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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Calvie Checking and the New Rural Sprawl

"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," said Dorothy to her tiny trusted Toto.

On my first screening of The Wizard of Oz (I must have been all of eight years old), I would have given it a good review for its bright, gleaming imagery. I took in the scenes at face value—cute, pony-tailed girl skipping all over the place with her strange, newfound friends-pretty much the same as Sesame Street.

Then, halfway into the movie, my opinion of it changed drastically. Enter the wicked witch and those nasty, obnoxious monkeys. I covered my eyes as I felt my stomach turn to asphalt. I was stricken with a raw fear and dread that I had scarcely known at such a tender age. The only comparison was the time I had come home from a long, hard day at kindergarten to find my cat dead in a chocolate chip ice-cream bucket. My little brother reasoned that it was the best container for holding the cat while it "napped."

But on that evening I didn't stick around watching the creepshow any longer. What I needed was a distraction, and calvie checking was just the ticket.

Calvie checking is the daily routine of driving the pasture in search of newborn baby calves. Once found, the youngsters are ear-tagged and the males castrated. All offspring were recorded as to ear-tag number (same as the momma cow), gender, and color. We kids who had legible handwriting had the coveted responsibility of recording the details into the burgundy, faux-leather ledger.

For each episode of calvie checking, we piled into the pickup, my dad at the wheel, and checked every far corner of the pasture in hopes of spotting fresh calvies. When one was sighted, we wheeled up to it carefully, trying not to spook it. Then, out the driver's side door my dad would leap, sprinting in his high-top Red Wings toward the young creature and snagging a rear leg, which kicked like the foot of an epileptic sewing machine. My dad pulled the wriggling calf to the ground by rear flank and foreleg. Once on its side, the rest was quick, easy, and relatively painless.

The tricky part of calvie checking was the mood of the momma cows. We only had about 50 momma cows and we knew each of them by number. The mean ones we knew by name.

"Jezebel" stands out as the Queen of Mean. She was a black, brockle-faced beauty-a Hereford-Black Angus cross resulting in a black body and white face with black, irregular spots-with a demeanor of a jackal.

When Jezebel's babies were born, calvie checking gained a new level of adventure. We would follow Jezebel and baby in a tight counterclockwise circle until the two were separated by the pickup. On many occasions, Jezebel head-butted the pickup, but she was no match for the heavy steel quarter panels and stout grill guard. When the timing was just right, out leapt my dad who swiftly grabbed the calf, hefted it into the bed of the pickup and closed the tailgate.

Then one of my older brothers would take the wheel and drive serpentine patterns around sloughs, fencelines and cowpies until the requisite duties were performed. The calf was then lowered over the side of the pickup to the ground. There, momma and baby reunited in loving sniffs, licks and nudges. But all the time, Jezebel ran behind the truck, bellowing and lunging, tossing hooves and forehead, foamy saliva washing over the tailgate. Her agitation was clear, even in her tail, which lashed about ferociously. It was always our stroke of good fortune when Jezebel had girl-babies.

Calvie checking, this particular evening of my escape from Oz, seemed almost as ominous as the movie itself. There were remnants of a spring thunderstorm in the air. The sky was the color and scent of hot moss with an eerily beautiful sunset sheen. The ritual outing delivered me from the disturbing visions of the movie. It somehow provided me a place of comfort and tranquility, because most of the wonder and enjoyment of calvie checking was watching those babes dance and frolic in the cool dusk. Perhaps, in a deeper sense, it was also the wonder of new life realized each spring after the long dreary winter. This place of calvie checking was safe for me—safer than the scary land of Oz, in any case.

The rural existence is wondrous yet difficult. While my South Dakota family has triumphed with record crops, we have also shed tears over the utter destruction of a ten-minute hailstorm. When the grain is fit for harvesting, each member of the rural family works in shifts—from hauling the grain to delivering milk and cookies to hungry operators, and everything in between. And in some cases these operations continued around the clock, for days at a time, in a hedge bet against early snow.

Similarly, calving season comes with immense unpredictability and energy-draining vigilance through courses of rainstorms, breech births, and an occasional prolapsed uterus. It is hardly a glamorous life. One might never know harder work. But the farm and rural life plays an integral part of one's psyche, not to mention the American landscape and overall identity.

More than twenty years after my first screening of Oz, that calving pasture still serves the only purpose I've ever known. Across the country, however, urban centers have expanded while rural land on the periphery succumbs to sprawl.

Lots of folks like to blame farmers for "selling out." But I know better. A person doesn't just auction off his heart and soul. Most of the farmers I know are farmers because they have to be—they're hard-wired to it. It's a passion as real as that of someone drawn to the sea, mountains, or stars. It's both occupation and preoccupation. If someone sells the farmland, it was only over severe consternation over the balance sheet to weigh out the financial options.

In my own hometown of only 3,000 residents, my favorite childhood pasture—the one with all the horses and their spring foals—is now the "Pony Hills" subdivision. Beyond Pony Hills stretches an expanse of land dotted with houses and ranchettes. Each return trip from my home in the Rocky Mountains reveals less farmland, and more residential development.

Yet a striking minority would likely think of such sprawl with a negative connotation. More homes are inevitable because more people need places to live. My parents and the parents of all my childhood neighbors and rural classmates have moved to town to "retire" once their kids are old enough to buy them out. Such a migration is a foregone conclusion. Instead of rising at the crack of dawn to farm, they rise at the crack of dawn to meet the other retired ranchers for a cup of coffee and debate the pros and cons of the upcoming school bond election or Roundup-resistant soybeans. After coffee, they go to the farms to help out—like junkies needing a fix.

There are also plenty of newcomers to town as "Dells" and its neighboring communities pursue economic development, increased jobs, and more tax base. Today, the storefronts are occupied and the community is vibrant with newfound businesses like a credit card processing center and a Super 8 motel—all this in a town still lacking a stoplight. Residents in and around the area seem to welcome growth like the change of the seasons.

In my current homestate of Colorado, growth is the most popular debate. Many who live here preach bitterly of its negative impacts, while developers lick their chops in anticipation of windfall profits. It is my filter of living in an area—which is growing at record rates—that makes me cringe at the sight of all those scattered homes at and beyond Pony Hills. Without a doubt, growth and rural sprawl can be a detriment to a city or town, contributing adversely to traffic, the environment, and its sense of community. Likewise, the halt of growth and sprawl is not the way to utopia.

Eventually, I did catch the end of Oz and was struck by what Dorothy and all her friends were searching for in their perfect worlds. They finally realized that they already had it. The story of Oz teaches us a good lesson about the elusiveness of that perfect world.

Attainment of perfection in the real world is also elusive. The challenge lies in the complexities of population growth, economics, jobs, affordability of housing, and quality of life that puts cities and towns in a perpetual state of flux. That perfect world is a moving target. As such, we must be thoughtful in forming, strategizing, and planning our communities for sustainability, which is as close as we can get to Oz.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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