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Monday, July 18, 2011

Struck by thunder

Premonition and synchronicity

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been having what might have been a premonition.    Out on the range by myself I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of fence to fix, so much that I can’t always get it done before the afternoon storms of this summer monsoon.  One thought repeatedly produced by the constant banter of my subconscious has been: what would it be like to be struck by lightning?  If not fatal, would it be enlightening?  Spiritual awakening has been described as like being struck by lightning, but it has also been said to be an interminable process.  Enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet, through prayers for it or through meditation, so I had wondered if getting struck by lightning might actually bring a sort of enlightenment with it.  Apparently not.

Lately I’ve been reading about synchronicity in James Redfield’s The Celestine Vision.  Premonitions and strange coincidences, like thinking of an old friend and then running into them for the first time in years, are at the basis of this idea of synchronicity, important in Redfield’s philosophy and literature as well as that of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung.  Until now I’ve been thinking that I’ve never experienced synchronicity, except for possibly a few occasions, nothing that could not be otherwise explained.  Of course, it can always be explained—like being in the right place at the wrong time.

I have also been thinking about my former supervisor and friend Mark Volt at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  A man of the mountains, full of odd and funny sayings, mostly of uncertain origin, often of vague meaning, and usually inspiring rolled eyes.  Like “struck by thunder.” 

The first of the rain was falling.  I was standing next to a temporary electric fence of polywire, which is a kind of string with fine wire woven through it, an essential tool to manage the distribution of livestock grazing here in the high country. It wasn’t electrified; I had built it and just hooked it up to a more permanent electric fence of high-tensile wire.  I don’t think I was touching it, but I couldn’t have been more than a few inches from it.

The boom was not much short of deafening.  For a moment, everything was black—except for a line of white, maybe slightly greenish-yellow, light where the polywire had been.  Is that what the deer in the headlights sees?  I was on the ground, half lying, half sitting, fully stunned.  I have been shocked by electric fence before, and this was many orders of magnitude beyond that.  Struck by thunder, indeed. I saw the thin, charred remains of the polywire on the ground next to me.  My legs and feet hurt, but I couldn’t move them for the first ten seconds or so.  Then I could crawl.  After maybe thirty seconds I could stand on shaky legs and intensely tingling feet.  I willed myself to walk.  At this point I figured I was probably going to be alright. I got on the four-wheeler and rode it back down to the road.

 My right thigh still hurt, and for a while so did my right shoulder and upper arm.  Sitting on a log, I pulled of my right boot and sock and checked my tingling foot.  No uglier than usual.  I pulled down my pants and looked at my thigh.  There is a light red mottling there, at the height of the polywire, and extending in a line down to my lower leg.  It does not look or feel like a burn; the pain is more like muscle soreness.

Back on the four-wheeler, I raced the rain back down the mile or two to my truck.  I lost.  It came down hard, stinging my face and soaking through my light rain jacket.  Shivering and dripping , I climbed into my truck, started the engine and turned on the heat and defroster.  I drove off with the tailgate down, all manner of ranching equipment sliding out the back of the bed on the steep road.  After gathering the tools and fifty-pound salt blocks, and throwing the pry bar and spool of fence wire back in as quickly as possible, I drove into camp. 

I started a fire in my cabin and heated water for mate and hot chocolate (the spicy kind with chile powder).  I peeled off my wet shirt and jeans, pulled on dry ones.   I realized there was a ringing, or a high-pitched electric hum in my left ear. 

I sat by the fire, going over it again in my mind: the boom, the darkness, the white streak: struck by thunder.  As the shock wore off, I considered that I may not be enlightened, but my earlier wondering might have been a premonition.  If I weren’t such a skeptic, I would say this is a striking example of synchronicity.  The thought gives me chills, but of course that could just be because I’m cold.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The LeValley Ranch: rangeland management for diversity, wildlife, and livestock production

Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management tours ranch after bestowing Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award

Lars Santana (NRCS)
Last Friday, about fifty ranchers, conservationists, and government employees gathered near Hotchkiss, Colorado, for a day-long field tour of the LeValley Ranch, hosted by the Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management and organized by Lars Santana, rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montrose, Colorado.  The ranch won the Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award from the CSSRM last year.  It is owned and operated by Mark and Robbie (Baird) LeValley, and Mark’s brother Hank.  Many of us know Robbie as the local Colorado State University Extension livestock and range specialist, and past president of both the CSSRM and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, but on this rare day at home—but still at work—she mostly ceded the stage to husband and full-time ranch manager Mark.  

Dave Bradford (USFS) describes
local geography and vegetation.
The ranch lies in a few geographically close but separate management units between Hotchkiss and Crawford on Scenic and Fruitland Mesas, a broad brushy plateau between the West Elk Mountains and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 

The area is important winter habitat for deer and elk, as well as year-round habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse, a candidate subspecies for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. and Colorado species of concern.  The LeValleys’ management is designed to leave plenty of food, water, and cover for the wildlife.  All of their rangeland, both publicly and privately owned, meets the sage-grouse habitat quality guidelines in the Rangewide Conservation Plan. 
Kurt Kubik (BLM) and Mark LeValley discuss public land grazing management.

The land’s overall health and its value as wildlife habitat are accomplished primarily through planned grazing with the LeValley’s cattle in each pasture for generally one to two, and always less than three weeks, with light utilization on their Bureau of Land Management allotment and light to moderate utilization on their privately owned land.  The grazing management on the BLM land is a combination of rotational grazing and rotational rest, where one pasture is rested each year, and the remaining pastures are moved through in a series with the order varying from year to year, explained Mark LeValley and Kurt Kubik of the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office.  On their private land they use rotational grazing, again alternating the pasture in which they begin the rotation each year.  The net effect of all of this management is that the grazed plants have plenty of opportunity for recovery between grazing events.  Of course the wildlife do not follow a grazing plan, so some plants are, inevitably, grazed repeatedly.  On the whole, the land is doing quite well. 

John Murray
The private land looks perhaps slightly better than the public land, though it is difficult to say whether that is due to differences in grazing management, or the other vegetation treatments that have been applied over the years.  The LeValleys have worked with NRCS-Colorado rangeland management specialists John Murray (retired) and Lars Santana not only on prescribed grazing, but also on brush management, setting back some of the densest stands of big sagebrush, Gambel oak, and serviceberry in mosaic patterns to increase plant diversity.  “Before, when you tried to ride through here, the oak brush would rip the shirt off your back,” said Murray as we looked at the dozen or so species of grass and a few dozen species of forbs now growing in the oak savanna.

CDOW officer
We also looked at a wildlife guzzler and seeding.  The guzzler makes a wet patch where the native grass, ‘Ladak’ alfalfa (a dryland variety), and native insects flourish.  The area is fenced off from cattle, and surrounding fence posts have raptor perch deterrents, provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, to maximize the area’s value for sage-grouse.  Robbie LeValley said that during the steepest decline in the regional sage-grouse population, there were thousands of ravens in the area, but the raven numbers have now decreased dramatically as well.
Robbie LeValley discusses wildlife management at a grazing exclosure
surrounding a wildlife guzzler and seeding.

The LeValley Ranch is a diversified operation, incorporating hunting enterprises, including a pheasant hunting enterprise at their irrigated headquarters.  Much of the beef produced on the ranch is marketed locally through Colorado Homestead Ranches, which has a processing facility in Delta (Homestead Meats) and retail store in Paonia (Homestead Market), and is partly owned by the LeValley Ranch.  We topped off the afternoon with the LeValleys’ natural-beef hamburgers for lunch at a restaurant in Crawford.