“If we get heavy snow this winter, we are in real trouble,” a neighbor says. “And if we don’t get heavy snow, we are in real trouble…”
“True,” my husband replies, nodding his head.
“What does that mean?” I ask my husband in private later.
“Because of the drought, everybody’s got just barely enough hay to get through the winter. If there’s a lot of snow we’ll need more feed and there’s no place to get it — everyone is in the same boat. But if it doesn’t snow the dams won’t fill and the grass won’t grow in the spring. Then we’ll still be scrambling when the hay runs out,” he says.
“Oh, dear,” I reply. “That’s definitely a problem”
And thus we find ourselves once again in the kind of frying pan to fire situation that so often defines ranching. Too dry in the spring and the grass won’t grow. Too wet and lambs and calves fall sick with pneumonia. We cheer for fresh, green grass until our strongest, best cows get grass tetany from the abundance of minerals saved in the stems. It sometimes seems we can’t win for losing, and it’s hard to even know what to wish for when every blessing comes with its fair share of curses.
This ongoing dilemma reminds me of Ma Ingalls’s words in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. The character of Laura laments that their beautiful fields of nearly ripe corn are being decimated by blackbirds and crows before they can be harvested. The Ingalls family are the first of the homesteading farmers in their area to have such a large, productive planting, and therefore it is the most delicious and irresistible field the birds have ever encountered. When Laura begins to complain, her mother says: “This earthly life is a battle…If it isn’t one thing to contend with, it’s another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and more thankful for your pleasures.”
Virginia Sneve Driving Hawk outlines a similarly stark reality in a story she wrote for South Dakota Magazine a few years ago about her Lakota ancestors. Instead of counting how many years old they were, people counted how many winters they had survived. “Winters were hard times for people on the plains,” she writes. “Only the hardiest survived the winters.”
The truth that life can be hard and full of uncertainty is not news, but it is a truth many of us don’t know how to embrace. Ease, material comfort, and constant abundance were never our birthright, but modern life has made it a little easier to pretend that they are, especially for those of us raised far away from the rhythms of the natural world. Thankfully, most of us can expect to survive even a harsh winter, but the reality is we will still lose everything we love eventually — not because we’ve done something wrong, not because we haven’t worked hard enough, but because “it always has been so, and it always will be.”
Today it is raining, really raining, for the first time during this long year of drought, with steady, pattering drops that started this morning and are still falling now in the middle of the afternoon. The trees in the yard and windbreak are full of birds who are shouting and singing along with the lively rhythm. The puddles forming on the gravel are brimful with flocks of robins splashing and playing. I have never seen birds so giddy about bathtime, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised — it’s been a long, hot summer for them as well.
Do the robins worry about the uncertain future? Do they ruminate on the difficulties of the past? I don’t know, of course, but I can now say with absolute confidence they do rejoice in the rain as it falls after so long a time without, giving thanks with their whole bodies, voices raised, baptizing themselves in the mud before stretching their wings and flying up toward heaven.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.