Growing roots to stay grounded, healthy


The second half of winter on a ranch or farm feels a little like the second half of summer for school-aged children. Calving and lambing and planting season will start sooner than we like to admit, and whatever freedom afforded by the relative simplicity of winter chores will come abruptly to an end.

Better hurry up and start relaxing, I always think, because the time to do so is quickly waning. Our workload is about to shift from daylight hours to around the clock, as the cows’ and ewes’ due dates approach.

This is also true for my work as a performer and musician. The harsh winter weather of the Northern Plains makes scheduling tours a dicey endeavor, and most festivals and concert series are held during warm months for the same reason.

Instead, winter is spent plotting summer travels, negotiating contracts, consulting maps for touring routes and working on set lists.

When I was younger and more energetic, I had the stamina to endure the overbooking that resulted from me forgetting that I really can’t do ALL the things once warm weather hits.

By August, I’d be exhausted to the point of illness by all the plans I’d laid in the cold, quiet of February, but I’d somehow drag myself to the finish line with just enough energy left to begin the whole cycle over again.

This week, we started cleaning the barns, fixing gates and doing all the other “nesting” that the imminent arrival of new babies will require. I also began officially confirming dates for summer shows.

Growth below ground

At the bequest of the older, wiser version of myself, I’ve been trying to hold a metaphor in my mind as I do this work: I spent a lot of my life living like a tree with no roots and thus learned the hard way (again and again) that in order to support healthy, sustainable growth above ground, there needs to be an equal amount of growth below ground — otherwise the tree is liable to topple over at the slightest breeze.

My attempt to turn over a new leaf (pun intended) means asking myself before I make a new commitment, do I have the root structure to support this branch? Or is some pruning required?

At the time of this writing, the sheep market is the highest it’s been since I started keeping sheep 10 years ago. Perhaps you can guess where my thoughts are wandering?

I could sell most of my flock, keep a few pets, and make more than I’ve made the rest of my shepherding career combined. It’s a tempting proposition.

Watching the flock

I was visiting with an older neighbor the other day. After years of lambing out 900 ewes all by himself, he sold all his sheep about six years ago. “I just got too old,” he told me.

“Some days I feel like I’m getting too old!” I laughed, and then asked a little more somberly: “I’m sure you’ve seen the market reports … do you think I should sell off my flock?”

“Well, I’m not going to answer that,” he said. “But I will tell you a story. Last summer I was thinking about selling my cows, and officially retiring, and I got to talking to a friend. The friend said: ‘Do you love what you do? And can you keep doing it? Don’t retire until the answer to one of those questions is no.’”

From where I stand, firmly ensconced in middle age, I finally have the humility to accept that the answer to the second question is going to be no at some point sooner than later, and that I need to get serious about my pruning efforts.

I don’t have the answers yet. I spent the first half of my life growing this unwieldy tangle of branches, after all. I suspect the winnowing will take exactly as long as I have left, however long that turns out to be.

In the meantime, walking across the prairie at dusk, I will give thanks for the opportunity to keep growing and learning and blooming.


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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.



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