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.

Fall Days

This time of year, the shortening days fill up swiftly with a never ending list of tasks to be done. They’re the pleasant, busy sort of tasks that can easily occupy a full day, and make a chilly, blustery, foggy day not seem quite so dreary! Much of yesterday and today was spent in a fog bank, making those inside tasks extra appealing. I actually thoroughly enjoy an honest-to-goodness fall day, whether that be sunny and blue skies, or drizzly and foggy, but I have to say I don’t enjoy freezing myself without due cause. So as the outdoor tasks slowly wrap up, the indoor tasks really take off.

The garden has mostly finished producing, so over the last couple of weeks I’ve been slowly clearing it out, putting away the sprinklers and garden hoses, saving and stacking the pots from our trees to grow tomatoes and/or peppers in next year, and sorting through my seed collection. It is a little sad to see the season wrapping up, but it is also exciting, because inevitably I’m already thinking about my garden for next year!

As I’ve cleaned the garden out, I’ve picked winter squashes and pumpkins, a little early, perhaps, after a terrible case of powdery mildew infested the vines. If it isn’t grasshoppers, hail, or an early frost, it’s powdery mildew. Oh, well. It didn’t really affect my squash harvest anyway, so what does it matter? Next year, the squash will get planted with better breathing room, which will help with the mildew issure. My kind husband helped me haul them all inside yesterday, since it sure felt like it could have frosted last night, and the whole corner of our dining room is now covered with Hubbard squash and pumpkins, and a couple of random others, a meat squash and two Lakota squashes. The meat squash seeds were ancient and only gave me one squash, and the Lakota squash just didn’t really do much. The Hubbards, however, did amazingly well, and will definitely be in the garden plans for next year! The largest of my Hubbard squashes weighed in at a wonderful 25 pounds, and I can’t wait to bake it later this fall or in the winter! Each vine isn’t particularly prolific, in general only producing one large squash, but each will produce a few smaller ones that can be picked young, during the summer, and sauteed like zucchini, only better than zucchini.

I’ve baked and pureed a number of the pumpkins to freeze for pies, roasted the seeds, and baked up some delicious chocolate chip pumpkin muffins (here’s the recipe if you’re so inclined). I put up a bunch of zucchini salsa and green tomato zucchini salsa, a great way to use zucchinis (I actually intentionally grow them big just for such a recipe), and have also dehydrated zucchini chips for snacking and shredded a bunch to freeze for zucchini bread and other recipies. We will eat really well this fall and winter!

There are some kale and chard plants that are still producing, and are doing better now that the grasshoppers aren’t destroying them, and I have beets yet to harvest, and turnips and carrots still growing. The zucchini plants have mostly petered out, what the mildew didn’t kill off, but there are still a good half dozen baby zucchini left to harvest, and hopefully we have enough warmth this next week for them to grow a little more. Maybe I’ll do another dehydrator full of zucchini chips!

I picked just about all of the green tomatoes out of the garden and spent today making green tomato salsa verde. Yes, yes, I know green tomatoes can be picked and will ripen over time, but I honestly just wanted to put a wrap on the tomato project for the year and didn’t want a million green tomatoes looking at me every time I opened the door to the spare bedroom, which serves as our pantry and freezer room. And the salsa is delicious. Every single jar pinged the first time, too, so that was extra satisfying. Sixteen pints of salsa verde added to the pantry!

The plum project (finally!) wrapped up last week, as well as the apple project, with pureed plums and chopped apples in the freezer for crisps, cobblers, and pies. Over the last month, I put up several quarts of plum pie filling, several of apple pie filling, several pints of plum jam, and many half pints of plum butter and spicy plum sauce (amazing on crackers with cream cheese…tangy sweet with a spicy kick!), as well as quart bags of dehydrated apples, which Brad and I really enjoy snacking on. With all of that fresh fruit waiting to be processed over the last few weeks, I had gotten spoiled, chopping a couple of the small plums and putting them on my homemade yogurt for breakfast in the mornings. I will miss that, but I tried some of the leftover plum pie filling on my yogurt this morning and, boy, oh, boy, it was delicious. Mm. Wow.

And with all of this harvesting, the chickens have been eating really well. Really really well. Spoiled little things. Pretty much nothing goes to waste! It is fun to watch them pick a pumpkin shell, what’s left after I bake it and scrape it out, down to the very last bit of rind, or devour overly-ripe plums and leave clean-picked plum pits in their feed pans.

These fall days fill up so quickly, and are over in a blur. But it really is just the best time of year.

Bittersweet, But Wonderful

As summer fades into autumn, I ponder springtime. Autumn and spring are so similar, but with a mood and a flavor and a savor completely alien to one another. Both are an anticipated change from the previous seasons and both are transitions of one thing to another. Spring doesn’t come to bring spring. Spring comes to bring summer. Autumn doesn’t come to bring autumn, it comes to bring winter. And that right there, I think, is why their flavor is so different.

Spring means a warming up, and a bursting forth of new life, growing things, greening up, and the hope of what is coming. Hopeful optimism is spring’s emotion.

Fall’s coolness and moisture are a welcome relief, but with the bittersweetness of bracing for winter. Fall is a coming to fruition of summer, a completion, a finishing. Wistful contentment is fall’s emotion.

And there is wistfulness. The beautiful colors don’t last very long, the warm days will be short lived, and refreshingly cool will become bitingly cold. All the work anticipated in the spring and taking place in the summer is competed in the fall.

As rewarding as it is to be putting up my garden harvest, there’s a wistful regret to see ripen the last of the pumpkins and the last of the tomatoes, and it is a little sad to be clearing everything out of the garden, little by little. My flower garden is still beautiful but all it will take is one frost for that to be done for the year.

My little bum calf, Charlie, finally flew the coop and stopped coming in every morning for her feed, and joined two cow-calf pairs down in the hayfield. It is delightful to see her playing with the other calves, rough-housing and no longer lonely, but I miss her silly little calf personality every morning down at the barn.

The calves born in the spring are big and fat and sleek, a producer’s pride, but there’s a puzzling regret when they are sold.

The antelope family we watched all summer along our driveway seems to have joined up with another small herd, so we don’t see them anymore, but now we hear elk bugling on the ridgetop behind our house. I wish I could describe the haunting, chilling, beautiful song that those elk make.

The fall cow work with the best of neighbors from all along Spring Creek is just winding up, and is possibly the best part of the fall. It really doesn’t get much better than getting to spend long days doing hard work and then fellowshipping over a meal when the work is done. But as that burst of activity winds up and then winds down over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look ahead to a long and sometimes lonely winter season. But after winter comes spring, and those same neighbors will be gathering folks for work days and coming to ours.

The days are shortening from both ends, the shadows are long and getting longer. The madcap, productive days spent outdoors, trying to beat the heat with a sunrise start, sweating and getting sunburnt and filthy and finally tumbling inside tireder than tired will be a thing of the past and a thing of the future, and attentions will be turned to other kinds of work. It will be a quieter sort of work, as the outside world starts to slumber. Projects that get sidelined during summer’s busyness will be brought out, and planning for the next year will really begin.

Autumn is indeed bittersweet. Bittersweet, but wonderful.

Last of Summer, First of Fall

Fall creeps in softly, with that month of little hints, teasing us with the cool evenings, refreshingly chilly nights, and the freshness of throwing open the windows. Then – finally! – the turn of the seasons is unmistakable, as the cool days are followed by cold nights, blankets are added to the bed, a mug of hot tea doubles as a handwarmer, sweaters and flannels replace lighter summer wear, and fall is absolutely here with a flavor all its own.

Summer’s flowers fade and autumn’s fruits ripen. Everything is shades of yellow and red and orange and gold, on a canvas of warm browns. The last of the sunflowers reach heavenward, not yet nipped by frost, resolutely clinging to the last of the warmth in the shortening evenings. Rosehips, the fruit of love’s flower, deepen in color, gold to crimson, glittering like little glorious jewels in the underbrush. If the flower goes unnoticed in the chaos of summer color, the fruit refuses to be missed in the fading grasses. They’re rather captivating, and I find myself stumbling across them on my walks and feeling compelled to photograph them again and again.

Leadplant, a subtle summer beauty of grey-green and grey-lavender, flames out in the fall, and brown hillsides erupt in splendor as previously drab shrubby things, unknown and unnoticed in the summer’s green, take on incredible autumn hues.

Western South Dakota isn’t known for its fall colors, not like places out east which are tourist destinations in the fall. But I love our autumns. I love those little stands of aspen and other hardwoods in the low places or burn areas that suddenly make their presence known. What we lack in quantity we make up for in the delight of coming up over a hill or around a bend and finding a wonderful display of color in the draw below or flaming on the hillside above.

So at last fall is here.

Goodbye, Summer

Goodness gracious, where did the summer get to? How does it happen, when I have the most to write about, I have the least time/inclination to do so? It really is hard to sit inside on a computer when the sun is shining outside. But fall is a-comin’, and that means earlier evenings and a general turnaround of what my summer routine is like. I look forward to getting back into writing this blog, which has been such a delightful constant for the last 4 years!

To catch anyone up (briefly) who may be interested, this summer has been a blessedly full time, busy with work at the greenhouse, some shifts at the fire station as time allowed, time with friends (a priority in the summer), wonderful quantities of hiking, a visit from a former college classmate of mine, a trip to Bozeman for the Biblical Counseling Conference and some hiking and camping along the way. I can’t promise anything, but my goal is to play some catch up on this blog, at least as far as the hiking articles go. We discovered some gems this summer, and I’d hate to miss publishing them!

I didn’t think it was possible for so much to go by so fast and so pleasantly. And now it is quickly becoming fall. September 23 is only two weeks away!

So…goodbye, summer. Goodbye to the warm mornings, hot afternoons, and cool evenings. The satisfaction of sweat, the joy of cold water to quench work-won thirst. Goodbye to the feisty, mighty summer storms that kept us green all season. Goodbye to the sound and smell of cows on the pastures around the house, to the cacophony of insects and birds, and the rainbow of wildflower color. Goodbye to the resiny smell of the pines in the sunlight, a perfume which takes me back to my childhood and the joy of getting to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, walking up their then-dirt sidewalk, to the loving, smothering embrace of my Grandpa and his plaid shirt.

With the summer goes the long days, the sense that time is almost standing still, the late nights waiting for the sun to set and dragging the days activities into the late, late evening. With summer goes the delightful, tantalizing sense of freedom, which I love immensely but probably isn’t very good for me.
IMG_9756eBut each season has its joys. If the joy of summer is the warmth and the long days, the joy of autumn is the cool and the cozy evenings. If the joy of summer is the song of insects and the colors of wildflowers, the joy of autumn is the whispering leaves and their vibrant displays.

So, goodbye, summer. And welcome, autumn.

Hiking | Little Elk Creek Trail

Oh, back when the weather was warmer…However, warmer doesn’t mean warm. On this particular hike, Axel, Katie, and I all were a bit chilly for the first while, having not considered the morning shade in the canyon. We were treated to some of the first glimpses of winter, with persistent ice over parts of Little Elk Creek, beautiful frozen, frosted, filigreed leaves, and the nipping of the crisp, morning air at our cheeks and noses. Autumn was still hanging on by a thread, and not all the trees had dropped their leaves, but the crispness and the frost let us know that winter was on its way.
IMG_20181020_095501451_HDRIMG_20181020_092419204_HDReIMG_20181020_112105059_HDRLittle Elk Creek Trail is a well-maintained trail, approximately 5 miles out-and-back, used by hikers, bikers, and trail runners. It is mostly level, with very little elevation gain, and though it is rated as moderate according to All Trails, I would definitely rate it as easy. Perhaps the length is where the moderate rating comes in. I don’t know.IMG_20181020_092719462_HDRIMG_20181020_101247761_HDRThe trail follows along or above Little Elk Creek, though some beautiful rock formations and canyon areas, boasting many beautiful views. Across the creek from the trail, shaded north slopes were green with moss, steep and rocky, and very different from the brown, sunlit slopes the trail followed. We met a few other hikers, but it was a quiet trail. It is a ways off the beaten path, and likely not a lively tourist destination, since most tourists would probably hike around Sylvan Lake and Custer State Park, the crown jewels of the Black Hills. But this lovely hike is worth the time to get there.
IMG_3448eIMG_3442eAnd as always in the Black Hills, if you can tear your gaze from the soaring beauty of the trees, spires, canyons, and blue, blue sky, there are other things to marvel at as well. Things like friendship, for one. What a gift God gave when He created people, plural. He meant for us to live in community and fellowship with one another, and hiking with my brothers and sisters in Christ is one of my greatest joys at this time of my life. And then there are the tiny, almost-trodden on things, like abandoned bird nests and rushes growing green along the creek. It is so easy to focus so intently on the big picture that a million priceless glimpses of joy are lost.