BY MADONNA HAMEL
I took my usual walk along the Frenchman the other morning. The night before three large beavers slid from the grassy banks into the high waters and paddled alongside me briefly before slapping and diving into the deep. The first time I heard a beaver hit the water I leapt from the ground, unprepared for its warning signal. It served as a reminder that, despite how I often feel like a small critter in a big land, there is always some creature smaller than me, unsettled by incursion and closeness. Life is a series of lessons in boundaries, and we never seem to learn them until we effect some kind of trespass.
This particular morning the warm sun was giving us a preview of the days to come and I wasn’t ready to head indoors so I turned eastward, toward Ervin’s place in the hopes of getting a chance at milking a cow. As it happened he was headed to the farm, with an old trailer hitched to the back filled with moms and calves.
“Hop in,” he said, moving his lunch from the passenger seat.
“Indeed!” Any chance to walk around the land up at the Divide is a welcome one. There is something mysterious going on on that land. It could be that the steward of it holds a respect for its history and its vestiges; it could be that this place has always shimmered with the vibrancy of ‘liminal’ spaces – the place on border between known and unknown, ethereal and earthly, sacred and secular, wind and grass. It could be that, because it lies so close to the Medicine Line, it reconciles a geographical version of reprieve, release, reflection and revivification. It could be a combination of all the above.
So when Ervin asks if I want to help herd the next day I jump at the chance. And there are benefits to being an old lady: I get to drive the side-by-side while the strapping youth, Ian and Amber, swaddled in coats and mitts and scarves, take the quads. Ervin takes up the rear with truck and trailer, shepherding as far as possible before the mud ruts mean swinging around and meeting us on the other end.
We start at eight in the morning, it’s brisk but there’s no wind and the sun is warm and friendly. I brought my camera equipment with me and was pleased to see a host of big fluffy springtime clouds waddling and wafting toward us. Quiet but substantial, clouds are what make us aware of the vastness of the sky, as they recede in the thousands, to the far horizon. They make painters and photographers both happy and nervous: are we up to them, can we portray them in all their nuanced, airy yet hefty beauty?
Bopping along in my little pope mobile of a land rover, I marvel at the lay of the land, the way we suddenly become absorbed by the territory, so that my only real anchor is the truck and trailor tailing us along the curve in the road behind us. At one point when three tired mom cows veer off toward a pool of water on the other side of the fence, I beetle over to herd them back in line. Switchbacking as Ervin taught me a year ago, barking instructions at me then rewarding me with that smile that has undoubtedly saved him from many a confrontation. This time I hope he’s watching from the truck, because I’m pretty proud of my efforts, until I have to return and head back to the herd. Then I’m nervous ascending an incline that makes me feel tippy.
As the day wears on it all comes back to me. I anticipate a certain rise or dip or creek bed and there it is. The other time I was out on the land in a quad I helped herd alongside Ian. At one point I’d stopped smack dab in the middle of a tepee ring. The notion of modernity cutting through antiquity shook me and I got Ian to take a picture of that moment. Suddenly here I was with Amber looking down on the same spot. The rocks still firmly embedded, the tracks crossing overtop still rutted in dried mud, what has changed is my own growing respect and awe of place. And a widening circle of people with whom I can share that awe. What has changed is that I am older and the realization these stones will be here long after I die.
When Amber and Ian continue on side by side, talking like old cowboys, talking more than I see them talking in the confines of a cafe or bar, I take the opportunity to slip away from my post at the back of the herd, to explore photographic possibilities from a wide angle stance. I want to get high up and gather the enormous train of plodding cattle into one open embrace, with sun breaking through clouds (what my photography mentor and pal Page calls a “God-shot”) and blue sky bouncing off a small pool of melted snow.
It is the scope and pace of these herdings, this life of the rancher, that no urban person, living in the cramped and compartmentalized life of the city, can ever understand. The huge responsibility toward the enormous collective pilgrimage back and forth from home to the farm and the farm to home every year requires keeping one eye on every single cow while the other scopes the massive, moving endeavor. We are herd animals, but rarely are we asked, as humans, to be the shepherds of our own herd the way the rancher is asked to manage the crossing of the whole wide world at two miles an hour.
I step out of the side-by-side to capture an image of Ian descending a steep hill to round up a stray cow. When my foot hits the ground a small brown and white head pops up to see what all the fuss is about. A small-eared owl, ( not a burrowing owl as I mistakenly assumed) squatting in a ground squirrel burrow, stares straight at me, gives me a few seconds to take a rare close-up shot in this wide angle world, then winks and flies away.