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The language of the land

On a ranch set in a rich prairie bowl of northern Colorado, the Pranges raise Herefords and milk dairy cows. As sister and brother, Teddy and Ray share a house, four barns, and the chores. With friends, they share an utter joy in the land. Through the years they have attuned themselves to both careful organization and free-flowing spontaneity. They are supremely practical in caring for the animals and following the mandate of the seasons. Yet, at the same time, they break the rules of convention by submitting to none but their own instinctive sense of order.

I come to the Prange ranch when it's time for spring branding or summer irrigation, and I'm there, not so much because I'm needed, but because my friends give me a sense of belonging to a natural world of contrasts even before I understand where my own ends meet.

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My days at the ranch begin early, just as the sun peeks over the hills and the hummm of the milk machine rests lightly on the morning. In the milking barn, I watch as Ray patiently scoops grain from a feed cart, and I wonder how anyone who must rise at four-thirty without fail could learn to detach himself from the dictates of a clock. He has full reason to be cumbered with the management of far-stretching acres and bothered by the fluctuation of market and season. Yet he calmly demands order from his day, and he receives it.

I've seen him cut, windrow and bale a wide field of alfalfa with the same settled persistence he uses to round up steers for a move to summer pasture. His firmness in tackling the larger demands of his profession lends balance to his ease in prizing the simple. His smile comes naturally when his cat jumps out of a warm loft and rubs its back on the graveled driveway. His heavy, work-worn hands bring nippled pails to calves in the barn, and these same hands pause when the pails are empty to touch wet tongues still eager for more milk.

His rare leisure time also encompasses both the complex and the simple. Last year he borrowed his sister Teddy's camera and began taking pictures of his home. He knows the language of the land and understands where to look for the prairie's hidden parts. His eyes capture the shadow of a pillowy cloud across Chalk Bluffs in the fall, the solitary stance of a windmill against a plain's sunset, the white face and straight red back of a baby Hereford, the glint of a crystal-iced tree in the bare winter orchard after a night frost. He listens for the land's basic truths and then offers his own light and color so that others may look at his art and hear his prairie speak.

I have decided it is something in the wind that stirs a deliciously odd mixture of high-spirited originality and gentle adaptation, for Teddy has the same style of living. She is sturdy and powerful as she loosens the tight barbed-wire hoop off a fence post or maneuvers her pickup through December drifts. Her voice gives a startling whoop as she bangs her cab to call sleepy heifers near the pond. But then she stops on the way to the creek bed to show me the yellow bud of a prickly pear cactus or to listen to a meadowlark perched in a cottonwood.

She wakens the languor or wide open spaces with life-giving stories. When her Dutch parents moved to this place, many others were staking homesteads and trying to tame the hard earth with a plow. But seven schoolhouses dwindled to one as the farmers learned that the range was not meant for wheat, and only the ranchers survived. Remnants of westbound treks scatter Teddy's ever-expanding front yard. She takes me past worn trails carved by wagon wheels, an old stagecoach stop now resting as a stately mound of aging wood, and homestead sites where branding corrals now stand. She, too, recognizes the subtle richness of her prairie and patiently explains the difference between the hard-stemmed gramma and buffalo grass, how antelope run under the fence instead of jumping over, and where the prairie buntings go in September.

Her hard work as ranch hand complements her domestic ways, and at home I see the well-rounded strength of a true lady. Her sky-blue eyes open wide as she whips up a hardy corn muffin-and-syrup breakfast and tells of the mule deer she saw down by the creek early that morning. She makes apple butter from the Jonathans that fall in August and homemade ice cream that is known across the state line.

Often Teddy invites those who are strangers to the plains for a visit to the ranch. Before we add another leaf to the kitchen table and savor her apple cake a la mode, Ray takes us for a ride. We pile into his green pickup and ramble through the range. My favorite place to go is up on a knoll where the rolling hills stretch around me as far as the sky on all sides. We reach the top just as the light is falling behind the Rockies and the deepening blue of the sky licks the strawberry pink off of a dusk-lit cloud. The pond is close to where Indians used to make camp at a time when buffalo fattened on the grassland. Quietly, we step into a past that survives our present. I remember Ray's velvet-lined box at home where he keeps the arrowheads he has found scattered on this land. Bending, I begin to explore the hill. Pieces of agate, flint, and jasper rest like ageless gems on a dry-grass mound. I touch those with flaked edges and wonder what prairie dweller might have used the stone as a base from which to cut his chips and carve his points.

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It is here on the hill, after a day with the Pranges, that I find a fullness in diverging ways. All who depend on the range develop both a colorful singularity that allows them to soften the land's rigor and a mellow temperance that reminds them to respect its laws. Within a gentle scheme of things, I will learn the prairie wind's secrets and find my own way.

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