Finally... I had a chance to write about my experiences in SD. See what you think.
A culture of progress
I was awakened by the sound of my alarm on my cell phone shrilling a reminder that it was time to get up… it was 6:00 am. I rolled over on my side and groped for my glasses on the coffee table where I had left them the night before. I laid there for a few moments waiting for my brain to get the messages of wakefulness to the rest of my body- my eyes shifted to the window, where the amazingly blue south western South Dakota sky was as fantastic as ever. I was on vacation, a short three day vacation, but a vacation nonetheless- Susan, a friend and classmate, and her husband had invited my friend Tom and I to spend the weekend following finals week at her family’s 2000 acre black hills ranch. We were going to help brand for the neighbors… and being as I had never seen cattle worked thus, it promised to be quite an experience.
I heard Tom rustling around in the bedroom next to mine and I decided to get dressed and ready for the day… as I stood in the shower allowing the steamy water to wash the sleep from my eyes I contemplated just what I was getting myself into. I’d practically lived with these friends for the past year, and had come to know them quite well… as such I’d heard many stories about the life and culture of this place- the annual job of doing without an abundance of water, the constant dust, the blistering heat, the tradition of the family cattle company.
We all sat down to a heartening breakfast of crispy bacon, light as a cloud pancakes and delectable scrambled eggs washed down with boiling hot coffee… Susan’s mom was a fabulous cook- and no one let her forget it… the pride showed on her face as we rapidly decimated the stacks of pancakes and her homemade preserves. We piled into the venerable old ford pickup… bearing many battle scars and calluses reminiscent of much work and many summers… and journeyed out down the gravel road to the branding. I could see the dust before we pulled into the farm, there had to be at least 10 pickups and horse trailers parked in a row with a small crowd of people gathering beside the fence. I got out and slathered myself with as much SPF 45 sun block as my skin could absorb… and we joined the group. We were instantly welcomed by a group of old cowboys… long past their prime, but nonetheless involved and important looking… A man named Ed came up and introduced himself to us, as I returned his firm handshake I noticed his tight wrangler jeans with high cowboy boots, his colorful western shirt with a few buttons open at the top, making room for the bright blue bandanna he wore… the entire outfit made a fitting pedestal for the enormous hat, stained shades of brown bearing witness to many long hours of perspiration inducing work. Ed was intrigued by Susan’s introduction of me- letting the man know that it was my first time at a branding. I visited with the man for a spell while Susan and Tom moved on, the fellow seemed to sense that I was a little uncertain of what I was about to witness… granted I’d worked with many cattle, but not like this. I asked him why so many people were there- there must have been close to 40 or 50 standing around talking… I thought perhaps the owner of the ranch just had a great deal of hired hands that had all brought their families. I offered this idea as an explanation of the large crowd to Ed, in response to which he burst out laughing. “Young feller”, he said, “none of these people are getting paid ‘sides with food”… these were just neighbors, here to help where they could… it was an event. Ed told me of how each family goes to all the brandings as part of an unspoken law holding that if one desired help on their ranch, one must be a help on the other ranches. It seemed that the system was working.
Finally it was time to begin. I was informed that I would be working as a “wrassler”… and that I’d pick it up as I went… not knowing exactly what I was to do, but getting a good idea as time passed, I joined one of the two parallel lines of young men standing on either side of an open gate, on the other side was a large group of bellowing calves, seeming rather upset at being separated from their mothers. Suddenly a horse and rider blew past me, heading into the calves with lasso flying overhead… before I knew it he had the calf by the hind legs, dragging it out of the pen. The two men first in line moved in unison… one grabbed the rope just beyond the calf’s struggling feet, the other grabbed the tail, they followed the horse till just before it stopped, when the fellow holding the tail nodded to the one holding the rope and simultaneously they flopped the calf down on it’s side while the horse stopped, the rope holder sliding down to hold one leg back while pushing the other forward with his foot, the tail holder quickly scooping up one of the calf’s feet while landing on it’s neck with one knee as the calf hit the ground, quickly pulling the foot up to his chest. It was all done so quickly I hardly knew what happened- looked so easy… figured I could do that. Finally it was my turn, as I had seen the other fellow do, I grabbed hold of the tail and followed the rope holder… suddenly he shouted “now!” and before I knew it he had yanked the rope, and I was out of synchrony. Suddenly the horse stopped and I found myself spread eagled on top of a scrambling fury of sharp hooves and screaming calf… I fought valiantly to subdue the wrathful animal and finally succeeded, sitting triumphantly on its head with its foot held tightly to my heaving chest. Just as if nothing had happened, a young boy, about 6 years old came to take the place of my hind end person- he was going to learn to hold the calf. Proudly holding firmly to the hoof and shoving his little cowboy boot into the other leg, the little guy did an admirable job. Suddenly I noticed a group of old men advancing towards us… one had an enormous multi-dose syringe in his hand, another was carrying a red hot branding iron… one fellow, who I later found out was almost 90 years old, came and stabbed his needle right beside my leg to vaccinate the calf… a disconcerting experience to be sure. This scene repeated itself dozens of times, with the old men spelling each other off, and the young boys all taking turns helping with any job they could. Finally, what seemed both an eternity and a moment later we were done. 175 calves were sent back to their mothers where the cows worriedly checked their little ones over to ensure their safety and absence of harm.
We left the cows to their calves and all moved eagerly up to the house where it was rumored that dinner was ready. This was an understatement. I entered the house to the wonderful smells wafting from the table, covered only with food- all the chairs were moved outdoors to accommodate the large numbers of people present. The spread was something to see- huge bowls heaped with creamy white mashed potatoes, rivulets of butter making little gullies down the sides of the mountain, there were salads of any conceivable variety… macaroni, potato, egg, lettuce, bean, cucumber… a huge basket held a pile of wonderfully golden brown buns, accompanied by jar upon jar of homemade raspberry, apple, strawberry, and peach jams and preserves… and at the end of the table… just as my nose had told me was one of the largest roasts of beef I’d ever seen on one table… these women must have been cooking all day. I looked over to the side of the kitchen where a section of counter top had been cleared off and an end table from the living room brought in to help hold the bounty of deserts that covered the surface… there was apple, peach, blueberry, and cherry pie, rhubarb cream cake, cherry cheese cake, poke cake (a marvelous concoction made from a white cake, jello, and real whipped cream), double layered iced cakes, baskets of chocolate chip cookies, and bars of all sorts and kinds. Suddenly I was very glad I’d come… it was quite apparent that this was the goal of the cooks for everyone present. After I’d made it through the line with my plate piled high, I joined the growing group on the porch. I sat down next to Tom on the edge of the old wooden structure, white paint faded with age and the footsteps of many tired ranchers glad to be home for the night. He looked up from his steaming meal with a happy grin on his face… “Have you ever seen anything like it?” he asked me in a confidential whisper; I replied that I certainly hadn’t… and we both lapsed into silence as we tended to the more important matter of guarding our food from the cats which apparently figured that we’d come down to their level for their convenience.
As we bounced over the country roads in the pickup truck on the way home everyone was very quiet… it had been a long, hard, rewarding day. I was thinking to myself about the system I’d observed… mentally comparing it to the system I was familiar with back home. I was fully aware of the fact that at home we could have done the same amount of work in half the time with about 3 or 4 people using a decent cattle handling system… there would be no need for neighbors…no need for community work days… no need for horses and ropes and small children and old men… the calves would be less stressed and the profit margin would be much better off…
What is it that makes some groups of people willing to shun certain technologies in favor of traditional methods? Why will an Amish farmer purposely turn down some labor saving device when he knows full well that it would increase his efficiency and maximize his productivity? We live in a culture that has adopted a policy of rugged individualism… of lone ranger complexes… of a chronic obsession for the minimization of dependency on others… entire groups of industries died as the age of machines and mechanization took over… as the country and western song lamented… the little man’s days are numbered. Indeed the time when family businesses were the norm are gone… when grandpa ran the tractor because we needed him to. When we taught children the value of hard work and respect for oneself through the encouragement of hard work and respect for others. When we were willing to move slowly enough to be able to see where we were headed. Is this progress?
I had been witness to a culture that respected 90 year old men, because they had something important to say. Where young children were encouraged to help where they could, because everyone knew they’d soon be grown. Where young men who were just moments before “rough and tumbling” with one another were the absolute picture of manners and chivalry when the ladies of any age were around. Where young ladies were absolutely thrilled to be responsible for the best meal their men folk had ever seen. Where everyone bent over backwards to make sure that from the child that the rest of the world would have in daycare to the old man that most people would want in a nursing home felt useful, needed, and most importantly, wanted. I realized that we were almost back to my friend’s ranch… and tomorrow I’d be on my way back home… I remained pensive as we wound our way down the steep hillside to the valley beneath the vast black hills sunset, resplendent in fantastic golds, shimmering pinks, deep blues and deeper purples. I asked myself… which system is truly progress?
* Names, exact locations, and some details have been changed to protect privacy.
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