Monthly Archives: October 2011

Frosty tumbleweeds in a Texas corral

Frost in Broke Tree Corral (October 29, 2011).

For the first time since last April, frost rests upon the Broke Tree Corral!  The temperature at the ranch house read 35 deg. F., but when I walked down to the corral, I saw frost.  Then I photographed frost on the horse apples and soil (I could have photographed frost on the trailer, but this was a neat pic with green tumbleweed).

This weather event is worthy of a separate post — should have made it on Saturday — because, well, it’s cold for a change, and we have been sweltering, perspiring, cussing, finding shade, digging caves and seeking the earth’s innards for cool places like Sonora Caverns or Carlsbad Caverns.  Many of us in the Southwest have even constructed wine cellars for cool comfort even though many Texas vaqueros  prefer Shiner or Casa Blanca beer and won’t use the cellars for anything but a cool getaway.  River bottoms at night also offer pleasant temperatures.  Bear Creek and Palo Pinto Creek near my ranchito are cool at night.

I like the tumbleweed and frost.  Yesterday I had to shred tumbleweeds in the Broke Tree because when they dry up the tumbleweeds will detach from the soil, roll around and scare the horses at night — yes, tumbling tumbleweeds.  I am not going to ever use tumbleweeds for Christmas trees.  Too fragile, smell funny.  The way this economy is going, however, I may cut the tumbleweeds and go to the Metroplex and purvey to florists!  I am getting a mite desperate.

Tumbleweed courtesy of TumbleweedsRus.com

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Not mine, not yours, but ours: Penasco Upper Llano acequias

The house on 17 irrigated acres from the Acequia de San Juan Nepomoseno del Llano. Water rights since 1789 (photograph by Taos Properties).

Forty-four years ago, in 1967, I traveled to New Mexico from Amarillo, Texas.  It was my third and most memorable trip for I dreamed for days about colors and pottery and adobe and silver.  I would lie down, fall asleep and pass into a dream world of silver and blue skies — northern New Mexico.  It was not all pleasant because I became ill from eating different Native American and Mexican foods, but that never deterred me from returning again and again and again.

Aside from digestive and dreaming events, I vividly remember a man plowing his field with horses near Mora, the unpaved streets about the Taos plaza and the narrow strips of farm land that bordered rivers and irrigation ditches.  The narrow strips of irrigated land not only reflected a precise lay of the land by survey crews, but also reflected a community, a meshing of farmers.  What was there about those fertile strips that drew me in?    In later anthropological field trips, I took my students by the Pecos River irrigated plots along State Highway 3 that ran from Interstate 40 to Interstate 25 between Santa Rosa and the Pecos Pueblo.  (Click to see Google map of the Pecos River plots.)

The system of irrigation is called acequia, referring both to the irrigation ditch and the association of members organized around it.

I have never owned land in New Mexico, but if I did I would buy a parcel of land that had water rights to an acequia, a system that stretches back in time to Native American communities before the arrival of the Spanish who adopted the local customs of water rights (riparian rights).  Having land that possesses an acequia, one automatically gains entry into a community that cleans, rebuilds and nourishes the ditches and, further, is granted rights to meet in a democratic association to discuss apportioning water and policies affecting owners that border the irrigation ditch.

Several weeks ago, I came across a piece of property near Penasco that if I could sell my ranchito, I would buy and move my horses and equipment post haste to Penasco Upper Llano.  See the following Google map:  This is the map-image of the Penasco Upper Llano property and other strips of community property.

This particular piece of property with the adobe house pictured above is located in the high country between Taos and Santa Fe and can produce 700 bales of hay a year.  The water rights go back to 1789, the year that the United States inaugurated its first president, George Washington.  The surveyor’s plat looks like this:


Stanley Crawford in his work, Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico (1988), writes of the acequia culture that I admire:

There are few other civic institutions left in this country in which members have as much control over an important aspect of their lives; relatively autonomous, in theory democratic, the thousand acequias form a cultural web of almost microscopic strands and filaments that have held a culture and landscape in place for hundreds of years….

Ditch-cleanings are all very much the same, and in this they often feel more like ritual than work.  The crew varies from year to year: a couple of old men don’t turn up each year, a couple of boys barely able to handle a shovel, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, take their places; the weather is better or worse than some vague notion of what is usual, mayordomos come and go and some are responsible and fair, others vindictive, punitive, almost military, others are lazy and heedless of the needs of the ditch; and the crew can be a good-natured, hard-working creature, or sullen and complaining and evasive, qualities perhaps dictated by the amount of pride or fear circulating through the hearts of both those in charge and those doing the actual digging….

Buddy Manzanares who, on one of my last perfunctory inspection tours half an hour from the end of the spring digging, calls on me to admire a meticulously dug out and cleaned up tarea [a grave-size chunk of the ditch], with the banks cleaned of grass and squared neatly where they end in the bottom of the smoothly shoveled-out channel….This man knows how to make this small thing, this chore, into more than we commonly imagine, and what can be more important to know in this life, than just that.

Mayordomo, pp. 176, 224, 228-29.

The deep thing about acequia that pulls on me is the ready-made community that circulates around water rights that nourish subsistence crops and the growth of hay.  The isolation of many Texas ranches and the people that tend them and steward their animals is not good; in fact, it diminishes the rancher to a coarse individuality that thins the possibilities of  human endeavors, insinuates a obsessive pecuniary attitude about the land and narrows civic — read unselfish — behavior to the mere casting of a vote once or twice a year.

There are western ranching communities that transcend these deficiencies, I grant you, but the tendency has been to sell out or buy more land, thus expelling more people from the agrarian way of life.  I have experienced this and have witnessed the deleterious affect upon my family.

I shall not be accused of romanticizing the acequia culture — oh, go ahead and accuse! — because it is a human community and there will be conflict and law suits, but there is an association, a group of men and women meeting about water and how to nourish their livestock, beans, alfalfa, corn, tomatoes, okra, flowers, lawns, chilis, vineyards, peaches, plums, apricots, coastal bermuda, roses, trees, and every other conceivable plant that flourishes from the soil that is watered.  Having an acequia culture forces the lesson about sharing in real, material ways that no desk-bound, box-bound person will ever learn.  The basic premise is:  water is limited, we all need it, how will we share it?  And, how are we going to keep it coming down the ditch?  The answer: let’s talk about it, let’s vote on it, let’s implement our decision.

Like so many other things in life, the ditch is more than a ditch.  The acequia and the water is not mine, not yours, but ours.

Acequia near Vadito, New Mexico, (Vadito II, oil by Eric Andrews, Taos, personal collection of J. Matthews).

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Notes, corrections and additions:

The language keyboard for Spanish and diacritical markings frustrates me.  Hence, the Spanish diacritical markings for “Penasco” are missing, although about every 20 times, I can get the tilde above the “n” in Penasco.  If anyone has any suggestions within the WordPress format to easily apply diacritical markings to writing, please comment or drop me an email at matthewsranch@msn.com.  I am intent upon using proper markings, but I am not going to spend ten minutes every time I need a tilde to paste it on.  Can Windows Vista do anything right?  Of course they can, but you have to update your browser every five minutes.  And, then restart.

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Pasqual’s calendar

At my office at Cisco College in Abilene, Texas, I lean back and put my feet and Ariat boots up on the desk.

My view is nearly always the same when I catch my breath and lean back in the chair.  I have a calendar from Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe — dated back to 2009 — that is of a pajarera (birdhouse).  I like those calendars from Pasqual’s.  I have a calendar underneath this calendar that is from 2008, entitled “Mi Moscata,” showing a boy with a pet squirrel.  Yes, I know, that’s three-years ago and I still have it on the wall.  Further, I have Sage to Meadow blog up on the computer, Dr. Pepper on the desk and behind the Dr. Pepper is a small green box of mild Tabasco sauce — bottle in the box, of course.  I have the red Tabasco there, too, but you can’t see it.  I eat lunch in my office, hence, the condiments.

It is not all boots on the desk, however, for I presented Madison’s influence at the Constitutional Convention to a U.S. History class, and in World Civilization I took the class through the Greek philosophers with a particular aside to the cynic, Diogenes of Sinope: “Alexander, stand out of the way, you are blocking the sun!”  Diogenes could get away with that.

Back when I was growing up, my parents would get a feed store calendar that would have the times of the sun rising and setting and the phases of the moon on each day.  They would use a clothes pin to attach receipts to the calendar until the end of the month when the receipts would be taken down and filed away.  I think some of those calendars had pockets in which you could store receipts.  Maybe not.

At Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe I really like the smoked trout breakfast dish.  What is it called?

SMOKED TROUT HASH
A Golden Gruyère Potato Cake with Two Poached Eggs, a Scatter of Smoked Trout and Tomatillo Salsa 16

Ah, that’s it.

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Clouds with feed bin

I have kept this late evening photograph of the feed bin with clouds for several weeks. I like the symmetry of the tree line, feed bin, hills and clouds. The feed bin I bought at Gore Bros. Feed Store in Comanche, Texas, a store my family had patronized for fifty years. When it was said at the breakfast table that we were going to Comanche to pick up some “cow cake,” it was understood that Gore Bros. was the destination. Most of my ranch equipment has been purchased from their ranch supplies area, i.e., feed bins, water troughs, hay racks. The lime green color of the feed bin, the dark grasses and the white clouds compose a very simple photograph that I think is appealing. Of course, as we all know, there is no accounting for taste.

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Ducks returning to pond

These ducks swim away, making no noise at all (North Erath County, Texas, October 21, 2011).

This morning I was surprised.  I drove the F-150 to the grove gate to close it, so as to keep my gelding, Star, from going into the far pasture and gorging himself on new-growth grass.  As I passed by the pond, I saw these ducks.  Many of you see ducks all the time, but here in North Erath County, Texas, ducks are uncommon until November or December.  These ducks made no quacking whatsoever.  They plunged into the pond for feeding.  I returned about two hours later and took some photographs.

In one of my earlier posts about the American Widgeon, I and my blogging friends spent time identifying the ducks.  These guys in the photographs are unidentified.  My Peterson’s guide was chewed up by my dog, Yeller, and I have yet to replace it.  My Audubon field guide does not have flying profiles or additional attributes for me to say for certain what these ducks are.  So, the ducks will be unidentified until I get my Peterson’s guide book re-ordered.

In any case, the ducks have returned to the pond.  Can cooler weather and winter days be far behind?  The ducks say, No, it’s not far behind!

Ducks in flight (North Erath County, Texas, October 21, 2011).

 

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October in Texas: dusting and sunflowers

Sunflowers with dust storm near Abilene, Texas (October 17, 2011).

A light “dusting” of dust, not snow, descended with high winds upon Texas yesterday. A cold front came in the afternoon that sent temperatures this morning down into the lower 50s F. I love changes in weather. Of course, not with abrupt turns that bring destruction and fire, but changes like yesterday: brisk winds, racing clouds, lightening, rain in the distance that you can smell (my dog, Yeller, lifts his head high to catch the scents far away), dark clouds with long trailing edges that signal rain prospects and all of it bringing anticipation to the heart that tomorrow will be different, a new day with fresh starts all over the world.

How can one capture that cachet of weather change and anticipation for riding your favorite horse into the future? ( I am down to one horse, my Star paint gelding, so he is the favorite, the last of the remuda — but I will build a remuda back with brown mares that foal in the Spring.)  Well, you can’t capture it, but you can take a photograph that elicits Texas weather change, and the above photograph of Texas plains, dust and sunflowers, brings yesterday’s moment to pause.

You must ENLARGE the photo above to get the full effect of yesterday’s “dusting” around Abilene, Texas.  The evocations the photograph brings reminds me of migrating pioneers in the nineteenth century that saw the Trans-Mississippi West plains and stopped, not wanting to venture farther onto land that had little water, few trees and a population that spoke strange languages.

O, Pioneers!  Be not afraid!  There are springs and rivers, trees are in the ravines and highlands!  The Indians will trade and parley and teach their tongues, if you will tread lightly upon the terrain!

Yes, I know that pioneers did not tread lightly.  There were, however, places of concord — Bent’s Fort, the Pawnee, the Tewa, among other spaces and culture.

Despite this riff-tangent about the American pioneer, I come back to the weather change of yesterday that brought cold winds, turning the sunflowers to face the southern climes.  Bees and butterflies still feasted on its pollen, riding the petals like cowboys on broncs; the contrast of red earth, dusty skies and yellow flowers showed a tough plant on inhospitable soil, holding on tight and bearing its colors to the world.  I love these types of weather changes.

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Fox and Salt Creek: field log entry 2

12:00 p.m. — 1:08 p.m.:  After thirty minutes communing with a fussy wren, I finished a brief field observation with a walk up Salt Creek about one-tenth of a mile.  I logged tadpoles, frogs, wrens, bluejays, heard the cry of the red-tailed hawk or the Harris hawk, photographed a turkey vulture (not included herein) and saw the owl (unidentified) fly into the grove away from my hike.  Back at the ranch house, I identified the wren that had chattered at me — a Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii).    I saw numerous tracks in the mud.

I counted two monarch butterflies within the cool willows of the water cache — see photograph below for the Salt Creek water cache with sky blue.

Salt Creek water cache with sky blue (October 15, 2011).

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds states that Bewick’s Wren prefers drier conditions to its resemblance, the Carolina Wren.  Bewick’s Wren has certainly enjoyed dry conditions throughout the summer.

I liked this photograph of the prickly-pear cactus with the willow and pecan trees in the background.  It describes in essence what this part of Texas and my ranchito is all about — wet and dry, green and brown, cactus and pecan, things-that-stick-you and things-you-eat.

Fox I did not see.  I did not expect to see any, but one never knows.  My friend, Wild Bill of Wild Ramblings Blog, suggested that I get a animal call tool that sounds like a wounded rabbit to attract the fox.  I think I shall because I want to see fox again.   Cougars and bobcats have been sighted in our area, so I shall be cautious.  I don’t want my day spoiled by predators of that size taking me from behind.  We have a saying out here, “If it doesn’t sting or bite you, it will stick you!”   I’ll take the stinging and sticking anytime over the biting.  Now, where are my field catalogs?

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Filed under Birds, Bluestem Field Log (Live), Field Log, Life in Balance, Monarch Butterfly

Fox and Salt Creek: field log entry 1

Eight minutes ago, I sat down at the site in the grove, above Salt Creek about fifteen feet, where I saw a fox trotting in the creek bed several years ago. I have a folding chair I sit in, my field log, pen, iPhone for composing and taking pics and an internet connection.

Since seated, I log: turkey vulture shadow passes over me, an unidentified wren chatters at me ten feet away, rifle and shotgun firing in the distance, crows cawing, vehicle traffic on SH 108, cool breeze.

I face northwest by west. Here is a photo of the creek bed at the precise spot I saw the fox:

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Grass: a side of oats with music

Back-lighted side-oats gramma grass in the far field (October 2011).

With recent rains, grasses re-sprout. Side-oats gramma grass yields its oats along the stem and when the sun back-lights the plant the seeds appear as golden beads hanging about a string. I see several broad patches of gramma in my far field. The gramma seems to congregate as a family, moving over the years a few yards to the northwest as if on slow journey to Salt Creek, a tenth-of-a-mile away.  I hear wind sough* through grass as it does through mesquite and oak.

When I shred brush in the far field, I cannot — though I thought I would — mow the gramma.  Gramma is now family, a natural plant that has created an art space in the far field, a sentient being that propagates and rears its young in front of me.  I see Star, my paint gelding, browse through the family, munching on a few stalks and oats, but not many stalks, for the far field is lush and verdant and full of life.

In the 1950s, as a high school student in agricultural classes, we identified gramma, johnson and bluestem grasses, among many others.  Above all, I remembered the gramma and bluestem, dreaming that someday I would have a field of these species that I could see and touch.  At the time I took the high school classes from Mr. Bell who could hold a scorpion by the tail, I thought I would use grasses entirely for grazing purposes.  That was then.  I now want to see the grasses first, and then allow a brief grazing of cattle and horse upon the gramma that blows in the wind and provides reeds for wind-music that I hear and golden beads that droop and sway with southern winds out of Mexico.

Odd it is, I think, that I have golden-beaded grass with a side of oats that sings.

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Notes, corrections and additions:

*sough (suf, sou), Middle English is swough, Anglo-Saxon is swogan meaning to sound.  Definition is a soft, low, murmuring, sighing or rustling sound.  I can’t remember where I picked up this word way-back-when, but lately my reading of Patrick Leigh Fermor brought it up again.  The definition herein comes from my first collegiate college dictionary, c. 1960.  I still have the dictionary and it is taped up with duct tape about the binding.  I must do a post on my old books someday.

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The quail, the deer and setting the lesson

Scaled quail on cholla bush (photograph by Marcus G. Martin, Photo Gallery).

Quail are sociable, staying together from birth to death as a covey, and when one lone quail, separated from the group, calls out plaintively, the covey circles back and joins the solitary being, bedding down all together in the evening so that they appear to be one animal, not fifteen or twenty, when observed closely.  (I have reared quail and know their habits.)  The quail also make for a fine gumbo, or with a brown sauce on top of white rice, a delicious entree.  They are beautiful and interesting to watch, but they are also food.

Deer, buck or doe, appear majestic in the field as they scan for predators and graceful when they arc over fallen timber or fence.   Fawns scamper and play about their mothers like children at the playground.  The backstrap or tenderloin of the deer is one of the finest cuts of meat on earth.  The liver of venison when soaked in milk overnight becomes delicate to the taste when fried and offers potency to the sick.  Deer are beautiful and interesting to watch, but they are also food.

Two years ago, in 2009, I chose the name of my blog, “Sage to Meadow,” based upon a post by Coffeeonthemesa, a blog published out of Taos, New Mexico. Coffeeonthemesa uses a phrase in her post that describes a covey of scaled quail moving from “sage across the meadow” near her home.  I like that.  It describes plant and terrain, sage and meadow: expansive geographic images and symbols of the American West.

Here is the post of Coffeeonthemesa — the italics are mine — that gave my blog its name and a setting of a lesson about food.

The covey of scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) that pass through our yard on their mesa rounds is smaller this year. It seems there are only a dozen or so, but they are quite plump. They move north to south from the sage across the meadow, stop to graze under the sunflower seed feeder, move through the little shed (have they ever found anything to eat in there?) and out again, in a little row. They search around the wood pile and cross the barren summer garden, before heading down the road towards the mesa edge. Last week I found the feathers and scant remains of one on the north side of the house where our woodstove ash pit lies.

They’re short-tailed, chunky birds with a cotton top crest, and the lookout quail sits atop a sagebrush or low fence post and barks out warnings to the others. Generally they run when something nears, zigzagging through the underbrush. Although the covey can explosively flush when startled.

I cannot help, when watching them under the feeder, but imagine how their plump little breasts would make a fine gumbo.

Coffeeonthemesa blog, Taos, New Mexico, November 13, 2009.

The eloquence of Coffeeonthemesa’s prose brings the eternal cycle into her final sentence:  “I cannot help, when watching them under the feeder, but imagine how their plump little breasts would make a fine gumbo.”

I have never been a consistent hunter in the food chain.  I shop the food chain.  I go to the supermarket for food, but I know it is not the supermarket that gives me food.

I have hunted in the food chain.  In the 1970s, I went deer hunting with two friends, shot my deer and dressed it in the field.  Oh, I had known the one-life-for-another axiom for a long time, but the buck I shot set the lesson inside me, inside my body so that all the literature and thinking I had ever done about one-life-for-another seemed faraway, alien even, to the beautiful, majestic animal I knelt before.

Beneath me, still breathing, eyes open, the grey coat shimmering, lay the deer, my first deer, its antlers hard and white.  No longer would he browse the field, sniff the wind, eat acorns beneath live oaks.  His animation was near end.  As I put my pistol to his heart, I promised myself that I would prepare all of him for me and my wife and my friends to eat.  I would honor this being, this deer, this day under the sun near Van Horn, Texas.

As I dressed the deer, I retched and threw up.

Must all lessons be assimilated like this?  Or, expelled like this?  Can’t very well drop the class can I?  Can we?  How do I get out of this university (universe)?

The regret and sadness I had that day recedes when I ponder the lesson the deer set in me.   In my anthropology classes, the lesson is taught every semester, every class, to every student.  I don’t grade them on it except for the economics of reciprocity in a society.  I set them on a path to learn the lesson — they will have to go into the field to have the lesson truly set, but here are the words:

We all take life to sustain ourselves.  To obscure that fact is profane.  To recognize that we take a life to sustain ourselves is sacred.  The sharing of food with another, next to laying down our life, is the greatest gift we can give others.  Who feeds you?  And, what do you do for them in return?

Jack Matthews, author of Sage to Meadow, Introductory Lecture in Physical and Cultural Anthropology.

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Notes, corrections and additions:

The New Mexico State University Scaled Quail Management Operation.

Marcus G. Martin Bird Photo Gallery.   The quail on cholla bush is from Martin’s gallery — permission pending.  Click his link for other photographs and website.

This post started out only as a post describing how my blog got its name.  From quail gumbo, however, the post grew into what it is now.

Along with the more somber lesson herein written, there are other lessons  from an anthropological perspective that relate to to food:  (1) by giving food, parties, spreading your resources, you enlarge your social network and friends; (2) gifts make slaves; (3) by giving of gifts, including food, you create obligations.  I think that we could go deeper into the psychology of harvesting animals, but for the moment, this is it.  One aspect that bears mentioning is that if you take life with respect, you probably won’t harvest unnecessarily, and you will get beaucoup angry with those that do.  You may even go to war with agencies that take the fat of the land and hold it in reserve, extracting a price for its distribution.  Read most any history on the opening of the American West, the partial closing of the American West. 

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