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Jessie Veeder, Published October 27 2012

Coming Home: Life lessons learned early on the ranch

If you were to ask me what it is that appeals to me about ranch living I would tilt my head to the side and come up with a few things.

The first would be the quiet and beautiful secluded spaces I can visit at will.

The second would be the animals.

I would probably go back and forth then, trying to distinguish which aspect is truly my favorite before coming to the conclusion they go hand in hand. I mean, you need the wide-open space to keep animals healthy and fit. The rolling hills full of grasses, trees and a winding creek bed are perfect for cattle and horses (and goats and llamas, if you’re into that sort of thing). And I truly believe if a dog were allowed the choice to he would pick your farm or ranch over the city sidewalks.

But for all that ranch living is to the animals – an endless adventure, a smorgasbord of the best grazing, a giant park with countless trees to pee on – it’s also something entirely different.

It’s dangerous.

Dangerous and full of lessons about life and death.

As a young kid growing up out here I learned about the circle of life a bit earlier than most. Ranching parents, in my experience, don’t tend to sugar coat things like this for their young ones. Our lessons about where babies come from were taught while helping check cows, and we learned about birth by sitting on a hilltop in the early spring to watch a cow deliver a calf in the warmest, most protected place she could find.

We absorbed what instinct meant as we witnessed her lick her baby clean as it awkwardly struggled to get to its feet, wobbling on knocked knees for a few hours until it got the hang of his hooves standing on the surface of the big, wide world.

That calf needed to stand to live. He needed to move with his momma as she ate, so he could eat. He needed to tap into what it meant to be a calf and who he needed to stick by in order to survive out here where there are spring ice storms, slick mud, unexpected temperature drops and coyotes.

And so yes, I learned about death out there in the pastures as well. I learned that it isn’t always fair, that sometimes the weak don’t have the luxury of protection, sometimes mommas don’t possess that instinct, and sometimes nature is more powerful than the will to stay alive.

I accepted these lessons, but my heart broke just the same each time the tough ones made their way into my life. I remember saying silent little prayers to myself when my dad would bring a calf in from the cold, feed it and warm it in the basement, seeming only to delay the inevitable. And I remember my heart breaking when my favorite horse grew so old and weak that one day I woke up to find she didn’t make the trek to the barnyard.

I remember the untimely death of the puppy I rescued and the barn cats that didn’t have the chance to make it to old age.

As a little girl I wondered if these things got easier as you got older. I wondered if your heart got harder or you got braver as you grew taller.

Then I would watch my dad work into the night to help a young cow deliver her first baby safely. I was a witness to the despair when things took a turn for the worse. I saw how his eyes dropped, how he shook his head and paused for a moment before sucking in breath, exhaling and moving on.

And I understood.

I understood that life is beautiful. That it’s a series of heartbeats and breaths, pumping blood, willpower and spirit.

I understood that all things will eventually quiet. That all of us will return to the earth, circumstance or time helping push us there.

And it doesn’t get easier to let go of those creatures under your care, no matter how small.

And no matter how tall you get.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.