Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination


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Kindnesses and Bones

Cottonwoods along the Rio Grande draped in gold.

Cottonwoods along the Rio Grande draped in gold.

Cottonwoods draped in gold lined the Rio Grande. My mind was miles away on the Great Plains when this sight pierced my thoughts. I pulled onto a dirt road, and got out and walked. The red New Mexico dirt drifted up around my feet and dusted onto my black boots. A light breeze rustled through the leaves. I kept my eyes on the golden cascade pouring down through the deep green of the cottonwoods, the Rio Grande flowed lazy and calm beneath. Nearly three weeks have passed since The Blizzard hit South Dakota and my parent’s ranch.
In Riding the White Horse Home, Teresa Jordan writes of the bone pile on every ranch, that area where ranchers take animals taken by time or illness.  Animals naturally shy away from this place. While the bone pile is a physical place for animals, writes Jordan, it can represent deeply felt emotional places for many ranchers. “Ranchers walk up to most bones. They look physical danger right in the eye and don’t blink. But there are other bones that scare them. For my family, the pile we shied away from was grief.” Bones of all kinds now fill the plains.
 
Amidst these bones, come waves of the kindnesses of strangers. To any who ever doubted the open kindness of the human heart and fierce nature of the spirit, a few notes from strangers, whom I thanked for lifting up what is happening now on the Great Plains:
Rebecca Farr

Rebecca Farr

“I believe in the power of the internet, but even more in the kindness of strangers.”

“BostonStrong paying it forward>RancherStrong.” 

Lorraine Lewandrowski lifted the events on the Plains to an international voice.

Grass roots initiative Help for South Dakota, where one can pledge livestock. Contact volunteer Wendi Lankister, ranchwife@gmail.com

“I have to do something,” wrote artist Rebecca Farr, before diving into creating t-shirts, all of whose proceeds go directly to South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund.

My dad, Dean Wink, articulates this experience with insight and eloquence, in his interview with Sherry Bunting. “We had a few hours of rain,” Wink recalls the afternoon of October 4. “Then, just hours before sundown, it changed to blizzard conditions. There are some things we could have done if we had known it would be this much of a blast. But it was the perfect storm stacked up against the cows: Rain, then sleet, and with no winter coat yet, they chilled down faster than normal. Then it turned to snow and we had white-out conditions for hours, and then the 70 mph winds snapping a reported 4300 power poles in the next county over. It was the combination of things — and the timing — the cows were not prepared for it. We were not prepared for it. Mother nature can be pretty brutal at times, and people in cities can’t have a true appreciation for that unless they are in it.” For the rest of the article, ‘Big Shot’ news organizations: Get out of town!.

I am crazy-proud of my dad.

I thought of all of this as I walked through the red New Mexico dirt, eyes on the gold-threaded cottonwoods ahead. The kindnesses of strangers mix with the bone piles, both physical and emotional. All is too new and raw to make much sense of right now.

Patricia Frolander, Poet Laureate of Wyoming, voices the ephemeral and visceral.

Grassland Genealogy

Prairie seeds, dirt and thistle

          borne on biting wind,

          adorn wooden crosses,

          mausoleums, marble stones,

          and the small chapel steps.

This last refuge, draped over a hill

          bears its earthy blanket with dignity.

          Tears more frequent than rain

          nurture native roots, their grasp

          as tenacious as the pioneers they embrace.

I greet the ancient ones.

          Spirits move with the breeze,

          hover beyond my shoulder

          wondering why I am here.

          I whisper my answer to the November sunset. 

I stood under the cottonwoods and looked up into the green, gold, and blue.

photo

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It Takes a Ranch — How to Support South Dakota Ranchers Affected by the Blizzard

Dad horseback.

Dad horseback, after the blizzard.

“This is a tough ol’ deal,” Dad said. 

Six days after blizzard, fences still buried. Photo ©Missy Urbaniak

Six days after blizzard, fences buried. ©Missy Urbaniak

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…” 

One pole left standing. Grand Elec. Coop.

One pole left standing. Grand Elec. Coop.

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 LimboSouth Dakota’s Cattle Cataclysm, About 75,000 Cattle Died in SD Oct. 4th Blizzard, Time to Have a Cow About Dead Cows.

Prairie in summer.

Prairie in summer. © Dawn Wink

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:

SD Ranchers

SD Ranchers

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

It takes a ranch.

It takes a ranch.

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,

Dawn

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The Blizzard that Never Was – and its Aftermath on Cattle and Ranchers

Calf on my parent's ranch.

Calf encased in snow.

The worst blizzard in recorded history of South Dakota just swept through the state. Tens of thousands of cattle are predicted dead and the much of the state is still without power. The Rapid City Journal reports, “Tens of thousands of cattle lie dead across South Dakota on Monday following a blizzard that could become one of the most costly in the history of the state’s agriculture industry.”

The only reason I know this is because my parent’s ranch, the setting for Meadowlark, lies in the storm’s epicenter. Mom texted me after the storm. “No electricity. Saving power on phone. It’s really, really bad….” She turned on her phone to call me later that day. “There are no words to describe the devastation and loss. Everywhere we look there are dead cattle. I’ve never seen so many dead cattle. Nobody can remember anything like this.” Author of several books and infinite numbers of articles, Mom said, “I can’t imagine writing about this. I’m not going to take photos. These deaths are too gruesome. Nobody wants to see this.”

I searched the national news for more information. Nothing. Not a single report on any of major news sources that I found. Not CNN, not the NY Times, not MSNBC. I thought, Well, it is early and the state remains without power and encased in snow, perhaps tomorrow. So I checked again the next day. Nothing. It has now been four days and no national news coverage.

Andrea J. Cook, Journal Staff

Andrea J. Cook, Journal Staff

Meanwhile, ranchers on the plains have been dealt a crippling blow the likes that has not been experienced in living memory. The Rapid City Journal continues, “Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said most ranchers she had spoken to were reporting that 20 to 50 percent of their herds had been killed. While South Dakota ranchers are no strangers to blizzards, what made Friday’s storm so damaging was how early it arrived in the season. Christen said cattle hadn’t yet grown their winter coats to insulate them from freezing wind and snow. In addition, Christen said, during the cold months, ranchers tend to move their cattle to pastures that have more trees and gullies to protect them from storms. Because Friday’s storm arrived so early in the year, most ranchers were still grazing their herds on summer pasture, which tend to be more exposed and located farther away from ranch homes.”

Dawn Wink, Wink Cattle. Co.

Cattle at dusk. 

In addition to the financial loss, when a rancher loses an animal, it is a loss of years, decades, and often generations within families, of building the genetics of a herd. Each rancher’s herd is as individual and unique as a fingerprint. It is not a simple as going out to buy another cow. Each cow in a herd is the result of years of careful breeding, in the hopes of creating a herd reflective of market desirability, as well as professional tastes of the rancher. Cattle deaths of this magnitude for ranchers is the equivalent of an investment banker’s entire portfolio suddenly gone. In an instant, the decades of investment forever disappear.  It is to start over again, to rebuild, over years and years.

Cattle have a very real money amount that ranchers and their families depend upon. This is also true of acreage and the size of a herd. This why you never, ever ask a rancher, “How big is your ranch?” or “How many cattle do you have?” These are the equivalents of, “So, how about you tell me the amount of money in your bank account?” With these losses, it is up to the rancher to divulge, or not, the number of head lost. It is not polite to ask, again the equivalent of asking, “So, how much money just evaporated from your bank account?” People outside of the ranching world often ask these questions with the best of intentions. They have no idea how these questions are experienced by the rancher. 

People have asked me, “What can we say then?” On this occasion, a heartfelt, “I’m sorry for your loss,” goes a long, long way. 

Here are two excellent pieces, written by local newspapers, on the loss and devastation to the living landscape:

Tens of Thousands of Cattle Killed in Friday’s Blizzard, Ranchers Say The Rapid City Journal

October Blizzard Taking Toll on Livestock, Ranch Radio KBHB

Wink Cattle Co., July 2013

Cattle, Wink Cattle Co., July 2013

To ranch is not a job, it is a life. In Meadowlark, which takes place on my parent’s ranch, the main character, Grace, studies the economic situation of the ranch, “By lamplight, Grace pored over the columns of numbers that represented the ranch. The sound of the pencil against the paper rose from the page and drifted into the corners of the room. She studied rows and numbers, written and erased, then written and erased again…This was all this ranch was to the bank: Expenses and income—the quantities of the former far outnumbering those of the later. 

Nowhere was there space for the things that represented the ranch’s true value. Headings such as Life, Hope, Dreams, and God-It’s-All-We’ve-Got did not exist. Nor was there room for Memories, Legacy, and Blood-and-Sweat. No item reflected the scent of the prairie grass after a summer rain. No place for the times Grace had rocked James and prayed that the land would sustain him through a lifetime. “

The prairie is a place of extremes, where the weather and land always take primacy, because they must. In Meadowlark, Grace writes in her journal, “The beauty. The bitterness. Not a land of mediocrity but of stunning beauty and brute force.”

The prairie experienced a summer of beauty, with rain we hadn’t seen in years. The prairie was lush with grass and cattle fat and glossy in the pastures. Now, we experience the brute force of the prairie, with tens of thousands of cattle dead and ranching families and communities left reeling. All of this death and destruction from The Blizzard that Never Was.

Mom just wrote, “As the days warm, more and more carcasses are exposed. So many have lost so much.”

I invite you to lift prayers and light to the people and animals of this region. When your dad’s a cowboy, this is what we do. When I told Mom there were so many people sending love, she said, “We feel it. It helps.”  

If you’d like to leave your words of encouragement and prayers in the Comments section if this piece, I will make sure they get to those who most need to hear them now.

Prairie landscape in winter.

Prairie landscape in winter.

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To subscribe and receive Dewdrops in your email, please enter your email address in the box under “Follow this blog via email” or click on the ‘Follow’ icon in lower right-hand corner of the blog’s screen and ‘Confirm Follow’ in the email you receive. To return to website: www.dawnwink.com