Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cox Place

           Not very far from where I live, there's a ranch tucked under the shoulder of a great mountain.  They call it the Cox Place.  It’s out of the way:  across the valley, down a long dirt road, past some hot springs.  The house gazes out over hay meadows.  It’s a two-story building with a slanting roof that sprouts a squat red chimney.  Just beyond the kitchen window, a windmill straddles a well.  All around the house grow well-established trees; one of them, a Bartlett pear, is loaded with fruit in late summer.  The construction on the Cox Place is a bit old school, but enduring.  No Powder River panels here.  Lodge poll gates hang on stout juniper logs, which form the uprights in the corrals and shop.  In all, this is a modest place, big enough to run maybe two hundred cows.  It’s what you’d call a small family ranch:  a place where you could raise your kids close to animals and land. A place to live quietly. 
But no one lives here any more.
The Cox Place is an empty gutted bone yard.  Abandoned for over twenty years, the house is home to nothing but packrats and empty beer bottles that roll and clink against each other when the wind moans through the shattered windows.  The fences are down, and the yard strewn with buckets, burn barrels, beer cans, shotgun shells, corrugated metal scraps, expired farm equipment, coffee cans, nails, ancient hoses, and barbed wire.  The pears fall and rot, or are carried off by birds.  The hay meadows, once green and fertile, are choked with greasewood and rabbit brush.
What happened here?  Good intentions gone astray, possibly.  An environmental organization bought the Cox Place some two decades ago, and since then it has been gradually sinking into ruin.  I have no doubt that the leaders of this group intended to do something good for the land:  to “return it to nature,” perhaps.  But is this really a return to nature?  And by letting this ranch die, what has been lost?  Good people who take care of the land because they depend on it and live off of it.  Irrigated meadows that attract passing migratory birds.  Children who grow up with daily chores and animals depending on their care.  A lighted window in the dark when a traveler is lost or broke down.
But not at the Cox Place.  The windows are dark, the fire’s gone out, and no one lives here any more.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fall Works

If you’re lucky enough to have a job these days, you probably get paid every two weeks, or maybe once a month.  A rancher gets paid once a year, at the conclusion of fall works.
            Fall works are to a rancher what harvest time is to a farmer.   In the fall, the pairs of mother cows and calves are gathered in from the far-flung ranges where they have grazed away the summer.  The calves are stripped off the cows, weaned, and sold.  Then the rancher gets her yearly paycheck.  After paying off whatever loans and bills she’s accumulated over the past year, she gets to find out what her job pays. 
            Fall works is not just when the rancher’s crop is gathered and sold.  It’s also when she makes sure the seeds for next-years crop are sewn.  Cows are “preg checked” to ensure they got bred on the range, and will be calving in the spring.   Cows that are not pregnant, or “open,” are almost always sold as slaughter cows.  A cow costs money to feed through the winter, and raising a calf is the way she earns her living.  An open cow is a free rider, like an office worker that gets paid but hangs out at the water cooler all day.  In the cattle business, an employee like that gets culled from the herd and is sent “down the road.”
            Conclusion of fall works signals a full revolution of the great wheel that marks agricultural time.  Winter is for feeding cows and catching-up with lingering projects.  This is kitchen table time—time to plan for the coming year, time to spend with family, time to reflect.  Through the short, dark days of winter, feeding her cows is a rancher’s prime concern, until the new calves start hitting the ground in February.
            After fall works, cowboys of the wandering variety may “roll their beds” and leave to spend Christmas at home, or head for warmer country where they might be able to find some work.  Or, as the old cowboy song tells it, they may never make it back to where they came from…

Charlie was buried at sunrise. No tombstone at his head
Nothing but a thin board, and this is what it said
"Poor Charlie died at daybreak. He died from a fall.
He'll not see his Mother when the work's all done this fall.”