(Photo by Christian Begeman)

I met Mason in college. He was athletic, charming, and played bass in the coolest band on campus. I didn’t know him well, but I liked him. Everyone did. 

One night at a loud, crowded house party, we ended up in a small group talking about music. 

“The Stones were really on to something with that lyric: ‘You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need,’” our mutual friend Tracy shouted, trying to keep her drink from sloshing out of her cup as someone squeezed past her. “It’s really true.”

“Totally,” I shouted back, partially because I agreed, but mostly because Tracy was from Brooklyn and was much, much cooler than me.

“Hmmmm….” said Mason, “I don’t know…because I feel like I’ve gotten pretty much everything I’ve really wanted, and almost nothing that I really need.”

He didn’t sound sad or angry, just matter-of-fact, his gaze calm as he took a long sip from his drink. “Wow,” I said into the long pause that followed his words, and in that moment felt a seismic shift in my understanding of my own life. Was it possible that I also was mostly only getting what I wanted, and rarely what I needed? That would explain a lot.

This time of year is by far the most intense on a ranch. Lambs and calves are born at all hours and in all kinds of weather, and we need to be close by in case the cows and ewes need help. That means checking on the herd and flock regularly throughout the day and the night. Life narrows down to the confines of our barn and pastures, the hours filled past brimming with chores and obligations.

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Meanwhile, here on the northern plains, winter and spring can never seem to decide who is actually in charge of April (and sometimes May, too.) One day I’ll be sweating in short sleeves, trying to turn a lamb that’s in a breech presentation, the next day my husband will appear on the porch, his coat soaked through from sleet and snow, carrying a chilled-down newborn calf in his arms.

On a ranch, loss and worry is bundled into the joys of seasonal rebirth. For all the many successful births, there are also inevitably deaths. Lambs and calves born during foul weather in particular have a lower chance of survival. On the other hand, when the weather is warm and dry, as it has been this year, we fret over the lack of moisture and the threat of prairie fires. 

But, this time of year more than any other, I can easily see the distance between what I want and what I need — something that was much harder to observe during my suburban upbringing — and that has been a gift beyond measure.

And what do I really need? I need to believe my labor has purpose. I need to see that the animals under my care are thriving, and that our stewardship allows the other members of this ecosystem to thrive too. I need to be out in the hard wind and rain, my frozen fingers fumbling to milk a cow or bottle feed a baby lamb, so that when I return to the shelter of my house I am flooded with gratitude for the warmth. I need to know there’s a good neighbor a phone call away, who will offer a piece of hardware to fix a broken water tank, or a tube of ointment to treat an infected udder. 

In the summer, the new babies won’t be so fragile anymore. The herd and flock will graze in the pastures, the chickens chase bugs across the yard. We will ride horses under the colored flag of evening just for pleasure. There will still be plenty of work to do, but we will have time to limn the expanse between what we want and what we need with the laughter of our children playing nearby, the animals, healthy and thriving, and the stars that rise over our heads as the sun sets on another day.

Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in the northwest part of 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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