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From Tibet, With Love

Out in the western part of America, lots of ranch stories include memories of what is known as “gathering”. In the fall, riders scour the mountain tops, bringing the cattle home for the winter. Always the contrarian, (and being a seasonal grazier), my gathering occurs in late winter and early spring, as I prowl the local auction barns, looking for animals that have a good potential to gain value on grass. And although I primarily buy adult cows, I might bring home just about anything you can imagine: 900 pound cutter bulls, feeder calves, future herd sires, and the occasional llama or goat too. Yesterday I very nearly bought a horse. Good Lord!

When I get those cattle home, I usually let them settle down for a bit, get a belly full of hay and relax. On processing day, each animal gets a laundry list of health and nutrition treatments, including a new identity. Old ear tags are zipped out with a slick little de-tagger tool and new tags inserted into the existing ear holes.

De-tagger tool and new buttons


Turns out, nearly every animal I buy has some sort of ear tag, but none of them ever seem to match my system of identification. And so, those old tags get tossed into a bucket, where they accumulate during the gathering season. Early in the gathering season I take that bucket full of tags home and clean them up, sort them and put them back in service. This way, I only rarely have to buy new tags, but instead, just buy bags of fresh buttons.

A couple of weeks back I brought home last year’s used tags, filled the bucket with soapy water and placed it in the utility sink. A few days later I scrubbed the dirty tags up and sorted out the keepers. This sorting is actually kind of entertaining, as I get a peek into how other ranchers think. The special-order tags—the ones with names and addresses and phone numbers imprinted on them—I just toss those in the trash; just seems like a bad idea to have someone else’s name on my cattle.

So, back to my now-clean bucket full of tags. I dumped them out into the sink and left them to dry. I have to admit, all those colored tags are kind of pretty, and present sort of a kaleidoscope effect. Maybe that’s what attracted my wife.

My loving wife is an artist at heart, and she has the darndest visions. When she saw those tags in the sink her mind just started bubbling away and the outcome was pretty interesting. A few days ago she met me at the door with a brown paper bag in her hands.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!”

“Well, thanks, honey. What’s in the bag?”

“Well you just open it up and see!”

When I reached into the bag my hand found the tail-end of a piece of orange baling twine, and every six inches or so that twine was braided through the business-end of a used ear tag, one after another, 10 feet worth. Each tag was a different color, completely random.

“Gosh honey, that’s just beautiful. Ah…what is it?”

“Well don’t be silly. It’s a set of prayer flags, you know, like from Tibet. Except these are Cowboy Prayer Flags. Isn’t that just too cool?”

“Well, I’ll be. Cowboy Prayer Flags. Golly, that’s sweet as can be. What do you want me to do with them?”

“Oh, that’s up to you, dear. Just hang them up where ever you need some praying done, and see if they work.”

“Well, all right then. I sure do love you.”

So, as a sign of my appreciation, just the very next day I strung those flags up where I thought they might do some good, and now, on occasion, I just pause for a second and watch them wave in the breeze.

I hope you all had a great Valentine’s day and I hope your sweetheart got you something even a fraction as nice as mine did.

Praying right now that we all have a fine spring flush of grass,

John Marble

Photos by Cris Kostol

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

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