Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reflections on a Year Gone By

Reflections on a Year Gone By

I’m going to miss all the 1’s and 2’s we had this month. We won’t have quite another month (or year!) like it ever again. After all there aren’t 13 months in a year. I’m sorry I missed noting the preceding interesting number combinations because there won't be another like it until I’m (way!) gone. That’s a reality that I simply won’t get into here. It’s certainly a topic on everybody’s mind. Hopefully not constantly. After all, life is for the living and there is certainly a lot of life to live! So let’s get to it!

We’ve been on this ranch for 4 months. I think the water system has been the most interesting project for those 4 months. As a matter of fact the water system has been a source of endless amusement starting with the day we ran out. In the city ya’ll take it for granted. Water, that is. You go to your tap and you turn it on and, voila, there it is! The only evidence you have that it doesn’t appear by some miracle is that nasty little water bill you get every month. Remember, the water is free but you have to pay for the pipe it comes in.

Out here on the ranch water is anything but free and this fact is right in your face each and every day during the dry months. This is Northern California. Heck, this is California for crying out loud. We have two seasons. Wet and dry. Northern and southern together there is no difference. There’s just one big state and one big problem. As an aside, you realize that this is a western issue and California is just one of the states with this issue. At least California is not landlocked like some states. Yet, the truth remains is that we may as well be because that big beautiful Pacific Ocean is just something very nice to look at. You can’t stick a hose into it and start pumping.

So here we are at the ranch with our wonky water system. The ranch’s problem is a microcosm of the state’s problem. It’s not a supply problem. It’s a delivery and storage problem. So the amusement we found last dry season was that even with the rainfall and snow pack melt of last wet season we found our storage system going dry. We have 3 wells, 1 lake, 2 ponds and 2 creeks on the ranch. Watson and Grindstone are the creeks. Both are raging torrents in the wet season. The lake and 2 ponds are so full right now that they are running over the roads and spillways and draining into Watson Creek. Last dry season the two creeks were completely dry. The beavers in Grindstone Creek were the only ones who had any water. There was talk of killing the beavers and blowing up their dam. Fortunately no one actually did such a terrible deed. It would have been futile anyway since the water behind the beaver dam wouldn’t have lasted a minute once it flowed through and onward to Stony Creek.

Our lake and ponds that supply our animals were so low I thought maybe one day I might be walking by and see The Creature from the Black Lagoon slithering out of one of them. Tad risked his life wading into the stock pond once to try to reposition the intake. He got stuck in the muck and had to lie down and “swim” out of the muck. He said he was pretty terrified. And he stunk to high heaven. Learning from Tad’s experience I got in the kayak the next time to move the intake to a better position. Marty dragged me around from the bank. Paddling was not effective. Eventually the intake was not taking in anymore and we had to buy a tanker truck load of water at an outrageous price. Everyday we would drive up the hill to the main house water tank and peer down into to it wondering when we would actually see the bottom. We would stick the measuring tape down the mouth of the tank and pronounce in our best Mark Twain “4 feet! Less than yesterday! Better go shut off the pump and let the ground water replenish itself.”

The day Willa and 15 friends came up for the weekend will not be forgotten. Labor Day weekend to be exact. That was the day we ran out of water entirely and had to hand the kids buckets with the advice “pour it down the toilet when you want to flush”. Nobody was washing clothes or dishes and the drinking water we buy in town was the only water to be had.  We had to go into Elk Creek and get 500 gallons of Stony Gorge Reservoir water and drive it back in the back of the pick up truck. In a 500 gallon tank we'd found in the barn. In the dwindling daylight we cleaned our stinky selves off with a garden hose.

We’re glad those days are over. We have so much water now we don’t know what to do with it. And we’re thinking ahead to what we might do next dry season to not have to go through that again. I wanted to get some rain barrels. Maybe we can find a way to get water out of the lake more reliably. A person gets caught up in the project but if one settles and reflects what it all means you come up with a closer connection to the natural world and your place in it. It turns out to be a good feeling.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Weekend Before Christmas

 The Weekend Before Christmas

This is the weekend before Christmas. Soon it will be all over with and we'll have another year to wait for the best holiday of the year. At least it's the best holiday I can think of. I've always loved Christmas even though it always seemed an opportunity for my mom and dad to fight. It helped that they didn't start fighting until us kids had already ravaged most of the presents. At Christmas the idea is to be happy. It's the darkest part of the year. The tradition is to put up lights on the tree and the houses and this, in my opinion, make it a lot easier to keep that jolly spirit. We humans come up with some pretty good ideas sometimes. It makes sense. Soon it will be time for our traditional New Year’s Eve bonfire. Last year we nearly melted the water system but that’s another story for another time.
Here at the ranch work goes on same as it always does. The animals don't know anything about the holiday. They just want plenty to eat and a warm dry place to hang out. So there I am out before breakfast helping those creatures who are depending on me. They've been standing in the rain all night and it was raining cats and dogs so everyone's soaked. They have to be hungry and the hay really helps them stay warm on their own.
The creek is way up. A raging torrent as a matter of fact. It's our very own mountain stream. The water comes out of the mountains of the Mendocino National Forest into hundreds of little tributaries and Watson Creek is one. Except that today Watson Creek is not little. You can hear is roar all the way to the house. Watson Creek water flows into Stony Creek which runs down into the valley until it reaches the Sacramento River which flows into the Delta and San Francisco Bay. The final destination is the Pacific Ocean. So if you’re driving over the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate and you look down you’ll see water that came all the way from our ranch. I should put some pink dye in it so you can tell which water is ours.
It’s a real workout feeding and caring for the animals while it’s raining like crazy. First you have to get really bundled up. I've found that I need about 600 layers to stay warm. I start with the silk long johns. Then it’s the warm up suit covered by my Dry Duck ranch jacket which is cotton duck with quilted lining. Over all that comes the rain suit. The feet get insulating Carhartt socks and tall Wellies. The head gets a fleece lined cap with a visor and flaps that velcro underneath the chin. I wrap a scarf around my neck so wind dosen't leak down my neck. The hands are the most challenging to take care of. The water proof gloves are very warm and dry but they’re not very good for jobs needing dexterity. So often they come off and then the hands get cold and wet. Then the insides of the gloves get cold and wet when I put them back on. I think I need to invent waterproof insulated fingerless gloves. That way only the very tippy tips of my fingers won’t be happy instead of my whole hand.
 In this “Christmas Story” get-up where I resemble The Mummy I can function if I take it slow. Taking it slow helps because rushing around might lead a person into making a decision that winds up costing more work. So I take it slow and think about everything I do and what the consequence might be.
I hope you're staying dry wherever you are! I'm making English shortbread cookies today. I'm putting chunks of dark chocolate in half the batch. Come on over later and we'll have tea and cookies!
“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
    Audrey Hepburn

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dust if you must

Dust if you must, but wouldn't it be better
to paint a picture or write a letter, bake a cake or plant a seed,
ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there's not much time,
with rivers to swim and mountains to climb,
music to hear and books to read,
friends to cherish and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world's out there
with the sun in your eyes, the wind in your hair,
a flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
this day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
old age will come and it's not kind.
And when you go - and go you must -
you yourself will make more dust!

- anonymous

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Re-think How Sam Travels in the Pick-up

Sometimes putting thoughts down on paper give them a life they would not have had if they just been left unmanifest in one's mind. The happy result of my blog on "Tragedy Averted, Big Lesson Learned" is that we now have a wonderful new crate securely fastened in the back of the pick-up right behind the cab. Sam loves it and so do I. Not only is he safe from the possibility of getting out of the bed at some inopportune moment but now he can also ride protected from the wind and rain. It's a win-win situation.

Sam had his first ride today. It was a cold day but mostly clear. There had been thunderstorms in the valley last night and the walnut groves had a thick layer of ice from hailstones. Far off in the distance we could see the Trinity range of the coastal mountains with a solid cap of snow. I'm sure we could have seen Mt. Shasta if there hadn't been so many clouds on the horizon. Mt. Shasta is a Fourteener, as they say in Colorado, but it's all alone in the middle of no-where and it has a presence for a hundred miles away. Interstate 5 runs the length of California from north to south and is an arrow that aims at the flanks of Mt. Shasta. A traveller gets treated to the sight of the mountain for miles and miles before she or he even gets close.

But today we didn't go there. Today we had too many errands to do. As we traversed the width of the valley we slowed down and impeded a local denizen who may have been so destinated that they just had to pass us even though we were going 60 miles per hour. Sixty is slow compared to the accepted 70. We were looking for the mountain and glad that we did not have to have a second thought about our sweet Sam safe and warm in his brand spanking new kennel in the back.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Big Lesson Learned

So yesterday we needed to go to Elk Creek for gas. We decided to take Sam our McNab border collie pup with us and Marty's Rule is that he rides in the bed no matter what. This was going to be Sam's first real trip to town at high speed. As we pulled out on to the highway Sam was perched up on the wheel well as he's been accustomed to doing while putzing around the ranch. I noticed this and told Marty I didn't feel comfortable with him perched like that and Marty rejoindered "well, I'll just tap the brakes and cure him of that in short order." In the next minute the brakes were tapped and Sam catapulted out of the bed off the side of the truck and disappeared on to the road. I screamed an obscenity as Marty screeched to a halt. I was in panic mode that he may have fallen underneath the wheel and already be killed! I leaped from the truck before it was even stopped and ran back to see Sam limping off down the road at a trot. He was headed for home it seems. I yelled his name and it took a number of yells until he turned, hesitated and then turned around for good and headed back to us. I held him in the middle of the road risking grave injury to both of us for what seemed an eternity until Marty showed up to pick him up. Did I mention that I have bad back that precludes me from lifting anything heavier than a feather? I kept scanning up and down the road for cars speeding at us. Luckily no cars appeared. As Marty took him back to the truck I said "Please, let's put him in the back seat until we see how bad he may be injured!" but Marty was insistent that he should go right back in the bed. Sam must have learned something because he pretty much cowered right behind the cab the whole way to Elk Creek. At the gas pump I noticed he had a scuff over his eye and a bloody ding above his hock. That's all I could see. On the way back I pleaded with Marty that Sam should be put in a dog kennel or tied down when riding in the bed but Marty wouldn't hear of it and even changed the subject once. I said "Oh, I guess we're not talking about that anymore, huh?" I guess the only lesson that really sunk in is that tapping the brakes is a really bad idea.

Stalking the Wild Christmas Tree

Well, we went out and got our tree. No, no, no, you do not detect a note of cynicism there. It was an experience I can tell you. We wanted to do it yesterday because we knew a big rain storm was coming in today (and boy did it!) We knew it would make the roads treacherous for a long while so after putting up the dad-blamed last minute unannounced electric fence which took way longer than we expected we skeedaddled up into the Mendocino National Forest in an area where we were told would be good trees. I loved the map that the Frest Service gave us. I love maps so I had to love this one, too, but it was nearly useless. If it had had a marked area "good Christmas trees" it would have been much more helpful. Well, it took us about an hour to get above the oak trees where the evergreens were growing. We started scanning the edges of the forest. The permit says you can't take a tree less than 50 feet from the road and they can't be over 5" in diameter and they can't be over 10 feet tall! If you've ever played a slot machine you'll understand how long it takes to get those three doo-dads lined up and this twern't no diff'rent.

Oh there's lots of skinny little trees or great big huge ones right next to the road. You've got to know that every bandito on the planet has already taken the perfect trees that are near the road. But if you;re trying to stay within the letter of the law know that 50 feet in from the road you're looking into an impenetrable mass so it's impossible to know where to go off searching! Here we were. It was getting dark so we did a bad thing and we found a tree that was 1 of the 3 requirements. It was 5" in diameter but it was less than 50 feet from the road and it was over 10 feet tall. To make us feel better though it was an ordeal to get to. It was up a treacherous scree slope perched on an edge and the chain saw was being difficult. With preserverance and radar we did the deed and no ranger called us out and it's a beautiful tree. I really wanted a more dense tree (I love the Noble Firs) but this one is nice. By the way, you might guess that another issue with a wild tree is that they aren't necessarily that regular classic shape. It's very hard to find the classic shape. Wild trees are usually lopsided. Bushy on one side and sparse on the other. I found one that was the classic shape and right diameter and distance from the road. It was an incense cedar but Marty whined "it doesn't look like a christmas tree". He meant it didn't look like the white pine, spruce or doug fir you see on the lots. I would have taken it but I didn't want to be stubborn so we kept looking as the daylight waned and we knew we had to get back to feed the cows. I can see why people go to lots and just get a tree where the needles fall off in a couple days. It is much, much easier. All told I think it took us about 3 hours to find the tree. Next year we will just take the day and take a lunch and not have anything else to do. Maybe we can find a prized silver tip fir that every one talks about.

Realities of the Cow/Calf Operation

Apparently one of the cows, a lead cow and not a novice mother, was pregnant and nobody knew she was. This is how we found out. We went out to check the cows that morning. It was supposed to really rain hard later on so we were trying to accomplish the task before the rain started.  But first we had to move Sam’s pen to higher ground. Sam is our McNab border collie pup. Then while the weather held and was still not raining we got in the Gator and went out to check the cows. We got almost all the way to Three Cross Hill which is near the edge of the property in the biggest pasture. Must be 500 acres at least. Just past the hill one of the cows standing all by herself over a dark form. I said to Marty "you don't think that's a calf do you? It's not due until Christmas". Because at that point we still thought the only cow that was pregnant wasn't due until then. But sure enough it was a calf. It was a new born calf and it was dry and fluffy and but lying inert in the grass. Marty said it's dead but as we got nearer I saw it was still breathing. Who knows how long it had been there?  Long enough for the mother to lick it off and for it to get dry. The evidence of the birth was all around it. It still wasn't raining but it was windy and cold. The poor little calf was lying at its mother's feet and was unable to stand. It was bawling softly from time to time but went limp as a rag when Marty picked it up to try to help it stand. Marty drove back to a phone to call Don the owner. I stayed with the cow and calf to protect the calf. I didn't want a coyote to find it and tear it to pieces. I tried to stay out of the cow's way but stand close enough to shelter the calf from the wind. I rubbed on it, too, to help warm it up but as soon as I did it would bawl softly and then the mother would come over and lick it. Marty had told me to be careful because the cows could be protective. My instinct was to get down on the ground and hold it in my arms and try to really warm it but I was afraid to. I can't leap to my feet anymore if a cow wants to come at me aggressively. The cow and I would talk to each other from a short distance. I saw tears coming out of her eye. I told her we were trying to help her baby as best we knew how. I think she thought it was hopeless and that she was grieving for her baby. Was I reading human emotions into this? I leave you to be the judge.

When Marty came back the owner had told him to try to help and not leave it there so we put the calf in the back of the gator on some hay. We tried to rope the cow from the gator but she was having nothing to do with it and we accidentally roped her around the neck and unintentionally choked her. We needed to capture her, milk her and get some of that into the baby. Pulling her behind the gator was too much for her so Marty said we need to get a horse. So we took the calf to our big hay barn and put it in a bed of straw to help keep it warm. It was still breathing and bawling softly from time to time. My heart was absolutely breaking. But Marty said they are tough and sometimes rally. Once the calf was in the barn out of the wind I went to the house while Marty saddled Joaquin who is the best horse we have. He was going to try to go and get the cow and bring her back so we could get some colostrum from her. It was not looking good but we had to try. At the house I called to some neighbors to see if we could get some dried colostrum and a bottle so we could nurse it in case the cow was uncooperative. We were so unprepared for this! Only one neighbor answered and he was in Arizona! He said don't try to rope the cow but drive them all in (about 90 cows and calves) and then separate out the mother.

When I went to find Marty it finally started in on raining sideways. I certainly didn't want him out in the rain and wind and have an accident all alone. So, with him on Joaquin and me in the Gator, we drove all the cows back to the pens where we cut out the momma cow from the herd and put her in a chute. Marty was magnificent and handled Joaquin very well who wasn't totally on board with all of this. I was driving back and forth in the gator like a maniac to keep cows from straying off and going in the wrong direction. I got a raw throat from yelling. Finally we got them all in the corrals. It took a while with lots of patience.

Once we cut the mother out we let all the other cows and calves back out to the pasture because we didn't need them any more. Marty then went to put Joaquin away and I went to get some dry hay for him at the hay barn where the calf was. When I got there the calf was dead. It was so still. There is something so strange about a dead creature. When it's alive there is "something" there but once it's dead there's nothing. I thought of seeing my mother lying in her casket. Life is so strange!

I feel really bad about the whole thing but we did our best and at least the poor little guy did not die out in the rain and wind or have some coyotes get him. It was peaceful and quiet in the barn. We covered him with some hay and then went and let the momma cow back out to the herd. She did OK after that and did not get sick.

Next time we will be prepared with a bottle and some dry colostrum to reconstitute. I know then it's still not guaranteed that we could save a struggling calf. I remember Teresa's sister in law Sue talking about bottle feeding calves and how lucky you have to be to have them thrive.