We came through the winter thinking we knew what was essential. I watched the rancher’s cattle scrounge for grass on the wintering grounds. The cattle face east this morning, where the tractor or the quad will appear. They stand perfectly still—vigilant, to a creature—waiting for the rancher to come. Even the new calves, their bellies tight with their mothers’ milk, look expectantly eastward.

I called my brother in the city last night to ask about Matty. A few days ago, my niece Matty had her foot amputated, the result of an old injury. At the time I spoke to my brother, he was walking his dogs in the park near his place. I thought you might be asleep, he said. As we talked, I watched the light from the rancher’s tractor bore holes through the darkness.

It was a tough winter, and not just for my brother’s family. The whole country was in the doldrums. November and December saw floods and landslides on the West Coast; in January anti-covid-mandate protests paralyzed the nation. February brought news of war in the Ukraine. By March the world felt the bite of inflation. Here, on the prairies, far removed from the headlines, we were caught up in our own crisis. The ranchers who didn’t cull their herds last fall began the winter with hay shortages. Then came a long cold-spell when the cattle needed more feed. In January, a truck blockade stopped hay transport from the States. And now, a prolonged spring is upon us, with a savage wind and no rain. Round hay-bales are selling for triple the price two springs ago—and there are none to buy.

Daily, the ranchers scour the southwest for feed. This part of the country, my adopted home, shows its bones in spring time. The earth is glacial till, with the thinnest membrane of vegetation. The coulees draw the mist of morning over their contours. Ancient and composed, the hills are at one with scarcity.

Check out our summer issue for the full story, out in July 2023!