Glimpse of Spring

IMG_4147 We moved north to the country last year in order to live a simpler, more sustainable existence. One year later, we are much closer to our dream, yet there is still room for improvement. I managed to take on enough teaching responsibilities this year that I’ve kept myself busy – too busy. I enjoy teaching immensely, however, it is time again to simplify. Luckily, with the end of the school year, I have the valuable opportunity to evaluate what I will continue with next year. And, I have the delight of working outdoors in the gardens again all summer to look forward to! Garden planning has already begun. We’ve had little tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings growing in our cabin for over a month now.

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Tomato plant at ten days old – moved up into its new 3-inch peat pot
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Tomato plants at three weeks old basking in the grow lights
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Wide selection of month-old tomato plants: Amish Paste, Valley Girl, Gill’s, Stupice, and a few varieties of cherry tomatoes

We’ve put the potato, onion, and root vegetable seeds in the ground out at our new garden in the coulee. There, the soil is sandy unlike the Musselshell River bottom here at the cabin. Our carrots will grow straight and narrow! No more franken-carrots struggling to push their way down into the soil. Our new well will provide easy access to water, unlike our old potato patch where I hauled bucket after bucket, toning my arm muscles and watering the plants all at once last year.

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Bare-root honeyoye strawberry plant in its new home

I added 25 strawberry plants to the new plot yesterday before a 12-hour spring rain doused the landscape in moisture.

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Straining the sauce before thickening

Today, on a rainy Saturday, I am cozy by the fire in our cabin as I grade papers and turn the remainder of last summer’s tomatoes into spaghetti sauce.

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Bart has been planting too – on a bit of larger scale

New Life

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Number 2 licks her calf dry

As February came to an end, we adjusted to a new rhythm of life. The first calf of the year was born to a first calf heifer within the safe confines of our new barn on Tuesday the 24th. The labor proceeded without a hitch. The mother welcomed her newborn into the world with a tongue-bath while it lay on a bed of fresh straw, catching its first breaths. Drying the new heifer quickly was imperative; the air temperature hovered in the low single digits and the winds were howling. Although our barn has but two sides for this first year, they are strategically placed to block the predominantly northwestern wind and thereby create an effective barrier to the cold.

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Our home away from home

After we made sure the new calf was up and suckling from its mother, we headed to the camper just a few hundred yards from the barn in the coulee. For the next several weeks, this became our second home, allowing us to easily check the cows every few hours during the night. Last summer we helped my father-in-law fix up the 2nd-hand camper. After intense cleaning and repairs, Bart installed wood flooring, a folding table, and propane heater, while I selected paint and coated the interior in a warm yellow hue. The first night we slept in the camper, the wind howled all night long, shaking various loose pieces of metal and flapping the vents. At first, we were cold and then way too hot, shedding the feather comforter midway through the night in favor of a light cotton quilt. The cows outside the door woke me several times with their bellowing. It was ultimately a very restless night of sleep. Just a few nights later, I had adjusted to waking up every three hours, figured out the perfect combination of blankets and pillows, and was tired enough to just about sleep the whole night through.

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The horses aren’t sure what to make of all the activity at the corrals.

So far most of the births have proceeded without a hitch – easy, smooth labors. Mild trouble arose in the first week when a first-calf heifer became wildly confused about the baby that had just emerged from her body. She bellowed at her new calf, and tried to head-butt it a few times. Luckily, one of the more experienced cows nearby came over and began licking the newborn, perhaps thinking that the calf could be her own. Something must have clicked for the first-calf heifer as she followed suite and proceeded to lick her baby dry. The air was still very cold, but at least this little calf arrived under the mid-day sun. If it is very cold, and the calf doesn’t quite dry out quickly enough, we bring it into the truck (thank goodness for the quad cab) and drive it to the shop to warm up. One Friday evening in early March, I helped towel-dry a white-faced calf that was still too wet when the sun went down and the temperature plummeted into the single digits. In a stealthy grab, Bart quickly snatched her from the mother and stuck her in the cab. Back at the shop, she stood fairly patiently through the toweling, and then stood next to me by the fire, looking for somewhere to nurse. She tried my hand, which was curled up in my lap, and then went for my rubber muck boot. After striking out on both counts, she took a couple of laps around the truck and checked out our dog, Doc, who was obviously intimidated by this oversized baby. We decided the calf was warm and mobile enough to go back out in the lot with her mom. When we dropped her off, Bart did his best imitation of a calf bellowing in order to draw the mother over. A few other cows came and checked it out with their noses and tongues, but quickly left when they realized it wasn’t their baby. At last the calf let out a bellow of its own, and instantly its mother flew over to the rescue. In no time at all, the calf latched onto its mother’s nipple for its first nutritious meal. There are but a handful of cows left to calf as we near the end of the month. It has been a relatively easy year, with daytime temperatures often above fifty and ample sunshine. Once we turn them into pasture, the calves are a joy to watch. They tumble in play and run circles around their moms in shear delight at being alive. It is a truly wondrous time of year.

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Dawn in the Coulee

In like a calf…

IMG_3988As March begins, so too begins calving season. The first round of newborns arrived early: three calves in three days from Tuesday through Thursday. Now all’s quiet. Perhaps they are waiting for the next storm and plunging temperatures. We check them every few hours just to be sure.

Here are a few photos of the newborns. Calving season means interrupted sleep, so I’m operating on the bare minimum right now. I’m getting only the essentials accomplished during the day. Stories to come soon. IMG_3980

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Portraits of the landscape

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The entrance to Coulee Creek Ranch

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I had the immense pleasure of sharing an afternoon hike on the CRP with Mike and Alexis a couple of weeks ago. Earlier in the week we had made plans to spend Thursday afternoon exploring the landscape with them. Rather unexpectedly, we had to move some cows that day, and we threw all our plans out the window. I returned from work at noon, and we headed to the coulee to saddle up. We weren’t too sure if Mike and Alexis would actually make it to Lavina, and in the flurry of activity, we completely forgot to call them. Since our phones only receive service within a few feet of our cell booster, we had no way to reach them. BONOGOFSKY-3010-150129-L

closing the gate

Luckily, my father in law gave them directions to the coulee, and they pulled up our driveway just as we were heading out. Like many a good Montanan, they arrived dressed in boots and jeans, ready to help. Alexis hopped on Bart’s horse while Mike and Bart returned to the shop to get the four wheeler. The ride was easy, and the cows proved to be cooperative. With two horses and Mike on the four wheeler, we had the cows safely in the new calving lot within a couple of hours. Alexis came along with her skills and camera in tow, so we headed out for a late afternoon hike. Her images are featured throughout this entry. You can find more gorgeous landscape and lifestyle photos at her East of Billings Facebook page. Thanks for capturing this special place, Alexis!

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Typical hike – Doc is a blur of white as he runs in circles around me
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The Crazy Mountains
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Pine trees edge the prairie above Coulee Creek
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Sunset over Coulee Creek

Under pressure

I purchased my first pressure cooker right before Christmas this year. I considered it a gift to myself (no longer would I need to plan bean-based dinners 24 hours in advance), and a gift to my husband, who enjoys the tender beans that it flawlessly produces despite our mineral-laden water. We tried it out for the first time shortly after I returned from spending a week in Colorado celebrating the holidays with my family. It took the pot longer than I expected to build up pressure, but once it did, the shiny bell-shaped regulator on top began slowly rocking and spinning in a rhythmic dance. The information booklet, a rather lengthy tome for such a seemingly simple device, cautioned against rapid, frenetic movements that would indicate excessive internal pressure. I adjusted the flame until the regulator smoothly twirled, and the pot hissed occasionally on the stove as it prepared the perfect bean.

On some levels, I’ve been in a pressure cooker for the past month. The holidays require patience and planning, and when they are over it is common to breathe a big sigh of relief as life returns to normalcy. Driving home from Colorado, I inhaled deeply as I navigated the car out of the hectic urban congestion, and exhaled my way back onto the expansive openness of Wyoming. Tension slipped away with the traffic as I returned closer to the familiar stretches of prairie and sky.

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I made it home to celebrate New Years Eve with Bart, and took a rest day to restore my inner balance while I helped him split firewood. And then the lid of the pressure cooker tightened down again as I dove into the arduous task of designing a new college course. The ideas for the course had been swimming around my head for months. I had ample first-hand experiences from graduate school to draw upon. I had stacks of books and articles to re-read and recap. And I had two weeks to synthesize all of this information into a cohesive plan for the semester. Luckily, I love the subject matter – natural history and conservation education – and I am eager to teach it. I also thrive under last-minute pressure. Every spare moment of the next three weeks would be devoted to crafting this course.

So as I watched the spinning regulator rise with pressure to twirl on top of the pot, it dawned on me that movement, particularly dancing, is the cure for what ails me. Just one week prior, when my nephew proposed the Hokey Pokey on Christmas Eve, I jumped at the opportunity to get my groove on. Evan cajoled everyone in the room to join a rousing round of moving our body parts in time with our awkward off-key singing. As we jumped in and out of the circle, I wholeheartedly shook it all about… and the tension slipped away. Yup, the hokey pokey IS what it’s all about. Just like my fancy new pot, I come with a warning: excessive internal pressure may lead to frenetic shaking. I’m going to let it all out.

And then there's skiing... which is really dancing with gravity
And then there’s tele-skiing… which is really just dancing with gravity

Here a blog, there a blog

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. There were many moments when I was inspired to write, but just couldn’t find time for it. The holidays bring a flurry of activity – gatherings with friends & family, winter travel and its inherent unpredictabilty, rich & plentiful meals complete with luxurious deserts, hand-crafting gifts & cards – all packed into a couple of weeks during a special time of the year, the winter solstice. Although there is now a thick blanket of snow on the ground, I captured the following in my journal back in mid-December when the ground was mostly brown:

I’ve been taking sunset hikes in the late afternoon up on the high piece of prairie we call the CRP*. I set out from the corrals and head north towards the Snowy Mountains, which are capped in clouds tinted pink with the setting sun’s rays. A flock of ravens flies low overhead en route to their evening roost. One raven breaks off from the group and swoops down over Doc’s head – curious about this odd interloper. He circles once and with a flap, satisfied that there is no meal here, he rises towards the clouds to join the rest of the group on their path south. Doc runs off to the edge of the sky, becoming small as a grain of rice. His creamy white fur catches the suns’ rays, illuminating his outline momentarily in a flash of gold.

We circle south along the edge of the property and soon see the Crazy Mountains, a jagged high range, in the distance. Our friends live at the doorstep of these mountains, a 90-minute drive away, but with much the same view we have from here. Such is the landscape of central Montana, endless sky and long stretches of rolling prairie broken up by mountain ranges and small towns. The corrals – and soon, our home – are located on Belmont Rd. I didn’t think much of this until my mother, who studied French in high school, pointed out that belle mont is French for beautiful mountain. “But of course!” I said with my best French accent. From here we can see five different mountain ranges, which are most certainly beautiful if not occasionally mind-blowing for this easterner accustomed to densely wooded spaces. As I head back on the last leg of my loop hike, the moon launches into the sky over the Bull Mountains and the darkening horizon; now soft blue then deep purple before dimming to the enveloping darkness of a rural night.

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Obligatory cute photo: Doc finds a resting place on our chopping block and enjoys a sun bath on the morning of the solstice

* The CRP land was formerly part of the federal crop reserve program

In the early morning hours

Soon after I arise in the morning, I usually bundle up to head out to the bathroom. Yes – out – to the bathroom, as in outdoors to the outhouse. When it’s in the single digits or below, I wear my quilted coveralls, down vest, jacket, alpaca wool hat with earflaps, mittens, and occasionally even a scarf. Some mornings this seems like a chore. Doesn’t the modern innovation – indoor bathrooms – make life just so much easier!?! Yes, I suppose they do, but easier is not always better.

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As soon as I am out the door into the dark morning, I inhale the fresh air and glance up at fading stars in the west and barely lit pink clouds in the east. At these moments I feel truly grateful to be right where I am. On a few mornings, I’ve even caught sight of a shooting star, and heard a pair of great horned owls greeting the day as I stroll to the bathroom. There is nothing quite as special as witnessing this magic in the quiet early hours of the morning. Fresh from the dreamworld, these moments close to nature keep me grounded and prevent me from rushing headlong into the to-do list of the day.

On my way back to the house, I visit the chicken coop. The girls are always up and chattering away. If it’s been extremely cold overnight, I’ll bring their water inside to deice it by the fire. Most mornings, I simply fill their food hopper, and collect the first eggs of the day. One – maybe two – of the chickens have developed the nasty habit of breaking and eating eggs. If I knew which one I would wring her neck, literally. But alas I have not yet caught her in action so we lose one to two eggs a day to this barbaric thief. When I collect the first eggs really early in the morning, I am one step ahead of her in the game.

Back in the house, my layers come off one by one in front of the crackling fire. I lay the fresh eggs on the counter, warm up my cup of coffee, and give thanks for our cozy cabin. I really couldn’t ask for more.

Not quite an old fashioned barn-raising

As I walk to work at quarter of eight, the eastern sky is ablaze with colors. But the sun itself yet hides below the horizon, late to rise and early to set these days. To the north, the Snowy Mountains loom darkly on the horizon, their tops frosted with the very snow for which they are named. Above me, a noisy flock of geese forms a V, late migrants to warmer climes. It is mid December, and we are entering the dark heart of winter.

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We experienced one cold snap already, but this week we’ve been hit by a tropical heat wave. With sunshine and daytime temperatures in the fifties, the thin blanket of snow has melted, giving way to moisture and mud. It’s warm enough that Bart is working outdoors, putting tin on our new barn. We started the barn back in August with the help of our friend Brad… and some heavy machinery. Bart used the big yellow machine with an extendable bucket (this is not my area of expertise) to place the corner posts in the ground before Brad arrived.

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The first corner post goes up as Bart masters the post-setting technique
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All ready for the roof

Brad, Bart, and my father-in-law, Dan, then labored under a hot sun, framing the roof and installing the trusses. IMG_3480 Back on the ground, I helped level the posts and handed supplies up to them in their perches on ladders or the tractor bucket IMG_3482   Mid-day, we all took a break in the thin slice of shade made by the pickup truck for lunch – with plenty of water, iced tea, and sandwiches. After cleaning up from the picnic, I laid down in the shade and surprised myself by dozing off, partaking in the ancient art of the siesta. I awoke after a few moments coated in sweat, despite my airy tank top and shorts. Meanwhile the guys, wearing jeans and long-sleeves, were back at it in the sun, determined to finish despite the heat. I watched and tried to learn. Carpentry, like heavy machinery, is not my forte. IMG_3484         Doc spent the day playing in the log pile. He has become quite an accomplished mouser! Brad’s dog, Osa, had more sense and quickly claimed a piece of shade early in the morning. IMG_2883 Soon Doc’s playground will be gone. Bart logged in southeastern Montana where the Rosebud Fires burned in the summerIMG_3446 of 2012. He has already milled several of the logs – making boards for the corrals and barn. Here’s how our corrals and barn looked in mid-September after a couple more weeks of work. More photos showing the progression of the corrals are now posted here: https://couleecreekranch.com/grassfed-beef/ It was a busy summer, but we are glad to be right where we need to be for calving in the spring! IMG_3796

Friday’s Thankful

Yup, I know it’s immensely cliched, but today I have to say it: I am thankful for my family. They live scattered across the country, from Chicago to Colorado, Syracuse to Seattle, and Boston to Austin. The Clark and Ristow families literally have the United States covered… except Hawaii and Alaska, which someone really should work on so that I can come visit!

Some of the Clark family made it out to Montana for our wedding reception. Photo copyright Jill Fineis photography.
Some of the Clark family made it out to Montana for our wedding reception! Photo copyright Jill Fineis Photography.
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Grandma Clark, on her birthday. She is now 97 years young and sharp as a tack.

Growing up, we used to drive to my Grandma Clark’s house in Syracuse on Thanksgiving morning. It was only an hour, but at the time it seemed like a very long journey. Now that I live in Montana, where we drive one hour to get to a grocery store, the Rochester – Syracuse jaunt seems like a plausible daily commute. Back then, upon arriving at my grandma’s house and fresh from a nap in the car, we’d spend the first half hour hugging all the relatives. And I mean all of them. Every last person on the premises would get up for a hug and a kiss whenever someone new arrived. The same thing happened in reverse whenever anybody was going out the door. No quiet arrivals or departures here! You can’t just slip into Grandma Clark’s house without being noticed, even though some 30+ people of all ages would be there.

No matter what our differences are, no matter when the last time was that we’ve seen each other – heck, no matter that I am often called by my sister Lara’s name – I feel welcome, supported, and loved by my family. This base of love and support allowed me to go out into the world and become whatever I dreamed possible, for which I am eternally grateful.

The Chicago Ristow family came to the end of the world for our wedding reception. Photograph copyright Jill Fineis Photography.
The Chicago Ristow family drove out to the end of the world for our wedding reception. Photograph copyright Jill Fineis Photography.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I skipped an entry, yesterday I was feeling thankful for the ability to turn off the computer and walk away from the internet for 24 hours. Instead I baked pies all morning, and enjoyed the company of my in-laws in Billings.

My new in-laws, the Bilden family. Copyright Jill Fineis photography.
At our wedding reception with my new in-laws, the Bilden family. Copyright Jill Fineis photography.

Thankful for Cows Around

IMG_3237It’s Wednesday of my week of thankfuls, and today I must pause to pay tribute to both cows and Corb Lund’s ode to the ungulate, “Cows Around”.

Yesterday we had the immense pleasure of singing and dancing the night away with friends at the Murray Bar in Livingston. Outside, heavy snow blanketed the city while inside Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans lit up the stage and filled the packed house with irresistably danceable tunes.

At this point if you are saying to yourself, “Corb who?“, I will redirect you to this clip from the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. And if you know Corb Lund’s music already, you’ll probably want to go listen again so you too can have it stuck in your head all day like I did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKoYT4febHM

I think the music really speaks for itself here. Yes, we had to get up before dawn this morning while our friends slumbered away peacefully. And yes, we had to navigate home on the snow-covered thruway before it was properly plowed. But why? Because we have the joy of keeping cows around, and had to get home to them. So am I sleep deprived today? You betcha. But am I happy? Oh yes!!! Because everything is better with some cows around. IMG_3767Living in town really was getting me down… take it away Corb!