Most of my discussion surrounding my role as a grazier in a conservation context takes place on the Land Log, which is the other half of this blog (top right). But I chose to include this post here because it's a bit more expansive.
Our grazing system is simple in its parts, and complex in its arrangement. So while many of our components are discrete, modular, and derived from a petroleum economy, the relationship between them is more akin to the biology we're beholden to--complex, variable... emergent.
There are some days when I pack my standard provisions (lately: food, tea, rain gear, axe, extra phone battery, hammer, drive cap, and so on) and find myself overprepared. Things go as planned, tasks prove to require the expected degree of exertion or ease, and the critical reflective scanning of grass, soil, and herd condition is easy to fit in. On these days the system sings.
Other days, I naively head out (sometimes miles deep in the Preserve) expecting to just move the herd or perhaps invest an hour or two in picking up fence or planning ahead... and find catastrophe. Perhaps midnight winds meant spindly oak branches gobbled up a fence line, releasing the whole herd into distant unfenced areas. Perhaps there is a health issue suggestive of missed indicators earlier on. And perhaps, due to schedules and weather and all of the things that life presents, the shit hits the fan at the worst possible time. It's then that the system--even if only in that moment of shortsighted panic--seems fragile.
But the longer you work with big animals in broad acreages, the higher your threshold for crisis. I remember the first time the herd escaped into steep and uncharted territory not accessible by the ATV. I thought all was lost. There goes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cow.
Now when that happens--which isn't often, but it's part of the deal--I pack my lunch in my backpack, take a long draw of water, stretch my muscles, and strategically set to work slinking past the nearest animals to block the path of the furthest rascals like a Siskyou wolf laying claim.
I've developed a method of retrieving over 100 animals singlehandedly, on absurdly steep terrain, and on foot, that you won't see in YouTube videos or workshops but it works for the relationship system that's emerged between myself, the cows, and the land. And there is a certain animalistic glory involved in looking back over perhaps a hundred acre stretch at dusk knowing I managed to corral my resources, animals, and psyche to skirt disaster.
So even these crises phase me less than they used to. Yet this work is still not for the faint of heart. It still seems hard. I'm asking myself, why?
Maybe it's that every day we stride into the unknown, knowing only how little we know, and having to walk that path regardless. This work of sensitively grazing broad acreages requires us to voluntarily immerse ourselves in complexity beyond our scope of comprehension. It requires us to do so consciously, intentionally, and confidently.
And yet, to at least the same degree, we must second guess our actions without slowing our pace. We have to prove ourselves right, rather than prove our actions wrong, which is the mind's preferred orientation. So, applying such a significant management tool as animal impact, and working with those animals themselves, requires absolute confidence and absolute humility at the same time. Confidence without humility is arrogance, and invites disaster. Humility without confidence is inept, and often fear-based. We're bound to nature--there is no time or room for attachment to one direction that prevents us from pivoting on our heels to walk just as intently in the complete opposite way.
Aaron, the founder of our cattle company who did this for years before I came on the scene, has been struggling to impart this to me since I started grazing about a year ago, and I'd say it's only beginning to sink in.
Maintaining this posture, this mix of nimbleness and decisiveness, every day, across multiple scales of consideration, is challenging. And add to this that we are working in a scene (ranching) with a fairly rigid historical schema attached to it, and doing so in a fairly academic conservation context, and matters get more complex. I'd say it's the social sphere that surrounds this work that most requires that tandem confidence and humility, and most tests it. This is another reason why it's still hard even when the fieldwork is easy.
Amongst some ranchers, we are the odd balls creating a no-hay system who use terms like "rewilding" with sincerity, and go hours out of our way to manage drainages and waterways with care. And in the conservation scene we've inevitably inherited a tinge of the profiteering and recklessness associated with a lazy ranching legacy that degraded the very soils and grasslands we're now working to fix from the bottom up. There will always be those days when we're beat up in the field by loose cows or harsh weather and then must fend off the projections of those who don't know what to make of a cattle company whose aim is complex, not singular.
I like to call our work light in infrastructure and heavy in relationships. It feels true. Our tools are simple and modular, we run one herd, we harvest the excess when it's ready. It's the psychological underpinnings that make or break it. It's the lead cow that follows me and pulls the herd along seamlessly into a new cell. It's the ranching friends who advise and lend a hand when we need it.
It's the landbase we graze that is willing to show leadership in land management by leaning into possibilities when others would have them lean only on what is proved. It's the late night beef and risotto with foraged mushrooms eaten while staring at a Google Earth map, the caffeine-fueled arguments, and the wine-fueled apologies. It's the moments when everything goes wrong, when nature seems to be spitting in your face, and you have you rub your own chest for courage and carry on because it's literally do or die out there sometimes. At every level, there is a relationship to work within. So even when it's hard, it's a hardship we humans are adapted for, and that's more than enough to keep me (and the herd) forever on the move.