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Rants from the Hill: “Lawn Guilt”

Michael Branch | Jul 07, 2014 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Henry David Thoreau’s neighbors generally thought of him as a lazy, confrontational, sanctimonious pain in the ass. They might be interested to know that he turned out to be right about nearly everything, from his strident support for the abolition of slavery, to his scathing exposure of the injustice of the Mexican-American War, to his embracing of then-new evolutionary theory, to his claim that the American relationship to nature was becoming commodified, superficial, and exploitative. Perhaps the best example of Thoreau being right ahead of his time is offered by his vehement condemnation of the American lawn. In his remarkable 1862 deathbed essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote that “Hope and the future are not in lawns.” Instead, he imagined establishing his home on a plot of land covered with wild plants and trees. “Why not put my house, my parlor, behind this plot,” he asked, “instead of behind that meager assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for a Nature and Art, which I call my front yard?”

Calling his neighbors’ front yards a “poor apology for a Nature and Art” is the sort of sarcastic face slap that cranky Uncle Henry specialized in, and it tells you something that one of his final utterances before leaving this world was a condemnation of lawns. As usual, he turned out to be right. Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide, herbicide, water, labor, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America our turf grasses, which are non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost 40 billion dollars per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes end up contaminating our ground and surface water), and drink an inconceivable eight billion gallons of water per day (here in the West, where we can least afford to squander the liquid gold, as much as half of all residential water use is associated with lawns and landscaping).

Satellite image of the Ranting Hill, with tiny lawn, surrounded by juniper-dotted sagebrush ocean.

All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent: each year Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks pretty good but isn’t especially useful. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are often remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Then there are the unhappy symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

Now hang with me while I descend from my eco-soapbox to offer this surprising confession: I have a lawn. I’m a westerner. A desert rat. An environmentalist. Even an admirer of Thoreau (though it does chap my hide that he’s always right). But I have a lawn and I love it. Of course my dual status as arid lands environmentalist and lawn-watering dolt has provoked in me a serious identity crisis, one that reminds me of another Thoreau insight (this one from Walden): “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand does.” Am I proud of my lawn? Hell no! I’m completely ashamed of it. I have a terminal case of lawn guilt. But at the risk of having my membership in the Wilderness Society revoked, it is time to come clean about my immoderate love of the lawn I have planted here on the Ranting Hill.

For me the first challenge is squaring a condition of brutal lawnlessness with fond memories of my suburban childhood, in which the grassy yard provided the most immediate respite from concrete and asphalt. Lawns were our play zones, the part of the vernacular landscape that could be experienced with all our senses, and one of the few suburban spaces not specifically designed to accommodate cars. Even if your old man was on his hands and knees pulling crabgrass every Saturday morning, for the rest of the week the lawn remained the sovereign province of children—a little patch of freedom that functioned as a clean, green canvas that we kids painted with our imaginations.

Trio of coyote pups denning near the Ranting Hill.

Like a lot of suburban boys, I also experienced the lawn as the first significant site of labor. Before I reached age 16 and landed a job stocking the beer cooler in the local drugstore, the lawn was the only game in town for an enterprising kid who was willing to work hard and needed a little cash. I built a pretty decent side biz as a mower, and in this sense the American lawn bought me a new bike, a fishing trip, and tickets to some memorable rock shows. As I got a bit older, lawn mowing even functioned as my French Foreign Legion. I spent one summer as a mower for a small company comprised entirely of guys who had been recently dumped by their girlfriends. My mowing partner that summer was a Harley dude named Chaos who somehow survived on a diet consisting solely of Schlitz beer and corn nuts. Sometimes Chaos and I would knock out 20 lawns in a day. Between yards we’d crank up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the battered old truck’s cassette deck and lament that we’d been cast away by girls who, we told each other, just didn’t have their heads on straight. When I later got my own head on straight and went to college, so revered was the lawn that my school had a world famous precision lawnmower brigade that routinely stole the show from reputable marching bands during parades.

Of course those are memories from another place and time, and rationalizing turf grass here at 6,000 feet in the Great Basin Desert is another matter entirely. Still, I’m willing to attempt a modest defense. To begin with, our lawn is quite small, is on only one side of the house, and is surrounded by the rest of our property, 49 acres of wild desert that we have deliberately left undisturbed. I never use herbicides on the little yard, the fertilizer I apply is slow-release and organic, and the watering regime is strictly limited and carefully timed for efficiency. Outside the lawn, almost every tree and shrub I’ve planted is a local or regional native, most of which are hardy and xeric. The lawn keeps the dust down, and has also reduced the number of scorpions and rattlers we encounter immediately outside the house. Having the lawn also helps to cool the place in summer, working in tandem with our passive solar home design to make it possible for us to exist here without air conditioning.

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Rants from the Hill: Planting the Dog

Michael Branch | Jun 02, 2014 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

The other day, while rummaging through a stack of unsorted papers, I came across a card that had been mailed to me about this time last year. Noting by the return address that it was sent from our veterinarian, I knew it would be a standard-issue expression of regret for the loss of our dog, who we had paid good money to have the vet put down a few days before the card arrived. Reasoning that I might as well have a look before tossing it in the recycling bin, I opened and read the card. It contained a stock expression of sympathy for “Darcy” (unnecessary quotation marks get quite a “workout” in “American” English). “You made a caring decision,” read the message, which was nestled in a field of little paw prints.

Well, ok, I thought. This is more sympathy than most folks get when they lose a cousin, and although the card misused quotation marks and didn’t contain a discount coupon, the sentiment seemed reasonable. But included within the card was a smaller card containing the text of a poem that I had seen on display in the special room within the vet’s office where customers wait with their soon-to-be-iced companions. A truly atrocious poem of uncertain provenance, “Rainbow Bridge” is six stanzas of mawkish reassurance not only that our dead dog will go to heaven, but also that we will be reunited with them there. This struck me as an ambitious claim, especially compared to “you made a caring decision,” which seemed reassuring without presuming too much.

According to “Rainbow Bridge,” dead dogs end up in a grassy meadow that functions as a timeless purgatory between heaven and earth, where they hang out in a roving pack of fellow mutts until that magical day when they cross over said bridge into an interspecies heaven where they experience a blissful moment of reunion with their human pal. A single stanza of this literary gem should suffice:

For just at that instant, their eyes have met;

Together again both person and pet.

So they run to each other, these friends from long past,

The time of their parting is over at last.

Even setting aside the deplorable quality of this ditty, which made me wonder if I should ask the vet to administer the pentobarbital to me instead of to Darcy, there are a number of problems here. First, the poem presumes not only that the reader is on board with the concept of heaven, but also that they want a bunch of dogs around when they get there. The poem does not specify whether there are fleas, ticks, or canine flatulence in heaven, or whether in the suburban parts of heaven you are required to pick up your angel dog’s feces with a plastic bag.

Even if you do subscribe to the idea of heaven, and even if you don’t mind a bunch of yelping dogs joining you there, consider the other problems with the “Rainbow Bridge” account of immortality. If this is really heaven, how do we know that all pet owners will make it through the pearly gates? Judging by my Silver Hillbilly neighbors, I’d be surprised if half of us are admitted into the land of fish fries and harp recitals. We’re more likely to end up in a very hot place—but one with more whiskey, which we might prefer in any case. And what of the dogs themselves? Assuming that the canine Saint Peter (or is it Saint Bernard?) has any standards at all, you’ve got to figure that most of these shoe-eating, garden-destroying, butt-sniffers are likely to be reunited with their masters in the underworld.

I’m also appalled that this poem is so patently illogical. Why relegate dogs to the timeless verdant meadows first? How about just sticking the non-heaven end of the rainbow bridge into the vet’s office and expediting the process of doggie salvation? And then there’s the troubling point that while this card is intended to reassure me, it presupposes that I am consoled by the contemplation of my own mortality. Sure, I’d like to be with Darcy again, but when it comes to reuniting with the dead my goal is to put it off as long as I can. Finally, the card from my vet indicates imprecisely that this poem is “inspired by a Norse legend.” This is an indirect reference to the Bifröst Bridge, which in Norse mythology is a burning rainbow that links this world (called Midgard) to Asgard, the realm of the gods. But the thirteenth-century Icelandic Eddas clearly foretell the collapse of this bridge, which in any case is perpetually aflame and spans a river of boiling water—an apocalyptic vision of the afterlife that is a far cry from the blithe reassurances of the insipid “Rainbow Bridge.”

But here’s the problem with making fun of this ridiculous poem: it hurts like hell to lose your dog. As I waited with Darcy for the vet to come into the room to dispatch her, I was as choked up as I’ve ever been. Researchers who study emotional attachment and separation have found that the bonds we have with our pets are often comparable to those we have with our fellow humans. To make matters worse, we are often confused about how to reckon the loss of a pet, because in the case of these nonhuman loved ones our culture has no ritual of parting—unless you’re willing to count reading freaking “Rainbow Bridge” through streaming tears in a veterinarian’s office. The nerds who study this stuff use the term “disenfranchised grief” to refer to a form of very real sadness that we nevertheless aren’t quite sure we’re allowed to feel. As one grief geek observed, “socially sanctioned mourning procedures, such as funerals, do not occur following the death of a pet, even though research shows that they are critical to the healing process.”

We named Darcy for the song “Darcy Farrow,” which features references to western Nevada’s Walker River and Carson Valley, and which includes these words in its final stanza: “They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through, / They sing of her beauty in Virginia City too.” She was a wonderful dog, a true member of our family who was gentle with our young daughters but also tireless in the field with me. I’ve done the redneck math: Darcy and I walked more than 12,000 miles together across these remote desert canyons, playas, and mountains. It is impossible to share that much time with a dog—that many beautiful experiences of this remarkable land—and not become bonded in a deeply meaningful way. Several years ago Darcy was pack hunted by a band of coyotes and was sliced to ribbons before narrowly escaping. When she came limping home, her fur matted and blood-soaked, I thought she was a goner. But the vet shaved her down and stitched her up, and though she looked like a canine Frankenstein for several months, she recovered fully and lived to walk another few thousand miles with me.

When it came time to say goodbye, it didn’t do any damned good to tell myself that Darcy was “just a dog.” As a confirmed desert rat I knew that I should take my dog, gun, and shovel out into the sage and take care of this myself. But when that inevitable day arrived I just couldn’t do it, and that is how I became a reader of “Rainbow Bridge.” That is also how I came into possession of a small, cedar box containing dog ashes, which were produced at additional expense when, in an already excruciating moment, I learned that my dog’s body would be disposed of as “clinical waste.” What difference should it make what becomes of a dead dog, however much beloved in life? I still don’t know the answer to this question, but in that moment it was an easy call to trade money for the assurance that my 12,000-mile trail companion wouldn’t leave this world in a dumpster.

It is finally time to finish this story. If ceremonies of mourning are necessary to grieving, and if our culture lacks rituals of parting from nonhuman friends, then we’ll just have to act like the resourceful, imaginative people we are and invent one of our own. The unusual desert rainstorm that has blasted us for two days is now over, and the sky has begun to clear. The wildfire up in the hills to the south has finally been extinguished, and the Washoe Zephyr has at last ceased howling. I’m taking this little cedar box, and a wooden-handled spade, and an ice-cold IPA, and I’m hiking up onto a nearby hillside that is graced by a single juniper. There I’ll dig a small hole in this sandy soil before raising a toast to Darcy and our shared trail. Then I will kneel down among the sage and plant my dog. As a final gesture, I’ll stand at attention and read aloud the terribly sappy “Rainbow Bridge.” Although it will be impossible for me not to laugh, it is also certain that I will weep, because that is so necessary. My newly developed ritual will of course be inadequate, but it is a memorial gesture that must pass for reunion here in this remote desert, which is our only earth and also our only heaven.


Rants from the Hill: The Moopets

Michael Branch | May 05, 2014 08:35 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Although I’ve written 45 of these Rants from the Hill since the essay series launched back in July, 2010, there’s one word I have studiously avoided using. It is a filthy word, one that immediately conjures up a range of unpleasant associations. It is so very nasty that even I knew better than to allow this word to creep into a single sentence of a single Rant. Needless to say, it is a four-letter word. But I have decided that, as a Nevada writer, I must now reveal this dirty word. To quote the Eighties Robot character in the 2011 movie The Muppets: “R.  E.  N.  O. That spells Reno.”

In fact, I have the Muppets to thank—or, more accurately, to blame—for my need to finally reveal this foul word. Not long ago I was watching The Muppets with my two young daughters when, to my surprise, I glanced up to see a shot of the famous Reno Arch, an unmistakable local landmark which spans the main street of our downtown and reads “Biggest Little City in the World.” “Look, girls!” I exclaimed, pointing at our town on the TV screen. “The Muppets have come to Reno!” It goes without saying that this was big news, because it suggested that our little city was going to get its fifteen minutes of fame—an outcome virtually assured by the fact that loving the Muppets is one of only four things all Americans have in common (the other three: hate taxes, think we sound great singing in the shower, can’t understand why Kim Kardashian is famous). Having your town appear in a Muppet movie is like receiving the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, with the important difference that nobody has subscribed to Good Housekeeping since 1959, while this Muppet flick opened in 3,500 theaters and grossed north of 90 million bucks.

Although I didn’t mention it to the girls, I was also thrilled that Reno, which is a lovely town but one with a bad reputation, might at last be associated with something wholesome. In fact, the nasty reputation of northern Nevada in the broader culture hasn’t changed appreciably since it was characterized by my patron saint, Mark Twain, back in 1862: “If the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would get homesick and go back to hell again.” Some might argue that we brought this dubious reputation on ourselves by cultivating the questionable economic strategy of making legal whatever is illegal elsewhere, which is what we did, by turns, with prizefighting, gambling, divorce, and prostitution (which begs the question of how we let anybody beat us to legalizing same-sex marriage and weed). But for that one brief and shining moment, sitting with my beautiful daughters and watching Kermit rolling into Reno in his Rolls-Royce Silver Spur, I indulged a fantasy of redemption. I was, for that breathless instant, another benighted Nevadan just waiting for that third seven to spin into place.

As so often happens in Reno, however, my fortunes changed rapidly, unexpectedly, and for the worse. The film cut suddenly to an even more familiar site: a small, run-down casino out on the edge of town, a place I drive by each day while taking the girls to school. This particular casino’s proximity to the local feed store, the rural liquor store, and a dilapidated taproom virtually ensured my familiarity with it—this is, after all, my own personal redneck strip mall—and though I haven’t yet had occasion to use the bail bondsman whose storefront is just across the gravel parking lot, I find it comforting to know that he’s close by in a pinch. The Muppets were now really on my home turf: they had fled the city proper for the broken down rural-urban edge that is my natural habitat.

To appreciate why the Muppets’ cinematic appearance at my local watering hole and poker parlor appeared so inauspicious, you need to understand the film’s basic plotline. The trip to northern Nevada is part of Kermit’s heroic quest to get the old Muppet crew back together again to put on one last show, the proceeds of which will save the Muppet studios in Hollywood from the clutches of an avaricious oil baron. The frog’s odyssey to reunite his troop leads him to my local casino because the Muppets’ stand-up comic, Fozzie Bear (the ursine humorist who, along with Twain, is my other patron saint), has fallen on hard times and has been driven to—of all the God-forsaken hell holes in the big West—Reno. Here, in the darkness on the edge of town, Fozzie has in desperation assembled the “Moopets,” a second-rate Muppet tribute band consisting of unconvincing Muppet impersonators, including Miss Poogy, Kermoot, and Animool, the latter a cheap knock off of the manic, hairy drummer Muppet who is here played with genuine panache by a real-life rock superstar, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.

The scene inside the casino is itself a tribute to vintage Reno despair—a despair so authentic and mundane as to be both hilarious and startlingly familiar. When Kermit and his pals enter the derelict casino Fozzie is already onstage with the flaccid Moopets, whose boredom is palpable. Surrounding the little stage are a few slumped-over, zoned-out patrons who are, if possible, even more jaded and inattentive than the half-assed tribute band itself. One may be a hooker. Several others are certainly drunks. Singing a lame casino advertisement to the tune of the Muppets’ celebrated anthem, “Rainbow Connection,” the stuffed bear croaks out a few uninspired lines:

“Why are there such great deals, on our hotel rooms?

Free parking for cars, not RVs” (“Not RVs,” chimes in the grunge rocker turned fake Muppet backup singer).

“Our wedding chapel is twenty four hours / No marriage certificate is needed . . .”

Miss Poogy, a brilliant send-up of the famous (and famously lascivious) Muppet lady pig, exaggerates Miss Piggy’s forceful personality, portraying her as a rough-mannered, baritone hog thug who appears to be a cross-dressing porker dude in a cheap wig. “I said ‘what are you looking at?’” we hear Miss Poogy say, through a coarse laugh, “So I punched him in the face.”

The Reno stereotypes pile up thick as alkali dust when Kermit and Fozzie retreat to the bear’s “dressing room,” which turns out to be nothing more than a huddling of crappy furniture in the open alley behind the casino. As the frog and bear speak awkwardly of what Fozzie’s life has come to, we hear in the background five pistol shots, followed by a police siren, squealing tires, and a cop on a bullhorn yelling “Step out of the vehicle!” When Kermit, who is now stammering self-consciously, like a green Woody Allen, expresses concern for his friend’s destitution, the bear responds “Look at me: I’m living the dream!” This ironic outburst is followed immediately by a flash of lightning, a peal of thunder, and a downpour—clearly metaphorical weather, since you’d sooner draw to an inside straight than see a thunderstorm around here. Grasping at a last scrap of pride despite his abysmal condition, Fozzie tries to console both himself and his amphibious friend: “It’s alright, Kermit, it’s not your fault. We had a good run.” And with this grim observation the now not-so-comic bear incisively encapsulates the Reno experience. The message is unmistakable: this town is the final whistle-stop on the route of a train that is headed in the wrong direction. Reno is depicted as the place where dreams—even sweet and innocent Muppet dreams—come to die.

My little daughters quickly recognize the familiar exterior of the casino, though of course they’ve never been inside. “Hey, isn’t that right across the street from where we get the baby chicks every spring?” asked Caroline, the seven-year-old.

Eleven-year-old Hannah had a harder question: “Dad, is it really like that in there? All smoky and dark with not very good music and everybody asleep at their tables?”

“No . . . not really,” I replied. “Well, kind of. Actually, ok, yeah, it’s exactly like that.”

“Hmmm,” said Hannah, processing. “That doesn’t look very fun.”

Little Caroline followed up excitedly: “So the Muppets are right about Reno after all!”

“Well . . . not really,” I said, a little defensively. “Ok, sort of. Well, ok, yes. Alright. I guess the Muppets are right about Reno.”

This exchange forced me to revisit the vexing question of how I should respond to the negative stereotypes that plague this town. One approach is to fight back with the facts: Reno has a vibrant arts community, a beautiful river corridor, incredible weather, and amazing access to desert and mountain wilderness. It is a town full of nice people—unpretentious people with plain common sense who don’t try to convert you to their religion. It’s a place where you can order a rye Manhattan without having to explain that you don’t want a damned maraschino cherry in it. Or I could take a different tack, by pointing out that folks who live here can take a joke, and for that reason we appreciate the brilliance of the Muppets’ parody of us. For example, we really are the town of the sorry tribute band. Off the top of my head, performances here have included Who’s Bad (Michael Jackson, though the name says it all), Live Wire (AC/DC, the “blunder from down under” resurrected), One Night of Queen (not a transvestite cabaret show, though we have those too), Voyage (a faux Journey, which was a band so bad that a knock-off has to be an improvement), and Eliminator (ZZ Top, complete with the mega-beards they made cool a generation before Duck Dynasty). We know how to laugh at ourselves, which explains why so many of us went into mourning when Comedy Central’s mockumentary series Reno 911! folded back in 2009.

Instead, though, I’d rather defend Reno within the terms of the stereotype itself.

I think again of the real place that is parodied in the Muppet movie. Some of the folks inside that old casino may be past their prime, but they’re still welcomed. There’s a unique kind of tolerance there, where the down but not quite out find a temporary home. You can’t tell a millionaire from a bum around here, which is fine by me (especially since I look like a bum and would just as soon have people wonder). Maybe some folks think that we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff—that we’re not smart enough to judge winners and losers. Then again, maybe we are and just don’t.

Remember this important point: Reno keeps Fozzie off the street until he is rediscovered. And that is the part of the Muppet send-up of our town that I treasure the most. It is here that Fozzie lands when he has no place to go, when he is utterly without prospects. This is precisely what allows Kermit to find the bear, whom he recruits to reenter a life of fame and fortune. Fozzie is no doubt back on Broadway now, but without our town, who knows? After all, nobody wants to contemplate a Muppet suicide or overdose. Besides, I’ve been sleepy over a beer once or twice myself, listening to a musician or comedian who hadn’t had their break yet, or who had it long ago and was trying for a long-odds comeback. Any town might have given Fozzie his first big break, but only Reno could give him something more precious by far: a second chance. Who in hell would want to live near a town like this? The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

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Rants from the Hill: Road Captain

Michael Branch | Apr 07, 2014 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Last night I got a phone call with the bad news that I have received what my neighbors out here in the remote Silver Hills refer to as a “redneck promotion.” To be specific, I have been promoted from plain member and citizen to Road Captain, which is a position no sensible person would covet. Despite the cool name and apparently elevated rank, the job is without compensation or administrative support, is unelected, and descends on you by fiat when the current Road Captain tells you you’re it.

The road to the Ranting Hill is 2.3 miles in length and has eight houses scattered along it. It is a terrible road which sometimes degenerates to pure caliche mud in winter and bone rattling washboard in summer. There have been times when it was so dry and abused as to be barren of gravel; at others it has been impassable because the water flowed across it in an unbroken sheet. Many seasons it is so muddy that we Silver Hillbillies must resort to hanging around in town drinking beer after work just to kill enough time for the mud to freeze up so we can cross it to reach our homes. There have been winters when the ruts in the muddy roadbed became so deep that if your wheels dropped into them your truck would glide along like a vegetable peeler, the skid plates cleanly shearing off and polishing the surface off the road. The road’s ditches are full of silt, the few culverts have crushed heads, and if there were ever any road signs they have long since blown away in the Washoe Zephyr or been hung on a horseshoe nail in somebody’s pole barn. (Our mailboxes are all crooked and our addresses are out of numerical order, too, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s the kicker: this is a “private” road, which means that while the county won’t maintain it nobody else wants to either. So who, by default, is in charge of stewarding this mess? The Road Captain.

The new Road Captain at work.

Many years ago we had a neighborhood association out here, to which we paid modest annual dues that were used for nothing but road work and snow removal. But most Silver Hillbillies are by nature unsociable, misanthropic, and paranoid, a worldview that inclines us toward conspiracy theories and radical libertarianism. As a result, a majority of my neighbors voted to get rid of the association, which they regarded as oppressed peasants do an occupying foreign army. The theory seemed to be that anybody who would collect association dues would soon come for our whiskey and guns. Once the association was disbanded it was every man for himself, which is precisely the arrangement most of my stubborn, independent, and heavily armed neighbors prefer.

Ever since the neighborhood association was busted up the roads out here have become even worse, and some roads have even descended into social chaos. On one nearby road which has only four houses, each neighbor has adopted the same strategy of trying to outwait the other three to see who will find the road so intolerable that they give in and fix it themselves. So far nobody has surrendered, even when for weeks at a time they were all forced by deep mud to park out at the paved road and hike up to their homes. On another road a guy who is especially entrepreneurial bought an expensive grader in hopes he’d have a field day, but because he was once seen having a beer with our local real estate developer nobody would hire him, and the bank took his shiny grader back pretty quick. On a third road a guy who had repaired the roadbed at his own expense threatened to install a toll gate if his skinflint neighbors wouldn’t pony up.

On our road this sort of chaos was averted only through the leadership of my friend Ludde, the seventy-year old man who lives on 60 acres across the draw from the Ranting Hill. He is hands down the toughest and most curmudgeonly guy I’ve ever met, which is another way of saying that he is my role model. Ludde has for some years been our Road Captain, and it is a role that suits him perfectly. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does everybody pays attention. For example, while riding his big horse out in the desert he is fond of mentioning to illegal off-roaders, wherever he finds them, that “this is my favorite place to shoot, because I’d never expect anybody to be riding here. Why, a fella could get himself killed.” You’d be scared of this guy even if he didn’t have a twelve-gauge in a saddle scabbard by his right shin, which he does. On another occasion Ludde confronted a dirt biker who was shredding our road. The biker, who didn’t know who he was talking to, cussed the old man out and tore off. Ludde climbed into his F-350 and chased the motorcyclist for several miles along BLM roads at high speed until the biker finally laid it down on a loose turn. Ludde left his truck running and walked slowly up to the young man, who lay sprawled near his wrecked bike with a badly broken arm. Looking down with a grin Ludde said, “Looks like your arm is bent funny, partner. Well, nice day for a walk.” And with that he cocked his buckaroo hat, climbed back into his rig, and drove contentedly home.

It takes that kind of grit to be an effective Road Captain. One time a neighbor on the road to the south of us went rogue and drove overland across her property and some public land to use our road because hers was in such bad shape. On the day the lady pioneered her new route, Ludde intercepted her and explained that if she wanted to use our road she’d have to pay the same amount the rest of us do to keep it up. The woman not only refused, but produced a .30-06 deer rifle, which she gripped while responding that she’d do as she pleased. Ludde didn’t blink. As he walked away, he said only “We bought a little rock for the road. Let me know by morning if you want to pay your share.” The next morning Ludde had two end dump truck loads of road base deposited in in the mouth of the makeshift driveway the lady was using to access our road. I’ll spare you the math: this is a quarter of a million pounds of gravel. Ludde left that monster pile there for the better part of a year, by which time the woman had learned what the rest of us already knew: you don’t mess with our Road Captain.

Beauregard finds a bad spot in the Road.

To be such a tough guy, though, Ludde is also resourceful and flexible. Whenever a neighbor couldn’t afford to pay their fair share he’d offer to cover them until their cash flow improved. Once he let a neighbor work off his road dues doing roofing work on Ludde’s barn, after which Ludde paid the man’s share. Another neighbor who has a big tractor but little money contributes by doing ditching work along the road. Yet another never pays American dollars, but always produces two loads of “rock” (shorthand for type two road base gravel), which is a meaningful contribution even though no money changes hands. Indeed, Ludde understands that rock is the coin of the realm out here—a kind of redneck Bitcoin—and that it can be traded for almost anything. A neighborly trade might involve farrier tools, a case of rye, a calf, or a truck winch, and that is fine with Ludde, so long as the exchange ends in the common currency of rock, which then goes down on our road.

When I answered the phone last night, Ludde’s first words were “I’ve got some good news for you.”

“Let me guess. You didn’t shoot anybody today?” I replied.

“I’ve already told everybody else on the road,” he continued, ignoring me. “And more good news: this redneck promotion comes with a six-pack. Congratulations.”

“Ludde, please tell me this isn’t what I think it is. Please. What have I ever done to you? Haven’t I been a good neighbor all these years?” I asked.

“Yup. That’s why I have confidence in you, Captain,” he replied, only emphasizing the word “captain” a little.

“Listen,” I pleaded. “You were born to do this job. I don’t have the cojones to run this road. Why in hell would you want me?”

“Because you’re fair. Not very tough, but fair. And you’re one of the only folks on the road who hasn’t been threatened with a gun,” Ludde explained.

“Yeah, but that’ll change as soon as I’m Captain. These Silver Hillbillies will eat me alive.”

“Comes with the territory, son. Besides, this is easy. What did I do when old lady Jenkins said we should reckon each person’s dues by their distance from the paved road?” he asked.

“Nothing?” I guessed.

“How about when Matt wanted to figure dues by how many vehicles each family drives?”

“Not a thing,” I answered.

“And when Smitty complained about the weight of Roper’s flatbed? Or when Bill said he wouldn’t pay up until Janie did? Or when Jesse put buckshot into the side of the Fed Ex truck because it was going too fast?”

“Nothing,” I repeated. “Not a damned thing.”

“Got the picture, Captain? Everybody pays the same amount, due at the same time, unless they make a trade or show up with rock. Simple.”

“I really don’t want to do this, Ludde, but you’ve left me no choice. Can I at least call on you for help when things get rough?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Now you go share this good news with Hannah and Caroline. It isn’t every little girl has a Daddy who’s a Road Captain. And drop by for that six-pack anytime.”

All photographs are by the author.


Rants from the Hill: IH8 DMV

Michael Branch | Mar 03, 2014 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

I’ve always been impressed by vanity license plates—at least when they’re genuinely clever or funny—and have long thought that a little back bumper wit on my part might help my fellow Silver Hillbillies endure the one stoplight that interrupts our 25-mile cruise from here to town. But there are perfectly good reasons why I’ve never managed to make a move on customized license plates. First, I’m so practical as to have trouble rationalizing an expense that is so obviously unnecessary. Second, I like to change my mind about things, and so have been hesitant to commit to any one message, however witty or insightful. Most important, though, to get customized plates I’d have to actually go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place that is the seventh circle of bureaucratic hell even in a world already overflowing with superfluous administrative horseshit. I just haven’t thought of a vanity plate that would be funny enough to make it worth the misery of spending an afternoon at the DMV.

Of course that didn’t keep me from thinking about the possibility, and occasionally I’d toy with an idea for a tag. I figured I’d go with something that would assert my identity as a high desert hillbilly, like DSRT RAT or BSN RNGE or GR8 BSN or DSRT MTN. Even something like NEWWEST could be cool. Or I might instead go with a cute, place-based proclamation like IM SAGE, or maybe I could tap the nickname we use for rattlers out here: BZZZWRM. It also occurred to me that I could cleverly use the fact that our state tags boldly say NEVADA atop them to create a two-word slogan by adding NO WSTLD, since “Nevada: Not a Wasteland” is the slogan used by those of us who would just as soon not have the nation’s nuclear waste buried here. Another two-word message could be produced by choosing WD OPN, since another of our many equivocal state mottoes is “Nevada: Wide Open,” a slogan that seems vaguely to refer not only to landscapes but also to accelerators and legs.

An Arizona vanity plate. Photograph by Flickr user Michael Buist.
An Arizona vanity plate. Photograph by Flickr user Michael Buist.

While I was dreaming up customized Nevada tags I came up with a lot of ideas that I thought might work for somebody else in Silver Hills, if not for me. One of my neighbors who is a professional poker player might either DBL DWN or FOLDEM. The old lady at the only gas station in our valley likes to play slots, so she could hope to HIT 37S. The guy up the road from us raises longhorns and so might like to claim that he has BIG BLLS. Or maybe not. But he could still use STEERNG. My friend who paints desert landscapes should use RBBT BRSH, and our neighborhood dowser could ask WHRS H2O. All the equestrians out here can argue over BITBYBIT, and the lady mining engineer might confess to being a GLD DGR. Our road’s resident conspiracy theorist should have CNA UFO. And our mail delivery woman, who is very nice but nevertheless has frosted blonde hair, poor taste in clothes, and a lower back tattoo that reads “LADY,” might do well to order up NTA HKR.

I also found a website called something like ZILLIONTAGS.COM, which not only had thousands of actual vanity plates but also had them organized by state, which I thought might help me determine where the good ideas were coming from. Of course I began with my home state, which I soon discovered had mounted the most pathetic custom tag display imaginable. Nevada had a total of four entries: IHVNOJB, 99 PROBS, IH8 WMPS, and the incredibly dumb NOT DUM. Next I turned to Utah, which provided no encouragement whatsoever. Utahans are either too frugal or too well-mannered to excel at self-expression in the highly specialized medium of the vanity plate. Like Nevada, Utah boasted a total of four entries, three of which I couldn’t understand; the fourth was GOLFING, which struck me as genuinely depressing. Next I tried Idaho, which had a whopping five tags, not a single one of which made a lick of sense to me. Could these be survivalist code messages instructing rural neighbors to hoard whiskey and guns?

In desperation I turned to Oregon, whose tags were weirdly sincere, like B YRSLF and GOD NO1 and BE GR8R, though one lady who reminded me of an old girlfriend had confessed to having PMS 247. Thankfully I found that the Sand Cutters down in Arizona were more creative, and had come through not only with many more tags but also with a variety of respectable entries, including AEIONU, SCO BEDO, IMLAME, VNTY PL8, MMMBEER, FATTKID, and RCY BOBY, not to mention the charmingly confessional IFARTED.

A Colorado vanity plate. Photograph by Flickr user Shawn Honnick.

Although the plates of a few Arizonians were slightly risqué, like GETNAKD and IL SPNKU, they couldn’t hold a candle to the work of my neighbors to the west. California had hundreds of custom tag entries, at least half of which were pornographic. Even those that were not explicitly sexual seemed obsessed with power and money – a sentiment elegantly distilled by 2L8 I1 on a new jag.  But the California tags were also expressive, irreverent, and comical in ways that might prove instructive over in Utah and Idaho. Among the countless solid entries from the Californicators were FROMMYX (on a Mercedes), MO FAUX (on a Caddy), JST 1MPG (on a Hummer), FRENDLY (on a creepy, windowless panel van), BLONDE (with the tag mounted upside down), GEEKDAD (on a Prius), H8LAFWY (on an old pickup), UGHHHHH (on a Tercel), and my personal favorite: CMON WTF (on a yellow VW bug).

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Rants from the Hill: The Great Basin Sea Monster

Michael Branch | Feb 03, 2014 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Last Saturday around noon I was still feeling desperate for more alone time when my daughters Hannah (age 10) and Caroline (age 7) asked if I was finally ready to play with them. I had been making excuses all morning, explaining that I needed to get Beauregard the dog out for a hike, that I had to spend some time splitting wood, that it was important for me to haul rock to riprap a drainage trench I had recut with the tractor. In truth these chores were an excuse to drink beer, listen to tunes, and have a little time to sift the week’s detritus through my partially clogged noggin filter. “It occurs to me that you girls haven’t watched enough TV today,” I replied, beer in hand. “Let me recommend Scooby Doo. Facilitates cerebral development. Worked for me, anyhow. Besides, your teachers aren’t going to help you learn important words like ‘Zoinks’ and ‘Jinkies’. Why don’t you meddling kids go fire up a couple of episodes?”

At just that moment my wife Eryn stepped around the corner of the house, frowning at her irresponsible husband. “Ruh-roh,” I muttered, changing my tune. “Girls, much as I hate to deprive you of more Scoob and Shag, let’s go play. What did you have in mind?”

One of the author's beers of choice, 'Icky' Ipa from Great Basin Brewing.

“Let’s build something ginormous!” exclaimed little Caroline.

“I think we should build a gigantic one of those,” said Hannah, pointing at the label on my beer bottle. “What is that cool thing, Dad?” I had been drinking the best beer brewed in my town, an Ichthyosaur IPA from Great Basin Brewing – a barleypop fondly called an “Icky” by all brewfully inclined western Great Basinians.

“That, my dear, is an Ichthyosaur. It was a giant marine reptile that swam around Silver Hills when this place was beneath the ocean a couple hundred million years ago. It also happens to be the state fossil of Nevada.” At first the girls didn’t believe me that states have their own representative fossils. “Yup,” I continued, “but most of them aren’t as cool as ours. Arizona’s is petrified wood. Lame. In Tennessee it’s the bivalve. Bivalve? Lamer. Connecticut? Dinosaur tracks. Lamest of all, because the state fossil of Massachusetts was already dinosaur tracks. But Nevada has a big old sea lizard. We rock.” I hoisted the bottle in cheers and downed the last of my Icky.

With that Caroline raised both puny arms above her head and shouted “Let’s build a giant Itchy-sore!” Of course Hannah wanted to know what we would build it out of, and I confess that the prospect of constructing a giant sea lizard registered with me as the ten thousandth time I had felt myself inadequate to a task that was suddenly very important to my kids. “How about firewood?” Eryn suggested. I grinned in reply. “That, my friend, is genius. Let’s do it! Girls, y’all go make a quick sketch of a sea monster, and I’ll hook up the trailer and get your work gloves.”

Twenty minutes later I had us ready to haul wood, and the girls had drawn a prototype marine reptile. In addition to having a serpentine shape that would make it look like it was wriggling through the ocean of our Nevada desert, it would also have a series of big humps, each of which would be larger than the last as we worked our way toward the head. And Eryn added a creative twist: if we could build our sea beast with high humps but low saddles in between, a good snow would bury the arches and reveal the humps, making it look like our marine reptile was swimming through a frothy ocean of fresh powder.

The author and his daughters with their sea monster art.

In order to keep packrats from colonizing cover too close to our house (we’ve had Neotoma cinerea, that furry hell, nesting in the crawl space more than once) we keep the woodpile about a quarter mile down our half-mile-long driveway. The girls pulled on their gloves and climbed into my small utility trailer and we bounced down to the woodpile and started loading bucked juniper, pinyon, and ponderosa, a little sugar pine and white fir mixed in. Returning to the house we selected a flat area near the garage and began laying out the logs, starting at the tail and at first using only a single-log construction so as to establish the shape of our giant reptile. As we did, Eryn sat nearby in a lawn chair, reading about Ichthyosaurs to the girls from something she had googled on her phone.

“Ichthyosaurs lived from 245 to 90 million years ago and were widely distributed around the globe,” she reported. “Middle Triassic, Late Cretaceous. They evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that at some point moved back into the sea. The name Ichthyosaur is from the Greek, meaning ‘fish lizard.’ Although they swam like fish and looked a lot like fish, they were reptiles. The fact that they developed a lot of fishlike parts is called ‘convergent evolution.’ That means that although fish and Ickys are totally unrelated, they developed similar kinds of fins because it is just useful to have fins if you plan to swim.”

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Rants from the Hill: Out on Misfits Flat

Michael Branch | Jan 06, 2014 12:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

The quintessential Nevada film is John Huston’s 1961 picture The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The movie had its origins in playwright Arthur Miller’s trip to Nevada in 1956. While doing his requisite six weeks’ Nevada residency in order to divorce his first wife so he could marry Marilyn Monroe, Miller closely observed the landscapes and people of Nevada, including witnessing a wild horse roundup out on the Smoke Creek Desert. He documented his Nevada experience in the short story “The Misfits,” which appeared in Esquire magazine in October, 1957, and which he subsequently rewrote as a screenplay he described as a “valentine” for Monroe, for whom he wrote the starring role of Roslyn Tabor.

The plot of this dark film might be summarized as follows. Roslyn, a fragile, lost woman seeking a divorce, comes to Reno, where she meets three lost men—three different sorts of cowboys—each of whom is also in escape mode and all of whom soon fall in love with her. This odd crew remains impressively drunk most of the time. At last they head out into the desert to hunt wild horses in a roundup so violent and tragic as to compel the realization that the values of the Old West, now gone forever, have been replaced by nothing but uncertainty, instability, and loneliness.

Sound fun? The story gets better. In addition to the production of The Misfits being an over-budget and behind-schedule nightmare of emotional volatility, psychological pressure, drug addiction, alcoholism, and excessive gambling on the part of cast and crew alike, the picture now has an over-hyped but irresistible reputation for having crushed or killed many of the people associated with it. The highly publicized Miller-Monroe marriage imploded during the making of the film, as Monroe spiraled downward into narcotics addiction. Gable, who at age 59 insisted on doing many of his own stunts, said of Monroe on the last day of shooting, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She damn near gave me a heart attack.” The next day he did suffer a heart attack, and ten days later he was dead. The Misfits was also the final film for Monroe, who died of a probable suicide in the summer of 1962. Monty Clift survived a few years longer than his co-stars, but the film nevertheless plays a strange role in the story of his demise. The Misfits was on television on the evening of July 22, 1966. Asked by his companion if he wanted to watch it, Clift headed off to bed with a curt reply: “Absolutely not.” Those were his last words. By morning he was dead at age 45. Monroe was only 36.

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable on the set of zThe Misfits.
Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable on the set of The Misfits.

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Senate, House nearing a budget?

Mark Trahant | Dec 10, 2013 05:00 AM

This is the week to watch Congress. If all goes well, Senate budget chairman Patty Murray will make a deal with the House budget chairman Paul Ryan that outlines federal spending for the rest of fiscal year 2014 and 2015.

What kind of deal? As The Washington Post’s Wonkblog puts it: "“The budget deal Patty Murray and Paul Ryan are crafting isn't a ‘grand bargain.’ It doesn't put the nation's finances on a vastly different path (or even any different path). It doesn't reform the tax code or overhaul Medicare. It doesn't include infrastructure spending or chained-CPI. It doesn't even replace all of sequestration."

“But the deal does lift about a third of sequestration's cuts while giving agencies more flexibility to deal with the rest. It does mean the 2014 budget is the work of human hands rather than automatic cuts. It might be a vehicle for Capitol Hill to extend expiring unemployment benefits. And it would be a small but real boost to the economy.”

Huzzah? No. Thanks for nothing. This non-grand-bargain basically represents more of the same. There will be limited budget relief, but there won'’t be the kind of investment needed to build a stronger economy in Indian Country. And here’'s the really sad note: This deal, if it happens, is the best outcome possible. There are not the votes to replace the budget with a progressive spending plan, such as the Senate’'s or the president'’s budget; nor are there the votes for the House plan. The House plan would be an unmitigated disaster for Indian Country with across-the-board cuts around 17 percent.

So this deal, such as it is, is the best that can happen. At least it keeps the status quo and pushes back decisions about ideology and values past this next couple of elections. (Remember, to “win” that contest of ideas, one side or another will have to sweep the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Holding one of the three bodies is enough to keep saying “no” to a solution of any kind.)

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Rep. Chris Van Hollen -- who is the top Democrat on the House budget committee -- said there is only about a fifty-fifty chance of a deal before Friday.

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Rants from the Hill: Speaking of Wild Horses

Michael Branch | Dec 02, 2013 09:35 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Although it is the product of my imagination, the following “conversation” was inspired by actual comments posted in response to several online news stories about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent, controversial roundups of wild horses and burros on public lands in Nevada. Some folks feel passionately that these BLM horse “gathers” are inhumane, while other wild horse advocates go further, arguing that the roundups are unnecessary because horses are a natural part of the western landscape and should thus be left undisturbed. On the other side of the argument are people who see wild horses and burros as introduced, invasive species that damage the range, putting native plants and animals at risk, and risking their own destruction through starvation or dehydration. While palatable solutions are difficult to come by, this “conversation” gives some sense of the quality of current public discourse on a topic that is especially important to those of us who live in the rural Great Basin Desert.

sweetpea: “I think what they’re doing is terrible!!! How can Man be so cruel when these beautiful animals are supposed to run wild and free in Nature?”

ridinandropin: “Wild horses look pretty, but they tear up the range. Their overgrazing is a huge problem, and because they don’t have natural predators their population doubles every four or five years. Roundups are the only way to protect the range and keep herds from massive starvation.”

sweetpea: “ridinandropin, did it ever occur to you that Nature got along fine without us for thousands of years? Those wonderful horses don’t need our ‘help’ at all. This is just another way of interfering with Nature. How would you feel if somebody chased YOU with a helicopter? We should be ashamed!!!”

whatthehellanyway: “Are you serious, sweetpeabrain? Are you saying that people haven’t been living in North America for the last few millennia? And do you know that horses have NOT been around for thousands of years? They were introduced fairly recently (in the 16th c.) by the Spanish. Every one of your My Little Ponies is descended from horses owned by guys named Pedro. Try getting your science from a book other than National Velvet.”

Wild horses in Nevada. Photograph by Flickr user ScottSchrantz.

buds420: “Dude, that Pedro crack is totally racist. Besides, horses HAVE been around for tens of thousands of years. They went extinct here about 11,000 years ago, so really the Europeans were just reintroducing a native species to their home. Those horses belong here.”

whatthehellanyway: “Hey, buds, why don’t you take sweetpeabrain to the prom? You geniuses deserve each other. Please tell me you aren’t saying that an animal that has been absent from an ecosystem for more than ten thousand years is NATIVE when you stick it back in there? Horses are an INVASIVE species and should be EXTERMINATED. That’s the only way to restore what is natural.”

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Putting politics before science won’t save the lobo

DefendersofWildlife | Nov 19, 2013 03:00 PM

With winter upon us and the days getting noticeably shorter, so too is the time left to speak out on behalf of Mexican gray wolves. Among the country’s most imperiled species, there are only about 75 lobos left in the wild. The ultimate fate of these iconic animals could be decided in the next year and, troublingly, it appears that the wolves’ best interests may not be the only factors at play.

Scientists agree that there are three things vital to successful wolf recovery – a comprehensive, science-based recovery plan; the release of more wolves into the wild; and at least two new core populations in the most suitable habitat areas in the Grand Canyon region and southern Utah/southern Colorado. But these recommendations are seemingly falling on deaf ears as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) makes decisions about the lobos’ future management that ignore these basic findings. Worse still, the FWS may be engaging in some backroom dealing with states.

A letter from the director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department to FWS Director Dan Ashe dated August 1st of this year suggests that in a discussion on July 23rd, state and federal officials came to certain agreements regarding the proposed rule changes for Mexican gray wolf management. Not only do the agreements alluded to in the letter imply that the FWS decisions on the wolf were made before due public process, but, what’s worse, they ensure that the lobos are not allowed to disperse outside of an arbitrarily drawn geographic region – which precludes them from reaching the suitable habitat necessary for recovery.

Wildlife advocates say that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes to wolf management would not allow for sufficient recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, one of which is pictured here.

Perhaps if the FWS had taken a hard look at just how significant lobos are to the ecological health of the Southwest before having this private “discussion,” the conversation would have gone a little differently. The FWS proposal not only blatantly ignores best science, but also the opinions of the public. A recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research reveals overwhelming support for Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest. 87% of voters polled in both Arizona and New Mexico agree that wolves are a “vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage;” 8 in 10 of those polled agree that the FWS should make every effort to prevent extinction; 82% of Arizona respondents and 74% of New Mexico respondents agree there should be a science-based recovery plan; and over two-thirds of voters polled in both states agree with scientists who say there are too few wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and that we need to reintroduce two new populations of wolves in suitable habitat in the states.

If these numbers don’t make it clear to the FWS that Americans want to save the lobo, I don’t know what could.

Our nation is one that prides itself on both preserving the symbols of our character and on scientific innovation, so why is it so easy for the government to turn a blind eye to basic, sound science that tells us how to save one of America’s most iconic animals just to play politics instead?

By Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife Director of Southwest Programs. Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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