking, and as things out of necessity slow down outside as the days get shorter, I honestly enjoy having the time for some of those projects that get neglected during nicer weather. And having someone to spend long winter evenings with makes me actually look forward to them. And then there are those inevitable warm days or afternoons, like this afternoon, generously sprinkled through our Black Hills winters, little breaths of springtime reminding us that winter, too, will pass.

But golly, I’m pretty thankful for a good pair of insulated coveralls. And sturdy muck boots. And a warm coat. And scarves and mittens and hats, and whatever blessed person it was who invented hand warmers. And long underwear.

Ranch Wife Musings | Autumn Joys

Summer fades away and autumn rushes in with foretastes of winter, bringing the community together around this livelihood we share. Neighbors jump in to help neighbors in work trade relationships that go back decades in some cases. Slow, autumnal days are followed by long days of hard work, up doing chores with a flashlight before riding out to gather cattle, ours or a neighbor’s, building and maintaining those partnerships between rancher and rancher, family and family, neighbor and neighbor, and between people and their animal partners, whether dog or horse.

There is the excitement of seeing the beautiful fall calf crop, the satisfaction of working healthy calves, or of having the cow herd preg test well. There is the anticipation of selling, the relief of getting calves sold, and a bittersweet sense of completion when they’re loaded onto a truck. And yet the sense of contented completion is marred by the question everyone is asking right now, which is how to keep everything fed and watered over winter. But all of that is a part of this season, this beautiful, paradox of a season.

And what a paradox, what a season of contrasts and change. Weeks of summery weather, followed by weeks of chilly mornings and warm middays, and then the downright cold nights that put ice on absolutely everything. Balmy breezes one day, and biting, cutting, gnawing winds the next. Starting the day bundled in coveralls and a scarf, yet somehow managing to get down to a T-shirt or tank top by afternoon. Autumn gold that makes the trees almost hard to look at, and the next day the gold is gone and the trees are bare.

Butterflies and bumblebees did their summery work as long as the flowers bloomed, which was much longer than usual this year. Snow fells on the still-blooming flowers, blooming into the first week of November, to my bewilderment, in spite of freezing temperatures. There were those frost-less, yet icy mornings, and then days of nothing but ice and frost, with the sudden change of autumn to the winter weather we’ve been bracing for, where everything is frozen and the thermometer doesn’t register above freezing.

Sometimes there would seem to be a shortage of things to keep one busy, when all that is on the to-do list is usual chores, and “seeing what else needs to be done.” There is never any shortage of something else needing to be done! Days so full you wonder how they can hold anymore, yet with that fallish sense of slowness and peace, unique to this season. I can’t really explain it. Unplanned projects take up unanticipated time, such as mending corral fences mangled by freshly-weaned calves in a nightly tirade, or spending a morning gathering them back up from multiple pastures after they manage to break out in a hunt for their mamas. Everyone is thankful when a group of calves is successfully weaned. And there really is always something going on, something to fix, an animal to doctor, something to do in preparation for something else. And then on rare days when there really isn’t anything going on, you enjoy it.

Around and amongst the busyness of the fall season, I love those rare times when I really can take it all in, the beauty of those daily, mundane moments. A day can be so full that I don’t stop to really see those things that infuse living with so much joy.

A quick smile from my handsome rancher.

My critters. All of them.

The steady gaze of a horse.

The timid gaze of a calf.

My daily basket of beautiful, brown eggs from my hard-working girls.

Sunlight illuminating flowers (I can’t believe how late they bloomed!) so they appear like stained glass, or snow-clad, weighed-down flowers.

And so many other things.

And all that within the beautiful paradox of autumn’s joys.

First Snow

A wintry mix started blowing in yesterday, with freezing fog, beautiful frost, and the winter weather we’ve been anticipating for a month and a half. When I locked the chickens up last night, they had all put themselves to roost with their feather puffed out, covered with a sparkling crust of frost. They were entirely unbothered by the cold.

This morning, a beautiful dusting of snow had transformed our frosty landscape. We’ve had snowfall, but nothing that stuck. I bundled up and lugged my jugs of hot water down to the chickens. When I opened their door to the run, they eagerly piled out, but stopped short in a pileup on the ladder, starting disgustedly at the white stuff on the ground.

Not everyone is excited for that first snow!