Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~January 29th~

Our overnight low is seven below. It’s Sunday, church has already been canceled due to cold and snowy roads, and I’m heading out the door to join my husband feeding cattle. My two kids stay inside as usual, my fifteen-year-old daughter looking after her five-year-old brother. I pull on my muck boots over two pairs of thick socks; I have insulated leggings on with thick jeans over them, a t-shirt, sweatshirt, a zippered-insulated sweatshirt, and finally a thick winter coat over that. A neck warmer, a scarf, a stocking cap with a hood up over that, and ski gloves complete the ensemble. Getting dressed to go outside for chores or work in this winter weather is like donning armor for a battle.

Outside, the sun has risen into an icy net of gray clouds. No warmth escapes its hold even though light seeps through. I hop in the passenger side of the feed pickup and we leave for the Shubert to the north.

The day before, like so many this winter, brought fresh snow that drifted the roads shut again. “Can’t even find the road anymore,” Jon grumbles as he guns it in four-wheel drive to plow through drifts and deceptively deep snow. The cup of coffee I enjoyed this morning sloshes around uncomfortably as we jerk along the road or as near to it as we can manage.

When we make it to the Shubert pasture, we see the heifers have drifted through the fence into the adjacent pasture. Jon grumbles more—our morning just became a long one.

Jon sets out north, going through the autogate and into the next pasture. We call the heifers, about twenty-some head, and they turn and head toward us. One heifer is on the wrong side of the fence so Jon pulls the staples and pushes down the fence so she can climb over.

Jon pulls staples and pushes down the fence for the wayward heifer

The heifers stopped at some hay bales and Jon had to step out and move them on foot while I drove the feed pickup.

After what feels like an eternity, we make it back to the Shubert with the wayward heifers. A tank full of snowy slush and ice awaits us. Jon chastises me as we walk to the tank, “look at the cattle tracks and walk where they walked. If you keep going where you’re headed, you’ll walk straight into the overflow pond.” I heed his advice and plod through snow, my legs already tiring. The tank is solid ice when we get there. I set to it with the ax, chopping the ice away from the edge of the tank, while Jon chops blocks of ice with the pitchfork then tosses them out of the tank. I become acutely aware of my shoulders. Every fiber, every sinew of my deltoids is soon on fire and an ache builds in my back and forearms. The windmill creaks under a light breeze and a small stream pours from the leadpipe.

After clearing the ice, we grain the heifers and head back to the granary to load feed for the steers. The steers are fed without incident and we repeat the process and head for the cows in the Webb. Everyday, the cows in the Webb have been hanging around the Merritt house and tree-break in this snow and cold. We see they are there again this day, but as always need to see that breakfast has arrived before being persuaded to leave their sheltered spot. Jon drives toward the cows, calling, when we suddenly dive forward into a blowout buried and disguised in deep snow. We are stuck. Our long morning just got longer.

Jon calls our intern and–thankfully–she is nearby with the tractor feeding hay. She comes and we hook on a tow rope so she can pull us out. The cows still need fed and ice needs chopped at this mill as well. We are battling through this day, at the end of a long, hard month.

Getting “unstuck”

After lunch, I start into those promised chocolate chip cookies while Jon heads down south to help with the cows at the Susan. I’m just adding eggs to the mix when he texts me, “I’m stuck”. I tell Abigail I’m off to rescue Dad and head out to the red pickup to see if it will start. A few protesting growls before the engine turns over and I head to Ellsworth to get the white pickup with all the tow ropes and head south. Will this day ever be done?

As I top a ridge, I see a Jon out walking, flagging me down. The blue feed pickup is stuck in the bottom of a draw. I pull the white pickup to where Jon directs me on top of the hill and he begins hooking on the rope and chains. He tells me to go get in the blue pickup while he pulls with the white. “Now when you see the chain go tight, give it full gas”. He gets in, I give thumbs up, and he revs the engine in reverse. The chain pulls tight and I step hard on the gas. The pickup jerks forward before spinning out in the snow, halting progress quickly. Jon stops and pulls forward, reverses, and we go again. Another jerk forward, followed by a halt. We do a herky jerky dance like this until the tow rope breaks, sending the end of the chain flying back toward me in the pickup. Startled, I put it in park. Jon gets another chain and hooks it up to the now shorter rope, and we begin again. Bit by bit, slowly the feed pickup creeps up the hill at the urging of the white pickup. This day has been a battle and we can’t say we are victors, but neither are we defeated. Still, we head home, calling it enough for today. This war of a winter is not a quick battle, but a long drawn-out siege.

Back home, Abigail has finished mixing the cookie dough and washed all the dishes. A pleasant surprise from my teenager and a lovely treat at the end of this long, difficult day in a long, hard month. I pop the cookies in the oven and watch as they bake, counting my blessings as the delicious smell wafts through the kitchen.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills, Prairie life, winter

~January 28th~

It’s snowing and a cold wind howls out of the north. Pale snow clouds blanket the sky so it’s blindingly white everywhere and disorienting; earth and sky are one solid snow drift. The wind blows hard enough to drift the roads shut again in places. Jon is worried about getting stuck this morning as he heads out to feed. I tell him I can come help, but he says no and wants me to stay at the house, to be his support in case he does get stuck. I’m irritated at his response. I feel a little like I’m missing out on the fun–even though the weather is absolutely miserable–and tetchy later when he tells me the tank at the Shubert is half full of slush, knowing I could have helped.

I stay busy while I wait. I wash dishes, tidy the kitchen, cook eggs and hashbrowns for when Jon returns. I light a candle and drink coffee, staying near my phone in case he gets stuck. He texts me, “I really feel like the weather is trying to kill me and my cows”. All I can say back is “I know”. I’m thankful when he gets in, it was a short, but hard day of feeding.

Early afternoon I ask Jon if I can venture outside for a few photos in the snow. He says sure and asks if I would mind heading out to the trees to turn off the drip system before it turns sub-zero. He had intended to do it earlier but forgot, and if I can do it, it will save him a trip outside later. I frown. At about 250 yards, that’s a bit further than I was intending to venture. Wasn’t I just longing to go out and be helpful though? I comply. Outside, the snow is like tiny steely knives, shredding the air and cutting into me where I have slivers of skin exposed. It even works its way around my hood, finding the skin at the back of my neck. The whirling air is painful. The temperature is still above zero–our thermometer reads twelve degrees Fahrenheit–but the wind makes it feel twice that below zero. I trudge through growing drifts, the wind whipping snow into my face and making it difficult to see. I make it to the trees and turn off the faucet. I remove one ski glove, snapping a few photos and taking a video before putting my glove back on and heading south. My fingers, even in the short time I had my glove off, are screaming in agony. I realize I am a silly goose, out here freezing my fingers for a photo.

Shortly after four in the afternoon, I notice the light beginning to change. The sky goes from the brilliant white it has been all day to a soft slate gray. The white hills contrast now against the sky and the snow relents enough I can see across the valley. The temperature is six degrees and dropping. The forecast says temperatures will continue to fall tonight, and that we are in for a bitter cold spell until Tuesday. The month is ending much as it began.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills, Prairie life, Ranching, winter

~A Winter to Remember~

“‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.”
~A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day
By John Donne

This winter has been a notable one for this area. Perhaps, even for the whole state. People I meet–at the grocery store, at church, at the gas pump–often remark on the winter and all the snow. Recently I was told, “It’s been so long since we’ve had a REAL winter like this, no one knows what to do with it,” and the guy who works on our windmills and wells told Jon, “I have moved more snow in the last month than I have in a decade.”

Winter is–meteorologically–our longest season in western Nebraska, but the duration can vary widely. Snow and cold can easily begin in October and even September, lasting until late May. These snows and cold spells are often interrupted by warming trends—a brown, mild February is just as common as a white and frigid one. Rare is the year where the snow falls at the start of the season and sits on the ground until spring. Such winters are deeply etched into the minds of the people here, especially the ranchers who work everyday outside in the elements. The winter of 1978-79 has been brought up repeatedly this year, comparisons drawn by those who lived through that long, cold winter years ago.

My husband, who is a cooperative weather observer for Ellsworth now since 2001 can confirm that the hard winter thus far isn’t a figment of our imaginations. We’ve had two and a half feet of snow already this winter, and that total is much less than surrounding areas. Only one day has had temperatures over 50 in the last month or more, and we haven’t been above freezing for a week. The forecast promises more snow and temperatures to drop to sub-zero next week, ensuring the snow will linger into February at the very least. Snow that has been on the ground, covering the range, every day since December 13th. According to his records, this is the snowiest cold winter we have had in all the years he has been keeping the data.

Many here are weary of it. I tread carefully in conversations about the weather. Lately I’ve taken to asking, “Are you someone who hates all this snow and cold or doesn’t mind?” The snow and ice have caused motor-vehicle accidents, and many I know have taken spills and had injuries, and even broken bones. I don’t mind winter, in fact I have learned to relish the beauty of the snow and cold, but understand many do not share my sentiments.

For a rancher like my husband, winter is a time of consumption rather than production. A season of scarcity. The cows–with range all covered in snow–must live on whatever we haul them: protein tubs, hay, grain. In years like this one where the snow lingers long, he counts hay bales and worries about feed; will there be enough? Cold, calm days guarantee he will have ice to chop and pitch at the tanks without solar mills, and snowfall means he must shovel bunks before he can feed. The short days make his project work more difficult to complete. Winter to him means sore shoulders, a sore back, and a sore temperament. He doesn’t say as much or wax poetic like I do, but I know he suffers a bit of seasonal depression in the winter months, and longs for spring and sunlight and green grass. He looks forward to a pasture filled with baby calves, a length of fence repaired, and—in the summer months—a valley full of bales at the end of the day. I wonder how many other ranchers–being the producerists and outdoorsmen and women that they are–feel the same way?

Today I drove back to the house after giving Jon a ride to Ellsworth. We had surprised a jackrabbit in the corrals at Ellsworth, the first one I had seen in a great while. He was small, with a black tail and tipped ears, the rest of him all speckled white, and Jon asked me to stop the pickup and watch. “Wait and see where he goes,” he said. We waited as the hare loped toward the shed where the protein lick tubs are stored, but then cut and went around. Jon said the jackrabbit had been hanging out there, and he suspected eating on the tubs since range was so scarce.

As I drove back into our valley at home, admiring the freckled snow on the hills—so much a part of them now that it would seem odd without—I thought how special this spring will be. After such a long winter full of snow and cold, we will truly rejoice, truly celebrate spring.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~Saturday, January 14th~

With an overnight low of 27, it already feels warm this morning. Fluffy, thin cirrus clouds stretch across the sky like long contrails and a light breeze flutters the hair around my face. There will be no ice to pitch this morning. I stop to listen before I walk to the granary; is it my imagination that it is a bit noisier than it has been for weeks now? Tiny birds scatter along the ground, hopping and dipping tiny beaks down in rapid motions, twittering lightly in a cheerful chorus. As soon as I climb in the pickup, Jon remarks on the weather.
“Mid-forties today, might push fifty.”

With spots of brown earth showing up, tan and ochre grasses poking out of the hardened snow banks, the hills resemble a mess of speckled eggs. Peering down at the snow up close, it looks like a pumice stone, tiny holes and tunnels mar the smooth surface. The warmer temperatures are slowly eating away at the hard snow.

We drive to the Shubert to grain the little heifers. Clear water pours from the lead pipe into a full tank of water, and the sails of the mill turn in the breeze. More birds are here in the meadow, cleaning up the spilled grain around the bunks and voicing their little pleasures. Winter is quiet, but icy silence is not the season’s only tone. It’s not the warm, rich sound of fall, nor the bright complex polyphonic tunes of spring and summer. Winter’s timbre is breathy and simple; high-pitched melodies echoing with snow and cold.

Back at the granary, we climb in the pickup after loading grain again. Jon turns the key and nothing happens. No lights, no engine turning, no ding, nothing.
“Battery?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” Jon says and pops the hood. He peers into the engine compartment of the pickup which is as old as our marriage, and starts fiddling with the battery box. He comes back and turns the key again. Nothing. He removes a panel on the driver’s side near the steering wheel, muttering something about ignition fuses and pulls out funny little colored plugs. He goes back to the battery, then pushes the button for the caker and it runs.
“Must be a bad connection,” he says, and then pulls out a little socket set. Jon has joked before that ranchers are jacks of all trades and masters of none. Mechanicing is part of the trade it seems. He fiddles around the battery box a bit with the tools, tightens something and I hear a ding in the pickup.
“You did it!” I say, and as he turns the key, the engine roars to life. We get back in to head to the Webb* pasture.

There we find another tank of water, open with no ice. The morning moves at an easier pace with no snow to clear from bunks, no ice to clear at the tanks. It also improves the mood of my husband, I notice. He gets out to straighten the bunks, then stops to scratch a few cows on their backs. With thickened winter skin and fur coats, they appreciate the scratching; one cow who is particularly fond of it stretches her neck in pleasure and backs up into his hands as they work over her hide. He pats her rump then grins at me and I feel a swell of sweet enjoyment, love and affection that bubbles from somewhere in my core. The pleasure of the moment even after nearly twenty years married to this man produces a laugh and genuine smile back at him.

He runs the caker, pours grain into the bunks, and circles the pickup to count the cattle as he always does, but today I gasp in surprise and dismay. A little red balloon-like membrane hangs limply from one cow’s rear, the color garish against the black cow and all this winter white. I know what it means–the tiny water-bag so out of place in January for cattle due to calve in spring–the cow has had a miscarriage.
“Oh no!” is my only verbal response to the inner anguish I feel. The cow’s spontaneous abortion affects me greatly, having lost several pregnancies myself. The height of happy feelings from a moment ago tumble into heartache and tears.
Jon gets out, walks to the bunk to read her tag number.
“What caused it, do you think?” I ask when he returns.
“Any number of things this early–she could have even fallen on the ice and lost the calf as a result.”
He looks up her number in his record book on his phone and sees her calf died last year at weaning so he says, “something might be hinky there”. He is still disappointed about the cow “slinking” as we call a miscarriage, but says now there is an open cow to sell. The watery blood reminds me we aren’t in control, we were never in control, and ranching is not only a gamble with markets and weather, but also with life and death.

Day’s end and I sit at my computer, typing. I’m working on a deadline and wondering why I do this to myself, grumbling about my current status in life. The children erupt with laughter from another room and this sudden burst of joy makes me pause. It is easy for us to focus on the bad, the difficulties of life when they happen, but often there’s more good than bad. Today was a good day–even with the bad and busy parts–and I’m reminded to be grateful for all of it.

*Jon’s dad, who knew the homesteader for which the pasture is named, said the correct spelling is Webb and not Web. I have not back-corrected my writings here yet, but will correct it moving forward.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~Be Still~

“Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

I think I always assumed the meaning of that verse was just to be quiet. Almost like God was lecturing me, “Hey, shut up for awhile, okay?” A deeper delve of the meaning though shows this isn’t necessarily what is meant in this Psalm. The Hebrew word for “still” in this verse–raphah–means to relax, to withdraw, to be idle. Another translation of this verse reads “Cease striving and know that I am God” (ASV). The greater context of the verse in the entire Psalm proclaims God’s strength and majesty in the face of adversity. In other words, the “be still” part is less admonishing and more inviting. As if God is saying, “I am bigger and stronger than all your problems. Look at all the wonders of the earth, all I have done in your life. Is anything too difficult for me? Stop fighting, stop wrestling with life, just relax and come withdraw and hang out with me for a while. I will always protect you and you can trust me.”

One of the reasons I love photography is it asks me to do just that. It invites me to take some time away from my crazy everyday life, to become keenly aware and observant of my surroundings, to relax and withdraw as I snap photos. I can’t be scrolling on my phone or watching videos. And I can’t be bouncing all over or moving quickly to get a good shot either; I have to stop, breathe, calm myself and hold still to take the photo or the image will be fuzzy and blurred. I am often outside while photographing—sometimes out with my husband feeding cattle, sometimes just walking around in my yard—but always appreciating the beauty of the world around me. As I work to capture some of the beauty that I find, I am reminded of God’s presence in his creation.

While I realize not everyone has photography for a hobby, I think we all can benefit from the deeper meaning and wisdom of this verse from Psalms. I have found over the past few months of working full-time, that if I carve out a little space on the weekends for photography—in the form of this resting, unplugging, unwinding with God—I do much better during the week. Being still (raphah), requires discipline on my part, and I’m learning where to sneak in chunks during the day too; however, my entire being is improved when I can find time each day to realize God is in control, he is with me always, and his strength knows no bounds.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~Winter Moods~

“You suppose it will be like that ‘til spring?” I ask, pointing down to the sandpass in the Web. We drive along a trail up in the hills on this last day of December, above the pass filled with hard, deep snow drifts. We would normally drive through that pass in this pasture to get to the mill and the place where we feed the cattle.

“It’s hard to say,” Jon says, carefully picking his way along the new trail through hardened snow. “I’ve seen Februarys that turn off sixty or seventy degrees. If that happens, all this could be gone in a week or so.” The blues and purples in the sky off to the southwest are intensifying. The snow in the hills brightens against the deepening inky colors and the scene takes on a winter-postcard feel. Another system is working its way into western Nebraska; more snow is predicted, starting the next day. “Of course, it could be there until Easter too,” he says, trailing off.

On New Year’s Day, I hop in the pickup to go with him to the Shubert to grain the little heifers. He is in a sour mood. “First day of January and I’m already sick of winter,” he growls after reading the latest weather update. The weathermen have us in a winter storm warning, increasing wind predictions and snow accumulation. “Still, 35 mph isn’t enough to corral the cows like last time. They should be okay. Just hard since the cattle haven’t really recovered yet from the last storms. Wish I could do more for them.” We rattle the ice at the tank—me chopping the thin layers with an ax, him guiding large sheets of ice under the leadpipe where the running water will melt them. The curious young heifers come close, watching us work with doe eyes. Their hooves click and crunch on the snow and ice. One heifer walks with a gimp. She slipped on a patch of ice the other day and pulled her hip. “Too stupid to walk around the ice like the rest of them,” Jon laments. He has said before that young heifers are among the dumbest creatures God created.

On the 2nd of January, we wake to snow. Fluffy stuff that sticks to the window screens and piles thick on the steps and sidewalk. Jon estimates three inches so far, and more is falling. He’s in a better mood this morning, in spite of all the new snow. “Only two weeks until mid-January when we sell bred cows in Valentine. Then it’s a few days til our appointment in Denver and we’ve nearly made it through January. February is a short month. Then I can start looking at the hay in the yards and count the days until spring.”

We load grain and I watch the dry distiller’s and cracked corn swirl together into the auger while I paddle piles in the caker on the pickup. Time feels like that grain vortex, funneling fast towards the end of my break. I’ve enjoyed my time working alongside my husband again–journaling and photographing–and now balk at going back.

At the Shubert, we check the tank. Snow has blown thick into the water, creating an icy slush. “If we don’t clear it out, it’ll freeze up and turn to thick blocks of ice.” He hands me a shovel and grins. “Now we paddle.” We drag our shovels through the slush backwards, paddling the slurry toward the leadpipe. It mixes and melts as we row in tandem. Like a ninny, I think of Laurie and Amy in the book Little Women. “How well we pull together, don’t we?” Amy said sappily in the novel as her and Laurie rowed together, and it is this I am thinking of while we work. Leave it to me to think of romance and novels while ranching.

We grain the heifers there at the Shubert, then reload several times for other bunches of cattle. I help shovel fluffy, thick snow out of bunks, tripping over frozen cow manure, coughing and sputtering in the cold. I gaze at the hills and the snow falling around us. The clouds and snow obscure the lines of demarcation between the sky and ground, blurring it into a white oblivion. I suppose a soul could feel lost in the enormity of all this snowy prairie, but I feel snug and safe–absolutely right with the world.

We drive back home when we finish all the graining, seeing the bulls have drifted up into the hills. It isn’t like the blizzards with wind hard enough to shove them through fences, but it is still a winter storm and the cattle are pocketing out up in the hills. Jon is already talking about opening his 2023 planner and listing the projects and work to be completed before calving, and I’ve just received an email from the school lining out our work for the week and coming month. The winter may have only just begun, but my time working with my husband over Christmas break is fast coming to a close. Both of us will be itching now for the coming spring, for my next long break, and for winter’s end. When the weather–and our moods–will improve.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~Winter Storm Stories

“You guys must be exhausted,” the store owner said as we stopped with our purchases. After being snowed in, then sick over Christmas, we are finally venturing out for supplies. Yes, we are most certainly exhausted.

We retell our experience of the lost cattle, the deep snow, getting stuck and digging out. Finding the cattle—nearly four miles away—and the chore of bringing them back again. Getting sick, the pared down holiday, the canceled events, and frozen pipes.
The store owner recalls her own battle with the storms and cold—employees stuck, a heater that wouldn’t keep up with the cold, frozen pipes and huge drifts of snow. Over Christmas, my brother-in-law made it down from Spearfish, South Dakota. He had his own tales and pictures of cars buried under drifts of snow and road closures.

Storm stories.
The battle-weary recall the details of what they have been through; the people who have lived to tell the tales of nature’s wrath speak freely of their experience. Will it be one for the ages? Something to tell the grandkids about? “Remember the blizzards of December 2022…”

The day after the second blizzard, I peered out my kitchen window into the ninebark next to the house. A starling hung dead in the branches. Two days later, when we struck out to feed cattle, I spied a dead rabbit in the meadow next to a drift. Both are now gone—cats, dog, coyotes—the scavengers clean the dead of the storm. I see the drifts soften in the warmth, snow melting into tired slumps, and wonder what we will find buried there beneath the frozen mounds. Does the land get to tell its tale of what it went through? I watched it scream during the storm, throwing snow and dirt back up to the sky; now the eaves drip with the melt of a forty-degree day, tears falling steady for each lost creature. The land whispers its storm stories for those of us who will hear.

A foggy morning brews thick white air and fuzzy frost, shakes loose small, soft flakes from the sky. It is silent here on the prairie on this December’s end. Clean new snow covers the dirty drifts, the melting sludge in the lake out south, the open meadow and hills of grass and sand. I stand as I photograph the falling snow, feeling like the white is white-out, an eraser for all we witnessed. We told our tales, and the land whispered its own. The storm stories etched in black and white now soften with winter’s serene balm and fade into remembrance. The snow is a quiet comfort without the wind, blessed moisture and crystalline beginnings for a new year.

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~A morning drive~

“Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” ~ Psalm 143:8

It’s 6 a.m. and the morning cup of coffee is coming to an end. The early light of day is spreading slow across the eastern sky, and weaned heifer calves stroll in off the meadow, their dark little bodies eerie in the low light. Time to get the kids up, finish getting ready and head out for the day.

A month ago, the sun peeked up over the hills before we left for school; now it tarries. I wish, too, I was still in bed rather than rushing down the highway.

As I drive, the grey light grows brighter. We spy deer and coyotes; two hawks perched on bales. A meadowlark bursts from the side of the road into flight, the black on his breast streaking through the air. “Mom, look at all the antelope,” Abigail says pointing south to a herd of a dozen or more pronghorns grazing on the hills. Geese fly in a scattered V, their soft bodies silhouetted against a pastel canvas. I think about the poem–wild geese–and how they have no cares, no job to rush to, no need to be good and perform well.

A whisper of fog hovers above the wet meadows. Nothing so thick as to suggest a cloud; rather, more like a gathering of spirits above the grasses—thin drifts ready to dissolve in the sunlight. A fog–even such a thin one as this–plays with the mind and hints at secrets untold in the Sandhills. What hides with these specters in the grasses? What mysteries would be found in these misty moors of the prairie?

A week later and the sun begs for another five minutes in bed. Today, though, the wind kites across the prairie. Grasses, reeds, cattails and weeds all move in harmony, a wild dance with the wind as their partner. Their colors are muted in this early grey light, but the maroon of the bunch grass, the ochre of the needle grass, the soft tan of the reed grass undulate and swirl in a fiery reel. A waning harvest moon sets in the western sky, and slowly clouds appear above it. I had not known they were there in the low light of early morning, but now–with the sun pushing at the boundary of sky and horizon behind me–the soft pinks and purples and peach brush the wispy edges of high cirrus clouds. Each second produces new colors, richer and deeper, until the western sky is splayed with an incredible array of rainbow hued clouds.

I drive up onto the flat table land east of Alliance. A mule deer grazes in a shorn wheat field, his antlers defined against the brightening sky. The sun finally breaks it’s sleepy spell, and the world blushes with a rosy-gold glow at this first kiss of sunlight. I find myself wishing for time, wishing for lingering slow moments in the sunlight. Wishing for walks in the wind, for the weight of it all to disappear like the fog.

Soon, each day, I am like the wild geese and heading home again. Along the drive, I am offered a chance to unwind and rest, the hills welcoming me home. Don’t we all wish for more time, for life to stretch and slow so we can catch our breath? Don’t we all need an exhalation, a lifting of the weight of all we carry?

Another morning. Another drive. Another watching of the sun bleed its slow light across the sky as I drive. An exhalation and promise. A touchstone of transcendence with nature before the harried and hectic whisks me into a crazy ride of the day. A reminder that the sun will move across the prairie and bring me home again, to the place where I belong.

Wild Geese

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.                         
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.” ~Mary Oliver

Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~Prairie Schoolgirl~

Stephanie Graham, local historian, in her schoolhouse museum at Ellsworth, Nebraska

I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie Graham, a friend and neighbor and fellow prairie girl, and discuss one room schoolhouses and her life in the Sandhills. Over cups of hot tea, I asked Stephanie how long she had been a Sandhills girl. “Guess what… forever!” she said, and laughed and smiled. Stephanie not only was born here, but has a long family history in the area. “Dad and his brother were born and raised here, raised at the Ranch,” she said, referring to the Spade Ranch. They lived at the Spade Ranch headquarters northeast of Ellsworth. “We kids were all raised out there, and I grew up just listening to stories. My family has always been interested in history,” Stephanie said. She spoke fondly of her experiences at the one-room school she attended for eight years, which sat about 25 miles northeast of Ellsworth. Her memories of days long gone came freely, and she recollected everything from the names of children who attended to the building itself. The walls were a thin type of fuzz board she said, and they huddled around a Warm Morning stove in the winter. Her and her cousins–who also lived in the area–all took turns driving themselves to school. Voice full of warmth and nostalgia, Stephanie spoke about her school and life at that time, “It was a simpler time. It was such a safe feeling–of your school and your neighbors that you knew that went there. It was a good upbringing.” She also spoke highly of the education she received in the one-room school and of the other schools in the area. She cited examples of success stories out of these schools, saying it was as good of an education–perhaps at times even a better education–than multi-grade town schools. “Out here, there was just a difference, a connection. You really felt like family,” she said.

District 119 in the 1930s
District 119 in the 1960s – note the outhouse to the northeast. There was also a barn to the north for the children to stable their horses.
The school in the 50s sitting at one of its original locations.
District 119 students pose on the merry-go-round in the 1990s for a professional photographer.

I also asked her to tell me about the two schoolhouses that sit outside her yard in Ellsworth. The larger schoolhouse—District 119, which sits up on the hill right north of Graham’s house—was built in 1930. Prior to that, the Ellsworth schoolhouse sat up the valley at Merritt’s, which is northwest of the town of Ellsworth. About 20 kids attended the school at that time, with most of the children coming from area ranches. The school opened and closed throughout the years, depending on how many children were in the area to attend. The school closed permanently in spring of 2007 and Grahams bought it, along with the little schoolhouse, at an auction in 2008. Since then Stephanie has restored the hardwood floors, put in new windows and doors, cleaned and restored the slate blackboards, cleaned all the rooms, and even restored a huge canvas curtain that hangs from the ceiling. The curtain features a painting of a mountain scene and advertisements for local businesses; however, since the painting was never signed or initialed, no one knows who painted it. As we walked through the large room, she showed me record books, ledgers, photo albums, a cowboy’s iron skillet and tin cup, and a survey chain, among other items. She carefully flipped through the cataloged pages and told stories about the Spade ranch, the town of Ellsworth, the school and its students. I could feel her passion for history as she spoke. Over the last decade, people have sent her photos, books, letters, and artifacts all with stories to tell; stories that Stephanie lovingly preserves and is happy to tell at this little schoolhouse museum.

District 119 – the larger schoolhouse is now a museum of history in Ellsworth, Nebraska.
A little campfire which features Engle Macumber’s tin cup and iron skillet. Engle lived north of Ellsworth.
The huge leather-bound ledger for the Spade Ranch. Stephanie and I flipped through the ledger and found many names I recognized, including my husband’s great grandfather Eli Louden who homesteaded east of Ellsworth.
The large canvas curtain that features painted advertisements.
Stephanie lets my son, Samuel play with some of the fun old toys and items she has on display at the schoolhouse.
Stephanie explains the items on the shelves, lined with pictures from the Spade Ranch and area around Ellsworth.
Samuel explored and found some toys and books from another era.
A survey chain that was used to measure the land. Notice the little metal tags of varying shapes. Chains such as this marked off homesteads and purchased land in the Sandhills.
Ellsworth school was a voting location at one time. This is an example of a voting box that was equipped to be packed on mules.

The small schoolhouse – District 119 North – was originally located near the Wilson and Munger ranches north of Ellsworth and was built on skids so they could pull it around. It was a true one-room schoolhouse, with an outhouse nearby. When the school closed, it was brought to Ellsworth to be used as a storage shed for the larger schoolhouse. The little schoolhouse still boasts the original slate blackboards and wooden siding and is listed on the historical registry. Stephanie has bought the desks, painted the building, and furnished it with old schoolbooks and school items to showcase. I tried to picture this tiny school, sitting alone amongst the grassy hills, the wind buffeting the thin walls. I sat at one of the wooden desks and felt the echoes of history in the little school room. I imagined myself a country schoolgirl, listening to a teacher from long ago, her chalk scratching across the blackboard, staring out the windows at the prairie. Walking back outside, Stephanie crouched down and pulled a metal box from under the steps. Along with being a picturesque museum, the little schoolhouse site also holds a registered geocache. Finders of the geocache had written little messages in the guest book inside the box. I smiled realizing what a special treasure Stephanie has created as she read me several of the messages. We stopped and listened to some cranes flying overhead, such an appropriate ending to my tour on this lovely fall day.

District 119 North- the little schoolhouse in Ellsworth, Nebraska
The skids to move the little schoolhouse are still attached to the building
The little schoolhouse
Stephanie acts the school teacher for Samuel in the little schoolhouse

I asked Stephanie if she had ever thought of moving to someplace else. Emphatically she shook her head and declared, her voice thick with emotion, “I never wanted to live anyplace else. The Sandhills is definitely my home…I just love it out here, I love the people here, the history, how rooted we are, the beauty.” For Stephanie, the hills and the history here are a part of her heart forever, and the schoolhouses will be a lasting part of her legacy as a Sandhills prairie girl.

Stephanie’s love of the Sandhills is evident in the quotes and words she writes on the blackboards in the school.
Posted in Nebraska Sandhills

~In the blink of a memory~

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about.

William Stafford

Hot September wind pushes my hair around my face; it stinks of drying up alkali mud—sulfurous and decaying. I walk down the road, heading north, plodding along the dry gravel road. Seagulls are bunching in the meadow; their white and grey bodies bright against the fading yellow-green. They congregate amongst the bales, I presume they are feasting on bugs now exposed from the shorn meadow grasses.

Along the walk, I notice a trail of army ants crossing the road, and I stop to watch them. So many ants are trailing in a perfect path. I bend down, curious about their intent. Each ant holds something white in its tiny jaws. Sand? Minuscule seeds? I pull my camera out so I can zoom in to better see. I am surprised to see a larva in each of the ants’ jaws. They must be moving the nest, I think to myself. I wonder at this for a bit, trying to trace the source of their old nest (was it disturbed by an animal?), and then try to find the new home destination—somewhere east in the meadow—but soon realize I am wasting time, and my walk this evening has a purpose.

Trying not to get further sidetracked by meadow flowers and geese, I continue to my destination near the Shubert lake. I stop at the patch of cattails, snapping a couple of pictures before I reach for the plants, bending and breaking off a sturdy stem with its long, fuzzy brown top. I’m a grown woman here in the Sandhills, but in the blink of a memory…

I’m eight years old again, helping my grandma pick cattails. I’ve got plastic bread sacks over my shoes—she pulled them onto my feet and secured them with rubber bands around my little legs. We slosh through the mud near the irrigation ditch north of Cozad, gathering arm-loads of cattails for her to sell at a local floral shop. The smell of wet, clay mud and cool morning air mixes around me, as my long hair blows around my face. Grandma wades through the mud in her galoshes and we cut the cattails together. I smile at the sight of her curly white hair blowing all around in the wind.

I’m nine years old and Grandma has her arm curved gently around my slight frame. She is showing me that the ants on the peonies are hard at work and not at all hurting the plant, that I should leave them be. Her finger is crooked to point, the knuckles thick with arthritis and the skin on the back of her hand is papery thin and soft. She smells like fresh dirt and sweat and floral soap as she leans into me, warm and soft and comforting. Her garden is an oasis in this tiny plot of farm ground, a place I love to run and play.

I’m ten years old and Grandma is threading a worm on my hook. The air smells like fish and algae and lake. I stare at her, amazed how she has no fear, no squeamishness, no hesitancy as she spears the wriggling worm onto the sharp metal. Will I ever be able to do this, I wonder? Will I ever grow to be so bold? I turn and run amongst the rocks along the shore, chasing minnows to fill Grandpa’s bucket. I wave to Grandma, still holding my pole. She shakes her head and clicks her tongue at my impatience, smiling nonetheless.

A million memories. Tucked away in the recesses of my mind from summers and weekends spent with my grandma north of Cozad while growing up. Brought up fresh in moments like this—some expected, some unexpected. When my peonies bloom, when I stand near a lake full of fish, or see a cardinal take flight. Sometimes it is a fragrance; other times it is a sight. Memories are strange like that, popping up and overwhelming me so that I am suddenly miles and a lifetime away again.

Back at the house, I arrange my bundle of cattails in containers with silk flowers and grass. Grandma has been gone three years now, and I still miss her all the time. Somehow, though, she is here in my memories. When I remember her gentle ways and simple life. When I see ants on the peonies, eat a hard ribbon candy, or when yarn streams through my fingers while I crochet. Sometimes when I’m digging in the garden. And when I cut cattails. Always when I cut cattails.