Welcome to the irrigator’s club

An encounter with the wild during the hours of a thankless job.


My friend in Wyoming wrote me, saying one guy quit the ranch and they could use a sub. OK, why not? It was summer and my laptop was fast becoming an enemy of all things fresh, outdoorsy, healthy and inspired. I stowed the cursed machine, drove across two and a half states, suited up in old jeans and leaky waders, and got to work. 

About that: Flood irrigating is a dirty job, a boring job, a thankless job. Grow grass to grow cattle to grow humans. Dam ditches. Shunt water left and right. Six days a week you’re out in the fields at sunup, sloshing around, heaving on tarps, taking your crowbar to a recalcitrant piece of plywood jammed tight in some culvert. Maybe your four-wheeler breaks down three miles from the barn. Maybe you splinter a thumb. Maybe you run out of smokes.         

And there’s also the shit, of course. Grow grass to grow cattle to make shit, you think, not exactly chuckling at the joke, not exactly confident, after another nine-hour shift, that it is a joke. For the hundredth time you step in a mushy pile. For the thousandth time. You’re an irrigator. Welcome to the club.        

Silt flows through water irrigating fields.
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

Don’t get me wrong, though: It’s also a job of texture and rhythm, big skies and deep surprises. The ranch is wild. Black bears between cottonwoods. Elk snorting and bugling. Any morning you might see two bald eagles, a prairie falcon, a great blue heron, a yellow warbler and some 700 Canada geese. You might see a coyote pup. You might see a curious frog. You might encounter the real world, the elemental world, the world your laptop only offers in pretend. On rare occasions, if you’re lucky, you just might feel it, too.      

I did, during my third week. Massive field. Sweaty afternoon. Sort of dazed, sort of tired, sort of happy in that dazed, tired way that doesn’t register as happiness until after the fact, when you’re cracking a beer on the porch at dusk. I hopped off my wheeler and headed for a cluster of aspens on the far side of a barbed-wire fence. Ah, nothing like a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, tobacco and trembling shade.        

But about 50 paces out — what the hell? I stopped, squinted. Hanging from the fence’s top strand was a brown shape, a brown strangeness, a brown question mark. Perhaps a paper bag pinned there by wind? A parched cow pie posted as a joke?        

Surely you’re familiar with this floaty moment between knowing and not-knowing, this drifty moment between certainty and uncertainty. Or maybe it’s more of a slide, a smooth, slow, subtle slide from pure perception — without name, without thought — to the nouns of the earth, every weird vision landed in its rightful place by the categorizing brain. Such confused openness never lasts long, but it renders time meaningless, so what’s the difference? Oh, to be in limbo, approaching on silent feet, with silent breath, a fence you’ve passed repeatedly but never really noticed. Oh, to inch toward that regular humdrum fence as if it were a bomb, a god, a force.       

Turns out the mystery-thing was all of the above. Crazy yellow eyes. Curved beak pasted with dried blood and torn bits of feather. Before me was a long-eared owl, caught by a barb, dangling from the thin flesh of its back, wings spread. Alive. Assuming the collision occurred at dawn, the owl had been exposed to baking sun for 10 straight hours. Not good, I thought, coming in close, retreating, coming in close again. Clock is ticking. How to help?

With pliers I cut free a section of the fence, the depleted, desperate bird struggling to fly from this nightmare of daylight and pain and humankind, struggling to turn and bite the metal on her back. With my shirt I wrapped the depleted, desperate bird and set her gently in the plastic crate strapped to the wheeler’s hood, set her there along with the five feet of fence that wouldn’t release. With softness in my voice I entreated the depleted, desperate bird, said hold on little buddy, hold on little pal, hold on.

But she couldn’t. That evening, at a raptor rehab center, she was euthanized. Just as the season had to roll forward and the nights had to lengthen and eventually the grass had to stop growing — which meant the work was through — the owl had to let go. Come September, I took off my old jeans, abandoned my leaky waders, started my car, waved goodbye to my friend. Drove away from Wyoming and that dirty, boring, thankless job, that beautiful, powerful, opposite-of-pretend job — away from those fields, those yellow eyes. Drove away thinking about the real, the elemental. Drove away thinking, yes, an irrigator, welcome to the club.

Before turning full-time to writing, Leath Tonino worked in Arizona on the world’s longest-running study of northern goshawks.


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