“This is a tough ol’ deal,” Dad said.
In a culture that prizes stoicism and reserve, this one phrase speaks worlds. When your dad’s a cowboy these words go straight to a daughter’s heart.
Ten days have passed since the worst blizzard on record in South Dakota ripped through the state, leaving an estimated 65,000 dead cattle and shattered lives in its wake. “People are in shock,” Mom said.
Families caught away from the storm returned home, “I didn’t make it 5 miles from home before the tears started. A single mile didn’t pass by that we didn’t see at least one black mound sticking up from the snow,” wrote Missy Urbaniak. “I knew it was bad, I was bracing myself for how bad, but you can’t prepare yourself for such a heartbreaking sight. Later, we headed to Rapid City on the New Underwood Road. We have driven that route a hundred times. It will never be the same again. I will never forget seeing mile after mile of black mounds in the snow. Gruesome. Wishing the boys weren’t in the pick-up with us, but not having anywhere else for them to go. Trying to explain it to them.”
“I was driving a corridor of death and broken dreams. No words will ever adequately explain it,” writes Jodi Shaw in Storm Aftermath: Moving Forward with Character and Hope. “I called my mom, my voice cracked and I just started crying. “Mom, there are dead cattle everywhere. The electric poles are broke off . . . all of them. There’s more cattle, Mom, and more and there… is…more…”
Phone calls began once electricity was restored after a week with no power. “I go out and try to take photos of our place,” continues Urbaniak. “Try to find the right perspective to show what our life is like. It seems impossible. We begin hearing more about families. They still have no power. Some of our dearest friends. Their cattle were out on summer gumbo. Their losses were staggering. We hear word that it was not just one family… no… seven families. Our dear, dear friends who lost so, so much. They don’t want anyone to know. Tears over the phone. Joe takes our spare generator to them. Dreaming at night of moving cows by four-wheeler, of cows everywhere, helping them, checking them.”
One week after the blizzard hit, Mom said, “We finally slept a little last night. There has been no sleeping.” Stretched between the brief bookends of sleep are long days of work nobody wants to do – cutting the ear tags off dead cows, disposing of the carcasses, finding yet more dead. “There is nothing romantic about living this,” Mom said. My brother, Bo, drove from Wisconsin to be with my parents this week. Together, my brother and parents ventured into those hard places, physical and emotional.
As events unfolded, writers wrote eloquently and wisely to the questioning of cattle deaths and questioned why this isn’t receiving national attention: Lapsed Farm Bill Leaves SD in Limbo, South Dakota’s Cattle Cataclysm, About 75,000 Cattle Died in SD Oct. 4th Blizzard, Time to Have a Cow About Dead Cows.
It is easy during great tragedies for those involved to become a faceless mass. Here is a photo journal of our ranch last summer. For all of these thousands and thousands of dead cattle, are the families living this devastation. My friend and ranching wife, Jodi, wrote to me, “I am going out to pick apples from our broken trees with my kids. We need to do something…”
A ranch is a world unto itself. To feel a shard of understanding for what has happened and what ranchers now experience on the plains, this knowing is essential. What lies on the prairie now along with the physical dead are the dreams, years, decades, generations of back-breaking and soul-hoping work, all with the dream of creating a life for one’s family.
The separation of land and human cease to exist on a ranch. In Meadowlark, Grace writes of this, “Sometimes when all was very quiet, she would find herself drawn, as if in a trance, into her own depths. Down she traveled past the layers that composed her, through the skin of the surface crust, and the few inches of topsoil, down through the intermittent stratum of soft, pliant sand and hardpan dirt. The layers reflected the story of her life…The prairie was Grace and Grace was the prairie.”
A ranch is a life story. We are all the prairie, the land. This knowing touched people around the world as the prayers, sympathies, and well-wishes for ranchers poured into the comments of The Blizzard that Never Was —over 1,100 as of this moment. I invite you to read and share these messages. I now work to get these messages to ranchers.
So many wrote, what can I do? And now I have a response! Artist Rebecca Farr has created a way for us to contribute:
On October 4, 2013, South Dakota was hit with an early blizzard that left tens of thousands of cattle dead. The devastation and loss was tremendous. Some ranchers have reported between 20% and 50% of their herds were killed.
This tee shirt has been designed to support the South Dakota Ranchers in their time of need. Proceeds will go to the Black Hills Rancher Relief Fund which as been set up specifically for the victims.
Tee shirts are $25.00 each. Shipping and handling is free to anywhere in the world. The shirts are available in Large and X-Large. When you purchase a shirt, you will have the option of signing up to get updates on how much money we have raised! Locally designed and printed in Santa Fe, NM!
www.rebeccafarr.us to purchase! Thank you for your support! © R Farr 2013
Or contribute directly to South Dakota Rancher’s Relief Fund here: https://www.giveblackhills.org/27677
What has sustained our family, and what we have said through heartbreak and joy is, “It takes a ranch.”
I hope we’ll dissolve the borders that separate the state of South Dakota from the hearts and understanding beyond its borders, beyond the borders between urban and rural, the borders that would rather be “right” than understand, and the borders between countries. For this moment, let us be that ranch that comes together to sustain, support, and care.
Thank you and with love,
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