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Irons in the fire: The fall gather

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 October 2020
Grove of trees

The fall gather almost always proves to be one of the most exhilarating, exasperating, rejuvenating, wearisome events of the entire year.

It’s the Miracle on 34th Street and the Nightmare on Elm Street wrapped up in one neat little chaotic package. It’s at once thrilling to be surprised by the calves alongside the young cows that are a hundred pounds bigger than expected and devastating to take note of the leppy calves or dry cows, victims of the harsh realities of running in harsh country. Every year it’s different. Every year it’s the same.

When the seasons change and the long shadows gradually show up earlier every day, the cows seem to feel that restlessness in their souls. For the most part, they want to be on the move, and they generally move toward home. I’m mostly in awe of that innate compass and barometer mechanism that steers the herd off the mountain and down into the valley. Sometimes, though, that internal reading is a little off in its correlation to what is most convenient for me.

Some years, a little cold snap will pierce the glow of the early autumn, sending the chilled bovines to lower country and warmer climes. Sometimes, the light September rains soften up the rough, dry grass, and the Indian summer hangs on into early October. In those years, there isn’t much to encourage the cows to head home, and several days of hard riding are required to entice them to point their noses downhill.

Still, other years may be hot and dry through the middle of October. During those times, the cattle are inclined to pine for what they apparently imagine are the greener pastures of home, as they ball up in the lower corners of the foothill fences. Inevitably, some of them will crash through. Convincing them to stay back up on the hill after that is like “taming the Snowy River country.” It’s a tide that’s nearly impossible to hold back.

Along with the gather is the sorting as the cattle come off the summer range. It’s a time-honored ritual, both dreaded and revered. Neighbors helping neighbors, tempers being tested – it’s all part of the ceremony. It’s a joy to work cattle with your family and friends. You admire the stout colt his son’s riding, but you wonder why he has to do his training in the middle of the firefight. He compliments the calves by the bull you got out of Montana two years ago, but he can’t hide his disgust for some of your waspy old cows as they continually complicate the job with their rank and nasty attitudes.

Just like a life worth living, the rewards of the fall gather can be as good as it gets, something to be genuinely thankful for. But before it gets good, some storms have to be weathered, and there’s some pretty rough country that has to be ridden. Life’s storms and the turmoil, both great and small, of everyday living all too often cloud our vision and hide the joy I believe God intends for us to experience. But just because He may allow us to linger in the shadow a little – or a lot – longer than we may anticipate or hope for does not mean the light is being withheld. And in truth, if not for the times we may have to flounder in the dark, we probably would not genuinely appreciate or recognize the warmth and the brilliance of light when it’s given to us.

That’s one of the vexing annoyances of life, I think. We’re not able to appreciate the light without first learning what darkness is. We don’t crave the warmth of love and friendship until we’ve felt the bitter cold of rejection. We’re not truly thankful until we’ve gone without. But remember, light will always overpower darkness, and we are all capable of creating a little light.  end mark

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Paul Marchant
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