The text came in just as the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. The sender was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers field geologist who has been working on a remediation project at a former USAF Atlas E missile site located on our ranch south of Kimball.
In one of those interesting twists of modern technology, the geologist was physically enroute to Montana, nearly a thousand miles away, and was passing on a message from a different geologist who was present at the job site on our ranch but who didn’t have my phone number.
“The southwest gate was open,” said the text, “and there are cows and calves out on the county road.”
“Rats,” thought I, or words to that effect. “What’s wrong with these people that they can’t shut a simple gate?”
And then an actual inconvenient truth hit me like a bolt from the blue. I’d had the four year old and five year old with me when I’d checked cows the previous evening. As we were leaving the pasture the kids were arguing and I was concentrating on getting them strapped into their safety seats. Had I actually closed the gate behind us?
Of course I hadn’t. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1, Shaun zero.
Ten minutes after receiving the text I was on the scene of the consequence of my distracted foolishness. Fortunately for all concerned, the consequence was essentially nothing. The county road is almost completely untravelled, so traffic wasn’t a concern. About 20 pairs were grazing in the ditches, and six pair had moved into a stubble field to dine on tasty volunteer wheat. As I arrived the on-scene geologist had placed her car (California plates) on the county road between the cattle and the mile-distant highway, which was exactly the right move. I introduced myself and fessed up to having left the gate open, then explained how I was going to proceed. As we chatted in the warm morning sunshine the absolute beauty of the morning began to soak into my soul.
There had been a thunderstorm in the night so the cool morning air was slightly humid. In town I’d had just over two-tenths of rain, but here south of town the rain had been heavier. There were puddles in the road and all around the landscape water droplets were glistening in the morning sunlight. The cool air was close and still and smelled strongly of growing things.
I slipped out into the stubble field and approached the happily grazing cows from the side away from the direction I wanted them to move. Cattle are herding prey animals from a genetic and instinctive perspective and they move away from pressure when you cross into their comfort zone. If you move in slowly, they move away slowly. If you become impatient and move in quickly you can easily find yourself in the middle of a rodeo. As I moved in, this group turned and ambled back to the county road and toward the open gate.
As the group from the stubble field approached the cattle in the ditches nearer the gate seemed to get the message as well. They turned and began to move in the same direction. Along the fenceline they ambled past a group of neighbor cattle which had gathered for a cow-confab. With a single exception, the cows and calves moved down the fence line and turned to pass through the gate. One cow stayed back, eyeballing the group of neighbor bovines. As I slowly moved toward her, she juked me and bolted back toward the neighbors. My own experience and the cow’s body language told me that she thought her calf was in with that group, and she wasn’t about to abandon her baby.
I looked closely but didn’t see her calf in with the neighbors. It was a big group though, and I couldn’t clearly see every calf, so I was willing to be wrong. In such a situation the smart move is to let the cow figure out for herself what’s going on, so I left her back and followed the rest of the herd through the gate. They continued to move deeper into the pasture, heading for a distant windmill and a morning drink. I followed along to check water, and within only a few minutes I noticed that the cow I’d left behind had collected her calf and the pair were now ambling along in the wake of the other recently returned cattle. As is so often the case, the cow had known exactly what she was doing, and letting her solve the problem her way was exactly the right move.
I got out of the pickup and strode across native prairie, assessing the state of greening springtime grass. The sun was shining brightly and warming the cool morning air. It felt warm and close and comfortable and brought out the vibrant colors of one of nature’s most remarkable ecosystems. Yellow, white, pink and lavender wildflowers were dotted everywhere against the vibrant green prairie and the still air was filled with the sound of meadowlarks and the scent of springtime.
These are treasured moments. I paused and took in the beauty all around me. What remained of my lingering irritation and self-recrimination about the open gate evaporated and vanished with the ephemeral raindrops sparkling in the morning sunshine.
As I stood there wrapped in a sense of peaceful wellbeing I couldn’t help but recognize how very blessed I am. Here in the twenty-first century, most humans choose to live in urban or suburban areas. Only a vanishingly small part of the population have the opportunity to live and walk and breathe in four-season nature, and very few indeed will ever experience the soul-soothing magnificence of a springtime morning on the prairie.
Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.