On animals and fire

Rarely can you see the moment the sun breaks through. This morning we were out on my boyfriend's family ranch south San Jose for their annual cattle branding. Ryan's father and uncle lease raise 40 head of cattle. 40 head of cattle - that's a phrase I didn't know or hear until I met him. And those are just words. My visual vocabulary has since expanded to include immunization, branding (not particular to just marketing and social networking!), and, yes, castration. It's all healthy and it's all important. It just takes a year or two to get used to it.

Though I grew up in a relatively rural place, I'd never spent any personal time with cows, bulls or horses. My fear of horses stems from a childhood memory: my first day of horseback riding camp, 8 years old, and I was thrown from an Arabian that felt like it was six stories tall. Even before the fall, I was as spooked as those beautiful giants. I liked reading about them well enough, and there will always be that part of me that wished I had that extra sense that so many ranchers and farmers do - that special understanding of how to communicate with work animals. How many times I wished I could simply slip them a note through the fence, instead of perfecting that click-click through the teeth, or watching them flash their tails or ripple their manes. Some people know animals like they know the wind. I know border collies. I don't know horses or cows.

How do you describe that feeling, then, of walking into the bullpen? The soft crunch of old hay underfoot, the uneasy hustle of calves as they shimmy from one side of the fence to the other, anticipating, as they rightly should, some important and unwanted rite of passage. There is a change in temperature when you walk into the middle, and I'm not referring to the heat of the branding fire. You stand there and you are surrounded: by men and women on horseback, by calves and their brothers and sisters, some of them tied by the hooves and neck, others cornered and braying. It's like the heartbeat of all of those animals thump together, right there in the center. There are veterinarians and nurses and people who just know animals, deeply know them the way I know the Sacramento River or Sands Beach. This is another kind of knowledge, one you can't download or learn overnight.

And that's what makes it elegant: this is an earned trade, one that requires not only passion, but an ingrained respect for the land and the things that live on it. I respect it all too, enough to take pictures from across the fence. How else would I have been able to capture the sun breaking through the clouds?