The tension begins to mount as soon as the forecasts are released. Winter weather advisory. Storm warning. Blizzard. Bad enough in January and February, when temperatures drop into double digits below zero, and the wind chills are murderous. But spring storms--March, April, May--have a special brand of cruelty. Calves are days, hours or minutes old. Cows have been lured from the shelter of corrals and haystacks by the first flush of green grass.
All have been lulled by a few bright, warm days.
You prepare as best you can. Shelters are strategically placed, bedded with straw. Hay is rolled out to tempt the cows to bring their babies to safe haven. You have to honk your horn to push through the herd, scatter the calves that buck and play. A bull calf stands his ground, shaking his head, ready to show you who's boss. Will that sturdy little body be strong enough to weather what is to come?
The youngest and the weakest and the most likely to give birth are gathered into the barn. You want to take them all, but there isn't room. Overcrowding is as dangerous as the storm. Babies could be trampled. Too many warm bodies in the enclosed space turns the air into an incubator for pneumonia. Killing them with kindness.
So you do what you can to protect them in the pasture. But what if the wind changes? Your shelters are designed to protect against prevailing northwesterly winds. An east wind could drive them away to bunch against fences, the little ones mashed in the herd, separated from their mothers. If the fence gives way, they will drift with the wind, scattering over miles of countryside.
You wonder what it must have been like all those years ago, when your grandparents were a young married couple. Life without twenty-four hour radar maps on TV and Internet. When you got only an hour, maybe two at best, as the wall of grim, gray clouds rolled over the Hudson Bay divide from the north and bore down on your unsuspecting herd. When you risked your life to lay out feed with a team of horses and a hay sled before the storm hit and you could no longer find your way home.
Even now, the weather reports are unreliable. The two nearest reporting stations are fifty miles away, one north and one south. Both are over a thousand feet lower in altitude, and a world away in microclimate. The last storm barely dusted them with snow, but dumped over a foot in your yard. You listen to reports from both towns, extrapolate the difference, then calculate the effect of increased altitude and proximity to the mountains.
In other words, you guess.
The wind sharpens to a bitter edge, cutting through your thickest coat. The first flurries sting your face as you break and scatter the last straw bale. The horses are last. They stand hunched against wind, watching the barn door. When it opens, they come at a trot, snorting and blowing puffs of steam into the frigid dusk.
Finally, you retreat to the house, physically exhausted by the scramble to prepare, keeping a leery eye to the north and west as darkness falls. You lie in bed, listening as the front rolls in. A slow roar builds in the trees behind the house. Snow pelts the windows. The landscape dissolves into a swirl of white.
Then there is nothing left to do but wait. To watch the mercury plummet, and remind yourself of the times that the wind blew harder, the temperature dropped lower, the snow piled deeper.
Incredibly, miraculously, for the most part the cattle survived. Their capacity to endure is staggering.
Through the endless, brittle night you remind yourself of those past miracles. Try to forget the times when nature won the battle.
And you pray.