Living on a farm on the plains of North Dakota means you never know what’s going to happen next. For one thing, the weather, which rules planting, the growing season, and harvest, can change without warning. Sunny and hot one minute, gathering clouds full of rain and hail the next. Gently falling snow meets a violent wind that reduces visibility to zero in a sudden whiteout.
Farm equipment keeps you on your toes, too. The combine often develops some sort of ailment in the middle of a flawless dry day when you’re rushing to finish the wheat harvest before it rains and shuts down the whole operation. Or you get the tractor stuck in a huge, sticky mud puddle (what my dad used to call “gumbo”) three miles from home, ruining the tight schedule you’re on to finish whatever you’re doing. Cows, horses, pigs and what-have-you can also complicate your life, which is where I’m headed with this post.
My brother’s farm was the scene of his daughter’s wedding last summer. He has a lovely plantation house with broad steps leading to a magnificent porch, excellent for getting married on. The large front yard had been transformed with rows of hay bales for guest seating. The grass was jewel green and meticulously mowed. Everything was ready for a perfect outdoor wedding.
Seventy-two hours before the appointed time, a strong wind storm hit the county. It wasn’t a tornado, but muscly enough to rip a few shingles off the roofs, damage trees (yes, North Dakota has trees), and litter the yard with broken branches, twigs and leaves. The morning after the storm my brother woke to a huge mess. Fortunately, relatives had begun trickling in for the wedding, so there was a house full of men to help – the groom and his father, my brother-in-law, and my husband.
We women would have helped, too, except that we were at the bridal shower, an all-day affair. We ate cake and designed toilet paper wedding gowns while the men slaved away, picking up debris, cutting down broken branches, and sawing them into firewood. Oh well.
In the evening, while the ladies were still partying, the men kicked back on the side deck, surveying the once-again groomed yard. It was time to eat and relax, maybe spend a little time in the hot tub. As they settled their tired bones, a pickup truck pulled into the yard, and out hopped a young farmer, new to those parts.
“Have you seen a some loose cattle?” he asked. “Black Angus beef. They panicked in the wind storm the other night, broke through the fence, and ran away.”
“Nope,” my brother said. “How many?” He was imagining six or seven.
Fifty! The men looked at each other. Then somebody walked over to peer behind the clump of trees a few hundred feet away. There, in the grassy space between my brother’s yard and the old family farm, fifty steers had congregated and were silently grazing. (A cattle note – strictly speaking, cows are females. Males are bulls, or neutered into steers. But unless you’re a farmer or rancher, you probably use the word “cows” to cover the entire bovine world. That’s okay.)
Here’s another thing about North Dakota. People help each other, even strangers. It’s how everybody survives. The young farmer went home to get his stock trailer. Five exhausted men hauled themselves off the deck and spent the evening rounding up cattle as the farmer took them home in six loads.
At the end of it all, my brother invited the farmer and his family to the wedding, even though he’d never met him before. They came, and new friends were made.
When I reminisce about the wedding, the farmer and his Angus steers come to mind. I like to think of them as the wedding cows. They’re a reminder of the surprises that occur not only on the farm in North Dakota, but everywhere. These surprises, although often inconvenient and exhausting, can make our lives richer when we force ourselves off the deck and lend a hand.