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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year Wishes

Greetings everyone,

I hope you are all doing well and enjoying the holiday season.

It has been quite an eventful year, especially professionally. In February, I co-organized a rancher-oriented session on sustainable grass-fed livestock production at the international Society for Range Management conference hosted by the Colorado Section in Denver. In April I left the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service after five good years to start my rangeland and ranch planning, monitoring, management and consulting business, Shining Horizons Land Management, LLC. A week later, Jenny accepted a full-time permanent position in the NRCS Kremmling Field Office, taking over my old desk and truck, as well as my house.

After visiting the Quivira Coalition's Red Canyon Ranch in Socorro, New Mexico, the Ranney Ranch in Corona, New Mexico, and the 47 Ranch in McNeal, Arizona, I started my first full-time ranch management job with Jim and Daniela Howell (of the Savory Institute) at the Howell Ranch, a seasonal custom grazing operation in Cimarron, Colorado, from May-October. I lived in a one-room cabin on the edge of an alpine meadow, irrigated, fixed fence, and kept most of over four hundred cattle where they were supposed to be.

Since then, I've been based out of Kremmling, staying with Jenny when I'm not on the road; worked a couple of stints with my good friends George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, raising organic grass-finished beef in Saguache, Colorado; and taken my tradeshow booth to the Quivira Coalition's Carbon Ranch conference, and the Colorado Section Society for Range Management and Colorado Division of Wildlife's Habitat Partnership Program annual meetings.

I've reawakened my creative side, including starting this blog for my writing and photography. Jenny and I went to the Confluence literary festival in Moab, Utah, where we hope that some of the writing skill of Craig Childs and Bill DeBuys wore off on us. Jenny is working on her first novel. Over the summer I took an oil painting class with Mary Hill at the Montrose Center for the Arts, where I produced my first two oil paintings; a pencil drawing won an award at the Ute Indian Museum. My photographs are also on Flickr and, as of today, some are in the art gallery at the Mirage Trading Company in Moffat, Colorado.

 Jenny and I had a great visit with my parents, my sister Erin, her husband Josh, and my newest nephew Drew in Dallas, Texas. We've spent time with Jenny's sons Leif and Ola; Jenny's sister Amy, husband Marty, and daughter Sara; and we'll be visiting Jenny's sister Sara and her family over New Year's.

Early this morning I pulled my underwear on and “briefly” stepped out into the cold dark to see the total eclipse of the full moon, a dark peachy-pinkish-red orb hovering next to Orion. Moon, daughter of Earth, daughter of Chaos. A beautiful celestial coincidence to mark the darkest time of year, the fading of the old, and the dawn of the new. It has indeed been a year of new beginnings. Whether you prefer to celebrate new beginnings under the lunar eclipse, full moon, or star of Bethlehem, under the warmth of the Christmas tree, or the shade of the Bodhi tree, I wish you peace, love, and compassion in the new year.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ute Bears

Art and becoming native

At the Ute Indian Museum in Colorado's Uncompagre Valley, on Chipeta Day, an annual event hosted by the Friends of the Ute Indian Museum, I signed up for the plein air art festival.  I'd never done anything like that before, and only recently started to revive my artistic side -- hibernating since I was in high school -- so I wasn't sure if I was ready, but with a little encouragement from both my art instructor and my girlfriend, I did it anyway. 

I came up with a pencil drawing of a mother bear with cubs overlooking a Ute tepee with a bear and tracks painted on it, in some cottonwoods, at dawn, with a hint of the San Juan mountains in the distance.

Ute Bears (2010).  Ebony pencil drawing (inspired by "Queyaaguak Nuche Dthamoguah (Bear Guards the Utes)," sculpture by Carol deB. Whitaker (2006)).

In a recent blog post, I asserted that becoming native to place is fundamentally important to developing places that are ecologically, economically, socially, and culturally resilient. But what exactly does it mean to be native? Afterall, anyone born in the Americas is a native American. But nativeness is a many-layered concept. And is the notion that one can "become native" an oxymoron? I don't think so. But I do think that we might look to the original natives for some idea of what it might actually mean.

I think that becoming native to the Land of Shining Mountains may not necessarily require going back to living in Ute-style tepees, or back further yet to brush shelters, but it might mean reconsidering the transhumant way of life that sustained the Utes for centuries, if not millennia.  Mobility was more important than stability, as it still is for non-western societies in most of the mountainous and arid lands of the world.  This is primarily because of the seasonality of these environments, and the unevenly scarce distribution of resources in both space and time, all of which conspires against permanent year-round settlement on small amounts of land.  Like the bear who hibernates through the winter, the Utes left the mountains for the valleys when the snow began to fly.  Resilience in the Rocky Mountains and western North America does not look like the ways of living that have worked in eastern North America, Europe, or other resource-abundant places.  And native lifeways show us that here, just as mobility trumps stability, resilience is a more appropriate goal than sustainability.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Nightlife in cow camp

Last night I, the sole human resident of Cox Park, woke to a noise from my outdoor kitchen.

Either the heifers have gotten in there again, or it is another bear, I thought. I had awakened to a bear in the kitchen a few nights ago, scaring it away before it got any food.
I jumped out of bed, pulled on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and opened the cabin door. Outside I found a porcupine on the shelf under the kitchen counter, nibbling on something, which turned out to be a bar of pumice soap. I suppose it cleaned him out. Unlike the bear a few days ago, the porcupine did not seem afraid and refused to leave despite my exhortations to do so.
Now, this happened to occur while my beautiful Jenny was visiting, and in a vain attempt to impress my lady with chivalrous heroics, I had run out into the forty-degree night in just my boots, and I confess I did not wish to be in any way touched by a porcupine in such a state. I poked it with a stick but it just stayed there. Finally I flipped over the tray of silverware that the spiny intruder had perched on, whereupon it fell to the ground and slowly swaggered off into the dark woods.
I pulled off my boots and crawled back into bed, expecting Jenny to thank me for so gallantly saving her from the ferocious wild animal outside. She was still asleep. In the morning she said she thought she had heard me doing dishes.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Myth and Reality West of Eden

As Westerners become native, the West becomes its own place

I was not born here, but I call this region home. Like so many before me, I heard its call from across the continent, and came chasing a dream. A formless dream, not of riches, but of a landscape of beauty and myth, romance and adventure. To “see the West before it’s gone,” but of course it is not going anywhere; it is just changing. The land is not a static backdrop for the human drama, but a dynamic aspect of the one great story.

The West is perhaps the most mythologized of American regions. Here in western Colorado I can almost see the tepees of a Ute encampment; and in the semidesert grasslands of southeastern Arizona, I look at the surrounding mountains and can feel the earth tremble as hordes of mounted Apaches descend on the valley.

The landscape, as well as regional art, literature, and traditions perpetuate cultural myths. Among the dominant myths in the arts of the west are those surrounding the cowboy-gunfighter, and his battles with the natives who stand in the way of his assumed manifest destiny. In my younger days I had on my wall a print of David Mann’s Ghostrider, the modern outlaw persona on his motorcycle, racing the ghost of the cowboy across a sandstone landscape. The biker’s demeanor, denim and leather, are clearly descended from that of his mythic predecessor, as is his demeanor. He is Hawkeye, the Virginian, the Lone Ranger, the Man With No Name reincarnated. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see the land apart from the myths associated with it.

Crossing the historic and mythic Pecos was such a symbolic event in my life that I turned around and crossed it again; that night, above the river, I camped in the desert for the first time, saw my first tarantula, and slept under the most brilliant canopy of stars I had ever seen. But it was in northern New Mexico that I first fell in love: the High Plains where the cattle graze and the pronghorn run; the bison pasture below the Tooth of Time on the Santa Fe Trail; the ancient irrigation ditches running through horse pastures and alfalfa fields; the sleepy hamlets of adobe houses and moradas nestled in juniper-studded foothills, the church bells ringing on the constant breeze; and the soft light of dawn and dusk separated by the harshness of midday. The real yet mythic and mystical Southwest.

The cowboy-gunfighter myth lives on, as evidenced by the popularity of frontier-West novels authored by Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’amour. When I was not yet ten, I was The Fastest Gun In The West, the fact that I had never seen the West except on television notwithstanding. I still wear boots and snug jeans. These are adaptations to life on horseback, and this is still a mounted man’s country, even though few of us do much riding in this day and age. I traded my motorcycle for a pickup and sometimes a horse, somewhere between the real and mythic Wests. The cowboy hat, which might instead be called the western hat, is another adaptation to the sun-drenched landscape, but that is not the only reason I wear one. The cowboy belongs on the Western rangelands, a pastoral landscape, but he is also a symbol of conquest, of “taming” the frontier, of the deep-seeded desire to make the desert blossom—the Garden of the World, this latter a myth that must be relinquished if the West is to be a real, abiding place of culture and economy as well as ecology.

Aridity defines, unites, and in every way characterizes the West. Once I spent a summer west of the West, so to speak, seduced if you will by the relative lushness of the fleshpots of California; but when I crossed Tioga Pass, descended into the Great Basin, and looked out across the vast expanse of sun and sagebrush and salt desert, the wind blew the hat off my head and I knew I had returned, though I was yet hundreds of miles from my familiar Arizona or Utah. It was a joyful epiphany, one which strikes me again every time I return to the dry, open hinterlands from the cities and suburbs. In the rainshadow of the great mountains, aridity is the determining force which has created the landscape I have come to know and love. It has also been a difficult reality for Americans to accept.

The West has had its share of boosters, a long line of them, beginning with Cabeza de Vaca. Many of us are still searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, or endeavoring to create the Garden of the World in the heart of the Great American Desert. Ridiculous schemes to irrigate the Southwest with water from distant watersheds still pop up; the myth of boundless possibility is not yet dead. But aridity imposes limits, limits which the boosters and suckers alike have ignored but which were long ago recognized by John Wesley Powell in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States (1878), the echo of which is heard in the work of regional historians and writers such as Bernard DeVoto, Walter Prescott Webb, Wallace Stegner, and David Lavender. DeVoto, affirming the finitude imposed by aridity, called the West “a Plundered Province” (1934), and warned against liquidation of our natural resources in the attempt to gain economic independence from the East in “The West Against Itself” (1947).

The frontier era has passed, but the West has largely remained a cultural colony of the East. But that is changing: the American West, as Bill Kittredge (1997) tells us in the introduction to his anthology of Western literature, is becoming its own place. This is in no small way due to the efforts of Western writers who have shown us a different place than the purely mythologized, imaginary West. For example, Wallace Stegner wrote brilliantly and voluminously about Western communities, the sense of place, transience and permanence, and finding a balance between rootedness and the mobility forced by aridity.

Charles Wilkinson, University of Colorado - Boulder law professor, is one of those writers trying to show Western communities how to become real, sustainable places. In Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (1992), he explained the “lords of yesterday,” the laws and doctrines of western expansion—the holdovers of manifest destiny—that still govern natural resource policy and provide incentives for inappropriate or excessive land uses. In Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest, he blends autobiographical narrative with environmental history in a tribute to the land and people of the rugged and remote Colorado Plateau, a windswept and sun-blasted landscape of convoluted sandstone, hardy sagebrush, and twisted junipers—and of dams, power plants, and transmission lines. Remoteness was until recently anathema to Anglo American society, but now gives the Plateau much of its value; it was still very much terra incognita to most Americans when Edward Abbey published his classic aesthetic celebration of the Plateau, Desert Solitaire, in 1968. Wilkinson does for the Plateau’s native peoples what Abbey did for its landscape.

The West’s original natives were conquered first by disease, then by war, and then by assimilationist federal Indian policies (Lavender 1980). But perhaps the most significant conquest of the land and its people was, and is, what Abbey (1977) called “the Second Rape of the West,” and which Wilkinson calls “the Big Buildup.” In the decades following World War II, the expanding cities of the West outstripped their local carrying capacities and together began the mining of the region’s resources to sustain their growth. The cities made a colony of the Colorado Plateau, just as the West was a colony of the East. Yet the Plateau has survived, its people have stood in the face of so many outside pressures and persevered. This tenacity, Wilkinson believes, is born of reverence for the land, a commitment to place.

The Big Buildup has gone too far. We will try to clean up some of the pollution generated by the power plants and mitigate the damage caused by the large dams, but will we be willing to change our own individual attitudes toward growth, and our consumptive behavior? We need to rein in what Abbey (1968) called Industrial Tourism, which threatens not only the land but also its cultures, reducing local people to caricatures of themselves, as argued by historian Hal Rothman (1999) and Jim Stiles (2007).

The West’s native peoples have lived here for at least 12,000 years; both the seminomadic lifeways of, for example, the Utes or Apachean peoples, and the commitment of the puebloan peoples to the Colorado Plateau and upper Rio Grande Valley, should serve as models for living on the land and coping with aridity, the source of both the Western land’s great beauty and its fragility. Westerners, as Wilkinson concludes, are perhaps the Americans most in need of a reverence for place. His conclusion echoes Stegner (1992): a sense of place is fundamental if communities and societies are to opt for resilience rather than the boom and bust extractive fever so characteristic of the 19th and 20th century West.

If the West is to remain Stegner’s “Native Home of Hope,” Westerners must bind themselves emotionally to their places and refuse to sell off the lands and natural resources that are their heritage. We must bury the nearsighted myths of the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Garden of the World, preferably under the rubble of the modern military-industrial complex. We must accept the limitations of an arid land, even if it means a largely pastoral landscape with mostly small agrarian communities nestled in our fertile valleys. Natural resources will still be the basis of our economy, and the new West will look at least a little bit like the old West. But we need an ethic of resilience, along with new myths native to and appropriate for the Western landscape. We must ourselves become native.

Literature Cited

Abbey, E. A. 1968. Desert Solitaire. Random House, New York.
Abbey, E. A. 1977. The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West. Dutton, New York.
DeVoto, B. 1934. The West: a plundered province. Harpers 169:355-364.
DeVoto, B. 1947. The West against itself. Harpers 194:1-13.
Kittredge, W., ed. 1997. The Portable Western Reader. Penguin Books, New York.
Lavender, D. S. 1980. The Southwest. Harper & Row, New York.
Powell, J.W. 1879. Report on the Lands of The Arid Regions of the United States.  Nabu Press (reprinted 2010).
Rothman, H. 1999. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West.  University Press of Kansas.
Stegner, W. E. 1992. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. Random House, New York.
Stiles, J. 2007. Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Wilkinson, C. F. 1992. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Wilkinson, C. F. 1999. Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Listening to the voice, leaving the path, living the legend

"Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends."
--One Stab, in the screenplay of Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall

"Man needs to choose, not just accept, his destiny."

I just read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, the story of a boy who leaves the seminary to become a shepherd so that he can read and travel, and who lives out his own personal legend seeking treasure, physical and spiritual, crossing the Sahara.  I had thought that sometimes we, at least some of us, need to strike out cross-country instead of following the established path.  Now I see that we all need to find our own way. 
When I was five – this is one of my earliest memories – in kindergarten, I would not pay attention to class, but would give my attention out the window to the passing clouds. One day at lunchtime recess, it happened that there were only two of us kids on the little fenced playground outside the kindergarten classroom, and no teacher in sight. I slipped out between the bars and walked off, down the grassy slope and through the parking lot. Someone saw me and said hello. I kept going, across the street and through the woods to the creek. I would explore that creek many times, but on this particular day I didn’t know where I was going, so I walked back to the school, squeezed back through the bars into the playground, and maybe climbed around on the spaceship briefly before going back into the classroom. After that, my name was on a list, posted on the door, of kids not allowed out to the playground. I’ve always blamed that other kid for telling on me, but it may have been that person in the parking lot, or of course the teacher might have known all along.

A few years after my short-lived escape, I read and loved Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who didn’t want to go to school, and went to live in the wilds instead.

The central dilemma may be that our elders, parents, teachers, and society have all painstakingly laid out a path for us. There is a pull to follow it, but is it because it is the right path, or because we just want to please our parents? 

There is a pull, just as strong, to forsake this path, to go off into the unexplored woods, and create a path of our own. Is this because we know, deep down, that this is what we must do, or are we just compelled to rebel?

I think I'm beginning to hear the answer.

After reading Jim Harrison and Joseph Campbell and Paulo Coelho, I know that the vague force pulling us away from the straight and narrow is our own inner voice.  It may also be the voice of God, the Holy Wind that animates all things, the Soul of the World.  The reluctance to leave the path laid out for us is a manifestation of the fear of failure, which is of course usually the ultimate cause of failure.  The path laid out for us is not entirely something to be avoided, as the trailblazers laid it out to ease our suffering.  But if all paths are good, it is because they ultimately lead to the one destination.  The important thing is that the paths are all, as the Buddhists say, fingers pointing at the moon; but we are too focused on the finger, or finding our footing on the path, to see the moon.

Finding our own path, our own personal legend, seems to go in fits and starts.  As a teenager I joined a volunteer fire company, seeking an adventure that neither school nor books could provide. My mother cried, but acquiesced.  But after graduating from high school with above-average but not stellar grades, I went to college simply because it was the next step on the established path. I had no sense of purpose there, so I dropped out after the first year, and then tried another college with the same result.

When I decided that my purpose was to learn to live on the land, and that that land would be far out where the mountains slope down into the desert, I rode my motorcycle across the country, and became a straight-A student in natural resources in Arizona, which was about as far away from the Pennsylvania suburbs as I could get, in more ways than one, without leaving the country.  I was very successful academically, earning a BS in wildlife ecology from the University of Arizona and an MS in range science from Utah State University. But my real purpose was still exploring the West, seeking that mythical, mystical mountainside where I could live on the land.

So there I was, a successful professional with a green-collar job. I gave other people advice on how to live on the land, but I'd never really done it. I earned a professional salary to pay rent and buy food. On the other hand, I had paid annual leave, a freezer full of elk meat, and an abundance of home-brewed beer.

Now here I am on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains, tending cattle, riding horses, irrigating pasture, and fixing fences.  I live in a cowboy camp overlooking a subalpine park, reading at night by the woodstove in a one-room log cabin, with an outdoor kitchen and a wood-fired hot water system, modeled on African safari camps.

I am some kind of cross between a homesteader and an adventurer. I want to find that perfect place and build a humble home of native materials and aesthetics. I want to grow a garden, hunt game, raise organic grass-fed beef, brew beer, write, and create. I don’t want a real job.

I also want to explore the West, from desert to mountain and Mexico to Canada, to ride horses through grizzly wilds. Arguably, that’s what I’ve been doing for 13 years now. I want to expand my explorations to foreign lands, take beautiful photographs, write exotic travelogues, meet people of different cultures, understand how they live on their land, see how their mythologies are similar to or different from my own.

So how do I balance the homesteading and exploring instincts? And what about that professional career that I’ve been groomed for my whole life? How do I find harmony, create beauty, and live in simple richness?

As the Hindus remind us, "Truth is One, but the sages speak of it my many names."  Because the Infinite is beyond concepts, and thus the name of God cannot be spoken, I think that we must find whatever experience connects us most deeply to the Infinite.  That's the message of all great folklore, mythology and literature: what Harrison meant by the inner voice, Coelho by the personal legend, and Campbell by "Follow your Bliss."  And, that is, ultimately, why I followed my inner voice away from my government career path to this camp, here on my side of the Rocky Mountains.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunburnt and saddlesore in the land of shining mountains

My goal is to live as part of the Western landscape, in a way that makes sense in the greater whole, that not only does not degrade it but sustains and restores it. Success is measured in terms of a triple bottom line of ecological, economic, and sociocultural resilience.

In this quest for resilience, I've come around to the most quintessentially Western way of living and working on the land: harvesting native biological diversity with livestock and minimal external inputs, especially of machinery and fossil fuels. Grazing is a natural process, and whether it is by wild or domesticated animals, it can restore, maintain, or degrade rangelands; it all depends on how that grazing is distributed in space and time, which is to say that it all depends on how it is managed.

As temporary steward of this ranch in the Rocky Mountains, I spend half my time irrigating, half my time fencing, half my time horseback with cattle, and the rest just getting around. It adds up to about seventy hours per week. I thought I was in shape before I moved here, but I find my hands and arms full of pins and needles from gripping fence pliers and shovel all day.

All this work is to get livestock to the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons. Their work, in turn, is to eat the grass and deposit their nutrient-rich manure evenly across the pasture, then move on and not return until the grass has recovered from the previous grazing. This requires a lot of pastures, or intensive herding, as described in ranch owner Jim Howell's For the Love of Land: Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature's Image (2009). In contrast, livestock left in a single large pasture, especially in the absence of predators, tend to return to the same plants and locations within the pasture too soon because the re-growth is more palatable than the older material of the ungrazed plants, eventually causing loci of range deterioration--loss of biological diversity, hydrologic function, and soil stability--that tend to expand over the years. Native ungulates maintained the grasslands becausetheir pack-hunting predators did not allow them to stay in any one place too long. It is this role of the predator that I now assume.

Where grazing is palnned and managed to prevent this cycle of patch degradation, the animals with their rumen microflora also do the work of biologically decomposing all that plant biomass and then depositing it in a form that can be incorporated into the soil , rather than allowing it to slowly oxidize and release its carbon to the atmosphere. This is the true yet almost universally overlooked role of grazing ruminants in nutrient cycling.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts because of the overwhelming importance of the relationships, and of course everything is related to everything else. These concepts of holism and grazing ecology were synthesised by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield of the Savory Institute in Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (Island Press, 1999). Their ranch in Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, just won the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, recognizing holistic management as the most practical solution to "make the world work for 100% of humanity."

On the Howell Ranch, the owners Jim and Daniela Howell and I practice holistic management. This means we make every decision toward a holistic goal that encompasses quality of life, forms of production to produce that quality of life, and the future resource base to sustain that production far into the future, including the land, people, and community.

Regenerative rangeland livestock agriculture means that the grass is greener on this side of the fence, the cattle are fatter, the people are stronger and healthier, and our business is resilience in action. And, sunburnt and saddlesore, I know that my work is not just work but a work of art.