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Stories from the valley

Knowing a Place

Contributed by Dan Macon

In early June, we traveled to Montana to visit our oldest daughter, Lara – she’s entering her fourth year at Montana State University and has a summer job in the MSU rangeland wildlife laboratory. On our second night in Montana, we camped east of Butte so that Lara could get up early the next morning and complete a sharp-tail grouse survey. As we camped, and as we watched Lara take her sister Emma with her to look for grouse, I realized that Lara was beginning to know southwestern Montana. She was comfortable in her new environment.

A month or so after our trip, I found myself monitoring the grazing on a ranch in Yuba County with my friend Joe Fischer. Joe had just finished his first year leasing this property, and I asked him how long he thought it would take him to really know the ranch. He thought for a moment and said, “Interesting question – I don’t know. Maybe two grazing seasons?”

These two experiences made me think about what it takes to know a place – a community, a region, a ranch. Knowing a place, I think, requires that we know the people, plants, animals, and seasons. Knowing a place, ultimately, requires that we become part of it.

Knowing the people in a community, at least for me, means more than simply knowing my neighbors (although this is important!). I realized this week, as I passed a pickup pulling a stock trailer in Auburn, that I know most of the other ranchers in my community. But I also think it’s important to know the human history of a place – the kind of history that is only shared orally. Several years ago, my friend Jean Allender (whose pasture we graze with our sheep) asked, “You live on Joerger Road, right?” I answered, “Well, I thought it was Joeger Road – why do you say Joerger?” Jean told me that the family for whom the road was named was called Joerger, but the county misspelled the name on the road signs. “Only folks who remember the Joerger’s call it by the right name,” she laughed. 

Knowing the plants, at least for a rancher and rangeland geek like me, is also important. I’m awful at remembering scientific names, but I do know the common names of most of the native and naturalized plants here in the foothills – I can tell a blue oak from a valley oak, purple needlegrass from ripgut brome. As a sheepman, this knowledge has practical application – but it also connects me to the foothills where I’ve lived most of my life. I realized during our camping trip with Lara that she was learning an entirely new set of plants in the northern Rockies.

This botanical knowledge also applies to agricultural crops. Knowing a place also requires us to know what is grown on the farms and ranches in our community. As a little kid, when my family would drive through the Central Valley, we’d play “guess that crop” in the days before cell phones. The childhood game became a lifetime habit for me – I’m always curious about what farmers are growing. Knowledge about my own community’s agricultural production ties me to this place.

Knowing the animals, for me, is the third element of knowing a place. The names of the birds, the habits of the nocturnal mammals, the arrival and departure of migratory wildlife all contribute to our knowledge of place. Knowing where we’re likely to see deer, or when we can expect to see the first fawns of the season, or when the Sandhill cranes will begin their spring flight north (or their fall flight south) help us understand where we are.

Finally, knowing and appreciating the seasons is part of knowing a place, I think. My Dad has always said that the first week of December is usually the coldest time of the year in the foothills – and he’s usually right! Here in the northern foothills, there’s always a day in August that breaks cool and crisp – a reminder that summer is winding down and autumn is approaching. And that first hot day in May always shocks my system!

Ultimately, I guess, knowing a place requires curiosity and attention. I don’t think we can know a place without wondering who lived in it before we arrived. We can’t know a place without knowing the names of the plants and animals and people we share it with. We can’t know a place until we adapt our habits and work to what the place requires. In other words, we can’t know a place until we allow it to shape us.