An author I admire, Susan Hand Shetterly, writes in her memoir, Settled in the Wild, “The winter after my daughter was I born, I would set her in her carrier, put her on my back, and take her in the afternoons, before dusk, into the woods. I believed even if she fell asleep...the trees, the tracks of wild animals in the snow, the dead leaves rattling on the branches, the hoot of an owl -- everything -- would pass into her life and make it good.” This makes sense to me, so in the slice of daylight left after supper, I take the babies out walking.
Our route is somewhat dependent on wind direction and temperature, but on evenings when the weather’s fine, we go up the long gravel section line that divides our land from the neighbors. Sometimes our old house dog joins us, but usually it’s just the kids and I and Ellie the sheepdog. She bounds ahead, flushing pheasants from the stands of new alfalfa and old grass. The birds rise up like sudden mist, hanging low as they scatter across the green meadow. The curdled call of their dismay sounds like wings, or maybe it is the rattling of their wings that sounds like song.
We pass the trio of cottonwood trees whose leaves whisper hush, hush, hush. Years ago an old angus cow lay down beneath them and died -- the only thing left is bones that gleam as white as new moons -- and then we break free to the open range where the earth reaches to touch the canyons and crevices, and the gloaming catches every shadow and burnishes it to gold.
Back at the ranch, the ewes and the lambs are gathered for the night, safe in the paddock where roaming coyotes dare not enter, but we can still hear them chatting in loud echoes across the fields. Against the hillside to the east, a cow and calf stand red against green. “Moo,” says the Bean.
The road climbs, and turns rough. I push the stroller’s thin wheels in the tire ruts, but even our double stroller is too narrow and low to the ground, and the grass scraps the stroller’s bottom. I angle left and then right, trying to find a smoother passage. Emmy Rose falls asleep, but the Bean sits forward, back straight. "Bird!" he yells, then "Hay!" He wants to make sure I don't miss a thing.
I am working pretty hard. The backs of my arms and the muscles in my legs start to ache, but after the heat of the day, it feels good to move through the clean, sharp air of evening. The longer we walk, the less he talks. By the time we turn to head home, he is quiet, simply watching the soft brush of the grass against his side of the stroller as we push passed.
The road slopes down, curving towards the cottonwood trees. We stop. “Listen,” I tell the Bean, “Can you hear what they are saying?”
The ewes and the lambs have finally settled, the cows and the calves, grazing side by side, are silent too, so the only sound for miles is the leaves of those cottonwoods, a thousand tiny green hearts, singing a lullaby to the prairie, and to my children, and to the last, bright strands of light.