We’ve had a few challenging weeks of winter in Central Oregon this year. My mare is old, and I felt worried enough that I needed a second opinion about her care, as ten-degree wind whipped past my ears and thigh-high snowdrifts threatened to break off into my fur-topped boots. So, breathless and cold-fingered, I called my old boss to get his advice. Jerry hired me as a wrangler more than fifteen years ago and we stay in touch even though he’s retired now and I’ve moved on to wrangling my children rather than ranches. He answered the phone with fatherly kindness, as he always does.
“Well, Dani,” he said after hearing my concerns. “The thing is, God made horses to live outside.” He paused a beat as I reflected on this, then continued. “He also made them to die when they get old,” he chuckled a little, softening his words. “You want this old girl to stick around a while, so I guess you probably ought to meddle with nature.”
I put a blanket on my mare that night.
Nature is my partner, not my tool.
Humans live in tension with nature all the time. Sometimes we are tussling with her, shaping her to our will, and sometimes we are regretting our fisticuffs, wishing we’d let her go her own way after all. Living and working on ranches, I saw this tension on display every day of my youth. We need to be good stewards of nature. We need to manage her water tables, soil nutrients and even wildlife if we want our agricultural endeavors to succeed. Predators left unchecked will decimate both livestock and wildlife, mismanaged water creates erosion at worst and unusable swampland at best. At the same time, we know our limits. Shaking our fists at the sky does not raise the temperature after all, and our dear Mother Earth doesn’t care much about our convictions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the raising of animals for our use—both as partners and sustenance. As a teenager, I was taught to ride horses akin to how one drives a pickup truck—how horses have been used by ranching people for centuries. I used horses to check fences, find stray calves and cover ground. I explored on horseback, learning the back roads and long-forgotten trails with the help of my fearless mare, with only the smell of my horse’s sweat and the panting of my faithful dog to ground me to myself. While my horse was my trusted confidant, she was also a terrifyingly powerful being with her own needs, preferences, and abilities. Unlike a pickup truck, she was my partner, not my tool.
One frosty Spring morning I carried a sick calf into the barn on the front of my saddle, stopping every now and then to let it bawl a guttural, terrified “munnnnhhhhhh”—a sound that bears little resemblance to the popular “moo” of baby books. The mother followed reluctantly with every cry of her calf, uneasily watching her hours-old offspring carted off by two more dominant beings: the horse and rider. Once in the barn, my horse stamped her feet while we set up a bed for the calf and a stall for the mother, who paced with her big brown eyes vacant and rolling in fear. The mother cow was caught between the desire to save herself from this strange circumstance and the prehistoric, disquieting urge to protect her calf. I learned to care for animals like this one from tough ranchers, hard men who shot wildlife-killing dogs without a second thought but stayed up all night with a sick calf, cradling its bulbous, hard head in sweet-smelling hay and talking softly to the mother cow, who was never quite sure of herself without the comforting presence of her herd.
Those tough ranchers showed me that protection is at the crux of ranch life, but also to know that we are no match for lady nature when she shows off. We are constantly protecting calves from their own ignorance: the frozen pond, the downed barbed wire, the cold, damp, unforgiving spring they are so often born into, the unexpected blizzard. We’re also constantly protecting ourselves from the animals: cows are easily frightened and can easily hurt us or each other in fear. Cowboys operate somewhere between seeing cattle as babies to be protected and investments to be preserved, although I suppose in the end it’s not too different, really.
Mother Nature is a deadly kind of whimsical.
I live on a small acreage outside of Bend now—an up-and-coming town that’s surrounded by agriculture—and I find myself in a flux of ideas as cultures clash. So we worry that bovine flatulence and agriculturally designed river dams are harming nature, that she, our mother who we both loathe and worship, is being abused by our presence here.
A few weeks before this record-breaking storm in which I sit now, (I look out my window at four-foot-high snow drifts and more falling tonight) I heard locals complaining at a pub about our lack of winter weather. They said our weather patterns have changed, that Bend isn’t what it used to be, they remembered the snowdrifts and icicles of a few decades ago. I’m not doubting that’s the case, but doesn’t it feel that our whimsical and deadly mother is having a bit of a laugh at our expense as our Priuses stay stuck in our driveways and we crank the earth-killing heat in our houses?
This is when I take comfort in the old-fashioned beliefs of my country-folk upbringing. Because I grew up knowing that big snows come and then they don’t. Sometimes animals die, sometimes they thrive. Water is everywhere and then it is scarce. Horses can hold a calf with gentleness and the next day buck off a mean rider, simply because they are powerful, sentient beings who are not to be trifled with.
Nature always wins in the end.
Living at the Intersection of Force and Pliability
I was twenty years old when Jerry hired me as a wrangler for a fledgling horse camp. I worked cows, fixed fence, irrigated pastures, made trails and lead trail rides, and every night I took my horse for a good run, for her sake and my own. I felt her four hooves pounding, eating up ground with lusty, greedy hunger. She was a well-built Paint horse, a deep red splashed with white and one blue eye that sparkled when she was angry or scared. She was a rough ride with the kind of trot that “rearranged your insides” as the old cowboys said. But at a run, she and I were both exhilarated.
We tore down the gulley past the creek, me with my head down to keep my cowboy hat on, she with her head pointed straight ahead like a Remington-sculpted cow horse come to life. It was easy to feel powerful when partnered with a muscle-bound, thousand-pound animal, to feel that nature was in my hand. But after our fun, when she was contentedly munching on pasture-grass and I went back to my little cabin, I would stand on my front porch and look up at the stars in the blue-jean-colored sky. There they were, showing themselves slowly like bubbles on the edge of a flapjack, so vast and inscrutable to me, not the kind of nature I could contain or understand, after all.
Now I’m a thirty-five-year-old mother of two. I still like to ride my horses and feel powerful doing so, although now I wear a helmet instead of a cowboy hat, so it turns out I do have limits. The evolution of rural Oregon weighs on my mind, like many children of agriculturalists I now make my living indoors, relying on the convenience of Costco instead of my own garden. I remember the steadfastness of the ranchers I grew up around, the wisdom I learned in their rumbling Ford pickups about life and the supremacy of nature herself, a respect learned on the job. We have to use the land to feed ourselves and our children, we have to bend certain pieces of nature to our will. But anyone who’s watched a newborn calf struggle to her feet beneath the warm tongue of her mother, or seen a herd of Pronghorn antelope take shelter between the cows in a blizzard knows that there’s only so much we control after all.
This tension of force and pliability in nature’s wake is uncomfortable for me, as is any delicate balance. I’d prefer one answer, one easy recipe that makes wild places and trendy urban spots and local food producers and the expansive ranches of my youth all fit together easily, in one world.
But when the wind starts to whip and I realize that theories have not prepared me for a night without electricity, when I can’t decide how best to care for the land and the animals I’ve been entrusted with, my many layers of adaptation and evolution fall away. I’m just a girl again, in the grip of a world that is at once mysterious and understood, poetic and matter-of-fact.
I’m a girl who loves the smell of irrigation water on hayfields and the easy breath of open places and the wild feeling of a dead run on horseback. A girl who stayed up all night to nurse a sick calf and who cried when the butcher came, who knows that if we want grass-fed beef we have a responsibility to our water, our grass, and our trees too.
I’m a girl who blankets her horse. Yes, nature always wins, but not today.
Cover image by Bethany Legg.