The honor of dealing in extremes


It is not unusual here on the plains to experience many seasons in one week. During autumn especially it can go from blazing hot to blizzarding in the course of a few days. It might even go right back to blazing hot a few days later. This holds true for spring as well, but the biggest extremes usually wait for May.

This year, however, March is determined to keep us on our toes, rivaling May with its fluctuations. It came in like a fuzzy, newborn lamb and is heading out in full-maned lion mode. If you’ve been following along with my columns about the fog calendar (which predicts significant precipitation, or more fog, 84 days after a fog event) you know this week was when the precipitation from the fog at Christmas and New Year’s was supposed to arrive. I’d hoped it might come in the form of a warm, gentle rain, but that was never very realistic. It’s western Dakota, after all, where true spring doesn’t arrive until a few hours before summer.

The inevitable winter storm forecast was terrible news for us, and many of our neighbors, because after a decidedly spring-like February and early March, the weather changed just in time for us to start calving — almost to the hour. My husband had three calves born the day it got cold again, and has been battling the elements ever since. The last two nights, with the storm predicted to drop around a foot of snow, he was up around the clock checking on mothers and babies.

Today, the snow clouds have passed, heading east, but the wind is still howling, and the temperatures are hovering in the single digits. Of course, the kids are passing around a cold as well, so the sneezing and coughing through the night aren’t helping us achieve restful slumber either. No one is going to get a decent night of sleep anytime soon.

In other news of extremes, I spent a day last week helping a neighbor butcher a hog. I put that in the context of extremes because at one point in my life I was a strict vegetarian who toyed with the idea of being vegan. (Cheese was my downfall–it turned out I could not live without cheese.) The distance between a vegetarian-animal-rights-advocate and a farmer/rancher is not as far as you might think (A fellow urbanite-turned-shepherd once told me, “The vegan to ranching pipeline is a real thing…” which would be excellent fodder for a whole other column someday) but it is still a trajectory that represents some unexpected twists and turns to say the least. All those twists and turns taken into consideration, we will now have a ham for our Easter table that I trimmed myself, not something I ever predicted I would be able to write. We also have a freezer full of lard, and I mean FULL.

Sometimes, especially during a week like this, I wonder if giving up cheese wouldn’t have been the easier path after all. Similarly, I’d be lying if I said this time of year I don’t daydream of ranching somewhere a little more temperate. What if March and April were actually spring, instead of winter playing a series of mean-spirited practical jokes on us?

And then I think about the pig who gave his life so we could celebrate resurrection and redemption. I think about the sacred work of midwifing these animals that we ask to sacrifice themselves to feed us. I think about how this season of suffering through deep cold and wind is rewarded by the prairie bursting into vibrant life, the snow storms offering the moisture that allows our grasslands to bloom. And I remember I am here to celebrate, to embrace, to do the best I can even when I’m falling asleep at the keyboard, because it is an honor to be here doing anything at all.

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