This month has been a master class in the perils of ranching. We spent the first half of last week getting ready for a major winter storm, the second half weathering it, and now we are digging out. I can’t remember when I’ve been this physically or emotionally exhausted before (and this comes from a woman who had two children in the span of 18 months.)

A blizzard is never a welcome thing in our line of work, but late-season storms are especially dreaded, even when they herald the end of a long drought. This storm was exceptionally difficult because, in addition to significant precipitation (first rain, then sleet, then snow) and driving wind, we knew that during the first part of the storm the wind would come from the east. This is so unusual our ranch doesn’t have any infrastructure to deal with it. All our windbreaks, shelters, and even the way the trees are planted, protect livestock and buildings from the north, northwest, and south.  

In this part of the country, extreme weather is our normal. We hope for the best, but plan for the worst, and our plans are not usually laid in vain. The advent of modern weather prediction means we don’t have to worry about kids getting lost in a whiteout on their way home from school anymore, but modern technology can’t prevent a blizzard or lessen its impact once it hits, and nobody’s invented a way to change the direction of the wind. So, we moved the livestock in as close as we could, cobbled together pens and corrals with as much protection as possible, and waited for the storm to arrive, thankful at least that we had a few days to prepare. 

Now that the storm has passed, we are tallying the damage. We lost two calves and some trees, but the hardest thing for me personally is the sight of our yard littered with the bodies of songbirds. I’m not sure what made this storm different, because I’ve never seen this before: Dozens of robins, mourning doves, meadowlarks, and dark-eyed juncos were torn from the trees during the blizzard, and now the drifts of snow are colored with their feathers.

In our shelter belts the birds that remain whistle and call when the wind temporarily quiets. The snow is still drifted two bales high in our hay corral. Most of the mothers and babies are lounging in the big pens by the saddle barn, dozing in the first sunshine we’ve seen in days. Several of the babies are sick from being born into these harsh conditions but are improving with medicine and a break from the snow. The wind is still gusting and it’s cold, but it’s blowing from the northwest again, so they at least can relax behind the tin windbreaks. 

In the greenhouse, the seedlings I planted last month are reaching their nodding heads sunward on slim stems. Beside them, there’s a box containing the body of a meadowlark the dogs found on the last day of the storm. She was mostly frozen, but she was still breathing, so I wrapped her up in a washcloth. I’d hoped that she might come around if she could get warm, but she was too far gone. Even in death, her feathered yellow kerchief is impossibly bright. I haven’t been able to bring myself to throw her out with all the others, and the ground is too frozen to bury her.

Next week, another storm system is predicted to move across the Northern Plains. It might be rain or it might be snow, we won’t know until it arrives, but today, the sun is strong enough to start melting the tops of the south-facing drifts. I stop to sit in the greenhouse for a few minutes with the new green of the baby plants, with the body of a bird whose spirit’s flown, and I watch the icicles begin to drip in a steady tick, one drop, two drops, three drops that turn into tiny ribbons of water flowing fast like rivers to the sea.

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.

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