Working Like A Dog
The truck came with a dog, but I didn’t know that at first. It was 1976. I was sixteen. I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, but I’d gotten a job on a cattle ranch outside of Montague, California, on the high desert north of Mt. Shasta, and my employers gave me a pick-up to use. They also provided me with a horse, a saddle, as much beef as I could eat, and four hundred dollars a month. The first time I hopped behind the wheel and started off down the dirt road, Sis came tearing out of the barn where she’d been sleeping in the hay and chased after the truck barking, incredulous and offended that I’d forgotten her. Sis never completely trusted me after that, and she always slept where she could keep an eye on her truck.
I worked like a slave on that ranch, and since meat was free I didn’t eat vegetables for months. I was happy. Being a cowboy had been my ambition since childhood, and working on the Montague ranch was my first job away from home. It was a learning experience. As a boy, being a cowboy had been more about shooting Indians than working with cattle or managing rangeland as a renewable resource. Somewhere there’s a black and white photo of me, age three, in my cowboy hat, astride my tricycle with my six shooters, staring down the photographer. I look like I’ve got Mad Cowboy disease. But pictures can’t tell the whole story. My great grandmother gave me an Indian war bonnet of colored chicken feathers for my fourth birthday, so sometimes I’d killed cowboys too. Homicide wasn’t a daily activity on the ranch, and when we weren’t fixing fences, moving the herd, or giving cattle routine vaccinations, irrigating alfalfa for winter hay was a common chore.
The alfalfa fields were large— one of them was a square fifty acres. The fields had been leveled and were divided into long strips by checks, which are long, low, parallel mounds of soil that look like speed bumps and run the length of a field. When the flow of water is directed into the field, these checks act as dams to “check” the water’s lateral flow and guide it over a specific section of ground.
The water was delivered according to a contract with the irrigation district. Every ranch in the district had their allotment fixed on the calendar months in advance, and on the appointed day, the ditch master would come and open a valve that released the water from the district canal into the ranch’s main irrigation ditch. The water continued to flow, non-stop, for two weeks, until the contract ran out, and during that time the ranch was obligated to direct the water in a responsible manner twenty-four hours a day. Wasted water is wasted money, and water flowing where it doesn’t belong is a flood. One rancher in the valley that summer thought to “borrow just a little water” by cutting a small ditch into the levee at night with a backhoe, but the force of the water soon eroded out an ever-widening gully. When the sheriff’s deputies arrived to investigate the source of the flood they saw the fool haplessly pushing dirt into the torrent with a bulldozer.
To channel the water from our main ditch into the fields we used a system of logs, sticks, and heavy canvas tarps. Before the water arrived we set a series of heavy six-inch pine logs perpendicularly across our main irrigation ditches. Next to each big log, we laid out piles of straight sticks, each about five-feet long and two inches thick, and sharpened with a hatchet on one end. When it was time to irrigate, we’d lay a row of these sticks against the log and shove the sharp ends a few inches into the damp earth at the bottom of the ditch. When we had enough sticks set so that the framework of our dam looked like a rib cage, we’d drape a tarp over the ribs on the uphill side. With the point of a shovel blade, we’d force the tarp into the earthen walls and floor of the ditch, and then we’d heap mounds of mud over the edge of the tarp to make a seal.
The water flowed in and rose behind our dam, until it overflowed through a short, shallow lateral notch cut through the rim of the main ditch that allowed the water to run into the alfalfa field. While one section of the field was being irrigated, I’d go down stream in the dry ditch and build the next dam. When the water reached the end of the field it would spill into a tail ditch. To irrigate the next piece of land all I had to do was pull the upper corner of the first tarp down a little to let the water spill back up behind the next tarp. I let the dams fill slowly, rather than jerk the upstream tarp out and release a flood all at once, because it was easy to wash these temporary dams away.
The fields were all different sizes, but I’d try to arrange my irrigation schedule so that I watered the longest runs at night and could get a little sleep. I’d set a series of tarps down the ditch in the afternoon while I kept one eye on the water flowing across the short runs. The last tarp of the day would be pulled at 10pm and I’d go to bed and let the water flow down a big field. I’d be out of bed at 12:01 am for the first move of the morning. I’d go back to bed. I’d get up for the second movement at 2am, then sleep, then get up at 4am, pull a tarp, sleep, and finally get out of bed at 6am to pull my last tarp just before breakfast and the start of a new work day.
My father came and visited me, and when he saw our system of checks, logs, sticks and tarps, he smiled. “There’s a painting on the wall inside the pyramid at Giza,” he said, “that shows Egyptian slaves irrigating their fields with water from the Nile in exactly this way.” I imagine he was confident my experiences on the ranch would convince me to go into law or academia. If so, he miscalculated my contrarian nature. Being able to participate in something so ancient appealed to me. As I stood at the edge of the ditch during the day watching the water spread across the field I’d gaze at Mt. Shasta looming on the horizon to the south. On the evening of the Bicentennial Fourth of July I was irrigating and I watched the fireworks in explode in the sky to the west over Saddleback Butte. Other nights I’d look up and see drifts of stars. It was easy to stare off into the distance and wonder what it must have been like to tend the fields in Egypt or Babylon. Being timeless gets boring. My attention was eventually drawn from the cosmos and the past down to the details of life around me, like the dog that lay panting in the shade of the pick-up truck.
Sis was a medium sized white dog with patches, maybe mostly Border collie, with ears that could perk and flop. I’d never been crazy about dogs, but Sis not an undisciplined, crotch-busting mutt. When we moved the cattle she’d trot along next to the foreman and await his instructions. If he said, “Go get ‘em,” she’d go get ‘em, and she always knew who to get and where to put them. If stray cattle were down in the willows along the Little Shasta River, she’d drive them out to join the rest, then lay off so as not to panic the herd. When I irrigated the alfalfa fields Sis trotted back and forth in front of the advancing water. I noticed she was hunting the gophers brought to the surface by the flood and methodically killing them with a snap of her jaws. I learned to watch her progress down the fields and make an accurate estimation of how far the water had gotten so I no longer needed to walk the fields myself. When I complimented Sis on her work ethic and gave her a pet, her tail would wag, but she stayed focused. We became friends. The ditch water came from a reservoir upstream and sometimes it carried trout. One day Sis caught a rainbow trout and carried it gently in her jaws back to the pick-up truck and deposited it at my feet, still flipping. Fresh fish was a nice change from beef. I was the pup back then, and Sis was an old ranch dog, showing me new tricks.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Note: the photo above is of Blue: Andy’s current working dog. He’s a puppy being trained to guard goats and sheep. Shelley Kadota, our fabulous CSA manager, took the photo in one of Blue’s many lazy moments.