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April 10, 2013

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April Can Break Your Heart

The month of April always gets me thinking about T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Well, not the whole poem. All I can ever remember of The Waste Land is the first four lines. It is the part we all know:
April is the cruelest month. Breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain


It is easy to visualize those lilacs coming to life and the dried-out roots swelling with the rain.  Anyone who ever had anything to do with a garden understands what Eliot is getting at. He’s saying that the weather in April can break your heart. You get to remembering how wonderful spring can be and - BANG - you get a foot of snow. That’s what I figure the first four lines of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem are all about. I have no idea what the next four hundred and thirty-two lines mean, but they seem to be describing a land and a life that I do not know.

Because I am a rancher on the Great Plains, I know about longing for rain in the month of April and I know that, in the spring of 2013, the lack of moisture out here is a matter of life and death. All winter long we knew things were dry and we knew that we had to get some rain this spring. There was very little rain last summer and nearly no snow all this winter. People keep trying to laugh it off. “She’s going to break loose this spring - wet snow, rain. Hell we’re only one good storm away from banner year.”

I didn’t sleep much all winter. I’d go to bed early and sleep until midnight or one o’clock. I’d get up, have a cup of tea, then go out onto the cold deck and look up at the sky. Every night my uplifted and hopeful face would be met by a billion stars. I don’t recall anything but clear, cold, cloudless skies. Some nights I’d read until three or four in the morning. When sleep finally came it was short-lived and fitful, loaded with visions of brutal winds driving the dry and dusty pastures that the buffalo absolutely need. I worried that the stock pond where the buffalo drink during the months when their calves are born held only a few inches of water. I rolled on the couch, looked at the ceiling, and promised myself that I would go out the next day and check the water level but when I awoke, groggy and a little sick to my stomach, I would be too sluggish to even leave the house. I had a hard time working and ate everything I could find.


March came in like a lamb and went out like a lamb. We don’t have ground hogs out here and the prairie dogs were no shows. No one wanted to predict what the spring and summer would bring. We got some wind and an inch of very light snow that was dry as talcum powder. By the time April arrived I was a wreck, pale white, ten pounds overweight, and no relief in sight. All winter long I knew that there was a terrible crunch of work ahead of me. We started bringing the buffalo in from their winter pasture in the last week of March. I was on an ATV all day long for five days in a row and we got seventy-five percent of the buffalo rounded up before it became apparent that there would be no spring runoff and so no water in the pond that watered the calving pasture. Doug Albertson and I began to trench-in a water line from the adjoining pasture. We started work early and took no breaks except to bring in stray buffalo that we saw on the distant ridge tops. Mostly Doug ran the backhoe and I rolled out plastic pipe, smoothed the bottom of the trench with a shovel, cemented the pipes to the fittings, and backfilled the trench with the Bobcat loader. All along, before Doug even arrived, I fed a couple tons of hay per day to the buffalo because there has not been enough moisture for the grass to do much growing.

We didn’t bother with lunch, and every evening I would drag into the house at dark with my coat pocket filled with dirt that had crumbled off the trench walls as I worked with the shovel. I was too tired to eat.

I don’t think that this is what T.S. Elliot meant by April being the cruelest month. I think he was talking more about the possibility of a rain shower spoiling his picnic. But maybe I sell the man short. Stress comes in as many forms as there are men on this earth. And, who is to say? I’ve been falling into bed and sleeping straight through until first light. I lay in my bed like one of the basketball-sized boulders that have lain covered with prairie dirt for ten thousand years. They would be there still if I wouldn’t have wrestled them from that trench and rolled them into the light of day. I’ve lost a few pounds, and for tomorrow the weatherman is predicting a foot of wet snow.


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