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Saturday, 23 July 2011

This morning I am bathed by a cool, refreshing breeze. It is only 68 degrees out there, and it’s cloudy – but then it is only a little after seven o’clock. I’m enjoying it while I can.
I’ve just slept for nine hours, which didn’t really surprise me. Yesterday was a full one. The NRCS guy, L, left me a message late on Thursday to say he was coming through to complete the ranch survey. We were out for another six hours, bouncing around the sandhills in broiling sun, and the flow of information picked up where it had left off on Wednesday afternoon.

It wasn’t just plant ID, or range management techniques. It may have been my own fault for asking, but I also got an explanation of the old survey system, and how, in the period of westward expansion, Government land was divided up into Ranges and Townships. I must admit that I had puzzled over that for years and, like a coward, ducked out of any serious effort to unravel it. So, joking aside, I welcomed L’s brief lecture. Several times I have been confronted by old ledgers in which are recorded some settler’s claim, and I’ve always been unable to interpret what I saw. Only last month I was staring at one which showed the extent of the old Spade ranch. All I knew was that a Section was a square mile, a township site six miles by six. What I now know is that from a certain longitudinal baseline – and here, for once, L wasn’t sure of his facts – the land was measured and surveyed in Ranges heading from east to west, and townships heading north to south. Within each township (“Twp” on the map) were 36 numbered sections. Numbers 16 and 36 were deeded to the state of Nebraska. Now, I’d heard of school sections, and presumed that they were lands set aside to house a grade school. I was wrong. They were set aside to provide the income which would fund the universities. There is in fact a school section right here on Matt & Kitty’s place, more or less alongside the cemetery. It is leased from the state, and the lease is auctioned afresh every few years. In practice, of course, there will only ever be one bidder, because no outsider could guarantee access to that piece of land.

I apologise. I am starting to sound like L., who surely has a career as a teacher or TV presenter waiting for him when he gets tired of his present job. What surprised me laugh was his assertion that he was a poor student when he was at Chadron, achieving a GPA (Grade Point Average) of something like 2.8 overall, but making a perfect 4.0 in his preferred subjects. I can relate to that. I find I have endless energy for things that interest me, nothing but reluctance and inertia when confronted with tasks that don’t. Over the course of the day I gleaned that one of his special interests in college was, unsurprisingly, partying.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch…. (You know, that’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to use that expression and mean it literally….) I was surprised to see how the colour of the pasture in certain areas had changed, even since a week or so ago.



Suddenly it was looking almost like winter. What has happened is that the cool season grasses have set seed and ripened, and one of L’s concerns was to see how the warm season grasses were coming along. And of course he had plenty more to say about his particular bete noire, the invasive cedar tree. He pointed out what I had observed, that the female cedar is laden with berries, masses of them, that birds will scatter them widely, and that once you have one tree making that much fruit in an open field, you can soon have dozens, hundreds, of young ones sprouting. He says that he can see the day when, although ‘fire is a dirty word out here’, it might be used to control them.

I could go on – and on – but that would mean delving into a jumble of half-remembered facts and, quite likely, getting some of them wrong. The last thing I want to do is misrepresent my guide, who gave me a superb introduction to this complex business of range management. His is an interesting position. He is very aware that although he is accepted by the people he works with – he grew up on a ranch around here and worked cattle, hunted, rode horses and so on - he’s only one small mistake away from being ‘that danged guy from the Government’.

Besides, I have to report another incident from yesterday’s outing that has hit me where it hurts. We were sitting on a knoll, overlooking a loop of the river, perhaps two hundred feet below us. Somewhere down in the trees cattle were bawling, but we could still hear the ripple of water over rocks. I was looking at a two-strand barbed-wire fence and considering that fact that A and I had canoed this stretch last September and must have negotiated that one, along with half a dozen others. I had just devoured a chunk of bread and three or four slices of deer sausage – one of the last remnants of the grub the turkey hunters left me, way back in April – and got out an apple. Took a huge bite and felt something go ping! It was a front tooth, off my dental plate. The dentist in Gordon doesn’t open Saturdays, so it looks as though I’ll be going over there Monday morning and hoping they can fix it.

Well, I’ve been an hour over this, and the temperature has actually dropped to 67, the clouds have thickened and there’s a hint of drizzle in the wind. I am confused.