Tied in Knots
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
What Keeps Us Here
We Millers are small farmers and have been for over half a century. It has been our choice all along. I’ve spent many years writing about how much we love this life, about how much it has given us. Most of the time I write about the good stuff. Though I don’t always succeed, I’ve always felt an obligation to avoid dwelling on the difficulties in these essays because our job is to encourage. Indeed, our very prescription for life is encouragement. Sometimes the daily character of the difficulties we find ourselves immersed in has us lean elsewhere, even permeating my small modest attempt to communicate. I can say that this spring and summer have been challenging and have definitely affected the words which follow, but with twists.
“Small farmer? What might that mean exactly? What does it mean to claim it right out front in conversation?”
It sounds to some like we’re saying we are, in a twisted way, legitimate because we are small? It bothers some people. For others it is forgiven as quirky, even amateurish. In a capitalist world of baseline accounting, where profit and loss are everything, there is something iconoclastic about the choice to constrain and accept a limit to the size of an operation. Some see it as heresy. I hear that critique and feel it, and for most of my adult working life, I have ignored it. But it hasn’t gone away. Perceptions of ‘legitimacy’ are defining. For old, long established small farmers such definition matters little. For younger farmers such definition, a ‘shaming’ if you will, often pushes them away from original motivations and goals, and that push shapes in ways that can cripple from the outset.
For me, for us, to say we are small farmers is to say we choose to have our farming operation be of a scale that allows we can wrap our heads and arms all the way around it. That our operation is human scale. The acreage is such that we have the opportunity to know it, the herd and flock sizes are such that we know each animal – we know if they are doing well or poorly, if they are comfortable. The equipment we have is not saddled with a debt load that threatens our ability to pay. The work load is (mostly) manageable. We have the best opportunity to know all the parts and pieces of our operation intimately. And we keep more of whatever we make. That, to us, is what it means to be a small farmer.
But those are broad ideas that do not truly show the unique complexities of this human-scale farming we embrace. And thinking in generalities tends to crumble when we throw in that intimate stuff. Someone who wants to talk about accounting and profit margins seldom feels comfortable hearing you say how much you love your team of mules, or that sensation you feel when, after days of waiting and testing, you discover the bumper crop of fruit is just right for picking, or how that pantry full of gleaming jars canned from the produce makes you feel giddy with wealth, or how you feel when a satisfied customer is overheard telling a stranger that your meat and eggs are incredible, or what is felt when carloads of friends and neighbors arrive to help protect your buildings when a wildfire threatens, or when your grandchildren squeal with delight at the prospect of spending time with grampa and gramma on the farm. Sappy? Not for me. For me it’s all nectar.
What about the difficulties? Farming and ranching are tough businesses, even tougher pursuits. Implicit within the accepted definition of farming is that a balance of sustainability and growth are requisite. You have to believe that you are adding to the fertility, to the diversity, to the genetics, to the health, to the operational ease, to the character and structure, to YOUR definition of bottom line, to your right livelihood. Sometimes though, we can hit patches, long and short, when it seems every step forward is met with three steps back. When years of work seem to go up in smoke in a few days, when best intentions prove to have unforeseen negative consequences. When junk such as this happens, even the most positive, the most centered, selfless and big hearted might find themselves doubting; what is there to keep us here?
When disease destroys your herd, when fire wipes out your woodlot and buildings, when your costs skyrocket, when weather flattens your crops, when the well runs dry, when government agencies work to push you out, when the orchard fails, when the raccoon kills your prized hens, when the seeds fail to germinate, the list is seemingly endless. You are human to ask ‘Do I have what it takes?’ Do you find yourself doubting your original motivations and beliefs? None of us are immune to such creeping, corrosive doubts.
And there is the risk that the character of the challenges begins to define us. Today we find ourselves tied in knots over the shortfalls. On our small forest-surrounded ranch the repetitious problems with our beloved wildlife habitat threaten us more each day. Personally, talking about it, allowing a narrative to dissect the nature of the problems, helps me to see other possibilities. And just such a process spills over and helps us with all of our other current concerns.
Wildlife? With agriculture the standards of risk – weather, disease, genetics, fertility, biological viabilities, purchased inputs, labor, equipment – these are enough to worry about, aren’t they? So why allow ourselves to add another worry to the soup? I believe the answer goes to the heart of our motivation. Farming for us is about working with and in nature. It thrills us, defines us, engages us in ways sometimes hard to describe. Suffice it to say it emboldens our best sense of humanity. But, in answer to that old adage ‘be careful what you wish for,’ improving wildlife habitat has its challenging consequences.
Our farming is all natural. Often it is as much a result of what we don’t do as what we do do. Today some of the don’t do has definitely morphed into doodoo. Our hayfields are an extravagant mixture of legumes and grasses rotated every six or seven years with grain and forage grain crops. We have been growing the top soil for decades. All of this and more constitute the reasons why our livestock are disease free. But it also makes a stronger and stronger magnet for an ever growing wild population of elk. Thirty years ago, when five or ten elk snuck in of an evening to steal some clover and a drink we were thrilled and saw it as reward for allowing the wild deer and elk forage margins to develop. We also saw those margins or perimeters as areas where cougar, coyotes, snakes, and sundry predators would hold sway over migratory passage. Well, time took its toll and the elk pushed the mule deer away and attracted seeded wolf packs. But wolf predation has had limited effect on the number of elk, instead its herd numbers have increased. What the wolves did was hassle the cervus, and that amped up the speed at which these large herds might pass into and out of our fields.
Old barb wire fences usually enjoy long stretches of loneliness. An occasional break requiring attention, otherwise the barb wire just hangs around the fields from post to post. That’s not the case on our current operation. As mentioned, elk for twenty years were jumping through at night to get at our crops and pastures, but for most of that time they did it walking and grazing. These days they do it running often forgetting to jump, and they do it for the entire growing season. So the fence wires, strands which ought to be occasionally tightened like you would tune a guitar, now have to be tied back together – repaired over and over again, at or near the spots where wires were tied originally. The result is something akin to scar tissue. Our fences look angry, all tied in knots.
During these summer months we repaired the same cross fences pretty much every single day. That’s one of the costs we bear for sharing our farming with the wild elk herds. Yes, herd(s). The other original cost is that they frequently destroy standing hay crops. Almost as if the elk thought that dividing themselves into smaller groups meant the wolves would be too confused to get them, on one evening three separate herds descended upon our alfalfa field from three different points of the compass. By wild coincidence Kristi was there and able to make a couple of videos of the conflab, calling me to say she suspected the herds were being chased by wolves. Within a span of less than 20 minutes during rapidly descending darkness, our cattle, and upwards to 200 elk were ‘herded’ into four different bunches in three different irrigated hay and pasture fields and, all but our livestock, busted out west, south and north, yet again destroying the fences as they went. Fish and wildlife agencies assure us there are no more that two wolves passing back and forth through our lands. But two wolves cannot surround four herds at the same time. And two wolves do not make a hundred clear canine tracks in a few minutes concentrated on 50’ of two-track dusty dirt road.
We have long talked with the good and earnest folk at state and federal wildlife agencies and they have convinced us that they are genuinely concerned for the depredation the elk have caused over the years to our crops, and now, when those elk are running to escape wolves, the aggravated damages six days a week to our fences. But those agencies are not in place to serve the complaints of farmers and ranchers. That is not their funded mandate. They are there to assure vigorous wildlife populations for the general public and for hunters.
We, on the other hand, have been here for thirty-five years, not to grow the population of wildlife to unsustainable levels but to grow crops and to steward, in the limited ways we might, the health of the wildlife habitat. We are here to try, with earned humility, to balance all the elements that come together on our acreage.
When we first came to this small remote ranch it was known nationally as central to the largest mule deer winter habitat in the world. We had 7,000 plus deer calling this safe haven. Those deer did minimal damage to our crops, grazing on brush during the winter and then migrating up into the high mountains in March and April and not returning until November. At that time, 35 years ago, if we saw any elk it was five or ten head coming in at night. Damages and losses of crop were minimal.
Today we have a couple of dozen deer and hundreds of elk encircling our forest-surrounded farmland. And within the last couple of years we have wolves. Hundreds of elk, that doesn’t sound like it competes with 7,000 deer. But it does far more damage than that many deer. Our elk are seven to eight times the size of the dainty mule deer and forcefully unwilling to settle for brush and sage, they want legumes – lots of them – and RIGHT NOW.
So that translates to my first job, each and every morning we check the fences and then retie the wire. As I worked my morning routine, early September, patching the cross fence I watched feeling helpless as two wolves walked a crippled Mule deer buck out of the field a couple of hundred feet from me. Silly old me, I phoned in the ‘event’ to state and federal wildlife people. After all who are we but observers. And I didn’t expect anything to happen because I know how busy they are. These days all sorts of people are ‘crying wolf.’ But, in fairness to my ridiculous exercise, these officials do keep asking for our inputs, asking to know, real time, what we observe of wolves in our environs.
Then, an hour later as I continued with daily fence repairs, I looked up and a hundred feet from me, ambling around the pasture was a wolf pup. First one I had ever seen in the flesh. I took a video with my new fangled phone camera. I then forwarded that video to the wolf biologists who were at a mini-conference a hundred and fifty miles away. One of them came that same day to check out the evidence. Corroborating together we found a quarter mile of clear adult wolf tracks in the dusty perimeter road around our farmland. That resulted in lots of action on the part of the authorities, action to result, hopefully, in collected information. You see, we have learned that while their concern for the agriculture of the area may be genuine, the hunter-based mandate and enthusiasms are smack dab on top of seeing both elk herds and wolf packs thrive and grow. It’s a simple, direct, follow-the-money priority for wildlife folks. But wait! Aren’t we also wildlife folks? Haven’t we invested much of our lives to a daily constructive adventure in sharing space with wildlife and improving, at every opportunity, their habitat? Aren’t we constituents of the wildlife programs and agencies? Yes. Yes we have, and yes we are.
And that is in itself vulgar and presumptuous. Vulgar because we as solitary farming families are insignificant in the wider scope. Presumptuous because it so blatantly points to a sense of entitlement. Yet, it still drives me to ask: as farmer, is my assigned middle name loss and my demeaning nickname risk? Shouldn’t society at large care deeply that its members who work to feed us all and care for the land instead have a middle name of steward and a nickname of secure? What a sticky circle.
This evening, an hour before dark, a big herd of elk, accompanied up front by a massive over eight foot tall trophy bull, descended from the south onto the pasture remains of our irrigated grass and alfalfa, a field I was trying hard to save for the fall pasture which is so necessary to help us make sure we make it through, especially if this be the long winter from Siberia. I drove around on the county road, and they bunched to run out of the field. Cows, calves, bulls and that monarch of the rangelands churned the dust as they ran, but they slowed quickly and remained in the forest just a short distance away. I knew they would be back and soon. And I wondered about the big bull elk so uncharacteristically up front. Over the years the big bulls have always hung back, waiting to join the others until the trespass was complete, dark and quiet. Wolves? I have a theory that elk do not come into farmlands in daylight, not out here where forest surrounds, unless they are pursued and, right or wrong, feel like a hundred and thirty acre open field means they can always see a predator early enough to run off. Our cow herd taught me this and cemented it in my brain this year because, for the first time ever, they refused to leave the open fields for the improved rangeland pastures. Terribly odd because our cattle love those pastures and have been keen to go to them each spring and summer. Not this year. Another loss for us because some of what was to produce hay for winter feed had to go to sustain cattle during the range months. I’m thinking about this as I turn to get a last dusk look at the 20 acre alfalfa field the elk just left. It is devastated, a third of the forage gone in less than an hour with hundreds of elk. I fight off the overwhelming sense that everything is starting to fall apart again. How can we keep on with this? Head low in resignation. I notice that the entire elk herd, this one time, ran in and out of the field at the wide open road gate. Just this once our fence had been spared. Small tight comfort.
I looked down that long, oft-repaired set of fence wires and saw again the quick tie-offs that resulted in scabby lumpings of knotted wires. And every one was different. Looking at each knot up close I began thinking that here was a form of sculptural long hand. It’s as if each knot were a kind of combined signature, as if Bud’s knot twisted into Jess’s knot and Jean Christophe’s knot and Scout’s knot and Justin and Kristi’s knot until … Which caused me to think back on how many different people, over our three and a half decade tenure on this old place, had lent their hands to repairs. One such gentleman comes to mind, Jessie Winchester.
I’ve told this story before. A good friend asked me years ago to hire a down and out fellow to help with menial chores around the ranch. Jessie came to us as an aw-shucks character so extreme in his mannerisms that first off I thought it was all an act or a joke. It had to be. But then I started to notice that when things counted, when it was time to get serious, he was off, only slightly. Over time he presented himself clearly as an idiot savant cowboy. When it came to speech, manners and posture he was a brilliant example of a working cowhand. You were easily forgiven thinking ‘now here is the real deal.’ But beyond that something was way off, his logic was an odd brand of multiple choice.
Jessie’s brain could not handle everyday transactions but deep inside he was such a practiced hipster cowboy he knew how to distill and interpret things for himself, boiling them down immediately to pieces that fit his reality. And he was the sort of possessed and damaged human that we wanted to protect. His challenging innocence though, wasn’t always genuine, but his intellect, now that was up for grabs.
One day, I needed to make a run to the Journal office and asked him to repair a half-mile of the old barb wire fence along the county road. The deer and elk had done damage. When I left he was driving his ancient Toyota pickup at 3 miles an hour watching that fence like he expected it to jump out in front of him at any minute. When I returned four hours later, Jessie was still driving his pickup, but now he was on the inside of the rangeland pasture, returning slow along that same fence and staring at it just as intent as before. I stopped to talk with him. “When I left you were driving along outside the fence, I see that you fixed a few spots, why are you driving over there now?” Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Boss, you knows you gots to fix these ol’ cowboy fences from bowff sides.”
And in that brief moment thinking of fences, repairs and people, I heard my question again, how do we keep on with this? And I shrugged, because it’s who we are and what we do. I only hope that these setbacks don’t take the choice away from us. So, we need to rethink all of this because it is apparent we need new protections – and that is the job of perseverance, to come up with new ways to protect ourselves here and in this time. Our job isn’t the sort of perseverance that says ‘tough it out buddy.’ Our perseverance is the raw energy of question, decide and work. Our perseverance needs just a little space and time every single day..
So I return and stay for the moment with thoughts about the fence repairs. Some of those fence mending folks I was remembering were so meticulous and precise that they would rip out long sections of old repaired wire replacing it entirely with new. Their thought therein being: a.) if we are going to do this let’s do it right, and b.) this should help the fence last longer. Well, the verdict is in: 50 to 200 elk will do almost as much damage to new as to old wire, and they do it in one night’s adventure. In fact often more damage. Long ago I found myself laughing at the realization that the old clustered knots were actually functioning like shear pins. I was glad when the knots broke so easily that the posts were undamaged. We just walked along each day and retied and rehung the wires. Whereas along those stretched tight new wire fences the beasts snapped posts and bent posts adding to our repair time and cost.
Why, you might ask, bother with fencing if it doesn’t work? Keeping the elk out would be nice, but the fences are actually there to control the grazing access of our cattle and horses – otherwise we would have no opportunity to grow and harvest winter feed.
Back to that shear pin analogy: there’s a parallel. Survival midstream and in the thick of calamity does seem to often come of our somewhat automatic use of ‘emotional’ shear pins – otherwise more of us would snap and quit. “Emotional shear pins?” Yes, when the stress of worrying about the elk damage to our farming gets unbearable (and if I am alone) I ‘snap’ like one of those wires and yell my fool head off. I do that instead of shooting at the elk. When the sadness and depression of our farming failures, or even the failures of this small publication, get too much to bear I snap, sit down, and start to weep or laugh (sometimes both). And each and every one of those outbursts or spillovers leads to a calm that takes me back to clear reflection. Those shear pins work because, we have our little releases or breakdowns instead of a post snapping off or bending, instead of us calling (heaven forbid) a realtor.
For me, my outlook is a shear pin as it is based on inquiry, observations, keen curiosity and humor. Sometimes before I snap completely or lose it and bolt for town, I ponder. I can’t quit trying to figure out solutions and that has me, on these treks, look, learn, question and experiment – and all of that with a ready chuckle at my silliness, my presumptiveness, my mistakes, my tunnel vision and life’s slap and tickle. I guess it’s all about allowing God, nature and the math of circumstance to keep us in the game, the game of farming.
My outlook, this emotional shear pin, my pondering, needs for me to be doing regular repairs, keeps me all ‘tied up’ and in the game – and of course for us the game is our farming life. My farming life began in 1967 when I volunteered to help with another’s farm. And, burps along the way, I have stuck with the farming all these 56 years. That tends to take the serious juice out of those late night mutterings when I find myself ridiculously asking ‘how can I keep doing this?’ Look back dummy, the evidence is your long life. And that segues to the realization, once again, that I do have a choice, I’ve always had the choices, and I’m defined and emboldened to feel myself reach for the pliers and the two ends of that broken wire. Once again, tonight, tomorrow morning, choice made. Continuity maintained. Laughing I find myself asking “last time did I fix this from the north or south side?” The crowning candied fruit is the insistence I feel around my eyes as I promise myself, ‘I am going to find a way to change this relationship with the wildlife.’ I can see that in the most recent knot I tied. Yep, there’s the evidence. The left-behind sculptural art of these challenges and adventures. Some might venture they belong in museums. I say nope, they belong right here holding the hemlines of this fence up until the next charging battalion of elk return along this flank.
Today at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I spied from 60 feet a bold healthy adult coyote, fifty feet from me, sitting in our little orchard, upright and picking a low hanging apple off the tree. Having lost laying hens to the boogers I felt no hesitation as I shot a round from my 32 caliber revolver, missing narrowly but causing him to jump straight up in the air and land in fifth gear racing over the rock wall and across the road where he disappeared into the sage brush. I thought “he won’t be back soon, he knows there is a price to pay if he keeps coming back.” And that thought stuck with me.
It is staggering, the way our small place seems to anchor the center of one of this regions remaining wildlife Shangri-Las. This spring and summer, once again, we have shared our ranch with cranes, herons, bobcats, badgers, skunks, bluebirds, nighthawks, dove, raccoon, wild migrating duck and geese, Golden and Bald Eagles, buzzards, songbirds including red-winged blackbirds, owls, coyotes, cougars, swallows, mule deer, ELK, varmints, polecats, rattlesnakes, kestrel hawks, quail, chukkars, grouse, red-tailed hawks, goshawks, blackbirds, and of course wolves. We are thrilled by the variety, diversity and health. We know this is a natural laboratory for northwestern wildlife. It’s a corridor, a stopover, central to a wildlife stretch running west to east from the Cascade Mountains clear through to the Central Oregon rivers and beyond. But it is fragile, threatened by rapid growth of towns and cities. And threatened by what, in my humble opinion, is a dangerous mismanagement of wildlife priorities.
Read any modern manifesto espousing concern for wildlife habitat and the most oft repeated word is not diversity, or endangered. It is balance. We hear and read that predators are critically important to successful wildlife management because they offer balance. Wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears keep the population of grazing wildlife in check, or so we are told. But in today’s world who or what keep the predators in check? It would seem, regulations and punishments what they are, that the primary check, and appropriately so, is on human predation. But any subset of these concerns about habitat balance risk focus so narrow that the objective is either lost or reframed by arstronomists (those pseudo-scientists that struggle to understand the digital knuckleheads floating in cyber space) as they plead with bureaucrats to think holistically and with distance aforethought.
When I was an adolescent, my father, the artist/writer/carpenter, often shared a secret with me. “Back up, way up, and whatever you’re looking at changes shape, sometimes it even comes in sharper focus than when you are up close, up against it.” Those words have served me exceedingly well with painting, but they also work in other arenas as well. When I back up on these twisted wires I can’t help but smile at the clearest evidence of decades of perseverance. That’s where I still want to be, doing the work, returning to check the fences, the seedlings, the calves, the fruit blossoms, the bees, the morning-after horses. Distance gives me that perspective.
And when I back up on questions of the health of wildlife and human population interface I begin to see the problematic lumps. The rapidly increasing elk herd sizes are problematic lumps. The unchecked, unaccounted for, increase in wolf numbers are lumps. The encroachment of humans, especially as represented by those advances allowing off-the-grid ‘communities’ to spring up and spill out into heretofore wild lands are lumpy. Settlements, if we dare call them that, which change the character of all decision-making in previously uninhabited regions, lumpy. And even further out, our view cannot but help to see that aquifers and watersheds will be sorely depleted. Such considerations go on and on. And, as I have suggested, my specific fear is that those who have entrusted themselves with overseeing wildlife habitats are only taking these consequences into consideration after they have become sores. One idea please to consider: we have, around and through our land, old dirt trails that long ago were solidified into dirt roads by repeated SUV and ATV use. May we suggest that those roads which aren’t roads need to be abandoned completely before the default goes to formality. Wouldn’t every hunter and naturalist be better served if the only way into hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlands be afoot, or even horseback? (It would go a long way towards evening the playing field by reducing the drive-by shootings and beer-can-flinging that deer have long been complaining about.)
Repairing to Balance our working lands, that should be our collective goal. But small ranches such as ours would not be able to continue were it not for a perspective of healing-expediency, too many choices so many urgencies. For example, right now, today I need to find solutions to the encroaching elk and the livestock predation threat of wolves. Those urgencies make it difficult for me to see that broader picture, but maybe just maybe we have come up with a couple of workable ideas that could end up pointing to the wider picture.
Our friend and teammate Eric Grutzmacher, besides his stellar work on website and layout, took the attacking elk to task this summer by spending many of his nights, camping with his dog Luna in the hay fields with a spotlight and other aids. We were given a hazing permit by the state agency that allowed we could ‘run’ the elk off if we could figure out how. It was not 100% effective but we could feel a great deal of benefit from what Eric did. And it gave him ideas of how to expand on the concept. One of his ideas was that we construct a small tower in the middle of the field allowing that someone could camp with elevation to see where and when the elk come in and to treat them to music, lights, and maybe even loopy nighttime group treasure hunts. The sorts of creative benign intrusions that would scramble elk brains just enough to send them elsewheres.
It had me remember that thought from before “they won’t be back soon if they know there is a strange crowding discomfort should they return this season.” And as for the wolves: Our resident wolf biologist, shared with us a brilliant short film on a Saskatchewan sheep and cattle ranch’s use of teams of predator control dogs and how, with intelligent and persistent application, they had managed to set the balance of livestock and predation to a perfect pitch. As they noted, any wolves that come round quickly discover that these Kangal and Maremma dogs, working in teams, would exact a terrible price IF the wolves tried to take any livestock. They found that “the wolf won’t be back soon because he knows this is not an easy meal, there is a price to pay if he keeps coming back.”
So my thoughts this winter go to building a tower and getting the right dogs. I’m looking forward to fewer fence repairs and to well-behaved wolves.
For every waking moment of the entire first half of my life, I dreamed of two things. I wished to be sharing my life in love, work and peace with the woman of those dreams, and by virtue of her hard work and forgiveness I have that. And we pined for a small remote family ranch or farm somewhere in the Pacific Northwest woods. Up until now we’ve tried with little success to keep it a protected secret, but we can tell you dear readers right now that we’ve succeeded through tragedy, missteps, frayed cuffs, betrayals, broken fingernails, empty bank accounts, exotic life-threatening maladies and darned hard work. But getting to those things, which happened between 1988 and 1990, was and is only half the battle. Keeping at this ranching is a constant challenge. It requires that we meet each day’s challenges, and we do. We both know how fortunate we have been.
Out on the edge of our rangeland pastures there is an old juniper tree which long ago lost its top to a storm’s wind. Lost its top but did not give up. What remained of the tree bent and leaned and found its position. And now, like some talisman from a Tolkien story, it holds its gravity defying shape and position, always reminding us of the way forward … it’s that-a-way. It’s my signpost tree, my reminder tree, my ‘you can do this’ tree. I wish for you that you find yours. LRM
The biological world, over the ages, has seen slow and speedy changes in its makeup. Long before modern folk took to owning and stewarding lands, took to working lands, original tribes of people had their ever-changing ways of interface. Before that, animals grew in numbers and then subsided then grew again, new creatures evolved or migrated in, patterns of predation changed. Modern humans are relatively new to these landscapes. We would think that respectful nods to a long ago birthing past we never experienced might at least temper our choices.