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Git Home!


Belgian detective Henri Delcourt, right, spent an afternoon with rancher Henry Steele seeing the American West come to life. It had been his dream since Americans liberated Belgium in 1944.

Latest player in the game is Sheridan, Wyo. author Sam Western. “Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River” is a frontal assault on Wyoming, its ranchers, their history and economy. At slightly more than a hundred short pages, this work is more an extended essay than a book. The writer uses detailed historical citations and data from several sources to make his point. Wyoming’s “inheritance is largely one of passivity” and “the state’s romantic past is largely fictive,” he claims, while dismissing the state’s agriculture as “largely ceremonial.”

Western takes aim at the state’s lack of income tax and its license plate and cowboy logo. He champions Jackson Hole as the place to take visitors, acknowledges agriculture’s work ethic but has little else good to say about ranching. His heroes are few. They include a Jackson software guru, three University of Wyoming students who invented a rock climbing device, and Tom Bell (of High Country News), a harsh critic of ranching. Western’s applause is reserved for the next generation of entrepreneurs who will “harness the ideas of Wyoming’s creative minds.” Western’s book reminded me why I came to live in Wyoming.

I was born in Massachusetts, where my family lived for four centuries. The Woodward men were road builders, starting their careers as laborers and working up the ladder to become general foremen and engineers. My earliest ancestor was the first man put in stocks in the colony (for “drinking on the Sabbath”) and the family retained a hard-working, colorful tradition throughout its history. I went to college in Middlebury, Vermont in 1961 and promptly fell in love. The object of my affection was rural Vermont, courtesy of veterinarian Alan Marston. Skipping classes, I rode on calls with Alan, visiting farms tucked away in the hills—little changed in a hundred years.

Vermont in the early ’60s was 200 miles from New York City but a century apart in other ways. On a cold December day, the flat nasal accent rang out in the barnyards and farmers pulled calves under beams hand-hewn by their great grandfathers. In the woods men still logged with matched pairs of Morgans. Town councils rejected federal funds and held bake sales until they could afford a swimming pool. Vermont was crusty, independent and irreverent, courtesy of its dairy farmers.

In 1965 I entered the Air Force, but I never abandoned my dream of returning to Vermont. In the early ’80s I went back, scouting a place to retire. Bulk tank laws and economies of scale had hammered the dairy industry. Wall Street brokers bought farms and christened them with names like “Talking Waters.” Developers created a tourist culture complete with ski resorts, French restaurants and craft centers with names like “Frog Hollow.”

Farms survived, but most were hobby operations with a handful of llamas or sheep. Farms capable of supporting a family have plummeted from 8,500 in the ’60s to 1,400 today. Many of the surviving farms are “factory” dairy operations. One inn boasted its “interpretation” of Vermont and once-remote villages offered delis with tofu on the menu. How you felt about all this depended on who you were. If you were from Manhattan, Vermont offered “cute” inns, fine wines and terrific skiing. If you were a Yankee, you might have thought Vermont had lost its soul.

I visited Massachusetts and sat in the cemetery with the ghosts of my people around me and decided that, as much as I loved New England, returning home had become too painful.

In 1984 my wife and I retired from the Air Force and headed west. We bought a tiny bungalow in Baker, Ore. I wore out a bird dog and an ancient Parker shotgun on the chukar partridge in the Snake River Canyon.

An old friend, a Belgian detective with deep ties to America, visited us in Oregon. In 1944, Henri Delcourt was swept up in the Allied advance across Europe and worked for the U.S. Army as an interpreter. The American West captivated him “because my country was saved by the Americans—the cowboys I saw in movies before the war.” Henri spent an afternoon with our friend, Henry Steele, a tough rancher who was more colorful than any character produced by central casting. The two Henrys traded headgear—a Belgian gendarme’s kepi for a Stetson—and talked for hours. When we put Henri on the plane in Boise his eyes were wet with emotion. His life’s dream—“seeing the American West”—had come true.

Four years later Paula and I moved to a small town in northeast Wyoming. In 1988, cowboys still rode horses into bars, you could sign counter checks with a pencil and you only had to dial four numbers to reach a neighbor.

Basque sheepmen and several ranchers befriended us. We helped dock sheep in the spring, gathered in the fall and helped out at brandings. Moving sheep was an art form that escaped me. I spent a lot of nights dreaming that I’d accidentally released 300 hard-gathered ewes. My riding skills were primitive. One rancher said I was the first easterner he’d ever seen who’d tried to master riding and jumping—in the same lesson.

I wasn’t interested in becoming a cowboy. I had no illusions about the romance of ranching. Much of it was tough, dirty work in impossible weather. Ranchers ran the gamut of the human condition—from saints to sinners. I’d lived in four different countries and half-a-dozen states. But I loved Wyoming because the ranching community was the friendliest, most neighborly society I’d ever known.

And I had fun. Crisp evenings at 20-below in a Basque elk camp in the Bighorns. Hot afternoons in May in a branding chute trying to keep my kneecaps intact. Simple things—the wave of a hand from a passing pickup; two stock trucks parked in the middle of the road, the drivers chatting.

I’d seen it before, on sheep stations in the Kalahari Desert and horse farms on the west coast of Ireland. Anywhere a few people ranch or farm in vast open spaces, human contact matters. The result is a civil society and a strong sense of community.

This was brought home to me eight years ago when I learned I had prostate cancer. Three ranchers, Irv and Allen Alderson and Bunny Hayes put their heads together. “Bill,” they agreed, “is pretty hyper. Let’s get Dave to cut on him.” Next morning I had a call from the Mayo Clinic. “Dave” was on the line. “Get out here,” he directed, “and we’ll have you back in the woods for whitetail season.” “Dave,” it turned out, was Doctor Dave Barrett, one of the top urology surgeons in the world and a close friend of Bunny Hayes. Because my cancer was advanced, Dave’s skill mattered. Bunny Hayes and the Alderson boys had saved my bacon.

Gestures like this define the ranching culture. Whether the benefactors are a burned-out family or a policeman with leukemia, the ranching community comes through.

This is what the critics ignore. Wherever suburbia displaces agriculture, the first victim is the way of life. Whether it’s Sam Western or the editors of anti-ranching books, the disciples of the New West share a common flaw. However intricate and well researched their arguments against agriculture—they duck the tough issue. What would the West be like without ranchers?

The post-agricultural landscape is invariably overcrowded, artificial and considerably less civil. Ranching’s critics ignore this fact because the realities are not a pretty sight. If you doubt this, consider the relentless mall sprawl of satellite communities across the cornfields north of Davenport, Iowa. Or contemplate the suburban ghettos of Colorado’s Front Range or Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Ask anyone who lived in these places when they were primarily agricultural and they will tell you that the real loss is one of community.

If you love ranching, you need to read Sam Western’s book. It’s important because of what it reveals about the gaggle of prophets attacking ranching. These guiding lights have agendas separate from land use and the environment. They are intent, quite simply, on a cultural cleansing of the American West. A single quote from Sam Western’s book says it all: “[Wyoming] values character above money. And when it has money it doesn’t care about showing it off. Wyoming remains one of the few states with no Lexus or BMW dealerships.”

If there’s finer praise for Wyoming I can’t imagine what it is. If there’s a quote that better portrays the bankrupt materialism of ranching’s critics, it has yet to be written.

No museum or theme park can ever recapture the civility of the ranching culture or the intricate traditions of a branding or sheep docking. Fortunately, those traditions still hold sway over vast tracts of the American landscape. But that lifestyle is as fragile as any ecosystem, as endangered as any species. Ironically, those people most concerned with preserving the environment couldn’t care less about killing a culture.

The West is much more than a playground for transplanted yuppies. It’s where men and women ranch—despite tough weather and even tougher markets—to preserve a way of life that is a distillation of the American Spirit. If ranchers are poorer for that decision, America is richer for it.

Wyoming has a lot to learn from New England. That idea doesn’t go down well with a lot of my ranching friends, who say, “Frankly I don’t give a damn how you did it back there.” My answer is simple. “You’d better give a damn how we did it back there—because we screwed it up.” n

Bill Woodward spent 20 years in the Air Force, retiring from the position of executive officer, National Defense University, Washington, D.C. He’s written about hunting and rural life for several national magazines. His family has lived in Massachusetts since 1630.

Summer 2003 Contents | Git Home!

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