When the pressures of ranch work weigh heavily and I question why, at 74 years, I am still ranching, I find considerable solace in walking the land.
This walking is over deeded land, including neighbour’s land where range cattle (open range/public land) may have strayed on their way home. Invariably we ride horses which is akin to walking the land since cattle easily become habituated to fields from which they are not properly fenced out.
Sometimes all the cattle need, if they are not coming home, is a nudge in the right direction.
I find myself saying, “Get home, you know where to go, it’s time.” I don’t know how many words a cow can understand but I do know they remember where they were fed last winter. I think they know what I mean when I urge them to “get.”
A couple of neighbours did a round up several miles from home as our first major “gathering.”
Cattle can be separated by ownership with a little patience and several cowboys and cowgirls separating (cutting) them out.
A sorting facility comes in handy; corrals, pens, and gates for sorting for those mixed-up cattle that don’t belong with ours, and sending them on their way home. Usually, they remember their home herd and will follow (or lead) others home.
This looking, sorting, herding and then containing the herd at home requires that our fences are repaired to hold the cattle until we ship them.
These ranch activities evoke in me the attachment to the land. This attachment would be a major characteristic of the lifestyle.
Sentimentality is one of the aspects of this attachment. Another aspect probably is something akin to spiritual feeling about land and all the critters sharing it deep into the soil.
The one writer that helps explain farmers’ and ranchers’ attachment is Wendell Berry, America’s poet laureate of farmers. He and others write about this topic of spiritual attachment. Those of us from settler descent have an inkling about this.
Our First Nations neighbours have this feeling, as I understand it, for much of their traditional lands, over which they historically and presently have accepted a caretaker role.
My own feelings of attachment I am trying to instill in grandchildren who spend increasing amounts of time helping with cattle gathering and fencing over the farmland we steward.
I regret the idea of leaving the land (I may not leave until we have to). Letting go is hard to do. Ultimately, we all have to “let go” and so dream of greener pastures somewhere.
Our legacy as stewards of land can be found in passing on to the next generations a profound sense of duty to the places we care for. I think I speak for small and medium-sized farms where we intimately dwell on land we can know.
Walking the land allows for this close knowing of our place. As farms get bigger, attention cannot be paid to the sometimes, subtle differences in land that occur over small distances.
David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.