Showing posts with label agriculture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label agriculture. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time Travel in Utah's High Country

On a recent mountain bike ride near Richfield UT, they caught me sleeping. I was focusing on choosing a path between the rocks, when my herding group dog, Coffee Girl, took after a herd of sheep that we had almost stumbled into. But she was eventually scolded into returning to me, and the sheep weren't too rattled.

Hey wait a minute, weren't we only a couple seconds from an ambush by giant white dogs, screaming out of the sagebrush to protect their herd?

But none came. As we sidled up the ridge, the size of the herd became more apparent.

Where were the dogs and the human shepherd? Eventually we spotted him. But he seemed to only have a couple border collies to help him.

I waved at him so he'd notice that my dog was now on a leash, but he didn't respond. Maybe he didn't speak English, or even Spanish. Maybe he was a Vasco, that is, a Euskal from the Basque country. I'm a bit skeptical about Great Pyrenees dogs being hostile to humans, but I wasn't so sure what they would think of my "coyote," Coffee Girl, even on her leash. So we kept our distance from the shepherd, and he was spared a dozen questions from me.

We kept climbing on this rocky ATV trail. Half the time I had to dismount and push the mountain bike. You don't want to be naive about ridges. Why are they ridges in the first place? Because they are erosion-resistant volcanic rock, surrounded by easier-eroding sedimentary layers.

I was feeling inspired by the romance of the Basque High Country, and made a rare decision: to go for a loop route instead of the more typical out-and-back. Yes, loop routes are 10 times more likely to get you into trouble, especially since I don't bring a GPS or maps, or even study maps at home all that much.

We were helped by being on the Paiute ATV trail of central Utah. And I did find a loop back home, although it took 5 hours. But along the way there were those moments of Doubt and Foreboding Doom that make an outing interesting. I'm not being facetious. False summit after false summit. I yearned to hear a noisy ATV or to see the dusty contrail of a pickup truck, because that would signify that we had finally succeeded at finding the quick road back home!

Back at camp around sunset, my dog and I heard the tinkling of a single bell. Sure enough, out on the road in front of camp, the herd of sheep was moving along, and rather briskly at that. I thought there were about 300 sheep in the herd, but was later to learn it was 1200! The herd moved almost noise-lessly as a dense pack, with barely a baah out of them. 

Was the bell on an "alpha" sheep? Was it meant to help the herd, shepherd, or the dogs follow the herd? Or was it meant to help on foggy nights?

Once again we saw the shepherd. Instead of only two border collies he had a small herd of border collies and blue heelers. Is that a walking stick in his hand? He certainly needs one. I guess they don't use those long shepherd's staffs with the rounded crook at the end, anymore.

And yes, three Great Pyrenees. How noble of Purpose they are!

This pastoral experience enriched a wonderful and difficult day of mountain biking. It made it about more than just eye-candy and aerobic exercise. It helped me appreciate, what?, 8000 years of anthropological changes: our development from hunter/gatherers to a pastoral phase with domesticated herds, to agriculture and settlements, then to cities and long-distance sea trade, to industry, and finally to our current phase, such as it is.  


Let's do a movie quote from Sydney Pollack's 1994 remake of Bill Wilder's "Sabrina": the money-man, Linus (Harrison Ford), has taken Sabrina (Julia Ormond) to his "cottage" on Martha's Vineyard. They take in the view from the oceanside window. Sabrina hands Linus her camera:

Sabrina: "Don't take a picture. Just look."

Linus looks through the view finder and describes what he sees, "Ocean (yawn), ocean, ocean, quaint little fishing village...lighthouse. A guy is going into a lighthouse. There's a job for you. What must that be like? What kind of guy takes a job keeping a lighthouse?"

What kind of man, indeed. And what kind of man becomes a shepherd in the modern age? Is our shepherd (in the photo) out there all night? In the past they must have been. Imagine how cold it must have been, and how solitary. It is easy to see why there was a link between the religious and the poetical imaginations.

After a night of shivering, the shepherd awoke in the mountain fog upon hearing the tinkling of a single sheep's bell. He knew the herd was close and safe.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A "City Slickers" Style Cattle Drive?

Saguache, CO. What was that noise? Was somebody going through childbirth? Or calf-birth? My herding dog, Coffee Girl, was all excited by the commotion, and rightly so. A cattle drive makes an enormous amount of noise. Whoa baby, here they come now. About a hundred of them.

They missed my dispersed campsite by 50 yards. But that's closer than it's ever been before.

At first I thought it was a ranch family doing an old-fashioned Western cattle drive. But the "boy voices" that I thought I'd "herd", turned out to be adult cowgirls.

Recently I had overheard a conversation between a local and a metropolitan tourist, in a coffee shop. When the tourist left, the local rolled his eyes and said to the other local, "You can always tell a tourist from the shorts." Feeling self-conscious about my tourist status, and not wanting to ruin the authenticity of the experience to the cattlemen, I hid behind rocks and bushes when photographing them.

As it turned out, they were perhaps dressed a little too fancy to be authentic. Maybe they were all the offspring of a multi-millionaire who owns a ranch in Colorado as a nostalgia-thing, or as a trophy property.

Ahh well, that's OK. I'm not criticizing them. I just like observing things closely and trying to explain things, based on that. And why shouldn't I observe closely; coyotes do.

At first it was easy to imagine my Kelpie being "envious" of the four border collies which were "working" the cattle. Presumably that means chasing outlying or straying cattle back towards the center.  But they didn't really appear to be doing that. Clearly though, they were excited by the event.

Horses are rare and almost exotic animals in the post-western West, and few states are as post-western as Colorado. So this was a rare privilege. They are indeed beautiful and romantic creatures, and you don't have to be an affluent 13-year-old girl to feel that way. In fact, they have such large advantages over dogs in this terrain and climate, you almost have to feel sorry for the dogs. Wouldn't you prefer hooves to paws, all-body sweating to mere panting, coyote-proofness to vulnerability, and a large body mass to make you survive snakebite (presumably)?

As always, whenever I see a horse and a dog working together, I like to imagine a mountain biker and a dog as the modern reincarnation of the Western horse culture, just as the 'lone rider of the Plains, circa 1875' was the reincarnation of the knight-errant of the Middle Ages. 

These cattlemen were lucky. If I had been a real tourist from the big city, they would have returned down the road to find me waving a protest sign: "Ban Everything on Public Lands, Except What I Like!"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Livestock Security Services in New Mexico's "Basque" Country

Abiquiu, NM. On a day of ooze and muck, it is time that I came clean. Much as I love to debunk four-wheel-drive vehicles and brag about how well my rear-wheel-drive van pulls the trailer through the mountains, I sing a different tune when the dirt roads become wet. When I learn there is clay in the road, the tune stops altogether. Fortunately a Forest Service guy gave me fair warning.

He also explained why these high ridges north of Abiquiu are so attractive: they burned 100 years ago and the trees haven't been able to get reestablished, resulting in a balanced combination of pastures and forests. It never gets better than this.

I was experiencing a great success primarily due to telling the internet where to go. This allowed me to expand, almost euphorically, into new ground. Nothing makes western North America get BIGGER than kissing off the internet. So I'm exploring the northern counties of New Mexico contained in the highway loops formed by US-285 on the east, US-84 on the west, and Abiquiu/Espanola on the south. Actually it's not really internet-free, but it's almost Verizon-free. Fortunately Verizon allows roaming here (the so-called Global Access network), which is working quite well along the highways.

On the mountain bike ride I saw and heard the largest and noisiest herd of ovine-Americans that I've ever seen. Perhaps 200. I was surprised at how rampaging and "army-like" a large herd of sheep can seem, and how quickly they move along the pastoral ridgelines at 9500 feet. 

On the return trip they waylaid me right on the dirt road. Hey wait a minute. What about that warning about the "livestock protection dogs" of a couple posts ago? I stopped and watched the sheep herd for ten minutes, but saw no giant man-eating sheepdogs. How disappointing!

The next morning the herd was right outside my front door. Coffee Girl was excited. She has learned not to harass cattle; maybe it's time to do the same with sheep. But just in case, I left her inside the van and went to check for giant sheep dogs.

There were two of them, a matched pair. They saw me before I saw them. They don't really stand out since they're the same color and size as the sheep.

They walked toward me, but then stopped. They wouldn't leave the herd. They didn't look so scary. I didn't want to push my luck but government agencies love to, uhh, cry wolf; that is, they give exaggerated warnings to citizens who they see as their dumb sheep.

In fact the two sheep dogs seemed amazingly professional. I watched them for a few minutes to see if they would stay in the center of the herd, try to lead it, or go back to round up stragglers. I swear that somebody had a bell around their neck. 

Which breed do you think they belong to? (As usual, click to enlarge.)

For such a reputed curmudgeon and cynic I find the romance of high pastures, Basque shepherds, sheep dogs, and cougars to be irresistible. Guess which DVD movie I'll fall asleep to tonight? Hint: made in Australia in the 1990's, and features a lot of talking animals.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Firewood Cutting on Public Land

Uncompahgre Plateau, west of Montrose, CO. I am pleased to stumble upon my second "forest miracle" in one summer. Up here at 9000 feet the locals are busy as beavers harvesting firewood in various areas where it is allowed. It's nice to see them actually get some use out of their oversized, overpowered, and overpriced pickup trucks, the official car of Colorado. Maybe one of them will tell me how much a full load of firewood is worth, compared to buying heat from the power company.

Of course, I just love seeing downed timber get cleared away. It makes the forest a lot more attractive and removes "ladder fuel" from a potential forest fire. And Coffee Girl can chase squirrels up tree with fewer speed bumps on the forest floor. (Then again, she has amazing buoyancy in bounding over logs.)

Progress is being made in this forest, and I don't want to sound greedy, but do you think that commercial companies can get permits to cut firewood and then sell it to the general public? It would certainly make sense since many people lack the chain saw and pickup truck, as well as the desire and ability to get out there and do it.

I'll bet most grass-roots-level environmentalists would have the same reaction to firewood cutting that I am having. After all, what is the point in whining about an economy addicted to non-renewable resources (oil, etc.) if you don't take advantage of resources that are replenishable and sustainable, such as forests or agriculture in general? (And don't they use catalytic convertors in the chimneys of wood-burning stoves, these days?) Of course environmental organizations and federal judges are unlikely to use any of the common sense of a grass-roots environmentalist.

But I'm not going to jump on one of my favorite stump (ahem) speeches about the Church of the Holy Green. Instead, it's time to show how 'fair and balanced' this blog can be. Let us accept, without protest, the basic tenet of Green theology: as long as no business makes a profit doing it, cutting trees might be not be a Mortal Sin under certain circumstances. (Recall the New Testament story about Jesus showing rage in throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. Thus feel the Greens about evil capitalists in their Cathedral of Nature.)

So we'll let the Forest Service hire unionized government employees -- and what could be more sacred to Green Democrats than that? -- and they will take a chainsaw to trees that are sick or old or growing too close to each other. (Or maybe they could use AmeriCorps volunteers, or unemployed college graduates.) They could even bring along a New Age or Native American shaman to say a prayer for the soul of each tree just before it is cut -- just before it is severed from Mystical Union with the forest. After lying on the ground for whatever time period is needed for drying, the firewood scavengers will be turned loose on them. 

Why wouldn't an arrangement like that make everybody happy? I'm willing to give-and-take, to look at the situation from their point of view, and to consider any concession, as long as somebody gets rid of a few trees!

Seriously, how many homes could be heated if dog-hair-thick national forests were thinned for firewood? If I have been too satiric, can you think of a non-satiric way to explain the vast scale of forest mismanagement that has taken place over the last 20 years?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Idle, Idyllic, and Idols in Patagonia

Every day the same three guys sit in chairs under the canopy of the old-fashioned gas station. And since this is Patagonia, it still is a gas station. I giggle at this sight because they are so reminiscent of the old boys hanging out at the gas station on the Andy Griffith show of olden times. In fact that is one way to think of this town: Mayberry for hippies.

The best way to tour Patagonia is to ignore the art galleries and walk through the alleys to gawk at backyards. The normal bland suburb would have codes and ordinances against half of this town. Patagonia is a lower Leadville.

It is ironic. Most of the towns in America more interesting than Gopher Prairie or Levittown are old mining towns. So is Patagonia; yet, the locals are raising hell about a copper strip mine being developed in the area. Actually there is a second layer of irony: an environmentalist's favorite utopian dream is a nation running on all-electric Obamamobiles. How many pounds of copper windings would there be in each of these? Where does the copper come from? Perhaps the typical American of the post-industrial age thinks that an electric car is really an "electronic" car run by silicon chips "made by" Apple.

But back to the backyards of Patagonia. They are the kind of art I can appreciate; art that develops slowly over time, just as the topography of the Colorado Plateau does.

Many houses and sheds had corrugated galvanized metal roofs. When the sun catches them just right they rip the eyes right out of your head. There is a beauty to intensity that is usually overlooked as artists try to make everything effeminately pretty. I love these roofs most when they are partly rusted.  

Most Anglo-Americans implicitly subscribe to the Whig Interpretation of History. How do travelers reconcile this general perspective with their concrete experiences of returning to towns that they love after a year or two? Are they not afraid that something will have changed, and that most change means decline? Or do people worship the false idol of Progress so blindly that they don't see the increased sprawl, noise, prices, traffic, architectural blandness, and rules and regulations?

On one of these returns I immediately hit the town coffee shop, which also serves as the "Chatterbox Cafe" a la Garrison Keillor. My first impression came from the young senorita barista, who had the sort of skin that a gringo with northern European genes has to be in awe of.  Ahh, all was going to be well this year, I thought.

Every year, before Tucson has its first heat wave, I move the ol' wagon up to summer pastures near Sonoita and Patagonia. It is a seasonal idyll that lasts a couple weeks. There's a dog in this shadow:

I don't know how Patagonia got its name. The only time I've ever paid any attention to the name was a book mentioned in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. The book was Hudson's, "Idle Days in Patagonia." He was an Argentinian of English heritage. Those who have depleted the great open pit mine of Thoreau and would like to find a similar author would do well to consider this book.

By a curious coincidence I remember once seeing a dilapidated windmill in this area, with barely legible labeling as usual. It was made in Argentina.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Calmness of My Inner Peasant

Can you imagine anything more boring to a young person than going to a so-called farmers' market on Saturday morning? It was even boring to me a couple years ago. But lately I have come away from them in a mood of satisfaction and appreciation. How strange. 

In the past I might have been turned off by the high prices and the hippie-dippieness of small organic "farmers." (Gardeners, actually.) I expect to pay grocery-like prices for groceries, not boutique prices or art-gallery prices. But when you live in a state that is an agricultural nobody, you do start to appreciate the growing of food.

This isn't the only example of how our tastes change as we get older. Maybe we come to the conclusion that the world, for the most part, is a lot of crap -- noise, useless busyness, and bother; and since we as individuals can't do much about it, we withdraw into a cocoon to enjoy a few quiet, honest pleasures that are available. Perhaps 'cocoon' isn't the right word; I should have said that we withdraw to our private gardens, as Epicurus would have encouraged.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hope for Historians

Just when I was ready to give up on reading history, an interlibrary loan came to my rescue: "Medieval Technology and Social Change," by Lynn Townsend White. It is probably considered by some to be a modern classic. Take a look at the Preface:
Voltaire to the contrary, history is a bag of tricks which the dead have played upon historians. The most remarkable of these illusions is the belief that the surviving written records provide us with a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity. 'Prehistory' is defined as the period for which such records are not available. But until very recently the vast majority of mankind was living in a subhistory which was a continuation of prehistory. Nor was this condition characteristic simply of the lower strata of society. In medieval Europe until the end of the eleventh century we learn of the feudal aristocracy largely from clerical sources which naturally reflect ecclesiastical attitudes: the knights do not speak for themselves. Only later do merchants, manufacturers, and technicians begin to share their thoughts with us. The peasant was the last to find his voice.
If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records...
This wouldn't have been the first time I was seduced by a preface and disappointed by the book. Fortunately White's book was interesting. It discussed the radical changes that occurred during the Middle Ages; changes that we tend to overlook because they weren't the concern of clerical scribblers: the widespread use of the stirrup for horse riding (and hence the knightly occupation); using a shoulder harness for draft animals instead of a neck loop; a plow that goes deep and overturns the soil, thanks to a coulter and a moldboard shape; three-crop rotation replacing two-crop rotation; wind power; firearms; machines such as crank mechanisms and intricate clockwork.

I will even pay a most unusual compliment to his book: I wish it was longer. For instance he neglected the optical and weaving industries.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Giving up on Historians

The North-South cultural split in Europe still intrigues me. Sure, it's fallen off of the front page of the news, but Europe's financial problems are not over with, and they could have quite an impact on the world. Besides, this blog is not enslaved to the Breaking News Syndrome. 

I've found a shelf of books at the local college library that seemed like it would enlighten me on the North-South cultural split in Europe. But after reading a half dozen books on the origins of cultures and civilizations, I was disappointed and frustrated. Think of history as a machine that has an input and an output. What is the input other than other books? But there weren't a lot of books written when Germans were being Christianized and de-barbarianized. And what was written doesn't really explain the habits of thought and feeling that evolved in northern Europe and set it apart from the Mediterranean South. (I've already rejected Protestantism as an explanation or Cause; it is an Effect.)

Historians sometimes do have an imagination, although using it might seem subjective, unscientific, and unprovable. Consider Toynbee's emphasis on the under-rated point that medieval Europe was a frontier society. There are habits of thought and feeling that go with frontier societies.

It was also an agricultural frontier: forest was converted to field. Did that make it easier for yeoman farmers to get their own land than in Mediterranean lands? If so, that could have encouraged Germans to develop an earnestness to their work that a Mediterranean peon wouldn't have had.

The City survived in the South, as did a bit of trade and transportation. The North was almost entirely based on subsistence agriculture. Agriculture in the North must have been different than in the South. Let's not forget that the vast majority of people were farmers until the last few generations. Historians tend to forget this; they are city-slickers, trapped in the library.

Northern soils were heavier and richer than the South. The growing season was shorter. During a Northern winter, firewood chopping and gathering must have been a task that you could never relax from.

Was dairy farming more prevalent in the North? Isn't there a daily relentlessness and meticulousness to dairy farming that could spill over to life in general? If you work a little harder or better, the cheese, meat, and turnips might survive the winter in a root cellar, thanks to the cold climate of the North. (And you could also dig the cellar; there wasn't pure rock under a thin layer of soil like in the South.)  Alas, I'm too much of a city slicker myself to answer these questions.

Christianity took over the North 500 years later than the South. Although the Roman Empire was long-gone in the Middle Ages, the Roman bureaucratic, legal, and organizational mindset survived in medieval Catholicism. Perhaps these traditions were weaker in the North, where people were more interested in the emotional and psychological buzz and benefits of religion. Again that fosters an earnestness to an important part of life.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Back to Real Camping

Casa Grande AZ, a couple springs ago. The last day of my urban boondocking I rebuilt the trailer's battery box. It was enjoyable to learn more about how the travel trailer was built, and to think how it should have been built. During this work in town the dogs were a real nuisance to me. They only got one real run at sunset in an open field--on one of those deeply furrowed, irrigated fields that central Arizona is famous for. Or used to be.

Sometimes my youngish dog, Coffee Girl, would gambol across the field, jumping the furrows like it was a steeple chase. At other times she adjusted her angle across the furrows so that she ran horizontally--her stride's wavelength commensurate with the bottoms of the furrow. She had reinvented the principle of the interference filter, which a thin layer of oil on water can also do.

The little poodle looked completely different running across the furrows. He looked like a small skiff sinking into the trough of an ocean wave, and then bobbing up on top. Finally I had to give it a go. I ran perpendicular to the rows, landing in the bottoms. The soil was soft so there was no danger of turning an ankle. But I had to lift my knees so high it seemed like they would slap my jaw. It would have been comical for anyone to watch.

And so we finally headed west from Casa Grande, off to Table Top mountain. On the way out there were huge holding pens for thousands of cows! How do they survive in summer? Roofs provide shade for only some of them. The rest should turn into medium-rare steaks while still on the hoof.

I often try to imagine unimaginably slow geologic processes, like the deposition of soil so flat that you can farm it with furrow irrigation. But near Stanfield AZ I saw a huge "field Zamboni" actually grading and leveling the field. Apparently that is a service that farmers pay for, around here.

Finally we crossed the cattle guard and were home again, on BLM land. The washboard held me down to about 8 mph. Were the dogs as happy as I was to be out of town and back to a place where they could run free? Who knows -- you know how secretive dogs are with their true feelings.