A Socratic Rancher 3-8-10 | TheFencePost.com

A Socratic Rancher 3-8-10

J.C. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

Several folks have asked me: What the heck is a Socratic rancher? Is it anything like hippocratic, bombastic, narcissistic, or just plain weird?

Actually, a Socratic rancher is most likely a retired rancher with work gloves that still look and smell brand new, even though they were bought a year ago.

In hopes of giving some dignity to Socratic ranchers, I mention the word “Socratic” comes from Socrates, the ancient philosopher known for asking a lot of difficult questions – so difficult were his questions that the City Fathers of Athens sentenced him to death for poisoning the minds of youth.

The Socratic Method is a process of discovery that involves asking a series of logical, sometimes curious, questions. And, hopefully, living to ponder the answers.

A Socratic rancher uses the Socratic Method to learn more about the earth’s creatures, and is not limited to ranching in its classic manifestations of the trail-toughed cowboy, the wise shepherd, or the agile goat manager. A Socratic rancher is curious about all creatures, domestic and wild alike, from frogs to cows, chickens to goats, ticks to bull elk, skinks to mountain lion, bear to beaver.

Which reminds me. Last fall I took a mid-morning hike along Spanish Creek, whose north bank is flanked by a rocky and rutted Forest Service logging road that ends at Lujan Pass on the Colorado Trail. As I walked, a light breeze shook leaves from aspen and alder trees lining both sides of the Spanish Creek basin. Littered with recent beaver fall, the ravine sides were curiously imprinted with slide grooves the beaver used to bring high-cut timber to their ponds, which extend from top to bottom of the draw like a series of shipping locks. In all the years I’ve hiked this road, I’ve never seen a single beaver at work, despite hiking at dawn and dusk when, in other locations, I’ve been fortunate to catch a glimpse of a beaver in action.

This time up Spanish Creek, however, I came upon a lodge of three beavers, energetically extending their dam in a design that included the logging road. I scampered up the side of the draw to get a better look, as I’ve always been impressed with beaver engineering.

The beavers did not want me to watch. They swam around nervously, slapped the pond surface, mimicking the report of a rifle, giving me nervous, intimidating scowls. Only when I crouched behind a rock and remained still did they proceed.

I could see they had selected an excellent location to extend the height of their dam, as the ravine narrowed where they were working. Never mind that this reach of the former logging road was soon to be under a beaver pond. I also could see why the beavers were anxiously working overtime in the middle of the morning: the creek carried significant silt load from the previous night’s rain, and leaves were falling into the creek. The resulting mix of silt and leaves made a superior bumicky for sealing between their flying buttress of sticks and limbs.

As I sat and watched, slowly being wrapped in a shawl of golden leaves – and fascinated by the elegant haphazard precision of the beaver’s placement of each stick of timber – I wondered who actually had the right-of-way to the disappearing Forest Service road. The beaver had ancestors who’d been in this territory long before the road, and maybe even long before the Forest Service even existed. But beavers would never mess around with anything so pedestrian as filing for an easement, yet under common law they had taken notorious possession.

So, my friends, the question is: Did the beaver have the right to extend their dam across the Forest Service road?

(This is the first in a series of Socratic ranching questions.)