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Jessie Veeder, Published October 12 2013

Veeder: Looking for mercy from prairie sky

The sky out here on the plains is a magical piece of our lives. I fell in love under it, counting its stars while sitting on the roof of his house, lying in the crook of his arm and wondering how this might all play out.

Now, that star-counting boy and I, we lie side by side in our bed at the ranch as the light from that same sky warms our faces with its pallet of pinks and reds, yellows and golds, asking us to wake up.

The sky knows everything we do out here between the starlight and the sunrise.

I find it hard to forget it’s watching us, even under the roof of that little farmhouse where we started our lives, that sky found its way through the small windows of our room, or the one above the sink that faced the barn, to remind me where I was.

To remind me there were chores waiting.

But sometimes our lessons cannot come to us gently, and as much as this prairie sky is a refuge, it is also a threat; a looming, unpredictable force that can change our fate as quickly as the wind can change directions.

So we, the ranchers, farmers, food growers and animal stewards, we watch the sun come up and the clouds roll in with hope that today is the day the sky has some mercy and brings the rain to tame the dust and fill the creek beds for the cattle or the sun to warm the ground and grow the crops, knowing full well that familiar sky can be merciless.

And so it was for some last week. The temperature dropped and the clouds rolled in thick and foreboding over the crop land and ranches of our neighbors in western South Dakota. Just like that, the sky turned early autumn into a deep and frightening winter storm.

The images are bleak – cattle grazing in pastures soaked by 12 hours of driving rain that turned into two days of heavy snowfall and unyielding winds, some up to 60 mph.

Reports and photos show fence lines covered in snowdrifts, allowing cattle, horses and sheep to wander for miles only to collapse and perish in the blinding snow, their caretakers powerless to protect their animals from the sky they’ve raised them under.

According to reports, some ranchers have lost up to 50 percent of their livestock.

Meanwhile, back at the Veeder Ranch – north of the state line where our fellow farmers and ranchers were tallying losses, running generators and digging their lives out from under the drifts – the sun shone down through the golden trees, resting on the black backs of our cattle.

My friend looked down at her phone and reported on her family’s sheep herd in South Dakota.

“They don’t think any of them made it.”

I looked at her and heard every story my dad’s told of working to save calves in early spring storms. I smelled the wet backs of those animals, heard the cows crying for their babies, felt the heart-sink of a failed attempt and the sweat drip from under my wool cap when the rest of our world was freezing.

I guarantee last week every rancher in the heartland was looking out across the prairie or the badlands and feeling those same things.

Because if there’s a livelihood as reliant on the outcome of the sky, I don’t know it.

But the sky knows. And by now it is shining through those windows again, melting that snow, revealing the extent of the loss and lighting the way for another day.

Reminding us all that we are so small under the sun, under the stars.

Reminding us to take a deep breath.

Reminding us always there’s more work to be done.

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.