EKALAKA, Mont. - We called it the Mother Tree: a mature ponderosa pine on the crest of a small hill, with an acre or so of seedlings and saplings draping the hill's leeward side, a mini-forest in the making that was the product of scores of pinecones shed by that lone adult. We drove past this tree and her progeny, which were on a neighboring cattle rancher's land, whenever we took the gravel county road to or from town.
The Mother Tree was among the first
landmarks my husband and I noticed, to our mutual delight, when we
moved to our place in southeastern Montana, in
She bore eloquent testimony to the
character of the land we had determined to call home. This isn't
the part of the state that Hollywood rivers run through, or in
which Hollywood stars buy property. It's a rougher terrain - but it
is also surprisingly vigorous and diverse, fragile in its own way,
yet able to withstand a good deal of abuse.
the 11 years we've been here, we've come to appreciate resilience.
We've also come to understand that the forces of change at work in
the contemporary West are more subtle and complex when you're
living through them than when you contemplate them from a
It was 106 degrees the July
day we moved in. No rain had fallen in two months. The drought of
1988, spawning fires across Yellowstone and elsewhere, was in full
We had just taken possession of about five
square miles of puckered-looking prickly pear cactus and desiccated
sage. And dust. Lots and lots of dust. We figured we must be crazy.
Before too long, we began to realize all our neighbors figured
pretty much the same thing.
Neither Doug nor I
come from rural backgrounds. We had not come here with any
illusions about becoming cattle ranchers. In fact, we were not
really interested in becoming serious ranchers at
The previous owner, who had been on the
place for 40-some years, had meted out about as much punishment as
the land could take. His cows, before the Land Bank forced their
sale to make interest payments, had overgrazed the pastures. He had
dynamited beaver dams and dumped garbage in every abandoned
homestead on the place. He had not, in 40-odd years, it seemed,
planted a single tree.
We, on the other hand, had
come to do our part to heal the land. Our ambitions were small, or
so we thought: We wanted to cultivate some wildlife habitat. To
have some quality hunting. To plant a few trees. To raise a few
pack llamas, maybe a horse or two.
We both had
full-time jobs in higher education. We didn't want to take on more
than we could handle. We just wanted to have a place to come home
to: our beautiful 3,300-acre ranchette, where we could simply let
nature be nature.
"But you can't just let it
sit," our cattle-ranching neighbors told us. "Fire'll take out the
grass, if cows don't. Best thing to do is to graze it down. That's
nature's way. "Cause if it don't burn or get grazed, it'll get so
thatched-over, you won't have any grass in a year or two."
Of course, they went on to explain over coffee
at the Wagon Wheel Café, you have to know when grass becomes
"Guy over at the BLM told me to put
the cows out on the grass when it's as high as a beer can," one
ventured. "Now," asked another, with a crafty wink, "would that be
a beer can standing up, or a beer can on its side?"
Later on, driving home past cattle who appeared
to be subsisting on inch-high stubble, Doug remarked, "I think that
was a crushed beer can."
That was a drought
year. Amazingly, the following year was glorious. Ample rain and a
late-spring snowstorm brought abundant wildflowers and unbelievably
green and various grasses. Despite our neighbors' well-intentioned
urgings, there were no cattle on our place, by golly.
But the next year, 1990, although we had another
good rain-producing spring, by early summer we had dry thatchy
pasture, looking decidedly the worse for wear. Watching nightly
light shows crackle in a rainless southern sky, we began to
understand why the phrase "dry lightning" could strike fear in the
hearts of landowners.
We reluctantly decided it
might be a good idea, all things considered, to put a few bovines
on the place. So we placed an ad in the local paper and quickly
found a cattleman happy to bring over 100 cow/calf pairs. The only
other livestock on the place at that point were an obstreperous
llama, the first of the herd we hoped to build, and a couple of
English springer spaniels.
It was about that time
that we discovered we were known in town as "the people from
Connecticut." That neither of us had ever had anything to do with
the Constitution State was beside the point. We were outsiders.
Also about that time we learned that when, occasionally, we would
hear about somebody being from "out of the country," it didn't mean
they were foreigners. It meant they grew up a few miles down the
road, in western South Dakota, or maybe northern Wyoming. We were
Of course, we knew we were. And
we also knew that, after about a decade of farm foreclosures and
the gradual swallowing-up of small family operations by corporate
agribusiness, outsiders were not especially welcome in these parts.
We knew, too, that despite the three doctoral degrees we have
between us, our neighbors, who all seemed to be seventh-generation
ranchers sharing a dozen or so surnames, knew a lot more about
surviving in this part of the world than we
We were prepared to learn, and to
Learning wasn't all that hard. Being
academics, we were used to doing homework, and we put our new
knowledge to work. We learned the principles of rotational grazing,
developing a plan with the local Bureau of Land Management office
to bring our deeded and leased rangeland back to prime
We discovered the best sorts of trees
and bushes to grow in this climate - some native, some introduced -
and began a program of planting shelter belts and wildlife habitat
We learned what we needed to know about
veterinary medicine, and about the care and feeding of cud-chewing
quadrupeds, to get a llama-raising operation under
We learned about the maintenance and
construction of barbed-wire fences and enclosures, the pros and
cons of different fencing systems.
In spite of
ourselves, we began evolving into
Another thing we learned in those early
years here: You can't operate a ranch in absentia. Doug decided to
quit his teaching job, to concentrate his energies on the
Second, we learned that ranches are the
original money pits, especially when they need a lot of work, and
when the ranchers are, as we were, starting from scratch in terms
I kept my day-job, "commuting" to
upstate New York during the school year, telling folks that like
most farm and ranch wives, I have to work in town to make ends
meet. Town, in this case, just happens to be 2,000 miles
From bites to
The early "90s were our Llama Period. Our
cattle-ranching neighbors, of course, warned us against the
critters. There had been a llama, once, in Carter County, and he
was notorious for overcoming fences, running for miles on end and
spitting at everyone in sight. We were undaunted. The animals were
intriguing. The llama industry was robust. Not only did llamas look
like a good investment, every breeder we talked to stressed how
easy to handle and essentially indestructible llamas were. We
assembled a small herd.
Between 1990 and 1997,
when we sold our last camelids, we lost two llamas to rattlesnake
bites, one to bloat, one to a congenital heart defect, one to an
intestinal disorder llamas aren't even supposed to be susceptible
to, and one to stillbirth.
During the same
period, thanks largely to the USDA's lifting a ban on the
importation of South American animals, llama prices plummeted.
Females that had commanded $10,000 or more were selling for, at
best, a tenth of that. Males you could barely give away. Our llama
venture yielded a net loss of around $20,000, and we counted
ourselves among the more fortunate llama folk.
imagine our neighbors mostly thought we were a little screwy to get
into the long-necked woollies in the first place. The animals were
just too different - and being "different" is not a particularly
good thing around here.
Nevertheless, between the
llamas and the grassland we annually leased for cattle, we were
beginning to gain some credibility as more than hobby farmers.
People stopped asking us what we did with all the time we had on
our hands and no longer regarded us as "independently wealthy."
They could commiserate with us about how hard it
is when livestock becomes dead stock. We could empathize with their
economic distress, what with beef and lamb prices falling through
the floor, and wool and grain subsidies being abolished. But if we
and our neighbors were becoming closer in some ways, in others we
were still very far apart.
During the academic
year, I fly home every chance I get. One such long weekend in the
mid-'90s, we were driving back from the Rapid City airport. Nearing
home, as we rounded a curve on the county road, Doug slowed the
pickup and murmured, "Uh, Mary, you're not going to like this." I
was puzzled, but then I saw it: the familiar Mother Tree, achingly
The future forest, those scores of her
seedling children, had been plowed under. Mutilated branches
littered the hillside, where a handful of partially uprooted
survivors leaned into the old tree's shade. All the rest were gone.
It was cold-blooded murder. It was genocide.
course, from the cattle rancher's point of view, it was a good
idea. Trees displace grass, and he was in the business of producing
beef, not scenery. Besides, ponderosa pine needles are known to
cause spontaneous abortions in cows that nibble on them. So cows
and pine trees don't mix. A month or so later, the turf was ripped
up a second time, the coup de grace eliminating the last few
struggling survivors. The Mother Tree has stood in stoic isolation
While our neighbor was busily
eliminating trees, we were planting them. Doug has planted upwards
of 5,000 trees and bushes since we moved here, to provide shelter
and restore wildlife habitat.
As for me, I'll
take a tree over a beef cow any day. Annie Dillard had it about
right when she described cattle as "a human product like rayon,"
with "beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew." This sounds harsh, I
realize, but as a hunter I'm not a big fan of the intellectual
capacities of domesticated animals. And as a conservationist, I
know the damage indiscriminate grazing has done to the Western
range. It is of no small significance that when the Crow Chief
Plenty Coups had his great vision of the demise of the eastern
Montana prairie, it took the form of these strangely misshapen
spotted grazers displacing the buffalo from their
We had, from the start, seen our cattle
lease as at best a necessary, and temporary, evil. There was, we
knew, a more efficient, and far more environmentally friendly, way
to make our place a working ranch without compromising wildlife
As llama prices looked to be heading
south, we began seriously talking about turning our place into a
Moving on to
Our neighbors warned against this move. A
delegation came for a visit. Earnestly, they explained that they
were concerned that, even though after five years we seemed to be
pretty good at the day-to-day business of managing a ranch, we
would get in over our heads with this buffalo idea. We didn't have
the fences or facilities. We didn't have sufficient experience with
livestock. These animals are big and wild and powerful. They're
different from cattle. We could get hurt.
all this already. We also knew that, for us, raising beef cattle
was out of the question. We had become used to the gut reaction
against change in the way anything is done around here. It's almost
as if your average cattleman harbors some sort of death wish; the
worse things get, the more he digs in his heels and refuses to do
anything, well, different. Two of our contiguous neighbors had gone
belly-up since we moved in, and another was perilously close to it
(and has since also had to sell). Everyone had cast us in the role
of "outside forces of change" anyway, so we decided we might as
well embrace it. In 1993, we took the plunge and bought our first
25 bison heifer calves. And we started fencing like
As it turned out, while our neighbors
didn't approve of our decision, over time they didn't exactly
disapprove either. At least bison are red meat. And there was one
other bison producer in Carter County - he had grown up here, and
everyone thought he was crazy to get into buffalo, but by the
mid-'90s, he was turning a profit. That helped us a lot, both in
terms of enhancing our credibility locally, and giving us the
encouragement we needed to persevere in the first few years, when
our bison venture was all outgo, no income.
we have a viable, growing bison operation. The bison industry is in
good shape - good enough, in fact, that more than a few cattle
ranchers are converting to bison. Some of our neighbors have
brought visitors over to see our herd. They do look great out
there, in the large pastures we run them in. We don't interfere in
the animals' lives any more than we must; it's as close as one can
get, in ranching, to letting nature just be nature. It's gratifying
to be doing our part to bring bison back to their original
homeland. They belong here.
Whether we belong
here may be another matter.
In terms of its human
society, this part of the West is dying. Kids grow up and move
away, and few ever come back. The ranch economy may be on an
irreversibly downward spiral. The ranchettes that have become the
norm, as ranchers sell out or subdivide, haven't made their way
this far east under the Big Sky yet, but it's only a matter of time
before they do.
Meanwhile, as we get older, the
remoteness of our place - we are five two-track miles off that
county road - as much as we love it, also has its problems. Things
that used to be adventures are now arduous, too often dangerous,
tasks. Doug spends too much time alone here, and my "commute" gets
tougher each year. We have made some good friends among our
neighbors; but deep down, I suspect even they think we're a tad too
different for these parts. Neither of us can imagine living here
forever. But neither of us can quite imagine leaving forever,
We're giving ourselves a few more years
to decide what we'll do with our beautiful 3,300-acre ranchette.
Meanwhile, we are still learning what our part is in the project of
letting nature be nature. In the process, we are nurturing as many
future Mother Trees as we can.
Mary Zeiss Stange is an
associate professor of religion and women's studies at Skidmore
College, where for eight years she directed the women's studies
program. The Stanges moved to eastern Montana from the Helena
Valley, where they had lived for several years. Mary grew up in
Wisconsin, Doug in New Jersey.