Sunday, November 08, 2015

Fall Works - Bawling, and then … Quiet

Drinking Champagne
Fall Works
Bawling, and then … Quiet
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Dr. Schöendehl told us about his neurosurgeon friend who calmed his nerves before a risky surgery by drinking a split of champagne.
The good professor was a naturalized WWII German war veteran who became one of the great fluid dynamics experts in the world. He was also the character in the famous commercial posing as the patrón in a vineyard on a great white steed and wearing a white suit and wide brimmed genteel hat. Maybe the Hymn played in the background.
I always liked champagne, but the relationship with him sealed that preference for good. It was gilded by his dissertations in the art of making of champagne and expanded by his character. Tall, sophisticated, and dignified, his hair and his goatee matched the white hat and suit of the commercial.
“In quiet times, a gentleman serves himself well by sipping a bit of champagne,” was his advice.
Fall Works
            Fall works is one of the most unheralded undertakings in the livestock world.
            Unlike spring works when most of the urban help wants to come to the ranch to once again wear a hat (and the strength and endurance of youth is highly sought by older cowboys), fall works is largely the realm of the full time vaqueros. It is the time when young horses have become seasoned and cattle drive much easier and with less stress. Bruce Kiskaddon knew what it was about when he wrote:
            And the saddle hosses stringin’ at an easy walk a swingin’
            In behind the old chuck wagon movin’ slow.
            They were weary gaunt and jaded with mud and brush they’ve waded,
            And they settled down to business long ago.
            Not a hoss is feelin’ sporty … not a hoss is actin’ snorty …
            But they’re gentle, when they’re draggin’ to the home ranch with the wagon
            When they’ve finished shippin’ cattle in the fall.
In our country, the weather is normally good, the wind isn’t blowing 50 mph, and grass has “made” if enough rainfall has fallen. It’s the best time of the year.
            As witnessed in Kiskaddon poems, it’s a time full of nostalgia.
            I can remember my Grandma Wilmeth talking about John McMillan fretting about selling calves. “He never sold a load of calves that he didn’t hate seeing go,” she once said maybe more to herself than anybody. “He’ll mope around for a month.”
            Duke Davis sang about it. Appropriately, these lyrics were crafted for ¾ time.
            The sun’s wakin’ up the cowherd
            The coffee beginning to pour
            The wrangler’s jingled the horses, and
            Ol’ Coosey’s been up since four
            From the beginning, cowboys worked much of the summer alone, and, for most men, that will eventually weigh heavy. Today, we are inundated with communication, but it wasn’t always like that. Quiet can be deafening.
            The fall works soon will be over
            As we gather the last of the herd
            The dust devil dance ‘cross the prairie
            And nobody is saying a word
             I think fall works, the end of the yearly cycle, has more impact on western lore and the intimacy of land stewardship than any other force. It is captured in passing by some and witnessed in full strength by fewer. It isn’t just the symbolism of completion. It is the emotional confrontation between the complexity of holding the ranching year together and the reality that a true last stage is about to take place. Certainly, it is strongly metaphoric. Reality and the inevitable cycle of life are factors that we simply can’t overcome. We can’t escape them.
             Move along slow to home, boys
 Move along slowly for me.
             Move along the fall work is over
            Davis then shows mortal vulnerability as he slips in the lingering hope that it will all be the same next time when we are all older and time has passed.
              I’ll see you next year in the spring
            Drinking Champagne
            A split of champagne is enough.
            It won’t give you a headache, and it soothes the soul … even a rancher’s soul. That may sound contradictory, but I am beyond caring. Ranching is associated by most of the world with ruddy neckline affiliations, but what a gross misconception that is. The symphony of its character puts even Wagner and Mozart to shame. It is immense.
            Some Texans call it prowling, but we just refer to it as gathering as we sweep our close in country where our cattle will be and start to wean our calves. We will hold them until they quit bawling and then either ship them or retain them until the first quarter of next year. For our situation, we like that market and how it dovetails into wheat or grass markets in northeastern New Mexico and the Panhandle.
We pull our bulls and hold the cows in close to headquarters for a month. We will then regather on a pasture move, preg check and worm the keepers. Our cull cows will then be shipped. In our desert conditions, we have learned the hard way that a relatively young cow herd is the only herd we can have.
  We’ll also work through our replacement heifers. With those calves, it will always be on foot and quiet. We want to observe their dispositions. They will be wormed, number branded, and tagged with tags that display our brand. I like our crossbred red Angus cattle with those black tags. They stand apart from our neighbors’ dominant black cattle with their respective red, white, yellow, and green tags.
There will be bawling when we wean, but, shortly, that will diminish. If we move the calves somewhere, the quiet is striking. One moment it is chaos and the next is completely quiet. It is disconcerting. It magnifies completion, and it can cast a spell of hushed nostalgia.
That is especially true when the trail of dust we see from the trucks leaving the headquarters is the final memory we have of that crop of calves. We were there when they were born. We touched them when we branded, we cared for them daily, and we sorted and processed them for final disposition and sale. They were our focus for a long time. Don’t kid yourself a true steward builds a strong attachment to them.
I understand what John McMillan felt.
I will usually then retire to the porch with the cowboys and talk a while. There will be laughter and anything made tense by the pressure of the day will be unwound. I’ll shortly take my leave.
My drive home will be just me, two tired equine partners in the trailer, and my thoughts mirrored by yet another cowboy of long ago.
When them thin clouds start a trailin’ through the soft and pleasant sky,
And you watch old buzzard sailin’ soter useless way up high,
And it makes the toughest cow boy soter study after all,
When he’s draggin’ with the wagon to the home ranch in the fall.
Yes, many memories and the feeling all come creeping back. Maybe it is time to think about that undisturbed pause with a split of champagne. I’ll settle for a crystal glass of Guerneville’s best brut. I’ll leave my hat on, and, maybe, my leggin’s, boots, and spurs as well.
I’ll sip it, and I will be reminded of another time when I, too … was young.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico.

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