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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Neighboring at a Spring Cattle Works on the Great Divide

Working with animals makes us more fully human, sustains the continuity of life

Bringing in the herd.  Photo by Jenny Stricker

Duke and George.
Photo by Jenny Stricker
On the western range, neighboring always brings together some of the most fascinating people to do some of the most engaging work.  There is something about hands-on work with animals that makes us more fully human, more fully alive.  And on the stark, uncluttered landscape of the high, dry San Luis Valley, the hard work of branding day on a ranch that raises organic grassfed beef brings clarity to the old paradoxes of living on this land and raising livestock in a way that sustains the continuity of life.

George and Julie from Blue Range Ranch, and Duke, Jeff, Carla, and their crew from the neighboring M├ędano-Zapata Ranch, are all pioneers in ranching, willing to try new and different things, but holding the spring works out on the range, roping and dragging the calves to the fire, is the old way—the only way to make it older is to burn wood, rather than use propane to heat the branding irons.  Working livestock this way requires people and skill, not infrastructure.  It has been done this way as long as there has been a livestock culture in North America.  The modern parts are the portable panels, the vaccines, and the vehicles we drove to get there.  This mirrors the bigger picture, as raising grassfed beef may seem progressive in the modern United States, but is really thousands of years old, the way it always was.
The modern branding fire. Photo by Jenny Stricker
Designed for a landscape where resources are scarce and unevenly distributed in both time and space, the set-up is temporary: the only infrastructure is the portable panels in a large semi-circle, out on the range, no fancy corrals.  The investment is in mobile things: horses, tack, horse trailers, and four-wheel-drive trucks to pull the horse trailers.  The panels also fit in a horse trailer.

Cowboys roping; Jeff heels a calf.  Photos by Jenny Stricker

These unique individuals are out here on a Saturday, not at home relaxing, but fully engaged in strenuous physical work, in a hot, dry, windy place, basically because they want to.  None of them are trapped in this lifestyle, doing it because they have no other choice; they could all work elsewhere and make more money.    Everyone out here seems to see this as being part of something bigger than them.  All of them are trying to find a right way to love this land—striving to earn a living from it without destroying it, maybe even improving it, and in way that makes sense on multiple levels.  We are actively creating the world that we want to live in.  For everyone here it is a thoughtful, dare I say mindful, thing: not just time to rope, brand, and cowboy up, though that is part of it—both a means to an end and an end in itself.  More than just a step towards harvesting a resource and selling a product, we are doing this because we are promoting the circle of life. 

The hosts provide a gourmet lunch on the flatbed pickup.  Photo by Jenny Stricker

There was one moment when I was holding the back legs of a calf, looking up toward Amy holding its front leg and head, Jenny and Vanessa giving vaccinations, and Grace notching the ears, and I realized that I was not only working with animals but surrounded by four stunningly beautiful, hard-working women.  And in the midst of all this heat and dust, raw muscle and sinew, singed hides and blood, these women are totally, absolutely, gracefully, feminine.  I thought: Is every other man in the world insanely jealous of me right now?  Or have they no idea that this is even potentially part of existence?

Julie later pointed out that these women actually had to transcend social norms of what it means to be a woman.  They had to power through the pink princess to realize the goddess.  As a man I may not fully understand that, but I cannot help but admire an achievement that must be much more difficult than the actual physical work of wrestling a hundred pounds of kicking calf.

The branding crew.  Photo by Elaine Pagel

As we interact with an ancient yet ever-changing landscape, these women thriving in what is traditionally thought of as men’s work, the way that harvesting a resource perpetuates it, and the way that we raise these calves to eventually be slaughtered, and in their death to continue life, all reminds me of the sages’ contention that everything contains its opposite: we embrace suffering to achieve bliss and death to be most fully alive.

Return to the hills.  Photo by Jenny Stricker