Raising cows -- and kids -- in the West

 

The Family Ranch: Land, Children, and Tradition in the American West
Linda Hussa,
photographs by Madeleine Graham Blake
272 pages,
hardcover: $24.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2009.

 

The families described in The Family Ranch: Land, Children, and Tradition in the American West are traditional in that they are not "traditional" at all: One mother is single, and six children in another family were born in Haiti. Good mothering is a lot like good ranching, according to author Linda Hussa. "If you don't know how," says one ranch-raised woman, "you just start and you learn." These wildly differing families all show that one family, even one child, really can change the world.

"All across the West," writes Hussa, "ranchers and rural communities are victims of environmental disputes." Some problems result from bad decisions a hundred years old, "some made by ranchers, some made by capitalists, some made by the federal government." Studies prove that when land is sold away from ranchers, the rural communities that keep landscapes intact rapidly disintegrate. Responsible ranching keeps pastures healthy, but developments take water from agriculture to support golf courses no one can eat. Multinational corporations get government subsidizes to run feedlots, while ranchers whose beef eats only grass struggle to pay taxes.

Hussa sees possible benefits in the current economic mess, declaring that the strength and character we all need to survive are an integral part of everyday ranching life. Individual stories fascinate from a dozen different directions; Hussa is "as persistent as a foxtail in your sock." She tells how Gail Tyson, who raises quarter horses, adopted an 18-year-old daughter. With the aid of Madeleine Graham Blake's superb photographs, we follow the extended Walker family of Indian buckaroos roping together on the Duck Valley Shoshone Reservation. Ranchers' children learn to think for themselves, to achieve goals; they become people like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, musician Dave Brubeck.

Ranchers such as those profiled here could save us from having to depend for food and goods on people who may not like us. "I know of no other industry," writes Hussa, "that turns totally within the concentric circles of family and community" -- the very values many Americans believe we need most. "The way these parents raise their children is an integral part of how they care for the land. Without this kind of mothering dynamic, we lose the West."